It's easy to get into a rut. On most public ranges you’ll find a long row of shooting benches. On private ranges (including mine) you’ll find at least one good, solid bench. In the off-season, or as hunting season approaches, how many of us go to the range, sit to the bench, fire a few groups, verify zero, and congratulate ourselves as having “practiced”?
This past fall I was on a whitetail hunt up North. Conditions were terrible—warm and windy—but the last day dawned clear, cold, and calm with several inches of fresh snow. Perfect. A friend had first shot, and he missed a nice buck midmorning. After a week of hard hunting, we were all so bummed we didn’t regroup properly. Ten minutes later, we had another shot at a better buck, and that one was also a miss. That was the end of that hunt. No big deal. Misses happen, and neither opportunity was easy. My buddy later confided that other than checking zero, it had been a while since he’d been to the range.
Any shooting is better than no shooting. Experience is valuable, but shooting skills are perishable. Absent regular practice—and even with it—it’s easy to fall into bad habits. I am convinced that the only way to shoot consistently well in the field is to shoot regularly from field shooting positions. Also, the more creative you are at the range, say, learning to quickly get steady from an increasing variety of shooting positions, the more successful you will be. I’m convinced that to be a better shot on game—and to increase your repertoire of field shooting positions—you have to get away from the bench.
Burn the bench? Definitely not! Bench-rest shooting is its own, highly demanding shooting discipline. I’m not a competitor, but I work hard at benchrest technique because the bench is essential for zeroing and checking loads. The concept is to remove as much human element as possible, allowing the rifle to shoot as accurately as it is capable.
The bench is also an awesome place to work on such critical shooting basics as breath control and trigger press, which are common sources of bad habits.
Nowhere will these bad habits be more apparent, nor more easily cured, than at the bench, where the rifle is securely rested and slight wobbles are highly visible. So by all means, shoot from the bench and take its lessons to heart. Just don’t consider the bench alone as “practice” for hunting. Try to spend at least part of every range session away from the bench, practicing with familiar options and experimenting with new ones.
The NRA Positions
Rifle shooting starts with the basic NRA shooting positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. My formal training began more than 50 years ago during my days in the Boy Scouts, where we had excellent marksmanship instruction. This was followed by smallbore competition in college. In my day, all Marine Corps qualification shooting was based on the four NRA positions. Not everyone can have such a basic foundation, but I think it’s useful to at least know the proper form of the positions and the value of a tight sling for each.
I haven’t competed for many years, but I still practice the formal positions. As with the bench, they are excellent tools for maintaining shooting basics for breath control and trigger press, but add what my Marine Corps instructors called “good body alignment.” “Good” is when you get into position and your sights (or scope) naturally line up on your target. “Bad” is when you have to push or “muscle” your sights onto the target. Regardless of position, adjust your body and get it right. Over time this will come naturally.
There are no rulebooks for field shooting positions. The goal is to get steady, and you are free to modify and augment these positions to your heart’s content. However, whether you’re shooting over a bipod or tripod, off shooting sticks, over a rock or log, leaning against a tree, whatever, you have to start somewhere. Field shooting positions are unlimited, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally cramped and uncomfortable. Even so, I still find most options for a steady shot have some basis in one of the four NRA positions.
Bipods, Tripods, Sticks
These are what I call “commercial” shooting aids. Some, like bipods, typically attach to the rifle, most commonly in conjunction with the forward sling swivel stud. Most tripods and taller shooting sticks (with one to four legs) are intended for use with the forend rested over the top of the device. There are so many options that it’s almost impossible to become equally comfortable with a wide variety.
I like bipods for range work and for hunting in open country. Harris Engineering’s bipods are the gold standard, but I really like the new, light carbon-fiber Spartan Javelin line that attach (and thus detach) with a really strong magnet. A problem with low bipods is that in the field brush and terrain often preclude shooting from prone. Models with extending legs that allow kneeling or sitting behind them (a great modification to these positions) are thus more versatile. As you seek a field position, a good rule of thumb is the closer you can get to Mother Earth the steadier you can be.
