Basic Rifle Marksmanship
By David Reed
If you can hit what you normally shoot at, with relative certainty, that may be good enough for you. I however, have strived over many years to develop my skills to the point that I am better than that. I want to know that I can make that shot at any range within the effective range of the rifle. It does not matter whether there is wind or not, nor the direction from which it comes. Whether the wind is 5kts or 20kts, uphill or downhill, raining, humid, or dry — I want to know that I can make that shot, or, that I cannot. If I cannot make it then I will not take it.
This site is going to focus on rifle marksmanship at a level above and beyond that used for clay pit plinking. I created this material for those who want to learn to shoot well, and as a gathering place for those who do shoot well. There are many things that influence accuracy and I am going to include all that come to mind. I will allow others to contribute their own material.
This is a new site and I appreciate all germane comments. If you have a question I will try to clear up my text, reformat, or organize the thoughts better. This is not a forum for arguments about which cartridge is best, or which makes the ultimate dense brush, rainy weather, waxing moon, wild boar rifle. You can find that garbage in any number of gun magazines at your local drugstore or news stand. My philosophy is that some cartridges are better than others for certain situations or targets. However, bullet placement is far more important than caliber when your shot must achieve an effect. It will not allow you to stalk dangerous game with a .22, but it does make the question of 30-06 or 7mm Rem. Mag. academic within the effective range of a medium size high velocity rifle — about 900 meters.
One final note, I had an acquaintance once respond with incredulity that I would have the audacity to suggest that anyone could see, let alone hit, a target at 900 meters. This was a guy who never shot his rifle except to check his scope at the beginning of deer season. If you fall in this category please do two (2) things before you send flames:
Talk to anyone who has graduated from the XVIIIth Airborne Corps Sniper School at Fort Bragg North Carolina (or other similar service school)
Pick up any copy of the NRA’s American Rifleman that highlights the annual pilgrimage to Camp Perry — Read it.
This section delves into the human body and the factors that must be considered before one sits down behind a rifle.
Our heartbeat causes our body to move. Chest, shoulders, arms, neck, hands, and fingers all move when our heart beats. Remember that these things are touching, or connected to parts that are touching, our rifle. This can be seen through a very hi-power scope. The cross hairs bump along the target as our heart beats. This is not really evident through a 9X hunting scope. Change your body position slightly, and the pattern the cross hairs follows changes as well.
Now If you try this experiment you will find something else out real quick, not only is your pulse moving the rifle but it’s probably hard to see clearly because your breathing is moving it even more! If you have a less than optimum grip and hold on the rifle, while you are studying these phenomena, you will notice that it starts getting worse. This is because your muscles are starting to fatigue, and when they fatigue they begin to tremble. Stop breathing and the lack of oxygen to those muscles will cause them to tremble even more!
You cannot make your heart stop, but you can slow it. Your pulse rises when you work out or become excited. Your respiration increases in the same way. I will not belabor this point, just think about it and use common sense. Think about the time you missed that deer and blamed it on your rifle, load, scope or whatever. Think about it — how did you feel when you saw that buck? What were you experiencing when you raised your rifle and took aim?
Chances are that the experience was quite different from the feeling you got when you were sighting in that rifle at the range. Was it really the rifle? Was it you? Buck fever is an extreme case, the shooter is so overwhelmed by the experience that they cannot even remember pulling the trigger while the gun was still pointing up in the air! Many people suffer from increased pulse and respiration when they sight game. This will reduce the maximum range that clean shots are possible. If it’s buck fever, you are in trouble.
What to do about it?
Feel the targets presence.
Try to smell the target.
Breathe normally, in, out, steady breaths. If the target is close just open your mouth wide, your breathing will be silent.
Think of nothing — Clear your mind — Think only of what you must do.
Control yourself, you will get this shot only once
Yes, you can control this too. Conditioning is important, but it no matter what your condition is, if you do not have good form you will shake. You must take advantage of bone structure when supporting the rifle. This is easier when you are prone, I have pictures in an army field manual for the prone shooting position that I will add when I get them scanned. If they are not here, use these tips as guides.
Keep forearm vertical under the forearm of the rifle. Straight up and down. When you angle your arms you are using muscles to hold them still. Gravity will do this for you if you keep your forearm vertical.
