Learn to shrink your groups, improve your marksmanship and increase success by expanding your confidence.
I fondly remember the first time I saw a deer in the field. Granted, I’d seen deer my entire life by the side of the road or in the woods, just not like this. It was the first year I was with my now-wife, and I had been invited by my future father-in-law to come deer hunting. I was 19 or so, and it occurred to me that I’d never aimed a rifle at a deer when one came out. I started shaking almost immediately.
That day I was armed with the only deer-legal gun I had in my possession, a 1950s-era Sears & Roebuck .45 bore caplock that my great-uncle found still in the box at a barn sale. He gave it to me, and I refinished it. However, that day, in the fading light of a late September evening in southeastern Michigan, I watched a silent, reddish shape emerge from the tall grass behind my stand, and I couldn’t tell if my eyes were deceiving me.
My heart rate immediately went up, my palms sweaty and breath ragged. I lined up, distance unknown—perhaps 75 yards. I fired, and the deer was gone amidst the plume of smoke. I had just taken a shot at my first deer. After some initial tracking, we failed to locate it, and it was determined that I had missed clean.
In the 13 years since I’ve become a hunter, I seldom get a rush of adrenaline when I see a deer, mostly because I know what I’m looking at and the behavior of my game. I take them now with a .45 ACP 1911 if I can. My skill as a rifle shooter has improved, but then again, so has my confidence. I came to realize that the half-dozen years of shaky encounters were necessary for my steady hand today. The only way I could gain confidence was to go to the field and accept mistakes.
The Confidence Course
When I began, I never imagined being able to wait until a deer was within handgun range. I just lined up, fired and missed—sometimes it wasn’t even in that order. I was clumsy and consistently surprised when a deer would walk out. Their appearance and movements were ghostly to me; I was never ready. Confidence has been earned by failure.
Enter Two Hats Ranch and their Confidence Course. Two Hats is located in Michigan, and it’s both an idyllic venue for events, such as weddings, and a world-class shooting and hunting facility. Not only is there excellent deer hunting available on-site, the facility also boasts a 1,000-yard known-distance steel plate range and, of great interest, a completely unique unknown distance life-size game course.
This course is spread out all over the range. You could perhaps think of it as something similar to sporting clays or a walking shotgun course simulating gamebird hunting. Instead of simple clays, the Confidence Course puts the hunter through real-world scenarios using detailed true-to-scale bears, moose, elk and even wolf, among others. The animal replicas are scattered, and there are shots across wide spaces, downhill and uphill angles, close-distance encounters and multiple engagements.
The best part of this is that the animals have steel plates the same size as the vital zones, meaning you’ll be honing your skill using immediate feedback. This is a critical feature for building confidence in your gear; dialing or holding your dope is just part of it, other things like magnification setting and field of view come into play in ways that you just don’t get on a standard range. You get to know your gear in a way that not only shows you how well it performs but also weak points of your setup.
There are no benches or rests out there. You have to use the stability gear you bring, be it a sling, pack or even a tripod. Few hunters challenge themselves like this until they’re already aiming at that trophy elk—and that isn’t the time where you want to start trying new things.
The sobering thing about this course is the fact that the targets are life-size, and some shots are remarkably challenging and true to life, such as a deer laying down, antelope in deep grass and a massive elk hidden far back in the trees. On that shot I remember being told, “There’s an elk down there. Can you see him?”
I set up my tripod in the direction he was in and couldn’t see anything—until I saw the bone-colored rack and my eye followed to the body. He was much bigger than I thought. I told myself there was no way he was at 350-plus yards. He was too big; it had to be like 200. It was a telling moment for me, having such an eye for deer. I was intimidated by the size of the elk, and it put me, at least for a blink, back in that state of surprise when that first deer popped out all those years ago. It was much different than in my imagination.
If you’ve got your ideal rifle and gear, put it to the test prior to a hunt. I’ve made changes after completing this course. This place offers a consequence-free environment to make these changes. Missing a 430-yard shot on a fake moose is better than a 430-yard botched shot on a real one. We all make mistakes, and at least in this case you can learn from them without adrenaline pumping.
From Support Comes Stability…And Confidence
I fired two custom Tuebor Precision 6.5 Creedmoor bolt actions that I used on the course, both firing Federal 130-grain Match loaded with Berger bullets. My rifles were well-suited to this situation, and I shot the course improvising with a Short Action Precision sling or a tripod from Two Vets Sporting Goods.
Two Vets makes some of the best tripods for rifle shooting that I’ve used in my years of hunting and precision rifle work. My guns are set up for a fast-release ARCA dovetail, and I’ve transitioned all my main rifles over to use this mounting system. For rifles without ARCA rails, I use the original saddle-style mount from Saddle Mount Dude. This is a clamp-style used with any rifle. ARCA takes longer to set up but is more precise; however, the clamp-style is substantially faster to get into action.
The Two Vets “The Kit” tripod is a work of art and can be deployed in virtually any terrain; it can lay so flat you can shoot from prone. This is great due to the fact that you can run the legs all the way out and actually bridge terrain features, thus creating a “benchrest” in the field.
The main use of the tripod is seeing over terrain and foliage. When I first began hunting, I was stupefied by the fact that I had to stand there braced against a tree in order to see over stubble corn and leftover beans. I have, to date, made exactly one prone shot deer hunting. I made a 500-yard stalk in a low gully to avoid being seen and went prone in the snow at the top of the ridge to make my shot. The number of shots I made upright with or without tripod is more than I can remember now.
Carbon fiber tripods like The Kit are becoming more common in the field, but I haven’t seen much schooling on their use beyond basic theory. The modern field tripod may very well be the greatest hunting accessory to date, and I’m a strong advocate of their use, especially if you have time to set up a strong position.
Slings have also come a long way from a basic strap. Every single one of my rifles has its own, and my view of slings is that they’re a crucial part of the rifle—not an afterthought. Think of a good sling as a multi-tool that can be used to create a stable position in a bind.
I don’t think that a sling should be your long-term primary support to replace a bipod or tripod. It’s best treated as a backup option should you find yourself unable to get into a good position for a shot. The ability of the SAP sling to be cinched down like a tow strap is the main feature I like it for. This sling was originally designed for PRS matches and the like, but as a hunting sling, it’s just about peerless. The loop feature is meant to be something of a quick-cuff; when placed around the upper bicep of the support arm it can be pulled tight and you can brace against the rifle.
Neither a tripod nor a sling will make snap-shooting faster. I recommend leaving the tripod in front of you in the direction game will most likely originate. You’ve realistically got about 90 degrees from your position in which to pan a mounted rifle, a narrow window if you’re in the middle edge of a field with 180 degrees of view ahead of you.
If game comes over your weak shoulder, you’ll want to get your sling in action or keep your eye on the game as it enters your field of fire while on the tripod. You just never know what’ll happen, so I hedge my bets against the most likely circumstance and keep in mind a plan for the less likely option.
The best-laid plans…well, you know.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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