At the Range With a Navy Sniper

I consider myself a good rifle shooter. Not a great one but a good one. I’ve put a lot of venison in the freezer with a rifle or muzzleloader and can honestly count on one hand the number of animals I’ve hit and not recovered. However, I had a unique opportunity recently to spend some time with an expert marksman, and what I learned will make the time I spend practicing much more efficient and effective. Basically it will make me a far, far better shooter, especially at long ranges, and I’d like to share that information with you.

I was giving a presentation on whitetail biology and behavior at Hudson Farm in Andover, New Jersey. Hudson Farm has a sporting clays course that ranks in the top 10 in the U.S. Their manager is a friend, and he invited me to arrive early and shoot the course. I politely declined because they are also home to Griffin & Howe’s 500-yard rifle range and marksmanship school, and their head rifle instructor, Eli Stuhlmacher, is very good at his craft. So good in fact that prior to his employment at the school he was a Navy SEAL. He was also a SEAL sniper. And to top it off, for his last four years of service he ran the sniper training course for the Navy. Thus, the man knows a thing or two about a rifle and how to place a bullet perfectly into a target a long way away under whatever environmental conditions are present. Now you know why I declined the chance to shoot a couple boxes of shotgun shells. I traded it for two hours of one-on-one instruction at the rifle range.

I grew up deer hunting in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania where 75 yards is a long shot in the woods. I shot a buck in Texas in 2004 at 216 yards, and that was and still is the farthest I’ve ever shot a deer. However, whether you’re shooting 50 or 500 yards, the following tips will help you be a better shooter, and the information will make you far more accurate at 200-plus yards. Eli was as good at teaching as he was at shooting. Here’s what Eli taught me.

1. Mark your scope ring screws. Make sure the screws on your scope rings are tight, and then make a mark on each screw that extends onto the ring with a nail pen or nail polish. This allows you to quickly check that your scope rings are tight. If the line you drew is straight, then the screws are tight. If not, they’re loose and you need to tighten them and possibly sight-in your rifle again.

2. Set the diopter on your scope. The diopter is the eye piece, and you need to adjust it to your vision. To do this, loosen the lock ring (if equipped) in front of the eyepiece, turn the scope to its highest power, point the gun at a plain wall or blue sky, and adjust the eyepiece until the crosshairs are crisp and clear. Then tighten the lock ring and you’re all set. This is why someone whose vision is much different than yours can look through your scope and claim it is a little blurry or not “crisp.” Setting the diopter correctly for you is what’s important.

3. Don’t touch the barrel. The barrel of your rifle whips when you pull the trigger, so never let the barrel touch anything when you shoot. When shooting off a bench, set the forearm of the stock on sand bags or a rest. When shooting from a blind, set the forearm on a rest. When shooting from shooting sticks, set the forearm on the sticks. When using your buddy’s shoulder as a rest… just kidding. Never shoot off your buddy’s shoulder, and never set the barrel on your rest. Same for when using a tree as a rest. Set the forearm against the tree and not the barrel.

4. Pull the rifle into your shoulder with your forward hand. Your trigger hand does not hold the rifle in position. Your forward hand (your left hand if you shoot right handed) should hold the rifle in your shoulder even if you take your trigger hand away from the stock. You should lean into the stock and pull it to you with your forward hand. Your trigger hand is only for fine tuning left and right and sending your bullet on its way.

5. Squeeze the trigger as part of a shooting sequence. Do not pull the trigger or use the tip of your finger. The trigger should be between your finger tip and first joint. If you use your finger tip and you shoot right handed, you’ll tend to shoot to the right. If you put your finger in the trigger guard too far and you shoot right handed, you’ll tend to miss to the left. A well placed finger on the trigger makes a lot of difference. Next, when you’re on the target follow this sequence: exhale, start taking up the slack in the trigger, and shoot within 2 to 5 seconds by gently squeezing the trigger. Don’t pull or jerk the trigger. Simply squeeze until it goes off. Once you exhale, if you don’t shoot within 2 to 5 seconds, breathe again and start the sequence over. Looking through a scope for several seconds without breathing can cause the image to blur. This is a sign of oxygen deprivation to the eyes, and you need to breathe to correct it.

6. Practice dry firing. Eli said some rifles can’t be dry fired without damaging them, but I had my Remington .300 Winchester Magnum with me, and he said it was fine to practice with it by dry firing. This saves money on ammo, recoil to my shoulder, and allows me to practice my shooting sequence more often, over and over. Crosshairs on the target, exhale, take up slack in the trigger, shoot within 2 to 5 seconds. Open and close bolt, crosshairs on target, exhale, etc. Over and over again. This tip alone will make you a far better shooter even without firing a single round.

