Iron out those problems once and for all. From stance to breathing to grip, Will O’Meara presents the ultimate guide to perfecting every aspect of your shooting technique
Technique is the foundation on which proficiency with the rifle is built, practice is the wall that sits on that foundation, and equipment is the cap of the pyramid. In other words, all the kit in the world is no good to you if you don’t have the fundamentals, and those fundamentals can only be improved and maximised with practice.
The hunter is often under environmental stress – mainly down to the weather, terrain and the unpredictability of the quarry being hunted. These factors are outside our control, but what we can control is our preparation and practice for these situations. There is also emotional stress (buck-fever) – this is normally self-induced pressure that stems from the desire to quickly and humanely dispatch the animal we are hunting. This stress manifests itself in many ways: elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, nervous anticipation and clouded decision-making. It is only by practice and rehearsal that we can effectively manage these factors.
Let’s start with body mechanics and good shooting form. Body mechanics are different for each hunter, each firearm and each shooting position, but the fundamentals of these positions are the same. These fundamentals work together to encourage repeatability, accuracy and observation of strike/animal reaction.
Relax and let the body lie where it naturally wants to be. It is easy to repeat a relaxed position; a relaxed position can be maintained for long periods of time. Allow gravity and bone structure to support your shooting position. The opposite of this is to ‘muscle’ the position – this is not easy to repeat consistently and is prone to fatigue.
A good example of this is grip. Pick up your rifle, grip it lightly, increase the grip slightly, then keep increasing the grip as long as you can. See how many different strengths of grip you can exert. It varies from ‘light grip’ to the ‘grip of death’. Let’s say there were eight levels of increasing strengths of grip you had before you got to max effort. Do you think you could repeat level 5? Unlikely. Could you consistently repeat your ‘grip of death’? Possibly, but not for long. But could you consistently repeat your lightest grip? Probably. Practise your light grip, learn what it feels like on the pistol grip of your rifle, take note of where your fingers lie, try to remove any stress from the grip, be relaxed, and use the support of objects where possible. Recognise that this hand does a lot of the work when it comes to operating your rifle, understand what it needs to do, and tell it what to do. Don’t rely on autopilot.
Your feet should be flat on the ground in a relaxed and stable position, the body centred behind the rifle to maximise recoil absorption, and increase your ability to see your strike and repeatedly assume the position. I can repeat a position that is straight behind the rifle – we all know what straight looks like, and we’re unconsciously good at lining things up. However, I cannot repeat being ‘slightly off to one side’. Was it 10 degrees or 20 degrees off? You get the point: repeatability.
The butt of the rifle is in the pocket of the shoulder. This pocket is created when we raise our elbow – it lies between the muscle of the shoulder and the collar-bone. Practise this, find what feels correct, and talk yourself through the process. Talking through your body position and shot sequence can improve your conscious realisation of what you are doing and help you to be repeatable. Just don’t let the deer hear you…
This has a loose grip. Personally, I know that my little finger indexes at the crease of the last joint on the rib of my pistol grip. My main focus here is to relax and – funnily enough – avoid ‘gripping’. The thumb can be kept to the outside of the pistol grip and not wrapped around – the idea here is to avoid involuntary snatching. The thumb to the outside promotes a relaxed position and should allow the shot to break without influencing the point of aim. It also aids speed of reloading and simplified safety catch activation.
The centre of the pad at the end of your finger is what should interface with the trigger – again this is to avoid snatching, increase sensitivity and promote slow and gentle but deliberate pressing of the trigger. Notice I didn’t say squeeze. Practise building this trigger pressure, thinking only about the trigger.
A good trigger control routine is as follows:
• Put up a blank target at 100 metres, such as an A4 page. Turn the magnification on your scope right down, and don’t worry too much about aiming precisely – just allow your eye to centre the crosshair on the page.
• Dry fire the rifle (i.e. empty chamber), talk through your body position, relax, and think only about the trigger. Concentrate on increasing the pressure slowly. When the firing pin goes forward (‘click’), it should be a surprise. Maintain the rearward pressure and don’t release the trigger forward until after you complete the routine – this will help you avoid ‘punching’ the trigger. Counting slowly while you do this can help you focus only on the trigger.
• Repeat this drill with three rounds – avoid examining where the rounds strike the target, just centre the crosshairs on the page and execute a perfect shot. Talk yourself through the process and acknowledge that it was a perfect shot or otherwise – stop ‘caring’ where the hole in the page is.
The main problem we are trying to overcome here is snatching the trigger. Snatching the trigger is what causes the firer to ‘pull a shot’. The most common reason for snatching the trigger is anticipation – anticipating the recoil or the group size or the strike on the animal. In other words, our mind focuses on the outcome of the shot and not the shot process itself. Focus on your trigger; avoid thinking about the outcome of the shot. The results will surprise you.
