RIFLES: Shooting School
By Wayne van Zwoll
A crash course in field marksmanship can help you make the most of your next big hunt.
You don’t have to be a good shot to hunt well, but it’s a shame to hunt well and then bungle a shot. Every year I resolve to become a better rifleman by practicing regularly. Alas, my schedule won’t honor my good intentions. So last summer I signed up for shooting school.
It was not an easy decision to enroll as a shooting school freshman because, well, I didn’t think of myself as a freshman shooter. But early on I learned that big egos get in the way of small groups.
My first shooting school had been in a basement range blue from cigar smoke and bullet dust. Earl was tall and angular, with a fiery mop of hair and a cigar the size of a Polish sausage clamped between his teeth. He drilled me on shooting fundamentals, helping me build positions to steady the rifle so the sight would stay where the bullet was supposed to hit. “Press the trigger when the sight is on; maintain pressure when it wanders. Never jerk the trigger. If the rifle does not point naturally to the target, change your position so it does. Shoot where the rifle wants to point, and hitting gets a lot easier.”
Earl hewed to high standards. I’d grown up with urchins content to hit soup cans and corncobs, then walnuts and shotshells. Earl’s bull’s-eyes were the diameter of .22 bullets. I couldn’t even see them with iron sights; the black dot in my front aperture covered five scoring rings!
Shooting through the haze in Earl’s basement had the earmarks of schooling. It was difficult, and I hardly ever got a perfect score. The instruction came whether I asked for it or not, and shortcuts didn’t exist. The sessions weren’t mandatory, but if you wanted to amount to anything, you showed up every Tuesday at 7.
In those days, when Vietnam was not yet a war, my shooting improved a great deal. Mainly that’s because I accepted it as a discipline. I treated it as such for a couple more decades, with weekends on the line and enough good scores to encourage better ones. Then, for a while, my practice time and performance began to slip a bit. It was time, I decided last year, for more discipline. I needed a practical shooting school.
Gunsite Academy made the short list. While the Paulden, Arizona, facility is best recognized as a training ground for pistol shooters, it offers shotgun, rifle and carbine courses, too. They retain a military flavor under Bob Young, a retired soldier. He employs about 80 adjunct instructors. “They’re the best,” said Young. “We turn down many applicants each year. Not only do we seek talented shooters; they must have an infectious enthusiasm and a knack for clear explanation.”
It began in 1974, when Jeff Cooper, another retired officer and a published authority on combat handgunning techniques and the .45 ACP, moved with his wife Janelle from Bear Lake, California, to this 160 acres of desert and established the American Pistol Institute. He ran it under the Raven totem, a symbol harking to Janelle’s Norse ancestry. A new name came with new ownership in 1992. The Gunsite Training School operated for seven years under Buzz Mills and was renamed Gunsite Academy in 1999. The raven remains as the Academy’s logo. Cooper, still affiliated with the business, built a home on an adjacent 40 acres he’d developed as a buffer.
“We call it Raven Guard,” he said. “We didn’t want the ranges jeopardized by people buying adjoining land, then calling for a stop to gunfire.” Other 40-acre tracts on the buffer have sold to people sympathetic to shooting. Young and Mills also have homes there.
Cooper’s vision was less to operate a business than to run a school, but he’s quick to applaud any program that teaches practical shooting. “Gunsite’s Hunter Prep is similar to what I’d planned for a Safari class,” he said. “So many people jet to Africa without even rudimentary training in field marksmanship.”
The Hunter Prep course I’d signed up for was designed to help hunters make quick, clean kills and reap maximum returns from the time and money invested in a hunt. Visiting Jeff Cooper was a highlight of my Gunsite trip, but it began in a classroom . . .The rifle is a noble weapon. It brings us pleasures that no scatter-gunner can ever know. A shotgun takes us into cultivated fields or into those narrow wastes within sight and sound of civilization. But the rifle entices its bearer into primeval forests, into mountains and deserts untenanted by man. To him in whom the primitive virtues of courage, energy and love of adventure have not been sapped, there is scarce a joy comparable to that of roaming at will through wild regions, viewing the glories of the unspoiled earth, and feeling the inexpressible thrill of manliness sore tested by privation and hazard, but armed and undismayed.
