Marksmanship Fundamentals

How to Shoot a Rifle:

“In battle, the only bullets that count are those that hit.”- Theodore Roosevelt

Knowing how to properly handle and fire a rifle is both valuable and arguably a necessity for rural life. Rural people tend to pride themselves on hard work and independence. Much of that independence is epitomized by the rifle. Being a competent marksman can put food on the table and keep evil doers at bay, whether it be a mountain lion in the hay shed, or a felon on the run.

Know Your Rifle:

There are many different kinds of rifles and calibers available on the market. I won’t go through them all since that would in  itself take an entire book. Rather I will cover the three main rifle types/actions that are most popularly used.

As it relates to firearms, the term “action” refers to the way  the bullet cartridge is chambered, meaning how the cartridge goes from the magazine (where the bullets are stored in the rifle) to the chamber (where the bullet is fired). So in short, the action is the mechanical operation of the rifle moving the bullet.

The three most popular and widely used action types are: lever action, bolt action, and simi-auto.

Bolt Action: As the name would suggest, the “action” of the rifle is done by a “bolt.” By pulling the bolt back it removes the spent cartridge. By push the bolt forward the bolt pushes a new cartridge into the chamber. This may sound simple, and it is. The benefit of the bolt action rifle lies in its simplicity. Since it’s so mechanically simple there is little chance of the gun gaming or having parts fail. As such, this type of action is quite popular with the military, police and sportsman.

Lever Action: If you have ever seen a Wild West movie then you are familiar with the lever action rifle. It’s arguably the gun that “won the west.” And it’s still popular today with hunters. However, somewhat less popular than bolt action or semi-auto rifles.

However, the action is relatively simple. The hammer is pulled back (put in a firing position) and the spent cartridge is ejected from the gun simultaneously by pushing down on a lever located just behind the trigger guard. A fresh cartridge is then fed into the chamber by simply pulling the lever back up.

Semi-Auto: Semi-auto means that for every time you pull the trigger the gun fires one round (i.e. cartridge). How this differs from the lever action and bolt action is that the gun uses the energy from firing the cartridge to automatically cock the hammer, eject the spent cartridge, and chamber a new one. This means that instead of working a lever or a bolt, all the shooter has to do between rounds is simply pull the trigger. Due to their rapid fire ability, simi-auto rifle are immensely popular with the military, police, and sportsman.

Aiming and Firing:

Fixed Iron Sights:
The term “fixed iron sights” refers to the metal sites that generally come stocked with the gun and are often welded on. These sites are generally accurate and often used in lieu of a mounted scope. There are many variations of fixed sites.

When aiming with fixed sites one should practice firing with both eyes open. Although this is not an easy skill to acquire, it is often a necessary one. The advantage to shooting with both eyes open is that it gives the shooter the advantage of have “depth perception” as well as a wider field of view. When shooting with one eye open, the marksman should focus of the front sight. However, the drawback to this is that when you focus on the front sight the target becomes blurred.

Gun Sling: The sling is of material assistance in shooting.  It helps to keep the rifle steady and to press the butt of the rifle against the shoulder with the same amount of force for each shot. The gun sling reduces the effect of the recoil.

Trigger Squeeze: When squeezing the trigger one should apply an even and uniformed increase of pressure. One should use the middle of their last finger digit to apply pressure to the trigger. Having your finger too far forward or to far back will lead to poor trigger control.

Breathing: You chest will move as your breath in and out.  The movement of your chest will obviously cause your rifle to move leading to poor accuracy. As such, it’s best to start squeezing the trigger while you are slowly exhaling and to hold your breath just before you think the rifle is about to go off. Some marksmen breathe heavily before hand so they can hold their breath longer with less discomfort.

Shooting Stance:

There are four main stances used for shooting: Standing, sitting, kneeling, and prone (laying down). regardless of which stance you are using, basic marksmanship fundamentals still apply, such as, steady trigger squeeze, utilization of the rifle sling, and controlled breathing.

Prone Position: The “prone position” is where the shooter is laying flat on the ground. This is generally the most accurate position to shoot from since the marksman does not have to worry about keeping his whole body steady. rather he only has to focus on keeping this hands and chest steady.
When shooting from the prone position, one uses their elbows to prop the rifle up. In this position you should keep your elbow close together. In doing so, your elbows will work to both elevate your rifle and your chest off of the ground. Keeping your elbows too wide with cause undue strain on your neck. 

