I recently spent a great deal of time and study on ten different shooting positions. I tested five supported positions and five unsupported positions. For all of the unsupported positions except for standing I used a rifle sling as an aid for additional stability. I noticed some general differences between the supported positions and the unsupported positions that were significant to me. This has nothing to do with which is better or worse, but trying to get an indication of the capabilities and limitations.
Locked in vs Free
A common trait of any unsupported position that utilizes a sling for support is that it really locks the shooter into the shooting position. Aside from stability, which directly affects precision, the “locked in” aspect is a primary attribute that separates the sling as a stability aid from actual support under the rifle. There are advantages and disadvantages to being “locked in” that I think indicate suitability for certain applications versus others.
Freedom to Move
Using support under the rifle, be it artificial support or improvised from terrain or fixed manmade objects, typically does not involve fixing or binding the rifle or the shooter to anything. It’s simply a matter of attaining stability of the shooter and rifle with reference to the support. This is a simple and convenient process.
Using a sling, by its very nature, ties the rifle to the support arm of the shooter. In the shooting position this means that the firing hand is responsible for manipulating anything, such as working the bolt/charging handle/op rod, loading or reloading, clearing malfunctions, adjusting the scope, etc. Outside the shooting position either hand is available, but only one at a time until the sling is removed from the arm.
The process of slinging up to shoot and unslinging to move requires at least some time, if only a second or two, and will subject the shooter to divided attention during that time. A mitigating factor to this is that the sling can often be looped up concurrently with taking the shooting position. One could argue that the shooter could stay “looped in” for the duration of the shooting action, but the ability to use the support arm for anything other than shooting will be compromised to some degree during that time.
Weapons Manipulation and General Use of Hands
The evolution of the manual of arms for rifles in recent years has been tied to semi-auto rifles, most notably the AR15. As shooters have worked to reduce unnecessary movements and time from their gun handing, it has become somewhat of a doctrine to keep the “master grip” (strong hand) on the pistol grip of the rifle. The support hand works the charging handle and inserts magazines, and with a standard bolt release it operates that as well.
Shooting a rifle such as an AR while looped into a shooting sling completely alters the means of gun handling operations. All necessary weapons manipulations must be done with the firing hand. Completely altering the manual of arms to an alternate and less efficient set of techniques is, let’s say, a bit of a pain.
How finite is NPA?
I learned the concept of natural point of aim in the context of sling shooting. It really makes it easy because when you loop up with a taut loop sling, the natural point of aim exists in one finite point if you can allow the rifle to stay there without muscling it or upsetting it during trigger manipulation. With the sling, if you’re ‘on’ your NPA you’re golden. You can close your eyes and shoot a really nice group if you do everything correctly. If you’re not on your natural point of aim, you’re screwed and your group is going to reflect it.
I was a little puzzled when I first started shooting from supported positions, because I couldn’t find my natural point of aim in the same way. On a bipod, relaxing doesn’t show you anything about where the position ‘wants’ to point the rifle. If the rifle is set up in a fundamentally stable way the position behind it is basically recoil control. The specific point for NPA just doesn’t seem to be as finite with a support as with a sling, which makes the index quite a bit more forgiving and flexible. You basically get in a sound position and shoot.
Speed of Getting Into Position and On Target
When using a sling for support the sequence for getting into position and firing a shot goes something like this: locate target, sling up and get into position (concurrently if possible through use of a Ching or RifleCraft sling [unusual plug]), acquire sight picture, verify NPA, readjust if necessary, fire.
Using support might go like this: locate target, deploy bipod and get into position, acquire sight picture, fire. The verification of natural point of aim and readjusting can be skipped. If a pack, shooting sticks, tripod, or some other manmade object is used the process will be more complex than if a pre-existing terrain feature is used.
The big difference between the two is that with a supported position, if there is a sight picture you like just press the trigger. With a sling you need to really do the verification to make sure you’re not muscling the rifle.
Follow up shots- speed (on a fixed target) vs flexibility
I’m still somewhat of a bolt work aficionado. How could I not be, having written the definitive 6 part treatise on the subject? Seriously though, a lot of the time I’ve spent working the bolt action rifles has been while I was looped up. Having that tight, locked in position is very conducive to a very fast follow up shot… at exactly the same point of aim.
*Slight meandering* I like to take tests on the internet. One of the tests that I took a long time ago was called an “unintelligence test” that was meant to measure street smarts. One of the questions was something like this: “Four crows sit on a fence. You shoot at one, hitting it. How many are left?” Of course the correct answer is zero, because the ones that are still alive aren’t going to wait around to get shot. Crows are smart.
The thing that we do as rifle shooters, which is to aim at a single target and shoot it a number of times, is even worse than assuming that three crows will be left after we shoot one. It’s akin to assuming the same crow we just hit will still be there to shoot again. And again. And again. And again. See how that is getting ridiculous? And again. And again. That’s seven rounds downrange. Look at that. It’s sub minute, except for those two fliers. But I called those. Damn. Sub minute. This gun is sub MOA all day long.
In the field it stands to reason that if a follow up shot is needed, it is very possible that the target will not be in the same location. I’m not sure which type of position lends itself better to readjusting to compensate for a moving target. I was tempted off the bat to say positions with support, and I still think (with a fair degree of certainty) that is the case. There are, however, dynamic methods of adjusting natural point of aim with a loop sling. This will need to be tested exhaustively with lots of math, spreadsheets, and hand drawn charts. I wonder just who is up for such a rigorous experiment?
The Elephant In The Room
Supported positions are more precise. Period.
It’s nice being able to back things up with numbers. I tested one supported sitting position and two unsupported using a shooting sling. Open leg sitting was 51% as precise as supported sitting. Cross ankle sitting was 50% as precise. Unsupported kneeling was 43% as precise as supported reverse kneeling. Unsupported standing was 40% as precise as my worst supported standing, and only 13% as precise as my best supported standing position!!!
Me and Slings
The apparent irony here is that I’m a guy that designs and makes my own rifle slings that are specifically thought out to be easy to use as support. I don’t think it’s really that ironic that I’m arguing for the use of support rather than a sling as the first line shooting aid. The fact is that a shooter has to be adaptable to different terrain, and that the terrain will dictate the position. At times the terrain may not offer shooting support.
As civilians in a free country who like to shoot rifles for various reasons, we are generally slaves to our targets and terrain in any type of field setting. We cannot exercise the same type over control of live targets in the field that we maintain over our targets on the range. As much as I would like to say, “Use support under all circumstances,” none of us can predict the future or the actions of our targets.
The bottom line is that a shooter needs to keep reasonable tools in the toolbelt, and to use the best one for the job. I don’t believe that includes carrying five different sizes of rear bags at all times. If support is available it’s absolutely stupid to go to the sling first. If there is no support, get closer and use what you have, hopefully a sling.