Benefits of simulation training to airgun hunters

Philip Siddell explains how to use simulation training to improve the chances of the airgun hunter’s success in the field.

The improvised shooting positions you practise during training are sure to come in useful in the field

The last time that I visited my local airgun range a fellow shooter commented on the fact that I was shooting off split sticks. He told me he’d never seen anyone else at the range using sticks; when I thought about it, neither had I. As this particular range is predominantly set up for benchrest with individual shooting lanes, my habit is to spend most of my time zeroing and checking data, but then I’ll spend the last 15 or 20 minutes shooting offhand or using sticks.

Marksmanship of any kind is a perishable skill, especially the fiendishly tricky stuff like unsupported standing shots. I’ve learnt through bitter experience that there is nothing worse than lining up a shot on a rabbit when there’s nothing to rest your rifle on and only then realising that you’ve neglected to rehearse that type of shot. The rifle range is a comfortable and sterile environment, while the hunting field is not.

The range flatters our marksmanship too, thanks to its wind baffles and sturdy benches. It is the antithesis of the natural environment, where even prone shots can be uncomfortable as you’re pricked by thistles or leaning to counter an incline. Another luxury the range offers is that of repetition. Next time you are there, pay attention to the way your aim steadily improves as you ‘warm up’ to the task at hand.

In the field you’ll often be shooting at elevated targets, which is something well worth practising beforehand

When hunting, the first pellet down the barrel is the one that matters the most. This isn’t to say that the rifle range doesn’t have a place in the serious hunter’s routine, rather that it is crucial we understand why we do what we do there; to be aware of its limitations. Having worked as a coach in a couple of different settings, naturally I’ve given this issue some thought and I’d like to commend to you the benefits of simulation training as a solution to this quandary.

Simulation training is a technique, rather than a technological solution, that is widely used to train people working in high-stress occupations such as the military, police service or medical profession. The concept is simple: create a realistic learning environment that mirrors a real-life scenario.

Before you start envisaging state-of-the-art shooting simulators or those awful VR headsets, allow me to explain. In our case, as air rifle hunters, our aim is essentially to make our range time mirror our hunting activities so that we can perform flawlessly when it really matters.

For me, the genesis of this practice came in the form of beginning to include that quarter of an hour of offhand shots in my range routine in the run-up to lamping season (when that skill is worth its weight in bunnies). Since then it has evolved into a strategy for improving my shooting that I try to apply to any and all possible hunting scenarios.

More on airgun hunting

In general, I’ve found that the simulation training strategy works best when working on aspects such as shooting positions, stalking in to game, rifle handling and range estimation. But it also has ancillary benefits such as helping you refine your kit, including optics and clothing, and also how you store and carry that kit. When we set up a simulated training environment we can choose either to work on one element in particular or improve skills in aggregate.

The environment needn’t be anything special, but an unmown meadow is generally more true to life than a closely shorn lawn or Tarmac drive. High grass and weeds are a common obstruction to an otherwise easy shot. Other features such as varied topography and hedgerows present realistic challenges too. The fact that you are outdoors is helpful also, and don’t be afraid to practise in all weathers – this is Britain after all!

When you have a location secured, set up targets of a realistic size, perhaps the knockdown kind, in realistic locations, such as a rabbit silhouette along a hedgeline or a squirrel shape out of reach in the bough of a tree. Stalk into targets from the distance you would normally have to, say 100 or 200 yards. Don’t just stalk into the most convenient shooting position, move using the wind and topography; if you can’t see the target on the stalk in, it can’t see you.

If you can afford to splash out, set out a handful of targets and only allow yourself one shot at each. Remember: a miss on the range is equal to a miss in the field. It’s common to hurry through a magazine of pellets at the range, but avoid this in the simulated hunting scenario.

It’s easy to get used to using bags and bipods when you’re at the range, but rests in the field are less forgiving

Think carefully about each shot, take your time, only break that trigger sear when you’ve done everything you can to ensure a hit. If you’re rushing to pull the trigger in training you’ll only be more impulsive when under the pressure of a shot at live quarry. If you’re taking fewer shots you’ll have more time to reflect on the successes and failures. 

If there is a type of shot or a shooting position that is getting the better of you, create a simulated environment based around it and iron out those kinks. If you have a hunting buddy or a friend who shoots, you could add an extra element of fun and competition by keeping score. By comparing scores and notes you might learn tricks and tips from each other as you employ different approaches for each target.

I suspect that this approach will have great appeal to those of you who, like me, tend to get a little bored punching paper in a wind-free tunnel. There may be others, too, who demonstrate great prowess shooting benchrest but are left a little crestfallen after an hour of simulation training, where the normal comforts are absent. Either way, it’s time well spent and, if nothing else, it’s a break from the norm.

I have chosen to focus here on air rifle hunting as that’s my ‘area’. However, I am confident that the concept of simulation training would be beneficial to competitive target shooters. This might be by training in a distracting or busy environment or, perhaps, by practising while hungry, thirsty or a little tired; all things that can be problematic during competition. 

Like all the best coaching tools, simulation training isn’t a one-dimensional trick or tip, it’s a strategy. It’s an approach all of us can adopt to get ourselves ‘competition ready’. Let me know how you make it work for you. 

Natural rests come in all shapes and sizes, but the only way to get comfortable using them is through simulation training

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