Is Marksmanship At Odds With Field Shooting?

Most people assume that hitting a target is the same regardless of the setting, and that the type of shooters who can hit a target at 1000 yards with iron sights using a sling for support can hit anything inside that distance under any circumstance. During my involvement with Appleseed I met a lot of people who thought the ability to employ marksmanship under time constraints on the AQT gave them devastating combat powers (I might have hyperbolized that, but only slightly).  For the purposes of this article I’m defining marksmanship as skill in the pure act of shooting, divorced from any practical application.

It takes a bit of experience to understand that there are many, many things that are taken for granted during marksmanship practice that are huge variables in the field. These variables are so significant that even someone with great marksmanship skills could be rendered essentially useless without recognizing and compensating for them. Of the top of my head the biggest ones that stand out are terrain, distance to target, and the time the target will be available.

I have read that there aren’t many great field shots that are great marksmen and vice versa. They are only loosely related skill sets, in that they both involve shooting at and hitting a target. The question that comes to mind is how can they be reconciled. Are they necessarily at odds? I don’t think that’s precisely the case.

What is involved in field shooting? Basically it’s getting a hit as efficiently as possible. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly centered up X-ring hit (live targets don’t exactly afford an X-ring). I just has to put the target down. If the vital zone happens to be 16 MOA it just leaves more room to get an acceptable shot off more quickly without having to fuss things. If a second shot is required, it’s unlikely it will have to be placed with machine-like consistency in exactly the same place as the first shot. The shooter will more than likely have to track or reacquire the target in order to make a second shot, if necessary. It’s a dynamic process that involves adapting to changing circumstances on the fly.

Marksmanship practice demands consistently doing everything exactly right. Because of this it encourages the use of routines or even rituals. The shooter needs to maintain control over every aspect of firing the shot that he can, the wildcard that is left to work around typically being wind.

So we have extreme control in the marksmanship realm versus adaptability in the field. The problem in crossing over is that the control freak tends to fall apart when the illusion of control is lost. For example, the exclusive use of known distance ranges alone can instill a false sense of competence that can result in a sudden moment of shock when one realizes suddenly that he doesn’t know how far the target is. There was a point when I realized that’s a pretty good thing to know.

The field shooter typically only cares about practical results. If he has always brought home a deer, it’s unlikely he cares about having relatively poor skill in marksmanship. In reality he probably isn’t even aware of his lack of marksmanship skill, if that is actually the case.  The problem here is that he may be constantly on the margins of his capabilities, which reduce the probability of making consistent ethical kills in the hunting field, inducing an enemy casualty on the battlefield, or stopping a life threatening assailant in a self-defense scenario.

My own practice is constantly torn by these competing needs. The thing I constantly try to keep in mind is that no matter how good an aspect of my rifle shooting gets, it’s worthless unless it can be part of my adaptability to different conditions and terrain, and can be applied under time constraints and stress (physical or psychological). The tail shouldn’t be allowed to wag the dog. I can’t try to fit my circumstances into my schedule or shooting style, because my place is not master and commander of all that surrounds me. There are times to exert one’s will, and there are times to flow with one’s surroundings.

I’ve said before that the expert rifleman doesn’t choose his method. That decision is made for him by his environment. He simply has the skill to roll with that decision without thought, feelings, or a significant passage of time. He adapts to the situation like water filling a vessel. Liquid water has no shape of its own so it can adapt perfectly. I think that adaptability is key to ensuring that one’s marksmanship practice results in field functionality.

The other side of the coin is balancing the skills that one pursues. If all I ever worked at was making tiny groups, the other skills that I need to arrive at making a shot would never be developed. If I had no means of determining range to target, everything outside my point blank zero range is out of the question for me. If I was not skilled at locating my target, whatever that might be, my ability to hit it isn’t even relevant. If I’m fat and out of shape, everything else I do is probably compromised to some degree.

In summary, I do believe that it’s possible to be both a great marksman and a great field shooter, although I don’t think there are many out there who possess both qualities. It seems to me that the key ingredients for that recipe are to ensure adaptability to any possible shooting scenario, and to make sure that one’s skill set is balanced. That’s easier said than done.

Thanks for reading.


13 thoughts on “Is Marksmanship At Odds With Field Shooting?

