The following information on off-hand, prone, and sitting positions for rifle shooting comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
The man who is anxious to do regular skilful work on game should know something of all branches of rifle shooting. It is desirable that he be able to fire accurately; from any position commonly used by a hunter, standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone. The technicalities of military shooting, such as proficiency in judging light, windage, elevation, drift, atmosphere, and humidity, will prove a beneficial knowledge. Skill in wing and snap work, too, will lead to the bagging of many a bounding deer that would otherwise escape. Two things, however, are imperative if the sportsman would be successful in killing big game, or prove a dangerous antagonist in war—a thorough foundation in off-hand firing and much practice in judging distances and conditions in shooting over unknown ranges.
Positions in Off-Hand Rifle Firing
In off-hand there are several styles of holding a rifle, only one of which is really valuable to the hunter. We have off-hand with arm extended, off-hand with body rest, and off-hand with hip rest. It is well known that a target rifle shot may be a very indifferent performer on game, and while there are other reasons for this, one of the best ones is that he adopts a position that cannot be used in hunting.
Off-hand, extended arm, the common manner of holding a shotgun, is the only style in which the rifleman should train himself if his practice is to avail him in the woods and mountains. The body rest might be termed the military off-hand, many soldiers and guardsmen using it on the range. The method of aiming in the body rest is to bring the left arm in until it rests against the inflated chest, hand just in front of the guard, or the latter may be resting in the palm. In the hip-rest, the marksman takes a position that will throw out the hip upon which he rests his elbow, supporting his weapon, preferably on the tips of his fingers and thumb. The Schuetzen style of holding a rifle by means of a palm-rest is also off-hand, but Schuetzen methods are of no more use in the game field than a machine rest.
The soldier or the hunter frequently needs to place his bullet quickly, if at all; many times he must catch his quarry on the run, or it may be in view but a second or two, whereupon he must instantly throw his sights upon it and fire. Under the circumstances, posing for the body rest, or contorting for the hip-rest would be absurd.
The Schuetzen man is perfectly justified in using his position, for as a rule he makes no pretense of being a game shot, neither is he trying to develop the sort of skill available in war or sport. Nor can we blame the soldier for preferring the body rest; his officers are demanding sharpshooting results, and he must take advantage of any style of holding permitted under the rules. But when it comes to stopping a fleeing deer or a charging bear, in the words of Perlmutter, “that is something else yet,” and he must shove his sights right on to the mark and let go the instant the bead covers.
Hand-holds, hip rests, hair triggers, telescope sights, heavy barrels, and miniature charges, are none of them calculated to graduate the man who must handle rapidly a light hunting rifle with a trigger pull of from three to six pounds and a kick that is sometimes hair raising. To be sure, any variety of rifle practice is better than none, but ultimately the student must be trained to the tools adapted to the work. From the foregoing it is to be taken for granted that the game shot will use the extended arm only, sticking to it persistently until he secures results.
Knee-Rest Shooting Position
Very often the sportsman will need to shoot from the knee. There are times when he must crawl upon his quarry in making a stalk, and he dare not rise to his feet under penalty of being seen and losing his opportunity. Moreover, the knee rest is a trifle more reliable than off-hand, quicker to learn, and steadier in a wind. In the knee rest there is plenty of give to the body and recoil is less felt than in any other position except off-hand. Where the marksman pulls deliberately or has a hard trigger it has its advantages, too, since the mark can be kept covered for a greater length of time.
The knee rest is so familiar to everybody, either from using it or seeing it used that it seems hardly worth while to describe the position. However, it means simply dropping upon the right knee and resting the elbow upon the left; the fore-end will be gripped just in front of the guard or the latter will rest in the palm. The position can be varied to some extent, and the individual will soon learn what is the easiest and steadiest for him.
Sitting Shooting Position
This position is used a great deal by Englishmen in target shooting with sporting rifles at one hundred yards. It is considerably more reliable than the foregoing and a great deal less practicable in the hunting field. Generally it requires so much time for the hunter to fix himself in the sitting posture that he dare not attempt it.
Some men prefer to sit down, feet placed together, knees slightly spread and an elbow on either knee, rifle pointed nearly directly to the front; others cross the legs, tailor fashion, the thighs resting securely against the sides of the feet, only the left elbow on knee, and gun swung to the left as in off-hand. The last position is the steadier and nearly as good work can be accomplished with it as in the prone.
While military authorities require that all gun firing must be done free of artificial support, yet it should be borne in mind that no such restrictions apply to the hunter. He is therefore free to sit with his back resting against a tree, stump, rock, or anything else that will afford a support. Such attitude furthers the most accurate rifle firing possible in hunting. I have used it a great deal when shooting with a high power telescope and found nearly as good scores could be made as with a machine rest. The sportsman will find many opportunities to shoot in this way, as when on a stand waiting for game to approach, or when he has crawled up behind a tree he can slip about to the other side and shoot as steady as a rock. This position is quite a bit more reliable than the prone and much easier to learn.
Prone Shooting Position
The prone position is that of the old-time woodsmen who were partial to resting their long barrels across a fallen tree or anything else that came handy. Some plainsmen and buffalo hunters were once in the habit of carrying a crossed stick which could be forced into the ground, thus affording a muzzle rest. However, soldiers are not allowed a muzzle rest, neither would the ballistics of a high power rifle permit it. The prone is in all respects like aiming across the log, except the barrel must be held free of support.
