My, how times have changed over the past 50 or so years in the whitetail woods, especially when it comes to the “business end” of the enterprise. 

During my first forays into whitetail habitat around 1970, my clothing and equipment were a cobbled-together collection of mostly borrowed or repurposed items. If a hunter wanted to hunt from a deer stand, he had to build it with wood, hammer and nails. A fledgling industry providing portable deer stands was barely off the ground. 

Weapon-wise, it was pretty simple in most locales. In the Deep South, hunting deer with dogs was still a dominant and widespread tradition, making shotguns the weapon of choice for many hunters.

I well remember using my 16-gauge, Remington 870 pump with a modified- choke barrel and running to the store a day or two before opening day to buy a five-pack of No. 1 buckshot shells. There was really more luck than skill  involved when blasting away at a buck that a dog pack ran by your appointed stand. 

When you fast-forward to today, the list of available weapons, calibers and loads is almost mind-boggling by comparison. Over my almost 50 years of deer hunting, the development and continued evolution of rifles and shotguns, ammunition and telescopic sights has been more a matter of refinement than revolution. In today’s world, telescopic sights are better optically, much easier to adjust, more reliable and mounted  more securely. Ammunition, primers and bullets are more uniform and reliable than they have ever been.

It looks easy

The one thing that hasn’t changed is that in order to make the shot, the hunter has to put his sights on what he intends to hit, and with a steady hand, get the shot off without disturbing his aim. It all sounds pretty simple in theory, but in practice, several things must happen simultaneously and correctly for the end result to be as intended. 

It all works if the rifle or rifled shotgun is correctly sighted-in, and if that weapon is inherently accurate, if trajectory can be ignored — it cannot if the shot is long — and if windage lead is not a factor, as it would be on a running deer. If that's all there is to it, why aren’t all hunters great shots?

This party can be spoiled so easily by just a few simple facts. First, even in the case of the most-seasoned rifleman, the rifle must be held absolutely steady, which is difficult even from a sandbag on a bench rest. It’s next to impossible not to have at least a little bit of wobble when the hunter is using a rail or a window sill or the side of a tree trunk, or having to shoot offhand. Secondly, pulling the trigger without disturbing one’s aim is every bit as difficult as holding the rifle steady. Even under the most-perfect conditions using a heavy, well-balanced rifle with a light trigger pull, the simple act of squeezing the trigger will cause a slight movement. In the real world, at the moment of truth, a breeze is usually blowing and adrenaline is pumping, before even taking into account the rifle rest or lack thereof, the distance to the target, air temperature, angle and on and on, making it infinitely more difficult than it would be at the range on a sandbag.

Details, details

But how does a deer hunter compensate for all of these factors and become a competent marksman who is able to consistently make good shots? Besides the basics of regular target practice, good shooting skill in the field can be boiled down to learning how to quickly get into the most-steady shooting position possible under the prevailing conditions — and then executing and controlling the trigger squeeze properly to make the shot count.

The hunter’s choice of weapon, ammunition and sight should be governed by whether the hunter hunts in deep woods or fields, is presented with shots of 50 to no more than 100 yards, or shots out to 300 yards and beyond. I personally do not like to take lower-percentage shots at distances of more than about 200 yards. Have I successfully made long shots in the past? Absolutely, I made several long, difficult shots on elk and deer a number of years ago, back when I practiced more and had better eyesight. But it takes skill developed over years of practice to turn what are low-percentage shots — to the average hunter — into routine shots.

Accurate marksmanship is a “perishable” skill with a definite shelf life, unless one regularly and consistently practices in order to stay sharp. Go to the range, and after confirming on the sandbag that your rifle is “on the money,” put the sandbag away and shoot sitting, standing, prone and everything in-between to see how you do under more realistic conditions. 


Shooting basics:

• Always identify your target

• Gain a solid shooting position

• Estimate the range — and allow for it

• Squeeze the trigger

• Make a clean kill