I know a lot of trackers who carry and live by one specific gun they favor over all others. My friend Hal Blood and many of the other master trackers I’ve met and talked with, love their pump action carbines. They would not hunt with any other rifle. Others I’ve spent time with have a lever action or two that they swear by. My son Austin is one of them. He would rather have his Marlin 35 Remington in his hands than any other gun. He sees no reason to carry anything else. My other hunting partner Bob Dunbar has his well used .270 pump as his go to gun as well.
But then there are people like me who tend to switch it up a bit. The last five whitetail bed-kills I’ve had were taken with a peep sighted pump action Remington carbine in 30’06, a peep sighted Marlin 30/30 lever action, a scoped Remington 870 12 gauge shotgun, and 2 were killed in their beds with a bow. I also stalked and killed a bear with a scoped muzzleloader. It might seem as if I have no pattern to what hunting implement I prefer, and to some extent this is true. Of course I do have my favorites, (pumps and lever actions) but I’m certainly no stranger to hunting with several different guns in the same season. Also, it might seem as if my decision to use various gun types is a risky one that might end in a miss, as hunting with one gun would surely make me a better shot.
Or would it?
My decision to implement a multi-gun approach to my hunting style certainly bucks traditional wisdom of those who use and become experts with only one particular gun or action choice. Obviously, if you want to take the efficient road to becoming very good with your hunting rifle, I cannot find fault with Hal’s advice (and many others) to stick with one rifle that fits like a glove and make that your partner in the field. This makes imminent sense. But here is where I diverge from that path…
I love shooting just as much as I love hunting. I have a membership to a gun range that is 2 miles down the road from my office. It opens at 8AM every morning. I am there 2 to 3 mornings a week, all year long, shooting my various rifles before I get to the office. I also handload my ammunition. I study ballistics tables and am fascinated by the engineering of rifles, bullets and all that makes a gun go bang. I practice enough to be good with any rifle in my current hunting arsenal. With that said, every gun I own has the stock and action modified to be smooth and fit my small frame. I never bring a gun into the field that is not customized in these basic ways. Because of my consistent practice, I can rip off fast accurate shots with a lever, a pump, a semi-auto, or a bolt action. I’m not saying I am a perfect shot. I’m not; I’ve missed my share of whitetails through the years. But I certainly practice enough to be comfortable with any gun I choose to bring in the field.
Now some might ask, why bother with all that? Why spend the time and money and energy shooting and studying and becoming proficient with all these different guns, when you can simply have one that does it all, and does so with less practice time invested? The answer is twofold. First, like I said, I love to shoot – so practicing a lot is a true pleasure for me. Secondly, the romance of what gun I carry matters to me. You might be wondering what I mean by romance.
When I begin a hunt on a certain day, my mood is everything. I’ve found that my most successful days in the field are those times where I enter the woods happy to be there, and with the confidence that I will track and kill a nice buck that day. (It doesn’t always work out that way of course!) Part of that mood guides my decision on which gun I carry. I want to like the rifle I’m carrying. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I carry my beat up old 870 pump or the Marlin 30/30 with Williams sights. This choice adds emotional value to my hunt in that, both of these are models of the first two guns I bought for myself in my late teens, so they bring those days back to me. If I’m feeling serious and really determined that day, I’ll carry my scoped 35 Whelen pump, as it is probably the most effective tracking gun I own – it’s all business and is heavily modified for hardcore tracking. If I’m up for a challenge, or plan on going extremely slow; say on a snowless still-hunting kind of day, a scoped bolt action might find its way into my hands. If I’m hitting the lowland hellish swamps that sprawl throughout the Central Adirondacks, it will be my Ruger 44 magnum semi-auto throwing heavy-for-caliber snowballs through the thick brush. If I’m covering a lot of ground tracking during the rut in a snowy squall, I might carry my Marlin 45/70 with XS peeps. It’s light so I can cover the miles chasing those old brutes, and with snow everywhere I’m probably going to shoot in close quarters once I catch up. With this gun there is no need for heavier long range optics and spitzer ballistics need not apply either. In the overall thrill of the hunt, having the rifle that fits my mood and that day’s conditions adds specialness to each hunt I go on. That specialness, to me, adds some emotional “romance” to an otherwise tough style of hunting.
The point is this, guns are as important to me for emotional reasons as they are for practical reasons. If it adds to the experience of the hunt, brings happiness and confidence, then I will shoot it well. But with all this said, here is where the rubber meets the road; if I wasn’t a competent shooter with each and every one of these rifles mentioned, I’d stick with only the one I was competent with. There is no romance in missing or wounding after all.
