Johan van Wyk

The key to success is a bit of basic knowledge of ballistics and, of course, practice, practice, practice!

I have a good friend who is a mechanical engineer by trade, but happens to be a gun dealer by vocation, specialising in rare and collectable firearms. Much of his time is spent reloading for obscure, old black powder cartridges, or regulating double rifles. Often, after one of his marathon sessions at the shooting bench or in the reloading room, I would hear my cell phone ping, and be confronted with an image of a target with two neat bullet holes through it as proof positive of another successful project. Without fail, the caption added by my satisfied friend would be: “The deadliest thing in captivity!”

Well, as nice as the old double rifles are, the real deadliest thing in captivity is actually the man (or woman, to be fair) that is really familiar with his or her rifle and can use it the way it was intended. Just about every professional hunter out there has a few horror stories to tell of clients who arrive for a hunt in Africa, but who are unable to hit the proverbial barn door from the inside. Poor marksmanship is one thing, but I must admit that I’ve seen some people that are beyond hope insofar as shooting is concerned. I pity the PH that has to guide such a hunter on a hunt for even the most benign creature!

In my humble opinion, many hunters underestimate the value of regular practice, and even competitive shooting, as far as skill with a hunting rifle is concerned. As a rule, most of us don’t shoot at animals at extended ranges (meaning past the 300-metre mark in my own case) but with a bit of practice it is usually not too difficult to get consistent results at longer ranges. I’m fortunate in that I belong to a shooting club where we take part in shooting competitions from as little as 25 metres up to 200 metres and more on a monthly basis, using life-sized animal targets with the vital areas indicated as scoring areas. I readily admit to being an average rifleman at the best of times, but the monthly practice sessions certainly do make a difference by the time hunting season rolls along.

In a similar vein, a bit of thought regarding equipment is in order as well. Far too often I have had to help out fellow shooters who arrived at the shooting range with a jumble of ammunition in different brands and bullet weights for their rifles. There is simply no way to shoot straight with such a mess of ammunition. At other times, I have seen guys struggling to sight in rifles with guard screws that hadn’t been tightened for years, and on one memorable occasion a guy was surprised to find himself holding his riflescope in his hands when trying to make adjustments after he’d fired a few shots, so loose were the rings!

The hunter who understands and has confidence in his equipment, and can shoot really well, is “the deadliest thing in captivity”, while the guy who pitches up totally unprepared with untried or poorly maintained equipment is exactly the opposite. I reckon we owe it to the game animals as well as our hunting companions and guides to do a bit of preparation and practice for the sake of success.

Some hunters handle their firearms with such precision and confidence, though, that it is a joy to behold. I recently accompanied two Australian friends on a hunt in South Africa, and it was clear that not only were both very capable marksmen, but very confident and familiar with their rifles as well. The first quarry to go down was a nice nyala bull. The first shot with a .30-06 from about a hundred and thirty metres across a gully was textbook perfect, and the bull went down in his tracks. It was a good start, but the next day two old giraffe bulls were even better examples of field marksmanship. They were hunted with an open-sighted .500 NE double, and even though the shooting distances were typically modest to accommodate the double, shot placement on both of the big animals was once again impeccable: the bullet holes in both (an initial shot with a follow-up shot, the good old left-and-right from the double rifle) could be covered by the palm of one’s hand – right through the heart on both of the big animals. On the last day a wildebeest bull made the mistake of pausing for a few seconds at long range when he shouldn’t have. It was a tricky shot with the bull standing at a strange angle, but again, the .30-06 spoke but once, and the result was a quick, clean kill.

It is a real pleasure to hunt with such people. They not only had a thorough knowledge of their rifle’s ballistics, but of basic animal anatomy as well. More importantly, they were both extremely confident shots who spent many hours back home on the shooting range honing their skills with a rifle.

And believe me, it showed in the field!