There are at least six separate skills involved in hunting. The fours – shooting, spotting, stalking, survival – flora and fauna knowledge and, finally, game and trophy handling. All of them take time to acquire, sometimes a lifetime. Some people battle with different aspects, find it difficult to acquire the skill concerned and I know I will never win any prizes for my tracking skills and no longer enjoy the backache of skinning.
But there is one skill we can all acquire – shooting. I was lucky enough to attend a school which offered shooting as a sport. Our coach believed he could teach anyone to shoot accurately. All it took was three things he said – practice, practice and practice! Not superb eyesight. Not gifted co-ordination. Not an Arnold Schwartzenneger physique. Only practice. And he was right. In my final year at school the boy who won the prize for the best average shooting score for the year was a pale, frail youngster who wore Coke bottle glasses and could neither throw, catch nor hit a ball if his life depended upon it.
But he had been determined to become a good shot even though his initial scores when he began shooting were low – far worse than mine – and he barely made the original squad. Almost every afternoon after school, however, he could be found on the range. He made the provincial shooting team while I was only a reserve. He shot at the national championships while I stayed at home. It was a hard but good lesson to learn at a young age.
And so, come January each year I start my own practice sessions for the new year. Don’t laugh now! But I start with a silenced .22 loaded with sub-sonics at 25 metres. This combination allows me to immediately establish if any gremlins have crept into my routine over the past hunting season. Have I developed a slight flinch? Am I jerking the trigger? Am I taking too long? Is there a step missing in my checklist – but in the nook of my shoulder, hands not touching the metal but firm on the pistol grip and fore end, cheek resting in the same place on the Monte Carlo cheek piece, breathe deeply in and all the way out, acquire the sight picture, staple the crosshairs to it and gently squeeeeeeeeze the trigger?
Once I can fire all five rounds from the magazine into an area the size of my pinkie finger nail, I move the target to 50 metres and repeat the exercise before changing to conventional ammunition, removing the silencer and pushing on out to 100 metres. From there it is up through the calibres from a .222 to a .460 Weatherby at distances from 50 to 300 metres depending on the calibre and its use.
I know there are some who say that shooting off a bench is not adequate preparation for an African safari and they are right. It is important to practice while lying, sitting, kneeling and standing and, most importantly, shooting off sticks and bipods as well as rocks, trees and branches if possible. But I only get there much later and especially when I am teaching first time kids to shoot as I have done every year for the past 16.
I don’t know how it is for you but, for me, shooting is mostly a matter of seven inches or so – the measurement starts at my one ear and ends at the other. It’s all in my mind. If I am confident in my ability and equipment, I shoot well and that’s that. Shooting off a bench is an essential building block in developing this confidence and I think even more so for less experienced shots or even experienced ones getting to grips with new firearms and ammunition.
Bench shooting helps to establish or re- establish a shooting rhythm and discipline. It hones and embeds forefinger/eye co-ordination on the hard drive, re-instils essential muscle memory and thereby re- establishes "unconscious competence" through repetition. It also flushes out bad habits in the calm, controlled environment of the shooting range. In my humble opinion, almost every practice session should start on the shooting bench even if only three or four shots are fired from this position.
Shooting accurately on a range is not only about regular practice, it is also about you. Are you fit, healthy, relaxed, controlled, in a good mental place? If any of these factors is missing, it’s like the presence of rain, wind or humidity on the range – a variable that, depending on its severity, could have a major impact on your shooting and should be born in my mind before the equipment takes the blame for mediocre shooting.
I often think that too little attention is paid to concentration on the range. Apart from obvious safety ramifications, I know from personal experience that I inevitably shoot better in private than I do on our local public range unless I make a conscious effort to stop nattering to friends, shut out the hustle and bustle and climb into the 30mm tube of my scope and CONCENTRATE.
I remember one year at university I desperately wanted to make the first squash team but just could not beat the man above me on the ladder no matter how hard I tried and practised. In fact, at one stage, it seemed as if the harder I worked the worse I played. My saviour was an ex international player who took me under his wing, straightened out some technical issues, pointed out some tactical weaknesses and introduced me to a varied training regime that exercised every shot I needed to use and made me emphasize my weaker shots. In other words, practice became difficult and I was forced to play shots and run drills I didn’t want to but, within weeks, I was playing better and made the first team although not on a permanent basis.
And this is the first point I want to make. When you move from the bench -certain in the knowledge that you, your rifle and ammunition are in harmony – to sticks, bipods and so on, practice the shots you are bad at. Those long shots, off an unsteady rest, when you have limited time and those free hand, second snap shots at moving game. I say "second shots" because, in my opinion, first shots at moving game should be a rare occurrence. Seldom are they necessary and, I believe, cause more heartache than you can shake a stick at.
Nothing ruins a hunt for me more effectively than wounding a beautiful animal and, heaven forbid, if it is not found. I hate to admit this but, at regular intervals, those animals on my blessedly short "Wounded Not Found" list, march through my mind in the early hours of the morning and I’m so glad it’s dark and no-one can see me squirm.
No-one in my family has ever hunted so most of my hunting lessons have been provided by the school of hard knocks, my friends, professional hunters, trackers, skinners and books. When I started out over 50 years ago I knew so little that I didn’t even know the questions to ask. If someone had then offered me the opportunity to learn to shoot accurately and quickly under safari conditions, I would have jumped at the chance because, as Wyatt Earp said in 1887, "Fast is fine but accurate is final. You better learn to shoot slowly in a hurry."