This brings me to my next point. What does it take to be “competent” with your rifle and what exactly does that mean? Well, that one is simple. If you go in the woods with any doubts in that gun or your ability to shoot it well – you are not competent with that rifle. You might get lucky, but d***, I’m not one to place luck in my arsenal when so much of the odds are already stacked against me at the onset of a track worth following. So you must feel as if the gun is reliable and fits you well and ultimately that you can shoot it accurately and swiftly. To build a multi-gun discipline for hunting takes real time and passion at the range. Nothing can take the place of practice!
How it Works
The mind and the brain work in concert to build habits. It is how we as humans are made from birth. Ever wonder how a 3-gun competitor can carry and accurately fire 3 absolutely different weapons, and do so effectively under pressure against the clock? It is called practice of course, but behind that practice is science that explains how that person can be so good with multiple gun types. Here’s how it works:
The human mind is where a person experiences seeing the target, pulling the gun to their shoulder, seeing the sights get on target, feeling the trigger, etc. All of this is habitually occurring in their mind, and is processed in their brain tissue. There are actual physical changes that occur in a person’s brain tissue to make the firing of these separate weapons efficient. The brain adapts to a practice routine and creates a profile of that particular rifle; it’s “feel”, action style, etc. The same thing happens when we learn to walk, juggle, talk, drive a car, etc. Eventually these habits, like any other, become second nature to us. Shooting is no different. And with enough practice, like learning to walk, eventually it takes almost no thought to be good at it.
Without getting too deep in the weeds here, all habits are based on three fundamental things: the pursuit of happiness that motivates us to practice, repetitiously acting on those choices (actually practicing), and perfecting the habit. When I practice at the range I pursue happiness by shooting and gaining control over the rifle and making it do what I want it to do. If I did not enjoy it that much, I’d probably just shoot occasionally with my pump Whelan and call it a day. But because I relish becoming good with all the various actions and types of guns, I’ve gotten proficient at all of them. This love of shooting started when I was young. I almost never had adults in my life in those days as I was a seriously neglected kid. But the one time where I spent time with adults in my family was when we all went shooting. This then built a “motivation” to shoot. At these family shoots I was supplied a rifle and ammunition and I shot all kinds of rifles – from 22’s to lever actions, to double barrel shotguns, pump action shotguns, etc. They are some of my best memories I have, especially the ones with my stepdad Jack. These shoots developed a deep passion for shooting, and consequently I got good at it. Little did I know that I was building mental habits that would serve me many years later with several nice bucks on the ground.
The value of this practice and motivation came to full light 2 years ago. I was with my youngest son Joe, on opening day in the southern zone of New York. I was carrying my father in-law’s bolt action 30’06 with a 3x9 scope on it. It’s probably the gun action type I practice with the least. But because we sat on stand that morning I chose it. It’s as accurate as they come and settles well from a seated position. I knew if a deer was within sight, I’d be able to place the bullet where I needed it with that gun. However, I rarely shot that particular gun, so it felt a bit odd to me.
We had a slow morning and around noon we decided to head in for lunch. I told Joe if either of us saw any buck, regardless of size we would take him. I am not choosy when I have young hunters with me, as any buck is a fascinating prize to youngsters. I kept Joe close to me as we made our way up the ridge. There were beech still holding their leaves making vision limited to about 20 to 30 yards. When we came to a creek we needed to cross, I showed Joe some tracks of a young buck that had just crossed. I then began crossing the creek and was climbing the embankment on the opposing side when I saw the buck jump. Joe was still crossing the creek behind me and I realized that there was not going to be time to get him up the embankment and also have him shoot this buck before the deer would be long gone. Knowing this, I pulled the Savage up, swung with the buck, and shot. Without any thought I had the next bullet in the chamber and hit him a second time on the run through the same shoulder. He died a few yards later and slid to a halt.
It all happened in a few seconds. That is when I realized just how ingrained my bolt action shooting habits were from my earlier years of shooting. As a young boy I shot an old Mossberg bolt action 22 with Jack over the course of about a year. I shot brick after brick of ammo with that gun. As soon as that buck jumped, those instincts came back instantly and I made the shots count.
Now, I don’t want to leave people with the impression that a habit built 35 years ago is just as fresh today. It’s not. But the brain circuitry and the mindful remembrance of that action type can come back to you with minimal practice if a large enough investment has been initially made. I’ve continued to shoot bolt action rifles over the following three decades but with a hell of a lot less frequency than with the other action types. The point is, once a habit is deeply entrenched as mine was with that little Mossberg, you can rekindle it with ease with some maintenance practice, which this hunt so clearly demonstrates.
So here’s the skinny: if you are not that excited by the proposition of practicing shooting religiously, I’d say stick with no more than two guns you can shoot accurately from the standing position (preferably one). However, if you are like me, and you really love to shoot, and the idea of shooting every week sounds like something you’d like to do, you can easily become proficient at shooting multiple styles of rifles competently. In the end, like all things, it comes down to what you are passionate about.
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