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A Commonsense Approach To Better Marksmanship

A Commonsense Approach To Better Marksmanship

A good field shot is a combination of good equipment and skill. Money can get the equipment, but you must put in the hours of practice time. The end result will be worth the effort.

Maj. Ned Roberts, designer of the .257 Roberts cartridge, was lucky. Roberts's Uncle Bud taught him how to shoot a rifle. Uncle Bud was an accomplished shot and had been a member of Berdan's Sharpshooters, during the Civil War. When Roberts was not yet a teenager, Uncle Bud started him on a rigorous practice regime, and before long Roberts was able to put four out of five shots inside a two-inch bullseye at 55 yards using a .30-caliber muzzleloader and open sights from the standing, off-hand position.

Proper length of pull is critical for optimal offhand shooting. It should be about an inch less than the distance from the inside crook of the elbow on your shooting arm to the first joint of your trigger finger.

After Roberts accomplished that feat, the range and target size were doubled. After Roberts managed to qualify at 165 yards with the same proficiency, Uncle Bud proclaimed him a good shot with a rifle. The year was 1876, and Roberts was not yet 10. That same year he shot his first big-game animal: a lynx that weighed 67 pounds. Things were different in 1886. In those days marksmanship was considered as important as good manners and good grades.

Most of us are not lucky enough to have an Uncle Bud, but several respected shooting academies across the country offer courses on the hunting rifle. They are expensive but can be worth attending if graduates make perfecting the skills presented them a priority. We learn physical skills by doing, or by trial and error, not by instruction.

We all like to think that we have a little Ned Roberts in us — usually more than actually exists. I'm not saying hunters are poor marksmen but that on average hunters think they are better rifle shots than they really are.

Every year I conduct a rifle workshop for one of the top custom rifle builders in the country where hunters are invited to test their shooting skills in simulated hunting conditions. Even experienced hunters perform well below their expectations — most often with an excuse for every miss.

Know Your Equipment

Becoming a good field shot is simply a culmination of using good equipment, developing skill, and understanding limitations. Money and good sense will outfit you with the proper equipment, but it takes diligence on your part to feed the monster called practice that most of us ignore.


For starters, rifle fit is very important. Trying to manage a rifle that does not fit you is like wearing boots two sizes too large on a forced road march. Length of pull, the distance from the rifle's butt to the trigger, is a key measurement and can be adjusted by shortening or lengthening the stock.

Rifle balance, trigger manipulation, and eye coordination are critical for accurate shooting. Coordinating the trigger pull with the exact moment your eye says it's time is how you hit where you are aiming.

This is the reason that some firearms manufacturers, such as Remington and Ruger, now offer "youth" rifles that have stocks with a shorter length of pull. These rifles are much more appropriate for youngsters, many women, and small-framed adults.

A rifle that balances behind the front of the action will handle smoothly, and a rifle that balances forward of the action will hang on target better. A compromise is a rifle that balances very near the front of the action, provides good handling characteristics, and a reasonable steadiness on target.

The balance point can be adjusted by adding weight to the front or rear of the stock or by shortening the barrel. A rifle's balance is critical for good offhand shooting.

Total rifle weight can influence performance, particularly when shooting offhand. Most rifles will shoot best when total weight is between 6.5 to eight pounds. If total weight is under 6.5 pounds, consider a rifle that is a bit muzzle heavy.

If weight is over eight pounds, consider a rifle that is a tad butt heavy. Custom rifle builders I have interviewed — like Melvin Forbes at New Ultra Light Arms and Charlie Sisk at Sisk Rifles — all agree the physical interaction between shooter and rifle is paramount to mastering the fundamentals of field shooting. A rifle needs to fit the shooter and be comfortable to shoot in a variety of positions.

Positioning your shooting arm parallel to the ground wedges the stock between your shoulder and cheek and provides a more stable offhand shooting platform.