Your body must lie in a relaxed, flat position. Point your toes out so your feet lay sideways, flat against the ground. Start with your feet and think about the position of all body parts, working up to your fingers. If you are using muscles to hold your position you will shake.
Find the position you could hold for hours without tiring. Try every variation you can think of with your rifle in your shoulder. You are looking for the combination that will allow the least vibration, and the flexibility needed to work the action on your rifle. When shooting you do not want to take your eyes off your target to reload or work the action. You must be able to do this without your movement being seen.
When you have found it, take a mental snapshot of each part of your body and it’s position. Remember how each part feels in that position, look at your hands , arms elbows, and where the rifle is resting in relation to your nose. What part of the rifle is close to your nose? I will explain this when I discuss sight alignment. Practice assuming this position until you have it down pat. It may help to sequence the movements necessary to assume this position and number them. Practice assuming the position by the numbers. Eventually it will become second nature. If you shoot infrequently you may want to write this down so you will remember it if you forget.
If you are a hunter and you must use this process from a blind or tree stand, use the same principles. What you do will be different from every tree you hunt and for every game animal that walks out in front, behind, or to the side of you. The position the hunter must shoot from depends on the situation. This will give you something to think about when the time comes. You will focus on a problem and the solution, not freak out because you finally have that 8 point in front of you!
For the rest of you, I will try to stay away from hunting situations. You hunters can do as I did. I took the principles I learned about shooting at long ranges and applied them where the situation warranted.
Sight Alignment and Sight Picture
When shooting a rifle without a scope, it is important to align the front and rear sights perfectly and consistently. There are four things in this equation — your shooting eye, the rear sight, the front sight, and the target. The distance between the sights does not change. The distance from your eye to the rear sight can change and this must be avoided.
The relationship between your eye and the rear sight is important. Once you find the right position for your eye, note the relationship between your nose and the stock or action of the rifle. Each time you aim, put your nose in the same place. This will help you get your sight picture consistent.
Peep sights are the best sights for a rifle. For those of you unfamiliar with these, they will take some getting used too. Hopefully you will be able to see that the rear sight in each example (graphic missing) is fuzzy looking. That is because you should always focus on the front sight post. You will have to align the front sight post in the center of the rear sight aperture using your “peripheral” vision. The target will be fuzzy too.
The peep sight system is better because it allows you to get a better picture of sight alignment. It is very hard to focus on the front sight post with leaf sights. The only part of the front sight that is visible through leaf sights is the very top. When the leaf sight blurs out of focus, it is very hard to tell whether the front post is centered in the rear sight groove. Leaf sights work well out to 100 yds. The are adequate for hunting purposes on a .22 rifle. But for serious target work, the peep sight is far superior.
When using a scope it is also important to note the relationship between the gun and your nose. In dim light, if your eye is not perfectly positioned, you will lose a great deal of the field of view. Yes, you’ll lose it when it’s bright too, but in dim light this problem is not readily apparent. Notice that when your eye is not in position that areas of the scope view are black. In dim light the correct view is also very dark. If you don’t know where your eye should be without “looking” through the scope to find it, you will find yourself chasing a fleeting image through the scope.
If you don’t breath you will shake. There is a correct way to breath when shooting. Try this exercise —
Take a breathe.
Let it out.
While exhaling, notice that there is a point during exhale where you do not feel it necessary to to continue exhaling, or to start breathing in again.
Now try it again. This time when you get to that “place”, stop breathing for a second or two. It’s easy!
That is the place in your breath cycle you want to take your shot. Since you can only hold it a second, two at most, you must time the rise and fall of the rifle, the sight alignment & picture, and the trigger squeeze to coincide with that “place”. Notice that when you inhale the muzzle of the rifle drops. It rises again when you exhale. When your chest expands your shoulder rises, your forearm that supports the rifle does not move so the muzzle drops. You must time this rise and fall so that the target is sighted at that “place”.
Look at your finger. bend it to a hook shape like you would when pulling a trigger. Now simulate trigger pull and watch your finger. Notice that at no point on your finger, does your finger move straight back. The movement of your finger is to the side and back. No matter where you touch the trigger, pulling like this will exert a sideways pressure on the trigger. What do you think the muzzle will do?
