Currently I am sitting in a Bowker Safari’s in South Africa spending time with legitimate Professional Hunters (PH) whose year around jobs it is to both manage the African game in their charge as well as guide hunters from around the world on their dream expeditions. Through my background in firearms training ranging from pistol, carbine, and long-range shooting in a multitude of disciplines such as infantry tactics, competitions, hunting, practical, home defense, personal protection, etc., I have come to realize that regardless of the discipline there is one essential skill that needs to be mastered by all to give you the best chance of a successful shot.
Let us wind back to a Warthog hunt I witnessed firsthand where the lack of training in this skill lost the hunter the opportunity to take a dream pig.
Matt Phinney and I along with our PH set off for an evening hunt by driving to the northern ridge boundary of their 26,000-acre hunting ranch in the classic African Land Cruiser that springs to mind when envisioning a once in a lifetime African Safari. The day had been a temperate one with clear skies and a soft breeze blowing from west to east. We parked the cruiser and walked the fence line atop the ridge to a flat of ground that gave us clear sight lines of the surrounding area. Far off to the east was a troop of baboons with sharp eyesight that quickly let out a warning bark telling other animals, including our quarry, that there was danger in the area. All wasn’t lost however, we sat for some time glassing the area in search of warthogs. The interesting thing about Africa is that there is game everywhere. At first glance it can seem like there is nothing alive out there for miles but when you take the time and really look you begin to see critters literally everywhere. Within 10-15 minutes warthogs became visible and it was our pick of the litter.
Some distance away from our position we spotted a healthy sized tusker of a pig that was perfect for a cull hunt like ours. We set off down the ridgeline in line with one another to minimize the amount of movement that our prey could possibly see us making. Stalking in the Eastern Cape of South Africa is much different than where I grew up learning in the Pacific Northwest. Sight lines are much farther, Acacia trees grab you at every corner and other animals can easily bust your stalk without realizing it. I was taught during our stalking that “you aren’t just stalking your prey, you are stalking everything, because anything that see’s you will alert your prey to your presence” and that is a lesson that I will never forget. One thing I noticed about the stalks in the Eastern Cape of South Africa was the extreme use of concealment. Brush everywhere conceals the animals from our view when glassing can now be used to conceal our movement from the animals. Moving from one to the other brought to mind stark reminders of training in the Marine Corps to seek cover and… concealment from the enemy. As we got closer, the PH and his tracker Zweli changed their mannerisms to something I hadn’t noticed before. They began walking with their hands behind their backs. Following them for the last several days and learning how they do things; I knew they didn’t do anything without a specific reason for it, so I tried it out. What I noticed was that it made my footsteps more intentional; I began picking where my feet were placed even more. I moved slightly slower because my hands weren’t swinging. And finally, because my hands weren’t swinging along my sides, it was less movement for the animals to see and possibly spot me. It really is the little things that’ll get you spotted.
As this was Matts chance at a pig, the order of the stalk was our PH, Meyrick in front, Zweli to follow, Matt third and I armed with only a camera bringing up the rear in our little Fire Team. Zweli was carrying the shooting sticks used as a quick rest for standing shots and Matt carrying our PH’s rifle we were using. An old Winchester model 70 .270 with a Leupold 3-10 crookedly mounted atop it that seemed to never miss regardless that was bought in Denver, Colorado in the early 90’s for $400 to $500. Matt is an experienced shooter but the majority of it is with pistols and carbines, very limited with hunting rifles. Not to mention this being his first hunt. A lot was at stake.
We had moved up to where we spotted the quarry to within 80 yards using Acacia trees to keep from being spotted. Slowly moving out to the side of one, the PH and Matt moved just to the side of the tree to get the shot lined up. The quad pod shooting sticks had been set in place and Matt moved in to rest the rifle, but the sticks were misaligned which caused frustration and time wasted as he tried to get them properly aligned with the target. During this time the group of warthogs that was insight had spotted Matt and began to move off in haste, completely busting the stalk we had just done. All because the Shooter didn’t bring index on the rifle properly and efficiently, which wasted time and lost the opportunity of a great prize.
This one skill, whether it be a pistol on the draw or carbine to the shoulder, is critical in all forms of shooting. Indexing the weapon to the body quickly and properly to place shots on target accurately. I spoke with another avid trapper and hunter who has spent the last 50 years between Africa and Montana applying his trade and his words in regard to this were “unload your rifle, pick a spot on the wall, bring your rifle to your shoulder, and get your target in sight, then do it again. Don’t stop until you can’t miss. Then start over.” He went on to tell several stories about how being skilled in this one area had saved his life several times on bear hunts across Montana and Canada and had also won him “once in a lifetime” animals in Botswana & Zambia.
On the training side of these stories, I see opportunities to pass on the knowledge to hunters of all backgrounds. The connection to the firearm in this critical moment is pivotal to success. For example, when a Shooter gets a new rifle and gets it set up for them, they need to make sure that the length of pull of the rifle fits them so that their body position with the firearm isnt thrown off when behind it. That directly correlates to how far forward or back the scope is mounted so that the Shooter can attain the proper eye relief to quickly pick up their target. Not to mention, the placement of the Shooters finger on the trigger can make or break a shot in stressful situations when fine motor controls quickly become “lost in the sauce.”
Thankfully, this wasn’t the end of the story. We continued on, undeterred and quickly spotted another great warthog. The previous mistakes were now turned quickly into lessons that were applied aptly to the new hunt. The quad pods were set down in perfect alignment with the hog as Matt indexed the rifle. With a tense moment taken to assure a great point of aim, Matt sent a perfect heart shot into his prey. His first ever hunt was in the African bush and the four of us were ecstatic for him. How do you top that?
All in all, the lesson is to simply train in the skills that are required for the discipline you are engaging in. From the hunter who only shoots one animal a year to the competition shooter who routinely goes through 30-60k rounds a year. To be a Shooter is to take on a responsibility above the rest because you are engaging in a craft that’s rooted in warfare, regardless of what people will say or marketing agencies push. It has been a fresh and eye-opening experience to see how native South Africans who’ve been hunting their entire life go about their skill and passion. Even a world away from where I apply my skills in shooting, there is applicability as well as room to grow and that is extremely exciting.