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Last updated: Saturday, July 31, 2004
Summer is time to sharpen skills for fall hunting
Several options enable success

Along with work and unending yard care chores, I manage to fit in a good bit of fishing. Among regular trout brooks and lakes around home, I make an occasional jaunt to Quebec or New Brunswick for Atlantic salmon, drive to the coast for stripers and blue fish and haul a boat to central Maine for small- and largemouth bass. Come mid-July however, I begin to get antsy for the smell of gun powder and the feel of a favorite firearm, and that's when I begin my summer shooting schedule.

I don't want to wish time away, especially warm weather, but September is fast approaching, and with it comes bear hunting, native goose season and the early moose hunt. Close behind will be October and November, with more than a dozen archery and gun seasons, and if a sportsman hasn't fired a favorite firearm or bow since last autumn, it's a disservice to his ability, the game animal and the sport in general. I make a concentrated effort to do a bit of shooting, for an hour at least once a week, during late July and all of August. I meet a lot of other outdoorsmen at the range and skeet field enjoying the same practice regimen. I highly recommend practice for all hunters. Summer shooting sharpens skills that will come into play in a few short weeks.

Plinking practice

Growing up I learned about gun handling, firearm safety, shooting technique and hunting tactics under close scrutiny at my Dad's side. My first true hunting experience took place at the local dump, where I did my best each Sunday to reduce the local rat population. Open town dumps with rats large and brazen enough to give an alley cat the jitters are things of the past, but I still own that Springfield Stevens model 87A, tube fed semi auto .22 rifle. Each summer I burn through a couple of boxes of shells punching holes in paper and knocking tin cans off logs.

Shouldering, sighting, breath control and trigger squeeze encompass the same dependable shooting techniques for a .22 or a .270, and if a gunner becomes proficient on inanimate targets, unless buck fever sets in, the very same form will work on big- and small-game animals. Marksmanship is a product of practice, not heredity.

One of the main benefits to plinking practice with a .22 is saving money. For the price of a 20-pack of hunting rifle cartridges, a shooter can buy a bucket of .22 shells. Then there's the matter of being able to shoot dozens of rounds of plinking ammo without the abusive recoil of a high-power rifle. Finally, it's a lot easier to find a spot to practice with a .22 than with a big bore gun. Many folks don't have a recognized shooting range nearby, but a neighborhood gravel pit or a family owned farm field with a safe backdrop is generally available. If you don't own the land, be sure to ask permission to shoot there, be safety conscious about exactly where and how you practice, and be sure to pick up and pack out any rubbish or litter from the shoot.

Since I do a good deal of handgun hunting, my summer practice sessions often include a .22 revolver and pistol, as well as my.22 long gun. I can't stress enough how important it is to practice shooting from several positions. Bench-rest gunning is fine for sighting in, but often there is no fence post or tree limb to steady a gun when afield, and generally no time to look for a suitable rifle rest. For this reason it's crucial to have gained comfort off hand, sitting, prone and kneeling, so employ various postures during each plinking session.

Scattergun games

Makes no difference if you're a waterfowl enthusiast or upland birds are your main quarry, weekly visits to the skeet or trap range will improve every gunner's birds-in- the-bag average. Performance improves with repetition, and shattering fast flying clay discs on a regular basis is great practice. A few Maine shooting clubs even have sporting clay courses set up, and these set forth a variety of shooting situations that mimic realism to provide a true challenge for gunners.

Some sporting clay setups are of the five-stand variety where stationary shooters are partially encompassed by a barricade that limits gun swing and mobility. Targets fly away, toward and across the sight field from several angles in singles and doubles, and a few even bounce across the ground like a fast fleeing rabbit. A limited number of regional courses are expertly designed to allow the sportsman to walk a set trail through woods and thick brush, from which hidden, well- placed machines launch targets simulating realistic bird flushes. Periodic visits to such courses will really sharpen shooting skills.

Although most remote towns and villages won't have organized skeet ranges or sporting clay courses, that doesn't preclude shotgunners from blasting a few birds. The more secluded your area the easier it is to find a local pasture to toss about some clay birds with a mechanical thrower, hand thrower or just by arm power. Once in awhile when no one else has time to join me, I'll go out back into the field behind my rural house and toss birds for myself. When you can hold a shotgun in your off hand, fling two clay targets hard and far with your good arm, then alter grip, shoulder the gun, and break both targets before they hit the ground you're probably ready for real feathers.

As a final preseason preparation, the close to wild bird experience of hunting pheasant, quail or chukka partridge at a commercial shooting reserve is very beneficial. There are several top quality feather farms throughout Maine and driving an hour or so for a few hours afield will be rewarding. Besides the actual shooting practice and some great game bird tableware, it's a good chance to get some physical conditioning for your bird dog and yourself.

Indoor options

Occasionally inclement weather or family commitments curtail weekend options to get out and about to fire a few practice rounds. Don't throw in the towel and postpone shooting for another time, take a half hour and do a bit of inside training. In a wide open room or garage, rehearse raising, mounting and sighting your favorite rifle, handgun, shotgun or bow from various positions. If someone will help, give them a narrow beam flashlight and let them randomly shine a spot on the wall anywhere in a 180-degree arc. Shouldering and sighting on the target in a smooth manner is the goal. Actually pulling the trigger is recommended, but be sure to invest in a snap-cap, a fake plastic cartridge, to prevent damage to the gun's firing mechanism.

If you're by yourself, select a light, wall ornament, or other target, close your eyes, make a slow 360-degree circle. Then open your eyes, locate the selected target and bring the gun to bear as quickly and smoothly as possible. It's not as simple as it sounds. Sportsmen who are really practice oriented can purchase barrel inserts for most guns that will shoot a laser beam onto a target. These are great fun and particularly valuable during a long winter.

My favorite indoor option for practice involves a multi-target metal backstop and a pellet gun. Paper targets on a cardboard box stuffed with paper or cloth will also work, and allows a bit of family competition during the evenings if there's enough space in the basement or garage. Any style of shooting practice, no matter how simple, will contribute to better performance and shooting comfort afield.

Range ready

When summer practice sessions wind down and big-game season is nigh, it's time to make final adjustments at the target range. No more plinking and indoor drills, gun-handling skills have been fine tuned, now it's time to make sure the weapon of choice shoots where it's aimed. Bench-rest shooting of the handgun, rifle or black powder gun at set yardages is the only sure way to pinpoint accuracy.

New guns may take a dozen or more rounds to assure a satisfactory three-shot group, but an old favorite that hasn't been dropped or unduly jarred shouldn't require more than 3 to 6 shots. While paper targets will serve the purpose for firearms, bow hunters will be best served by shooting at full body foam replicas of their chosen quarry.

Once a gun is on target from the bench, fire a couple of shots off hand at 100 yards to test your steadiness and marksmanship. Nothing inspires good shooting like hunter confidence. Once the shooter and firearm are tuned in, distance becomes the only major variable to deal with, and that's just a matter of sight adjustment.

Few occurrences are more discouraging and frustrating to a sportsman than wounding an animal due to poor shooting. Even missing a shot completely is preferable. Put down the fishing rod and pick up a firearm once in awhile this summer, and your hunting comfort, confidence and success levels will all benefit this fall.

Outdoor feature writer Bill Graves can be reached via e-mail at

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