Tips & Hints for November 2012

Airgun Rifle Craft by Ian Barnett

Airgun Rifle Craft by Ian Barnett

20 November 2012

Airgun Riflecraft

Accurate air rifle shooting can seem an intimidating prospect for the beginner. The recipe for success includes type of gun, power, ammo, sight system and conditions...to name but a few. The most crucial ingredient is your willingness to learn how to adapt to this efficient and silent hunting tool. I’m going to discuss the subject in terms of my preferred gun - the sub-12 ft/lb, legal limit air rifle. The disciplines, whatever the gun, are generic. To shoot at live quarry (from a moral standpoint) means mastering these disciplines. This article summarises how I approach teaching newcomers.

 

The Rifle and Accessories

I always advocate following a well-trodden path and (initially) learning your craft using a spring-powered gun. The skills you will develop mastering a recoiling, single shot rifle will stay with you for life. Moving on to a pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) can come when you’ve learned to shoot consistently. Use a scope...a telescopic sight. It is hard to excuse the use of open sights on live quarry. Just look down the barrel of an un-scoped rifle at a rabbit browsing 30 yards away and try to hold a bead on its eye. Try the same exercise with a scope set at 6x magnification and you will realize why most airgunners fit a scope. Advances in airgun technology have made the pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) rifle accessible to most shooters at a reasonable price. The lack of recoil removes one control component, which in itself immediately improves your accuracy.  Sure, you need a regular source of air but the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience.

So I use a multi-shot PCP with a quality scope. But I regularly revert back to practice with a single-shot “springer”. Just to keep my shooting skills at their peak. One of the most important aspects in improving accuracy is to invest in a quality scope with a graded reticule. I happen to use Hawke SR6 models and they have allowed me to push the boundaries of my shooting...with constant practice.

 

Zeroing a Scope

Initial zeroing on a newly fitted scope is absolutely essential. Your scope manufacturer will include instructions. Make sure you follow them closely. Try to ensure you have windless conditions and good light. I usually set zero at 30 yards for a .22 rifle and 35 yards for a .177 gun. Start with a large piece of cardboard, marked with a small cross in the middle and adjust until you’re striking within a two inch circle. Fine-tune on a 30mm metal spinner. When you can rattle that around with every shot, you’ve found zero. Lock down the turrets. I don’t use a bench-rest because I don’t hunt from one. My usual stance is on one knee, so I set zero from this stance. How often should you check zero? Before every single hunting session. Respect for quarry.  It takes moments, simply set a stone or pine cone on a post or wall at your zero distance and shoot it. Minor zero shift is common, even on quality scopes, for various reasons. Slight knocks, gun cleaning and maintenance, temperature variations can all cause small shifts. Double-check before you hunt. Usually no change is needed but you may need to adjust by a click or two to get back on target.


Holding the Rifle

The spring gun relies on its recoil to direct the pellet so make sure you’re not stifling the action with too secure a grip. The rifle butt should sit gently in your shoulder with an almost imperceptible layer of air between the butt and you. There should be enough relaxation in that shoulder muscle to cushion the recoil. Never rest a springer on a support such as a branch or fence-post. It will kick off-target due to the recoil.

The PCP should be held in the same way, firm but relaxed. It can, however, sit firmer into the shoulder and the forestock can be rested on any suitable support. Note I said forestock, not the barrel or silencer! These are usually free floating and can be damaged easily. Try to avoid holding the gun in the firing position for prolonged periods. The muscles will tire and tremble, making it harder to maintain a bead on the target at the crucial time.


Stance

I always try to use the kneeling shot. It’s the steadiest position to drop into. The knee on my trigger hand side will be on the ground, the other knee up. The arm supporting the forestock is propped just behind the upright knee. The elbow rests in the soft flesh of the thigh...not on the kneecap where it will shake and rock. The other common position is the standing stance. Hunting shots are often opportunistic and balancing a weighty, scoped-up rifle stock-steady for the 5 seconds or less you need to acquire your target and fire needs practice. I’m right-handed so reverse the following if you’re a leftie. The shot-gunner trying to quickly acquire target needs to transfer weight onto the leading foot to allow hip rotation as they are following a moving target. The air-gunner (I hope) is looking at a static target. I like to feel the weight of the rifle bearing down through the centre of my body. My feet are shoulder width apart. My chest is facing 45 degrees to the right of my target, so the gun is aligned over both feet. The weight is central. Try it. Give yourself 5 seconds to squeeze the trigger. If you transfer the weight to the leading foot, you will wobble. Ease back so that the weight is central again and you will steady again. Now, sight a target higher up (perhaps a roof or a tree). Your weight will naturally shift to the back foot as your guns centre of gravity shifts. Practise all the most common shooting stances and your quarry count will increase.


