The Follow-up Shot
The second shot can be just as important as the first, so be ready.
By Craig Boddington
I’m pretty sure I’ve made just about every field-shooting mistake you can think of. I’ve misread wind, angles, and even range. I’ve pulled the stupid trick of looking through the scope and forgetting the barrel was a bit lower. I launched a bullet into a berm ten feet in front of me, which didn’t in the least impress the animal I was shooting at. And sometimes I’ve just plain missed. The biggest mistake I know of—I’ve done this, too—is what African professional hunters call “admiring the shot.”
The general consensus is that American hunters are generally pretty good at deliberate shots, especially if some kind of rest is available. But we often have a bad habit of firing, then waiting to see what happens next rather than instantly preparing to take a second shot. Europeans, with their long tradition of driven game, are often better at offhand shooting and more successful on moving game, and they are in the habit of instantly preparing to shoot again.
I think this is a very good habit. I wounded the first Cape buffalo I ever fired at because I fired what I thought was a perfectly good chest shot and then stood there like an idiot. My PH tried to back me up, but his over/under double rifle doubled, making a weird sound like a bell ringing. The recoil flattened him and both slugs went high. I worked my way through all this distraction, got another round in the chamber, and got back on the buffalo just as his broad stern vanished into tall bamboo. Chances are I hit him a bit far forward with the first shot, but that wasn’t the big error. I hesitated when I should have been instinctively working the bolt, and I shouldn’t even have been aware that Willem’s rifle had doubled.
I’ve never again repeated that particular mistake. In some filming I’ve done of dangerous game hunts I’ve been criticized for showing multiple shots. Uh, yeah, once you open the ballgame you’d better keep shooting. If you can. A lot of things can happen while you’re in recoil, so there isn’t always a second shot. The animal can move into cover, or be masked by another animal—and even if he’s not, it can be awfully easy to lose track of which animal is which. Two wounded animals are exponentially worse than one! So additional shots can’t be fired willy-nilly; there must be sound judgment behind them. Ideally, they should also be placed with as much care as the first shot. This is also isn’t always possible, but a bad first shot isn’t an invitation for a worse second shot.
This depends on your—and your professional hunter or guide’s—instantaneous call on what happened with the first shot. If you missed completely, then you need to try again, if you can. Chances are the presentation won’t get better, but if you get ready quickly it isn’t unusual for an animal to stand and offer a second chance, or trot a bit and then stop for a few seconds. If the first shot hits, then, in my view, it’s an open ballgame. This is especially true with dangerous game, but even with non-dangerous game I think it’s foolish to stand there and see what happens next.
Whether you shoot again or not, the main thing is to acquire the mindset that you must be ready. The only real way to do that is to practice. I think our national tendency to “admire the shot” comes straight from the benchrest. We fire a shot, then look through the spotting scope. Or we fire a shot, and our buddy, looking through the spotting scope, calls the shot. This is great for testing loads, shooting groups, and zeroing the rifle exactly where you want it. This is not the way to train for field shooting.
As I’ve often said, you want to get away from the bench and actually practice from practical field positions. If we’re talking preparation for an African hunt, this means lots of shooting offhand and from sticks. But that’s not quite enough. With a repeating action you want to practice with a full magazine. You can fire multiple shots at the same target, or engage multiple targets, but the main thing is to train yourself to work the action. Ideally, you want work the action from the shoulder. The bolt action is far and away the most popular repeating action, but it is also probably the most difficult to learn to work without taking the rifle at least partway down. The goal is to keep your head on the stock and your eyes looking through the scope or over the sights while you work the action.
With a double rifle, you should teach yourself how to use that second barrel. Double-trigger guns are the most common, and it can take an awful lot of work to remember where that second trigger is. Ideally, the front trigger should be used first, because you can then shift your finger to the rear trigger with almost no hand movement. There’s just one thing: With large-caliber doubles a lot of guys simply cannot avoid accidentally hitting that second trigger while in recoil from the first barrel. This is extremely unpleasant. If it keeps happening, then you can reverse the order and use the rear trigger first. This is a fraction slower and may require a slight adjustment of the hand—but it will fix the problem, and beats the heck out of “doubling” a large-caliber rifle.
With single-shots, it’s critical to practice a rapid reload. That said, even in the most experienced hands a single-shot will be slower than any repeating action, and no repeating action, including even a semiautomatic, is as fast for the second shot as a double. No matter what you’re using, there will be times when no second shot is possible—but this is going to happen more frequently with a single-shot than with anything else. That’s neither good nor bad; it simply means that, with a single-shot, you must be extra careful with that first shot, and, on dangerous game, there is a greater likelihood of your PH needing to join the fray.
Regardless of action type, the rifle only holds a certain number of cartridges, and nobody wants to go into a gunfight with an empty gun. So it’s important to also practice rapid reloading. This is probably more important with a single-shot or double than it is with a repeater holding four or five cartridges, but you get the idea. Practice should include reloading or topping off the magazine, and during this practice you should develop a consistent source for fresh ammo that works for you. It doesn’t really matter whether you use a belt holder of some kind, cartridge loops on shirt or jacket, or whatever. What does matter is that you learn to reach for your extra shells and accomplish the reload without looking down. Your eyes need to remain focused on the game animal and, in the case of dangerous game, on the lookout for his buddies.
All of these things can easily be practiced on your range or, with dummy rounds, in your garage. Or you can invest in some formal instruction, which will probably turn out to be a better investment than you imagined. During the last few years I’ve done several sessions at the SAAM shooting courses—both long range and “safari”—at Tim Fallon’s FTW Ranch. When you shoot on your own, as most of us do, it’s pretty easy to come to believe that, even if you don’t know everything, you know plenty enough. Really good instructors like Doug Prichard and Tim Fallon quickly convinced me that even old dogs can learn new tricks.
One of the things I liked were the “gun drills”—stuff we did in the Marines a full generation ago. You engage targets once, twice, three times, and practice the rapid reload. Over and over again. This you can do on your own range, but they also have moving targets, with the actual targets life-size photographic images of buffalo, elephant, and such. This is a little harder to duplicate at home.
There’s one scenario where you engage a stationary buffalo from sticks, and then two buffalo charge on a track. You must leave the sticks, move left to get clear, shoot the second buffalo, and then move left again to take the third buffalo. This is not particularly easy with a bolt-action rifle. It takes really fast fingers with a double rifle, and I’m not sure it’s possible with a single shot. But unless you make yourself practice the backup shot, whether at home or with good instructors, you’re not preparing yourself for the type of shooting that is really important in many hunting scenarios.
This is the “charging buffalo” track at the SAAM Safari course. When the right-hand (stationary) buffalo is taken from sticks, the second two buffalo are launched on the track. The shooter must leave the sticks, move left, take the first charging buffalo, then move left again for the second charging buffalo. In this scenario, a bolt-action holding three shells is easier to use than a double rifle!