Young apprentice

A couple of times in this series, we’ve mentioned that our young apprentice gamekeeper zeroes his Air Arms S200 hunting combo at unusually long distances of 50-plus yards – and such practice certainly has many readers worried if our postbag is anything to go by. So this month we’ve turned the spotlight on Charlie, to find out whether he really can ever justify taking a 50-yard shot at live quarry.

6308_YoungApp5Charlie’s lucky to live in a rural house with a large, walled garden that makes an ideal shooting range. With a safe backstop all round, he can practise to his heart’s content between his studies in game management at Sparsholt College. In fact, Charlie ‘trains’ an hour or so every day with his air rifle. He has set up a semi-permanent shooting position just outside the back door. There’s a large plant pot placed on a low wall to give the perfect height. A paving slab on top of the pot provides a solid base, its weight helping to keep everything steady – and Charlie’s own ‘base’ is a garden chair.

There are two target positions where he sets up a makeshift target holder, using a slice from a log propped up with garden shears borrowed from the shed. “It’s simple, but it works,” he says, pointing out that the timber stops his pellets perfectly. Any pellet that misses the log will be caught by the garden wall – although the lack of pellet marks on the wall proves that this hardly ever happens.

Charlie used a tape measure to gauge the distances for his garden zeroing range. His intermediate distance, at the base of some low firs, is 30 yards from his firing point. The farthest target position, with the log against the garden wall, is precisely 50 yards. He zeroes the gun before every outing, at the distance he expects to be shooting. Often that will be 30 yards, but one of his permissions is a series of horse paddocks with little cover. He knows that 50 yards is the closest he’s likely to get without spooking the rabbits, so that’s what he’ll zero for.

6305_YoungApp5The first thing to note is that he takes accuracy very seriously. He opts to hunt with .177 calibre rather than .22, he says, “because it’s more accurate and I’d choose accuracy over hitting power.” And, of course, even at 50 yards, his S200 will still have enough residual power to cleanly dispatch airgun-type pests.

Even at his young age, Charlie’s worked on his shooting technique like a competition shooter, reaching a higher level of precision and consistency than many airgunners achieve in a lifetime. Starting with Airgun Shooter is following young Charlie Crane as he and his airgun are mentored in the art of gamekeeping. This month, the young student is asked to give an account of himself – specifically on his choice of hunting distances… his equipment, he chose the S200 for its accuracy, and spent days with his father testing dozens of different pellets to find the one that gave the best results. “You wouldn’t believe the awful groups I got with some pellets,” he says. They weren’t necessarily bad pellets, they just didn’t suit his barrel. Eventually he settled on the Air Arms Diabolo Field, an 8.4-grain roundhead pellet that proved it could consistently shoot ‘sub-minute-of-angle’ groups (as he calls them) – placing shot after shot into a bullseye smaller than a fingernail at 50 yards. He checks each pellet by eye before loading, and a small pile of deformed pellets on the wall next to his shooting seat is testament to the fact that he rejects any that aren’t perfectly shaped.

The scope is crucial too. Charlie uses a Deben Military & Police DMP 4-16×56, with a mil-dot reticle. He has used this scope almost as long as he’s owned the rifle – nearly 12 years – so he knows the combination inside-out. The scope has all the adjustments Charlie needs and is mounted rock-solid on his rifle. The mil-dots allow him to aim off for range or windage without losing accuracy, and there’s a built-in light to illuminate the reticle when he’s hunting in low-light conditions. He particularly likes the very fine crosshairs in the DMP as they give him a precise aiming mark, even at longer ranges, where fatter crosshairs would obscure more of the target.

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Finally, there’s a Harris bipod attached to the sling swivel on the rifle’s forend. The Harris is a favourite of deerstalkers, varmint shooters and military snipers, as it provides great stability, but still has enough ‘give’ to allow for the gun’s recoil without interfering with its accuracy. The legs can be carried in the ‘up’ position to keep them out of the way, and flipped down in seconds, the spring mechanism snapping them into place.