In January of this year I was asked by Craig Boddington, the iconic American safari and firearms writer, filmmaker and TV show host, to attend just such a course at FTW (Fallon Trophy Whitetail Ranch) in the Texas Hill Country near San Antonio. The course was offered by the owner of the 12 000 acre ranch, Tim Fallon and two ex Navy SEALs, Chip Beaman and Doug Prichard.
Because of time constraints, they compressed the usual five night and four day course into two days for me. Still, if you had promised me at the outset that, as part of the course, I would learn to hit a 12 inch diametre metal plate at 500 yards with my first shot from a .308 rifle using standard 175 grain ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 2650 feet per second and the same thing with my next shot at 700 metres, I would probably not have gone as I would have immediately classified you as a bullduster of biblical proportions.
Not that long distance shooting was the object of the exercise which started with establishing our individual STARs – shooter to target acceptable range. In other words, how far you could shoot accurately with your firearm from different positions and in different situations – a critical question which each ethical hunter needs to be able to answer as honestly as possible for both himself and his professional hunter.
The SAAM (Safari All weather All terrain Marksmanship) course, which combines classroom and practical training, also takes the learner through a day on safari and includes issues such as tipping, trophy expectations, back up shots, following wounded game, packing, equipment and the importance of honesty regarding your fitness levels and shooting skills. In other words, it aims to send a hunter to Africa prepared as best possible to face whatever his safari may throw at him.
The original SAAM course, which began in 2005, was SAAM Precision which is medium calibre training (.223 to .338) out to 500 yards for varmint, plains and mountain hunter training. This has now been expanded to include SAAM Safari which begins with a lengthy introductory DVD by Craig Boddington on shot placement and is followed by a lecture giving an overview of the course, safety instructions and weapon cleaning advice. And then it is out onto the first of nine shooting ranges. These include four plains game ranges, three big game ranges and the long distance Nubian range from 175 to over 1000 yards, although this range was used to confirm our "Hunter Zero" out to 300 yards only with medium caliber weapons. In other words, how far could you shoot with your weapon and ammunition without having to aim above or below the target in order to hit it.
We also worked with big bores out to 100 yards on the big game ranges which included a lion and leopard blind, a pop up buffalo and elephant range as well as charging buffaloes and charging elephants ranges. Yes, that’s right, two charging at a time, one behind the other.
There was also a water filled crocodile and hippo range while the plains game ranges allowed for shots and follow-up shots on zebra and wildebeest as well as two separate static ranges for grysbuck (80 yards), impala (145 yards) and waterbuck (220 yards), on the one hand, and springbok (155 yards), nyala (212 yards) and kudu (285 yards), all containing life size, full color, vinyl targets, on the other hand.
I liked the laid back yet expert and safe Texan way of teaching and their colourful language. "Don’t turkey or turtleneck your scope!" "Treat your barrel as if it is a Jedi light sabre – if it crosses a body, it cuts it in half." "Become unconsciously competent." And "We’re gonna dial in your rifle, buddy."
I also liked the emphasis on practical shooting tips. How to shoot well off sticks by using a second set to steady your "chicken wing" – the trigger squeezing arm – and thereby extending your STAR from this position. How to kneel by sitting on your left foot as a right handed shooter in order to rest your chicken wing on your right knee in order to achieve the same object. How to establish the HZD – the Hunter Zero Data – of your rifle with the ammunition it uses.
I thoroughly enjoyed my abbreviated two day course and learned a number of very useful lessons from Chip and Doug, particularly on judging and the effects of crosswinds. I only wish I had been able to take along my faithful, 32 year old BRNO .375 and the 300 grain Norma cartridges loaded with Swift A-frame bullets that it likes to have it "dialled in" by these two experts and come home with one of the laminated range cards provided by the course.
Tim has hunted in Africa many times but, after their recent buffalo hunts, Chip and Doug made some changes to the SAAM Safari. There is a greater emphasis on snap shooting, second shots, target acquisition drills and an emphasis on the control of shooting sticks. In Tim’s own words, "When they get set up, you own them. Don’t wait for the PH to adjust them."
The main comments I read later from hunters who attended the course after they had returned from safari were as follows:
"I knew my limitations and made great shots within those limitations!"
"Even my PH was impressed with my shooting techniques and shooting positions used to make some really great shots. I was even able to show them a few new techniques on ways to use shooting sticks."
"I was able to utilize more shooting positions than just sticks thanks to the tricks and methods learned at SAAM and my accuracy and one shot one kill ratio sky rocketed."
The full SAAM course at an all inclusive (food, drink, accommodation, firearms and ammunition) price of $3 950 per person can, on the face of it, seem expensive but the question needs to be asked, compared to what? I thought it was excellent value for money compared to the cost of a modern African safari, particularly for one or more of the Big Seven. When you take into account the cost of a lost or wounded animal it seems positively cost effective and, when you add to this the possibility of your own potential loss of life or injury on such a safari and the effect on your family, the cost should probably be seen as an insurance premium and you could argue that it is almost irresponsible not to attend if you can. Further information on all the courses plus references from students is available from www.ftwoutfitters.com or over the telephone at 830 234 4366.