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The Long Game: Shooting Drills and Skills for Deer Hunters

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Whenever someone in my old Michigan deer camp tagged a whitetail, that evening they would take a shot of kirschwasser, a smooth, clear, fiery brandy distilled from cherries. Even if the hunter was a few years shy of 21, their lips would touch the glass, and they’d feel a hint of the heat on their tongue. Why? Tradition.

All deer camps and deer hunters have their traditions. Some camps have been holding kangaroo courts for decades. If you’re found guilty of missing a deer, your shirttail gets cut off, though with a properly spirited defense—​the more outrageous, the better—the sentence might be suspended. 

Some traditions might seem nonsensical, but they are a vital piece of the glue that binds hunters together from one season to the next. However, one consequence is that deer hunters are predisposed to regard anything new with a jaundiced eye. That extends to events as mundane as someone showing up in camp with a new deer cartridge as well as more weighty matters like game agencies introducing antler-point restrictions. 

So you can imagine how well this crowd would respond to the idea that the way they’ve been shooting their deer rifles leaves something to be desired. Arms-crossed hostility begins to describe it.

Nonetheless, most deer hunters are not very good shots—hence the enduring kangaroo courts—especially when deer are at longer ranges. It’s no secret that today’s rifles, scopes, and ammo are much more capable than those of a generation ago. Yet sadly, the marksmanship of the majority of deer hunters hasn’t kept pace. 

The growth of precision rifle competitions that emphasize field scenarios has led to the development of some excellent, and practical, techniques that every deer hunter can benefit from. All it requires is an open mind and a willingness to buck tradition. 

A long-range whitetail buck.
The author with a large buck he patterned for several days on the eastern plains of Colorado last year. John B. Snow

Getting Steady 

The fundamentals of marksmanship—a good trigger press, breath control, sight alignment—don’t count for diddly-squat if you can’t hold your rifle still. At 100 yards and in, a competent marksman should be able to shoot a whitetail offhand without difficulty. At ranges beyond that, the rifle needs some type of support. 

Traditionally, this means mastering the kneeling and seated positions and the use of a shooting sling. These old-school skills are effective but not widely practiced anymore. Bipods are useful provided the legs are long enough to elevate the barrel above any surrounding vegetation, but in the real world that’s often not the case.

The best way to build a rock-solid position when you can’t lie prone is with a tripod equipped with a flat tac-table and a lightweight shooting bag. With the bag on top of the tac-table and the rifle balanced on the bag, you can make an accurate hit on the vitals of a deer hundreds of yards away, even while standing. 

Before the morality police blow their tops, I’m not advocating long-range hunting. I’m simply describing skills that will help you shoot better—and more ethically—no matter the distance. The fact that you might be able to go 10 for 10 on steel at 600 yards with these techniques doesn’t mean I think you should shoot deer at that distance. 

To maximize your accuracy when shooting off a tripod this way, keep these tips in mind:

  • Place the rifle on the bag lengthwise to maximize the amount of contact between the bag and the stock.
  • Keep the top of the bag about level with your sternum when you shoot from a standing position. If you position the bag any higher, accuracy will decrease. 
  • Use your lead hand to pinch the gun and bag together to steady the rifle and control recoil.
  • Square your shoulders so that you are directly behind the rifle. That will improve recoil management. 
  • Do not overfill your shooting bag. They often come with too much fill and don’t have enough give. Try filling it three-quarters of the way. 
  • Use a lightweight fill like Git-Lite, which will take a solid set under pressure for a steady shot. Don’t use cheap plastic beads. They slide around and aren’t very steady. 

While some hunters might balk at the idea of hauling around this extra weight and spending money on this extra gear, if you hunt open country where a longer shot is possible, it is 100 percent worth it. If you happen to use a spotting scope, you’re already carrying a tripod. So adding the other components—the bag and tac-table—is a no-brainer. 

I’ve used this setup numerous times to take game in the wild, most recently on a deer hunt last December in Colorado. I set my tripod up for a kneeling shot and had no issue making a steady shot on a deer that was 515 yards away. 

Cody Arnold with a big long-range whitetail buck.
Cody Arnold downed this heavy-horned whitetail using some of the long-range shooting techniques outlined in this feature. John B. Snow

Ballistics Apps for Deer Hunters

A point-blank zero, whereby you set your rifle to hit 2 or 3 inches high at 100 yards, is a great way to take the guesswork out of shooting to 250 yards or so, depending on your caliber and bullet. Anything past that, however, and you’re going to have to start taking bullet drop seriously. There are so many good ballistics calculators available for free that there’s no excuse for hunters and shooters not to use them. Right at the top of the list is Hornady’s app, but there are also good programs from Applied Ballistics and others. 

When you set up a ballistics profile, along with some other data about your rifle and ammunition, you’ll need a couple of measurements: muzzle velocity, for which you’ll need a chronograph, and the height of your scope above the bore of the barrel. The latter can be measured with calipers or even a tape measure with 1/16-inch gradations. Just measure the distance from the center of the bolt body to the center of the scope tube. Many rifle actions have a gas port on the front of the receiver that is centered, which makes for a good reference point. And if your scope rings sit on top of each other, you can use the line where they join as the other.

In addition to these two measurements, ballistics calculators require the twist rate of the barrel, the bullet’s BC, and the bullet’s length. Once these are entered, you should have a fairly accurate dope card. 

You’ll want to test the data the calculator gives you against real-world results. Make sure your 100-yard zero is as close to perfect as possible and then shoot at distance on paper. The farther you can shoot, the more precisely you can tune your calculator’s data. If you can shoot beyond 600 yards, you can start to alter your bullet’s BC slightly to make all the numbers line up. As a rule of thumb, out to 500 yards, tweak your muzzle velocity to correct your point of impact. For more on that process, check out this article.

100-Yard Shooting Drills

When it comes to shooting drills, there are three variables you can fool with to make for a more challenging shot. First, you can shrink the target size. Second, you can increase the difficulty of the shooting position. Last, you can give yourself less time to make the shot. 

There are an infinite number of ways you can mix and match these elements to create drills that will improve your ability to make tough shots under pressure—but very few hunters train this way. And it shows. The vast majority of misses (and missed opportunities) I’ve witnessed in the field are what tennis players would call unforced errors. The scope magnification was at the wrong (invariably too high) setting. The shooter failed to identify and use a good shooting rest. The hunter fiddled with their gear while precious seconds ticked away, and the deer wandered out of sight.

I was once hunting deer with a friend who is a very good (and well-known) hunter when a buck stood up 70 yards away, downhill from us. In…

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