If you are right-handed, the muzzle will move to the right because you are pushing the portion of the rifle behind your forearm to the left. The place on your finger that moves the the LEAST to the side is the very tip. You want to put the very end of your finger on the trigger. Do not use the tip by the nail, but the soft part between the tip and the first joint. When squeezing the trigger be conscious of this, and try your best to eliminate all lateral pressure.
When you pull the trigger you must apply steadily increasing pressure until the gun fires. The shot should come as a surprise every time. If you anticipate, and flinch, you will never be able to shoot well.
The biggest mistake a shooter can make is to start off with a loud, powerful, hard kicking rifle and not wear hearing protection. Not only can you damage your hearing, but the noise will be most unpleasant. You will begin to associate the noise with the recoil, and in your mind they will be one and the same — a big unpleasant event.
Isolating recoil and noise is very important when trying to overcome a flinch. Once you realize that the kick is not that bad, and it certainly will not hurt you, you will be able to focus on sight picture, breathing, and squeezing.
A .300 Win. Mag. kicks hard. It is something you will have to get used to. Many gun writers recommend that people of slight build stick to lighter weapons for this reason. Bullshit, size has little to do with it. Carlos Hathcock, all 140 lbs. of him, killed most of his 93 confirmed people with a 30-06, and won the 1965 Wimbledon Cup with a .300 Winchester Magnum. But if you think you are too tough to wear hearing protectors, or wear cheapies, you may have problems with a big rifle.
Shooting Fundamentals Summary
Solid, comfortable body position
Ballistics will be covered in detail in a section devoted to the subject. For now I’ll only discuss a few fundamentals. The moment a bullet leaves the barrel it begins to fall. I have been to the range and heard people talking about how their [insert bullet here] climbs for the first 50 yds. or so. The laws of physics do not work differently for these people or their guns. They just don’t understand the relationship between the line of sight (LOS) and the bullet path (BP).
The LOS is perfectly straight. The sights on a rifle are on top of the rifle. If they are straight, and the bullet is always dropping, then the only way the two paths will ever intersect is if the LOS is adjusted to cross the BP at some point. That is exactly what we do. If the rear sight post is raised then the LOS will cross the bullet path. In fact, it crosses the bullet path twice. The bullet will steadily drop until it crosses the LOS again. I’ll include a picture when I can get it scanned. If any of you have one scanned feel free to donate it!
Between sights and the first intersection, bullet is BELOW LOS.
LOS crosses BP, after first intersection bullet is ABOVE LOS.
Bullet drops more and crosses the LOS. After this the bullet is below LOS again.
The point at which the two paths cross the first time is referred to as “battle sight zero” in the US Army. If an M16’s sight’s are adjusted until they are “zeroed” at 25 meters, they will also be zeroed at 250 meters (where the two cross again). This means that out to 25 meters the rifle will shoot low, between 25 and 250 meters the rifle will shoot high, and after 250m the rifle will shoot low again. This is what people are referring to when the say that their “bullet climbs after so many feet”. Their sights are pointed down at an angle like everyone else’s.
Bullets do not drop at a constant rate. As soon as a bullet leaves the barrel it is a prisoner of gravity and drag. The longer a bullet flies, the longer it is exposed to gravity, and the farther it will drop. When a bullet leaves the barrel it is moving very fast. It covers the first 30% of it’s maximum range very quickly. Accordingly, the effect of gravity is very small during this period. In proportion, the drag effect is quite high. As the bullet slows the proportional effects of drag and gravity swap places. Once a bullet has flown 60% of it’s maximum range, drag is very small, and gravity is causing the bullet to drop very fast. These topics will be discussed in greater detail in the section titled “Exterior Ballistics”.
By David Reed
Most of the data and discussions which follows is taken directly or paraphrased from the Sierra Rifle Reloading Manual 3rd Edition. I have many books and manuals but Sierra’s is by far the best. If you do not have this manual then I urge you to get it. All reloading manuals contain extensive disclaimers and Sierra’s is no exception.
I am providing this information because I have not found it elsewhere on the Web. It would take days to convert all of their data to HTML and it would be full of errors, piss them off, and keep you from buying their book! These pages should not be considered a worthwhile substitute for their manual. They do good work and I encourage you to support them by buying their manual. I think I paid around $34.95 US for it and as I mentioned, it is my favorite. Speer, Nosler, and Hornady also have good references. When I need data, I usually compare all of them.
