How to Define a Great Rifle Shooter?

First of all, yes I seem to be back writing.  It wasn’t a given.  I don’t know how much I’m going to do, how often, etc…  If it’s a win for both you and me then I will do it.  If one of us isn’t getting anything out of it, I probably won’t.  Since I don’t make money from the blog, it has to be worth my time in other ways.  Sometimes churning away at picky experiments is not worth it.  I’ll give out some updates on me later, and I do have unfinished (or simply undocumented) work from before I took my break, but first things first.

Part of a larger project I’m working on has me thinking about how to get close to one’s potential as a rifle shooter.  I suppose that has really been the point all along, but I don’t think we can have realistic hopes to reach a destination without defining where it is.  The last year has been a big leap for me as a shooter, and it has changed the way I look at the journey of the rifleman, both in front and behind me.

Looking behind me, it’s clear that I didn’t really know where I was going, and it was hard to recognize the path.  In hindsight I can see it more clearly, and recalling the route that I’ve taken shows that I probably spent as much time wandering off on side journeys instead of keeping to the most direct route to where I am now.  Some bushwhacking isn’t harmful, but maybe I could have saved some time and maybe more than just a little money if I’d been more efficient.  That’s the problem with being your own teacher.

Part of what is missing in the orienteering tools that the average do-it-yourself is a standard of excellence to act as a beacon to guide him along his path.  This started gnawing at me sometime last year.  Really, it’s been longer than that, and it was part of the reason I started this blog.

Other fields have standards.  Hobbies have standards.  Competitive bodies have standards.  So why do we lack them?

One could argue that we do have standards.  There are some, and there are even some good ones that address certain aspects of shooting.  I’m familiar with some professional standards, but the problem is that they tend to ensure that the candidate is practically guaranteed to prove his suitability for the position, rather than to actually test it.  What we lack is a comprehensive set of standards for excellence in the many facets of rifle shooting.

Part of the difficulty lies in the diverse applications of the rifle.  Excellence can really only be defined in terms of how effectively it accomplishes a given task.  No single standard can be reasonably expected to provide an adequate measure of every application.  So the logical first step is figuring out what types of skills we need to have yardsticks for.  Here are those that come to mind, just off the top of my head:

  • Close range, high speed.
  • Medium range, time sensitive, general marksmanship. I’ll arbitrarily define medium range as 100-500, though other variables could alter that.  This would be Appleseed’s realm of specialty, using non-scaled targets at full distance.
  • Medium range field shooting, e.g. the Cooper standards.
  • Surgical shooting- small targets in conditions and/or distances that don’t require complex accounting for trajectory or environmentals.
  • Precision shooting in the environment- up to long range, which I’ll arbitrarily define as 1000 yards, possibly extreme long range, >1000 yards.

I believe that any standards devised with the intention to measure the above, or any other modes of rifle shooting, should include the requisite rifle handling skills (loading, reloading, clearance) that would be reasonably expected in that venue.

Another thing to consider is the value of versatility.  Can a specialist really be considered a great rifle shooter?  In my mind, the answer is no.  Can someone who is only a generalist?  I don’t think so, but I’m interested in hearing what you have to say.

Normally, when I have written something and published it on the blog here, I have the entire series of articles ahead of it all done.  At least if not done, I know what I want to say, or what I want to look into.  This time that is not the case.  I’m open to feedback.  In fact, I probably can’t get through this without some feedback from shooters who have already attained some level of excellence in some of the niches of rifle shooting I outlined above.  Since this site is used as a free resource for a lot of budding riflemen and riflewomen, any help you provide could become very useful for others.

As always, thanks for reading.


47 thoughts on “How to Define a Great Rifle Shooter?

  1. In the last six months I have been shooting the practical matches or tactical if you wish. My biggest struggle has been shooting barricades or odd positions nearly in supported stances. I would say the single thing I need right now is practice shooting while my retical is moving back and forth across the target. Dry fire drills will help, but what else is there that I can do to reach this level of marksmen?

    • Steve,

      Sorry your comment got lost. I had to save it from being spammed.

