Marksmanship is a developed skill. Some are born with the gift, but few are natural Annie Oakleys. Learning to place a bullet with precision under hunting conditions takes practice. Experienced hunters instinctively seek a rest whenever possible, whether it's a tree limb, fence post or mound of dirt, but a handy rest isn't always available. Fortunately there are aids that can be easily carried, and when used properly, turn a mediocre shot into a competent marksman, whether the target is close or way out there.
Shooting sticks — whether they be a monopod, bipod, tripod or simple crossed sticks — have been around since firearms were invented. Buffalo hunters routinely relied on them. In sparse, open country with nothing to rest on, buffalo hunters made spectacularly long shots that couldn't have been made otherwise. The value of shooting sticks is undisputed, yet many of today's hunters don't take advantage of them, considering them cumbersome, complicated or too much to carry. But once you give one of these aids a try, it's a safe bet you won't ever go hunting without one.
Here's a look at the pros and cons of the three different types.
Stock-mounted, fixed bipods like those available from Harris Engineering or Battenfeld are exceptionally handy in open country. If most of your shooting is from a sitting or prone position and you have plenty of time to adjust, they work well. They are heavy and somewhat bulky on the rifle, and you can't pivot quickly, but when set up they can be as steady as a bench. Harris bipods come in several lengths, telescoping from 6-27 inches, and retail for about $108.
Practically speaking, the most useful are the ones long enough to allow you to shoot from a sitting position. That way they can be fully extended, held off the ground on your knees, and set down in the right position when the target presents itself. Make sure you use caution and practice thoroughly before the hunt with stock-mounted bipods. Many shooters feel they radically change point of impact as well as group size between extended or not extended.
A simple set of crossed sticks is probably the most useful of all portable shooting aids. For years I used a homemade set made from a pair of 36-inch fiberglass driveway reflectors with the reflector removed ($1.49 at Wal-Mart). To make them, drill through the rods about five inches down, insert a bolt with one washer between the rods and bolt together. A little flat paint or camo tape finishes them off. They can be carried hands-free by shoving them inside your belt, where they are totally out of the way.
For the shot, just drop to one knee, pull the rods, flip 'em open, and the rifle is solidly cradled in seconds. The legs sit squarely even on uneven ground. With these, I've taken deer, antelope, elk, caribou, truckloads of varmints, and one charging buffalo at distances to well beyond 200 yards. For most hunting, you'll have plenty of time to set them up.
Several manufacturers offer ready-made shooting sticks. One, by Crooked Horn Outfitters, folds to a neat 12-inch cluster that tucks away in a belt pouch. Pull them out, give them a shake, and an internal elastic cord locks them into a pair of solid 36-inch crossed sticks. The fold-up option is handier than fixed rods when getting in and out of the truck. They retail for about $40.
Several varieties are available from Stoney Point. They make similar folding sticks with internal elastic, or a solid tube series with telescoping legs. Lockable, telescoping legs can be an advantage in tall grass or brush where sitting or kneeling is not an option. I use the telescoping-leg varieties when sitting in a tree stand. By putting the unopened leg on the platform, then extending to a comfortable shooting height, my rifle is up and ready with no strain for hours.
Tripods offer the best stability, though they can take longer to set up and adjust. One of the best out there today is the Bogpod, made by a company that also makes an excellent bipod. Bogpods use thick, nearly indestructible tubing that telescopes the same way a camera tripod does. You can get several different heads for them, including a V-shaped rifle rest and camera/spotting scope mount.
These rest types require some pre-hunt experimentation to find out where on your rifle to place the cross section to minimize changes to point of impact. This is especially true with single-shots. Most rifles show best results when the crossed section is kept as close to the receiver or trigger area as possible.
One handy tip is to cover or paint these bipods with different shades on opposite sides. If you have light and dark choices you can easily flip them around when the terrain changes. Snow or standard camo is another choice.
There is no handier item for a walkabout hunter than a single stout staff. In rough country it's like an extra leg and when it's time for the shot — sitting, standing or kneeling — simply slide your hand to the right height, cradle the rifle on the hand holding the rod and shoot. Many people simply whittle their own and fit a protective spike on the end to take the pounding. I have one that I found in a second-hand shop and is probably over a hundred years old. The carving leaves no doubt as to its purpose. If making your own doesn't appeal, Stoney Point offers a telescoping monopod with a rifle cradle on top. I can take a novice with that monopod, and in a few short minutes have them outshoot a seasoned veteran shooting offhand without one.
You should carry your shooting staff all the time. It helps balance you in rough terrain and serves to poke thick grass and brush to make sure you don't have any fanged company when you sit down in rattlesnake country. Although the full-length staff is at its best when taking standing shots in brushy terrain where you can't shoot from a sitting position, with practice it can be used from a sitting position as well, making it one of the most versatile shooting aids.
The key to using any of these is to always have them with you and practice getting them into service fast. Soon, you'll be using them without even thinking about it. With a little practice you'll find you're on target and confident in the shot faster than you would be without them.