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The Fundamentals of Marksmanship

Posted by on Sep 29th 2020

The Fundamentals of Marksmanship

We talk a lot of gear when it comes to shooting. While proper equipment can make your a better shooter, there are important fundamentals of marksmanship that you must master to truly get better at shooting. Modern guides and instructors have complicated these tenets of good shooting practice. We're getting back to the real basic by focusing on the U.S Army's  FM-23-31, Chapter 5: Marksmanship Training. The four fundamentals you must master are:

  • Shooting stance
  • Aiming technique
  • Breathing control
  • Trigger squeeze

Fundamental #1: Shooting Stance

Many new shooters are (justifiably) so focused on gripping the rifle or pistol that the important first step is missed entirely: Getting into a comfortable standing, sitting, or prone position. We'll talk about grip, but ensuring your entire frame is stable from head to toe will also ensure felt recoil is minimal. With a proper shooting position, grip is secondary -- your body acts as the buffer for controlling your weapon.

Standing (Rifle/Shotgun)

Standing is one of the most difficult shooting positions to master because you're not braced by the ground or any platform. Standing is also what you should practice first. It will build confidence quickly and teach you to mitigate recoil by using your entire body. It teaches you how to obtain a stable position without relying on any aids and helps you avoid developing bad shooting habits while you learn the fundamentals.

Best Practices

  • Buttstock position. The buttstock should be pressed firmly not into the shoulder, but into the upper-right (or upper-left, if you're left-handed) quadrant of the chest muscle, next to the armpit. The very top of the buttstock should be at the same height as the collarbone.
  • Firing elbow. Flaring your shooting hand's elbow out is called the "chicken wing" and is a telltale sign of a new shooter. The elbow of the trigger hand should be tucked tight against your side. 
  • Non-firing elbow. The elbow of the supporting hand should point at the ground at a relatively steep downward angle, not off to the side.
  • Cheek placement. Also called cheek weld, the cheek should rest firmly against the buttstock, allowing the shooter's eye to naturally align with the iron sights or optic.
  • Feet placement. Your feet should be spaced shoulder-width apart. Toes on both feet should be pointing at the target. Shooters can obtain a stable stance by either having both feet parallel, or by placing the foot underneath the non-firing elbow slightly forward. In this case, the shooter should lean forward, into the weapon.

Bad Habits (Avoid These)

  • The lean-back. Many new shooters, especially small shooters handling a heavy long gun, tend to lean back and away from the weapon. This is an unstable and potentially unsafe position that can result in the shooter being knocked off his or her feet from recoil.
  • Not tucking. Another habit often born from a lack of confidence, many shooters don't properly and firmly pull and tuck the weapon into the chest. You must tuck the weapon firmly into the chest to reduce recoil and avoid bruising your chest or collarbone.
  • Death grip. Seeing a theme? In building confidence, new shooters tend to apply a death grip on the weapon, largely from anticipating recoil. This has a nasty side-effect of pulling the muzzle off target and ruining your shot placement. Recoil can actually feel worse on your hands if you grip the weapon too tightly. Your grip should be firm, but not so tight that your hands and arms get tired. Your chest should absorb most recoil.

Standing (pistol/Revolver)

If you can master a stable standing position while shooting a handgun, you will be a great shooter. Shooting a handgun without a prone position or platform requires the most adherence to best practices. 

Best Practices

  • Shooting stance. Like the long gun stance, the best shooting stance with a pistol is one where the feet are facing the target and parallel, or the non-firing foot leads the firing foot with the shooter leaned into the gun.
  • Two-handed grip. One-handed shooting is trained in certain cases, but it's not relevant here. Always practice the marksman's fundamentals with two hands. The firing hand's fingers should be wrapped firmly around the pistol grip. The thumb of the shooting hand should rest underneath the slide, next to the safety and slide release. The non-firing hand should cup the firing hand like shown above: The non-firing thumb should be underneath and forward of the firing thumb, also resting on the frame of the handgun.
  • Trigger finger placement. The middle of the tip of the trigger finger should depress the trigger back without pulling the weapon left or right. The trigger finger should remain off the trigger until ready to fire.
  • Arms and elbows. Both arms and elbows should be extended and nearly straight, but not locked. Both elbows should be symmetrical and pointed down at a 45-degree angle. 