Breathing Control and Follow Through

There are two schools of thought on this one. Trigger release either on the inhale or the exhale? I use exhale. I draw a deep breath as I line up the cross-hair, release my breath gently, hold and shoot. I don’t often get it wrong. The important thing (which comes with experience) is to stop the shot, relax and start again if you need to draw breath.

Follow through means keeping your eye in the scope throughout the shot, watching the pellet until it hits the target. If you ignore this and anticipate that you’ve hit the quarry then you will start to lift your head as the pellet is exiting the gun. You will miss (or worse still injure) your quarry. Follow the pellet in your mind. Watch the impact through the scope before you even think of moving. It’s a millisecond of discipline which guarantees that the pellet exits the muzzle with no disruption. This is an important factor with either PCP or springer accuracy.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Test yourself at different targets, ranges and stances in differing conditions. Go shoot at targets in a cross-breeze. Try shooting elevations (I love picking off conker shells in autumn or shooting at May blossom in spring). On the level, shoot the heads off dandelions or thistles. Place a stone on that fence-post as you set off to shoot. Pace 30 yards, wheel around, drop to one knee and shoot it. Teach yourself a 5 second discipline, from sight to shot. Carry a couple of small potatoes in your bag and spike them on a stick poked in the ground. Pace away 20 yards, turn and shoot one. Learning how to undershoot is as important as hitting the target at zero range. Pace away another 20 yards. Your remaining potato is now at 40 yards. Test yourself. If you miss, remember this when you see a real rabbit at 40 yards. Are you good enough?


Range Estimation

Pace out a yard then learn to judge everything in paces. When I walk my lurcher I play a game. How many paces to that post-box? How far to the next lamp-post? What distance is that street sign? On your permission, make a note of landmarks and pace the distances as you pass them. Take a potato, the size of a rabbits head, in your pocket. Pop it on a fence post. Pace 30 yards and take a mental fix on how big it looks. Try this at 35 and 40 paces. Shoot it! Check out the boundaries on your shoot. Farmers rarely place fence posts randomly. On my land, they’re usually every 5 yards. I can sit at a gate and look along the fence. That rabbit is about 5 posts along, so 25 yards. Mark out your ranges from ambush or hide positions using sticks. Set them at 20,25,30,35 yards to help you judge distance to quarry.


Buck Fever

This often occurs with new shooters but still sometimes happens with experienced hunters. You achieve that high level of accuracy on the practice range but as soon as you’re faced with a live target, all the discipline goes out of the window and you fluff the shot. It’s a bit like a golfers “yips”...you forget everything you’ve learned, under pressure, so rush the shot. This is simply cured. Just imagine the live target is a static one. Ignore the fact that it might run off. It doesn’t matter if you don’t take the shot. Many times, when I’ve suffered from buck fever (which even I suffer if I haven’t shot live quarry for a period), I’ve knelt looking through the scope, getting the technique right, just to whisper “Bang!”. The pro golfer will take a few dummy putts at thin air, then step up and sink the putt. This is exactly the same.


Essential Kit

Every airgun hunter will need at least two crucial pieces of kit with them in the field beside the rifle and its ammunition. One is a game bag, the other is a sharp and reliable knife. Everything else is a luxury. Decoys, gun slips, hand-warmers, etc. will all be accumulated once you’ve learnt the basics. All will enhance the experience of hunting and add options but none are as essential as experience itself.


Clothing

Hunting is about stealth, silence and concealment. The clothing you choose needs to be rustle-free for close range ambushing. It needs to be comfortable too, keeping you warm in winter or cool in summer. You may need to vary tone and colour according to your environment or the season. For most air-gunners, cost will be a factor too. I’ve bought many Jack Pyke products over the years, ever since they were conceived, for all the reasons mentioned above. Quality, value for money gear designed around the British woods and fields in which I hunt. There is one ‘must-have’ item for the hunter who (like me) is lacking a bit in the scalp area. A hat - in winter or summer. The Jack Pyke Stealth range is superb. Baseball cap for summer or bright light and the fleece bob hat for winter.

Ian Barnett

Author of The Airgun Hunters Year & Airgun Fieldcraft

November 2012