Fundamentals of a Good Shooting Position

You can see all the positions that have been covered up to this point in the collection of photos above.  From this, you can tell that the obvious common element of a good shooting position is that I am doing it.  Plus you can tell that I only own 2 pairs of pants and 3 shirts.  If you want a good shooting position and you’re not me, then I guess you’re stuck with paring down your wardrobe to get your shooting together.  1 out of 2 ain’t bad.

There are some other common elements of a good shooting position in case the wardrobe tip above didn’t fully clarify things for you.  Before we get into improvising shooting positions based on available terrain and circumstances, let’s cover some of the things we will need to carry over from the “textbook” positions.  The fundamentals and priorities of a good position are consistent, regardless of which particular position we use.  Of course, sometimes there are compromises due to limitations like sub-optimal terrain or limited time, but knowing what makes a good position will better inform us how to deal with the situations we face.

To be clear about what I mean by a “good” position, I am addressing the attributes primarily as they relate to accuracy, or the ability to place shots on a target.  To change the priority from accuracy to speed would very likely change the characteristics of the position.  To change it to flexibility, as in being able to track a moving airborne target, would alter things yet again.  Changing the priority to recoil control, as in running a carbine or pistol rapidly, would mean another change.  All of these factors need to be taken into consideration. 

Accuracy is a good place to begin, especially with a rifle.  After we can hit any hypothetical target under whatever conditions, we can think about the other priorities.  But whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re shooting, under whatever circumstances, I’m guessing that hitting the target is always going to be at or near the top of the list.

The primary criterion for a good shooting position is what is commonly called “bone support”.  This is referring to a position that uses the structure of the body, rather than muscles, to support the rifle.  This is best exemplified by the prone position utilizing the loop sling as support.  This position allows you to completely relax, yet maintain a very stable position.  Yet we made the position even more stable by adding artificial support in the form of a bipod, while maintaining our relaxed, stable position.  This is a good example of what we’re attempting to do when improvising positions in the field.

While bone support isn’t really possible in the offhand position, we still maximize the position the best we can by yielding everything to gravity that can be yielded.  By paring away all non-essential muscle involvement, we can be steadier.  Sometimes doing less is better.  By stacking everything up neatly, like a neat stack of dishes, we can stand up and maintain balance and position without constantly using excessive muscle force to prop ourselves up like an unbalanced, sloppy stack of books.

This brings us to relaxation.  This follows the theme of doing more with less.  As beginners, we all felt awkward with the rifle and held it the way we thought some experienced rifle shooter would, contorting ourselves around the rifle.  Then we worked with it, gained some experience, and learned to hold it like it’s no big deal; keeping our normal structure intact and bringing the rifle to us.  Changing the position shouldn’t change this.  Try to make yourself comfortable in whatever problem you’re trying to solve.

To be relaxed, it’s important that we have good balance of posture.  This is why there are several different positions to address shooting at different heights rather than just using offhand and stooping down to get lower.  Imagine that there’s a leafy tree branch right in front of your firing position blocking your line of sight from head to chest height.  Then imagine bending down in offhand to get under it.  Not going to work very well is it?  That’s because it’s not balanced.  Kneeling is balanced, sitting is balanced, and squatting is balanced.  That’s one reason why they’re all better choices in that situation.  So if you end up bracing your support hand on a post or tree, consider whether leaning your body into that support is going to help by relieving you of some weight, or hinder you by placing you off balance.

Because you’re relaxed, it’s important that you find and make use of your natural point of aim (NPA).  If you don’t understand what that is, you really need to before considering any advanced shooting applications.  When you’re in the field and in a hurry, you may be tempted to overlook NPA, but it’s crucial that you get it right.  If you want to be able to do that under time stress and in an awkward field position, you should practice finding your NPA every day in a variety of positions.  You need to have it down, second nature, to be able to count on and make good use of it.

