Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsman
By Travis Duncan
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
The words “.243 Winchester” meant nothing to me until the last Saturday in June. And I didn’t know much about “groupings” and “scopes” until I experienced my first Large Bore Rifle Day as part of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Rookie Sportsman Program (RSP).
My daughter, Natalie, and I are participants in the RSP, a year-long mentorship program designed by CPW’s Southeast Region in Colorado Springs for people like us with little or no outdoor experience. The RSP teaches participants outdoor skills and, hopefully, inspires them to get outside and sample all the adventures available in Colorado’s great outdoors.
Natalie and I are learning about hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and much more. We became certified in the safe handling of firearms through a Hunter Education course and went out on a small-game hunt. Neither of us bagged a turkey (what they call filling our tag) but we came home filled with rich memories of our first father-daughter hunt.
Now we are preparing for a big-game hunt and that’s when “.243 Winchester” became important to me. It’s a favorite ammunition of big-game hunters so I read the ammunition’s history in the encyclopedic “Cartridges of the World” book.
I learned .243 Winchester was a caliber of rifle cartridge developed in the 1950s that, due to its design, low recoil and accuracy, quickly became popular among hunters. In fact, gun companies soon were developing rifles to fire that specific cartridge.
(At the shooting range, I also learned that firing enough rounds of this ammo is likely to make my lower back sore the next day. But don’t tell Natalie. We’re pretty competitive and her 14-year-old back seemed just fine after our day at the shooting range.)
Anyway, out at the Pikes Peak Gun Club range on June 29, my RSP class held its first Large Bore Rifle Day to start preparing for big-game season this fall. Many RSP members brought their own rifles. Natalie and I have never fired guns of this caliber before, so we were out to learn what would work best for us before we purchase our first hunting rifles.
Instructor Paul Paradise welcomed the RSP members to the range. Paradise is a law enforcement and military small-arms instructor with 28 years of experience. He paired us with shooting instructors for the day, mostly CPW wildlife officers formally called District Wildlife Managers. They take time from their busy schedules to share their expertise at RSP events.
My shooting partner, Roger Cuevas, and I both shoot left-handed, so we were given one of the few lefty rifles. We were paired with District Wildlife Manager Aaron Berscheid.
My first shot didn’t even hit the paper target at 25 yards. This is where I learned about scopes.
Turns out it wasn’t my poor aim to blame. The targeting scope attached to our Savage rifle was way off. The gun and scope were brand new and had never been properly sighted.
So I learned how to adjust the scope to get a good grouping. When you shoot three consecutive shots and they hit close together on your target, it’s called a “grouping.” So the first step is establishing good groupings.
Then you want your groupings in the center of the target. So you slowly adjust your scope to move your grouping toward the center of the target. This is called “sighting in” your rifle. Each year, sportsmen and women head out to shooting ranges around the state to make sure their rifles are sighted in and ready to go for the new hunting season.
Once your rifle is sighted in, you can no longer blame your bad shots on your scope or groupings. Then you know there’s something wrong with the way you are shooting your rifle.
Once Roger and I got sighted in at 25 yards, we moved the target back to 100 yards. That’s where things get tricky. At longer distance, you learn that so many small things can affect your shot. Things like focus, breathing and follow-through.
At the 100-yard mark, I had to really focus on my breathing. As I exhaled, I noticed the crosshairs in my scope rose slightly. I learned that at the natural pause between exhaling and inhaling, I needed to be ready to calmly squeeze the trigger. I had to find the sweet spot just as the crosshairs came to rest on the bullseye of the target.
Man, easier said than done.
My first shot from 100 yards was actually quite good, just a little outside the bullseye. My next shot was far right. And my last shot was high left. By comparison, Roger’s shots were all fairly close together, almost a line, and they were all just a little high left. Roger had a good grouping and I did not.
Berscheid used a spotting scope to watch our targets so he could tell us how we were doing after each shot. He suggested I might be pulling the gun slightly with my trigger finger instead of squeezing. I could be flinching as I took my shots. Or I might need to work on my breathing.
Natalie was shooting in another group. I checked on her groupings as we walked down range to check our targets after the firing line was clear.
As I mentioned, we are competitive with each other and we enjoyed some good-natured ribbing about who was the better shot. I’m incredibly proud of her and I think she really does have some natural skill at shooting sports. We’ll definitely be competing for bragging rights next time we’re out on the range.
We’ll have three more times out on the range before we are tested for proficiency with our rifles. To go big-game hunting with the RSP, we have to shoot a grouping that fits on an 8-inch paper plate at 100 yards. And we’ll have to do it with a pounding heart because we can’t shoot the test until we complete a short run. The idea is to get our heart rates up to simulate how it will feel when taking our first shot at a big-game animal.
My heart is already pounding at the prospect of my first big-game hunt. Natalie and I drew our big game tags and we’d hate to fail the test and miss out on hunting this fall.
And I’d hate to miss out on another adventure with Natalie like we enjoyed on our turkey hunt and on the shooting range. Learning about hunting and fishing and the outdoors is giving us great experiences and making memories we’ll share forever.
So we’ll be spending quality time on the shooting range becauset CPW takes proficiency with a rifle deadly serious. There are no shortcuts to attaining the skills necessary to take an ethical, safe shot and participate responsibly in managing Colorado’s natural resources.
In the meantime, we’ll be attending a Fishing 101 class and a Camping 101 class. Then we’ll go fishing at Lake Pueblo State Park in July. You can read all about it in the next installment of “Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsman.”
Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at email@example.com
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