The Laws of a Rifleman

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When he came through the cabin door he looked pretty confused. He shrugged, started to say something but then stopped himself. He opened the bolt to his rifle and put it in the gun rack. He started to walk away, but turned and picked the rifle back up giving it a thorough inspection. After finding the rifle in fine shape he put it back in the rack, turned to everyone who happened to be in the cabin at the time and declared, "Well, I missed." It took the better part of 15 minutes for the laughter to stop at which point the dejected hunter was cooling off in 10 degree weather on the porch - with a little less shirt-tail of course.

When he finally came back in the cabin, he asked what was supposed to be a rhetorical question, "How could I have missed?" The best shot in camp asked back, "How much did you practice?" A long, awkward silence followed.

I don't think anyone does it on purpose; certainly not with any bad intentions. In fact if I had to wager money I'd bet it is simply the fact that time is a commodity in very short supply these days. Whatever the reason, it is amazing how many hunters sight their rifles in at the bench, head straight for the woods and then are surprised when they miss game. The fact that a rifle shoots well from the bench merely indicates that the rifle is shooting straight; this information proves nothing about the field readiness of the hunter. Those who can be considered true rifleman don't stop when the rifle is shooting well; in fact that is just the beginning.

True riflemen strive to fully understand their weapon, their scope and their ammunition. True riflemen allow for enough practice utilizing multiple shooting positions to ensure that no matter what situation presents itself in the field, the shot can be made. Every rifleman has his own recipe for success, but they all start with a basic foundation - a set of laws if you will. Following are 5 laws that will help a hunter better understand and more effectively use his rifle, and will initiate the quest to becoming a rifleman.

Law 5 - Focus your scope: Seem obvious? Not so fast. Most rifle hunters will focus their scope, if it "needs" it, when they sight their rifle in at the bench. This means that the scope is most likely focused at 100 yards. Sometimes this ok, sometimes it is not; it all depends on the design of the scope. One major manufacturer requires that the scope is pointed at the sky and the crosshairs are focused against an infinite background. Be sure to follow manufacturer's instructions on focusing the scope.


The author believes that the focus ring of a scope is the most overlooked
component of a hunting rifle. Following manufactures instructions for
focusing the scope can improve group size and build confidence.

What's the big deal? A scope that is not properly focused will undoubtedly have excessive parallax. Parallax is the perceived movement of an object in relation to the reticle. The reasons for parallax are complicated, but it has to do with the lenses in a scope and the relationship between the image of the object being aimed at and the scope reticle. (If you want to know more, 6mmBR.com has a great explanation).

Parallax will always be present in a scope without an adjustable objective, but if the scope is properly focused and shots are kept to 300 yards, the presence of parallax will not affect a shot at game. If, however, a scope is not properly focused parallax could be extreme enough to foul a shot.

Law 4 - Shoot with both eyes open: Our eyes are designed to focus on the same point at any given time. The fact that we have two eyes, each focusing on the same single point in space is what gives us depth perception. When we look through a scope, we are forcing our brain to focus through only one eye or the other. This is a difficult, and awkward, thing to do. As a result, most people just shut the eye that is not looking through the scope and pull the trigger.


Shooting with both eyes open is easy to learn and provides the shooter a
distinct advantage to closing one eye. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

Shutting one eye is certainly an option, but keeping both eyes open offers several advantages to the rifleman. First, shutting one eye for an extended period can make that eye blurry - not a good thing in low light conditions when trying to follow an animal after the shot. Second, if a hunter is able to focus through the scope eye and then switch and focus through the non-scope eye, he is able to watch the animal with the non-scope eye until the animal presents a shot, then switch to the scope eye and be ready to aim immediately. Lastly, if both eyes are open while shooting a hard recoiling rifle the switch from aiming eye to "game following eye" is immediate, giving the hunter a better opportunity to visually track game following the shot.

If you cannot naturally shoot with both eyes open then practice by looking through the scope on your rifle (no need to actually shoot). Start with an eye patch; this will help you get used to looking through the scope while physically keeping both eyes open. Then request help from a friend and have them hold something in front of the non-scope eye to block the vision (like a playing card). Once you've focused through the scope, have them remove the card and try to stay focused through the scope. If you lose it, have them put the card back, regain your focus, then remove the card again. It should only take a few practice sessions to master this skill. Once you can do it, you won't want to go back.

