Should Hunters Adopt Shooting Techniques Used by U.S. Snipers?

From sniper schools designed for civilians to the tactics and methods used by snipers, here's how precision marksmanship can elevate a deer hunter's preparation.

Should Hunters Adopt Shooting Techniques Used by U.S. Snipers?

Photo: Mark Kayser 

The word “sniper” has become synonymous with images of invisible operators hiding in the bushes and eliminating targets from unbelievable distances. There’s truth in that depiction, but if you’ve read the book “American Sniper” by the late Chris Kyle, you’ll see he admits that the majority of his shots were from 200 to 400 yards. Those distances, although not chip shots, are doable with modern firearms, ammunition and optics. They are distances that commonly crop up in whitetail hunting scenarios across their range.

Nevertheless, it would be great to spend the summer training with the experts at the U.S. Army's Sniper School in Fort Benning, Georgia, or sniper training courses for other military branches. If you don’t have that kind of time, you can easily brush up on the basics simply by perusing information like that published in the Army’s Sniper Training Manual. The purpose statement defining the mission of the U.S. Army Sniper Course has merit for whitetail hunters wishing to embrace this strategy.

“Educate Snipers to be adaptive Soldiers, critical & creative thinkers, armed with the technical, tactical, and logistical skills necessary to serve successfully at the Sniper Team level. Prepare Snipers with a principal understanding of team duties and responsibilities.”

Granted, you won’t be dropped in a combat theatre environment, but by studying sniper techniques, it will further your hunting skills by being effective at shooting targets with precision at varying distances, gathering intelligence, performing overwatch duties and infiltrating a hunting area without being seen. Think like a sniper for whitetail success.

Equipment Check

Before you study the ways of a military sniper, you need to have appropriate gear. Most snipers don’t embrace the tradition of shooting their dad’s pump-action .30-06 Springfield. Standard issue for military snipers is the bolt action and a few utilize semiautomatics in an AR platform such as the M110. Caliber of choice includes the 7.62x51mm NATO or its nearly identical brother the .308 Winchester. A few snipers have transitioned to the .300 Winchester magnum and the .338 Lapua magnum, but most still rely on the M24 weapons system that includes a Remington 700 action, detachable optics and accessories, all wrapped around the 7.62x51mm caliber.

Fortunately, many manufacturers are offering great-shooting rifles at an inexpensive price. My Bergara B-14 Hunter, which costs less than $900, consistently delivers ¼-inch groups with factory Hornady ammunition. That’s precision at close or extended range at an economical price.

Military members are restricted to certain weapons systems and calibers, but you have more freedom as a civilian. Calibers like the flat-shooting 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, .300 Ruger Compact magnum, 7mm Remington magnum and even the bold .338 Winchester magnum provide you with the energy to meet sniper distances and foot-pounds of energy delivered on impact. And, if you enjoy wildcat calibers, your imagination is the only limitation.

Bart Bartholomew, served as a Marine, primary marksmanship instructor. Later he worked with the Baltimore Police Department SWAT in a sniper position and even after his retirement, he served another stint with the Department of Defense as a weapons specialist. His resume includes being the third recipient of the prestigious Carlos Hathcock Award for precision marksmanship. Today, Bartholomew trains civilian shooters to be precision marksmen at The Bergara Academy, a long-range shooting school in central Montana.

Although Bartholomew worked as a sniper, he prefers to use the term precision marksman when it refers to hunting. As an avid hunter himself, he understands the importance of precision in every aspect of the hunt.

“You need to have a lot of knowledge and field prep, like a sniper, to be a successful whitetail hunter,” points out Bartholomew. “Apply those skills, along with precision marksmanship, field craft, woodsmanship and it will increase your deer hunting success. Everything I did with my past jobs pertains to the hunting side. You’re always thinking in either case, what is going to get me busted? You have to be aware of your scent. You have to move deliberately slow and you have to be precise in your shot placement.”

 When it comes to calibers, Bartholomew realizes there are exponentially more options than he had in the military. He sees no reason not to use a .270 Winchester or other speedy calibers. For now though, he appreciates the 6.5 Creedmoor as a top marksmanship caliber and it serves dual function as a great whitetail caliber.

“The 6.5 Creedmoor has a great trajectory table and the ballistic coefficient of the caliber is superb, plus available bullet weights work ideal for whitetail hunting. I would feel totally comfortable shooting at a whitetail at 600 yards with the 6.5,” states Bartholomew.

Handloading gives you the independence to fine-tune loads so your rifle system will perform to its full potential. If you don’t enjoy reloading or lack the time, you can mate your rifle with any number of premium, factory ammunition options. Companies like Hornady offer high-end ammunition including their Precision Hunter and Superformance line, both cater to Bartholomew’s personal favorite of the 6.5 Creedmoor.

After you’ve decided on a platform, you’ll need to top your sniper rifle with optics to match the distances you hope to shoot with precision. Your head will spin, but rest assured there are any number of companies that deliver optics with magnification and reticles designed specifically for long-range hunting rifles.

The two biggest questions you’ll have to answer is how much magnification do you want to have at your disposal and is the “click and shoot” range adjustment system for you? Higher magnification is available in the 20X range and beyond. If too much power scares you, stick with a variable riflescope with a maximum of around 16X. You’ll be able to aim precisely at distances beyond 400 yards, and by dialing to a lower setting, you can engage targets if you land in a dense, woodland setting. Research multi-coating of lenses, waterproof, fogproof and rugged construction in the riflescope to fine-tune your options.

Lastly, the trend has been toward riflescopes that you click for immediate adjustment of your reticle. Some hunters worry about their setting being bumped during stalks so they opt for permanent, etched reticles relying on minute of angle or MOA for trajectory over mils. Only you’ll know what fits your hunting style, but in either situation use a ballistic calculator to compute your trajectory and secure a “dope card” to your stock for quick confirmation.