      A few things come to mind that you can work on concurrently and bring together when they start to work. First is the command break.

      I would also work standing a lot. Try some holding drills, in which you break a dry shot and hold your sight picture for up to a minute after the trigger break. You’ll see a lot of reticle movement. Find a target that you can hit at least half the time. I think you’ll begin to notice that there will be windows of time that the sight will show you an acceptable shot picture for a brief moment in time. You might then notice that you have a different feeling when it will be there for long enough to break a shot, versus when the sight is just traveling across your target fleetingly. There is a knack of timing the shot that you’ll probably pick up after some time doing this.

  2. Cooper defined a master shooter as one who could live up to the potential of one’s rifle – that is, shoot as well as the rifle could. A rather vague definition but it’s a start.

    As one of your above-mentioned generalists, I view rifle shooting as being in the shape of a bell curve. Extreme precision at distance and extreme CQB are the little flares at either side of the big 80% bulge in the middle of general hunting/competition/etc. usage, say from a 50 yard squirrel with a .22 from tree-leaning offhand, to a 200 yard deer from sitting with a .270, to a 300 yard antelope from prone off your day pack, to a 440 yard prairie dog from a bench with a big scope, to a 600 yard MR highpower bullseye target from prone with irons.
    You really need the skills that let you succeed in that bulge.

    Welcome back.

    • First of all, I know a bit about your shooting background, so I think you don’t give yourself enough credit calling yourself a generalist. Maybe we have different ideas of what that means.

      My vague idea of an excellent rifle shooter involves being able to run through the full spectrum at a “pretty good” level, say better than average (whatever that is), but having one or two niches that he can really excel in, and have some authoritative knowledge in. I consider that “medium range” shooting you mention to be a niche in and of itself, rather than a catchall of shooting that’s not “CQB” and not “extreme precision long-range”.

      The definition of what the ‘bulge’ is would vary by population and region. Where my dad hunts elk the trees are dense. The bulge for him is close range (more than likely inside 20 yards), high speed, probably always standing, while the medium range shot is more of a rarity. The terrain is totally different where I live. There are basically no vegetation obstructions, but the rolling hills mean that most of the lines of sight are between 300-600 yards. The target could turn that into a long range precision event.

      The medium range shooting is where I think I can come closest to being able to quantify what an excellent rifle shooter is. Between Cooper’s standards and the AQT it’s easier to get at. The long range stuff is more nebulous.

      Good to see you again Pete.

  3. Welcome back; it’s good to read your thoughtful posts again.
    While the spectrum is not as broad, I think of the shooting sports as similar to “track and field” – a category of varied specialties that have a basic element – use of a tirearm, or movement of the human body – in common. And it’s great to have such variety.

    • Hi Bob,

      I can see that. From a sporting perspective it makes sense. A competitor has the event that he does and that’s that.

      Thinking of it as a martial art is probably what leads me to want more of a well-rounded shooter. A guy may be a puncher, but he has to have some idea what to do on the ground. Likewise, although we are both probably oriented towards that medium range rifle work, I would suspect that you, like me, have something handy in case someone kicks in the front door.

      • One can shoot for sport, for meat, or for blood.

        As a sport, I agree with Bob, the shooting sports are a lot like track and field; there is enormous variety. Shooting for meat is almost as widely varied, ranging from pistols and shotguns out to perhaps 300 yards with a rifle.

        Shooting for blood is a martial art, and while the rifle is the Queen, it is not the only implement suited for combat by any means. One must be expert with pistol, rifle and shotgun to truly be a skilled shooter, and shooting is not by any means the only martial art that matters. Fieldcraft is essential, as is tactical skill. But back to shooting, specifically.

        A good combat shooter IMO ought to be able to do the El Presidente with his pistol in 10 seconds, score 210 or better with the AQT with his rifle, clean 20 separate bowling pins in less than 15 seconds at ranges from 3 to 50 yards with his rifle, make 10 center hits using buckshot in less than 15 seconds with his shotgun, and go at least 75% first round hits out to 700 yards in the field.

