I have previously written about the importance of the five Ps – Preparation, Practice, Patience, Persistence and the most important P of all, PUP – Performance Under Pressure. Now I would like to talk about the four Cs and they do not stand for Coca Cola, Crisps, Cream Soda and Crackers.
The first C stands for Comfort. It is difficult to shoot well with a firearm where you have to contort your body to fit the weapon instead of the other way around. For optimum results, a rifle should fit you like a well made, well used glove. There are two rough and ready tests which can help tell if the rifle will fit you. Firstly, look at a distant object and, without taking your eye off the spot, mount the rifle into the firing position and check if the sights are aligned with the spot. If they are, you could be onto a winner. This is what happened to me with the Brno .375 H&H I bought 45 years ago and which served me faithfully for the rest of my hunting days.
Secondly, place the butt of the rifle in the crook of your firing finger arm and check whether you can squeeze the trigger with the first digit of your firing finger. If the answer to both questions is no, move on and look for another rifle. If yes, then the rifle is worth taking to the range for more practical tests.
If the rifle you are examining does not meet these elementary tests, you may need to look a little further or, if you have the funds, have a rifle custom made, a bespoke rifle just for you.
Another factor to remember is that the felt recoil of a rifle which fits perfectly will always be less than a poor fitting one and I have met no-one, regardless of how little recoil affects them, who would prefer more recoil to less or who believes that increased recoil improves accuracy.
You will also shoot better if your whole body is comfortable, relaxed and still when you squeeze the trigger. There is no rock pressing against your diaphragm, no tree branch battering against the side of your head in the breeze and the rest for your rifle does not oblige you to stand bent in half. The more of your body you can rest comfortably against something unmoving or unmovable, the better. It’s not for nothing that the favourite and best shooting position most snipers favour is lying prone on some comfortable surface and preferably using a bipod.
The professional hunter I have seen who takes the most trouble to ensure that his clients are comfortable and steady is Jason Roussos. He goes to great lengths, including having a sneak peek through the client’s sights, to ensure that his clients have the best possible opportunity of making a one shot kill. That they are comfortable, steady, know the range to the target, with their rifle resting on a solid but cushioned surface. Of course, in Jason’s case in Ethiopia, the animals in question are usually quite far away, unaware of the hunter’s presence and, given the terrain, there is also plenty of time to manoeuvre into a comfortable position to take a well considered shot.
The Navy SEAL instructors at the SAAM course I attended at FTW in Texas, also had a few interesting suggestions to help in this regard. “Building your house” they called it – in other words, creating a comfortable and stable position from which to shoot – and provided, for example, rests for your “chicken wing”, the firing finger arm, both when standing and sitting. The first was as simple as asking the guide to move close enough to rest the finger firing arm on his shoulder when standing or by having a second set of shooting sticks positioned under this wayward arm. When sitting, they taught me to sit counter intuitively on the “wrong” foot, which left the other knee raised to provide a rest for the chicken wing. It was amazing how well both these aids helped accuracy.
In summary, the best shooting positions in order of comfort are lying, sitting, kneeling and, lastly, standing.
The second C stands for Calm. Stress can do terrible things to marksmanship. I will never forget watching a shooter in the Olympics hit the wrong target with his last round and thereby miss out on a medal. Had he hit his own target, almost anywhere in the black, he would have won a gold. The terrible thing was that, at the next Olympics, I watched the same shooter make another unforced error while competing for the lead and which also cost him a medal.
This confirmed a point a friend made who competes regularly at the highest level in shooting competitions, namely, that once you make a stress induced error, it is easy for this to become a habit. Which, unknowingly, is largely why I detested people on a hunt yelling at me to “Shoot, shoot, shooooooot!!!” One of the many reasons I liked hunting with Nassos Roussos. His quietly spoken, “OK, it’s a good one” is the signal for you to take the shot should you wish to do so.
