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Mastering the art of two disciplines

A friend of mine recently went stalking for the first time. He is a game Shot, but has also had plenty of experience shooting rabbits with a .22 rimfire, so is familiar with rifle shooting. However, apart from the test shots with the stalker prior to going out, he’d never fired a high-calibre rifle. The stalker was happy with his performance on the range and after a two-hour stalk and a long belly crawl, my friend was in position for a shot at a roe doe. Faced with the animal, the adrenaline and the failing light, however, the pressure was too much and he shot over the top of it — a clean miss. “The stalker said I probably flinched as I took the shot,” he said. “I’m used to firing a .22 rimfire, but the .243 felt a lot different. Plus, I’d never shot off a bipod. I felt completely unprepared and was worried about wounding it in the gloomy light. It’s definitely made me recognise that it’s a very different discipline to gameshooting.” Reassuringly, he hasn’t been put off, though, and is planning to do the Deer Stalking Certificate Level 1.

My friend is not the first to have messed up a shot and he won’t be the last, but it was interesting to note that the stalker told him it probably hadn’t helped that they were out stalking just after the end of the gameshooting season. Does being a regular game Shot preclude you from being effective with a rifle, and vice versa?

When I asked Shooting Times’s shooting coach Sam Grice about it he claimed that he is nearly the worst rifle Shot in the world. “I don’t have the mentality and the focus for it; the controlled breathing, being cool and calm and so on — I just don’t work like that. I have a rifle but I am very good at missing rabbits even though I have a telescopic scope and it’s zeroed. “It’s a bit like the difference between squash and tennis,” Sam continued. “Both sports require a racquet and a ball, but they are used at a different pace.”

So how does he get a rifle Shot to shoot a shotgun straight? “The hardest thing for rifle Shots to get over when changing from rifle shooting to using a shotgun is the transfer from aiming to pointing. It’s all about breaking the deliberation and the habit. When I’m coaching a rifle Shot to use a shotgun, I find that the easiest way to do it, once you’ve got them used to looking at and picking up the target, is to speed it up. This means that they don’t have time to think about it and they work instead on a reflex. Many rifle Shots make a very successful change once they get over the concept of aiming, but it’s hard to wean a person off it when it’s been drilled into them.”

From shotguns to rifles

Next, I asked Shooting Times’s rifle expert Bruce Potts for his view, and his first reaction was to claim that he was nearly the worst shotgun Shot in the world. “Rifle shooting is all about taking a well-aimed shot, whereas with a shotgun you’re not looking at the gun like you do with a rifle, and so long as it fits properly it will shoot where you look. I can shoot slugs in a shotgun quite well but I don’t have that sense of fluidity for shooting gamebirds and I’m no good at allowing lead.

“Most of the rifle shooting I do is static shooting — I don’t shoot driven boar for example — and the main problem with it is that you’re always fighting the wind. Patience is key to being a good rifle Shot. You need to take the time to learn the techniques properly, such as the correct stance, how to account for the wind, proper trigger control and so on.”

I asked Bruce why he thought shotgun Shots sometimes miss with a rifle. “As with anything, it takes practice. You can learn your ballistic tables but in the field the wind is the most variable thing other than the animal you’re stalking. Proper trigger control is vital — the follow-through on a trigger is just as important as the swing with a shotgun — as is having the rifle positioned in the shoulder correctly. If you look through the scope at the wrong angle you will get a parallax problem, and obviously it’s vital to keep the rifle in order. A lot of people also have problems caused by flinching from the recoil, real or anticipated, though sound moderators have helped to lessen this.”

Proficient at both

For many game Shots it’s probably due to a lack of opportunity as well as restrictions on firearms certificates and having ground on which to shoot that excludes them from firing a rifle regularly — and some people simply tend to stick to what they know and enjoy. Others, however, such as ex-Shooting Times news editor James Ashcroft, appear to find it a cinch to alternate between both disciplines. Well-schooled by his father John, who is mustard with both a shotgun and a rifle, James’s ability to both point and aim was apparent when I witnessed him shoot a right-and-left at driven boar with a .300 double express in France a few years ago. Our fellow French shooters half-raised an eyebrow, and the two gentlemen from Inverness who had been shooting in the same forest for the past four days and hadn’t yet fired a shot didn’t speak to either of us for the rest of the day.

“Though the object of the exercise is the same, the disciplines are different,” said James. “With enough practice it becomes second nature to switch between the two. When shooting a shotgun you need great reactions, excellent hand and eye co-ordination and a perfect sense of timing. When shooting a rifle, you need a steady hand, a calm countenance and the confidence in both your equipment and yourself to put the bullet exactly where you want it.”

It sounds simple, but we all know it takes practice, and even then the wheels are inevitably going to come off at some stage. A good place to start, though, is by having a shotgun that fits and a rifle that is in good order. Hopefully the rest should follow, eventually.