The 5 Key Fundamentals to Shooting a Rifle

By Troy Hoepker

If it is your first time firing a rifle or your one-millionth, good rifle marksmanship is accomplished only through having a good foundation of the basic fundamentals. Even an experienced shooter will never improve if he or she changes a fundamental each and every time they pull the trigger much in the same way a major league pitcher must repeat the same mechanic of his body’s motion to achieve consistent results of hitting the strike zone. It’s the repetition of the foundation that achieves consistent results regardless of the position of fire or the scenario. The proper positioning of the rifle, body, eye position and sights can be maintained shot after shot by muscle memory but can fail you when you need it most if that muscle memory is not practiced. Furthermore, understanding these fundamentals can help you diagnose a problem with yourself or a fellow shooter if you know the drills and how to properly execute them. Let’s examine the 5 key fundamentals to rifle shooting.

Steady Position and Stability of Hold
Correctly using Natural Point of Aim (NPOA) is building a position that supports the rifle on target in the eyeball’s aim. Once a position is established, if the shooter cannot close their eyes, relax, exhale and then open their eyes and still be on target, then the shooter does not have a natural point of aim supported onto the target. If you feel yourself pulling a back muscle, pushing or pulling with an arm, or turning your head uncomfortably to stay on target you are not achieving NPOA. Any shooting position should be supported with the skeletal system, not the muscular system. Bone support, not muscular support. If you can hold the front sight post steady all the way through the aiming process and the fall of the hammer, then proper bone support or ground support was achieved. We want our muscles to be relaxed when shooting a rifle. A tense muscle will always create excess movement even if that movement is ever so slight. To minimize movement of the sight picture, muscles have to be relaxed thus depending entirely on bone support.

When shooting from a prone position (laying flat, chest to the ground) or shooting with the help of a bipod, steady support is critical. Thinking about it, if you shoot standing on one leg you will not have much support. Put both feet on the ground and your support improves greatly. Now add both feet of a bipod and you have doubled the amount of support the ground gives you making your NPOA easier to achieve. Lay prone and shoot and you’ve taken as many variables as you can out of the equation for a miss when considering the fundamental of position stability. In short, the most stable thing in the world is the ground. The further the shot is, the more steady you must be to maintain stability of hold on target.

The rifle butt must sit tightly in the pocket of the shoulder. Besides helping to absorb recoil, mounting the weapon to fire directly correlates with cheek weld, eye relief, and natural point of aim and it all starts with making sure your rifle is stabilized tightly in the shoulder. To achieve a proper cheek weld to the stock of the rifle, the shooters cheekbone should rest on the stock and remain firm and consistent from shot to shot. A clear sight picture either through the scope or iron sights should immediately be attained the instant the cheek welds to the proper position on the stock. The head should remain as upright and erect as possible to keep the eye position straight through the sights. Your neck should remain relaxed as your cheek rests on the stock.

In the prone position, you’re legs should be spread apart, with your support-side leg stretched out behind you in a straight line with the gun and your body. This allows the mass of your body to absorb the recoil of the rifle. Your feet need to be rolled so that the toes on each foot are pointing outwardly away from each other, not inward. This increases your stability of hold and makes you more steady throughout your entire body. Your support-hand elbow will be in contact with the ground if you are not using shooting bags or a bipod. When using a bipod or bags, you can place the non-shooting hand on the heel of the grip of the rifle or your firing hand forearm to help give stability.

From the sitting position, you have three options: the crossed-ankle position, the crossed-leg position and the open-leg position. In a crossed-ankle position your legs will be extended in front of you with your support side ankle crossed overtop of your firing side ankle. (a right-handed shooter’s left ankle will be overtop of their right ankle.) Bend forward at the waist and place your left elbow on your left leg below the knee not on top of it, for a right-handed shooter. Lower your right elbow to the inside of your right knee. The cross-leg position, also known as sitting “Indian style” is similar. Your non-shooting leg is overtop of your firing side leg. After bending at the waist the support side elbow can either rest just over the bend of the knee or you can place it in the fold of the knee joint if flexibility is an issue. The firing side elbow rests in the fold of your other knee.

The open-leg position requires both legs be bent upward at the knee with your support elbow draped over the knee joint and the firing side elbow resting inside the knee joint of your firing side knee. Some use of muscle may be required to hold this position. When kneeling and firing your firing side ankle must be under your butt and your toes curled making contact with the ground. Your butt must rest firmly on top of your heel. The shin of your support side leg should be straight, foot flat on the ground, since it will support most of your weight. Your support side elbow should rest beyond the bent knee so that the elbow cannot roll on top of the kneecap or bone. Relax your weight forward and bend your firing elbow forward to provide the least muscle tension that you can achieve.

