Mastering offhand shooting

John Robinson, editor of Guns Australia and very experienced target and field shooter, gives invaluable advice on the most fundamental hunting skill.

Shotgunners always do it standing up. Pistol shooters almost always do it standing up, but most rifle shooters prefer to do it laying down, sitting or leaning on something.

Being able to shoot well offhand in the field is a skill that will put more meat on the table or trophies on the wall that any other aspect of hunting techniques and equipment. 

It is not a skill that comes easily to many people. Having been a competitive pistol shooter for most my shooting life, I have seen handgunners struggle to get shots on the cardboard at 25 metres, let alone get anywhere near the Ten Ring.

Admittedly, handguns are a lot harder to shoot well that long arms, but the distances involved in field shooting and hunting are also a lot longer and the placement of the shot is needs to be in the anumal's Ten ring, regardless of the range.

A few people may be lucky enough to be naturally good shooters, but most of us need to put some time into thinking about mastering particular shooting techniques, and shooting long arms offhand is no exception. Fortunately, like most other human endeavors, offhand shooting can be improved with practice and application.

If you want to get a more formal measure of your offhand shooting skills, one good way to evaluate your level of offhand shooting competence is to get to an SSAA range when a Rimfire Silhouette match is being shot. At my local range (Newcastle), the match is shot once per month and I get there occasionally to get a wake-up call about my offhand shooting abilities.

The match is shot out to 100 metres with .22 rimfire rifles, which are basically sporting weight. No slings or other means of support are permitted. The targets are scaled down Chickens, Pigs, Turkeys and Rams at 25, 50, 75 and 100 metres respectively. Ten shots are fired at each range.

This match thus provides a good benchmark against which to measure your progress, if any. If you do not have access to similar range facilities, it is just as easy to set up paper targets to carry out the same experiment anywhere where it is legal to shoot a firearm..

On medium sized Australian game - goats, pigs and the like, the vital zone for a clean shot is around 15 cm in diameter, give or take a bit depending on the individual animal. This means that the shooter should be able to hit an area of this size, at whatever range the target presents itself.

By logical deduction, if the game is a longer distance away, there will be more time to adopt a more stable shooting position, and it is unlikely that 300 metre offhand shots would be commonly required, although on many occasions, taking offhand shots out to over 150 metres has meant the difference between a successful  hunt and a dry run.

There are two things that need to be sorted out by a shooter wanting to master offhand shooting. Firstly, requisite skills and understanding of offhand shooting technique needs to be developed by the shooter, and just as importantly, the rifle needs to be set up to enhance its handling for offhand work.

A rifle that is easy to shoot offhand will not necessarily be a featherweight. While a light barreled rifle might feel good when you first pick it up, it does not provide the most stable tool for the job. Most rifles designed for offhand target shooting are front-heavy, and this will also apply to hunting rifles well suited to offhand use. There is obviously a trade-off between the need to carry the rifle, and its best configuration for offhand field shooting. 

A rifle that is slightly front-heavy will be better for offhand shooting than a front-light outfit, This might mean the rifle weighs half a kilo more than its lightweight counterpart. The handling of my trusty old Ruger MKII Model 77 All Weather .308 was improved noticeably through the fitting of a Hogue Overmolded stock in place of the original light hard plastic stock.

The Hogue stock is about 500g heavier than the original Ruger All Weather item, with much of the extra weight in the forend. I am happy to carry the extra weight around thanks to the enhanced handling, along with a noticeable reduction in felt recoil with heavier bullet loads. 

The second important feature is good stock fit - a shotgunning essential. If the shooting eye aligns naturally with the centre of the scope, this brings the face and head into the equation to better support the rifle. 

Stocks with low combs and high scope mounts are not good to shoot offhand. Some European rifles are set up in this way, as they are intended for shooting from stands or off supports, from a very upright shooting position. I have hosted some European hunters here from time to time, and have found a cultural reluctance to both shoot offhand, shoot at moving game or shoot at distances much over 100 metres.

The third, and by far the most important feature of an offhand rifle, is the trigger. Trying to shoot offhand with a heavy, scratchy is running against the wind. Most hunting rifles weigh less that 4 kg, and tugging on a trigger that weighs as much (or more) is simply not going to work. Few off-the-shelf sporting rifles are supplied with light triggers, mainly because they need to pass stringent Australian customs import safety tests. In testing many rifles, particularly those from the USA, I have found that most have very heavy trigger pulls that are sometimes over 5 kg. 

