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With Good Legs
August 2011
Gerhard Schroeder

There it was, an honest eight inches. I pretended it was a real beast. Actually it was worse. The range finder suggested 217. With the scope set at 6X, those eight inches were easy to see.

Also easy to see was the crazy dance those crosshairs made, trying to settle on the steel disc. Over sandbags from a table this would have been a waste of ammo, nothing to it, every shot a hit. But my butt was on the ground. OK, on a foam pad on the ground. Because this was 10 April, first thing in the morning, and it had rained and drizzled almost all day Saturday. Mud all around testified to that, as did the layer of snow easily visible on the upper regions in the Bradshaw Mountains to the north.

Neither did it help that the wind was already breezy, making for noticeably uncomfortable wet cold conditions which kept my nose running.

All this was actually helpful that morning, adding a level of difficulty in my attempt to simulate hunting conditions. A steel plate shows no mercy. Hit it, and the thing will swing noticeably. The smacking sound, however, was often lost in the wind, ear plugs and muffs. During testing I tend to use both. Miss the plate, even by a hair, and not a thing will happen. Whatever the bullet might have kicked up was obscured by recoil. Lack of dust from all the moisture then did its part to hide where the missed shots landed.

My hands, the supporting one protected from the cold by a glove, aimed my 308 Tikka, with elbows resting on the insides of my legs. My first shot nailed the round plate, I smiled. The second didn’t. The third hit again, but no more smile. I knew from the missed shot before that this was about a fifty-fifty situation.

The whole project was also a fact-finding test. How accurate am I under these circumstances? Not good enough that morning to hit eight inches at about two hundred steps when shooting across my knees.

Plan B bombed out before I even fired a single shot. I had installed a Harris-type bipod to the swivel stud. That was an easy procedure, even out there, only requiring a screw driver. Disappointing that fully extended, the twenty-four inches were still too short to get the rifle on target. And that was with the steel plate positioned slightly downhill. It would have never worked with a target level with or above my position.

The prone position would not have worked, either, because of vegetation. Besides, I wasn’t about to wallow in the mud. To be clear, bipods are useful to steady a rifle. But unless this occurs on a mowed meadow, firm snow or from some cliff, it positions the shooter in front of vegetation. For my style of hunting I’ve ruled them out.

Plan C employed an old trick, possibly ‘invented’ by buffalo hunters in this country more than a hundred years ago. I tried home-made cross sticks, similar to those I had used and left behind during the 2010 deer hunt (with much frustration, if you remember that story). After three shots I had sobering results. Only one of them hit the plate.

However, at one of the missed shots I caught myself jerking / flinching, doing something that allowed the rifle to shift noticeably right at the shot. At least I had one answer. Not too surprising, hitting that whitetail in the lower hind leg last October was operator error. Somehow the cross sticks facilitated rather far movement of the muzzle as I pulled the trigger.

Oops, that’s right. I was pulling that trigger more than squeezing it. Why? I took another shot. There it was. Even with those cross sticks the aiming process was on the edge of frustrating. The MilDot reticle moved around more than I wanted it to. In response I was harder on the trigger as soon as the crosshair swept the target. Bad habit.

Plus, to be honest, I also caught myself anticipating some recoil. Hmm. For comparison I switched to the Mini Mauser in 223Rem. Using the same cross sticks my first shot hit. So did number two. Then three. Suddenly I had fun again, kept at it until fifteen shots later they all had smacked steel. That was good! Too bad a .223 isn’t really for deer-sized game.

So I grabbed the .308 again. This time I paid more attention to aiming and squeezing. Surprise, surprise, the next five rounds nailed the steel plate. It was a matter of practice, of concentration. I stopped there that morning, out of time, certainly tired of the wet cold wind.

A few weeks later I continued the test. The wet cold had been replaced by sunshine and crusted ground, but wind was still with me. This time my target measured 7x7 inches, was 253 yards away, according to the electrons.

Right away I encountered a difficulty that had not been there when the ground was moist. The wooden ends no longer dug into the ground. Now they had the tendency to slip on the hard soil. At this increased distance the bullets demanded a different aiming point, slightly to the left / into the wind and above the plate. Then hits were possible. But they occurred inconsistently. So, was that it? Was that as far as cross sticks would aid in hitting my target?

Later that week I exchanged a few emails with Dan. He had made several cross sticks over the years, used them during HSC events and in the field, given me one set as well. Dan stressed that the sticks need padding where they contact the rifle.

Off to the garage. Within minutes my simple sticks featured metal studs at the bottom (pre-drilled with an 11/64 bit, then half of a 20D nail shank gently pounded in until it stuck out about 3/4 of an inch) and improvised padding at the top (foam covered by the finger end of an old work glove).

