Learning marksmanship fundamentals from legendary hunter Colonel Townsend Whelen

Learn marksmanship fundamentals from legendary hunter Colonel Townsend Whelen

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You may recognize the name Townsend Whelen from his namesake cartridge, the thunderous .35 Whelen. Or perhaps you’ve come across one of his many articles or books on hunting and shooting. Maybe you’ve never heard of him at all, but he’s someone worth learning about. Born in 1877, Colonel Whelen was an outdoorsman, hunter, longtime soldier (he served for nearly 40 years), competitive shooter, firearms expert, and prolific gun writer who published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles.

At 15 years old, Whelen killed his first deer—with a .22 rifle, no less—and won his first rifle marksmanship competition. The years that followed were filled with hunting expeditions and military service—the latter including time spent as an ordnance officer in charge of the development and testing of military rifles and cartridges. Needless to say, then, his advice on rifle maintenance and marksmanship is still as valid today as it was in 1906 when he wrote “Suggestions to Military Riflemen,” in which the following suggestions were found.

Keep the bore of your rifle clean and always clean from the breech to the muzzle. This one may seem obvious, but for new shooters who may not know, it’s a crucial aspect of rifle maintenance to learn. “If a rifle is cleaned from the muzzle, it takes only a few days for the cleaning-rod to dull the muzzle, and then the gun begins to scatter.” Humorously, Whelen even identifies his favorite cleaning solution, a well-known product even today. “The best preparation found so far is a liquid termed Powder Solvent No. 9, prepared and sold by Frank A. Hoppe, 1741 North Darien Street, Philadelphia.”

Use a sling to help with freehand shooting. Slings aren’t just for keeping your rifle on your person while scaling the ladder of your tree stand. “The gun sling should be used whenever it is possible to do so,” writes Whelen. “The advantages of using the gun-sling are: absolute steadiness in the prone position; distribution of the recoil to the entire body; quickening return of the rifle to the target in magazine fire; preventing the rifle recoiling off the target; and minimizing the effect of the wind, fatigue, and breathlessness on holding.” In his competitive shooting days, Whelen was known for being able to put six rounds on a human-size target at 200 yards in 10 seconds—from prone—using a stock M1903 Springfield .30-06 service rifle with open sights, a feat he attributed in no small part to the strategic use of the sling.

Get in shape. As we’ve expressed numerous times, staying in shape has innumerable benefits in the hunting and shooting world. “My experience as a coach has taught me that during the shooting season men should have strong exercises for the arms, back, and chest daily. ‘Chinning’ on the horizontal bar and ‘dipping’ on the parallel bars are excellent. Strength enables one to hold hard and to prolong his holding after the trigger has been pulled. So, too, in a strong wind the powerful man can hold his rifle more firmly against the wind than the weaker one.”

Work on your trigger control. “Jerking or snatching the trigger is, of course, fatal to good shooting. Control of the trigger is everything in rifle practice. It is that part of the art which is soonest forgotten. Stick to one rifle as long as it remains accurate, and by daily trigger-pull exercises accustom ourselves to the pull and keep in practice.”

Conquer the flinch. Whelen’s advice for overcoming flinching serves as an excellent guide for introducing new shooters to the sport as well as for those more experienced shooters who have developed a flinch (it can happen, especially when shooting punishing calibers). “In trying to help a man over this difficulty (of flinching), start with gallery ammunition, then reloaded short-range ammunition, then use mid-range ammunition with a small recoil, and finally full service charges. Never let him use the more powerful ammunition for even a single shot until he has conquered the flinching habit with less powerful loads.”

Dry firing is your friend. “Take advantage of every opportunity to aim at some definite object, pulling the trigger each time.” Whelen even suggested equipping soldiers’ barracks with “aiming targets” so they could continue dry-fire practice in their down time. The same advice is vital in a hunter’s off-season, especially. Slow the depreciation of your skills by conducting dry-fire practice; you can minimize the wear and tear on your gun by using snap caps.

Sight in your rifle. This one may seem like the most obvious rule of any in hunting or marksmanship, but you might be surprised how many experienced hunters who should know better ignore this step. It’s not good enough to sight in your rifle only once when you first buy it and then never check it again. Regular handling, bumps, and even simply transporting your rifle can throw off your optics, so plan to sight in your rifle before every hunting season. “When the rifleman knows the normal elevation and zero for his rifle at all ranges, he is prepared for accurate shooting and for competition work.”

Keep a data/DOPE book. Whelen recognized the importance of keeping copious and detailed notes for every rifle and load fired in various conditions. “The score-book is an absolutely necessary adjunct to the rifleman’s equipment. The science of rifle-shooting has increased so much during the last few years, and become such a complex science, that without some systematic means of following all the various conditions and recording them accurately, one soon becomes hopelessly confused. One who does not keep a record is hopelessly handicapped when pitted against one who does.”

Mind the wind. “The wind is the greatest disturbing factor to the flight of the bullet that we have to contend with,” writes Whelen. Wind can vary greatly between shots, and can be dramatically influenced by the terrain (with hills, valleys, or lines of trees breaking up the behavior of the wind). On the range, this requires observing flags along the path of the bullet to determine the wind’s influence on trajectory, but in the field, you’ll have to make do with more natural indicators. Whelen advises looking at “the wave of the grass, the flight of small insects, etc.” to gauge the wind, as well as using mirage or heat waves. “Mirage is extremely sensitive to wind and shows clearly every change and current.” Another sound piece of advice on shooting with the wind in mind: “Always observe the flags (or signs) near the target in preference to those near the firing-point, as the former give the condition fo the wind where the bullet’s velocity is the smallest and where it is most easily deflected.”

Images courtesy of frontierpartisans.com

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