Bad Habits

  • Gripping too high or low. The pistol should be gripped as high as possible without the webbing of the shooting hand touching the slide. Having the hand too high on the backstrap of the pistol can result in the slide cutting the hand near the thumb when the weapon cycles. This is called slide bite. A good pair of shooting gloves can mitigate recoil and help protect against slide bite.
  • Locking elbows. Locking elbows transfers more recoil to the shooter and makes for poor sight alignment and aiming. 
  • The lean-back. New shooters lean back when handling handguns more often than long guns and this must be avoided at all costs.

Sitting (Rifle/Shotgun)

Few to no shooters handle their pistols and revolvers from a bench, so we're focusing on sitting with long guns. A little more nuance goes into the sitting position. You should apply the relevant best practices discussed in the standing position here, too. 

Best Practices

  • Weapon height. Your long gun should be at a height that's comfortable for you. When you get a cheek weld on the buttstock, your head should remain relatively vertical. 
  • Firing elbow. The firing elbow should maintain the same position as it does when standing. However, now the elbow should rest at a 45-degree angle on your bench or shooting platform. 
  • Non-firing elbow. No matter where the non-firing hand rests (on the handguard or the buttstock, like shown above), the non-firing elbow should also maintain a 45-degree rest on the table or platform. 
  • Non-firing hand. The non-firing hand can grip the handguard like when standing, or it should be tucked underneath the buttstock to act as a secondary rear support. In this case, the non-firing arm is pointed back at the shooter and this provides more surface area for the non-firing arm to provide better support. This position works best with a fixed bipod or shooting rest.
  • Seating. Your entire body should face the target. Depending on which side you shoot, the buttstock should align with the shooting leg and chest. The buttstock may ride higher up on the collarbone while seated.

Bad Habits

  • Sitting too low. Many shooters believe it's best to get as low to the bench as possible when shooting while seated. This places strain on the neck and forces you to crane your head at an odd angle. This invites poor sight picture and follow-up. Always sit as high as your long gun and bench allow. The torso should be leaned forward no more than 30 to 45 degrees, like shown above. Invest in a good bipod or shooting bags to bring the rifle or shotgun up to your seated height.
  • Tucking into the shoulder. It's easy to get the buttstock to ride along the top or outer edges of the shoulder while seated. This is unstable and invites poor recoil management. It's also uncomfortable while shooting. Keep the buttstock tucked as close to the inner chest and center of the collar bone as possible.

Prone (Rifle/Shotgun)

As far as the upper torso is concerned, all best practices that apply to sitting with a long gun apply to the prone position. This position is the most stable long gun stance and allows shooters to focus on the other three fundamentals more wholly. The goal of a good prone is position is two-fold: Reduce weapon movement and felt recoil as much as possible.

Best Practices

  • Straight on your stomach. That's how you should sit, like the shooter handling that bolt gun above. His body is perfectly flat on the ground and runs in a line with the rifle and target. This guarantees recoil is mitigated from the shoulder and chest, down the back, and into the legs. Investing in a nylon rifle case can provide some padding and comfort underneath your chest and stomach while prone, too.
  • Feet flat, legs apart. Spread 'em as wide as you can. You want to create as much surface area between your body's profile and the ground. Keeping your legs straight out and away from each other stabilizes your entire body. Doing so also recruits the core and back muscles to help prop you up. This reduces pressure and strain on your neck, shoulders, and elbows. 
  • Non-firing elbow. The non-firing elbow should maintain generally the same position as shown when sitting: Kept at a 45-degree angle, anchored to the ground, with the non-firing hand forward and supporting the handguard, or backward and supporting the buttstock.
  • Firing elbow. Same story, the firing elbow should be kept at a 45-degree angle to the ground.
  • Height. Getting your long gun to meet you at the right height is even more important (and often more difficult) when shooting prone. Extra care should be taken to ensure you have the right bipod, shooting rest, or plenty of bags to get the muzzle and handguard up to chest height. 