Fortunately, many of these firearms have adjustable triggers, but some, and Ruger Model 77 MKII's are a case in point, do not have adjustable triggers, as did the earlier MKI's. These triggers need some gunsmithing attention if the rifles are to be used successfully for shooting offhand.

In my experience, the maximum trigger pull conducive to good offhand shooting is around 1400 g (3 lb) and preferable closer to 1000 g, given that the rifles trigger and its user are safe at this trigger weight. A smooth and light trigger release means that the rifle will fire when you want it to without encouraging trigger jerking.

A final point to consider is telescopic sight magnification. Lower power scopes, apart from their larger field of view, make the inevitable wobble associated with offhand shooting seem less, so there is a psychological benefit in at least thinking that you are not wobbling too much.
Depending on the game being hunted, a 4X scope will usually provide plenty of magnification for any of our feral game or deer species. Using a 3-9x variable scope on its lower power settings is a good way to start. As confidence and skill increases, the magnification can be adjusted, but I j=have found that around 6X is about the practical maximum for any offhand work.

One of the techniques that is drummed into pistol shooters by coaches, but is not an easy concept to grasp, is that of 'area aiming'. The basic principle of area aiming is that when shooting offhand, it is not possible to hold the firearm still, and a degree of wobble has to be accepted by the shooter. This also applies to shooting offhand with a rifle. You will not be able to hold the rifle perfectly still, and you have to accept a degree of oscillation as you line up the target.

As long as the area of aim is in the Ten Ring on the animal, then it will be an acceptable shot. The hard thing to do is to start squeezing the trigger while the crosshairs wobble around. The downside of trying to get a perfect hold before firing is that there will be tendency to jerk the trigger, rather than squeeze it, and the longer you hold, the shakier you will get.

It is generally accepted that if you cannot get an offhand shot off in less than 10 seconds, then you should not take the shot. You will start to run out of oxygen and muscle fatigue cuts in. The shooters area of aim will be determined by physiology, fitness and experience. An experienced offhand shooter will simply have a smaller area of aim than a less experienced shooter.

There are some basic fitness pre-requisites for those wanting to improve their off-hand shooting skills. For right-handed shooters, all the work is done by the left arm, as this has to support the weight of the rifle and controls the aiming precision of the gun. The right hand mainly operates the trigger. The weight of the back of the rifle is carried by the butt plate, pressing against the shoulder.

One technique that works for me is based on the principle that the rifle prefers to move in one direction at a time. If the gun is moving upwards (vertically), it is less inclined to move laterally (sideways). I find that attempting to hold the crosshairs on a particular spot results in the sights oscillating in a somewhat random manner around this area.

On the other hand, if the crosshairs  are swung from below the target and the trigger squeeze is started as the crosshairs approach the aiming point, the sight tend to move in a single plane and any sideways error is minimised. It also forces to get the shot off quickly, instead of procrastinating about aiming precision.

There is an obvious spin-off when it comes to shooting at running game, as this is almost always done offhand. The last three decent sized feral pigs I have shot have all been on the move and well over 100 metres away. When the crosshairs are swung onto running game like this, the rifle is moving in a horizontal plane and momentum tends to keep it on line, so the only thing to figure out is the lead required. It sometimes seems easier shooting moving game using a smooth horizontal swing, than it is shooting at a stationary animal.

The good thing these off-hand shooting techniques is that they can all be worked on without firing any live ammo. Dry firing your hunting rifle in a safe place not only costs you nothing, but also allows you to clearly observe where the crosshairs are pointing the instant the trigger releases. There is no recoil of muzzle blast to cloud the outcome of the firing of the 'shot'.

To hone your off hand field shooting skills, it is a good idea to establish a benchmark. How good are you now? If you go to your local range to sight in your hunting rifle(s), don't spend the time only at the bench rest. It is not much good having a rifle that shoot minute of angle groups if the shooter cannot hit a dinner plate shooting offhand at 50 metres.

A competent off hand field shooter should be able to hold in an area of around 150 mm at 100 m. This is precise enough to humanely take any sort of medium Australian game with a minimum of fuss. As ranges get longer, the pressure to take standing shots is less, and the game is more likely to be stationery and there is time to get a more stable shooting position.

 

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, October 2009.

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