Marksmanship is a skill that is easy to learn yet hard to master. It’s easy to learn because there are only three principles to remember. It’s hard to master because each principle takes a ton of practice. But isn’t that our favorite part anyway?
Most Drill Sergeants will tell you that the new recruits who came in not knowing a thing about shooting ended up being the best marksmen. On the contrary, the ones who came in thinking they already knew it all were the least likely to take advice. So whether you are a beginner or advanced, read and heed.
No matter the type of weapon you’re firing, be it a Beretta 9mm or an Ruger Bolt Action equipped with best 30-06 optic, all you need to remember are three simple things:
- Make a sturdy base
- Control your breathing
- Be careful how you squeeze the trigger
Too easy, right? Each of those things is trickier than it seems though, so be sure to read on. By the end, I promise you will have everything you need to know to get out there and start shooting.
Tip #1: Foundation
Remember, each of the three fundamentals takes a good bit of time and practice to master, but we will start with the easiest. How you prefer to shoot is up to you. But it is generally recommended to hone your skills from the prone and the standing positions.
What is the prone position? Glad you asked. The prone position is when you lie on your stomach and lift your torso off the ground ever so slightly while resting your weight on your elbows. Your non-dominant hand holds the handguard of the weapon and your dominant hand is on the trigger well. For maximal stability in this difficult position, pull your right knee just a little bit in toward your hip. There, now you’re in the prone unsupported. If you rest the weight of the weapon on any other object other than your hand, such as a rock or a sandbag, you’re now in prone supported. This is my personal favorite because you have a low profile and you can really drop some targets. Assume this position and explore it until you feel that the sights naturally line up to your eyes without having to strain. Your cheek should be firmly pressed into the buttstock, your dominant eye should be aiming down the sights, and the buttstock should be planted firmly into the top of your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body.
From a standing position, you will have far less stability and probably won’t be dropping any long-distance targets, but it is an important skill to have because if you need to down a potential threat you won’t have time to drop to the floor.
For greater accuracy while standing, it is best to square off your shoulders with your hips facing the target. Your dominant foot should be only about six inches behind your non-dominant. Keeping your shoulders tucked in, bring the buttstock up to the top of your chest and firmly plant it there. Cheek resting on the side of the buttstock, aim downrange and shoot.
Quick side note: The quickest way to aim while standing is simply to ‘point’ down the barrel toward the target with the index finger of your supporting hand (the hand that holds the handguard) and shoot. This will not be as accurate as the others, but it is your best bet if you look up and see an elk charging you in the woods. Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in that situation.
Tip #2: Breathing
Okay, now that we have established a solid base to rest your rifle on, we can move on to the next two. If you look down your sights and breathe normally, you will watch your barrel rising and falling along the vertical axis of the target. Here’s the catch:
You have to momentarily stop breathing when you execute the shot. But what many shooters fail to do is wait until they have exhaled fully. Not only will your aim not rise and fall, but you will be slightly more relaxed than you would with lungs full of air.
Tip #3: Trigger Squeeze
I know what you’re thinking:
“How hard could it be to pull the trigger?”
But think about it: If you curl your index finger inward, the middle part of your finger actually contracts diagonally. This translates to a bullet that will likely pass just to the side of its target, especially if it’s 500 meters away. It’s only the very tip of the finger that can move straight backward and forward. And even that takes practice and proper positioning. The rest of your right hand should be grasping the handle. So there you are, perfectly stable base, you breathe calmly and only fire once you’ve fully exhaled. You used the tip of your finger only. But you look at the target and see you didn’t even hit it. What did you do wrong? You probably tensed up. Most people have the natural reaction to clench up in anticipation of the explosion at this moment. If you are one of them, it is best that you keep practicing because as you grow more comfortable with the weapon, this will improve.
So there you have it. Those are the three most important principles of marksmanship. But I’d like to take a moment and add a couple of pointers on top of them.
Respect Its Power
Weapons are dangerous. When handled responsibly, they can be an eternal source of fun and enjoyment. Your weapon should always have the safety engaged except for the exact moment you’re about to fire it. If you change positions, always lay it down on the ground or, preferably, a sandbag or other raised surface so the dust doesn’t get in. The barrel should always be pointed downrange, and the safety should always be on.
Don’t be a Hero
Headshots are cool in the movies, but if you actually want to topple your target, stick to aiming at its largest section (which is the center mass). On the range, targets will be popping up and down with a quickness, so you will have to act and aim fast. Shoot smart. But if you just can’t resist a good headshot, perhaps you should look into riflescopes.
To review your progress, you want to examine your shot group. A shot group is exactly what it sounds like:
The grouping of bullet holes on the target. How close they are to each other is an indication of how consistent you are as a shooter. The tighter the shot group, the better. If your shot group seems to have a more vertical spread, it is because you fired the round with different levels of air in your lungs.
Work on fully exhaling until there is no air left in you. If the shot group opens horizontally, which it likely will, it is because your rifle is pulling to one side or the other when you fire. Check your trigger finger positioning and work on not clenching up when you fire.
If you aimed center mass, and the entire shot group is positioned higher or lower than you expected, you need to read up on How to Zero Your Sights and Scopes. And if the shot group is center mass, and each bullet hole can fit within the space of a quarter, make sure to share this article.
Guest Author Bio:
Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared on large publications like The National Interest, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews various optics on his Scopes Field blog.
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