  1. Couldn’t hardly agree more. “Marksmanship”, however we wish to define it is ultimately useless in the field unless we learn to deal with the various and sundry variables of the environment and circumstances that are afforded us. This is not to dis the notion of being able to shoot sub MOA groupings on paper. Rather it is meant to indicate that, once you are off of the range, there are a whole lot of other considerations to deal with. I’ve never had a shot on game that presented itself in a “range perfect” manner. This has led me to attempt to be more competent in the field, which involves a lot of adaptation more often than not. “Hybrid” positions become more the norm as opposed to picture perfect forms. Work in the field very quickly helps you to identify your strengths as well as your weaknesses. A hit is a hit, and a miss is a miss. Add to this that many if not most of us want to acquire relative competency with more than one rifle/caliber combination, and it seems to me that we have a lot of work to do to acquire and maintain field proficiency.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Larry,

      The ‘hybrid’ positions you mentioned are a great indication as to what the fundamentals really are. Changing the positional dynamics really reinforces which principles are always there, and which ones can be, or sometimes need to be ‘bent’.

      The idea of maintaining proficiency with many guns versus trying to get really good with one, is a difficult puzzle for me to figure out. I think that lately I have been sure enough of the proficiency that I have gained with bolt guns to widen the sphere of what I’m trying to build the highest level of proficiency that I can.

    • He might have said something like that. I haven’t read the Book of Five Rings in quite a while. It’s a pretty common reference in eastern thinking (martial arts and related stuff).

  2. This was a great read. Bruce Lee had a similar philosophy about being like water when doing martial arts. I guess one can consider the rifle a martial art. I totally get what you are saying about Appleseed students thinking they have mastered the art after shooting an expert score on the AQT. As an instructor, I always try to tell students at the end of the weekend that getting the Rifleman patch is really just the beginning, a mastery of the first steps; the fundamentals. There is an endless horizon out there when it comes to shooting. It’s discouraging to see people walk away thinking they’ve obtained their proverbial “black belt” believing there is nothing else to master. I try to hit the range at least once a week just to keep sharp on my skills. I would say that I’m a decent marksman but my field shooting experience is almost zero. I wish had some land or knew someone that had some land to set up random targets at different unknown distances so I could practice those skills. I try to put stress factors into my shooting sessions as much as possible. This winter has been pretty fun, been going out during snowstorms and freezing wind just to see how I perform with a frozen trigger finger. The best part about that is I’m the only one crazy enough in my area to make a range session in that kind of weather so I get the whole range to myself 🙂

    • I want to clarify that I wasn’t picking on Appleseed as a program. Some folks just tend to get excited when they get above that magical 210, and sometimes, as you say, think they have ‘arrived’. The patch, like the black belt, really only means “ready for serious learning”. It sounds like you’ve been having some of the same fun I have.

  3. I’m bassackwards I practiced and competed as a means to keep a level of proficiency for the field,but all so included range estimation practice ,stalking,and tracking ,shooting is only a slice of the pie in the “Bush”

  4. Outstanding post RS.

    “He adapts to the situation like water filling a vessel. Liquid water has no shape of its own so it can adapt perfectly.”
    Another way to look at it is that water can flow over, under or around obstacles.

    One good answer to this challenge is to go hunting as often as possible.

  5. >> Some folks just tend to get excited when they get above that magical 210, and sometimes, as you say, think they have ‘arrived’. The patch, like the black belt, really only means “ready for serious learning”.

    Competitive shooters view a Distinguished badge, Master classification or similar mark as a beginning, not an end. Such an achievement doesn’t mean the lessons are over and the path complete, only that the student has finally established a practiced, demonstrated understanding and a solid approach to training. I’ve managed five such marks so far and my dry and range time still involves refining fundamentals, among other things.

  6. Right on, RS.
    The one thing I really make a point to practice any more is offhand shooting. Every time I go out to shoot, whether it’s load testing, training for a match, practice for hunting, etc.
    I don’t utilize the marksman’s elbow on ribcage or the hasty sling either, just support hand forward on the forearm like shooting a shotgun. When I have the timing down for that type of offhand shooting I find myself able to make the shot from field positions. Any field position is more stable.
    I’ve even been using the support hand forward hold in matches.
    My wife and I are heading to Africa in the spring for a plains game hunt. I hear the grass is really tall that time of year and every tree is covered with thorns. So I’m trying to learn how to shoot with a walking stick for a support. With my wrist resting in the strap at the top of the stick and the support hand on the forearm as usual I’ve been able to shoot 2-3″ groups at a hundred yards.

    • Something worth a try, is tie a loop in the front sling to put your hand in or through and push against the stick -kind of the like the push /pull with the handgun stance- good hunting

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