Bad Habits

  • Wonky legs. The literal foundation of the prone position rests on your leg placement. As new shooters approach prone shooting, they tend to forget about leg placement and focus on the fundamentals that more directly affect the weapon. It's important to avoid twisting your legs, bringing them to together, raising them up and kicking them around (this ain't gossip hour at the sleep-over, folks) or lifting your feet.
  • Laying off-side. The body wants to approach prone shooting at a slight angle, either to the left or right side of the gun. This forces the neck and head to crane when viewing the iron sights or optic. Ensure you're laying perfectly in line with the weapon and target to keep the head upright and forward-facing.
  • Laying too low. Like sitting, shooting prone invites the urge to get as low to the ground as possible, but this also produces that twisted, uncomfortable neck position. Remember those bags or a good, tall, sturdy bipod.

Fundamental #2: Aiming

Now that you know how to get behind your long gun or handgun, it's time to figure out how to best aim. Aiming involves much more than just lining up the muzzle with your target and pulling the trigger. Some of these best practices are counter-intuitive and require practice.

Best Practices

  • Both eyes open. You. Must. Shoot. With. Both. Eyes. Open. This is the single-most overlooked and widely employed shooting mistake. Even the best marksmen needlessly strain their eyes by keeping one pinched closed while trying to keep the other wide open. It simply doesn't work well. Your eyes are made to focus and take in light together. It can feel weird at first, but if you master aiming down the sights with both eyes open, you will eliminate nearly half of the strain a shooter feels when taking a shot.
  • Front sight focus. Many shooters struggle with what, exactly, to focus on. Should you focus on the rear sight, front sight, or the target itself? To achieve the greatest accuracy, the front sight focus should be employed. Exampled above, the outer ring of the rifle scope is blurry, and only the center red dot is in focus. Since the target is at a relatively far distance, the target and front sight appear on the same plane and easily focus together. The real challenge comes in shooting at close-range targets with a handgun. The front sight is pushed far away from the shooter and focusing on it causes the target to also blur. Seeing a blurry target is normal and must be practiced to master this technique. A pair of high-contrast shooting glasses can help with focus. It's also a best practice to wear eye protection any time you shoot.
  • Sight alignment. The front and rear sights should be perfectly aligned when acquiring your target. Red dots, scopes, and reticles only have a single point of aim with no front or rear sight. These are called "parallax-free" sights since they use a single plane and no special sight alignment is required. 

Bad Habits

  • Target/rear sight focus. The rear sight is closest to you, so it's what you want to focus on first. And that juicy target's just dying to get a tight grouping, so that's what you focus on next. But you simply must work on not focusing on either. Stick to the front sight alone.
  • Aiming for too long. It's a simple fact that if you attempt to focus for too long before pulling the trigger, your eyes will fatigue. You'll lose focus, your arms and grip may tire, and you'll ultimately ruin your sight picture and have to reset. 
  • Taking your eyes off-target. Overcoming this bad habit takes time. New shooters tend to close their eyes or pull away from the iron sights or optics as they squeeze the trigger. This is a natural flinching reaction to sudden recoil. You must train yourself to maintain sight picture and follow through the shot. Work on keeping your front sight focus and sight alignment through the full trigger squeeze.

Fundamental #3: Breathing

This is the second-most overlooked tenet of good shooting and of course, it affects new shooters more: Just breathe. It plays a bigger role in shot placement and accuracy than you think. Even worse, getting behind the trigger naturally invites the jitters and some excitement, raising your heartrate and thus increasing the urge to breathe quickly.

Best Practices

  • Take slow, deep breaths. As you begin shooting for the first time, take a moment before each shot to consciously control every breath you take. Inhale deep and slow, but without trying to fill your lungs like you're about to take a dive. Pause for one second, and exhale in the same fashion.
  • Pull the trigger on the exhale. When you inhale, your chest expands, your heartrate increases, blood vessels dilate, and you may feel pressure in your lungs and head as you take that momentary, controlled pause. All these factors can inhibit shot placement. It's best to exhale and then pull the trigger. With your lungs empty, your chest and inner core muscles naturally constrict. The momentary calm of a lower heartrate creates the perfect window to make a clean shot.
  • Take a breath between each shot. Taking one full breath between each shot forces you to maintain steady breathing and it creates a consistent cadence that allows you to focus more on the other fundamentals. Pacing your shots with breathing helps to develop muscle memory in both your hands and lungs, too. 

