by Jim Heffelfinger - Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen acting as our warriors in faraway places keep us from suffering the horrors of war on our own soil. This country has great pride and respect for the service men and women who are tasked to do the dirty work that needs to be done to provide for our national security. These skills are not learned easily, but rather honed over long periods of repetition and training. The military branches invest months and years in a wide variety of training, but it is clear that many recruits join our military with a head start on the most important skills.
Skills needed to successfully hunt animals and those necessary for battle have always been similar. Even during the earliest times in human evolution, there were individuals who were the best at finding game, detecting patterns, reading sign, planning strategies and effectively and humanely executing the hunt plan. Some have even suggested that the development of a complex language and abstract thought in humans came out of our need to plan coordinated hunting strategies. These are the same skills possessed by the best warriors.
The coevolution of hunting, outdoor skills and the warrior mindset can be traced as an unbroken thread throughout the development of our human race. In Medieval times, access to hunting land and the chance to practice and hone one's hunting skills was an important part of being one of the "King's Men." There was an obvious connection between being a respected warrior and the ability to ride a horse and shoot a bow or wield a lance on a deer hunt. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology lists the three pillars of military training as horsemanship, hunting and the use of arms. Medieval writings are full of accounts of elaborate hunts where warriors displayed their battlefield skills.
During both the Revolutionary War and Civil War, a large portion of the soldiers were simply farmers, ranchers and hunters who went off to war carrying their personal firearms and equipment. By World War II many were still a product of a rural upbringing, but the government was starting to supply firearms and equipment with some training to maximize their skills. By the first Gulf War, an increasing percentage of troops had been raised in an urban setting. This is when the difference between hunter and non-hunter started to become more obvious in military service. Like the warriors for eons before them, those with a strong baseline of hunting skills had a great advantage over those who did not.
The Crossover Skills
The simple backwoods Tennessee boy Alvin York, pressed into service during World War I, is a classic example of how skills learned in hunting can be useful in combat. In telling the story of the battle that earned him the Medal of Honor, York stated: "I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see, we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it."
There is extensive crossover in the skill sets required for effective hunting and military service. Some of these connections are more obvious, while others probably only understood by those who have served our country and spent a lot of time in the woods pursuing wildlife. Even beyond the technical skills, hunting teaches respect, ethics, and personal responsibility.
Firearms Knowledge and Marksmanship—Ownership of firearms is widespread across America, though some states are a little freer than others. This access to firearms means many young men and women have the ability to grow up with a firsthand familiarity of firearms: how they work, their capabilities and limitations, how to disassemble them and, most importantly, how to handle them safely, thanks in large part to the safety and education programs of the NRA, and shoot them accurately.
The military teaches the fundamentals of marksmanship during basic training, but young recruits who have spent their youth in the woods with a .22 rifle do not have to be taught the important concept of obtaining a sight picture and squeezing the trigger. Firearms safety is also second nature for those who grew up around firearms and attended hunter safety classes. Even something as basic as muzzle control must be consciously learned by those unaccustomed to carrying a firearm around others. Likewise, it is no coincidence that the popularity of AR-15-style rifles saw an unprecedented surge in popularity and sales as hundreds of thousands of troops familiar with them returned home in the last two decades.
Map Reading and Navigation—Reading maps comes easy for some, but not for others. Still, the more experience one has with anything, the more natural it becomes. Because of time and space constraints, basic training is not the best venue to instill a familiarity with map reading and GPS operations. Hunters who have spent a few years staring at topographic contour lines and relating maps to actual terrain are the ones you want guiding your patrol through dangerous territory. Even without maps, it takes experience to be able to "read" the terrain and determine the fastest, quietest or easiest way to get from point A to point B. Hunting gives you the ability to understand topography and navigate through it in the most efficient way.
Patience and Perseverance—Standing-guard duty often requires one to stand motionless in the cold, for long hours, in one position, with little sleep, all while remaining vigilant over the slightest movement or noise. Every hunter will recognize how much this sounds like their last deer hunt. The skill of remaining still and undetected while being able to detect a stealthy adversary first is the hallmark of all good hunters and, as it turns out, all good combat troops.
Logistics—Hunting involves a lot of planning and preparation in getting gear together and testing it to make sure it will not fail at a critical time. There are also logistics that must be worked out to arrive at the right spot at the right time in the most secretive way. Longer hunts take much more extensive preparation to have all the equipment to maximize the chance of success of the entire mission. These are all skills that are immediately transferable to all aspects of military life, whether in combat or support roles.