7. Properly position a rear rest and shooting sticks. When shooting off a bench, or backpack on the ground, or anytime you can have a rest under the rear of your rifle, use a sandbag, glove, or anything else available under the stock. You then change the elevation of your shot by squeezing or relaxing the rear rest with your non-trigger hand. Remember, your trigger hand is only for fine tuning left and right and squeezing the trigger. If you use your other hand and a rear rest to adjust up and down you’ll be a much more accurate shooter.

When using tripod shooting sticks, always position the farthest leg between you and your target. This allows you to lean into the rifle for proper form (see No. 4), and the sticks will provide the most stability for you. When shooting off any support stick (monopod, bipod or tripod) grip the forearm of your stock and the shooting stick(s) with your forward hand, and pull the stock down into the stick(s) for the most stability.

8. Adjust your scope. Sight-in your rifle with the scope on full power. Then, when shooting off a bench or good rest, turn your scope up to its highest magnification. An exception would be when the target is very close. On shots over 200 yards, you must use full power if your scope has additional lines below the crosshairs for long-range aiming points. This is because the vast majority of hunting scopes are “second focal plane.” That means the reticle does not change as you change magnification power on the scope. Bottom line is if you sight your rifle in on full power, and your want to use the long-range shooting lines, the scope needs to be on full power for them to be accurate.

One exception to this is if you’re shooting up to 200 yards from shooting sticks or another rest that’s less stable than a bench. In that situation, Eli encouraged me to turn my scope down to half power. I have a Leupold 4.5-14 power scope on my .300 mag, so he adjusted it to 7 power and had me stand and shoot off sticks at a target 200 yards away. On a bench, I’d use max power as the stability of a bench makes it easy to hold on your target. However, when shooting from a less stable position, using max power on my scope made it extremely difficult to hold on the target. Turning the scope down to half its magnification made it much easier to hold on the vitals of the target. I’ve always used the highest magnification available, and I secretly questioned Eli’s logic on this tip until my first shot found its mark relatively easily using his advice. This information does not counter the first half of this point. If the distance was longer and I would have needed to use one of the additional aiming points in my scope, I would have had to use full power for the aiming points to be accurate.

9. Level your scope. Gravity begins pulling your bullet down as soon as it leaves the barrel. Fortunately this pull is measurable, and we can account for it by sighting in our rifle and using good shooting form. A big part of good form is to ensure your rifle is level when you shoot. On close shots, this isn’t a very big deal, but this is extremely important at longer distances. If your scope is level when you sight it in and level when you shoot, then the bullet will drop straight down during flight and you account for it by holding the crosshairs on your target. You won’t miss left or right. However, if your scope is not level when you shoot at a deer, then the bullet will still drop straight down but you are likely to miss left or right as your aiming point will be inaccurate because of the tilt in your scope. To account for this, many companies sell small bubble levels that attach to your scope. To prove his point, Eli had me shoot his custom .308 rifle with a tricked-out scope – including a scope level – at 500 yards. I easily hit the target. He then had me tilt the gun slightly off level and shoot again. I completely missed the target. Eli and our military use scope levels for long-range shots, and I ordered one for my elk trip this fall.

10. Know how to use wind values. This tip also relates to long-range shots, but anyone hunting the West or in windy or open country should understand how the wind impacts bullet flight. Eli made it simple. If the wind is in your face or at your back, you don’t need to worry about it as the wind value is zero (no effect). If the wind is blowing left to right or right to left between you and your target, you use the full wind value a ballistics chart provides. Finally if the wind is quartering to or away from you then you use half of the wind value from the ballistics chart. For example, let’s say I’m shooting 400 yards and there’s a 10mph wind blowing left to right between me and a big whitetail. The ballistics chart for my bullet says the wind will push the bullet 2.8 inches. I can account for that by aiming 2.8 inches to the left (into the wind). Now let’s say that same buck is at 400 yards but the 10mph wind is quartering to me from right to left. That wind will push my bullet half of 2.8 inches (1.4 inches) to the left. I can account for that wind by aiming 1.4 inches to the right. Stronger winds and longer distances have greater impacts on bullet flight, but the same basics apply to predicting the impact and accounting for it. You just need a ballistics chart, a range finder, an estimate of wind speed, and the confidence to know you can quickly calculate where to hold. A little practice will ensure you can do it while afield under hunting conditions.

A little practice will go a long way toward your success this fall. Good luck, and I hope this information adds to your enjoyment afield and the amount of venison in your freezer.

One More Tip – If you’re interested in a ballistics app for your phone, Eli recommended “Ballistic: Advanced Edition” for iPhones and “Shooter” for Androids. Also, if you’re interested in a private shooting lesson with Eli, you can schedule one here.

About Kip Adams

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and QDMA's Director of Conservation. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining QDMA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.