The trigger is even more important. It's the "go" switch and must allow surgical-like manipulation. For about a hundred bucks most triggers can be tuned by a gunsmith, and for most bolt-action rifles, quality replacement triggers, like those from Timney, are available and are usually easy to install.

Proprioception & Kinesthesia

Proprioception is how the body immediately varies muscle contraction in response to external forces and vision. Kinesthesia is the sensation of joint motion and acceleration. Proprioception and kinesthesia are the mechanisms for control and posture of the body. They are what let us shoot accurately.

Repeating the same action 3000 to 5000 times, or performing a task approximately 30 minutes for a period of 21 days, is necessary to create muscle memory so that a physical activity can be performed, seemingly, without conscious thought. It is cost prohibitive for a shooter to fire that many shots a month. This makes dry fire viable for allowing proprioception and kinesthesia to flourish. In short, it trains your eye to pull the trigger.

Take about 20 minutes out of each day for dry-fire practice. Use an unloaded rifle and a target that will let you observe your sight alignment at the moment the trigger breaks. By the end of a week you will start to feel where the sight was orientated on the target when the trigger breaks.

A cliché that is repeated by firearms instructors and others claiming to be masters of the art of shooting is, "It should be a surprise wh

en the rifle fires." Not true. A shooter should know the exact moment when the rifle will fire.

Learning to dictate the exact moment the trigger will break and coordinating that moment with the instant the sight is properly aligned is the key to accurate shooting. It's all about the eye and the trigger.

Before you can improve your shooting you must establish your current ability. Zero your rifle at 50 yards then select a visible target about six to eight inches in diameter and place it at that distance. From the standing, offhand position fire five shots. Take your time, lowering the rifle between each shot, but try to complete all five shots in 60 seconds. Do this three more times for a total of four five-shot groups. The average group size is your score.

Seven Steps To Better Shooting

1. Do you jerk the trigger? Adjust the grip of your shooting hand so that your thumb doesn't wrap around the wrist of the stock. Sometimes eliminating your ability to "grip" the stock will solve the problem.

2. Riflescope magnification higher than 6X can hinder offhand shooting. If you have trouble seeing the target with low magnification, get a bigger target.

3. Coarse open sights can be difficult to align on a target. Use a six-o'clock hold: hold at the bottom of the target. This provides a much more defined aiming point with open sights.

4. To help steady the rifle raise your shooting elbow so it is parallel to the ground or at a 90-degree angle to your body. This will pinch the rifle between your shoulder and cheek providing a rigid shooting platform.

5. The best offhand shot I know often says, "If you hold long, you hold wrong." Don't struggle to hold a position for more than eight or 10 seconds. If you haven't fired by then, lower the rifle and relax.

6. Do most of your live fire practice with a quality rimfire. It will save money and help overcome flinching.

7. To avoid fatigue, never shoot more than 20 to 30 rounds per live fire session.

For the next week conduct daily dry-fire practice. During weekly range sessions work to reduce your average group size by a half-inch or a full inch each time out until you reach your goal — whatever it may be.

Then double the range like Uncle Bud did with Ned and keep practicing until you are shooting groups no more than double the size you were shooting at 50 yards. Keep up the dry-fire practice, and if your ability starts to fall off, go back to 50 yards and start over.

An excellent rifleman can put five shots inside a one-inch circle at 50 yards from the standing offhand position. A very good marksman will do the same inside a two-inch circle, and if you can keep four out of five shots inside a two-inch circle at 50 yards, consider yourself a good shot and ready to square off against old Ned Roberts.

Don't overlook target selection. Select a target that is easy to see and not too small. Itty-bitty circles and squares are made for shooting from a bench, so use robust targets for offhand training. The target creates the visual impression your eye relies on to signal your finger to activate the trigger.

In short, make sure your rifle fits you, make sure your trigger is crisp, and practice, practice, practice! The end result will be worth the effort. When in the field you will have the experience to help you decide what shots you should take and the confidence in your equipment and ability to make the ones you do.

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