Rifleslinger’s Razor and the Importance of Proper Cheekweld

“In philosophy, a razor is a device which allows one to shave away unlikely explanations for a phenomenon.” (from Wikipedia)

 

I’ve been willfully ignoring cheekweld for as long as I’ve been shooting rifles.  It’s one of those things that I knew intellectually that I should have improved upon, but I just kept saying to myself, “What I’m doing seems to be working well enough.”  Have you ever said anything like that to yourself?  That thought is a huge impediment to learning.

I am really surprised to find out I’ve been willfully resisting the improvement of my shooting, because I don’t think of myself as an obstinate person.  Since I’ve been putting up everything I can perceive about my shooting up for personal re-examination, cheekweld finally stood out as something huge that I needed to take care of.  It just goes to show that perception of self is not always accurate

What are we looking for with regard to cheekweld?  We want the rifle to fit such that when you place your cheek on the stock and relax your neck and head, you are looking through the center of your sighting system.  My preference for my cheek placement on the stock is that the bottom of my cheekbone sits on the comb of the stock.  Ideally, you should be able to close your eyes, place your cheek comfortably, relax your head like you’re going to sleep on the rifle, then open your eyes and see perfect sight alignment. 

Why is cheekweld so important?  It has to do with parallax.  Parallax can be illustrated by trying to read an analog speedometer from the passenger seat of a car.  Because the seat position is so far out of alignment from where the speedometer was intended to be read, you’re seeing the speedometer needle over a slightly slower number than it is read from the driver’s seat.  If you were able to look at the needle from outside the driver’s window, you’d see the needle over a slightly faster number.  The difference in both instances would likely be only 2-3 mph. 

With a rifle sighting system, whether it be open sights, aperture sights, or a scope, your head position must be consistent.  If it is not, you may see the same perfect sight alignment and you may obtain a perfect sight picture, but you will get erratic results.  It will be frustrating because the source of the inaccuracy may not be readily identifiable. 

Why did it take me so long to get my cheekweld right?  What was my resistance based on?  I think that my “reasoning” is probably pretty common.  Hunting rifle stocks are not made to fit well.  This is, of course, not advertised in the gun rag ads or articles (longer ads).  So none of us really have it in our heads that our expensive rifles are going to need a bunch of adjustment right out of the box. 

You can’t really blame the manufacturers for not making a perfect fit, because rifle fit is highly variable from person to person.  Cheekweld is especially variable.  I’ve noticed that I prefer a higher comb than most other people.  You can’t expect a $600 rifle to fit perfectly like a bespoke rifle, yet we still just pull them out of the box, mount a scope, and call it good.  Even my Sako, which cost about $1100 in 2002, doesn’t fit perfectly (or even close). 

What I was doing was more of a jaw weld than a cheek weld.  Most of my rifles fit me this way.  That being the case, I think I took it as a matter of course that I just had to fit myself to the rifle.  I have always prided myself on making due with what I had to a certain degree (note the word pride).  I figured if I just brought my eye to the place where the sights lined up, how bad could it be?  This brings to light the following: Many of our actions are based on deeply held, yet incorrect, assumptions that are not readily apparent to ourselves.  Closer to the root of the matter, the adherence to these assumptions is more likely a matter of convenience, or resistance to change, than of actual belief.  This is evidenced by the fact that we continue in the assumption, although we may readily admit that our assumption is not true.  Let this be known as The Good’nuff Law of Laziness

As an interesting side note, those of you who have read my articles on shooting positions may remember that I’ve had a persistent issue with vertical stringing while shooting with my Sako 75.

 

Sako75bR kn lh 2.9

The most flagrant example of vertical stringing from December 2011- “Benchrest Kneeling” from 140 yards.  Note that the horizontal dispersion appears to be about 1.5”, which is barely over 1 MOA.  Also notice the vertical dispersion is just over 4”, which in the article I said was about 2.9 MOA.

 

You may also remember that I’ve been diagnosing this stringing as an issue with the stock needing to be bedded.  This is the third most common diagnosis for vertical stringing.  The second most common diagnosis would be a high variance of bullet velocity (high standard deviation [SD]).  The most common diagnosis for this is that thin barrels heat up and that the barrel harmonics cause stringing.  As an interesting side-side note, none of these explanations involve the shooter.  This may be due to pervasive ignorance of what will henceforth be termed “Rifleslinger’s Razor”, which says:

Do not blame equipment for deficiencies in performance that could otherwise be explained by faulty technique”.

Imagine what would happen if everyone was aware of this principle.  Not just rifle shooters, but everyone.  Seriously, ponder that for a moment. 

My load’s SD appears to be within an acceptable range, so I pretty much ruled that out.  I’ve read in forums that thin barrels of good quality shoot better than conventional wisdom would have you believe.  I’ve also read that Sakos shoot a lot better after bedding, explains why that has been my primary theory. 

