Gone Hunting: Pellet gun practice helps prepare for deer and zombies

Brian Reed takes aim at a set of orange pellet gun targets. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Marksmanship was once a highly valued and much admired skill across much of the nation. Exhibitions of shooting skill attracted thousands of spectators, and the shooting feats of people such as Annie Oakley at the turn of the century, and later Herb Parsons in the fifties, regularly made newspaper headlines.

The rural nature of America and the popularity of hunting had much to do with the admiration accorded men and women who could shoot straight. That was true on Martha’s Vineyard, where a generation ago, duck blinds still dotted the south shore saltponds.

I had no great ambitions when I ordered a Crosman pellet gun. I wanted to improve my offhand shooting skills in preparation for deer season, and whack an annoying crow that made a regular habit of perching in a tree outside my bedroom window where it would screech its lungs out early each winter morning.

The firearms deer season begins just after Thanksgiving. Hunters have two weeks to shoot a deer with a shotgun and two and a half weeks to hunt with a muzzle loader.

For a variety of reasons that include an aversion to pain, many hunters seldom practice shooting their slug gun in the weeks leading up to the firearms season. The experience of firing a one-ounce lead slug from a 12-gauge shotgun is similar to asking someone to hit you in the shoulder with a mallet with the same force he or she would use to pound a veal chop.

Cooper Gilkes, my hunting mentor, introduced me to the pleasures of a slug gun at the Rod and Gun club range. After the first shot I was not enthusiastic about the second. Coop pretended to load a shell and handed me the shotgun. I pulled the trigger and flinched like I was anticipating a wallop from a Mike Tyson right.

It is not unusual for a hunter to have a similar reaction when a deer appears 60 yards away. Added to that is the difficulty, when excited, of holding a shotgun sight on target without a rest. The longer the hunter holds, the more the scope crosshairs or bead begins wandering off the intended target.

Experienced shooters know that one of the keys to hitting the target is trigger control. The shooter remains focused and at the moment he is on the target he pulls the trigger cleanly. A fancy scope and an expensive gun will not compensate for a sudden trigger jerk.

It is unrealistic for most of us to think we can pull a shotgun out of the closet when deer season rolls around, fire a few practice rounds, and walk into the woods and shoot a deer. Trigger control requires practice.

I am not a good shot. But my wife and the neighbors in our tight Vineyard Haven neighborhood would frown on me shooting a 12 gauge. My Crosman Nitro Venom pellet gun provided a great practice solution.

It allows me to practice the mechanics of shooting straight, including trigger and breathing control: take a deep breath, let it out and squeeze the trigger. and I can do it in my backyard. It is also just plain fun.

Make no mistake about it, this is not a so-called BB gun, and it is no toy. It is deadly accurate and powerful enough to put a pellet through a half-inch pine board.

The Nitro Venom uses piston technology to compress air, rather than a spring as in traditional break barrel air rifles, an innovation that reduces noise and increases accuracy.

To charge the rifle, the shooter grasps the barrel with the butt stock firmly planted against his leg and bends it back. That cocking action compresses a nitrogen filled piston that is used to push air through the barrel.

The Nitro Venom is relatively inexpensive, less than $200 depending on the model, and it will shoot a .177 caliber pellet at a speed of up to 1,200 feet per second, about the speed of a slow bullet.

Some models of air rifles rely on a tank of compressed air that allows the shooter to make multiple shots. The cost is often dependent on the power system and optics.

Irrespective, an air rifle provides an inexpensive means to practice without a trip to a gun range. And pellets are a lot cheaper than bullets.

Dick Carlson of Oak Bluffs, 2011 Rod and Gun Club “top gun” competition winner, is an expert shot. He identified some of foundations of good marksmanship.

“Relaxation, and trigger squeeze, not yank, not pull, and breath control,” Dick said. “And all those things just meld together.

Dick said one of the most important points is to keep sighting through the shot and to shoot through the shot, or follow through.

“The shot is not over when you pull the trigger — when you think its time to pull the trigger, if you just yank it you’ll miss because all of the disciplines you’ve had going up to that point, you’ve just let them collapse,” he said.

The benefit of a pellet gun he said is “it’s quiet and you don’t disturb anybody.”

Overcoming the tendency to flinch at the shot is a hurdle many of us try to overcome, with limited success. It happens to the best of us. Dick said he flinches occasionally, but he shared his remedy. “Usually, what I do to control that is hum,” Dick said with a laugh.

These days, the hand-eye coordination young people once developed shooting squirrels on the farm or birds on the pond has been replaced by computer skills developed by shooting zombies on a screen. Pellet guns provide a great way to introduce young people to the shooting sports. There are even zombie targets available.

As for me, I still prefer the feel of walking in the woods on a crisp, cold morning deer hunting to battling the zombie apocalypse. But if the undead do rise I expect to be on target.