I had never in my life hunted with a centerfire rifle until this February in California, when my friend Lee put a .30/06 in my hands and told me to shoot it at a feral pig munching on acorns 130 yards distant. The pig fell flat as if struck by lightning. Whoa, I thought. I need to find out more about this rifle shooting.
I asked FIELD & STREAM deputy editor David E. Petzal for advice. He said, “Go to Gunsite and learn from Eric Olds.”
Olds is rangemaster of Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, which covers a couple thousand acres of mile-high desert scrub two hours north of Phoenix. Although primarily a school of combat shooting, Gunsite offers rifle classes geared to hunters as well.
We met in the Gunsite parking lot, where service and law enforcement personnel in fatigues draped with ammo pouches and CamelBak hydration packs were gathering for a .223 carbine class. Over 6 feet tall, squared away in crisp khakis, .45 on one hip, military-issue mustache on his lip, Olds wore parachute and diver pins from his Force Recon Marine days. Underneath his imposing appearance, Olds proved to be an articulate, soft-spoken, patient instructor. We began my tutorial in a classroom, with the sound of M-4 carbines popping away rapid fire on a range behind us. After a safety lecture, Olds showed me the rifle I would shoot, a Steyr Scout bolt action in .308 with an extended eye-relief 2X scope. He told me the Gunsite credo: “We want to get ‘good enough’ hits quickly. We’re not interested in perfection.”
Since Gunsite is all about practical field shooting, we spent very little range time at the bench, just long enough to establish that the rifle was zeroed properly, and to allow Olds to assess my rifle technique, or lack thereof. Olds told me to breathe, exhale completely, shoot from “empty lungs,” press the trigger, and watch the crosshairs move under recoil. A trigger masher, I had the habit of squeezing with all five fingers to make the gun go off. Olds told me to press the trigger as if I were clicking open a ballpoint pen. I alternated one live round and one dry-fire until he was satisfied with my shooting.
Done with the bench, we moved up to 25 yards and began shooting offhand. Although Olds himself was a longtime high-power rifle competitor, the stance he taught me wasn’t the target shooter’s stiff-legged, elbow-up, turn sideways approach. Instead, he had me square up to the target, knees slightly flexed, weight on the balls of my feet. I held my elbows angled down at 45 degrees, pulling the rifle into my shoulder and twisting both hands downward slightly as I gripped the rifle “as if wringing a towel.”
Olds had me begin every shot from the “high ready position,” with rifle held muzzle up, butt low. Then I’d mount the gun, shoot, follow through by watching the crosshairs, and cycle the bolt. The stance, adapted from combat handgun shooting, would allow me to recover from recoil more quickly in case I needed to follow up.
I’d shoot five rounds, then sling the rifle and walk up to check targets. The .308 was almost always in my hands or slung over my shoulder throughout the two days of class. “Most hunters keep their gun in a cabinet, put it in the trunk of their car, drive to the range, shoot it off a bench, then do the whole thing in reverse,” said Olds. “They don’t handle their rifles much, and they’re not familiar with them when they get to the field.”
After we finished shooting offhand, Olds showed me how to properly assume the kneeling position. Then he taught me the squat–sitting on both heels, feet flat on the ground and pointed outward, elbows on the knees. It’s a funny-looking but surprisingly steady position that the Navy taught as “rice paddy prone” a hundred years ago. As he showed me each position, Olds emphasized using bone, not muscular effort, to support the rifle.
Gunsite’s teaching emphasizes finding your “natural point of aim,” which is the spot at which the crosshairs point when your muscles are relaxed. To find mine, I put the crosshairs on target, then closed my eyes, relaxed, and breathed deeply a time or two. If, when I opened my eyes, the crosshairs had moved to the right or left, I needed to adjust my position. Finding your natural point of aim minimizes the muscular tension you need to hold the rifle on target.