The following Saturday, jacketed lead flew again. This time the 7x7 plate ended up 213 steps away, barely visible above ground vegetation between me and the steel.

It was dry and cool, and the wind noticeable stronger than previously, almost as strong as during my 2010 deer hunt. As expected, the metal studs worked great. Dug right into the ground and stayed there. The padding definitely helped. My rifle no longer jumped as much.

Hitting the steel became easier once I figured out how much to hold into the wind. Just note this, though: if you haven’t done much cross stick shooting, it provides nowhere near the stability of a bench and bags. Aiming and squeezing the trigger demand some definite coordination. Strong wind makes this even more obvious as it tends to sway the rifle, even when cradled in cross sticks.

I drove home more confident that morning, and made the padding permanent. That is, a strip off an old mouse pad glued on, then covered by a patch of thin leather wrapped around and stapled on the off-side.

For me that was the end of cross stick evolution. From then on I addressed the ‘what can I do with it’ question. But before leaving the sticks themselves, here are a few specifics:

Dan and I deviate on the basic stick concept. His are longer because he uses them as walking sticks. My right knee got overextended when I wrestled with my last dead cow elk. Ever since then I need a walking stick in serious terrain, ala Arizona’s game habitat.

My walking stick is over 6’ long – six feet I’ve come to depend on when conquering steep slopes. I ‘attach’ my cross sticks to that walking stick with two rubber bands. It has worked well on both the last deer and javelina hunts, meaning they remained attached and came off easily. An extra couple of rubber bands in some pocket are recommended.

Clearly, the down side is that my sticks will not employ as fast as the way Dan uses his. It’s just that in this world of compromises my knee won out. Plus the sticks are for long distance only, a situation where hopefully the game will not be aware and I’ll have the extra time. During the 2010 deer hunt that was the case.

My cross sticks are made from two pieces of ¾” x ½” wood, 36 inches long, with pivot point 4 3/8 inches from the top, and a section of rope limiting the spreading angle to about 40 degrees. Cheap and easy to make.

For entertainment I’ll also cover another ‘device’. Borrowed from those long tripod contraptions seen on many Africa hunts, the shooter uses them to steady his rifle from the standing position. I consider it an aid to offhand shooting because both elbows still dangle in midair. My ‘device’ is a long cross stick but with a section of rope attached that’s long enough to reach the ground where it has a loop that I step into and thus pin it to the ground. I then push the long sticks forward until the rope is tight. So my left hand holds the rifle and its palm pushes against the top of the sticks with considerable force. This stance is noticeably more stable than offhand, but nowhere near what is achievable while sitting.

Back to making noise and finding the answer to the main question: how far away could I still hit a deer’s kill zone? Just because my shooting ‘range’ allows convenient placement of a steel swinger at 300 steps I put an 8x8 plate there.

David has welded up several steel swingers, so that’s what I use. If I can hit those, it equates to a dead deer.

Dan, Sam and I worked on this in late July. For that test I had made one additional change, tying cross sticks and rifle together with a bungee cord. All three of us concluded that the resulting stability was indeed impressive. This ‘mount’ allows me to let go of the sticks without dropping them, and the rifle can be tilted within the “V” of the cross stick cradle.

I hit that 7x7 plate at 200 yards every time, and the 8x8 at 300 – four out of four once I figured the right hold into the wind.

I’ll end here. Between now and November practicing will continue. Aside from shooting I’ll also go through the routine of removing the cross sticks from my walking stick, setting the rifle in there, then cross-winding the bungee cord. This will take a minute. If the desired critter is that far away I hope my binoculars have found him before he detects me (or he holds still anyway), thus allowing that much setup time. May I get such a chance.

Dan Martinez

I don’t know how long I’ve been using homemade shooting sticks on my hunts, but it has been since at least 1999. On a backpack hunt in December of that year, I took a nice Coues whitetail off my sticks at a distance of 240 yards.

When my kids started hunting, I made sticks for them. And as they have grown taller and taller over the years, we have had to keep making new ones that are taller.

As Gerhard mentioned, my shooting sticks double as a rough country trekking pole when folded up. In fact, I often take them on hikes, even if I am not humping a rifle. I size them so that when they are folded, they reach about to the level of your xiphoid process (at the bottom of your sternum) when you are standing.

Taking a look at the nearby picture, you can see that Sam on the right has outgrown his sticks and we need to make a new set for him. We did, and we donated that set to Audrey Snyder, from which she shot her first deer at a distance of somewhere around 200 yards.

I make my sticks out of red oak. I start with a piece of 1”x2” oak from the local home improvement warehouse. After cutting the stick off to the correct length as described above, I rip the one-by-two into two one-by-ones on a table saw. You need to carefully consider the placement of the saw blade before you start this cut to make sure that the two pieces end up being the same size.

The next step is to fire up the oscillating hand sander to take out any roughness from the saw cut on the two sides that were just separated. For this step, you need to take care not to dwell too long on one spot or you might end up with the leg of your sticks having waviness, or uneven thickness along the length of the leg.

Next, clamp the the two legs together, with the two separated sides of the sticks facing each other just as they were before they were cut into two separate legs. It’s important to keep these two faces aligned to each other during the build process. You may want to make some sort of a mark on the sticks to remind yourself which two sides of the legs need to face each other. Over time, the legs may take a slight warp as wood often does. You want both legs to curve together, and they will if you keep this alignment throughout your build.

Measure down about 4 inches from one end, and drill a 3/8” hole straight through both legs. A drill press is very handy for making a good straight hole through the two legs. This is your pivot point.

The two legs are bolted together with a round-head screw, or a low-profile hex head bolt, with a washer and a nylon-insert locknut on the other side. But between the two sticks, I put a rubber washer. This spacer between the sticks is important because it provides room for a buckskin wrap over the rest area. We’ll talk more about that later.

You don’t want a lot of bolt extending out of the locknut because that will eventually bite you. So next, using a Dremel tool with a cutoff wheel, I trim the protruding bolt just beyond the edge of the locknut. As I finish the cut, I gently round or bevel any remaining edge of the bolt.

While I am at the drill press, I measure another 4 inches down from the pivot point and drill a ¼” hole in each stick. These holes are placed next to each other in the two legs, at 90° to the crossbolt hole. A length of parachute cord will go through these two holes and be tied into a loop. This is what limits the legs from folding all the way open. You will adjust the length of this loop later.

Alright, now they are starting to look like shooting sticks! At this point, I disassemble the sticks once again and put aside the hardware so that I don’t lose the pieces. Now I give the sticks an overall hand sanding with a sanding block and 100 grit sandpaper, maybe even #220. I want the sticks to be smooth to the hand all over. Lightly round over the 90° edges.

The next step is a protective wood finish. My favorite is Watco Danish Oil in the Natural color. I put on at least three coats following the directions on the can. More coats is better. After waiting a day or two for the finish to cure, I reassemble the sticks.

Yes, it is important for the rifle rest crotch of the sticks to be padded. I use pieces cut from an old backpacking sleeping pad. This is the somewhat dense foam that is about 3/8” thick. I glue the strips to the two rifle rest faces using contact bond cement.

I used to leave it at that, replacing the pads every season or so. I finally wised up, buying a piece of tanned buckskin. From this, I cut coverings that wrap completely around the tops of the sticks, covering the pads. The buckskin wrap is stapled in place. This makes for an excellent hand grip in walking stick mode, besides protecting the pads from abuse in the field.

The final important element to my shooting stick system is what allows the sticks to be used as a very effective hiking stick. This is a clip that I fashion from a 1” wide piece of sheet metal. It is placed near the bottom of the sticks and holds them tightly together in the closed position. It wraps around three faces of one stick and is screwed to that leg on two opposite faces. It now occurs to me that this can be done with one through-bolt, but so far I have only used two separate woodscrews.

The clip then extends around the other stick, but not quite all the way. There is enough wrap-around to hold it closed, but I bend a little pull tab on the end to allow the clip to be pried open by finger to release the leg to allow the sticks to open.

Because of the somewhat long length of my sticks, they do have a pretty wide stance when you are shooting from a butt-on-the-ground position. Take this position to adjust the length of the limiting-loop cord. Sitting on level ground, adjust the loop length to give you a comfortable level hold with the rifle. I use a square knot to tie the loop.

Because of the wide stance of the sticks in this position, I don’t seem to have too much trouble with the ends of the sticks sliding around as Gerhard mentions. I have never felt the need to put spikes into the ends of the sticks.

There is some natural springiness with the parachute cord and the wide stance of the long sticks, that allows you to push the sticks lower for downhill shots. And of course, you can bring the sticks closer together for uphill shots.

The other advantage I find with sticks of this length, is that you get the flexibility of being able to shoot with your butt elevated as well, such as sitting on a stump, a rock, a stool, or a chair in a blind.

Would you believe that I’m still hunting with the same sticks I built before that 1999 hunt? Sure, I’ve had to maintain them over the years, but do a good job on your build and they will last. Sticks are a great aid for steadying your shots. I don’t rifle hunt without my sticks.

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