“I teach in mils,” states Bartholomew. “It’s not only a tested way to shoot with precision at varying distances, but it comes in handy in other applications. Once you understand mils, you have no problem estimating the size of that trophy or size of the rack. If I know that one mil is 18 inches at 500 yards I can estimate the trophy potential of the buck.”

When you have your personal sniper weapons system ready, you’ll need to zero the rifle and begin acquainting yourself with shooting it at all distances. Once you engage targets at long-range and discover your limitation, follow that in the field as long as it meets ethical killing efficiency. For whitetails, a bullet needs to hit its target with approximately 1,000 foot-pounds of energy for it to perform as designed.

Of all the components and disciplines associated with precision marksmanship, Bartholomew emphasizes the importance of depressing the trigger and launching a bullet toward the target.  “When speaking of fundamental marksmanship, the most important aspect is trigger control. Having a rifle trigger properly set and utilizing proper trigger control is the most important fundamental of long-range shooting. After that, be knowledgeable of what your entire rifle system is capable of doing and train with it on a regular basis because it is a perishable skill,” Bartholomew stresses.

Location Scout 

Snipers are tasked with a variety of objectives; and, like a hunter, they need to observe their target to determine shooting opportunities. It’s similar for you. In brief, where will the deer appear? This means using preseason and on-the-go scouting to aid in selecting a hide. You need to know the travel patterns and behavior of deer to select the best sniper perch.

Your hide may simply be a rock pile on a prairie hilltop or it could be a commercially built shooting house overlooking a Texas sendero. Although military snipers sometimes have to take the low ground for a shot, most look for high vantage points.

Elevated locations can be part of the terrain, like a high ridge, a canyon rim or even the slight uplift an irrigation ditch provides. Don’t overlook manmade options either. Great hides may be hiding in rusty farm implements, hay bales, old barns or even from the window of an abandoned, two-story homestead. Think high and think safe for your elevated hide.

 “I like to have the advantage of higher ground and if at all possible, somewhere out of the elements if inclement weather move[s] in,” advises Bartholomew. “I want to be capable of glassing and observing a large area. If my shooting limitation is 600 yards I work hard to find a location to give me as many shooting opportunities as possible for that entire location.”

Before you get too comfortable, consider one last review of your site. Do you have a plan to slip in undetected and an escape plan to cloak your exit? For survival, military snipers work diligently to avoid detection. Become invisible to ensure deer don’t sense your presence. Wind, terrain and vegetation all combine to give you that ghost-like character.

After getting comfortably settled, spend a few extra moments and either mentally map your area for all possible encounters, or even better yet, sketch the ground before you with pen and paper. That’s called making a range card, and Bartholomew promotes using one while hunting.

 “Once you get into your observation position you should establish a range card. Find your shooting lanes and look for reference points. After you range multiple reference points and note wind directions you write them on your range card so that you’re ready when a split-second chance occurs,” says Bartholomew.

 You can do the same with your smartphone and a hunting app like ScoutLook Weather, but that requires leaving the app open for immediate use. Why immediate use? Your map and notes need to include known distances for the hotspots on your map. This gives you speed when encounters could be seconds rather than minutes. Picking up a rangefinder may mean the difference between a buck or simply a sighting.

Tactics to Succeed 

Every military sniper has contingency plans for an evasive escape or if enemy movement requires relocation. Follow that guidance and have a contingency plan as well. Wind and weather could make your top shooting site selection a dud. An overnight harvesting mission by a local farmer could drive deer from a nearby cornfield haven to the neighbor’s. Factors like these are out of your control. Having a backup plan in place means pre-scouting for a second site that you can move to easily in hopes of ambushing deer at another location.

Lastly, stay alert. Most snipers move into position with a partner, oftentimes a spotter or a security backup in case of an enemy attack. You’ll likely be alone, but if you do have a partner, you can swap observation duties. One can watch while the other naps.

 “I usually hunt alone and when I was in the service I simply got into my so-called mode. It’s the same when I hunt,” notes Bartholomew. “Hunting whitetails is no different than if you’re on an operation and on overwatch. Do whatever it takes to stay alert and ready for a shooting opportunity.”

Some hunters listen to music with one earbud in while leaving the second ear free to listen for surrounding noise. This keeps your mind occupied and your eyeballs in motion, which cannot be said while watching videos on your smartphone during a hunt. That distraction can easily lead to deer slipping by undetected. Whatever your answer is for staying awake and alert — coffee or otherwise — have a plan to be on watch constantly, especially during the rut.

Whitetail hunting is by no means comparable to the pressures our military snipers and service members face while in theatre. Nevertheless, thank a service member and use some of their sniper tips to be successful this fall.

Sniper Schools You Can Attend

If you served our country and were chosen to attend a sniper course, like the Army’s Sniper School at Fort Benning, thank you for your service. For those of you that would like to attend such an esteemed course you can choose from dozens of courses taught by ex-military and law enforcement members around the country. I recently attended The Bergara Academy created by the Bergara rifle company and held in central Montana.

Taught by professional instructors, including ex-military service members, the multi-day course offers hands-on instruction to take you to the next level in long-range rifle accuracy. Intense training sessions move from the classroom to the field with more than 50 targets cloaked and scattered from 100 to more than 1,200 yards. You can even add prairie dog hunts or world-class trout fishing as a way to cap off your Montana experience, all set in a lodge backdrop.

On the first day of the class, I was engaging targets to 1,400 yards with precision. By the end of the course, I had a full understanding of using mils to increase my accuracy.  For more information, visit www.bergarausa.com.

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