The Dangerous-Game Rifle Hunter and The Combat Handgunner

All shooting sports share a great deal in common. Every shooter can learn invaluable lessons from the disciplines practiced by other shooters. If you could ever get them to sit down at the same table together, even a bleary-eyed 1,000-yard target shooter and a dog-perfumed quail hunter would have a lot more to talk about with each other than either might at first suspect. Of all the shooting sports, two that are so closely akin they are almost indistinguishable when viewed from any distance are dangerous-game hunting with a rifle and combat shooting with a pistol.

Though both might at first find the concept novel and surprising, the dangerous-game hunter and combat shooter have the same mindset, the same equipment concerns and the same training needs. In their respective pursuits, seemingly very different, both must be absolutely dedicated to preparing themselves to face the same ever-present and overriding possibility: a sudden and urgent demand to stop a violent and deadly creature at perilously close range.

The price of programming.

We’ve all heard of the once-a-year deer hunter who buys a box of ammo every couple of seasons whether he needs it or not. He might even get off a few rounds at a target before opening day just to make sure his sights are still reasonably close, he remembers how to load the thing and his barrel hasn’t rusted out since this same time last year. Any dangerous-game hunter taking this casual approach would be well advised to either cancel his expensive plane ticket to Africa or make every effort to find a particularly gullible life insurance salesman.

Similarly, such an absence of attention is utterly unthinkable to any combat shooter – whether elite military or law enforcement, practical competitor or trained-up private citizen.

The pistol courses at any of the good schools -– TFTT, Gunsite, Thunder Ranch and a few others -– require students to go through 1,500 rounds of ammo in five days. That’s how much shooting it takes to begin to program the eye for accuracy under a variety of unusual conditions and, most importantly, begin to automate all the other mental and motor skills necessary to handle and operate a particular gun without pausing to think about every step. These same schools also offer rifle courses that require the same amount of ammo. Not many students are up to the physical and financial demands of firing 15 boxes of .505 Gibbs or even .458 Winchester Magnum every single day, so even dedicated dangerous-game hunters are mostly forced to use practice turnbolts chambered in lighter calibers like .308 as they go through the course. Certain standard exercises, such as shooting from the prone position and firing rapid multiple rounds while keeping the butt of the rifle firmly in the shoulder may be impractical or impossible with the big African guns, but the intensity of the training, the extended trigger-time and the forced programming of mind and muscles are what it’s all about.

A serious combat pistolero will routinely fire thousands of rounds of ammo every month, because that’s the only way to maintain an intimate relationship with his gun, hard-wire operational responses into his brain, and make his gun as natural an extension of his body as his index finger. It’s the same with serious dangerous-game hunters, which is why serious dangerous-game hunters who are not also serious millionaires take up reloading early on.

Practical shooting.

In the social circles of the hypersensitive, the politically correct euphemism for combat shooting is practical shooting. Whichever term is used, it’s meant to differentiate this type of shooting from the bull’s-eye kind where the shooter uses a low-recoiling weapon, closes one of his eyes while slowly squeezing the trigger, takes all the time he wants to get off a shot and plenty of time in between, and shoots only at stationary targets at a known distance. Pistol shooters use a relatively steady but not very recoil-resistant one-handed grip and stance, rifle shooters anchor themselves to a bench. This type of stylized shooting has little to do with the realities of either the hunting field or the back alley, so is not considered particularly practical, though it’s the traditional way military, law enforcement and target shooters have been trained from time immemorial.

On the other hand, combat or practical shooting focuses on speed of response, gun-handling skills, accurate follow-up shots, the challenges of multiple and moving targets, and other realistic drills designed to get the job done. Combat pistol shooters practice, train and compete this way all the time. It only makes sense for dangerous-game hunters to do the same.