As I explain beforehand when I am hunting with a team, I am excited enough as it is when the final moment comes to take the shot. I do not need or want anyone to raise their voice. Only the guide should do the talking and advise me on which animal to shoot and when. Having said that, the decision to take the shot, is always the shooter’s and the calmer you are, the lower your heart rate and the slower your breathing, the better your decision making will be and the steadier your aim.
This can be a problem, however, if you have been rushing to get into position and are breathing hard and I have stressed to more than one PH that it is pointless in rushing through the veld. Firstly, you are likely to bump animals and make them aware of you which, at best, will mean that you have precious little time to make the shot before the animal heads off and, secondly, it is pointless me suddenly being in range of an animal but with a heart beating like a drum and so out of breath I would be arrested if I did this over the phone to a lady. Under those circumstances I normally cannot hit a bull in the bum with a base fiddle!
Fear, of course, is the enemy of calmness, a huge stress inducer and everyone, and I do mean everyone, has the same physical response to fear. The same chemicals are released into the blood stream, which has the same effects on everyone. Pulse and breathing rates increase. Perspiration starts to flow. The sphincter contracts. The body tenses and prepares for flight, fight or freeze.
But it is the mental reactions that differ and no-one can predict how anyone is going to react once these chemicals enter the bloodstream. Some people run at the machine gun nest. Others run away and I will never forget the astonishment on the young PH’s face as he related the recent reactions of an Arab client on his first buffalo hunt. He had been holding the man’s white robe in his hand as he led him to within 40 metres of the previously obscured small buffalo herd when one sauntered out into a small clearing. He let the robe go to check the buff one last time through his binos but, when he stretched out his hand once again, there was nothing there. Turning, he saw a fluttering sheet and a pair of brown buttocks disappearing over the grass and shrubs as the man haired off into the middle distance.
One thing is for sure, when really close to the big and hairy, you know you are not at home on the couch watching TV. Personally, I think repeated exposure to animals that could stand on or chew me helped me, if not overcome fear, to reduce it to a nervousness which, in turn, reduced the flow of chemicals into my system. Having said that, I have still never became used to the close proximity of poisonous snakes, hippopotami or crocodiles.
In addition, it is worth remembering that, at the end of a long, strenuous day on the tracks, the tiredness you are experiencing can cause your extremities to involuntarily tremble and you may not be aware of this. The fitter you are, however, the less you will tremble but you need to bear this in mind.
The third C is Concentration. Often, at the moment critique, there can be a lot going on. A number of things can cause distractions – animals moving to and fro, in and out of cover, others looking threatening, any of a hundred and one different things. You need to concentrate as never before. You need to be sure that you and your guide are on the same page, that you know the animal he wants you to shoot and where, that there is nothing behind your target animal, that your scope is on the right setting – i.e. the lowest one until you have acquired the target animal after which you can increase the magnification – that there is a cartridge in the chamber, that your safety catch is in the fire position and so on. On more than one occasion I have seen a hunter try and straighten his trigger because, in the heat of the moment, he had forgotten to move the safety to fire. I have also seen a hunter lose a great trophy because he forgot to remove the lens caps from his scope.
Which is why it is good to hunt with a well trained, well organised team. It allows you to calmly focus on the prey animal and leave the rest of the “gehurwar” to the team, including fiddling around with your binos instead of readying for the shot. This is just as well in my case as I tend to develop a bad case of tunnel vision when the time comes to take the shot. I tune out almost everything and focus intently on the precise spot on the animal I plan to hit. Once the decision has been taken to kill the animal, I do not look at the horns or the size of the animal or anything or anywhere else for that matter other than the point of impact. I even tune out most of the noise around me and listen only to the voice of the guide. This can sometimes lead to misunderstandings if your home languages are different and accents difficult to understand so you need to beware of this.