So much for the gear, but accuracy is equally to do with the shooter – the nut behind the butt. If anything, Charlie has put more time and effort into his technique than his equipment. First comes the shooting position and gun hold. He prefers a sitting position, as that gives him a good, solid base with enough height to clear any grass or weeds in between him and his quarry. He uses the bipod whenever possible, because it gives better stability.

6297_YoungApp5Where necessary, though, he can adopt other positions, using the rifle sling and any handy solid object for maximum support. As he said earlier, hunting is more about accuracy for Charlie, and that starts at the aim point. Rather than hold the forend of the gun, Charlie tucks his left hand under the butt, and grabs a fold of his clothing. This locks the stock firmly into his shoulder at the correct height, making for a very steady shooting position.

Breathing control comes next. Charlie used to feel the adrenalin kick in when he was about to take a shot at live quarry. It made his heart race, his breathing erratic and shallow. Now older and wiser, he has also trained himself to stay calm, taking a few deep, slow breaths as he prepares to shoot. “It really works,” he says. “You can feel your heartbeat slowing back down.” He watches the crosshairs rise and fall with each breath, then makes one last exhale, holds and releases the shot.

That brings us to trigger control. Charlie’s Air Arms has a two-stage trigger which he’s had adjusted to suit his style. There is a long first stage take-up, followed by a light and crisp let-off. Charlie says he knows the trigger so well that he doesn’t have to consciously ‘think’ about pulling it, he just wills the gun to fire… and it does. Crucially, he makes a conscious effort to hold his position and watch the pellet hit before he moves – the follow-through. Early on in his shooting career, Charlie found he was raising his head to watch the target immediately after firing – something he still sees other shooters do now. That, he says, can quickly lead to you moving in anticipation of the shot, which will ruin your accuracy.

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The final piece in the puzzle is estimating the holdover and windage for each shot. The light .177 pellet is susceptible to wind drift and, although its trajectory is fl atter than the heavier .22, it’s still important to allow the correct holdover (or holdunder) for the range. Charlie makes full use of the mil-dots on his reticle to allow precise amounts of holdover and windage, and he practises at different ranges in his garden to become familiar with all the necessary aim points. “Having the dots on the crosshair,” says Charlie, “means you can use an actual aiming point, like the top or bottom of a dot, rather than aiming the central crosshairs ‘somewhere’ in space above the quarry.”

He doesn’t have charts, or do the maths in his head. He simply knows from experience exactly what to allow in any conditions. The proof of the pudding is in the targets, and Charlie’s practice cards show group after group less than 10mm across at 50 yards. That’s easily small enough to hit the kill zone on typical airgun quarry – and Charlie knows exactly where the kill zones are, because he skins or plucks almost everything he shoots. Usually, it’s to prep it for the table, but he’s also interested in how the pellet works on impact. “To cleanly dispatch a living pest,” he says, “you need to know exactly what makes it tick.”

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“I generally prefer head shots on squirrels and rabbits, because that gives an instant kill,” he comments. “With pigeons, the head is smaller and more mobile, so I usually take body shots, or perhaps a neck shot depending on the angle.” Rats, he finds, will roll over nicely with a simple body shot in the chest cavity area. The key to it all is self-control, on top of his skill, experience, and familiarity with the rifle and pellets. Young Charlie clearly knows what he can and can’t hit – his is a wise head on such young shoulders. If the wind is gusting too much, the quarry is bobbing up and down, or there’s a twig in the way, he’s responsible enough to lower the rifle and not take the shot. “For me, it’s got to be a clean kill or nothing,” preaches the young gun.

Sometimes that might mean turning down a shot at 20 yards; other times it means he can confidently take a shot at 50 yards in ideal conditions. And if he can be sure of a clean kill, who could criticise him for that? Certainly not his mentor.

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Posted in Behind the Scenes, Features

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