Winter wonderland

Daz Taylor checks the zero of his combo before taking on some cold-weather coursework

It may be spring now, but Andy McLachlan urges outdoor shooters to plan well ahead and practise when the mercury starts to plummet once again

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I appear to dislike the winter season and all that goes with it. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the sunshine will be with us and we can all start to enjoy being outside again without the need for the thermal underwear, gloves and heavy boots that accompany our winter-weight outdoor jackets.

That doesn’t mean those of us who dislike winter don’t venture outside during the dark season though. Like many thousands of keen outdoor shooters around the country, winter represents an additional opportunity to gain our fix of competitive shooting that will sustain us until spring.

I suppose there are shooters out there that actually prefer competing in conditions that see most sane people tucked up at home or accompanying their partners on a crucial shopping trip somewhere or other.

Personally, I don’t know of anybody who prefers to shoot in the cold, wet and windy weather. I prefer to feel my finger when releasing a shot; something that doesn’t occur with a freezing gale blowing.

I have, this year, attended higher numbers of outdoor HFT competition shoots over the winter than I have during the more pleasant seasons of spring, summer and autumn.

This, if I am honest with myself, is mainly due to the poor fishing prospects during the winter, and as water temperatures increase, I will no doubt find myself somewhere along our beautiful coast in search of the elusive bass. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed winter competition shooting at least every other weekend though.

A couple of targets can be seen within the trees, although shooting over snow can make rangefinding harder

The thing about shooting in inclement weather, when the wind isn’t sure which way it prefers to blow and is often accompanied by its friend, driving rain, is that it tends to sort out who is at the top of their game when faced with such challenging conditions.

It is the shooters who continue to attend outdoor ranges when conditions are bad that are most likely to benefit from the experiences gained during a winter of trying to learn how best to beat the wind. Learning to properly allow for wind deflection is probably the most important of all the skills required by the regular outdoor competition shooter.

The skill of rangefinding accurately doesn’t change according to the conditions, but allowing for wind deflection does, and is usually the single factor that decides who are the winners and losers on the competition front.

That doesn’t mean that shooting in winter only benefits the winners, of course. Any shooter taking the trouble to venture out into a winter’s day of outdoor airgun shooting will be learning an awful lot of the skills required to correctly allow for conditions on the day.

If they spent a valuable day shooting at an indoor range, the shooter may improve things such as trigger technique and follow-through, but they won’t have learned a damned thing about how much they will need to aim off when shooting in wind. That, of course, presumes that the shooter intends to use their gun outdoors, as it may be that they are more than happy to continue shooting indoors anyway.

For those of us that intend to use our airguns outdoors in competition though, frequent use of the gun and ammunition combination will help you to understand how much deflection to allow for varying wind velocities.

The problem for us, when attempting to work out just how much wind deflection for our shot, is that it is a rare day indeed when the wind remains at a constant velocity and in the same direction for any period of time.

All the experienced outdoor shooters reading this will be more than familiar with the requirements of accurately assessing which direction the prevailing wind is coming from, how fast it is moving and if it is gusting on a frequent basis. Like many other shooters, I often find myself waiting a short period for an appropriate lull in any wind movement before releasing my shot.

This of course is just taking account of what any prevailing wind might be doing, and does not consider the effects of features such as walls, trees and ditches, which will play havoc on any firing solution that has not accounted for them.

This is the hardest-won skill of them all, and is the one that the shooters at the top of their game are more able to apply successfully than the rest of us who sometimes get it right, but unfortunately don’t with as much frequency as we’d like. 

Over the course of the winter HFT season here in the north-west of England, I literally cannot count the numbers of shots that I and many others have taken that have completely failed to behave as envisaged when working out the firing solution for an individual target.

My own personal favourite this year has been the shot that flies as straight as a die, completely ignoring all physical influences, such as wind deflection upon a target reset cord, and what the air movement is doing to leaves, grass or branches around the target.

To see a pellet in flight that fails to curve into the killzone of a target is a sight I have seen frequently in my shooting career, but this becomes so much more frustrating when all the indicators as described previously decline to provide you with the correct resolution.

This obviously results in either a faceplate strike, resulting in only one point, or, as happened to me during a recent North West Gauntlet competition shoot at the Rivington home ground of Turton Towers, the sight of your pellet completely missing the faceplate and removing a twig from a tree due to the shot travelling perfectly straight, despite all of the indicators telling you something else. 

I hasten to add that many other competitors also fell into this natural trap. If we had all aimed directly at the elevated target, most of us would have been rewarded with a two on our scorecards.

Still, learning how to best manage your shots in windy conditions is all part of the skill-set required to compete at the top, outside and with an airgun.

In order to improve our skills when shooting our combinations outside, we really do have to do the obvious, and take the time to learn how our own rifle, scope and pellet will perform when faced with the vary weather conditions experienced on an outdoor range.

Presuming that the shooter has established an accurate zero with their combination, the first port of call should be the zeroing range, which if the venue holds outdoor airgun events on a regular basis, will usually comprise of numerous knockdown targets and spinners, allowing you, as the shooter, to estimate how much wind deflection is necessary at the various ranges.

As the pellet’s velocity decreases with range, in addition to gravity having a more significant effect on the projectile’s drop, any air movement will really start to influence the amount of deflection that will be required if we are to stand any chance of successfully hitting what, in 2019, might only be a 30mm diameter killzone at the 45-yard maximum target distance.

Over the past few months, during the winter HFT campaign, I have discussed these issues with many of my shooting friends. We have all concluded that, just like any hard-earned skill, unless you practise regularly, and within the environment and conditions that you mostly shoot, it is very easy to not practise as frequently as is necessary, which will then result in lowering your individual ability to make the right judgements in future shoots. 

A windicator is a useful tool for checking both wind strength and direction at the firing point

In my own case, if I don’t manage to shoot an outdoor competition at least once every two weeks, I notice a drop in my own average score of about two or three points per shoot.

The best answer to maintaining any level of skill that you might gain for outdoor airgun target shooting is to just keep practising as frequently as you can. 

An obvious statement I know, but during the winter it’s something that a lot of shooters fail to do. 

I have included some pictures of fellow Rivington Riflemen HFT shooters ‘enjoying’ a practice shoot at Turton. The temperature on the day was minus seven degrees Celsius, with the wind being a bit on the cool side as well. 

That’s not forgetting the snow! 

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