From a standing position it’s foremost important to give yourself a solid base by having your legs a comfortable shoulder-width apart while your support side leg is slightly in front of your other leg. Distribute your weight evenly while leaning slightly forward on slightly bent knees. Bring your rifle to your eye without lowering your head to it. Get your support hand and elbow under the rifle in a way that offers the most amount of bone support while the firing elbow assumes a position that is most comfortable and natural.

Sight alignment is based on aligning the rear sight and the front sight to a meaningful zero point of elevation and windage. You must achieve this even with a scoped rifle, as there is a slight radius that occurs when the eye is sighting through a long telescopic tube. A sight alignment error grows greater proportionately as the distance to the target increases. Good eye alignment starts with an erect head and a good cheek-weld to the stock insuring the proper distance of the eye from the sight or optic, also known as eye-relief. Consistent sight alignment comes from proper practice of shouldering the rifle allowing all three of these fundamentals to be achieved. With improper eye-relief you may see a shadow in part of the scope’s reticle or have poor light reflection or allow parallax. There is often a little wiggle room to find the best distance from eye to scope to find the fullest and brightest image created by the optic and the scope must be mounted in the correct place so that your head can comfortably attain the proper amount of eye-relief. Even with iron sights eye-relief is important.
The shooters eye should focus on the tip of the front sight after lining it up both horizontally and vertically with the rear sight. Our human eye has the ability on its own to naturally center objects in a circle or between two points and seek the point of greatest light. Shoulder your rifle, find the target with the front sight, settle and center the front sight into the rear sight and pull the trigger while maintaining focus on the front sight.

Breathing Control
Natural breathing causes errors to occur in stability of positioning, aiming and eye alignment of the sights. Most of us breathing under a normal heart rate in normal relaxed conditions experience a natural respiratory pause that lasts anywhere from 2-5 seconds depending on the individual before we inhale again to resupply oxygen to our blood stream. This is the period of time after our inhale and completion of our exhale. This natural respiratory pause is the moment to pull the trigger. It is the moment in time when our body is most relaxed and motionless and your sights will settle on their natural point of aim. This is especially important when firing at long-range targets. At times, the shot has to be more rushed however. In those moments we must inhale as we present the gun to the firing position and then exhale halfway out, hold our breath as we sight up the target and fire. This allows the chest and torso to remain still while controlled muscle tension is easier to apply to support the firearm.

Trying to hold your breath too long results in starvation of oxygen to your muscles, which in turn, causes your limbs to move uncontrollably or fatigue and a more irregular heartbeat. Try not to force it to happen. If you have time and have completed the natural respiratory pause before firing, begin the process all over again to ensure a good shot is made.

Trigger Control
If you can pull the trigger without disturbing sight alignment or sight picture then you have successfully manipulated the trigger for the shot. If you can do it repeatedly, then you have mastered trigger control. Like anything else, repetition plays an important role. Marines have used the drill of balancing a dime on a cleaning rod stuck down the barrel while dry-firing the firearm. If the dime falls off, the sight alignment changed at the moment of trigger-break or during trigger creep. The objective of any trigger pull is to remain smooth and steady through the trigger without sideways pulling or pushing on the trigger causing the point of impact on your target to be altered. You want to pull the trigger straight to the rear, not sideways in any way.

A lot has been written with various schools of thought on trigger control and where your finger should touch the trigger. Regardless of all of the opinions out there, your grip should be firm and your finger should touch the trigger naturally. However natural the feel, it is a requirement that you can pull the trigger straight backwards without side-to-side movement. If you see any wobble in your crosshairs or in your front sight as you begin the firing process, pressure on the trigger should remain constant until you are back on target, at which time you resume the rest of the trigger pull.

Follow Through
There’s a sensation to want to pull your head off the rifle and see if you hit what you were aiming at after you shoot. Some new shooters take their head away from the rifle so fast to see if the animal they were shooting at is down that they hardly got the shot away with their eye still looking through the sites when they pulled the trigger. After that recoil is absorbed and the smoke settles you should still be looking through the scope or down the sights at the target the same way you were right before you squeezed the shot off. Stay disciplined and follow through the shot every time for accuracy!

The Final Result
If you can learn to sequence these fundamentals when you fire a round eventually turning them into muscle memory, you can consistently repeat precision shooting!