October 25th, 2012
Long Distance Hunting with John Nosler

By John Nosler, as told to Gary Lewis

Early in the morning we skirted the edge of a grain field and waited for the fog to lift. With my field glasses, I spotted a deer on the far side, a blacktail prospecting for uncut shoots and fallen seed heads. While we watched, the buck moved closer to the timber. In a few moments, he’d be out of sight.

500 yards away, I guessed it.

I said, “I’m going to shoot that buck.”

Sitting down, I wedged my elbows into my knees and pulled the gun into my shoulder. The deer, turned head-on now, was almost 30 inches below my crosshair. There was little wind to worry about. At 500 yards, the bullet should drop 36 inches. I took the slack out of the trigger and rocked with the recoil. Away out across the field, the buck went flat. The bullet had taken him in the neck.

There was a time when, right before deer season, you’d pick up a magazine and it would be all about whitetail hunting. There’d be tactics for driving deer from bedding cover and strategies for setting tree stands to ambush bucks on the move. Shots were taken at close range, in most cases well below 100 yards. It was all very interesting, but for me, living out West, food plots, woodlots and ‘back 40′ tactics didn’t apply. In fact, in all my years of hunting, I never did shoot a whitetail. Not one. Not even by mistake.

There were plenty of mule deer and blacktails though. In the open country where we hunt, it is possible to spot deer a long ways out. If the wind is right, we’ll plan a stalk and get as close as possible. But sometimes we’ll take a long shot.

When I was growing up – we lived on farms outside of Los Angeles –I used to shoot rabbits and skunks with my .22. Bullets cost about 50 cents a box then – a penny a piece. I scraped the money together or traded something away when I needed more. And I always needed more.

When I got a little older, I wanted to hunt deer, so I traded a set of Ford connecting rods for a Winchester Model 94 .25-35. I never had much fun with that rifle. There were a few deer in southern California, but they were darn scarce.

After I’d moved to Oregon in the 1930s and started hauling produce I decided to get myself a gun I could depend on. One of the fuel stations was running a promotion. I’d bought so much gasoline for my trucks they gave me a new lever-action .30-30. I carried it in my truck when I went back and forth over the mountains during deer season. That was the first accurate big game rifle I’d owned, but it left something to be desired.

Room for Improvement

If you shoot very much, you soon get better than your gun. After the trucking business began to grow, I spent a lot of evenings shooting in competition at our local gun clubs in Ashland and Medford, Oregon. It wasn’t long before I decided I needed better accuracy at long range.

The .270 Winchester seemed like the answer and soon I had one and topped it with a Lyman Alaskan scope. I bought a Winchester Model 70 in .300 H&H Magnum in 1942 and used it to hunt moose.

For me, target shooting was the key to long-range accuracy. We shot .22 rimfires all winter long. My favorite contests were the four-position matches. We’d shoot prone, sitting, kneeling and off-hand. Indoors, the targets were at 50 feet and the X dot was very small. You learned to breathe, relax, aim, take up the slack, and squeeze and do it the same way time after time. That last bit of trigger squeeze is where most shooters make their mistakes. That shot must come almost by surprise.

Later, after many rounds are fired, the hammer will strike the primer at the exact moment you expect it to, and you’ll absorb the recoil and follow-through consistently, shot after shot. And there will be no more surprises, as the bullets stack up in ragged, one-hole and clover-leaf groups.

Consistency Counts

No matter whether we shot our .22s or our big game guns, the set-up for the shot, the breathing routine and the trigger squeeze were the same. We shot so much that we knew how we were going to do before the scores were counted. I think my weakest stage was the kneeling position. If a person could kneel and recline on the back foot, laid almost flat on the ground, that shooter would always do better than the rest of the field.

I preferred a sitting position, whether I was shooting the 1000-yard range at Camp White in Medford, or holding the crosshairs on a mule deer in the Steens Mountains. For me the sitting position was rock solid. Bipods and shooting sticks are nice, but in the mountains I wouldn’t carry the darn things. With my elbows anchored on my knees and my rear end on the ground, I could make that bullet go right where I wanted.

But not all guns are created equal, not even ones that share the same model numbers. It’s just too hard to drill a 28-inch hole in a piece of steel and keep it perfectly straight all the way down and control the variables of harmonics, stock pressure and trigger. Some rifles just aren’t capable of producing one-inch accuracy, but most shooters are. With time spent behind the gun.

A good shooter can outperform his barrel. If you’re able to hold well and control your trigger squeeze, you’re capable of keeping the bullets in a half-inch and there are damn few guns that can do that.

Back when we were target shooting, we traded guns until we had one that would shoot as well as we thought possible. There were always a few guns that were capable of tack-driving accuracy. You just had to keep trying until you found one.

Elusive Accuracy

Today’s rifles are far better than the guns available when I was target shooting back in the 1940s and ’50s, but accuracy is still a result of time spent on the range.

When the distance is 100 yards or greater, the opportunity for error is magnified. The average hunter is capable of accurate shooting at 300 yards or better, but he is irresponsible if he considers taking the shot without the experience afforded by hours of practice.

With a little work, a rifle can shoot very well, but more important than the dollars and time that go into a tool made of walnut and blued steel (or synthetics and stainless) is the time a shooter spends in practice. Join a local range and shoot whenever you have the chance. Competition hones skills better than anything else.

But there’s big game style target practice opportunity on small game as well. Out on the wide-open plains, prairie dogs, rockchucks and ground squirrels tunnel and excavate the landscape. Practice stalks with the wind in your face and read the mirage and grass bending in the scope to calculate range and windage at the extreme reaches of your ability.

Out at 300 yards and beyond, a miss is signaled by a geyser of dirt and a critter with grit in his eyes, scampering for a hole. Make the shot and you’re on your way to accuracy that you’ve only dreamed of. A level of accuracy that pays off late in the season when there’s a buck at the edge of the timber and no time to make the stalk.

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