A tall, well-muscled man with sandy hair, wearing safari shorts and a 1911 Colt, stood by the quote on the blackboard. “Horace Kephart wrote that early in the 20th century. He was articulate, don’t you think?”
The piece was indeed a fine summation of what many riflemen feel. It seemed to me also an indication that here was more than a shooting school. The people in charge were not one-dimensional experts who measured life in target scores and trophies.
“Before you become proficient with a rifle, you must be familiar with it,” began Eric Olds. “By the time you leave, that barrel should feel like an extension of your arm.” In the classroom, we reviewed safety and rudimentary carries. Then in came a diminutive young Asian woman.
“Il Ling will be instructing with me,” Eric said, and rolled on to explain ready commands: “High is muzzle up, rifle angled across your front as you’d hold a shotgun when your pointer is birdy. Low is a combat position, butt high, muzzle down, as practiced by SWAT teams. Consistency is crucial. From the ready, begin every shot the same way, with a solid stance and hands controlling the rifle. Look at the target. Bring the sights to your eye.”
Shooting, he reminded us, is not a complicated task. You aim the rifle at the target. You pull the trigger. Simple. But not easy. The hold is always imperfect, so the pull must be well controlled.
“If it all comes together, you make a good shot,” Eric said. “But marksmanship is not defined by one event. It’s a measure of consistency. Putting every bullet near the mark is much harder than getting one of every 10 in the middle.” And with that we left the classroom for the range.
When you say “the range” inside Gunsite’s compound, you must specify which. The property is chopped by earthen berms into myriad pistol, rifle and shotgun ranges, enabling the facility to hold several classes at once. You’ll find manicured blocks for close-up combat shooting and a 400-yard stretch from a tower. “The vlei” is an uncurried chunk of real estate sprinkled with steel plates for walk-up exercises that test your ability to think. The next plate might appear at 25 steps or 390. You must not only hit it, but use the shooting position that gives you the quickest hit. Repeat shots are allowed but take time.
Then there’s the Scrambler, a timed-fire event in mixed cover. You shoot from a rest at the first plate and to start the timer. Seven more targets appear as you sprint along a path. At one station you belly into a three-sided wooden box the size of an ice chest, poke your rifle out front, fire, then back out. All shots are short, and so is the sprint; but you’re winded before you reach the halfway point, and of course you load on the run. I finished the Scrambler in 72 seconds. Slow by Gunsite standards, but without a miss.
Competition keeps shooters engaged at Gunsite. “You don’t repeat what’s boring long enough to get good at it,” observed Eric. “It’s no wonder that most hunters don’t practice. They shoot from a bench to zero, then quit. It’s not only boring; many of the rifles they use nowadays kick brutally.”
You can bring any rifle you like, but Gunsite recommends a .308 for the hunting rifle courses. Shooters are asked to bring 450 rounds of ammo for the Hunter Prep class. Cycle that many rounds through a .30 magnum in four days, and your shoulder will feel like hamburger. Your gums will throb, and you’ll hear drums at night. Because of my air travel commitments, Bob Young graciously loaned me a Ruger 77 in .308, with a Leupold 3-9x Vari-X II. You don’t need more than a .308 here—or, arguably, when you’re hunting elk.
“To become a better game shot, you must be free to concentrate on shooting technique,” said Olds. “If you’re thinking about how hard the rifle will smack you or where the last bullet went, your focus is not on the present. Position and body control and sight movement now are what matter.”
The standing-to-prone match was a pressure-cooker. The challenge: hit a big steel plate offhand at 100 yards, then drop to prone and hit a small one at 200. An easy pair. But because you were pitted against someone firing from the same signal at a duplicate pair, and only the winner could continue in the match, the tendency was to shoot too quickly and miss offhand. Repeat shots were even more hurried, less likely to score. I botched this event in grand fashion, finishing last.
Small consolation that I’d regularly banged gongs prone from 400 steps while others were having trouble from a rest. Gunsite isn’t about precision at long range. “We expect you to hit distant targets with deliberate shots,” shrugged Il Ling. “But you can often sneak closer than 400 yards. It’s harder to buy time when an animal spots you at short range; so it’s important that you be able to hit quickly from unsupported positions up close.”
