by Joe Coogan - Monday, July 20, 2015
It’s often said that you learn from your mistakes, but those lessons can be painful, not to mention costly and time-consuming. Wouldn’t it be better and easier to learn from someone else’s painful experiences? Seems you would avoid the headaches and frustrations caused by making your own mistakes.
Take follow-up shots for example. By follow-up shots, I mean those taken at an animal after the first shot is made. Many years ago I neglected to take a follow-up shot, and I still cringe with frustration every time I think of it. Learn from my mistake and benefit.
It happened when I was brand new to Africa and big-game hunting in general. At the time, my father and I were hunting in a game-rich area in Kenya. It was true big-game country located adjacent to the legendary big tusker territory of Tsavo National Park.
The ink from the chief game warden’s signature was barely dry on my newly issued Kenya resident general game license, and I was anxious to put the license to use. The license cost 100 Kenya shillings ($14 U.S. back then) and allowed me to hunt 14 species of plains game. But it required passing a written test and then satisfying the chief game warden that I knew the game laws well enough before he would sign the license.
That was not my first hunting license, as I had grown up accompanying my father on local hunting trips wherever we lived. In my younger years that included Texas and California, and when I was old enough to handle a shotgun, I cut my teeth on bird shooting in Florida with a Winchester Model 12 pump-action 20-gauge.
We lived in Cocoa Beach, located south of Cape Canaveral, and enjoyed some excellent duck shooting among the mangrove islands and salt marshes of the Banana River. We didn’t have to travel very far inland to tap into abundant dove and quail opportunities. I was comfortable with the old pump-action, and eventually became proficient enough with it to shoot respectable rounds of skeet at nearby Patrick Air Force Base Gun Club. I was pretty fast shucking the next shell into the chamber and never felt handicapped getting off a second or third shot at birds—feathered or clay.
It was with a background of those experiences that I prepared to face the challenges of hunting African birds and big game. Easing along on the first day of a four-day, do-it-yourself Kenya hunt, we spotted a single Peter’s gazelle a few hundred yards away, which even to my untrained eye looked bigger than any Peters I’d seen previously.
The Peter’s is a subspecies of the Grant’s gazelle family, and I remember a well-thumbed copy of Animals of East Africa describing the Grant’s family as having the largest horns of any African antelope in relation to body size. A really good Grant’s or Peter’s tells you he’s big with those long, graceful, lyre-shaped horns towering over his head or laid back as he trots away from danger.
I was thrilled at the prospects of maybe bagging a good Peter’s and looked at my father, who nodded for me to go ahead and make a stalk on the ram. I dropped out of the Land Rover alongside our native tracker, Dana, and stayed low. We prepared to crawl through grass, brush and thorns to close the distance between the Peter’s and ourselves. I wanted to be within 100 yards before I took a shot.
For a Florida boy, it was still hard to believe that I was really stalking big game in Africa. I carried a Remington Model 721 chambered in .300 H&H Mag. with iron sights. It was a rifle my father originally purchased in the mid-1950s to hunt wild boar in the Philippines. At the time he was a Navy pilot based out of Guam in the Pacific. When he retired from the Navy he was offered a flying job with Pan Am that took our family to Mombasa, Kenya. My father jumped at the chance to live in Africa, and he was especially pleased at the thought of putting the .300 H&H back to good use on the Kenya plains.
Keeping low, Dana and I crawled on hands and knees to finally reach a patch of bush where I could raise up into a kneeling position. The Peter’s was broadside and completely unaware of us. I braced my left elbow on my knee to steady the rifle and aimed at the ram with the front bead nearly covering his shoulder. I certainly would have liked to be closer, but the lack of cover wouldn’t allow it. I figured we were every bit of 100 yards from the ram.
I held my breath and tried to squeeze the trigger, but probably yanked it in my excitement. At the sound of the shot the Peter’s looked as if he’d been poleaxed by Thor. The ram’s leg-buckling drop to the ground surprised me, but I was pleased beyond words. With the Peter’s on the ground, I thought my job was done. Wrapped in the glory of the moment, I accepted Dana’s energetic congratulations and thought I was one helluva crack shot.