Another factor that I’ve hit on, but never mentioned explicitly, is the rule of hard to soft, and soft to hard.  An example is the placement of the elbows in any of the seated positions.  You don’t put the point of the elbow on the point of the knee; the hard to hard interface is not steady or stable.  Instead, you put a soft part (flat of the arm) on your knee.  Even better is soft to soft, but that’s not always possible because we have knees and elbows.  This rule goes deeper than body parts.  Let’s say you have a nice dead tree trunk lying horizontally and you want to use it as a rest.  If you set the forend of your stock directly on the tree trunk, it’s going to be unstable, probably noisy, possibly damaging to your stock, and will cause the rifle to move significantly with the recoil of the breaking shot.  That’s why you need something soft as an intermediate layer between the tree trunk and your rifle, like a fist, jacket, pack, etc…

Speaking of what touches your rifle, keep your barrel clear of anything you might be tempted to touch it with, whether it be your hand or a rest.  First of all, keep it off the ground.  We don’t want to damage our equipment.  In terms of firing, the barrel has a pattern of vibration when it fires, like a tuning fork.  This vibration occurs in a whipping motion, appropriately termed “barrel whip”.  Letting your barrel touch anything while firing interferes with the pattern of vibration, or “barrel harmonics”.  This can cause the bullet to impact in a slightly different location than it normally would.  If you rest your rifle on anything, make sure that the stock is on the rest and not the barrel.

Another basic principle to consider, not in the mechanics of the position itself, but in your choice of position, is that a position that’s lower, or puts more of you in contact with the ground is going to be more stable and produce more in the way of accuracy and precision.  We can see that prone is more accurate than sitting, which is more accurate than squatting, which is more accurate than offhand.  So if you have a choice of position, choose the one that will be lower, and hence more stable.

Finally, a good firing position should allow for use of cover.  This may not apply to sporting endeavors, but because things sometimes happen that fall outside of our plans (this is called “life”), we should have some pre-planned action we can take.  Cover is a nice thing to think about before you need it.  Cover is one of the topics I’ll be spending a lot more time covering in detail this month.  

5 thoughts on “Fundamentals of a Good Shooting Position

  1. Excellent article my friend! I could have sworn I’ve seen you with more than four different shirts, but I may have been mistaken. Very good explanations and an outstanding video example.

    Perhaps you could explain on your offhand position any of the advantages/disadvantages to keeping your strong elbow out, parallel to the ground, versus tucking it in.

    I’m looking forward to your next article on cover and concealment.

  2. @Anonymous

    Thank you very much sir.

    I went into some detail about the strong elbow (both of my elbows are muy fuerte) in offhand in the offhand trilogy from July. To sum it up, I think that the more vertical the pistol grip, the more natural the elbow will be in a lower position. I also think that yielding the elbow a bit to gravity can relax the position, and subtract some of the horizontal wobble. Mostly, I think that spending a lot of time in the position will help each person what works best for them and their particular system. I love espousing crackpot shootery, that’s why I started this blog.

    The article of which you speak is scheduled for 11/13/11. Thanks again. Nice hearing from you.

  3. Really great information, but the links are dead ends. This must be an older one. I will keep searching for fundamentals.

  4. Excellent article, but if I may, there is one small detail in your kneeling position photo that goes against your writing and in my own practice has made a big difference in stability.

    Your right foot (kneeling foot) you have your toes turned in and are using your muscles to steady you. This may be fine on relatively flat level ground, but if you took your toes and pointed them out and away from you, pointing straight back you are then basically sitting on the sole of your shoe with it in tension and it becomes a much more solid support.

    So, instead of having toes bent up, just straighten it then out putting the top of your shoe down while your heel is right into the meaty part of your but cheek. Hard to soft and using bone support.

    • You’re talking low kneeling vs high, correct? I agree that it’s more stable going low kneeling. It’s a little slower and changes the elevation for me. I use both.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *