Stick it out!
16:17 12 July 2012
This magazine cares about its readers; always has, always will. So, when I got a call from Keith, a reader with a serious back problem, it brought an immediate response. I know what having a bad back is all about, and not the ‘bad back’ beloved of shirkers and work-dodgers, but a full-on, life-altering spinal condition, and all that comes with this hideous ailment.
Back in 1992, after a decade of chronic pain, I had a spinal fusion, where four lumbar vertebrae were bolted together and fused by removing their discs and replacing them with bone from my pelvic girdle. What appears to be some inhuman medical torture – and felt that way for quite a while, it has to be said – turned out to be my salvation, and I’ve had barely a twinge ever since. Oh yes, I know what back problems mean, all right, and our Keith had my full attention.
His problem was similar to my own, in that he’s a big, tall bloke, and he was born with a ‘scoliosis’ or curvature of the spine, which had resulted in ruptured discs, further misalignment of the vertebrae, and occasional pressure on the spinal cord. The pain which results is what I term ‘pure’, in that it’s uncluttered by anything other than the purest agony. The surest way to achieve this, is to generate vertical compression of the spine by standing and hoisting a heavy object to shoulder level; you know, just like we do every time we put a rifle on aim.
Like me, Keith had been prescribed a ton of painkillers backed by avoidance therapy, the latter being ‘don’t do things that upset your back’. Also like me, Keith won’t even consider giving up shooting, and he needs to find a way of managing his condition. I did it the wrong way, by nutting it out, shooting through the pain, and causing even more damage. I was regularly unable to drive home after a day’s FT competition, and on a couple of occasions, after being chauffeured back by kindly shooting mates, I needed paramedics to get me out of my car and into my bed of pain. The stupidity of my ‘ignore it and it might go away’ policy was beyond idiotic, and if that spinal fusion hadn’t worked, I’d be in a wheelchair today. Thus, my advice to Keith was deeply considered and given with the benefit of hindsight.
The way forward
He is currently awaiting medical assessment and may well be offered the modern equivalent of the fusion I had, but, in the meantime Keith wants to stay as active as possible and being out in the hunting field with his air rifle is his main source of enjoyment. It’s too late to cut a long story short, but Keith needed two things in the short term; the approval of his medical advisors, and a lightweight hunting outfit. He discussed the first requirement with, what we respectfully refer to as his ‘physio-terrorists’, and for the second part of his management plan he consulted me.
To his credit, Keith told me that, unless he could shoot to the required hunting standard, he’d stick to plinking. His attitude was one of, ‘I’m not prepared to make my quarry suffer for my medical problem’, and I applaud him for this. My job was simplicity itself; all I had to do was prove that a big bloke with a dodgy back can shoot a lightweight, compact sporter with the accuracy needed in the hunting field.
Regular readers will have suffered my endless sermons about perfect gunfit, specifically how vital it is for ultimate man/machine harmony and maximum accuracy. This sermon remains intact for everyone not in Keith’s position, and I stand by every statement. Ideally, we need rifles that fit us, and with enough weight to assist stability on aim. Unfortunately, Keith doesn’t live in an ideal world, and he can’t accommodate a full-on, big boy’s sporter. Something will have to change, but without performance dropping below the required level. Time for some serious thinking.
Light and handy
I had an Air Arms S200 ‘test vehicle’ in the office, which we use to compare pellets and to test new brands and designs for accuracy. This rifle is accurate beyond question, and has produced results that the ‘superguns’ would struggle to beat. In short, as an example of light weight and potential performance, that S200 is just about perfect. I knew this already, of course, but the real question is whether I could use one in the field with full efficiency.
Assume the position
If you’ve got a dodgy back, by far the best way to work around it is to take its supporting role out of the equation as much as possible and opt for kneeling and sitting shots, rather than standers, wherever possible. The viability of this solution depends entirely on your ability to either get into a stable kneeling or sitting stance when a shot presents, or to plot up in a comfortable version of the sitting stance and wait until a shot comes along. As Keith wants to use his shooting to remain active, the second, static hunting, option isn’t what he’s looking for.
A call to Keith quickly established that getting into a kneeling stance wasn’t too much of a hassle, but getting out of one often proved a nightmare. With the kneeling and sitting stances out of the reckoning, at least for now, I had to concentrate on my least favourite hunting position of them all; standing. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
Stand and deliver
I was never the greatest standing shot in the world, even when I was training to the tune of 1500 shots per week. I’m 6’ 4” tall, and right away that’s not a mechanically efficient structure upon which to prop a rifle for optimum stability. What Keith needed was something to stabilise his structure, and I came up with the very thing.
It’s a hi-tech, monopod shooting stick called the Vanguard Dropdown M62 Viking Arms, and it’s absolutely brilliant. First, it weighs very little, so carrying it in the field will never be a problem. In fact, it can be used as a hiking pole while mooching about, so it’s worth carrying for that reason alone, but it’s the M62’s instant transformation into a rifle rest that really earns it a place in Keith’s hunting kit.
A squeeze on the comfy handle of the M62 activated the ‘trigger’ to drop the upper section of the stick to the required level. Release the trigger and the stick is locked, while the soft rubber ‘V’ at the top of the stick forms a cradle for the rifle’s fore end. My tests have shown that using the stick pretty much halves the size of my groups at 25 yards and beyond, and that’s after just a few sessions with it. I know this will work for Keith, too, especially if he follows the next bit of advice and adapts his technique to suit the stick.
When I first used the M62, I used it ‘in front’, as I’d seen deer stalkers do in magazines. This worked fairly well but results improved dramatically when I switched to a more ‘sideways’ stance, and even with the stick retracted and its ‘foot’ placed in a handy pocket. This stance reproduces most of the qualities and characteristics of a good standing technique, bolstered further by the prop effect of the shooting stick.
I’ve never got along with rifle slings too well, but if Keith’s a fan of them I’d advise him to fit one, if only as a carrying aid when walking between locations. Having a rifle slung on your shoulder leaves both hands free, or in Keith’s case, one hand, because I hope the other will be holding his monopod shooting stick.
I’d also recommend a multi-shot adaptor for the S200, in case a rapid reload is called for, plus a silencer, and, of course, a scope. Scope-wise, something compact, uncomplicated and easy to use, with a mil-dot or similarly helpful reticle will do the job, without incurring a weight penalty.
Regular readers will recall my reasonably successful efforts at static lamping, where I used my Idleback shooting seat as a stable base, and then a lighter, cheaper alternative. Well, I see no reason why Keith couldn’t use one of these seats for static hunting, especially the Idleback, which is incredibly supportive and comfortable. Moving from location to location would provide the mobility and exercise Keith’s looking for, and the Idleback offers total rest and back support between moves. Blimey, I’m spending a nice bit of Keith’s money, here, but I’ll counter that by assuring him that an S200, M62 or equivalent, and an Idleback shooting chair, will last him a lifetime, and buying the best first time out is usually the cheapest way to do things.
I can confirm that big blokes, even those with dodgy backs, can use compact, handy rifles efficiently. I’ll go further and declare that a lightweight rifle propped on a quality shooting stick is easier to shoot accurately from the standing position than a full-weight rifle without the stick. The result of this revelation will see me carrying that M62 or something very like it on more field trips.
As final proof of the fact that big chaps can do well with smaller rifles, please check out the panel on the right. It came about purely by coincidence, when our esteemed Technical Editor, Phill Price, had a discussion with an S200 owner on his main shoot, but if ever I needed a ‘proof of the pudding’ moment, this is it. Good luck, Keith, and please let me know how you get on.