Avoiding the Dreaded Miss

If you’ve ever missed critters you should’ve hit, consider these nine reasons in your analysis of what went wrong — and then work to reduce their frequency.

Avoiding the Dreaded Miss

Everybody misses. It’s unavoidable. We might go a long stretch of one-shot kills, but eventually that run will end. Humility lies in wait for all of us, and it usually pounces when our buddies are watching and the video camera is running. 

When they miss, honest hunters often beat themselves up badly, but try to analyze the miss to find what caused it. The slightly more dishonest tend to blame something or someone other than themselves. For them the burden of wearing the “I missed” label is just too great, which is unfortunate because it means they can’t honestly analyze the problem. And if they can’t do that, they’ll never solve it. 

Like most predator hunters, I keep track of how many coyotes I take during a season, but I also track how many I’ve shot in a row without a miss. A couple of seasons ago my consecutive hits streak never got past seven. So, when that season ended, I had to do some serious soul searching and experimenting to figure out what was going on. A bit of equipment tweaking and a practice routine over the summer fixed most of my issues. As I write this, my current streak is 17 straight kills without a miss, and I’m hoping to hit 20 before I screw up. 

That work I did over the summer, as well as help I’ve provided to friends with a “missing problem,” has led me to create a list of likely causes for misses. 

Cause No. 1: Flinching

Shooters who flinch usually don’t know it because recoil masks the effect. However, the flinch isn’t usually born of the smaller calibers we use when predator hunting, instead it comes from some fire-breathing magnum rifle used for big-game hunting. Unfortunately, the subconscious brain seems to have difficulty separating the two, and as a result we get flinches, even when shooting something as mild as a .223 Rem. 

A major clue indicating a shooter is flinching is a miss that goes extremely low. If you suspect a flinch, take five shots at a target from a kneeling position with no artificial support. But don’t load the rifle yourself, have a buddy do it, with instructions to make one of the rounds in the rifle a dummy cartridge. If he sees the muzzle dip when the gun goes “click” or you see your view in the scope dive downward, you have a flinch. 

Correcting that flinch is much harder than diagnosing it. And it’s probably too late to do it in the middle of a season. Because a flinch is an unconscious reflex action to recoil and noise, the only way to get rid of it is to reprogram the brain. A lot of shooting with a .22 rimfire will help the reprogramming. Then, once the brain learns there’s nothing damaging going on, move up to a .22 centerfire. Wearing hearing protection when hunting is a significant help as well because it’s not just recoil that causes a flinch, it’s noise, too.  

Cause No. 2: Rifle Not Zeroed

If you didn’t zero your rifle before predator season and you missed, that might be all you need to know. If that’s the case, you should consider yourself lucky you missed cleanly. A wounded animal that’s not recovered is just as likely a scenario. The fact your rifle was zeroed last year is interesting historical information but has no relevance to this year’s hunt. 

Not only should you zero your rifle at the beginning of a season, but you should also take the opportunity to check it several times during the season. This is especially true if your rifle gets to ride on OHVs or otherwise leads a rough life. I’ll go so far as to recommend some kind of zero-checking schedule — perhaps once a month, or once every week, depending on how often you hunt and available facilities. A zero-check should not be viewed as something done only when a problem is suspected. Instead, it’s a way of locking in confidence in the entire shooting system. 

Cause No. 3: Incorrect Distance

There was a time in the distant past, when we didn’t have laser rangefinders. Now that we do, this reason for missing a shot has been greatly reduced. These gadgets are so small and cheap there’s little reason for not having one in your pocket to help make those more distant shots. But let’s be realistic, sometimes there just isn’t time to take the extra step of range-finding. What then? 

When the critter you’re looking for unexpectedly steps into view, and you know he’s there for seconds not minutes, remember in those circumstances we usually guesstimate animals as being farther away than they actually are. Certainly, the vast majority of my misses related to range estimation have been shots over the animal’s back. This is why the old rifleman’s rule of “always hold on hair” is good advice. If you put that crosshair above the animal’s back, that’s likely where the bullet will go. 

Cause No. 4: Jerking the Trigger

Novice shooters tend to think that if the sights are lined up, they can just pull the trigger and the bullet will hit its mark. Of course, that yank pulls the rifle off target and a wild miss results. Eventually, they learn how to squeeze the trigger without disturbing the rifle’s alignment with the target. But it’s amazing how quickly that “yank” can return to haunt seasoned shooters. For right-handed shooters, jerking the trigger will send a miss low and right, while it’s low and left for southpaws. If that’s where you’re seeing misses, it’s a good bet the problem is trigger control. 