A standard exercise in combat training with the pistol is the Mozambique drill, which requires the shooter to place two swift shots in the chest and one in the head of his adversary. The Mozambique is called the safety drill in the new vanilla language, reflecting the reassurance it provides to the shooter that his adversary is not likely to get up after this and continue his attack. Two in the heart, one in the brain. An automatic response from a combat shooter defending himself against armed attack, also a good idea if the attacker weighs fifteen hundred pounds and is armed with a pair of giant meat hooks. In human combat and in dangerous-game hunting, “it’s the dead ones that kill you.”

The dangerous-game hunter and the combat pistol shooter play by the same rules -– each must be prepared to stand up, shoot quickly and accurately, shooting until the mission is fully accomplished, operating the gun and handling reloads and managing unforeseen problems automatically while on the move, dealing knock-out blows to a target which is often in rapid motion at an acute angle at the moment of truth, and may transform into more targets than one suddenly and without warning. Proven training that is taken for granted by a shooter armed with a .45 is ignored at great peril by a shooter armed with a .458.

The importance of going bang.

One of the prime and unalterable rules drilled into every combat shooter’s head is that if your gun fails to fire during a confrontation you are, by all rights, a dead man. The same rule applies to the hunter of dangerous game. Protestations that your PH is equipped with a .470 Nitro Express for back-up or that your supervisor assured you there would be a night-vision-equipped sniper situated on the roof of the building across the street will not bring you back to life.

When you’re fighting a creature that is perfectly capable of fighting back, reliability is everything. That’s why combat handgunners do not use tightly fitted, highly tuned target pistols. They use pistols equipped with straightforward controls, capable of swallowing any kind of ammo that happens to be on hand and spitting out bullets with never a hiccup or a sneeze. Experienced dangerous-game hunters avoid rifles suitable for target shooting for the same reason, firmly insisting on Mauser-type turnbolts with long claw extractors and open-faced bolts for controlled-round-feeding, chambered in low-pressure cartridges that will not get sticky when the action gets hot.

At least a couple of very recent incidences illustrate the soundness of this thinking. There was the professional guide in Alaska whose expensive push-feed rifle did what push-feed rifles do –- allowed a forceful double-feed at the critical moment which tied up the gun just in time to deliver a fresh meal to a big grizzly bear. There was the Cape buffalo hunter, also a professional, whose 3-position safety, much vaunted by starry eyed safety freaks, somehow got stuck in its middle neutral position just when it was time to put the safety in go-gear and pop the clutch. Advocates of 3-position safeties and other clever doo-dads on dangerous-game rifles still have plenty of time to visit their latest victim in the long-term care ward of the hospital. There’s a very good reason why John Browning never in the wildest stretches of his spectacular imagination ever conceived of putting a 3-position safety on the 1911 combat pistol. Under the pressure of saving your life, a simple on/off switch works quite well, thank you very much.

The recoil threshold.

We all know that the biggest enemy of hitting what you think you’re aiming at is the act of jerking the trigger and pulling the sights off target at the last moment. This is almost always a function of the phenomenon known as the flinch. Flinching is caused, not by anything the gun does, but by what the shooter thinks it’s going to do. Flinching is, therefore, a figment of the imagination by definition. That means it can be controlled. With practice.

Handgunners who fire hundreds of rounds of ammo in a normal day, if they continue to fire hundreds of rounds a day, eventually cross over a threshold into a special place where heavy recoil is considered an exhilarating little dance rather than a frontal assault on their person. Rifle shooters, if they don’t fire their guns nearly as much as they would like to, may take a lot longer to arrive at that special place, may even intensify their anticipation of recoil the closer they get to the threshold. Perseverance pays off, because once a big-bore rifle or pistol shooter goes all the way and crosses over, he need never look back. Recoil is not a personal attack. Flinching does not help. Practice makes perfect.

What’s all this tactical stuff?

Combat handgunners learn to maintain a tactical mindset, which means they are fully prepared to respond immediately to any unexpected situation and, most importantly, to take the initiative in preempting dangerous and unpredictable developments. Like taking a 9-1-1 call to a domestic violence shoot-out. Like taking a walk in the tall yellow grass.

