Far be it from me to profit from the sorrow of a friend*, but this column is inspired by the misfortune of a deer-hunting buddy and may contain some lessons for the rest of us. One year, he shot and wounded two deer, and the next, when he shot at a deer that was close enough to swat with his rifle, he missed it.

How come?

THE UNHINGED SHOOTER

Researchers have found that when a buck appears, a hunter's heartbeat can go from 72 beats per minute to 180-plus, which is heart-attack range for some people. Your physical coordination vanishes and your brain turns to industrial sludge. When suffering from this condition (which is known to neurologists as "Heavey Syndrome") you become a pitiable object, a giant flayed nerve ending, twitching uncontrollably.

I've seen this happen time and time again. In Botswana, in 1978, I watched a veteran of 28 safaris aim at a lion that was sitting only 30 yards away. This seasoned hunter was shaking like a castanet, shot badly, and wounded the animal, which we then had to finish off.

The same thing occurs in competition. In 1973 I shot in the North American Clay Target Championship at Vandalia, Ohio, along with a thousand other shooters, and the day before the event I was practicing on the same squad with a young man who was absolutely pounding the targets.

The next morning, not only was he on the same squad with me--he was right next to me. And his shooting went altogether to hell. I think he missed 25 birds out of 100, which by ATA standards means that you go in the men's room and hang yourself from a water pipe.

THE NERVELESS SHOOTER

I know a number of people who are virtually immune to the shakes, and they have three things in common:

1. They are self-confident to the point of arrogance; they literally cannot imagine themselves missing a shot.

2. They have achieved this self-confidence through an immense amount of practice.

3. They have the ability to block out mental pressure for however long it takes to do what they have to do.

Of these, the third quality is the most difficult to achieve and the most necessary if you wish to avoid having your shirttail cut. It was put best by Launi Meili, an American shooter who won the women's Gold Medal in the Three-Position Free Rifle event in the 1992 Olympics. I asked her what it was like knowing she was only one trigger squeeze away from top place on the podium. She said, "I don't know. If you start thinking in those terms, you won't even qualify for the Olympics, never mind winning gold there."

A friend of mine, who is the most successful competitor I know, puts it this way:

"You can only think about one thing at a time. You can think about how afraid of failing you are, or you can think about what you have to do in order to hit the target. I think about what I have to do, and nothing else."

IS THERE A CURE?

Drugs and alcohol are out for obvious reasons. Self-hypnosis may help. The only proven cure is practice, and I don't mean firing a box of ammo a week before the season. Jeff Cooper, the gun writer--philosopher, says it takes about 1,600 rounds of ammo to turn a beginner into a good shot, and about 1,000 rounds a year to keep him at that level.

A thousand rounds of centerfire ammo in a year runs into money, but there is an alternative--the rimfire. Assuming you have a decent .22 rifle, all you have to do is buy a case—5,000 rounds—of .22 ammo. It costs about $330 and will keep you shooting for five years. This comes to $66 per year, which is not much money these days.

When you practice enough, it really doesn't matter much what your nerves do. You go on autopilot and do what you must. If you don't practice, the animals bound away, light at heart, while you trudge off, a beaten shell of a man, to wait for next year.

*This, of course, is arrant nonsense. Journalists feed on sorrow the way crows feed on roadkill.