Law 3 - Understand Point Blank Range: Point blank range is the distance to which the hunter can aim at the center of the vital zone and be sure of a fatal hit. If we use whitetail deer for example and assume that we have a six in circle in the middle of the deer's chest that we are trying to hit; point blank range will be the distance at which we can aim at the center of the chest and the bullet will never be more then 3 inches higher or lower than the aiming point.

Using this technique allows a rifleman to take any thought of holdover out of the equation out to point blank range - and for most modern rifle cartridges maximum point blank range falls well within what most hunters will actually shoot. When a hunter knows the maximum point blank range for his ammunition, he only needs to determine if the target is within that range and then concentrate on making a center chest shot.

To effectively use this strategy a rifle must be zeroed with knowledge of the bullets trajectory. Simply zeroing the rifle at 100 yards will more than likely not take full advantage of the bullets flight path. To determine the bullets trajectory a rifleman will know the actual muzzle velocity (obtained by using a chronograph at the range), the ballistic coefficient of the bullet (obtained from the bullets manufacturers' web page) and will then use this information in a ballistics calculator to determine maximum point blank range. Ballistics calculators can be purchased through ammunition companies in the form of software to be loaded on a home computer, or by using free on-line versions. By using the ballistic coefficient and velocity of the bullet, and adjusting the zero distance in the ballistics calculator a shooter can determine the maximum point blank range of his ammunition.

The table below shows a comparison of maximum point blank range assuming a 6 inch vital area for 5 popular cartridges. You'll notice that magnums don't offer a tremendous amount in the way of extending maximum point blank range. The immensely powerful 300 RUM has a point blank range that just squeaks past the 300 yard mark. The 308 Win and 30/06 are just a few yards behind, and offer a much more pleasant shooting experience.

Table 1: Maximum Point Blank Range Comparison

Caliber 100 150 200 250 300 350 400
30/30 Win
170 grain RN
3 1.7 -2.4 -9.9 n/a n/a n/a
308 Win
180 grain NP
3 3.1 1.5 -1.9 -7.3 n/a n/a
30/06
180 grain NP
2.9 3.1 1.9 -1 -5.7 -12.2 n/a
300 WSM
180 grain NP
2.6 3.0 2.1 0 3.5 -8.6 n/a
300 Ultra Mag
200 grain NP
2.6 3.1 2.4 .5 -2.7 -7.2 n/a

   * NP = Nosler Partition

Law 2 - Use JUST Enough Gun: If 10 different hunters were asked to state their favorite hunting rifle; the answer would probably consist of 10 different calibers, 10 different makes and models of the rifle itself, and 10 different preferences on ammunition. Let's face it, when it comes to the hunting rifle, the only thing that really matters is the hunter's opinion.

I would suggest, however, that as a rule any given hunter will tend to shoot better as recoil and muzzle blast decrease. I know a lot of guys who are "crack-shots" with .22's. I also know that those same guys aren't quite as proficient with their pet .375 H&H. The reason is simple; there aren't many things more fun that plinking with a .22 and there aren't many things less fun than pulling the trigger on a heavy magnum.

Some guys like a big hammer, regardless of the size of the nail. Far be it from me to judge. I, however, take a more minimalist approach to caliber selection. I've learned over the years that though I can tolerate recoil and muzzle blast when I have to, I am much more comfortable shooting rifles that don't draw beads of sweat to my brow before I pull the trigger.

When choosing a caliber for a hunt, I make certain that I'll have a generally accepted energy minimum out to the maximum distance I plan to hunt the target game animal. For example, it is generally accepted that 1,000 foot pounds is a sensible minimum for whitetail deer. A 30/30 with a 150 grain round nose bullet will carry at least 1,000 foot pounds of energy out to about 150 yards. So if I'm planning to hunt whitetails in the big woods of my home state of West Virginia, then a 30/30 is just the ticket.

I apply this same thought process toward every hunt I go on. This doesn't mean I buy a new rifle each time I decide to go hunting - maybe someday. It simply means that I carefully evaluate the game animal I'm pursuing against the situation I'll be hunting in and then I pick a rifle out of the gun cabinet that will give me all I need, but no more.