I’ve tried many bullets and can’t honestly say that any brand is better than any other for my purposes. My .300 Win. drops everything I shoot with it. I have favorite bullets for each rifle that I own. It might surprise you to know that one of my guns shoots 180gr round nose bullets better than any other bullet I’ve tried! Don’t be to quick to assume that a match grade bullet will fly better than others in any particular rifle. Bullet weight has a lot to do with it. (See section on rifle tuning where I discuss harmonics.) Try them all and decide for yourself. When the manufacturer recommends a bullet for a particular purpose don’t try to read to much between the lines. A hollow point bullet is designed to expand rapidly, but if you are shooting whitetail with a .300 that is not a disadvantage! And now, on to exterior ballistics . . .
Altitude and Humidity
Rather than try to calculate ballistics for every bullet made, it is easier to compare the ballistics potential of the bullet in question to one standard bullet. The potential of the standard bullet can be calculated very precisely. The drag deceleration of another bullet can be compared to this standard to produce a factor for calculating deceleration. This factor is known as the Ballistic Coefficient. It simple terms the BC of a bullet is a measure of it’s efficiency. If we compare several bullets all fired at the same muzzle velocity, then the higher the BC of any bullet, the flatter it shoots, the better it bucks the wind, and the better it retains its velocity as it travels downrange.
For a given bullet fired at a known muzzle velocity, the BC of the bullet determines its trajectory. This is because drag is the strongest force acting on the bullet, and the BC governs the amount of drag. The effect of the BC enters mainly through the time of flight. The drop at any range is nearly proportional to the square of the time of flight. It is clear that a bullet with a shorter time of flight will drop less than one with a longer time of flight. Time of flight is affected by drag, because drag slows a bullet down. Since the drag gets less as BC gets larger, larger BC means less drop.
Time of flight also depends on muzzle velocity (MV). A large heavy bullet typically has a high BC (Inertial), but you cannot get the MV very high on a heavy bullet. So a high BC bullet may drop more than a lighter bullet fired much faster. For a comparison to be fair, you should also compare the final velocity and energy at the range in question.
It should be evident that between 600 and 1000 yards, the heavier bullet is actually moving faster and of course, carrying more energy. We should also note that after 1000 yds, the heavier bullet will be flatter than the lighter bullet, but this is pretty much out of the effective range of the rifle.
Look for the higher BC, but don’t wear blinders. Consider MV, energy, and final velocity when choosing a bullet.
Altitude & Humidity
Drag depends on the density of air and on the speed of sound. These depend on temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. Sierra uses standard factors in their ballistics tables. The values are:
Altitude: sea level
Pressure: 29.53 inches of mercury (Hg)
Temperature: 59 degrees F.
You may think that if you develop a load at lower elevations and then go to the mountains on a hunt, that your round will shoot flatter. The air is less dense, however it will probably be colder, thus offsetting the difference. What may surprise you is that a bullet will shoot flatter in humid air than it will in dry air. That is because the molecular weight of water is less than the molecular weight of dry air. Therefore the BC increases when we go from dry to more humid air. However the difference is pretty small and probably not worth figuring out. The most dramatic effect on bullet performance is a change in altitude provided that the temperature increase is not that great. If you sight your rifle in on a cold day, and go to the mountains and it’s not that much colder, you will see a difference in trajectory. The best way to calculate the difference is to use a ballistics program. You’ll find a freeware/shareware version to download on my home page. If you would like one for Windows, I highly recommend JBM’s On Target! Ballistics software. The author is very knowledgeable and his program is based on solid physics. It is the best ballistics program that I know of.
You should try to prepare a table which shows how your rifle will shoot over a reasonable range of altitudes. Once you commit to memory the altitude effect, you will be close enough to make accurate shots. The very best way is actually test your rifle under conditions that are close.
Bullet drop does not change very much when shooting uphill/downhill. But the rifle will appear to shoot high. In fact it shoots high by almost the same amount whether you are shooting up or down. Therefore you must adjust your hold or change your scope when taking shots at high angle, especially as range increases. If you know what the drop (d) is for your bullet at any given range, you can use the following table to calculate the amount your bullet will shoot high, in inches.
