This week I would like to touch on two items; first a quick word about an upcoming airgunning competition being held in Southern Arizona, where shooters from the USA and Europe will vie for bragging rights and prizes for long range shooting! Second, I’d like to take a look at one of the most useful pieces of adjunct gear an airgun hunter can carry into the field …. shooting sticks.
There’s a lot going on right now, small game seasons are opening, predators are starting to get more active, and deer season is right around the bend…. but one of the things I’m also getting pretty excited about is the upcoming Extreme Benchrest Competition which is going to be held a few miles south of Tuscon. The weekend of November 10-11 will find me leaving the Midwestern chill for the southern Arizona sun, and some great airgunning action with competitors from all over the world.
The shooting will take place at 75 yards and any gun of any caliber can be used. Now I shoot a lot of varmint out at 100 yards, but I don’t know how well I’d do at printing tiny groups off a rest. I’m really interested to see what guns show up on the line. Last year I shot a long range bigbore competition in Texas that was going out to 300 yards, and out of all the guns ranging up to .50 caliber, it was a .257 that carried the day. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a .22 or .25 to do well in this competition ….. but maybe one of the new .303’s? There will be over $10,000 in prizes awarded, with some truly great guns and gear going to the winners and participants.
Airguns are capable of reaching out a lot further than many think possible, and many are exceedingly accurate. However, because the projectiles are very light weight and slow moving (when compared to firearms) they are much more influenced by environmental conditions. The shooter that beats the field at this event will have their guns fine-tuned and appropriately sighted in for longer ranges, and have their shooting technique refined, but moreover be able to deal with the wind and making on the fly adjustments.
Besides the competitors, there will be senior staff from many of the American and European airgun equipment manufacturers in attendance, so it will be an opportunity to meet and talk with the people that develop the products we use. Unless you go to the SHOT Show or IWA it’s unusual that you have an opportunity to meet these folks in one place, and never in such a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. I look forward to meeting and catching up with the competitors, attendees, company representatives, and other member of the media attending, this is going to be a blast!
I think that shooting offhand is one of the fundamental skills any hunter needs to develop, and work to maintain. I have a small indoor range in the basement of my house, and almost every day that I am at home I spend a few minutes shooting from standing, kneeling, and sitting positions without any external support. There are times in the field when these are the only shots available, especially for spot and stalk style hunts. I was a better offhand shooter in my youth, I was stronger, steadier, and spent a lot more time every day with my rifle in hand. I still shoot well enough offhand and don’t hesitate if this is the shot I need to take.
However, when given time and choice I prefer to shoot off sticks. I had never used them much until several years ago while getting ready for a hunt in South Africa, the PH I was hunting with told me to practice off sticks before our hunt started. I was really impressed how tight my groups became and how dramatically long range shooting improved. This is especially useful when hunting small game with an air rifle because the kill zone is small and shot placement critical. I’ll still shoot a squirrel sitting in a tree 30 yards away offhand, but if the shot stretches out to 55-60 yards I want sticks. Of course you can always rest or brace against a natural object, a tree trunk or rock, but sticks are always there when you need them. This is even more the case when shooting in the wide open spaces such as on a prairie dog shoot where naturally occurring rests are far and few between.
I prefer shooting sticks over stock mounted bipods because they are easier to use under a variety of conditions, are out of the way when you don’t need/want them, and adapt to multiple shooting positions. I have used monopod, bipod, and tripod sticks and all have pros and cons: the mono is the fastest to deploy and most flexible, but least steady. Bipods are much steadier, are not as fast to deploy or move around but still fairly maneuverable, and there are some compact versions. Tripods are the most steady, but the slowest to set up, the most unwieldy when a shift or change in position is required, and generally the bulkiest. I have settled on the bipod for several reasons; I like how fast I can deploy the sticks I carry, I can turn and move around with little commotion, and with technique you can get a rock solid hold. Sometimes I’ll go with a tripod if we’ll be fairly stationary and my shots will be especially long.
The other thing that I want is a rest for the rifle that is easy to mount the gun in, that grips and protects the stock, and let’s me rotate and make adjustments with minimal fuss. The height also needs to be adjustable for the three main shooting positions, standing, kneeling, and sitting. If shooting prone I prefer to simply use my backpack, though if this will be my primary shooting position is one of the few times I prefer a bipod for field work. The most common method of adjusting the height are mutlipiece legs locked into place with integrated clamps, though some use a grip release. These are very fast to deploy, the only problem is most that I have tried don’t pack down very compactly. In the end the stick that has become my favorite is the Gorilla bipod, which is a heavy duty, solid bipod that I can put my weight on and lock down steadily.
What I really like with these Gorilla sticks is that I can use them as they were intended and move them about, but if I’m set up to shoot squirrels high up in the trees but one pops up on the ground, I just slide my hand down a leg and brace the gun. This allows me to cover a wide arc with any vertical adjustments that might be required. With some of my light weight sticks this is not as easy nor effective.
Again, I am not in any way implying you shouldn’t practice and take offhand shots, but if you have the time and situation that allows the use of sticks, unless you are one a truly excellent offhand shots, you will achieve better shot placement and more game in the bag with them than without.