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GONE IN 60 SECONDS: Beginning Elk Hunting Tips to Make Your First Shot Count

GONE IN 60 SECONDS: Beginning Elk Hunting Tips to Make Your First Shot Count

Katie Marchetti Rifle Hunting

Think you're ready to head out on your first elk hunt? It takes practice to be physically and mentally ready to tag that bull.

Preparing for your first Elk Hunt

There’s a difference in the air, a crispness that alerts your senses to the changing season, a brittleness you long to hear broken by the bugle of a bull elk. As you feel the familiar weight of your hunting pack settle onto your back, and sling the rifle over your shoulder, your foot finds its place among the cross-stitch pattern of fallen leaves and deadfall beams. Your eyes search for blonde and brunette horizontal lines beneath a canopy of vertical trees and quaking aspen leaves.

Sign, scent, and the climb ahead shortens your breath to a clipped staccato. A bugle reverberates across the mountain, a shadow of movement raises the hair on the back of your neck, and your hand shakes as it holds the glass for your searching eyes. Fumbling with your sling and silently cursing the pack buckles that won’t release what you need, you sink to the earth looking for a steady place for your hand to rest. This is the moment you’ve waited for - are you prepared for what will ensue?

As Archilochus said, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” For new and seasoned hunters alike the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful hunt comes down to the 60 seconds before the first shot is taken.

Home Preparation

When a hunter heads out to the prairie or peaks in search of Wapiti, proficiency with their tools should be the last thing on their mind. Proficiency begins at home long before one’s tags arrive in the mail. Seek out a friend, colleague, or mentor who’s experience exceeds your own to help prepare you for your time in the field.

Utilize your downtime during the cold winter months by familiarizing yourself with your rifle. A small investment that will pay dividends in the long run is a set of snap caps. Practice loading and unloading your rifle with these dummy rounds, so these movements become second nature.

Lay on the living room floor in the prone position to practice working the bolt and dry firing. The more comfortable you become with your rifle here, the more comfortable you will be when you take it to the range.

In the real-world weapons jam, so this is also a good time to learn how to clear out any malfunction your rifle could have beforehand. Practice un-jamming your rifle while using snap caps so you can calmly and safely rectify the situation should it ever happen in the field.

Katie Marchetti practicing rifle skills at the range.

Hitting the range is for more than just getting your zero. Try different shooting positions, and make sure you experiment while shooting with an elevated heart rate.

Range Preparation

The range is the place to fine-tune a rifle’s zero at 100 or 200 yards and find out what ammo it likes best. An elk hunter should be able to consistently shoot one-minute-of-angle groups out to four hundred yards before they head out into the field. After finalizing ammunition selection and dialing in a zero many hunters pack up their gear and head home. However, this is where the important shooting begins.

Practice shooting different scenarios, from a variety of positions and rests. Hunting guides frequently lament that their clients only practice shooting from a bench which leads to many missed opportunities when there are no benches to be found in the elk woods.

A hunter should be comfortable shooting in the prone, seated, kneeling and free-standing positions to prepare for real-life situations. It’s also important to utilize different rests for your rifle, whether you’re using a bipod or your pack — get comfortable with both.

Practice shooting with an elevated heart-rate — do 15 jumping jacks and then get behind your weapon and practice regulating your breathing. This drill is the closest replication to the state of your heart when an elk is in your sights, and adrenaline is flooding your veins; you’ll be surprised just how much your reticle is jumping with your heart rate.

Elk are tough animals and it often takes more than one shot to truly knock them down, which is why it’s important to practice racking a new round in the chamber without picking your head up off that rifle. Once you fire, immediately realign your sights on the elk and chamber a new round in case you need it.

Katie Marchetti rifle hunting in the field.

The range can get your rifle dialed, but practice in the field can make sure you get the experience you need to shoot with confidence. (Need to learn more about shooting on public lands? Checkout this blog.)

Field Preparation

Consider this a test run — gear up as if it’s opening morning and head to a safe shooting area. The first time someone wears their pack and slings their rifle over their shoulder should be long before elk season begins. Take a partner along and have them pick a rock, tree etc. in the distance, and pretend it’s an elk. (Want to learn more about how to successfully hunt with family and friends? Check out this blog.) It’s now your job to find the elk dummy with your binos, take your rifle off your shoulder, pick a shooting position, build a rest, and chamber a round. Whether you want to live fire on the rock or use snap caps for this drill will be determined by the safety of the region in which you are training.

You’ll be surprised how much more fluid you will be getting into position when hunting season begins by playing this game. Familiarize yourself with your scope’s reticle here as well; while hiking, keeping an optic on low power increases the optics field of view which helps you find the animal quickly, especially when elk are closer than you expect. This is also a good opportunity to keep in mind your optic’s focal plane if you plan on using windage hashmarks or a bullet-drop-compensating reticle. Second focal plane reticles require that the magnification is at a certain power to shoot accurately; keep this in mind while practicing. Many elk have lived to fight another day due to this simple mistake. Want to learn more about first focal plane optics? Check out this blog.)

If you’re carrying a tripod, practice utilizing the tripod as a rifle rest by finding points of contact to stabilize your shot. You can also carry an adapter that allows you to quickly connect your rifle to the top of the tripod for added stability on the go.

Prepare for gear to break or God-forbid be left behind in the truck by using what you have in your pack as a trial run for jimmy-rigged rests on the go. Get creative and get off the ground —many hunters only practice with their bipod or pack in the prone position; however, deep snow or tall grass quickly makes this an impossible task. Practice using crisscrossed trekking poles, your tripod, a leaning tree, or an elevated rock. You’ll learn quickly what positions are stable before it comes time to make a shot. (For more backcountry hunting tips, check out this podcast.)

When running through these drills, find the most difficult shooting positions from which to build a practice shot. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, controlling your heart rate, and keeping your target in your sights long after you’ve fired your first shot. Then you won’t have to think about the opportunity that was gone in less than 60 seconds.

Photos by Rick Hutton

Katie Marchetti Managing Editor for Modern Huntsman


Katie is a Montana-based writer and editor with a passion for people and their stories. Raised on a cattle ranch near Yosemite National Park, she’s enthralled by wide open spaces and the written word. Serving as Managing Editor for Modern Huntsman, you’ll likely find her, pen in hand, documenting the history and tradition, the beauty and adventure to be found hunting, fishing, and ranching in the American West.

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