True, modern manufacturing and materials mean back country rifles are accurate right out of the package, but you still need to put in the work of learning how to shoot them correctly – here’s how.Story and Photos by Jason Brooks
When it comes to hunting the backcountry, you will find all sorts of gear and gadgets made with reduced weight. The rifle is included in this, and it seems the market has been flooded lately with “ultralight” rifles. From titanium actions to fluted barrels, all of these rifles draw the attention of the hunter and shooter who want to carry a light and accurate firearm.
But it is the accurate part that most shooters find difficult. There is a reason why bench rest and “sniper” rifles are heavy, as the weight helps steady the rifle, as well as reduce recoil. The light rifle is neither Sturdy nor fun to shoot, often kicking hard and difficult to hold steady.
Rifle companies often market rifles for a specific intent, such as light weight or sub-MOA accuracy and most offer both. However, it seems the expectation is that the user can take it out of the box and shoot dime-sized groups the very first time they take it to the range. This is not the case, and often the rifle is blamed. There are so many factors that are in play when it comes to shooting a light rifle accurately, and knowing how to overcome the obstacles that often frustrate shooters will help you get those tight groups.
A RIFLE THAT is less than 6 pounds will kick, and this causes flinching. It is human nature to avoid pain and shooting a rifle can cause some discomfort in both our shoulder and our ears. In fact, it is probably the loud “bang” that will cause you to flinch more than the actual recoil.
This is because hearing is one of our defense senses and we spend all of our time in the outdoors listening for noises that might tip off game or cause us harm, such as a grizzly bear or other predator. So when the rifle fires, we react to the loud noise more than the recoil. One way to overcome flinching is to wear hearing protection, even while hunting.
There are plenty of noise-cancelling earmuffs that also have electronic amplifiers. You can talk, hike and even hear game, but when the rifle fires, the loud bang is muffled. Being “scope bit” hurts. A few drops of blood running down your cheek and that sharp pain above your eye is a reminder to your subconscious that it might hurt when you pull the trigger.
Another thing to keep you from flinching is wearing safety glasses. It still stings a bit when the scope hits the glasses, but it will keep you from getting cut. If you have the time to find a rest and set up for a shot, then put on the safety equipment.
Besides recoil and an accurate barrel, the trigger causes the shooter the most problems when it comes to accuracy. Aftermarket triggers offer the ability to adjust their poundage as well as travel. Some rifle companies, such as Kimber and Savage, offer adjustable triggers in their factory rifles.
With Kimber, there are two set screws in the trigger assembly. One changes the travel and the other changes the pounds of finger pressure needed to fire the rifle. Some shooters like to pull the trigger or have it travel before the rifle fires. This allows you to mentally prepare for the report of the rifle as you feel the trigger moving.
Other shooters like a “stiff” trigger, which means once you apply the needed poundage, the gun fires with little to no trigger movement until after the rifle fires. Never go below the minimum poundage that the manufacturer recommends, which nowadays is pretty low – most are around 2 pounds or less – as this can be very dangerous and cause a misfire.
It all comes down to less than a quarter of an inch. When you finally have that bull or buck – or whatever the quarry is – in your sights and you start to squeeze the trigger, this is the very last thing you will do before you either hit the target or miss.
A FEW YEARS ago, I was on what is known as the High Buck Hunt in the Cascade Mountains of my home state of Washington. It was the second day of the season and a mature mule deer buck was in a small clearing 350 yards away.
The rifle was very capable of that shot, and I had my son with me. He wanted to take the shot, so he rested the rifle across his pack – a solid rest for the 11-year-old. There was plenty of time and no need to rush the shot. He was not shaking and knew that he would have another chance, as the hunting season was just starting.
He squeezed the trigger, and nothing. He squeezed again and then looked up from the gun when it wouldn’t fire. Making sure the safety was off, he pulled hard on the trigger and missed. We learned a lesson that day: Be sure you practice with the rifle you plan on hunting with. My son was used to shooting his Thompson/Center Encore with a very light trigger.
My rifle was a bolt gun and the trigger was only a pound stiffer, but that felt like a brick wall to my son.
