Hunting Practice with your Air Rifle
Air rifles are great fun for plinking and shooting small pests. They can also provide excellent practice for hunters young and old. That is particularly true for hunting bigger game with heavy calibre rifles.
When I bought my air rifle I had practice for my centrefire shooting in mind, apart from the obvious plinking and pest shooting. Initially, I concentrated on getting my air rifle sighted-in nicely and testing a range of pellets to find the best performing projectile for the rifle.
Following that, the rifle got good usage on pests about the farm sheds. With the approach of some serious game hunting trips, and having a bit of spare time on my hands, I set about implementing my original intention of using the air rifle for practicing the hunting of bigger game.
The key element of practice for any sporting activity is regularity. Clearly, if you could fire off 20, 30 or even 50, shots under simulated hunting conditions every day, you do not need any great imagination to appreciate that you would fairly rapidly become a crack shot.
Convenient access to suitable ranges where centrefire rifles can be used is a challenge for nearly every shooter. Even for the fortunate few who might live close by a rifle range that is open every day, the time required to get your gear to and from the range, plus cleaning time, would represent a fair chunk of your day.
On top of that, most shooters would also be wary of the cost of such daily shooting in terms of range fees, ammunition expended and barrel wear. The attractions of an air rifle range at home are obvious. You can make good use of any spare 15 minutes to retrieve your air rifle from the gun safe, set up a few targets and fire off 30 shots.
You do not need a lot of space to set up a suitable range either. I know folks who have air rifle ranges set up under their houses and even some who, with appropriate safety precautions and pellet traps, shoot down the hallways in their house. Most people can find the 5 to 10 metres needed for an air rifle range at home.
A lot of hunters use their local SSAA ranges as often as they can to practice with their hunting rifles and that is good. However, while shooting off the bench is great for honing your technique and trigger control, it is practicing your shooting under simulated field conditions that really pays dividends. Not all ranges cater to that.
The sort of practice we all need as hunters is from typical field positions such as kneeling, sitting, squatting, standing and using an improvised rest when not shooting off hand. In shooting this way we need to improve both our accuracy and the speed at which we acquire the target and take the shot.
I have two distinct forms of practice with my air rifle. The first is based on quick target acquisition and shot release. An ideal target for this are those metal targets with disks of about 50mm diameter, which reset themselves. The technique here is to raise your rifle from a carry position and seek to acquire your target and shoot as quickly as possible. It also pays, initially at least, to be unconcerned by your missed shots. With repeated practice, you will get quicker and miss less targets. Once you can hit 9 out 10, then you need to start getting a bit more strict with yourself on missed targets. The goal is to reach the point where you expect to achieve 100% success on these target discs.
The other aspect to my air rifle practice is in shooting at photos of game animals. In this I take very deliberate aim and my intention is to always get 100% in the kill zone. I believe this approach instils the right attitude required for hunting, even though you are only shooting at targets. As you develop your speed at shooting well on the metal disks you will find that your speed in shooting the animal targets will increase too, which is the main goal, but not at the expense of missing the kill zone.
The first thing you will need is some photographs of the game animals you are intending to hunt. That was not a problem for me. I greatly enjoy game stalking and photography, in addition to actual hunting, and I had plenty of deer photos to draw upon. Another great source of good photos is from the covert, automated trail cameras that many hunters are now deploying in their hunting grounds. I have some good wild dog photos from these which are ideal for practice.
Of course, you do not need to take the required photos yourself. There are a wealth of animal photos on the internet and in books and magazines like National Geographic, that can be used. Having selected a few good examples of the animals you will be hunting, print out some A4 sized copies. These do not need to be in colour and, in fact, for this type of shooting I think black & white copies are preferable. The prints can be on simple typing paper; there is no need to use photographic paper for targets.
I also draw my kill zone circle on the target, but only faintly. The idea is not to be able to see the kill zone circle on your target when you are actually shooting. You need to develop the ability to quickly assess your animal and determine the kill zone, then take the shot as fast, and accurately, as possible. The circle is for when you retrieve your target and view the results of your shooting.
It pays to have a selection of different animal photos each displaying a different stance. There is no point using a photo of an animal in full flight. A photo of an animal’s fleeing stance is nothing like that of an undisturbed animal standing still, or walking along slowly. In undisturbed animals the heart zone is about one third of the height of the chest and pretty much right between both front shoulders.