But glory came crashing down when the Peter’s suddenly jumped straight up, and you can guess what I hadn’t done—that’s right, reload the rifle. I stared slack-jawed and in stunned amazement at the ram that appeared as if nothing had happened. By the time I realized I needed to shoot again the Peter’s took off running. I fumbled with the rifle trying to quickly reload and missed the only opportunity I had for a follow-up shot. By the time I’d chambered a fresh round and brought the rifle to my shoulder, the Peter’s had moved out of shooting range. We tried to follow, keeping the ram in sight, but caught only fleeting glimpses of him before he finally disappeared in the distance.
What likely happened was my bullet flew off-mark and passed close enough to the spine that the hydrostatic shock caused temporary paralysis. When this occurs the animal goes straight down, but often recovers well enough to jump up and run away if another shot is not immediately taken. To cut a sad story short—we never saw the ram again, which is common in this situation. I still feel frustrated knowing how easy it would have been to be ready for another shot when the Peter’s got to his feet.
So what was the lesson learned? Always keep your gun loaded, whether it’s a rifle or shotgun, and always be ready for an immediate follow-up shot.
I knew this as it applied to shotgunning and could pump that Model 12 as fast as I could pull the trigger. I was always able to get off a quick second or third shot at a bird that was only winged with the first shot. My shotgunning background had laid the basic groundwork by instilling the need to make quick follow-up shots. But with the slightly different dynamics and circumstances of hunting game with a rifle, I was not ready for a second shot when I should have been. Fortunately, I learned this lesson early and have never forgotten it, but the cost was a very good Peter’s gazelle that I can still picture when I close my eyes.
I spent six years gaining valuable big-game hunting experience in Kenya before I began conducting hunting safaris as a professional hunter in Botswana for the next 20 years. I was fortunate to work with giants of the industry such as Harry Selby, Tony Henley, Lionel Palmer, Wally Johnson, Walt Johnson, Willie Englebrecht, John Dugmore, Soren Lindstrom and Dougie Wright to name a few. I had plenty of opportunity to compare notes with these legends of Africa and reap the benefit of the many exciting tales they told around the campfire.
Take, for instance, describing the optimal point of aim on an animal standing broadside. A consensus of opinion for taking a broadside shot is to bring the crosshairs up one-third from the bottom of an animal’s chest and in line with the rear of its front leg. Aim there and the bullet will pass through the top of the heart, whether it’s a whitetail deer, elephant or dik-dik.
But no matter how good you feel about your shot, always be ready for a quick follow-up by reloading immediately. Some say the quickest way to reload is by keeping the buttstock on your shoulder as you work the bolt. It’s clearly a fast way, but not always efficient or possible for some shooters depending on their size and strength. Reloading in this manner means supporting the rifle with one hand while the other hand leaves the pistol grip to grasp the bolt handle, lift it, bring it back and then slam it forward.
For some shooters the best and most efficient way is to drop the buttstock from the shoulder and work the bolt from a more convenient angle and balanced position. Another issue comes with working magnum-length actions—bringing the longer bolt straight back might smack you in the nose if you don’t move your head out of the way. Again, only with trial and error and plenty of practice will you be able to determine which method is best for you.
The key to becoming a better shooter is to shoot often. Proper training requires the repetition of an action, like working the bolt after each shot for instance, until it becomes an automatic and instinctive reflex. If recoil is bothersome to you then install a more efficient recoil pad or use lighter-recoiling practice loads. The truth is when you are shooting at game you will rarely notice recoil, even with magnum calibers. Plan ahead and allocate sufficient time for practice—and then stick with it.
Even before going to a range, handle your rifle frequently to become familiar with its fit and feel—always first making sure that it’s unloaded. Work the action, engage and disengage the safety, and practice field-stripping and cleaning procedures, which can all be done in the comfort of your living room or den.