          • I suppose that puts me into the “generalist” category, but that is not to disparage exceptional performance with any one arm, or at any particular distance. Being a great shot is not only about the skills that you possess, but in the manner in which you apply them. Every shooter has his limitations, and the great shot knows them and how to work with them.

          • Yes, a person with talent who makes stupid decisions is still making stupid decisions.

  4. He emerges from the Bunker ,into the sunshine,with a wary eye on the horizon ,welcome back .
    Colorado and Bob have both given good contributions here, to start the ball rolling on a very tough assignment.
    Questions for the individual
    What is my equipment designed for and what is MY mission? do they compliment
    What is my life stage and are my goals realistic
    Do I enjoy it
    Case in point, I used to bow to god of practicality did the run and gun and all manner of other”games” with both rifle and handgun ,found I was spending a lot of life preparing for a most unlikely series of events plus didn’t mesh to well with whole “steely eyed” merchants of death persona that was emerging in a lot of circles.
    I love to shoot and now very much enjoy shooting with a few old geezers we are in our 70’s we shoot from the bench we have modest sized steel strung from 200 to 750 yards sometimes 1000+ and I love it, it has lead me to learn a lot about ballistics both internal and external ,also what can be accomplished with modest cartridges ,My equipment is rack grade 6mm Remington Varm. weight, Vortex Glass and Hornady A-Max and a Rem. .223 sporter with 2.5×8 Leupold .This is my track and field now ,just saying its a moving target and people and equipment change , Jack of all trades master of none?

    • Howdy Rawhider!

      So I guess you could say a great rifle shooter knows how to set a goal based on his needs and what he happens to like doing at the time? So part of being excellent would entail having the ability to train to address specific goals and to make sure what is worked on the range will transfer to real life (unless the range is the be all, end all)?

  5. Delighted to see you back on. Hadn’t checked in for a day of so, so this is a pleasant surprise.
    I find myself smack in the camp of the medium range generalists. This is largely a result of practical considerations (gear, skill level, age, and environment). This profile is apt to be quite different for different readers. I am intrigued by precision rifle shooting, but not enough to invest the time, money, and practice in a whole new set up and accessories to support it. Therefore, my personal default is to plug along with my DMR rig and try to stretch my efficiency out to maybe 800 yards. My other practical rifles are for other, more modest goals within 500. I’m more concerned at this point in improvement of what I’m already doing rather than necessarily acquiring a set of new skills that I suspect I would rarely use other than for the personal satisfaction of accomplishment.
    I’m always encouraged to see others who are good in more disciplines. Who’s unhappy to see Jerry Miculek hit a thousand yard target with a handgun? Not me. But I don’t think I’d ever accomplish such a feat no matter how much ammo I put down range.
    Glad you’re back, and looking forward to where you take this forum from here.

    • Like Pete, I think of your skill set as richer than what you let on. I’m starting to become intrigued with the idea that I heard Michael Bane talking about in his radio show recently, not what the differences are, but what’s the same between these? What is a base of skills that will most easily allow the shooter to adapt to varying needs? I think that a lot of it comes down to knowing how to adapt skills, such as trigger control, to different situations, such as ones that require more speed or more precision. Principle first, then specifics.

      • Which is why I like the idea of being really good at the “bulge in the middle”, however you define it.
        Those skills transfer to everything.

        • Pete,

          Did your pistol shooting bring anything to your rifle shooting that wasn’t already there, or vice versa?

          • Rifle shooting for me is conscious, pistol shooting delved into the unconcsious, but they don’t seem to overlap, at least in my experience and usage.

  6. Thank you for your hard work in putting this blog together. I discovered this site not long ago, about the same time I decided to work on skills I have never devoted much time to. Basic riflery. The last rifle I competed with was a full length M-16, triangular hand guards and all. Carbines are fun, but I can’t justify the ammo count of running & gunning. So I bought a 20 inch A4, with plans to shoot a few high power matches. I also recently discovered the appleseed project. To save on ammo cost, I set up my wife’s and my 10/22’s with Tech sights & USGI slings and have been working on position shooting. I look forward to attending my first appleseed event this summer.
    Your blog is an inspiration and I have plenty of reading to catch up on.

