It never ceases to amaze me how many hunters I see sighting their rifles in from the bench, and then concluding that this also constitutes their practice as well. It's all very well to zero from the bench, but I have frequently found that the actual point of impact shifts considerably between the bench and a practical field shooting position.
Part of the reason the bench is used is, of course, that hunters like to see nice tiny groups centred exactly on that little 1" bull. The other part of the reason is that it's hard to identify where the centre of the group is of few shots scattered across 8" of the target if they shoot from the standing position. However ego/confidence enhancing the tight groups on a target fired from the bench may be, they must not be accepted as proof either that the rifle is zeroed or of how well one shoots. A good example of this is provided by my F.N. service rifle, which shoots 6" higher at 200m if I shoot it from a classical prone position as opposed to resting the magazine firmly on the ground. In competition I always rest the magazine on the ground and simply take into account that the rifle will shoot higher from the sitting position with the same sight setting. You have to know your rifle and where it actually shoots from the field positions that you will actually be shooting it from.
Very few people shoot well from the offhand position. It's not something that most people practice and very few modern rifles are built to cater for it. The stocks are built as straight as possible to try and reduce the felt recoil when shooting from the bench or prone, but at the cost of that indescribable quality of 'pointability'. Anyone who has used a well-fitted competition shotgun or an old fashioned rifle will understand what I mean about pointability. I suspect that this is the main reason that the old lever actioned rifles are still so popular in the States. The fit and balance are good and the rifle seems to become part of the body and it naturally points where you want it to without effort. If you hunt in thick bush where snapshots or offhand shooting is the order of the day, or are out after dangerous game, a rifle with a reasonable amount of drop at comb and heel is essential. Straight stocks are not a new idea, and 'Pondoro' Taylor complains about them in his excellent book 'African Rifles & Cartridges', noting that quick shots with a straight stocked rifle inevitably went high.
African bush is generally such that a prone shot is impossible, so the most common shots taken are from either offhand, using a tree as a rest or using shooting sticks. Let us consider each in turn.
Offhand is probably the most common shooting stance used when hunting dangerous game. Ranges tend to be short and the action quick. Unfortunately accuracy is usually poor at best. Sure, from a competition style standing position such as used for silhouette or .22 three positional shooting, good accuracy can be obtained. This stance though isn't practical for field use, and one must simply hold the rifle steady and shoot. Hold it steady! How easy it sounds! Last hunting season, I was practising before a hunt with my 7mm and during the standing session, at 100 metre range, kept all ten shots within 7", and centred on the bull. Two days later I clean missed an impala at 20 metres in the jesse! And it wasn't a particularly hurried shot either.
There are several things one can do to improve ones offhand shooting. The obvious thing is to practice...and then practice some more. A properly fitted sling will, however, go a long way towards improving ones accuracy. Properly used, a sling is the single biggest aid to field marksmanship. A little bit of practice and it's amazing how steady you can be. There are few things more disconcerting than having the cross hairs of the scope wobbling around all over the animal. The harder one tries to hold the rifle still the worse the shakes inevitably get. Buck fever is an insidious disease that occasionally affects even the best, and a sure way to induce it is to have an unsteady rifle in ones hands. Locked in properly to a sling really steadies a rifle and gives one the confidence needed.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the sling as a shooting aid. A few years ago Jeff Cooper rediscovered the CW sling and wrote about it in Guns & Ammo magazine. The CW sling isn't new. The old (pre WW1) .22 cadet training rifles that I still use are fitted with CW slings as are almost all target rifles. The reason? Any sling is a great boon to accuracy, but the CW style is the best. Unfortunately the CW sling isn't a great aid to carrying the rifle, so someone in the states developed the 'Ching sling'. A combination sling that combines the carrying function of a sling as well as a standard one, and the accuracy enhancing function as well as the CW. Its a great idea. Funny that it took 90 years from the almost universal adoption of the CW sling in competition to combining it with a standard sling for hunting.