You can easily move the rifle while actually shooting it, especially if you are using a lightweight “mountain” rifle. There is a reason why bench rest competition shooters use a heavy rifle and a “hair trigger.” I don’t recommend either for hunting, as safety has to come first and I really don’t like hauling a heavy gun around the mountains.
Trigger pull is an easy one to overcome; all you need to do is practice a lot, and then practice some more. You cannot over practice pulling the trigger, and it also helps you overcome all of the other factors that contribute to missing. The more you shoot your rifle, the more comfortable it becomes.
In the field, have a good rest and use it. This could be something as simple as shooting sticks, a branch on a tree or even lying down in the prone position. A few years ago while elk hunting in Idaho, I came upon a herd of elk on a far hillside as I crested a ridge. As I laid down, I noticed a rock pile and placed my coat on top of it. The rocks cradled the rifle much like a bench rest and made the shot much easier.
When it comes to shooting a light rifle, the shooter must remember any “outside influence,” which is basically anything that comes into contact with the rifle while shooting it. If possible, only put one hand on the rifle as you squeeze the trigger; again, think safety glasses and hearing protection, as the rifle jumps up at the recoil.
But if you use two hands, then you are likely to move the rifle through natural movement; even breathing can cause the rifle to move. Of course you need to keep control of the rifle at all times and this sometimes means holding onto it with two hands. If using a tree branch, brace the rifle by using your far hand to clasp the rifle and the branch, clamping down to hold it steady. An offhand shot is almost impossible with an ultralight rifle, but if that is your only option, learn to use the sling to brace the rifle with your forearm.
YOU CAN SHOOT an expensive rifle using a cheap scope and find it to be “accurate” – that is, until the scope fogs up, its cross hairs shift, the bad coating doesn’t allow proper light transmission or any other number of issues that arise with poor quality control. It is better to shoot a cheap rifle with moderate accuracy and use a well-built scope that never fails in any weather condition, is bright in low light and won’t change point of impact when you slip and fall.
If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it. There are many factors that can affect even the best scopes and their accuracy, such as parallax – the way light bends as it passes through the lenses. Some shooters like having a variable-power scope and most of my rifles sport them as well, but be aware that an increase in magnification also increases your counteracting of aiming.
You will notice “wobbling” as you try to hold the cross hairs steady when on a higher power or with more magnification. A fixed-power scope takes away a lot of the potential problems with variable-power scopes, such as internal debris from the rings and moving parts inside the scope, parallax and wobble, but you are also stuck with just one magnification. A good compromise is to get a variablepower scope that has a lower range, such as the Vortex Razor 2-10x40mm.
I have shot mule deer using the 2x at 100 yards and could see the entire deer, helping me stay focused on the front shoulder. I also killed an elk in Idaho at 325 yards on 10x and it helped me slip the bullet between trees to the lungs of the bull. Both times the rifle stayed steady, as I was focusing on the animal and not the wobbling crosshairs. A quality scope, regardless of power, needs to be clear with multicoated lenses that allow low light to pass through, as well as keep condensation and raindrops off.
Ammunition is a key part of shooting accurately. Most competition shooters reload because they can be precise, down to the hundredths of a grain of powder, exact case length and overall cartridge length to where the head space is but a sliver. Of course not everyone reloads, but if you plan on shooting accurately with cheap ammunition, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
Quality ammo is expensive to manufacture, which is why it costs more than bargain ammunition. From primers and brass to blended proprietary powders and even bullet construction, try several different brands and bullet weights, as each rifle will shoot them differently. After working up a load for my 7mm-08 that shot consistently tight groups in my Savage Lightweight Hunter Model 110, I put them in my son’s Browning Micro Midas and couldn’t get them to group at all. Both rifles sport 20-inch barrels, but the Browning didn’t like the bullet-powder combo, where the Savage loved it.
Once you have put together a lightweight rifle package, topped with a quality scope and premium ammunition, and you have learned how to hold it steady and overcome flinching, you will realize that sub-MOA groups are common. Modern milling processes and materials make these rifles accurate right off of the assembly line, but it is up to the shooter to learn how to shoot them accurately. Always remember safety and manufacturer recommendations.
Editor’s note: Author Jason Brooks has hunted deer and elk in the backcountry for the past 37 years and has served in law enforcement for the past 25 years.