And you thought you were done with school.
Survey most serious shooters around the country as to which facility offers the best firearms training, and many will say Gunsite Academy in Arizona.
Some 40 years ago, Colonel Jeff Cooper established Gunsite as a facility for handgun instruction (and was originally known as the American Pistol Institute). Today, the course offerings have grown to include a wide selection of shotgun and rifle courses, as well as specialized instruction on dealing with issues such as counter-terrorism and neutralizing active shooters.
Gunsite’s Pistol 250 course remains the standard in defensive handgun instruction, but the facility now offers something for virtually everyone who owns a firearm.
And that includes hunters.
Spend a Grand?
Most readers are familiar with Colonel Cooper’s writings and teaching regarding handguns and defensive pistol shooting, but few readers know that Cooper was actually a very serious hunter who traveled the world in search of big game. He applied the same attention to detail and forethought to killing a kudu in Botswana as he did to stopping a robber in the bank parking lot.
But if you’ve been hunting for a few years, do you really need a hunting course? After all, could it really be worth spending more than a grand to learn skills you have already mastered?
Why You Need a Hunter Prep Course
I could offer up a variety of reasons why you need a hunter prep course, but for those who prefer black-and-white figures, I’ll give you a clear mathematical example of just why these classes are so valuable.
I have a friend who traveled to Africa on his first safari in 2010. His primary objective on that trip (a hunt he had been dreaming about—and financing—for decades) was to take a great eland bull.
As luck would have it, he encountered a massive eland in some dense cover at a bit more than 100 yards. Now eland are truly massive targets with a huge vital area, and a 100-yard shot with a rifle (in this case, a .375 H&H) should have been a chip shot. But field shooting and bench shooting are two very different propositions, and with one errant movement, he managed to gut-shoot the bull.
For most hunters, the real trauma of that situation is that an animal we respect and have attempted to harvest cleanly and quickly is now lost and sick—certain to meet a sad end.
No one needed explain this to that gentlemen; he spent three days of a seven-day safari looking for one animal that was never recovered.
From a strictly financial standpoint, the hunt cost $450 a day, and the eland trophy fee (which he still had to pay because he had wounded an animal) cost an additional $1,800. When you start taking these numbers into consideration, a hunter prep course begins to look like a much smarter investment.
It’s not just African hunters that need these courses. I know many other hunters (and I am among that crowd) who have blown important shots in the field. Many of these hunters could compress a three-shot group into less than 2 inches at 200 yards, but they still miss targets such as that eland at half the distance and with a vital zone the size of a beach ball.
I’m not saying hunters never miss. I’m not saying that one course will “cure” you from bad shot placement. I’m simply saying that if you are a serious hunter, you owe it to yourself to improve your skills and become the absolutely best hunter you can be; I doubt you’ll achieve that level of success unless you invest in proper training.
“I know many other hunters (and I am among that crowd) who have blown important shots in the field.”
What You Will Learn
There are many shooting schools across the country that offer some variant of a hunter preparation class, many times geared toward a specific type of hunt with more emphasis on long-range shooting, stopping charging animals and so forth. Gunsite’s training is a general-purpose curriculum that examines a number of different aspects of field shooting.
Before I begin the “what you will learn” section, I do want to take the time to make one point very clear: A firearms training course and firearms instructor are only going to be as effective as you allow them to be. If you walk through the doors with hat cocked and eyebrows raised—certain that no one could possibly teach you anything more about hunting—well, they probably can’t.
The shooters who gain the most from hunter prep courses (or any firearms course, for that matter) are those who are willing to listen to instruction—and (gasp!) change the way they’ve done things for years.
If you go into a course with an open mind, some of the very first things you can expect to be challenged about are shooting from field positions. Most of us shoot from the bench, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, because I spend my time testing guns in that manner. But unless you plan on lugging a bench to the field or are willing to hunt solely on the rifle range, you’ve got to learn to shoot from various positions.
The primary positions you will encounter in the field are off hand, standing with support, kneeling, squatting, sitting and prone. Off-hand shooting is, as you might imagine, the least stable and, as most hunters know, it should be avoided.
In fact, stability is the key to better shooting from all positions, and rather than run down a long list of key elements for each position, I will simply tell you that one of the primary tenets of Gunsite’s Hunter Prep Course is to have you leave the Paulden facility with an understanding of how to get into a stable field position and how to do it quickly and consistently. That means taking the time to examine every element of your positioning with a trained professional watching you.