Using a stopwatch this time, we shot offhand again. I could make a decent offhand shot from the high ready position in just under two seconds, squat and hit in about six, kneel and hit in seven. Throughout the day, we shot not at conventional bull’s-eye targets but at paper animals or black steel plates. I had to choose a place to aim, just as I would on a real animal.
Olds taught me an accuracy trick that seemed like pure magic: “Focus on the intersection of the reticles, not on the target, just like you focus on the front blade with iron sights.” In theory it makes no sense, as the crosshairs of the scope and the target supposedly lie on the same plane, but it works. When the crosshairs bounced unsteadily, I would lock my eyes on that intersection, press the trigger, and invariably hit where I was aiming.
We ended day one on the Scrambler, a seven-station course with targets at unknown distances. At each station I had to decide quickly whether to stand, kneel, sit, or find a “field-expedient” rest–a tree, a rock, a mound of earth. We ran the Scrambler twice and called it a day, leaving me with a slightly sore shoulder thanks to the 120 rounds of .308 ball that I’d burned up in the lightweight rifle–an amount of centerfire ammo that the typical hunter might shoot over five or six years.
Fingers and Focus
Olds met me at eight the next morning, his khakis crisper than ever. He greeted me with good news: According to his reading in neuroscience (did I mention he’s an Ivy Leaguer? Cornell, 1975, biology), I had assimilated the previous day’s lesson in my sleep and would wake up “in the zone,” ready for Gunsite’s North American and African trails. He was right.
We walked through the bush, where 3-D archery targets of elk, deer, sable, and lions lurked semi-hidden among the scrubby trees. I’d have to spot them, estimate range, ask myself whether I could get closer or steadier, find a rest or a solid shooting position, and then make the shot. Behind the vitals of each animal, there was an 8-inch steel plate. A solid hit rang the plate and flipped up an orange flag. Olds would call “hit,” then measure the distance with a rangefinder.
“There’s an antelope” (or a bear, or a sheep), Olds would whisper, playing the part of a guide. “Want to stalk closer?”
“Nah, we’ll just shoot it from here.” Boom. Clang. “Hit, 212 yards.”
I didn’t come back to earth until after lunch, when Olds rigged two paper bear targets on a trolley that wheeled back and forth at about 5 mph. Under the pressure of hitting a moving target, I rushed the shots, shooting without focusing on my aiming point and slapping the trigger. Patiently Olds got my fingers and focus right–lock in on the vital area; press the trigger like clicking open a pen–until he deemed me ready to take on the ultimate test: the charging buffalo.
This was a paper target with a one-third-size picture of a surly African buff on it, mounted on a radio-controlled, wheeled chassis. Olds could flip it sideways where it offered no shot, drive it around as if the beast were feeding, and make it pause occasionally to offer a standing shot. When I finally did press the trigger and put a bullet in the vitals, the beast rumbled toward me in a charge, and I had to hit it in the nose. True to my new Gunsite training, I didn’t shoot the buff perfectly, but I got it well and quickly enough to stop it in its tire tracks, every time.
My training was over, but I had come quite a long way in two days and 260 rounds. And though I’m still a relatively inexperienced rifleman, Olds can help even the most seasoned shots get better. “Hunters are always telling me, ‘I’ve shot a rifle all my life. I want to learn advanced techniques,'” he says. “There are no advanced techniques, just fundamentals applied faster and farther away.”
Buy a paper archery target of a deer or elk and pin it up at a rifle range at 25 yards. Pick a vital spot and fire 10 individual shots offhand, treating each one as a separate mount-and-shoot sequence. Go with a friend who can time you with a stopwatch; the challenge is to mount, shoot, and hit offhand within one and a half to two seconds. If you can cover all your shots with a paper pie plate–that is, keep the shots in an 8-inch circle–put tape over the old holes, move back to 50 yards, and try again. Move back from there in 10- or 15-yard increments until you can’t shoot pie plate-size groups anymore. Note this distance and save the target.