    • Calvin,

      Thanks for reading. It sounds like it’s been a while. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.


  7. Ah, to a very old fellow like me, the man or woman is much more important than the rifle – as a marksman or rifleman or just a shooter. Most of the common measurements come from competitions, at various times, distances and targets. The CMP, NRA, the many sporting uses and disciplines. In the end, is the shooter safe, on target (did they find it and engage it successfully) within a nominal but realistic measure? Will the test teach the shooter something, may they practice to get better and come back to demonstrate it better?

    • Well yeah, in the bigger picture you have it exactly. I just feel bad for the guy who’s out there on his own and wants to know if he’s any good. It’s hard to tell him what exactly ‘good’ is.

      • Everyone has different definitions of many things we once thought were accepted universally. I am with the author Robert A. Heinlein – specialization is for insects. But still good seems to be when I have done all the ground work for mastery and then pass it on.

  8. I have often wondered the same thing. What is a great rifleman?

    I have had the great privilege of being trained by two generations of shooting men who could hit the targets they shot at all day long, and I have benefited from many teachers both military and civilian. Still, there is a lingering doubt. Am I “good enough”, am I a “great rifleman”? Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks about this. Yet, I still have no specification with which to judge myself. I am mainly a target shooter, dealing in X ring hits these days, and the question persists even as I hit the x ring.

    Maybe, it is too simple an answer, and since we all know it, we resist its simplicity:

    How many bullseye/x ring/10/clay pigeons/poppers/gumballs/eggs/Necco wafer/prairie dog hits is enough?

    My friends, it is simply “One more”, is it not?

    –Matt R.

  9. After a short “welcome back” I have taken the time to read all of the other comments before I chip in as I generally feel quite under qualified compared to some of your other readers.

    I think the key here is context. I have read a couple of Cooper’s books recently and one of the ideas that has really stuck in my mind is that of context.

    It doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or a sporting shooter. If you’re a sporting shooter it doesn’t matter if you’re a bench shooter or a hunter. If you’re a hunter it doesn’t matter of you are shooting goats or sheep at long range or Cape Buffalo (yes they deserve capitals) at spitting distance. You must understand your context as this will help you to determine which aspects you must focus on to seek continuous improvement in your rifleman-ship.

    Above and beyond all of that I believe you need the humility to know that you can always learn more and be better. You also need to have respect for other riflemen, they may just be able to help you on your journey.

    • Humility is one of the crucial ingredients. The tough thing is that it needs to be tempered with confidence. And the respect for other men needs to be tempered with skepticism and the knowledge that all men are flawed. It’s a fine line and we all are bound to step off it.

  10. Hey there Rifleslinger, welcome back (uh, to your own blog).

    I’ll start checking in more frequently again.

    best wishes,

  11. Glad to see you back. Lots of good comments. I would add a couple thoughts. First, along with being a generalist, I would add being adaptable. Adaptation to new equipment and or shooting situations is a mark of a good rifle shooter, that is a product of experience and knowledge, but subtlly different from being a generalist. I would also, a PatMac says, focus on the process and not the outcome. Being “good” is not an outcome or destination. It is a journey and destination evolves as you go.

    • Adaptability dovetails with what Michael Bane talked about in his radio show recently in reference to standards- basically having a base of skills of the general from which to approach specific problems. I see it as principle based rather than procedure based. Tested procedures tend to be more efficient and quick, but they lack flexibility and don’t have the ability to work around contingencies as well as a principle based approach. Start with principles and the little things can be figured out pretty easily.

      The point of the post is not that I don’t respect the process. The process is all that most of us will have of rifle shooting, and as such it should be enjoyed, or given up for golf or backpacking or some other enjoyable activity. But golfers have par to measure their game against. They can easily communicate with other golfers about their game. Backpackers have a map and compass. At least they can orient to where they are and consider where they might go next and plan how to get there.