The finest military scores have been made in the prone, and it is the accepted position from five hundred yards up. The man who can aim and pull trigger will quickly learn to shoot in the prone and do finer work than would be possible for him in the off-hand or knee rest.
Soldiers who find it highly desirable to keep under cover will always shoot a great deal from the prone, and the hunter who is forced to crawl over bare ground in approaching game will be under the same necessity. It follows that a certain amount of practice in this position is essential to the hunter.
Practicing in the Different Shooting Positions
Rifle shooting in its final analysis is after all a very simple thing. The marksman has but to align a couple of sights with the target, hold his piece still, and pull the trigger, all very simple—apparently. However, when the novice comes to try it he discovers that he cannot stand still, or sit still, or lie still, if you place him on his back. Even with the muscles under perfect control, the heart action is disturbing, but no man that ever lived has his muscles under perfect control without continued and severe training. Not one man in ten thousand can stand still when he tries. It follows then that the first thing to be learned is to stand motionless, or sit motionless, or lie motionless, as the case may be.
Much of the preliminary training in rifle firing can be taught with an empty gun—both practice in holding and practice in trigger pulling. In the nature of things holding and trigger pulling go hand in hand, the one being useless without the other. Trigger pulling implies both nerve control, and nerve education. We will treat that subject more at length presently.
It is enough here to say that a child can pull the trigger of a gun, even when he doesn’t mean to, and so can a man. But forcing the nerves of one finger to act at the exact psychological moment, not a hundredth of a second sooner or later, while every other nerve in the body remains quiescent is quite another story. The man who can do it is a rifle shot whether he can hold or not. On the other hand the fellow that can hold like a machine rest will give a good account of himself, no matter whether or not he is adept with the trigger. The marksman who combines good holding with perfect trigger pulling is a Doctor Hudson, a rare individual.
Our British cousins have proved on occasions that a green man can learn rifle shooting faster with an empty gun than when at once started in with a full charge military rifle. By way of proving to the student the value of his aiming and pulling they have invented a sub-target practice rod, a steel rod the length of the barrel, actuated by a coil spring which is released by the pull of the trigger. A target is hung up a few inches in front of the muzzle, and on pulling the point of the rod is driven into it, thus demonstrating the accuracy of the aim.
Whatever utility the sub-target rod may have, our Briton seems generally to prefer an air rifle. In air rifles there is little doubt that England leads this country or any other. Air rifle barrels are attached to the army gun, thus giving the novice the same weight, sights, and trigger pull as though he were using the service rifle. The air rifle missiles are very accurate; ten shots have been placed in a half inch circle at twenty-five yards, with power enough to drive the bullet through three-fourths inches of pine. Beyond question good practice can be had with an air gun at distances of from seven to twenty-five yards, and ammunition is cheap, fifteen cents a thousand rounds.
In this country the .22 short takes the place of the sub-target rod and the air rifle. The ammunition is more accurate, and while it costs more, yet the man who can find time to practice will rarely consider the small cost of cartridges a matter of moment. The student with military tendencies can procure a .22 musket—an army gun in all but caliber, in this way becoming perfectly familiar with the service arm. However, for general purposes the .22 single-shot or pump-action rifle will be found all sufficient.
Indoors or out, whichever may be most convenient, at distances from ten yards up the beginner should now practice at every opportunity. If his work is to be of practical benefit his off-hand firing should be with extended arm only. No desire to put up finer scores must be allowed to tempt him into trying the use of any form of hip or body rest.
When our novice tires of one position it would be well to change to another, trying the knee-rest, sitting, or prone. He will quickly discover that it is easier to put up good scores sitting or prone than kneeling or standing, and this alone should govern the bulk of his practice—the value of the work comes from accomplishing what is difficult rather than the thing that is easy.
After settling upon the best and easiest attitude, standing, kneeling, or sitting, take that position with mechanical regularity, never varying it a particle. The whole effort now is to acquire mechanical skill as indicated by trained muscles and nerves. It is not wise at this stage to attempt quick firing; the training that comes from deliberate holding is now a far better schooling.
It will shortly become evident that the knee-rest is only less difficult than the off-hand; a less number of muscles are put under strain, but these are cramped into unaccustomed positions and are certain to show the effect of it. Don’t be in a hurry to finish with this preliminary practice; it is the foundation of rifle shooting skill and might well be kept up more or less persistently throughout the rifleman’s life.
The object should be to make uniformly good scores rather than a few center shots and the remainder about over the target; ten shots in the bull at twenty-five yards are better than eight in a half inch and two gone wild. The regulation bull’seye at twenty-five yards is one inch in diameter. Ordinary skill would place eight out of ten shots in this when firing off-hand, as many from the knee, and ten straight either sitting or prone should not be especially difficult.
When this degree of proficiency has been reached the rifleman is ready for promotion to the outdoor brigade, ready to take up the match rifle on the range or to shoot in the woods and fields, judging distance and studying trajectories. The succeeding chapter will take up this branch of rifle firing.