Gunsite’s Hunter Prep classes stress offhand shooting from the start. “Every shooter needs more work standing,” said Il Ling. “Besides, you’re here to learn practical shooting. Groups from a bench don’t matter except in benchrest matches. Hunting, you’ll often have no time for even a sling— and you may have to stand to shoot over brush.” One of the hardest things for many students, she added, is to admit to inaccurate shooting. “They don’t want to shoot offhand because they’ll make poor shots. But you can’t improve until you accept where you’ve been.”
Owning up to a target that looks like it was used to pattern double-ought buckshot is humiliating. Gunsite not only denies you the opportunity to shoot tiny groups, it forces you to shoot big ones, even up close. “We prefer acceptable accuracy over golfball groups,” said Eric. “You don’t have to shoot fast, but you’ll lose the chance to shoot at all if you dawdle.”
He was right. And not just because he held a switch that would instantly rotate the target frames sideways. Every shot at game comes with a time limit. Even when it is generous, your ability to execute a good shot diminishes if you take too long on the trigger. A deliberate rifleman, I had trouble with 35-yard targets that appeared for only 2 seconds before Eric hit the switch.
Il Ling took me aside. “Think pie-plate accuracy,” she said. “If you’re shooting 3-minute groups, you’re shooting too slowly. Pick up the pace. It’s better to hit the fringe of the vitals right away than to lose your opportunity trying to drill the middle.”
Next round, I took a more active role in directing the reticle, firing on its first approach to center. The faster cadence didn’t ruin my scores. In fact, they improved! Because my muscles and position kept pressure on the sight picture until the striker fell, the rifle’s mass never took over, and the crosswire had no chance to gyrate. While the shot seldom broke on a perfect sight picture, most bullets hit near the middle.
“Let’s speed it up!” Eric was on the switch as I thumbed three rounds of Black Hills 168 Match into the Ruger. Not that you needed Match ammo for a target the size of a microwave oven a garage-length away. “Low ready!” I snugged the butt high, so the rifle would swivel up without losing contact.
The targets spun, and I glued my eye to where the artist had drawn a shadow behind the whitetail’s foreleg. My reticle was getting there fast. Shoot! The .308 jumped, and before it had time to sag I was on the bolt handle. The reticle swung wide as my hand came back to the grip. I thrust the rifle forward. Now! The final ounce came off the trigger. The bolt cycled faster this time, and I tried not to anticipate the target flip. Aim, aim . . . Close enough. Boom! And the targets vanished.
We spilled brass and stepped forward. “Three in. Good.” Eric moved down the line. You could always be faster, always closer to center. Shooting at Gunsite is like golf; you never post a perfect score.
The most urgent shooting for hunters is at charging game, and yes, Gunsite offers that too. Four-wheelers can move as fast as an angry Cape buffalo, so we hooked a four-wheeler to a low cart with a cardboard likeness of old m’bogo breathing fire over the cables. Eric raised his hand, and the fellow on the throttle opened it wide behind the line. From 40 steps out, the buffalo came. Boom, boom! Just two shots from the first marksman, only one hole in the vitals. We got faster. I remembered Il Ling’s advice on bolt cycling: “Don’t ease it open and pick out the brass,” she’d chided. “If I see your hand move, you’re slow.” Over the next days I worked on cycling, and soon the buffalo was consistently thrice dead before it reached my feet.
It isn’t necessary that you visit Paulden, Arizona, to shoot well. In fact, it’s better to spread your practice out than to exhaust yourself emptying a case of ammo in a short week. But by committing time to shooting as you might to school or a career project, you’ll improve. Firing 450 rounds, in four days or four weeks, it’s hard not to get quicker, more accurate. Good coaching helps, but just thinking about each shot to ensure that it is your best effort qualifies as intelligent practice. You can do that at a gravel pit or on a stretch of prairie. Come fall, when a big bull elk gives you a glimpse of rib, you’ll know how to think, and your muscles will know what to do.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.