Field shooting while hunting poses numerous challenges to new and experienced hunters alike. The biggest challenge will be the hunter themselves: “buck fever,” stress, nerves, pressure, whatever you want to call it. Seeing the animal of a lifetime within shooting range raises the adrenaline, unlike anything else. Taking the shot you’ve trained for with an elevated heart rate and everything that comes with stress is a topic for another day. Today’s topic is about getting a good rest and ensuring your rifle is steady before you take the shot.
“If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.”Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle
Mountain hunts offer all kinds of difficulties: elevation to climb, inclement weather, remoteness and a lack of cover (there are lots more). This last item can also be an advantage to the rifle shooter. Mountain environments are often relatively clear of high vegetation to block your line of sight. Position yourself on a spine or ridge overlooking your quarry, and you may have a clear trajectory for your bullet. More often than not, the ground feature where you’re laying will be far enough that an off-hand shot is impossible. The answer: get low and get steady.
Mountain shooters need to be prepared to take long shots. Shooting out past 300 yards will introduce much complexity into your ballistics and require all your skill. Now, what if this shot comes on day 10 of your once-in-a-lifetime sheep hunt? You’ll wish you had a better rest. What if this shot comes on day 3 of your only hunt of the year? You’ll wish you had a better rest.
The goal is to keep your rifle still while shooting. Your bench rest or a sandbag is a superb option at the range. These allow you to test your ballistics as far as your optics are capable and reduce the shooter’s error.
On the mountain, things are a bit different. The ground may be sloping. You are likely hugging the ground to remain hidden. Winds can be swirling, and your heart will be pumping. So how do you stay steady on your mountain hunt? I’m going to go over the different kinds of rest.
The bipod is a convenient method to steady your rifle. Most bipods have independently adjustable legs and possibly even additional adjustment capacity to ensure your rifle is horizontally level. Canting the rifle to one side will result in a missed show. I often hunt with my bipod on the rifle at all times, requiring just a few flicks of the wrist to open the bipod and have a good rest. Bipods allow the shooter to raise and lower the muzzle quickly, which can also introduce instability. The use of a rear bag will provide additional steadiness to the muzzle. You can use a rolled-up jacket or another article of clothing under the butt of the rifle to act as the rear bag.
Bipods offer the disadvantage of requiring the hunter to lie prone on the ground. While lying prone does provide the most stability, it also requires a clear line of sight from the ground. When grass or other low vegetation blocks the line of sight, you may need another method to stabilize your shot.
According to the Precision Rifle Blog, “92% of the top shooters said they owned a tripod they use with their rifle.” Hunters and match shooters have similar, though different, needs. The tripod’s size and weight are less important to a match shooter but critical for hunters, especially on backpack hunts. However, if 92% of the best shooters agree on something, it’s worth consideration.
Tripods are a serious upgrade from bipods in two main ways: maximum height and stability. Tripods can be easily adjusted to various heights, even as tall as required for a standing shot. The bipod will win for a shooting position very close to the ground, though most tripods can accommodate this in a pinch.
For seated, kneeling or standing shooting, the tripod will give you a steadier rest resulting in more accurate shots.
Downsides of Tripods and How to Manage These Costs
- Additional cost: If you already use a tripod for glassing, it would be ideal for the same unit to be functional as your shooting rest. Also, some pieces of gear are worth a proper investment. The tripod is one of them.
- Challenges at shallow height: You may not have the room to spread the tripod legs out as far as needed to get your rifle close to the ground. Often there are workarounds to the requirement of being at ground level. With a bipod, the best position may be very close to the ground and not from behind vegetation or a terrain feature. With the tripod, you have the flexibility and stability to move backwards for a more extended shot or behind a bush or boulder.
- Time Requirements: Setting up a tripod takes time and energy, and you may be doing this when you have little of either. The flip side is that you’ll gamble with inadequate rest, like your buddy’s shoulder, a tree or your pack. Do you want to take the time to do things correctly or not? Your choice.
Shooting off Your Pack
We all carry packs, so a pack is an obvious option as a rest. Unfortunately, backpacks offer limited support to the rifle, leaving the shooter to control the muzzle’s direction. Further, you are limited with a very low shooting position or contorting your body to shoot from the pack you are propping up with your knee. Should your quarry move out of your shooting lane, you must pick up your pack and move it to a new shooting location, taking precious seconds. This time requirement is similar to what you will encounter with a tripod but without the tripod’s superb stability. Conclusion: your backpack can act as an impromptu shooting rest, but it’s not the best choice.
Shooting off a Tree
Many of us hunt in wooded areas. Tree trunks and branches can act as your shooting rest. I have used this in a pinch, but clearly, you’re leaving a lot to chance if you depend on a tree in the right location for your shot.
Bonus: Fill the Space
At Gunwerk’s Long Range University, I learned about “filling the space.” When you consider all the space between your limbs, your trunk and the rifle as you prepare to take your shot, you will see the places where your body and rifle can move. Closing this space with a different body position, a jacket, or other items can make your shot more stable.
In a seated position, you have lots of room under your arms. Can you stuff something in there to tighten things up?
A bag under the butt of the rifle or between the butt and your body can also make a difference in a prone position.
As Jeff Cooper said in The Art of the Rifle, “If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.” The tools and techniques I describe above will help you make the best shot possible when it matters most.