Even using a normal sling seems to confuse many people. "It gets in the way when stalking" is a common complaint. It shouldn't! It should be tightly wrapped around your arm! Getting a rifle into action from being carried slung should be almost as fast as if it were carried in one's hands, military style. Its simply a matter of knowing what you are doing and carrying it correctly. For a Professional Guide who is carrying his rifle with a bunch of tourists and is extremely unlikely to have to shoot without some prior notice, carrying a rifle slung is a good way to ensure that it's always pointed in a safe direction and that you are aware of where the muzzle is pointing. Too many people, including hunters and guides are very lax about where their rifles are pointing, and consequentially keep the chamber empty until they think they actually need it. Experience has shown, time and time again, that when things go wrong in the bush you do not have time to start working the bolt. Alternatively working the bolt makes too much noise and the game either runs away or charges. Rifles were designed to be carried loaded and on safe. If muzzle awareness is then a problem for you, carry the rifle on a sling.
A few points to ponder when choosing or fitting a sling:
It is also well known that resting the fore end of the rifle along side a tree or resting the barrel on a rock or branch is a sure way to miss or worse - wound. The reason is simple. A rifle barrel vibrates in a circle as the bullet passes down the bore (the direction of rotation being determined by the direction of the rifling twist), and the point in the barrel vibration at which the bullet leaves the barrel is uniform PROVIDED nothing rests against the barrel to alter this. The perfect examples of a nation finding out this the hard way is provided by the British military. In 1888 they adopted the (then) new .303 cartridge and Lee-Metford rifle. They worked out the sights carefully by experiment and sealed a definitive proof pattern. All production rifles were sighted exactly the same as the pattern rifle and the Lee-Metford shot well. If you set the sights on 300yds that's where your bullets went. Four years later, cordite replaced black powder as the propellant and the velocity was increased. Experimentation showed that there was less than 3" difference in point of bullet impact at 500yds so the sights were left as the original pattern. Just before the Boer war a new barrel was adopted. Same length as the Metford, but with five deep groves, left hand spiral instead of the four shallow groves of the Metford. Nobody checked the sights! It was assumed that they would remain the same. In point of fact the new rifles shot 2" higher and 6" left at 100 yards. Not the ideal for use in a fast moving guerrilla war! After grievous casualties added to by unreasonably poor marksmanship on the part of their troops, proper experimentation was carried out. The bullet on the long Enfield barrel exited when the barrel was in the 12 oclock position and 12 seconds of elevation from the line of bore. In the Lee Metford the bullet had exited in the 3 oclock position in the barrels rotation. In the shorter No1 MkIII with the 25" barrel subsequently adopted, the bullet exited from the 7 o'clock position at -5 seconds of angle from the bore!
The brief history lesson shows why most target rifles have free floated barrels, so that they can vibrate uniformly and always return to the same point after each shot. A well-bedded rifle achieves the same thing. In a poorly bedded rifle though, the pressure of the stock on the barrel changes as the barrel heats up causing subsequent shots to "walk" causing a strung group. Resting the barrel achieves the same thing and will throw the shot off by anything up to a couple of feet at 100 yards. Don't rest the barrel on anything!
As for resting the stock directly against the side of a tree, similar things happen. The rifle bucks away from the tree and the amount of upward movement is altered. Your rifles sights are set for a "normal" amount of recoil to have occurred before the bullet exits. Change the direction and amount of movement in the initial recoil and the bullet will go slightly off from where it would normally have gone. This is the same problem with zeroing only from a bench. The amount of vertical recoil is invariably different from the bench than it is from prone, offhand or with a sling. Depending on the weight of the rifle, the way you hold it on the bench etc, the resultant change in point of impact may be too small to notice, but as with my F.N., it can be considerable. The proper way to shoot using a tree trunk, fence post or other vertical rest is to grip the tree with your fingers and rest the rifle lightly in the web of your hand. You can either simply rest it there (my preference) or grip the fore end to the best of your ability with your thumb. In either event the rifle can recoil more or less normally.
When shooting over something such as a branch or a rock the rifle must again be shielded from a hard surface which it will bounce away from (which is why you use a soft sand bag or leather protector on the bench). Put your hand under the rifle and rest your hand on the tree, not the fore end directly. Same thing with a rock. Alternatively you can put something soft under the rifle to act like the bean bag on a shooting bench. I used to wear a felt hat in the bush and this was excellent. The rifle rested on the crown and was kept comfortably free of what ever I was leaning on. I have also used my CamelBac pack for the same purpose. Just make sure that there is nothing hard in the pack directly under the rifle. Similarly a thick jersey or jacket will provide sufficient cushion to prevent the shot from being thrown high.