Think about a 600 yd shot downhill at 40 degrees — Instead of a 50″ correction we are talking about a 40″ correction. Check your tables or ballistics program for your rifle. If you would like to know what it is right now, then try JBM’s online ballistics calculator! Just use your “back” button on your web browser to return.
This is a big one. You must understand wind effects to shoot well. Formulas abound for this, but as we’ll see, exact calculations are of little use. There is no substitute for practice. For our purposes we will refer to wind direction using the clock method. 12:00 is straight in the face, 6:00 is on the back of the head. Vertical deflection of bullets is very slight, at most a few inches at long ranges with 20+ winds. We will ignore head & tail winds (HTW) in this discussion. You will have to find the right place to hold, or adjust your sights slightly, for this component. If we discount HTW, then the wind effect of a 2:00 wind is the same as a 4:00, 8:00, and 10:00. Thus we only need to remember wind adjustments for 1,2, and 3:00. To be exact, you could calculate wind using 2:15, 1:48, etc. Those of you who are sailors know that wind is constantly shifting. Anywhere you are shooting, the wind4:00the target will always be different than the wind where you are shooting from. It changes all the way to the target. It may be 2mph where you are, 7mph halfway down range (from a slightly different direction), and 5mph at the target (from a slightly different direction). Usually the wind clocks or veers. Over a period of 10 minutes lets say, the wind will be 7mph for 3 min., then clock 5 degrees to the right for 5 minutes, then veer back to the left 5 degrees. Frequently there will be a brief lull in the wind, then it will reappear from the new direction. Aviators know this too. The wind swirls across the earth in large systems, each made up by an almost infinite number of microsystems. When on the water, you can see “wind lines”. They look like areas of the water that have ripples. On big grassy fields you can see this too.
In the morning, when the sun comes up, the air and ground begins to warm. As the ground warms, convection currents form cause air to move uphill. The western slope of a hill will have stronger currents than the eastern slope.
In the evening, the opposite occurs. If you are near the water, the land – sea heat differential effect also occurs. Warm air rises over the ground and is replaced by cooler air over the water. This is known as an offshore breeze and occurs mid-morning. As the ground cools in late afternoon, the reverse occurs, although not as strong. After the sun has gone down is when the onshore breeze gets stronger. During the day, late morning – through afternoon, you are in the doldrums where nothing much is happening (minus the presence of a system). A shooter must study these winds as they swirl along the ground.
Shooters cannot see ripples in the water, they must look for other signs.
Mirage’s move with the wind just like grass does. When shooting across flat ground you can see the shimmer of the heat rising off the ground. If the shimmer is straight up, there is less than 2mph wind. The mirage will lean away from the wind up until about 20mph when it disappears almost completely. Watch trees and grass. With a 2-4mph breeze the grass will move and you will see the eddies of air moving the ground. Fields are excellent places to read the wind because you can see the air currents. The leaves will also shimmer and and small limbs will move. 5-9mph and the grass starts to lean pretty well. Smaller limbs on the trees are moving constantly and thicker limbs barely move. 10-14mph and the thicker limbs are moving and the grass is being pushed strongly during the stronger gusts. 15-20mph and the trees are swaying and the grass is in constant motion.
Be aware that trees block the wind on fields. The windward side of the field will not have as much air as the leeward because the trees are blocking it. As you look across the field you will be able to see the stronger air moving at the center and leeward sides. (Pronounced “looward”). Now that you understand a bit about reading wind, you can see why complex calculations are fruitless. You must average these effects, always giving more credence to wind that is closer to the target (where the bullet is moving slower). Only with practice will you become good at this. For target shooters, those who can read wind well will always outshoot those who can’t, all other things being equal. Wind has a dramatic effect on long range shots.
Recall that I said we would only consider winds from 1, 2, and 3. Look at a ballistics table for your bullet and use these factors to determine crosswind. (Or use JBM’s)
If your bullet moves 36″ inches at some range with a 3 or 9 wind, then it will move about 18″ with winds at 1,5,7, or 11. You only need to remember wind effects for your bullet at each range where wind is an issue. Then remember two other numbers — 50% and 90%, 1/2 and “almost all of it”. Now look downrange and average it all out, come up with your number, and shoot. If you have time, figure windage for lulls and strong winds both. If you can’t get your shot off in a lull, you’ll have to adjust, but you’ll know how much.