Practice your live-and dry-fire exercises for a month and try this test again. The distance at which you are dangerous to pie plates should have increased dramatically. If you can consistently keep all your shots in the 8-inch circle at 100 yards, you’re a good shot.
My first day at Gunsite, I could shoot pie plate-size groups offhand out to 60-65 yards. After a day of intensive instruction and practice, Olds had me hitting the 8-inch vitals of 3-D targets at twice that distance.
THE STUDENT: Philip Bourjaily AGE: 47 SELF-DESCRIBED RIFLE SHOOTING ABILITY: Limited. Have shot whitetails and one antelope at ranges up to 85 yards with slug shotguns and muzzleloaders
THE INSTRUCTOR: Eric Olds, rangemaster, Gunsite Academy, Paulden, Arizona; former 200- to 600-yard high-power service rifle competitor; former Marine, 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company
RETICLE Focus on the intersection of the crosshairs, not the target, when aiming.
HANDS Twist both hands downward slightly as if wringing a towel. This allows you to control the rifle as it recoils.
SHOULDER Pull the buttstock securely into your shoulder.
ELBOWS Keep your elbows angled down at about 45 degrees.
THE ZONE To find your natural point of aim, put the crosshairs on the target, close your eyes, relax, breathe, and open your eyes again. If you’re no longer on target, you have to adjust your position.
STANCE Stand nearly square to the target, angled slightly toward your strong side (here, the right side). Keep knees slightly flexed and lean into the rifle with the weight on the balls of your feet.
• Kneeling position: Take one step toward the target with the support-side leg (here, the left). Pivot on the ball of the strong-side foot and kneel as shown. The flat part of the supporting elbow rests on the supporting knee, with the rifle held directly above.
• Squatting position: From your natural point of aim, squat straight down, with feet flat on the ground. Turn toes outward if necessary. Points of elbows are forward of the knees, with flat part of supporting elbow resting on knee directly below the rifle.
THE REGIMEN (30 DAYS TO BETTER RIFLE SHOOTING)
“RIFLE SHOOTING IS A PERISHABLE SKILL,” says Olds. “Start practicing right now, not the weekend before opening day. Your life has changed. It now involves a rifle.” Here’s a practice regimen based on Olds’ recommendations. Do all your shooting at bowhunters’ paper animal targets. –PHILIP BOURJAILY
Start at 25 yards, standing, with the rifle shouldered, muzzle angled down. Find an aiming point, raise the muzzle, aim, and press the trigger. Shoot five times.
Next, take five more shots, this time with the muzzle up and the butt down by your hip. Keep your head still as you raise the rifle to your face. Focus on the reticle, press the trigger, follow through, cycle the action. Don’t try to be fast; concentrate on being smooth.
Between live-fire sessions, devote 10 minutes a day to dry-fire practice at home. Be sure the gun is unloaded and aim at a safe backstop. Work on proper breathing. Focus on the reticle and press the trigger.
Fire 10 shots at 50 yards, offhand. Take each shot individually, beginning with the muzzle up, butt down. Mount and shoot, follow through, cycle the action, then lower the butt, and shoot again.
Next, practice dropping into a kneeling or squatting position. Shoot five individual shots.
During your continuing dry-fire practice, work on assuming the kneeling and squatting positions quickly. In each position, close your eyes, relax, and check to see if you’re aiming the rifle at your natural point of aim. Adjust your position accordingly until the crosshairs rest on the target when your muscles are relaxed.
This period is a repeat of the second, but with the addition of time pressure. Go to the rifle range with a friend and bring a stopwatch. Take 10 individual offhand shots from 50 yards. On your friend’s command, mount the rifle and shoot. Your goal is to make an effective shot in one and a half to two seconds.
Next, have your friend time your supported firing positions. Take five individual shots while kneeling, beginning each from a standing start. Do the same while squatting. You should be able to drop, get into proper position, and hit the vital area on the target within six to seven seconds.