The sniper settles into position and dials in the scope while a spotter eyes the target through a wider optical field. The shooter calculates data including temperature, elevation, windage, inclination, Coriolis effect, drop, cant, spin drift and other variables, including the team's vulnerability if the target shoots first.
But long before squeezing off a shot that could exceed 1,000 yards, an effective sniper has studied, planned and practiced.
Hunters have it easier and the stakes aren't as high. But a former sniper instructor and author of a new book on shooting techniques said hunters are not immune to the same need to study, plan and practice.
"There's less stress involved, but even hunters get buck fever," said retired Chief Petty Officer Chris Sajnog, a retired marksmanship instructor who helped develop the curriculum used by the U.S. Navy SEAL sniper training program. "Like in combat, it's rare that you get to shoot at the exact range and under the same perfect conditions as when you were practicing. In combat and in hunting, the most important thing is planning. Pulling the trigger is the very last thing you're going to do."
Now president and CEO of a California company that teaches elite firearm and tactics courses to the military, law enforcement and civilians, Sajnog's new book, "How to Shoot Like a Navy SEAL" (Center Mass Group), includes advice that can be adapted by hunters.
"It was kind of written for anyone who wants to be able to shoot off-range. The way you grip the gun and put your finger on the trigger is different when your heart starts pounding," he said. "If you're sitting in a tree stand for a couple of days, the stress starts building and you end up mashing the trigger, getting more pressure from your finger than when you were practicing on the range. You might be twisted around, shooting at an unfamiliar distance and inclination, and you might only have a couple of seconds to take the shot."
Long before getting into the field, said Sajnog, the hunter and gun need to spend a lot of quality time together. Exactly what constitutes a "long shot" is a matter of interpretation -- 125 yards is pushing it for a slug gun; a heavy, slow-moving bullet may drop substantially at 250 years; while some Pennsylvania rifle deer hunters may need to stretch to 400 yards or farther. Sajnog said the key to safe, successful and ethical distance shooting is to never take a shot in the field that you haven't already practiced at the range.
"Reading ballistics tables is a good place to start, but it's no substitute for actually shooting at the far end of the weapon's capability," Sajnog said. "There should be no guessing. Whether you're a sniper or a hunter, you need to know how far that bullet will drop and where it will hit at that distance under current conditions."
Hunters should plan for and practice shooting in unusual field conditions.
"I recommend dry fire training," he said. "People think that means just squeezing the trigger, but it's a lot more than that."
In dry fire exercises at the range, practice shooting with and without a rest, prone, sitting, standing and twisting at the hip. How would you hold the gun, and where would you aim, shooting uphill or downhill? Sajnog recommends taking notes at the practice range. Fill your shooting journal with details learned at every session.
And in the field, whether you're a sniper or a hunter, the very first thing to do is plan where and under what conditions you won't shoot.
"Don't do anything without a plan," he said. "Practice getting into a good shooting position. Scope the whole area out with a rangefinder and identify benchmarks for various distances. If the deer comes up to you from behind on the left, how will you shoulder the gun? If it comes up behind from the right? Are there any bushes or branches in the way? What is the longest shot you're comfortable taking from this position, and how will you execute that shot? That type of planning allows a hunter or a sniper to take effective shots."
No matter how much you've practiced or how ready you think you are, it is human nature to choke under stress, whether it's the life-and-death stress of a sniper or the hunting stress of having a several-second window of opportunity at setting a Boone & Crockett record.
Like everything else, said Sajnog, plan for it.
"Your mind, presented with an unfamiliar situation, quickly assesses that this is a thing you've never done before," he said. "You get in a mental freeze -- a deer in the headlights, if you will. That's stress. If you've done something that was close to the current situation, your mind says, 'Yes, I did these steps before,' and it relaxes and lets you go into motion. That's what a sniper does. That's why twisting into every possible shooting position, looking for distance patterns, setting safety and skill-level limitations for yourself, and sticking to them, is so important."
Applying military practices to all hunting situations would be dangerous and ineffective. But Sajnog said the reason Navy SEALS are so good at what they do is intensive planning for all foreseeable contingencies, and the ability to adapt to the unforeseen.
"Planning your shot is by far the most important thing you can do," he said. "If you wait until you see a deer at 600 yards to make a decision about whether you're going to shoot at 600 yards, you've waited too long."