The position of your other hand depends on the firing position. When shooting prone, I like to have it under the butt, controlling the rear bag or acting as a rear support. I find that having a good rear support allows the rifle to do its own thing during recoil (within reason), which in turn allows me to observe the strike on an animal. Plus, it is very repeatable.
In my previous article on rifle set-up we looked at cheek weld, so now you should be able to relax your cheek on the comb of the stock, open your eye and look centrally through the scope. For this to be repeatable, you need to know how you adopt your cheek weld – from the top down or bottom up. The difference will be the amount of facial pressure exerted, and potentially the height of your cheek weld – either way is fine. Try both, see what is most comfortable, and go with that.
I am not going to go into eye dominance except to say that if you don’t know yours, find out. Google a test – it’s simple. I work hard at shooting with both eyes open – it takes practice. I find, especially when doing high shot volume practice or shooting groups, that closing my non-aiming eye ‘crunches up’ the left-hand side of my face and is not conducive to relaxed shooting. Both eyes open is the way forward for precision and repeatability. Try it, practise, see the difference. Remember that when practising or using optics for extended periods, your eyes will fatigue. A handy tip is to take your eye out of the scope and look at something green.
Your body needs oxygen to operate. Depriving it of oxygen, even for a short period of time, causes tension and shake – not a good thing for accuracy and repeatability. The more relaxed you are for the shot, the less your breathing will affect your aim. Breathe through your nose and fire during the natural pause at the end of the exhale.
Some like to pause during the exhale to fire. I like to keep everything natural – it’s more repeatable. I also like to practise with an elevated heart rate and while out of breath – burpees are handy for this! This is useful if you know that you regularly get ‘buck fever’. Acknowledge that your body’s response to stress is heart-rate elevation. Recreate that scenario and practise – don’t just ignore it and hope for the best. With practice you will find that your shooting with an elevated heart rate improves. This improvement will give you confidence and this confidence will reduce buck fever. Practise, focus on shot execution, and don’t forget to breathe.
Here the butt sits in the ‘pocket’ of the shoulder with
the non-firing hand supporting the rear bag/butt
Natural alignment means you and your rifle system are not being forced on to the target. If you remove yourself from the equation, is the rifle still on target? If it is then you are naturally aligned. This will help with the shot release, follow-through and the observation of strike.
Loading the bipod is an important component of predictable fall of shot. How much you load the bipod when shooting prone can depend on the rifle and how it behaves on firing. With my current mountain rifle I favour a light forward load on the bipod – just the forward pressure of the weight of my shoulder, really. I have had other rifles that performed best with the minimum amount of forward pressure and some that needed the bipod legs almost dug into the ground – experiment and find something that works for you.
My requirement here is that I can see the strike/fall of shot, and as we discussed earlier, it will be easier to consistently replicate light or no pressure. It’s also important to recognise that different positions in the field can affect your bipod loading. One example that comes to mind is when lying prone on a steep downhill slope – I found that this increased my loading of the bipod and resulted in a higher than normal fall of shot (being cognisant of the ballistic effect of shooting downhill).
Scope parallax is not just to focus your sight picture. Having your scope out of parallax can cause a miss, especially on small targets at longer ranges. Here’s how to check your scope is in parallax:
– Using a target with a one-inch dot at 200 metres, go through your set up procedure.
– Aim at the dot and move your head slightly up/down, without moving the rifle.
– If the crosshairs move off the dot, adjust your parallax. Retest until the crosshair remains on target.
If it suits your hunting style, use a moderator and/or earmuffs when practising – it will improve your shooting. Use alternate positions – kneeling, standing, using sticks, packs and so on. I am a fan of using the bipod, but if need be, I am confident shooting off my elbows at closer ranges. This is sometimes necessary when you get nice and close to the animal, have a close shot and a limited window of opportunity, but your bipod is just that little bit low. There will be a full article on shooting positions and aids in the near future. We have mentioned the benefits of dry fire practice with an unloaded rifle. Be sure when doing this to include what happens after the shot, i.e. reload and prepare for a second shot if necessary. This is important as a second shot may need to be taken in the field. A rapid reload and repositioning of the firing hand can cause firers to adopt a ‘grip of death’ or ‘white knuckle grip’ for the second shot – this will obviously have an effect on the fall of shot. Practise your load, fire, strike observation, reload and second shot, ensuring that all of your hand/body positions are as per the first shot. Using clay or reactive/steel targets can help improve strike observation, and video recording your shot execution using an app such as Hudl Technique can help you take an objective view of your technique.
In summary, the key principle is repeatability. Stress-free positions and holds promote repeatability. Get the basics right, concentrate on the process – be in the moment. Practise the perfect shot. Practise in hunting-like scenarios. Practice breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. As hunters, we have a responsibility to ensure we have the skills to quickly and effectively dispatch the animal we hunt. Know your limits, know your rifle system, and practise, practise, practise.