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It takes work, but born-on-the-range shooters can become great field shooters

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: March 26, 2019
  • Published March 26, 2019

Shooting for the field often has little resemblance to the square range. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

“What the hell is wrong with me?” Christine yelled over the howling mountain wind.

Looking over my shoulder as I climbed up to the two ptarmigan Winchester had marked down, I considered sparing her, but only for a moment. She is smarter and better at damn near everything than me, so I relish the opportunity for good-natured ribbing.

“If you are referring to my shooting two birds before you could mount your gun, it must be your bloodline,” I said.

Christine’s shooting career began well into adulthood, and was it not for her good fortune (or misfortune, depending how you view it) of meeting me, she may never have shot at all. Starting with a .22 rimfire rifle, she grasped the concept quickly and transitioned to the shotgun soon after. Big game rifles came later.

I expect Christine’s introduction to shooting was similar to most: a regimented process of learning safe gun handling, target identification, gun mount, sight picture and trigger manipulation. The learning environment is low-stress with the intent to produce a hunter who can demonstrate a level of competence with a firearm that lends faith their actions in the field won’t result in someone coming home with more holes in their body than when they left.

With a rifle, the process starts from the benchrest and then to a bit of shooting from the common field positions of off-hand, sitting, kneeling and prone. With the shotgun, it may start with thrown tin cans, progress to hand-thrown clay pigeons and finish with machine-thrown clay pigeons, most often all with the prospective hunter starting with the shotgun mounted. The idea is careful, deliberate movements, with the emphasis on proper gun mount and trigger press.

All of this is appropriate for introducing someone to shooting. But then it’s off to the hunting field, where slow and deliberate is often the antithesis of field shooting.

While trying to figure out what was keeping Christine from having success in those explosive moments that were second-nature to me, I begin to understand my failings in her comeuppance.

As a boy, I learned to shoot much the same as I have described. Once I proved out as safe, my father cut me loose to roam the country, and there was always plenty to shoot — in season jump-shooting ducks, pheasants, cottontail rabbits and fox squirrels, which would give the hunter a momentary glimpse from around the trunk of a tree.

During the offseason, there were pastures full of gophers that were considered pests, and for which there was a nickel bounty for every gopher tail brought to the local ranchers and farmers association. In those days, a nickel could buy a full-sized candy bar and 50 cents bought 50 .22 cartridges. I got pretty good at it.

Christine Cunningham loves to blow up orange soda in her backyard. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

When I chose to pursue law enforcement as a profession (shooting was the only thing I was ever really good at, so why not carry a gun for a living?) the compressed times required in training to shoot those who are trying to shoot you were normal to me. In that world, where every presentation of a long gun or draw-stroke of a sidearm can be described as just south of violent, and where shots are taken in fractions of seconds, I had found a home.

Instead of continuing to tease Christine about her lack of a sharpshooting ancestry I started thinking about my failings as her instructor. She could shoot right from the start; her ability to hit what she was shooting at was never the problem. She had taken up trapshooting and became rather good. In the field, she shot well at passing ducks and ducks over decoys. Jump shooting and flushing grouse or ptarmigan, not so much. It wasn’t a matter of missing, but rather one of not getting a shot off. It was frustrating and disappointing for her.

In time, it occurred to me that Christine didn’t have the benefit of a childhood like mine. We hunt often, but even on the best days, there isn’t a lot of shooting. I had erred in assuming she would naturally develop the field speed required to be a great all-around game shot. Time to get to work.

Having the good fortune to be able to shoot in our backyard, we acquired a couple of electronic clay pigeon throwers. Instead of starting with the gun mounted and her calling for the bird, as in regular trapshooting, she would wait for the bird and react to it. Prospects were dismal, but she’s no quitter and improvement came.

We worked on all sorts of field-type shooting situations, like turned away and listening for the “flush,” or walking as the bird came and reacting fast enough to hit it. Starting with the shotgun slung (not that you would do that in the field) is a great speed-builder that she is determined to get right.

With progress, we moved to the rifle range and worked on all sorts of field positions, just as before, only now at speed. Christine hates punching holes in paper, as do many. To alleviate the boredom, we filled plastic jugs with water and scattered them around the range. The instant gratification of an exploding jug is much more fun than putting a hole in paper.

Growing cocky, and being fiercely competitive, she challenged me to beat her. We set full soda cans out and shot from all sorts of positions. First to hit their can won.

This is where she learned the balance between speed and accuracy, that you cannot miss fast enough to catch up. Shooting is like any other skill requiring hand-eye coordination — you must push the envelope, and at times go over the edge to find out how good you can be.

A few weeks ago, we were following Winchester and Hugo in the mountains when Winchester went on point. Hugo honored, and Christine moved in for the flush. The birds were running, and Hugo couldn’t contain himself as he flushed the birds out of range. Christine broke open her shotgun and turned to move on as she told Winchester, who was still on point, “no bird.”

Watching from the side, and knowing Winchester, I thought, “Oh yeah, there’s a bird,” about the time a willow ptarmigan burst into the air 10 feet from his nose. Christine turned, on snowshoes mind you, closed her shotgun and dropped the ptarmigan.

Not sure who was happier, Christine or me, as I thought, “And just like that, a great field shooter is born.”

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.

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