There are other elements that are equally important to success in the field, and we rarely address these in our daily shooting practices.
One of those is shot delivery. A shooting course will teach you the importance of shooting accurately, quickly and under complete control. Many hunters are trained to cycle the bolt on a rifle as quickly as possible on follow-up shots to get another bullet into the animal, but an out-of-control reload will move the muzzle off target and actually result in a slower follow-up than you can achieve with a controlled bolt stroke—with limited wasted movement.
Likewise, few shooters consider ammo management; you want to be certain that you keep the gun loaded even after extended shooting sessions, and you need to have a plan about how you will accomplish this. Trigger control, breathing, moving the gun from a slung position to the shoulder, disengaging the safety, developing a sight picture—these are just some of the elements that go into accurate field shooting.
When all these fundamentals are sloppy, you miss or injure game. A hunter prep course allows you to reduce those problems and deliver better shots with more accuracy and more speed.
A Day in Hunter Prep
Very little of the training in my Hunter Prep class at Gunsite was in the classroom. The majority of the work we did was in the field, learning how to shoot by actually shooting.
The rifles we tested were Mossberg’s new Patriot, which, despite its budget price, proved to be very accurate and completely reliable during the intense shooting in the dust of the desert.
There’s an old saying: “Fear the man with one gun, for he probably knows how to use it.” By the third day, the Mossberg felt so familiar, and I had learned its mechanics so well, that the rifle seemed an extension of my arm. That’s the goal of any of these courses—to help the hunter become familiar with their gun and to help develop muscle memory based on their particular rifle.
A day at Gunsite’s Hunter Prep course is really about developing fundamentals and putting those skills together to become a more complete shooter. In basketball, the concept is referred to as “little skills/big skills.” The basic (little) skills will help round you out as a hunter, and the combination of all these small improvements result in your ability to accomplish large tasks—getting on-target, delivering a shot, placing accurate follow-ups, stopping charges and so forth.
These things are accomplished at the range, and there’s no shortage of range space at Gunsite. What once began as a 160-acre facility now spans more than 2,000 acres, all dedicated to making you a better shooter and hunter.
The final day of the course consisted of a walk through several hundred acres of juniper hills with targets scattered throughout. The targets were various North American game animals, from bighorns to bears. By being able to identify, range, set up and deliver a fast, accurate shot and follow-up, the hunters in my class learned practical skills that apply directly to the field … because they are taught in the field.
These types of courses are also very good at exposing weaknesses before they result in missed shots on real game animals. In my case, one of the glaring holes in my skill set is game-spotting. When targets weren’t moving, it took a long time and a lot of effort on my part to figure out what I was looking at, especially in deep shadow.
But when I did see the animals, I felt confident I had the mechanical skill needed to get into position and deliver a shot with my Mossberg. When I did my part, it performed quite well on everything from charging targets to 400-yard steel plates.
Back to School
There are many shooters who won’t invest the time and money in a hunter prep course, and that’s a shame. Hunting is one of the few physical activities for which few participants actually train, and the result shows up in missed and wounded game.
If you’ve got the hunt-of-a-lifetime on the horizon, it’s even more important to be sure you can hit your target consistently. Anyone who goes afield owes it to their quarry to take the hunt seriously—and that means being as well-prepared as possible. That begins with hunter prep.
Just as in elementary school, if you don’t bring the right supplies to Gunsite’s Hunter Prep course, you won’t get the most out of a class. Here’s what I brought:
- The most obvious item you’ll need to bring is the rifle with which you plan to hunt. As previously mentioned, in our class, we were shooting Mossberg’s new Patriot, and I found that the rifle worked extremely well, even in dusty conditions and after having hundreds of rounds put down the barrel in just a few hours.
- We used Fusion ammo, and the 165-grain load I carried delivered consistent results out to 400 yards.
- My scope was a Nikon Monarch 3, which performed flawlessly, along with one of Barranti Leather’s Peabody slings. Designed by Gunsite instructor Il Ling New, the Peabody has a split design that allows the shooter to stabilize the rifle for better field shooting.
- In addition to the rifle, I wore Wiley-X Valor shooting glasses and Caldwell hearing protection, as well as a shemagh (available at Gunsite or military surplus stores), which can be wrapped around the head or neck for protection against the sun and wind.
- The course requires the use of a belt-mounted cartridge carrier, as well as a “dump pouch,” both of which you’ll want in the field while hunting.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.