In Africa, three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal and are most often employed as a standing rest. Brush often precludes a low position, and everything there has thorns, so you probably shouldn’t flop down. I am amazed at how many first-time African hunters I encounter who have never practiced with sticks. If you’re Africa-bound, get or make a set of shooting sticks and practice with them.
My favorites are traditional sticks from African Sporting Creations, with jointed legs allowing for a lower tripod for sitting or kneeling. Other commercial options include models with fully adjustable legs and internal gears for rapid adjustment.
They are not long-range solutions, but with practice you should become steady and comfortable for fast, sure shots at medium range. My wife, Donna, and I practice with them religiously, often with .22 rimfires, and I’m so comfortable with them that I usually throw my sticks (broken down) into my gun case no matter where I’m going.
Regardless of your choice, there are two primary things to learn. First, how to use your supporting hand as you rest across the top or junction of the legs. There is no right or wrong, provided you never allow your barrel to make contact with any solid rest. I grasp the forend with thumb and forefinger, then tie my other three fingers around the sticks. Second, the proper height for you. For me, the junction of the sticks goes about even with my top shirt button. With my supporting hand grasping the fore-end and the sticks, I can lean slightly into the sticks and pull back with my supporting hand, creating some isometric pressure.
Running with the Pack
I almost always carry at least a daypack, so this is my primary shooting rest and preferred comfort zone. I can rest over it prone. I can lay it across a rock or log to pad the rifle and adjust the height and then sit or kneel behind it. Or, with a taller boulder or stump, I can stand into it.
If tall enough, a frame pack (internal or external) can be up-ended and used to sit or kneel behind. If you aren’t hunting alone, your buddy’s pack is equally useful. Additional packs can adjust height, and you can put a pack to the side to stabilize your shooting elbow. When shooting on slopes or over low brush height is tricky, there have been times when we’ve piled up every pack we had.
Uses are limited only by your imagination. You can put a back behind you and lean against it for stability, or in sitting or kneeling, you can put a pack in your lap for elbow support.
Tree trunks, fence posts, the side of a boulder, the wall of an old barn.
Depending on the desired height, you can stand, sit, kneel, or even go prone behind a vertical rest. There’s only one rule. Never can the barrel or the forend make direct contact with a solid object. The effect depends on bedding, but even forend contact can make the shot go wild. So the forend must be padded, with your bare hand or, to avoid abrasions from recoil, with a gloved hand or with a scrunched-up hat under your hand.
Ideally, circumstances allowing, a right-hander will seek the right side of a vertical rest, a lefty the opposite. With a wide surface, like a larger tree, you can then lean into the rest with your supporting forearm. With a narrow support, like a fence post, you can lean your outstretched supporting hand into the support, the back of your hand against the rest (sometimes painful); or upside down, palm in, making a “V” with your thumb and forefinger.
Finding a way to firmly rest your shooting elbow is an amazing aid to stability in almost any position. Here’s where you can really get creative. In a box blind, left-handed me goes to the left side so I can support my left elbow against the left wall. Or carry a stick or board into your deer stand so you can wedge it diagonally under your shooting elbow. Using sticks, your buddy or guide can stand to the side (right for right-handers, left for southpaws), grasp the sticks, take a deep breath, and offer a shoulder to support your shooting elbow. Try this little trick on the range: It will nearly double your effective shooting distance. Although a bit more cumbersome to carry, a second set of sticks under the buttstock can almost create a benchrest effect. Almost as good, wedge a set of sticks under the shooting-side armpit.
Packs can be used for elbow support in a variety of ways and from numerous positions. Keep in mind the worst possible situation is to have your shooting elbow “flapping in the breeze” unsupported. This is exactly what the formal NRA kneeling and standing positions call for, but nobody ever said rifle competition was easy. Don’t worry. We’ve already stepped away from the bench and thrown away the rulebook—and your buck hasn’t read it anyway.
In the field, the point is to get as steady as you can, any way you can, and make the shot. Experiment on your range and you’ll be faster and steadier in the field.