It is vital to mentally picture that and remember it. The old adage of aiming for the point of the shoulder is true – for a full side on shot at a standing animal only. With an animal at an angle to you, and possibly with front legs astride, you must adjust your sighting to target the heart.
So, armed with a batch of A4 photos of your quarry in different poses, you are ready for some practice. It is best to set up your target at a distance where your air rifle is right on, or very close to, the point of aim. That is, the pellet hits where the cross hairs are indicating. For convenience based on my available range, I conduct my air rifle practice at 15 metres.
Now, in this example, my quarry is young Chital deer, a spiker stag. A quick Google search tells me that that the standing height of a Chital stag is in the range of 29 to 39 inches, which is close enough to 75 to 100 centimetres. I estimate that my juvenile stag is most likely about 75 cm at the shoulder. Taking my image of the young stag, I measure the standing height in the photo to be about 11.5cm.
The calculation is as follows.
Equivalent distance in metres = air gun range distance in metres multiplied by the real body height (cm) of the animal divided by the measured animal height (cm) in the photo.
Which for my circumstances is = 15 metres x 75 cm / 11.5 cm = 98 metres
That means an 11.5 cm high photo of a deer at 15 metres will look the same as a full sized, 75 cm, deer at 98 metres. Furthermore, my air rifle shoots a smidge high at 15 metres, about 7mm above point of aim to be precise. This is also a very neat simulation as well because that mimics my hunting rifle which is sighted to be 50mm high at 100 metres.
One of the selling points of the Weihrauch HW 97K air rifle I bought was the adjustable match trigger. The trigger on the Weihrauch is set to about 1.5 pounds, the same as on my hunting rifles. Another similarity is in the scope reticule, which on the air rifle is nearly identical to those on my hunting rifles.
An air rifle that duplicates sighting, trigger pull and trajectory is ideal for hunting practice. I always stalk as close as possible to my quarry and generally take my shots over ranges of about 50 to 150 metres. A young stag at 100 metres is therefore a pretty typical scenario for me. If you are inclined to take your shots at longer distances, then you can simple reduce the size of the animal photograph print out you are using.
Being able to nicely group my air rifle shots into the kill zone of my photographic target gives me good confidence of doing the same with my 7×57 out in the bush. Also, I do not try and finesse my aiming at either the target or real animals in the bush. I simply aim dead centre on where I estimate the kill zone to be.
So long as the animal is within the point blank range (the trajectory is within ±50mm from point of aim) of the rifle then a well-aimed shot will be within the kill zone. In the accompanying photo you can see the group is a little above the centre of the kill zone, but still within it, which is fine for hunting.
If you can consistently group your shots into the kill zone of your quarry, under field conditions and over varying ranges, then you can expect emphatic one shot kills. This is, of course, the goal and ethic of every hunter, no matter what we are shooting at. It is this sort of practice with an air gun that will hone your field shooting skills to a fine edge.
For aspiring young hunters, I would think that regular air rifle practice on photographic targets of game animals would be an ideal lead-in to their first real hunting experiences.
Naturally, you are not limited to just deer, goats, pigs and the like. This method is ideal for bigger game, like wild cattle and buffalo as well. This is particularly true for hunters who may only limited opportunity to hunt such big game, and may be using much heavier calibres than they are normally used to.
The number of hunters who can consistently shoot heavy calibres to their full accuracy potential at the range is a small group. In fact, for some folks, too much range practice with heavy calibres can be counterproductive; inducing bad habits such as flinching.
Obviously, your hunting rifle needs to be accurately sighted, and suitable loads developed, through the use of your local range. Having achieved that, most hunters would be advised to get their practice with lighter calibres, developing good habits with less vigorous rifles. This is clearly the case if you find that you do not particularly enjoy shooting your hunting rifles at the range.
It is well known that in hunting situations you do not notice the noise and recoil of the shot, even with big game rifles. However, sitting over a bench at the range, punching holes in paper, recoil is very apparent. So, unless you are a disciplined and practiced shooter, it is wise to practice mostly with lighter calibres and an ideal place to start that is with an air rifle.
useful information and stories for hunters everywhere – aussiehunter hunting practice with your air rifle