Never shall I forget the remark that a backwoodsman once made when I was trying to entertain him at a rifle match near St. Louis. I had shown him the shooting-house, the target-house, and their appurtenances; had explained our system of scoring and our code of rules; had told him the reasons for using such heavy rifles, sensitive triggers, pronged butt-plates, cheek-pieces, vernier and wind-gauge sights—all that; and then I bade him watch some of our experts as they made bullseye after bullseye, seldom missing a space the size of a man's head, shooting offhand, at 200 measured yards. I thought that my friend would be impressed. He was; but not quite as I had anticipated. After watching the firing for a long time in silence, he turned to me and remarked: "If it weren't for the noise and the powder smoke, this would be a very ladylike game".
Of course, I was piqued at this, and felt like giving the honest fellow a peppery reply. And yet, many a time since, as I have sat, chilled to the bone, on some crossing in the high Smokies, straining my ears for the bear-dogs far below; or, tired beyond speech and faint from hunger, as I lay down beside a log in the great forest, all alone; or, blown by hard climbing till my heart seemed bursting, as I wiped the mist from my eyes, and got down on all fours to follow a fresh spoor into the hideous laurel fastness of Godforsaken—aye, many a time I have looked backward and thought, "You were right, partner; it was a very ladylike game".
It was a long time ago—that shooting match. If a city man, in those days, wanted to practice with a rifle at targets, he had to join a "schuetzen" society. (In Missouri the organized militia had no range, and never fired a rifle except with blanks!) So we had to fall back on a foreign system that never yet has found so much as an English name. The schuetzen method did teach a man to hold steadily and to let off delicately, and this is the A B C of marksmanship. But it stopped there. It taught the ABC forward and backward till the pupil became, perhaps, wonderfully expert in such exercise; but it never got beyond ABC and Z Y X. It taught him to drive a nail with a bullet, offhand ; but nothing about quick firing with accuracy, nothing about hitting moving objects, nothing about judging distances and making true allowance for them, nothing about aiming at a neutral-colored object that blended with its surroundings. Our men were "crackajacks" at drilling a squirrel's head, but only the few who took regular hunting trips in the wilderness had any idea of what kind of a thing to look for if they went after deer or any other big game.
Times have changed. Civilians now can join clubs that have the use of military ranges, where they can use practical weapons supplied by the Government, at known and unknown distances, deliberate fire and quick fire, resting at ease or after a skirmish run. They may, if they choose, rig up "running deer" targets. All this is excellent practice for one preparing to go after big game.
If you are so situated that you cannot join such a club, nor use a powerful rifle in your neighborhood, get a repeating .22, learn first to drive tacks with it (in a city basement, if need be), then take it out somewhere that is safe for the purpose, and shoot at miscellaneous objects, at unknown distances all the way from twenty to a hundred yards. If you can get a friend to roll a barrel for you down a bumpy hillside, try it at various angles—good training before you go to shoot at deer on the bound.
It is practice, intellisrentlv varied practice, that makes a marksman. Without it, the keenest eye and the steadiest nerve are of no avail. I have associated intimately with expert riflemen for half a lifetime, and I know that every one of them would tell you that there "is no such animal" as a born marksman. There never was. If frontiersmen generally are good shots it is simply because they have had plenty of practice from their youth up. Some have natural advantages over others, to be sure, but nothing will take the place of training. It is like writing, for instance: anybody of average sense can learn to write correctly, many can write entertainingly, a few have genius and may become immortal—but no genius who ever lived has turned out first-class work at the first trial: he had to practice, practice, practice!
There is no room here to discuss the topic of hunting rifles. Get the best that you can, of course; but do not worship it. Bear in mind that, whatever its trajectory and smashing quality, it is only a gun, and can kill nothing that you miss with it. When you get into the real wilderness far away from rich men's preserves and summer hotels; you will find there some mighty hunters who make mighty kills with guns that would bring only the price of scrap-iron in New York.
Get sights that you can see, and such as you are not likely to overshoot with when taking quick aim. Take pains to get what suits your eyes, and spare no time in the adjustment. Never take an untried gun into the woods. That is no place to align sights and test elevations. Never trust the sights as they are placed on the gun at the factory. Test them not only from rest, but offhand, too; for a light rifle charged with high-power ammunition is likely to shoot several inches higher (or in some other direction) when fired from muzzle-and-elbow rest, than it does when shot offhand, albeit it may be an accurate weapon when rightly used.
Now, as for adjusting the elevation—a most important matter—first, by aU means, find the "point-blank" of your weapon by actual test. If your dealer assures von that a certain rifle shoots practically point-blank up to 300 yards, "trust him not; he's fooling thee." Theoretically there is no such thing as a point-blank range. Practically, what we mean by it is the extreme distance to which a rifle may be sighted to strike center without overshooting at any intermediate distance the vitals of the animal to be hunted.