Bad Habits

  • Holding your breath. Taking that half-second pause between breaths makes you want to hold your breath entirely. We do this often when we're focusing on important tasks that require fine motor skills. This is a bad habit you must break if you want to become a great shooter. Really, it's a bad habit to have altogether: Holding your breath starves the brain of oxygen and can inhibit fine motor skills. It can even cause tunnel vision and lightheadedness. These are two things you don't want to experience while operating a loaded firearm.
  • Breathing too slowly or quickly. It's easy to focus on the fundamentals too much. Don't fight your natural breathing cadence, or you'll wind up lightheaded and short on oxygen anyway. If you're fogging up your optics or shooting glasses, take a pause and shake it out.

Fundamental #4: Trigger Squeeze

Finally, the moment of truth: We've focused on how to not move while shooting, which is pretty simple. Squeezing the trigger and doing it the right way isn't easy. This is the moment where you practice incredibly precise and controlled movements knowing an explosive is about to detonate above your hand and in front of your face. This is why trigger squeeze is the hardest fundamental to master. 

Best Practices

  • Pull with your finger pad. The pad is the center of the finger, between the last joint and the fingertip. It's where you'll find the center swirl of your fingerprint. Use only the pad to depress the trigger. Most triggers have a pull weight of 3 pounds to 8 pounds, and using the finger pad ensures that you're tugging all that force straight back, not left or right and throwing the muzzle off target.
  • Use one smooth squeeze. The more you press the trigger, the more the spring behind it compresses. This compression makes it harder to press the trigger any further. To overcome this gradual increase in pressure consistently and smoothly, you need to get familiar with how much force is required to make the hammer fall. Apply that same force with every trigger pull. If you find your trigger is simply too heavy, any gunsmith can lower the pull weight or upgrade the springs.
  • Don't anticipate. It's a safe bet that when you watch a new shooter pull the trigger the first few dozen times, he or she will flinch. Most importantly, they flinch before or as the round goes off. Why? Because they're anticipating the moment the trigger breaks from the sear, letting hammer or striker ignite the round in the chamber. Overcoming this is easy and requires practicing smooth trigger squeezes. If you apply consistent force every time without hesitating, the moment the hammer falls will be a surprise. This is a good thing because it means you, the shooter, can't affect the round's trajectory by jerking the gun before it goes off.
  • Follow through. All triggers have some degree of over-travel. Following through means squeezing the trigger past the point the sear breaks and finishing the full motion of the trigger's movement. Think of it like a golf swing and following the swing through to ensure the entire movement is smooth and well-paced. The act of ignoring the sear and listening only to the trigger itself will help you overcome that flinch-and-jerk motion that new shooters suffer as they build confidence.

Bad Habits

  • Jerking the trigger. Not jerking the trigger is every shooter's challenge. Overcoming this isn't just a mental feat, but a physical one. Your muscles employ two types of fibers, called fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers induce quick, sudden movements. Slow-twitch fibers provide that "slow burn," a consistent movement under weight or pressure. We're only talking about fingers and triggers here, but this is important and very applicable. You must train your trigger finger to use slow-twitch fibers with deliberate pacing.
  • Slapping the trigger. It's the jerk's ugly cousin. Rarely, brand-new shooters will literally slap the action with their finger, building momentum before contacting the trigger. This is even worse and it's a sure sign your trigger is too heavy, or you're too nervous.
  • Squeezing at the joint. This builds on the idea that triggers can be surprisingly hard to pull. If a shooter's trigger finger tires, he or she may employ the first joint on their finger instead. This virtually guarantees you'll pull the muzzle off target in the direction of your shooting hand, and should be avoided.

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