Most people assume that hitting a target is the same regardless of the setting, and that the type of shooters who can hit a target at 1000 yards with iron sights using a sling for support can hit anything inside that distance under any circumstance. During my involvement with Appleseed I met a lot of people who thought the ability to employ marksmanship under time constraints on the AQT gave them devastating combat powers (I might have hyperbolized that, but only slightly). For the purposes of this article I’m defining marksmanship as skill in the pure act of shooting, divorced from any practical application.
It takes a bit of experience to understand that there are many, many things that are taken for granted during marksmanship practice that are huge variables in the field. These variables are so significant that even someone with great marksmanship skills could be rendered essentially useless without recognizing and compensating for them. Of the top of my head the biggest ones that stand out are terrain, distance to target, and the time the target will be available.
I have read that there aren’t many great field shots that are great marksmen and vice versa. They are only loosely related skill sets, in that they both involve shooting at and hitting a target. The question that comes to mind is how can they be reconciled. Are they necessarily at odds? I don’t think that’s precisely the case.
What is involved in field shooting? Basically it’s getting a hit as efficiently as possible. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly centered up X-ring hit (live targets don’t exactly afford an X-ring). I just has to put the target down. If the vital zone happens to be 16 MOA it just leaves more room to get an acceptable shot off more quickly without having to fuss things. If a second shot is required, it’s unlikely it will have to be placed with machine-like consistency in exactly the same place as the first shot. The shooter will more than likely have to track or reacquire the target in order to make a second shot, if necessary. It’s a dynamic process that involves adapting to changing circumstances on the fly.
Marksmanship practice demands consistently doing everything exactly right. Because of this it encourages the use of routines or even rituals. The shooter needs to maintain control over every aspect of firing the shot that he can, the wildcard that is left to work around typically being wind.
So we have extreme control in the marksmanship realm versus adaptability in the field. The problem in crossing over is that the control freak tends to fall apart when the illusion of control is lost. For example, the exclusive use of known distance ranges alone can instill a false sense of competence that can result in a sudden moment of shock when one realizes suddenly that he doesn’t know how far the target is. There was a point when I realized that’s a pretty good thing to know.
The field shooter typically only cares about practical results. If he has always brought home a deer, it’s unlikely he cares about having relatively poor skill in marksmanship. In reality he probably isn’t even aware of his lack of marksmanship skill, if that is actually the case. The problem here is that he may be constantly on the margins of his capabilities, which reduce the probability of making consistent ethical kills in the hunting field, inducing an enemy casualty on the battlefield, or stopping a life threatening assailant in a self-defense scenario.
My own practice is constantly torn by these competing needs. The thing I constantly try to keep in mind is that no matter how good an aspect of my rifle shooting gets, it’s worthless unless it can be part of my adaptability to different conditions and terrain, and can be applied under time constraints and stress (physical or psychological). The tail shouldn’t be allowed to wag the dog. I can’t try to fit my circumstances into my schedule or shooting style, because my place is not master and commander of all that surrounds me. There are times to exert one’s will, and there are times to flow with one’s surroundings.
I’ve said before that the expert rifleman doesn’t choose his method. That decision is made for him by his environment. He simply has the skill to roll with that decision without thought, feelings, or a significant passage of time. He adapts to the situation like water filling a vessel. Liquid water has no shape of its own so it can adapt perfectly. I think that adaptability is key to ensuring that one’s marksmanship practice results in field functionality.
The other side of the coin is balancing the skills that one pursues. If all I ever worked at was making tiny groups, the other skills that I need to arrive at making a shot would never be developed. If I had no means of determining range to target, everything outside my point blank zero range is out of the question for me. If I was not skilled at locating my target, whatever that might be, my ability to hit it isn’t even relevant. If I’m fat and out of shape, everything else I do is probably compromised to some degree.
In summary, I do believe that it’s possible to be both a great marksman and a great field shooter, although I don’t think there are many out there who possess both qualities. It seems to me that the key ingredients for that recipe are to ensure adaptability to any possible shooting scenario, and to make sure that one’s skill set is balanced. That’s easier said than done.
Thanks for reading.