Dry-firing the rifle after you determine the gun’s chamber and magazine are empty is an excellent way to practice marksmanship disciplines. Aim offhand at safe objects, both close and distant, and practice squeezing the trigger with slow, gradual pressure. It takes concentration, control and muscle memory to perform properly. A dry-fire session acquaints you with the weight and pull of the trigger, and allows you to observe whether you’re holding on target at the time the firing pin snaps forward. Dry-firing does not harm most centerfire rifles, but when available, it’s advisable to use snap-caps designed to cushion the firing pin during repeated dry-fire exercises.
When done correctly, the pressure you apply to the trigger should be steadily increased until the gun fires without your anticipating the recoil. If the shot doesn’t surprise you a little, then you probably flinched to some degree. Flinching is your body’s involuntary reaction to anticipated recoil, and it’s a constant and continuing battle for most shooters to overcome.
Practice for Real
At a range, shooting from the bench should only be endured for sighting-in purposes, or for firing a few shots to confirm your rifle is still zeroed. Once that’s confirmed, come off the bench and shoot from positions you will use in the field. This should include offhand shooting from standing, kneeling and sitting positions—and reloading immediately after each shot from these positions. You’ll find shooting from offhand positions to be far more pleasant, and hitting what you aim at with reasonable and predictable consistency is an excellent way to maintain your interest and boost your confidence.
If you set up targets in ways that simulate hunting situations it will provide a challenge that’s fun and will keep you striving to shoot accurately. Have a friend place reactive targets against safe backstops at locations unknown to you. When your partner returns, walk through the area and shoot at each target the instant you see it. This type of practice provides an excellent way to sharpen reflexes and establish the habit of automatically reloading after every shot.
Reactive targets that are safe to shoot and environmentally friendly include a variety of fruits and vegetables that come in different sizes, shapes and colors. If you’ve never done it, there’s an inherent satisfaction in vaporizing a ripe tomato into a red mist, which always impresses the observers.
For steadier shooting use a rest anytime it’s available. In Africa, 6-foot-long, 1-inch-diameter, hardwood poles are cut to make three-legged shooting sticks. Binding the poles together with strips of inner tubing allows the sticks to fold together when not in use or to be quickly and easily spread outwards when needed. Even kneeling shots can be accomplished by spreading the sticks very wide. When lifted upward the legs come together to increase the height of the rest. Shooting sticks take getting used to and require practice to perfect their use, so make them a part of your range sessions.
Many faults can be eliminated and future mistakes thwarted with sufficient preparation and practice. I say sufficient because no matter how hard you try, you can’t cram a year’s worth of practice into one day. Don’t do what a friend of mine did before his first safari by trying to complete several months’ worth of practice in one range session—it nearly cost him his dream hunt.
He was an all-around gun enthusiast, and I had no doubt he’d shoot his rifle regularly during the months prior to his hunt. But on the weekend before departing for Africa, he suddenly remembered he hadn’t practiced at all and headed straight to the range with his .375 H&H Mag. rifle and five boxes of ammo. He sat down at a bench and began shooting. He fired a little more than three boxes of full-house rounds before his shoulder gave out, whereupon he went straight home to quell his throbbing shoulder and pounding headache with a fistful of aspirin.
I met him at the airport upon his arrival in Africa two days later and was shocked when I saw him. He sported a frighteningly dark purple, multi-colored bruise stretching from his jaw line to his elbow. After whisking him through customs and immigration formalities, I took him straight to see a doctor, who advised against shooting for the next few days and wrote out prescriptions to dissolve blood clots and eliminate pain.
Sometimes, worse than little or no practice is establishing bad habits. One of the worst habits inherent among handloaders who do a lot of range shooting is recovering spent brass during a hunt—often to the exclusion of all else. Scrambling for brass is sometimes so ingrained in their minds that I have seen an animal hit and the shooter take his eyes off-target to catch the empty brass before it hits the ground. Even worse is stooping over to pick it up while the animal is still on its feet.
Physical training and shooting practice is essential for honing the skills that will enable you to gain the most satisfaction from your hunt. The better you walk, stalk, run, climb, crawl, hike and shoot, the better your chances of getting close to game and making your shot count. Next to physical fitness, shooting practice is probably the most important activity you can do to prepare for a hunt. It can also save you the heartache of losing an animal.
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