The last, and most commonly used aid in Africa, are shooting sticks. I have never seen one of the German style mono-pods in actual field use but I would guess that the vast majority of visiting clients do 90% of their field shooting off either a bipod or tripod set of sticks. They are absolutely the best way to go in the field provided one has time to set them up. The traditional African bipod - two long sticks tied near one end with a strip of old tyre tube work well, but are long and unhandy if you are by yourself. If you carry your rifle slung its ok, but you have to set up the sticks and hold them with your weak hand before you can bring your rifle up. When hunting with a tracker, PH or even a friend this problem is solved since the other person carries the sticks and roughly sets them up when the game is sighted. The hunter then drops his rifle in the top and adjusts them for height. The nifty folding type are great if you are alone, but oh, so s-l-o-w. Since one should always be hunting with at least a friend, carrying one pair of shooting sticks between you is no problem at all. You do need to practice though smoothly setting them up at approximately the right height for the other person, or you quickly end up with a snarl up. With a little practice the sticks can be set up and the shooter ready to fire in literally a couple of seconds. The traditional style with copious quantities of rubber holding the sticks together usually provides a soft enough rest for you to simply place the rifle into the V at the top of the sticks and then hold onto the fore end. This is important with a heavy rifle! If the rubber strip does not come far enough up the sticks, you have to place your hand into the V of the sticks and hold the rifle there, otherwise you end up with the same problem as shooting off a horizontal branch or rock.
I had never used a tripod until I hunted in Namibia. My two PH friends Dirk and Hannes both used them exclusively. For the long range shooting which often prevails there, a tripod is definitely superior to the bipod, in terms of steadiness. The considerably longer time and greater dexterity needed to set them up smoothly is of little consequence if the stalk is done right. I watched an American Hunter, Jack Bacon take a nice springbok at over 400m on the next sand dune resting his rifle on Dirk's tripod. Jack had a laser rangefinder. Measured the distance, estimated the bullet drop, took careful aim and landed the bullet in the heart. Using a bipod I don't believe the shot would have been possible or ethical but a tripod, used correctly is as steady as a good shooting bench.
Bi or tripods also serve the useful function in limiting the degree of flinch that is possible by a gun shy or buck-fevered up hunter. And it is for this reason that so many PH's use them for elephant and buffalo hunting even at 40m. As an aside to this I long ago worked out that zeroing a heavy rifle off a shooting bench was no fun at all, particularly with the classic German and British rifles I use which were designed solely to be shot from the standing or sitting positions. The only way to zero anything bigger than a 9,3 in my opinion is standing resting the rifle on a good tripod. It's also the only way to chronograph rounds as well. Once I was working up a load for my .404 shooting over a Chrony at 4m set up next to the loading bench. I would load two rounds, fire them. Load two more, fire them and so on, miking the case head expansion with each load. I was shooting off hand, but at 4m! No problem - until at about round twenty I flinched - so badly that I missed the Chrony and hit the stand! Shooting sticks certainly minimises the effect of flinching.
The only consideration for shooting sticks is that they need to be long enough for you to stand in a natural, comfortable off hand position, simply supporting the stock or your hand on the rest. If the sticks are too short you have to hunch down to get into position and the usual effect is magnum eyebrow from the scope or a very noticeable magnification of the felt recoil.
As I've grown in wisdom and hunting ability so my appreciation of aids to field marksmanship have changed. I used to just stand (or kneel) and just shoot usually well locked into a sling as we did on the target range. It worked well enough for most circumstances. As my fieldcraft improved I found myself using more and more natural rests. If it's there, use it! Even if the animal is so close that it doesn't seem necessary. If you can use a sling and a rest, so much the better. Lately though, I have found myself using shooting sticks more and more. Much of the terrain in my local hunting grounds is jesse which provides no natural rests, so sticks are the way to go. All of my current hunting rifles being antiques or at least pre WWII classics are unsuitable for use with a sling (at least as an aid to shooting), so the sticks provide the steadiness I need to ensure a clean kill, and at the end of the day that is what really matters!