The best cure I know of is to practice shooting on paper targets that are large enough to record all your shots. The emphasis here is on paper, because only paper is unforgiving enough to hold you accountable for every shot. Put your targets far enough away, and your scope at a low enough magnification that you can’t see the bullet holes. Take a shot from a realistic field position, then predict where the bullet hit. Peek through a spotting scope and see if you got it right. When you can reliably “call” the location of each shot, you’ll have mastered trigger control.  

Cause No. 5: Buck Fever

I once read that buck fever is “… when your brain and your ass are no longer wired together.” And that’s as good a description as I’ve ever heard of what happens when the sight of multiple predators responding to a call turns the hunter into a quivering mass of jelly. Like everything else, if it happens to you, the first step is to admit it. Typical symptoms include an increase in heart and breathing rates, as well as shaking hands. It’s all the result of increased adrenaline. 

I get it. That adrenaline dump is part of the reason we go hunting, but it doesn’t do a thing to help our shooting. And defeating it isn’t easy. But since it’s a mental thing, the cure is also mental. The more important bagging that animal is to you, the more likely you’ll be affected by this brand of fever. The less you care the less you’ll quiver. That means maturity, both as a hunter and as a person, diminishes it. And no, Cabela’s doesn’t sell maturity. I checked. 

Cause No. 6: Inadequate Rifle Support

One of the marks of a really great field shot is the ability to use whatever is handy to stabilize and support a rifle well enough to make a clean shot. If you ever get the chance to hang around experienced military snipers, you’ll see this is one thing they excel at. In the hunting world this means using a rock, a fence post, a tree limb or even a prairie dog mound to help steady the rifle. It can also mean throwing down a pack for support or just making the most effective use of a bipod. 

With the increasing popularity of tripods and the capability to lock rifles into these carbon fiber wonders, we get a means of support that can cover up a multitude of rifle shooting sins, including flinching and buck fever. While it’s important to grab as much support as possible in a hunting situation, never lose sight of the fact they could be masking problems. Good rifle support is key, and I never venture afield without at least a bipod.  

Cause No. 7: Poor Physical Conditioning

Pulling off a good shot means holding a rifle relatively still. If you’re puffing and wheezing in an attempt to get oxygen into your lungs, it’ll be impossible to hold a rifle on target, and a miss will occur. Like flinching, if you’re in poor physical shape come hunting season, it’s too late to fix that situation this year. However, if that’s what’s causing misses, use it as a motivator for next year. 

Aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility are all required when hunting, so include all of these aspects in an exercise routine. 

Cause No. 8: Bad Gear

You’ll notice I haven’t included any gear-related excuses for missing  — things such as a crappy scope that doesn’t hold zero, inaccurate ammo, a magazine that constantly causes jams, bullets that don’t expand properly or a gritty trigger. In my experience, these are the excuses we reach for first whenever we miss. While it’s true these can all contribute to missed shots, the real problem with bad gear is the person using it. 

If you know a certain piece of equipment has a problem, get rid of it, and exchange it for something that works properly. These days we have so many options for quality hunting gear there’s just no excuse for using defective equipment. Long term, the fault isn’t with the gear, it’s the owner, and it’s an easy fix.

Cause No. 9: Insufficient Practice

Shooting is a skill that requires practice to get and remain proficient, and it’s here I’ll end my list. This is where my own previously mentioned misses originated from. I failed to sufficiently recognize how perishable shooting skill is, and while I spent a lot of time at a shooting range, too much of it was shooting from a bench. When I disciplined myself to do some realistic practice on every range trip my misses began to disappear. 

Fortunately, shooting full-power hunting ammo is not required for good practice. An accurate .22 rimfire or even an air rifle can help a shooter build and maintain a lot of skill. But to have the most benefit, that practice needs to be done from realistic field positions. If you haven’t practiced dropping to one knee, deploying your bipod, chambering a round and making a clean trigger squeeze, all in a tight time frame, odds are you won’t get it right when there’s fur on the line. So, once your rifle is zeroed, get off the shooting bench, grab a smaller rifle if you like, and practice from field positions.

Steel targets are a lot of fun, but make sure they represent realistic vital zones on the critters you’re hunting. Even so, if you record a miss on steel, was it high, low, left or right? It can be hard to tell, so shoot paper as well. Consider realistic targets such as the full-size coyote target Birchwood Casey offers. Determinator Targets are another great option, especially for establishing the maximum range you should be shooting at fur. Set one of these at 100 yards, fire five shots from a field position, then read the results. It will likely motivate you to practice some more. Which is a good thing. 

There you have it, nine potential reasons for missing. And to make it more complicated, they can all combine with each other in a combination of scenarios that numbers 320,880. However, the important thing to notice as you go back and review them, is that none of them lets the hunter off the hook for a miss. If you’re going to take credit for a hit, you better own your misses as well. It’s the only way to improve your hit streak.


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