Woodsmanship and Self-sufficiency—Being comfortable in the wild comes from a familiarization of wildlife and plants and through some basic knowledge of what is potentially dangerous and what is not. Those who have not spent time in the forest or desert at night have this uncertainty as an additional distraction to interfere with the mission at hand. Hunters are naturally comfortable being outside for extended periods, in darkness and in all types of conditions and are accustomed to having to take care of themselves. With this self-sufficiency comes confidence to focus on the mission.
What hunter did not learn to walk silently in the woods? Walking silently when outdoors is something that comes naturally to hunters. Hunters and our combat troops are used to throwing on a heavy pack, grabbing their rifle and taking off into the wild. This is all part of the woodsmanship package that hunters bring with them when they enter military service. With warfare in recent years favoring the use of small teams of special forces, there is an increasing need for people who have experience camping out in small "hunting" parties while pursuing their quarry.
One does not have to look far to find celebrated military heroes who ran around the backwoods in their youth in pursuit of game. The famous Vietnam sniper Carlos Hathcock attributed his marksmanship skills to the fact he grew up with a J. C. Higgins single-shot .22 rifle in his hands and didn't have enough money to afford to miss. Chris Kyle is the most recent, and undoubtedly most famous, example of an avid hunter who excelled in military service. Kyle was given a BB gun at 4 years old and shot a rifle for the first time when he was 8. He became one of the most successful snipers in military history, largely because of the skills his dad taught him in the woods as a boy.
Hunting and our National Security
Technical skills and physical exertion needed when hunting not only prepare our future troops for battle but build character, responsibility and good citizenship. In his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter, Theodore Roosevelt spoke extensively of the value of hunting to the nation at large: "The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone."
According to data provided by GlobalFirepower (GFP), which has tracked and provided analytical data concerning 138 modern military powers, the United States has 1.4 million active duty servicemen and women protecting our country. During the 2017 deer season, the states of Texas and Pennsylvania assembled the sixth and seventh largest armies in the world with more than 700,000 deer hunters each. If you consider all the rifle hunters in the other 48 states, the enormity of our warrior-hunter foundation is remarkable. What country would think of invading the United States with such an enormous population of people who are competent owners of firearms? The Second Amendment, as the NRA notes, is not about just keeping your deer rifle.
Hunting itself doesn't necessarily make a warrior and it certainly isn't training for military service, but it does hone foundational skills that are critical for the successful execution of military missions. None of this should be misconstrued to imply hunting in some way predisposes people to killing humans. That assertion has been made, unsuccessfully, by anti-hunting extremist groups, but it simply has no merit nor basis in fact. Even the famous sniper Carlos Hathcock wrote in his memoirs: "I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody."
Without our strong hunting heritage and widespread firearm ownership in America, we would not have the innate or natural skills needed to excel as a nation in military prowess. With the widespread acceptance of hunting among Americans (approximately 75-80 percent based on recent NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum data), the growing popularity of firearms, including AR-15 variants, the future of our military and strength of our national security looks even brighter.
American gun owners, hunters and shooters recognize the NRA as the foremost defender of our Second Amendment and as America’s firearm safety, education and training leader for good reason. For some history, the NRA’s founding in 1871 stemmed from a dismay over the lack of marksmanship demonstrated by Union troops during the Civil War. Recognizing the importance of marksmanship skills to national security—the same skills honed by hunters as this article notes—Union veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate worked to create the National Rifle Association of America “to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” It was granted a charter from the state of New York on Nov. 17, 1871. Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. Senator, became the fledgling NRA's first president. The rest is history as the NRA immediately began training Americans in marksmanship through various programs, matches, education and the promotion of shooting sports.—Karen Mehall Phillips, Director of Communications, NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum
About the Author
An accomplished wildlife biologist with degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Jim Heffelfinger has worked for state and federal wildlife agencies, universities and the private sector throughout his noted career. He is the author of “Deer of the Southwest” and the author or coauthor of more than 200 magazine articles, 50 scientific papers, 20 book chapters and numerous outdoor TV scripts. He is a Boone & Crockett professional member and chairman of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Mule Deer Working Group representing 24 Western states and Canadian provinces. He is the recipient of the Wallmo Award, presented to the leading mule deer biologist in North America, and was named the Mule Deer Foundation’s 2009 Professional of the Year. Heffelfinger is also a member of the International Defensive Pistol Association and the U.S. Practical Shooting Association and competes weekly with his 1911. The opinions expressed here are his own and reflect his personal and professional point of view and experience.
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