Develop good habits to hit your target every time.
By David Hart
Tim Fallon’s Seven Principles of Marksmanship
The gobbler takes one last step toward your decoy as you focus on his head and flick the safety off. You’ve waited all season for this moment. It’s what you live for.
You squeeze the trigger and the gun booms. Instead of a bird flopping on the ground, the gobbler scrambles for the distant wood line. Not a single feather floats in the calm air. You not only missed, you missed a turkey standing broadside in an open field at 30 yards.
Should you brush it off to nerves or some other convenient excuse? Everybody misses an easy shot now and then, but Tim Fallon, owner of FTW Ranch and the Sportsmen’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship School in Barksdale, Texas, says missing is inexcusable.
“If you are going to pull the trigger, you better hit what you are aiming at,” he says. “You owe it to that animal to make a clean, ethical shot that will put it down quickly. If you can’t do that, don’t shoot.”
Fallon says most shooters miss because they don’t follows the basic steps of good marksmanship, not only when they pull the trigger, but before they even put their finger on the trigger. Thankfully, most mistakes have simple fixes.
Beat the Flinch
Without a doubt, recoil anticipation is the primary reason bullets or shot patterns miss their mark. Instead of rolling with the inevitable kick, many shooters buck, or push forward in anticipation of the kick. That push, no matter how slight, can move your muzzle enough to cause you to miss. Bucking isn’t the only reaction to a gun’s kick. Shooters scrunch their eyes, slap the trigger, lift their head, hunch their shoulders or push the gun forward with their hands to counter the inevitable punch from a rifle or shotgun.
There’s no way to completely stop a gun’s recoil, and flinching is a normal reaction. There are, however, plenty of ways to reduce the impact of that punch. Fallon is a fan of shoulder pads on the range and even in the field. A pad that slips over your shoulder and fits between the gun’s butt and your shoulder reduces recoil significantly. So can a soft butt pad.
“Pads help, but it’s important to get the butt snug into your shoulder,” he explains.
Equally important is the gun itself. A .300 Winchester Magnum will put any North American game animal on the ground, but it comes with a sizeable wallop. Even a .308 Win. can pack a punch and may be more gun than you can handle. That’s why Fallon recommends stepping down to a lighter load or smaller caliber if you just can’t bear the thought of shooting another round.
“Shooting should be fun. If you aren’t excited about pulling the trigger, you may need to consider changing guns,” adds Fallon.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The fear of recoil may also have to do with a lack of proper form. The only way to overcome bad form is to shoot, and shoot often, even if that practice doesn’t involve live ammunition.
“I really push the idea of dry-firing,” says Fallon. “Going through all the motions without burning through a lot of ammunition or getting beat up by the gun is really, really good practice. We do a lot of dry firing at our shooting camps.”
One of his favorite drills involves an assistant, who either puts a live round in the chamber or doesn’t. The shooter has no idea if the gun will go “boom” when he pulls the trigger. Snapping on an empty chamber can show the level of flinching and all the other faults, but it also can force shooters to use proper form in any situation.
Much of his students’ practice takes place in the prone position -- lying down on their stomachs -- but Fallon runs his shooters through a series of other drills that include shooting from front supports (shooting sticks), over a knee (kneeling) and even off-hand. Those drills not only help shooters become more accustomed to taking those shots in the field they also illustrate first-hand just how difficult some shots actually are. An off-hand rifle shot, for instance, can be a guaranteed miss beyond 30 or 40 yards, depending on the shooter’s ability.
“You have to know your limits, and the only way to learn your limits is to shoot,” says Fallon.
It’s also a good idea to shoot from a variety of positions. Even better, shoot from the very places you hunt, or at least in settings similar to where you hunt. For instance, sit back against a tree or post, practice over a set of shooting sticks, or shoot from a standing position with your gun braced on a tree. Shoot toward your opposite side, shoot up and down hills and practice in the cold, rain and snow.
Aim at the Game
Shooting at paper and shooting at a gobbler or buck are two completely different things. Not only do we feel relaxed on the range we also can control the setting and take all the time we need to settle in for the shot. Things are not so calm in the field. Aside from the rush of adrenaline, we often have mere seconds to evaluate the animal, get our gun in position and find our target. It’s easy, in fact it’s fairly common, for shooters to rush the entire shot process when a gobbler struts in front of us.
“I tell shooters to watch the shot all the way to the target. That means keeping your head down on the gun and watching through the scope or the sights,” adds Fallon. “I’d say lifting the head is one of the most common mistakes I see.”
In some ways, it’s understandable. Who doesn’t want to see if the shot found its mark? But that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead of imagining the buck on your wall as you squeeze the trigger, think about nothing other than your shooting form and the follow-through. Keep your eyes on the scope or sights, your cheek on the stock and your finger firmly on the trigger. Squeeze, roll with the recoil and prepare for a follow-up shot. You might need it.
What you’ll need more than anything is the ability to know when to shoot and when to hold off. Every hunter wants to bring home a buck or a bird, but taking a risky shot or pulling the trigger before you are ready will likely have the same result: a clean miss or worse, a crippled bird or animal. Take your time, think about the shot and then take it, even if you take all day to pull the trigger.
“A slow hit,” says Fallon, “beats a fast miss every time.”