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Timed Shooting And The Big Game Hunter

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By John M. Buol Jr.

Anyone with a brain realizes hunters need at least a basic level of marksmanship competence. Despite the fact that organized conservation hunting has been conducted in this country for over a century and hunter safety programs have been proffered for over six decades, there still are no established minimum standards of performance. However, anyone who has hunted realizes that traditional “square range” courses and qualifications ignore several facets of this skill set. One of the facets that has been consistently overlooked in the field marksmanship equation is time.

Many hunters never look at hunting as being timed but it is. The hunter has to shoot when the target is available and can’t at any other time. If a deer decides to stand behind a tree, rock, heavy brush or just not show up at all, there is no shot. When a shot is presented the hunter has until the animal decides to move. Wait too long and the chance is gone.

Sure it's an easy shot...... until you're worried he'll bolt. Time plays a factor in field shooting. A timer is as useful as the target in evaluating field shooting. You need to know where and when shots went.
Sure it’s an easy shot…… until you’re worried he’ll bolt. Time plays a factor in field shooting. A timer is as useful as the target in evaluating field shooting. You need to know where and when shots went.

Like it or not, all shots taken afield factor in elapsed time. A more accurate way to describe this: Hunting is reaction shooting. Bill Rogers, a national level shooting competitor and marksmanship instructor has established a distinction between shooting situations that he refers to as Precision versus Reaction shooting. Rogers’ definition of Precision shooting is a situation where the time limit is controlled by the shooter while Reaction shooting means the time limit is controlled by the target.

Shooting at a target on the range is often Precision shooting. Consider a sighting-in exercise. The shooter squirms and adjusts, taking the shot when they are ready. The target isn’t going anywhere. Even some forms of organized shooting that enforce time limits are Precision shooting. For example, Benchrest, Silhouette, Smallbore, and the slow fire portions of High Power all have defined time limits but the shooter has enough time to pick their shots. Adjusting the position, taking a new approach, or making a second (or third) attempt before finally touching off the shot isn’t penalized because there is plenty of time and, again, the target isn’t going anywhere.

Snipers work on timed drills because sometimes an accurate shot has to be delivered quickly. Real world marksmanship involves reaction shooting. The time limit is controlled by the target, not you.

With Reaction shooting the marksman doesn’t have this luxury. The target can appear and then disappear at any time. For a given moment, the hunter-shooter is presented with a shoot opportunity. Take it or leave it. Reaction shooting doesn’t necessarily require blazing speed. The length of the moment can vary enormously. The key difference is that the shooter has no control over what the target does or doesn’t do. Eventually, the shot opportunity will be gone. It’s just a question of when.

It is possible to luck out and spot a buck standing broadside totally oblivious, providing plenty of time. Even a gift like this is still a Reaction shot. “Stationary” animals are usually in motion and don’t have to actively try to avoid a hunter. The simple act of fidgeting or grazing for food can cause a lost opportunity. The hunter must pick a spot and shoot when a chance opens or pass it up. Dawdle too long and the animal can just as easily decide to leave.

On The Range

How can we make this work on the range? The ideal practice target would act and react just like a big game animal, moving and pausing at random and running away if spooked. Even if such a target could be built it would be prohibitively expensive. That means we’re stuck with our inanimate standbys made of cardboard and steel.

One way to simulate the stress of a Reaction shot is by enforcing a time limit. This forces the participant to ready their gear and shoot within the specified time limit or suffer a penalty to their score. Bullseye pistol and High Power, which are based on old military range exercises, enforce time limits. Military and police qualifications usually have time limits as well.

Slow fire from position develops precision shooting. This is needed to have usable skills in reaction or field shooting.

Anyone who has ever had to perform under the pressure of a ticking clock knows it can play tricks on the mind. Simple tasks become increasingly difficult. One of the most infamous results of buck fever, running a magazine of ammo through the action without firing a shot, isn’t caused because pulling a trigger is a particularly difficult task. Similarly, hitting a deer-sized target in the vitals at typical hunting distances is within the grasp of even mediocre riflemen with basic factory-issue equipment. Yet, authorities estimate as many as three out of four shots taken at big game fail to score a hit to the vitals. Perceived time factors and excitement make all the difference.

The problem with time limits is that it is all but impossible to pick a time that is generous enough for novice shooters but sufficiently challenging for the experienced. The “answer” for military and police establishments is to set the limits for the lowest common denominator, which is one reason why shooters trained only in the public sector are often quite poor.

In the private sector, especially competition, the answer is to make the target smaller as participants improve. For the novice, the challenge is to get their shots off in time and keep them somewhere on the target. The objective for the experienced shooter is to “clean” that same target and earn a perfect numerical score. This is better than accepting mediocrity but it still isn’t the answer. A time limit that challenges an expert is overly restrictive for the novice, forcing them to shoot faster than they are capable of maintaining sufficient accuracy in order to make “The Time.” This shouldn’t be encouraged.

In the field, the time is controlled by the target because it can physically leave. We can effectively simulate this on the range by having the time controlled by the clock.

The method to mastering a course with a set time is to establish a shooting rhythm. Consider 200-yard Sitting Rapid in High Power. The participant is given 60 seconds to assume a sling-supported Sit and fire 10 shots, with a reload. Why ten shots? Why sixty seconds? Why the Sitting position? Why 200 yards? Because that’s what the rulebook says. True, this is an effective drill and developing the skill to earn a good score on a course like this will make you a far better rifleman than most hunters but practicing to master an artificial time limit isn’t the solution. The skilled competitor will get a feel for the course and shoot rhythmically, taking as much time as allowed by the rulebook. He may as well take all the time allotted because there is no bonus for going faster.