I remember hunting in CAR with Christophe Morio for a much desired forest sitatunga. In his usual thorough preparation for my hunt, he had spotted two forest sitatunga – one big and one smaller – in a two kilometre long saline and built three machans to cover the heavily forested and swampy area. When he called me as we were glassing from the middle machan, the sitatunga was already trotting diagonally towards us as the late afternoon shadows stretched across the thicket bedecked swamp to my front with the long shadows criss-crossing at ninety degrees over his path. One moment you could see him clearly, the next his dark, brownish grey, furry coat blended into the shadows. I heard Christophe say, “It is not the big one.” I had only seconds to make the shot. My entire focus was on the animal and shot placement.
What Christophe had tried to tell me, however, was that the animal was small i.e. “It is not a big one” i.e. do not shoot it. It wasn’t big and I was heavily and properly criticised for my error and, afterwards, the old axiom, “Decide in haste, repent at leisure” reverberated around my head for weeks on end.
Confidence, is the fourth and final C and the main reason I practice so assiduously at a different distances and from different shooting positions with all my rifles (which are all but the same when it comes to their make, size and set up). Firstly, it gives me confidence that my shooting tools – because that is how I view them – are the right ones to help me kill the animals I hunt, preferably instantly and with one well aimed shot. Secondly, confidence that I can play my role as the hunter, either on my own or in a hunting team, and perform my main function, which is to ensure a crisp, clean kill that neither hurts the animal nor puts anyone else at risk – neither the members of the hunting team nor innocent passers-by.
I remember one very busy year when, due to pressure of work, my normal pre hunting season preparations were shoddy to say the least. It was the worst hunting season I can remember. I missed. I wounded. Worse still, I wounded an animal and, despite doing all I could over three days, never found it. I was just so unsettled. I wanted to blame my firearms, the ammunition, the trackers, the changing wind. Anything but me but, in my heart of hearts, I knew the real reason and it was me and only me. I just felt uncomfortable behind my rifles. I had no confidence in them or me.
Confidence is difficult to define. It takes days, weeks, months and even years of repeated success to build but can be destroyed in a flash and then it is back to the painstaking processes and practices which help slowly re-establish it. In those days I was playing league squash and was coached and trained assiduously. My game would slowly improve and I would play better and better. Then I would become cocky and try ever more attacking and point winning shots until one day when I would miss a seemingly easy winning shot and then another and another. They would just not go in.
I would train harder, try harder but only succeeded in playing worse and worse until I despaired and would seriously consider giving up the game I enjoyed so much.
I would often stop playing until a friend or fellow team member would call out of the blue and suggest a friendly game. I would play with nothing to prove or lose and, with nothing riding on the game, I would relax and often, to my amazement, find my shots start to hit the mark and then the whole process would repeat itself until I regained my confidence, at least for a while. It was at this stage that the phrase, “Pride comes before a fall” started to resonate with me and the importance of remaining humble etched itself on my hard drive.
What I can tell you, however, is that I was very lucky to buy a Brno Deluxe .375 H&H for my 30th birthday, which fitted me like the proverbial glove. This was purely by accident and not design and I would not have bought it had my client, the owner of the firearms dealership (who had forgotten more about firearms than I had learned), insisted I do so. For the next 40 years it became my “go to” rifle. It was reblued three times, had two different scopes before I settled on a 1 ½ x 6 – 42 Zeiss Diavari Z, had the stock refinished twice and was recrowned once. I knew it like the back of my hand and, although I changed from the original Winchester 270 grain Power Points to Norma 300 grain Swift A-Frames, I stuck with the latter for so long I knew the ballistics at every distance for which the rifle was capable. I became confident that I could hit whatever I aimed at and, without tooting my own horn too loudly, more often than not my confidence was not unfounded and I battle to remember any animal I wounded with it – although I am sure there were some – and none that escaped. I used it on everything from the smallest of the Tiny Ten with Norma 300 grain solids to the cats and buffalo. The only thing I never used it on was elephant and rhino.
I felt so secure with it in my hands but, unlike squash, never allowed myself to become too cocky when using it. And maybe that was the secret to my confidence, along with practising religiously and using only premium ammunition. After all, the consequences of becoming over confident were just too ghastly to contemplate.