Below are two tables. The first shows reasonable energy minimums for several popular North America big game animals, the second shows energy vs. distance for 5 popular 30 caliber cartridges. If we assume that 300 yards is the distance to which most hunters are capable rifleman, then the charts clearly indicate that magnums tend to carry energy to distances that most hunters are not likely to shoot. The result of all that energy is high levels of recoil and muzzle blast. The good news is that, most of the time anyway; a hunter need not endure undo punishment to ensure an appropriate level of power, plenty of range and an ethical harvest.

Table 2: Energy Minimums for Popular North American Game

Game Animal Energy Minimum (foot pounds)
Deer 1,000
Sheep/Goat 1,300
Black Bear 1,500
Elk/Moose 1,700
Brown/Grizzly Bear 2,500

Table 3: Energy vs. Distance for Popular .30 Caliber Cartridges

Caliber 100 Yards 200 Yards 300 Yards 400 Yards 500 yards
30/30 Win
170 grain RN
1350 990 720 535 424
308 Win
180 grain NP
2278 1957 1672 1420 1202
30/06
180 grain NP
2523 2174 1865 1591 1348
300 WSM
180 grain NP
3089 2680 2314 1989 1700
300 Ultra Mag
200 grain NP
3654 3181 2758 2380 2044

   * Actual values will depend on the ammunition and rifle used.


There is nothing that will improve a rifle hunter's field shooting more effectively
than practice away from the bench. Once the rifle is sighted in, the rifleman will
spend as much time as possible practicing from positions he's likely to encounter
in the field. Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.


Photo by Aundrea Humphreys.

Law 1 - Practice: It's been said before, it may even sound trite, but nothing will help a hunter be a better rifle shot than practice. Once a rifle is shooting as it needs to on the bench, it's time to throw the sandbags in the truck and leave them there. Spend some time at the range shooting in positions that are likely to be encountered in the field. Once my rifle is shooting well, I concentrate on three positions that I'm likely to encounter given my hunting style and locations: Tree stand, sitting with a rest and standing freehand.

The tree stand I use for rifle hunting has a built in shooting rail and is stable when on the ground. I put my tree stand on the ground at the range and shoot from it. Except for the elevation, it perfectly simulates my tree stand hunting situation and allows me to practice in exactly the environment I'll be hunting in. If your tree stand is stable enough to keep the exercise safe, I'd strongly suggest doing the same thing. If not, use a steady stool or seat that simulates your stand and shoot until you are comfortable.

I also practice in a sitting position using a bipod or tripod of some configuration. This is easily applied to the range, and provides extremely valuable practice. Logic would tell you that because you are using a rest the shooting is easy. I promise you the first time you sit down and aim at a target, especially beyond 150 yards; you'll quickly change your mind. A rest helps a ton, but the position still requires practice to gain confidence. When using bipods or shooting sticks use a back rest whenever possible, keep both feet flat on the ground, place the elbows on the knees for stability and support the butt of the rifle against the shoulder with the hand of the non-trigger arm.

Lastly, I practice standing freehand. Every rifle hunter will at some point in time find himself with a shot where sitting down is not an option and there is nothing to rest the rifle on while standing. Be sure to keep the elbow of the trigger arm at shoulder height and to keep the elbow of the non-trigger arm below the rifle and tucked tightly against the body.

Experimenting at different distances will help identify maximums for each position practiced by the shooter. There is clearly a direct link between the amount of practice, the maximum comfortable shooting distance for each position and the confidence of a hunter when shouldering a rifle in the field.

Becoming a rifleman is not just something you do; it is someone you endeavor to become. By understanding and applying certain rules and techniques, anyone willing to exhibit persistence and patience can join the fraternity of rifleman. Begin by learning and applying these 5 laws. A word of caution; the quest to becoming a rifleman is addictive. There is always more to learn, always the opportunity to shoot better and never enough time to apply learned lessons in the field. Once you start…


Doug Humphreys lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife Aundrea, his son Oren and daughter Amelia. Doug hunts as often as he can in as many places as he can get to and enjoys freelancing for hunting publications.

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