Knowing, as most shooters of at least an intermediate level do, that most inaccuracy is not due to the rifle, but instead due to the shooter, you might think it odd that I have been blaming the stringing on the lack of proper bedding.  It’s not really odd, it’s just illustrative of pride leading to the ignorance of the obvious truth that I have called Rifleslinger’s Razor.  I put this out there so that you can:

1.)   Feel better about yourself at my expense, and
2.)   Examine and challenge your own assumptions about your shooting.

This will be a fun, not-very-scientific experiment as well.  We’ll get to see a non-statistically significant sample size of groups, beginning with the “jaw weld” (control group), then a proper cheekweld group (experimental group #1), and a group after pillar bedding with proper cheekweld (experimental group #3).  I’ll continue on this subject intermittently throughout the month and beyond.  Stay tuned.

13 thoughts on “Rifleslinger’s Razor and the Importance of Proper Cheekweld

  1. Rifleslinger,

    I think I understand the issue of parallex as it pertains to shooting with a scope, hell, I can see it at play when I move my eye around with rifle held steady (as on a bench). But I can’t understand how it would come into play with iron sights – I would have thought that alignment of front and rear sight would simply not allow parallax to come into play. Can you elaborate, or point me in the direction of further explanation?

    cheers

    • I’ll ask this because I know I’ve done it. Have you ever moved your head to put the center of the target on the front sight when it’s just a little bit off to start with, and the front sight appears to stay in the center of the aperture?

      Think of the rear aperture. It always appears to have an optical center, regardless of where you’re looking at it from. Make a ring out of your thumb and index finger and look at a spot on the wall that appears to coincide with the center of the ring. Now move your head while keeping the hand stationary. Notice that the spot that coincides with the center has changed. Now consider that your front sight would have to move in accordance with variations in your cheekweld in order to appear to be at the center of the rear sight.

      Here’s a trick I learned to get around that with peep sights. I haven’t verified this, so you’ll need to try it out. When you look through the rear sight, there is a dark colored circle that appears somewhere near the center. It’s a shadow. This is actually supposed to be the center of the sight. Put your front sight in the center of that disc, and you should have more consistent hits.

    • One more trick with aperture sights is to see where the view through the aperture at its bottom edge lines up with some feature of the rifle barrel or front sight when the tip of your front sight post is well and truly centered.
      You can usually see some part of the top of barrel, handguard, front sight base, etc. down at the very bottom of rear sight aperture hole. When you are certain you have proper sight alignment, shift your gaze from front sight to the bottom of the aperture and see where it lines up with some part of the rifle visible through the aperture. Test this for consistency and when you line up your sights to shoot give it a quick check.

      Cheek weld controls eye placement behind the sights, but buttstock position in your shoulder has some effect on cheekweld. If this is wrong you will have a hard time getting the right cheek weld. The primary requirement is eye behind the sight to get correct centered alignment, but cheek weld controls this, and buttstock position influences cheek weld. It is a three-link chain that must all be correct.

    • Rifleslinger, In answer to your question, I don’t honestly know. I guess the fact that I can’t answer the question suggests I probably have. I’m going to have to chew all that over for a while and experiment a little. You’ve certainly given me food for thought. Thank you too, Pete – I’ll practice what you suggest.

      I suppose now I’m going to find out that all my rotten rifles are actually more accurate than I thought! Next you’re going to try and tell me they’re even more accurate than I am – not sure I could handle that! 😉

      But with respect to your tip, Rifleslinger, on controlling parallax when using aperture sights: would it matter what kind I am using? (I use a Lyman 57 and 48 with small, hunting-style disc and relatively large apertures, often with the disc unscrewed altogether to mimic a “ghost ring”. I’ve not used a “target” style aperture before.)

      Thanks

  2. Bingo! Don’t blame the rifle first, blame yourself first…

    Splendid! Rifleslinger, I have to hand it to you…you are much more in the mold of my guru Col. Jeff Cooper than I will ever be. Always asking remarkably perceptive questions and ruthlessly running down the right answer. I am afraid I’ve fallen into that complacency trap you detailed in one of your recent posts.

    By the way, do you ever sleep?

  3. Jonno,

    I wasn’t able to reply to your post for some reason. I believe that a smaller aperture would leave less room for error. The tradeoff is that it’s slower and probably won’t work as well under dawn/dusk type of conditions. There’s no question in my mind at this point that a good consistent cheekweld is the way to go.

    I would guess that most rifles are much more accurate than their owners would give them credit for. I can’t say about yours. You’re a loyal reader here, so you’re probably capable of outshooting all your rifles in the offhand position 🙂

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