When laying in the prone position, your body should be at a 45 degree angle from your target. This is the most comfortable postilion to lay in and as such will lead to better accuracy.

When shooting from the prone position, it’s advantageous to rest the barrel of the rifle on a firm surface that will keep the barrel from drifting around.  Many hunters will use a bi-pod on their rifle for just this purpose. Finding a large stick or log can suffice, although one should avoid using thin branches that may be prone to moving.

Sitting Position: There are several different ways to sit when shooting.  Regardless of which sitting position you are using there are some general guidelines: your body should be leaning well forward with your arms resting between your legs and well braced. One should also utilize their rifle sling in order to keep their rifle steady and firmly against their shoulder.

Kneeling Position: Right handed shooters should kneel with their right knee supporting most of their weight and their left knee propped up and supporting their left arm. Their right knee should be vertical while their left knee is perpendicular to the target and supporting their left arm. The marksman’s left arm should be forward and inside their left knee for greater stability. The marksman should also be leaning slightly forward and into their target.

Standing Position: The standing position is not ideal for sighting in a rifle since it’s not as accurate of a position as the prone position. However, it’s a position that any hunter will find worth while practicing. Unless the hunter is using a blind or tree they will most likely take their game from a standing position. Further more, there are many variations on the standing position.

These variations depend on the type of rifle being used and the manner in which it is being used. For example, if you are raid firing with a semi-automatic rifle, you will want to stand leaning forward in an aggressive stance with your feet shoulder width apart. You also want your left arm to be far forwards. The reason for this is that your main focus (besides hitting your target) is to efficiently absorb the recoil so you can quickly get back on target for a follow up shot.

If you are shooting a bolt action rifle/lever action rifle there is generally more emphasis on accuracy rather than rapid firing. In these circumstance you want to stand erect (as opposed to leaning forward with rapid firing) with your feet shoulder width part. You will also want your left elbow to be in close to your body with your rifle resting on your left palm. Your left palm should be further back on the rifle near the rifles action for better balance.

Trouble Shooting Poor Accuracy:

There are a number of reasons why you may not be hitting your intended target. These reasons might be poor marksmanship on the part of the shooter, or they may have to do with the rifle or sights. Below are a list of common mistakes that can cause poor accuracy.

1. Poor sights/scope: The first thing I always check is the rifles scope and sights. If you are using fixed iron sights then the issue probably isn’t the sights unless they have been bent due to poor handling. However, if you are using a “red dot sight” or a scope the issue could be that they weren’t properly sighted in.

The best way to test you scope is to fire it from a stable rest. Fire 3 shots before checking your target. If the 3 shots make a nice small group that is off the “bulls eye” then there is a good chance that the issue has more to do with your scope than with your marksmanship. However, if the 3 shot are scattered all over the target than the issue is most likely due to poor marksmanship.

2. Poor Conditions: Weather conditions can affect your rifles accuracy over long distances. For example, if you sited in your rifle on a hot summer day with little to no wind it won’t be as accurate on a cold winter day with high winds ( and vice versa). As a general rule it’s best to site in your rifle in the morning when it’s cool and there is very little wind.
3. Inconsistent Trigger Pull: The trigger should be squeezed with a steady and uniform increase in pressure. I have heard many people suggest that when you pull the trigger the gun should go off as a surprise. The theory behind this is that new shooters will often flinch in anticipation of the rifles recoil. As such, if you are not quite sure when the rifle will go off you are less likely to flinch.

However, I am not alone when I say that this is poor advice. Experienced marksmen know precisely when the gun will fire given the proper amount of pressure applied to the trigger. The trick to accurate marksmanship is to practice your trigger pull and work on not flinching. Learning not to flinch will go a lot farther in making you a good marksman than simply trying to work around it.

4. Focus and follow through: Good marksmen are those who have been taught and perfected the “aim small, miss small” philosophy. Don’t just focus on the bulls-eye, but rather focus on the center of the bulls-eye.

Follow through refers to how your body behaves after you have fired your rifle. If you watch experienced marksmen you will notice that they keep their head down and the cheek pressed against the stock of their rifle even after the gun has gone off, as opposed to inexperienced shooters who will immediately jerk their head up and away from the rifle.

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