      I’m picking up that the group consensus is that it’s better not to know where one stands among his peers?

  12. I look at three basic variables, each on some kind of sliding scale, with accuracy (MOA or hit/miss) being the scoring:
    – speed (slow to fast)
    – distance (close to far)
    – position (prone, seated, kneeling, off-hand, specialty 1 [using a tree for support] to specialty *n*)

    What combinations of these lead to what level of being a shooter? Each of the examples you give in your post are some combination of these variables. Are there other parameters that are interesting? The only others I thought of are:
    – moving target acquisition
    – target acquisition (having someone call out which target to shoot)
    – confidence: how good do I feel about my shooting?

    So I think there are many possibilities here. If there are five levels (e.g., slow, slow-medium, medium, medium-fast, fast) per parameter and three parameters, that makes 125 possible combinations. Which is a bit silly (too many). But I think this is a useful way to look at things.

    The examples others give above are all some combination of the above and:
    – weapon type
    – versatility with different weapons (adaptability)

    I think what you’re asking is what would be a good set of these to strive for. There are as many possibilities as there are people. I, for example, am not interested in a pistol or shotgun standard.

    What I would seek from a standard would be perhaps four to six tests to do that cover the variety of hunting situations I am faced with and measure myself (i.e., MOA scores on each of the four tests). I would also add smaller silhouette shooting, as this is fun and something I do with others at the range weekly. Tests could be:
    – slow, far, prone
    – medium speed, medium distance, seated/kneeling
    – fast, close, rice paddy prone/off-hand
    – medium speed, long, prone (quick, get down and shoot!)
    I would then specify exactly what each parameter would be (medium = 100 yards, etc.). After shooting, I would give myself scores in MOA. Then we could decide on what an MOA score for each level of shooter for each test would be.

    • That’s a lot to think over. I had the immediate feeling that some of your requirements are best met by Cooper’s tests (Rifle Bounce, Rifle Ten), but I want to take more time to mull over your comment.

    • This is a bit heavy on the analytics and low on the “art” certainly. But I’m an analytical guy. I note that for silhouette shooting they have these categories, scored out of a maximum of 40/40:
      Master 35-40
      AAA 29-34
      AA 22-28
      A 15-21
      B 0-14

      I was thinking something similar.

    • Karl, your points are well taken: a perfect shot delivered too slow is useless, and a hasty miss is also useless. A speedy hit with a BB gun is likewise not much use, unless one is shooting aspirin tablets, geckos, or English sparrows. ( why one might do any of those is an open question, but I digress.

      Speed, accuracy, and power; all are needed, and the expert shot can deliver them. One might define the master shooter as being one who can always deliver the needed shot as needed, where needed, as quickly as needed, with whatever arms are at hand, whenever called upon to do so.
      I respectfully submit that it is wise not to get too hung up on the specifics of testing, but rather to keep the foregoing in mind. I also agree with the gentleman who elsewhere in these comments said that being good is a journey, not a destination.

  13. Can you define the Cooper standard? I’ve done some searching and can’t find any specifics. Most of my search results were for pistol shooting. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    • Sorry to have taken so long to get back to you on this. I keep meaning to grab a couple of books, Art of the Rifle, by Cooper and the Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifle Marksmanship, by Peter Lessler (Colorado Pete), to look up some standards. There is no such thing as a single test called the Cooper standard. Cooper used several of them. To conjecturificate, I would guess that he used them at his 270 class. The better known ones are Rifle Ten, Rifle Bounce (both of which I have described earlier in the blog and tried in modified forms), the snapshot (4″ target at 25 yards in 1.5 seconds or less from port arms), and then shooting clays with a rifle. There are probably more. Never been to Gunsite, so I can’t tell you for sure.

      • Cooper’s three “tests” were the rifle bounce, rifle ten, and the snapshot (1.5 seconds, 4″ at 25, 10″ at 50 – representing I believe a deer neck shot at 25 and deer chest area at 50). At the 270 class we did a variation of the latter on an IPSC target head at 25 (6″ square) and the body A zone (12″ tall by 6″ wide) at 50.

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