What we really need is to teach hunter-shooters how to balance their speed and accuracy based on the conditions. A course shouldn’t dictate that a given target at a given range should always be engaged in a specific length of time because there are other factors to consider. For example, in High Power you get 60 seconds for 10 shots at 200 yards, and 70 seconds at 300. Given that the target’s score zones are identical, the 300-yard target presents more difficulty but there is no basis for this ratio of time and distance in the real world. You may spot a deer at 50 yards and have minutes to select a position and fire an accurate shot. Then again, you may spot a deer at 250 and have seconds to make a decision before the shot opportunity is gone. Also, no hunting scenario will present you with the same target presentation. Even with a motionless animal, a 50 yard attempt may be more difficult than a 200 yard attempt, due to terrain, visibility, weather, and the hunter’s physical condition. Consider the difficulty if your shot opportunity appeared when you were winded and gasping for breath, in reduced light and raining.

You rarely get to start aimed-in while hunting. Field shooting courses should require beginning from a ready position and reacting to an external start signal. A practiced snap shot from offhand can be useful, especially in the close confines of heavy cover.

A fixed time limit has its place for some range exercises such as qualification-type courses, where the hunter-shooter either meets an established standard or not. Set time is also a convenient tool for controlling a whole line of shooters with no need to time each individual.

Our interest is determining how quickly hunters can place accurate shots. A shooting test that balances accuracy with speed determines your best shooters in a practical sense. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any time limit. Instead, the participant engages their target as they see fit and the elapsed time, from start signal to final shot, is recorded. After accuracy has been assessed, measured by hit quality (scored points), the shooter is penalized for any misses or wound shots. If the score is still positive the elapsed time is then factored into the earned points. This means that the fastest elapsed time or the highest point total may not necessarily win. The winner will always be the shooter who had the best balance of both.

Moving targets that break from and head towards cover are another way to create field courses.

Good hits are critically important and poor shot placement will ultimately lead to a non-score but, assuming the participant scores solid vital hits with each shot, a lower elapsed time yields a better result. The participant capable of shooting a quick six-inch group centered inside the vitals will likely fair better than the fellow shooting one-inch groups but taking too much time. A potential one-inch group on a deer that decided to leave before you could shoot earns no venison.

Factored-time courses eliminate rhythm shooting because it will vary for each person and each scenario. It also unburdens the course designer from trying to establish a fair time limit for all skill levels. The participants are encouraged to go only as fast as their ability allows. The result is the seasoned participant will learn to master his or her own ability in numerous, varying scenarios, rather than mastering a single arbitrary course.

Field Applications

Measuring elapsed time is a stressor. The challenge may not seem daunting but when there’s a time limit you quickly find out what you really know. On more than one occasion I’ve worked with shooters capable of great accuracy, if not rushed, but fell to pieces on a timed course. If the stress of a cardboard or steel target and a clock on the range is too much for a hunter and he fails to hit realistically-sized vitals at typical hunting distances at least 80-90 percent of the time, he is not ready to pursue living animals in the field and should not go hunting.

Elapsed time also tests smoothness, showing how well the technique is performed. A shooter who hasn’t practiced enough will be herky-jerky and can never hit fast. Consequently, well-polished handling skills will always yield a low elapsed time. Think of a timer as a gauge of smoothness with a lower number indicating less wasted motion and more smoothness. A technique may feel smooth in the den or at the gun shop, but the true acid test is to put it up against a timer in live fire. Smooth, consistent technique always delivers good results on the target and the clock. The goal is consistent hits, not shooting fast.

Roving ranges where the hunter-shooter must find targets are another way to get shooters reacting to the target.

Please note, I’m not saying you practice under time limits on the range to attempt shooting fast in the field. In a real world scenario, the situation may dictate that you wait for a long period before taking a shot. It is possible to be aware of a shot opportunity for a half-hour or longer. Then you wait! But eventually that opportunity will arise. The pressure will be on when that clear shot is presented. When the decision to shoot is finally made a reaction shot will have to be taken.

On the range we don’t have the luxury of thinking, randomly-moving targets that force reaction shots but we can simulate that same challenge with a timer. No matter how realistic a target looks there isn’t as much pressure if you can shoot knowing the target can’t go anywhere. Instead, shoot the shots as individually timed strings. Time how quickly the shooter can adopt a position, fire one round at the target while still getting good hits. Now the pressure is on to shoot on demand, reacting, setting up and making it happen, just like in the field. If you can consistently perform well on various timed exercises on the range, think how your field shooting performance will increase!

I wish to emphasize that this isn’t an advocacy to rush shots for a fast time. Accuracy is always the first consideration. The challenge is finding how fast can you go and still get hits. A shooter doesn’t truly understand how well they are performing a technique until they put it up against the clock.

John Buol

I joined SARG (Small Arms Readiness Group, formerly Small Arms Training Team) in 1999 and would spend the next decade, and most of that on active duty, as a full-time small arms instructor. During this time I picked up NRA Conventional Pistol (2700 bullseye) and High Power, but my primary discipline was the combat matches hosted by NATO. I managed a few overall wins at All Army (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014) along with a host of trophies for individual and team matches there and at AFSAM (Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting.) After completing active duty, I was hired as the Editor of American Gunsmith ( and founded the Firearm User Network ( to promote organized shooting events.

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