You’ll not find any combat-trained pistolero stepping foot outside the security of the truck with an empty chamber, as some hunters are reportedly wont to do. Tactical readiness means condition one, round in the chamber, safety on, cocked and locked. Eyes open, mind alert, gun an instant away from a secure firing position, not slouched over a shoulder with the muzzle pointed at the PH’s butt. Ever see a SWAT team stroll into a gunfight, chuckling about their wives, chatting about the weather, whistling while they work?

There’s a savage and heavily armed beast hiding in the shadows, lying in wait, agitated and angry, anxious to risk everything for one good shot at taking your head off. Or would you rather go for the wounded lion? The tactical mindset argues against the potentially embarrassing position that things don’t hurt as much if you don’t see them coming. Whether you call it tactics or common sense, there’s no difference here between the combat handgunner and the dangerous-game hunter. Go ahead, make my day.

One shot, one kill.

A concept close to the heart of every rifleman is making the first shot count. The same should be true of every pistolero as well but, in a Hollywood era where rapid uncontrolled fire from small-caliber handguns is generally considered more glamorous imagery than a single well-aimed shot, such is not always the case.
Experienced hunters know very well that if the first shot doesn’t do it, especially in the case of a truly tough-to-kill animal like a Cape buffalo, a tidal wave of adrenaline and sheer will power can suddenly arise to man the defenses and such an animal can become almost bulletproof in his quest for retaliation, with solid follow-up shots seeming to have no effect at all. Tales of death and destruction wrought by shot-up buffalo fill innumerable volumes of African hunting literature.

Similar tales of death and destruction wrought by shot-up men are not in short supply either. Many human beings, especially those motivated by heavy doses of drugs, duty or ideological fervor, clearly fall within that tough-to-kill category.

Thus the importance of the head shot, the destruction of the central nervous system, the almost guaranteed stopper practiced religiously by handgunners and considered a crucial piece in the repertoire of dangerous-game hunters. The combat handgunner may have an advantage over the rifleman here, in that a man’s head is a considerably larger target than the cunning little brain of a buffalo. Especially at exceedingly close range. Best to make that first shot count.

Use enough gun.

Robert Ruark’s well known admonition was hardly original. While making the first shot count with precision shot placement is the first responsibility of the hunter, shot placement with the biggest bullet possible is a close second. Handgunners argued the relative merits of the smaller faster 9mm Parabellum vs. the bigger slower .45 ACP for something like a hundred years, but it was pretty much a stage battle for the benefit of newsstand magazine circulation. That battle was over before it ever began, with the .45 delivering a first-round knock-out punch. With similar shot placement, big guns kill quicker than small guns.

While a lightweight rapidly expanding bullet driven at extremely high velocity might cause a small animal to literally explode, thus killing it even more quickly than the large hole made by a big-bore bullet, such an argument is not relevant to dangerous game. Explosive bullets do not penetrate thick-skinned animals. Sometimes they don’t even penetrate thin-skinned animals who are decently dressed.

The urgent need of the combat handgunner and the dangerous-game hunter is not just to kill the adversary, but to stop it in its tracks, thus immediately ending the threat to their own life. You can kill a leopard by adding a spoonful of ground glass to its coffee every morning for a few months, but that is hardly a workable strategy to preclude your own ribs being served up for lunch.

Divide and conquer.

Blood brothers though the dangerous-game rifle hunter and the combat handgunner are, too often I’ve heard them mock each other’s pursuits, as though neither had any understanding of what the other was up to or why. It is always disheartening to hear a man who loves his guns disparage another shooter’s sport. You’ve heard them. A trap shooter who supposes that pistols and “assault weapons” and 50-caliber rifles should all be banned. A target shooter who proclaims that he could never kill anything with his firearm and considers hunters an unfeeling lot. A once-a-year deer hunter who regards disciplined firearms training as just another adolescent arcade game.

We shooters and hunters have a lot more things in common than we sometimes think we do, foremost among them being our mutual quest for survival. Beneath our distinguishing powder burns and bruises, we are indeed brothers after all.