There are so many skills that go into hunting. But marksmanship is one that can truly make or break a hunt. You can do everything else right, but a missed shot, or worse — a marginal shot — is the kind of mistake that can keep a hunter up at night. In this article I will cover beginner rifle marksmanship. The tips and resources I share have helped me enormously in improving my shooting comfort and accuracy.
I’ll start this piece by talking about the basics of body mechanics. What goes where when holding a rifle? Next I’ll discuss a couple of minor modifications that you may want to do to your rifle to improve shooting form and accuracy. Fear not: these tips are targeted for beginners, so these modifications are fairly simple but extremely effective. In the third section, I share some of my favorite resources for sighting in a rifle and hopefully demonstrate why talking about “minute-of-angle” matters. Finally, I’ll wrap it all together and discuss how to take a good shot. I’ve found some wonderful videos from the National Shooting Sports Foundation that I will sprinkle in where appropriate.
Basic Body Position
Proper body position is the first step toward good rifle marksmanship for beginners and experts alike. The first thing to figure out is whether you should be a “right-handed” or “left-handed” shooter1. Believe it or not, this left-right issue has nothing to do with your handedness and everything to do with your eyes. Just like most people have a dominant hand, most people have a dominant eye. The dominant eye is the one that you want to use to look through your rifle’s sights or scope and be able to align with your target down range, so you’ll want that eye to line up directly behind your gun. If you are right eye dominant, you should hold your rifle on the right side of your body (right-handed gun). If you are left eye dominant, you should hold your rifle on the left side of your body (left-handed gun). I am right eye dominant while Nick is left eye dominant.
Here’s a simple way to test for eye dominance. Cross your palms to create a small triangle opening. Hold your hands up in front of you with arms outstretched, look through the hole with both eyes open, and focus on a small target (a door knob tends to work well for this) at about 10-15 feet from you. Next, keep your hands and body in the exact same position and close only your right eye. Can you still see the door knob? Now close only your left eye. Can you still see the door knob? In all likelihood, one of your eyes stayed focused on the door knob through the hole in your hands while the other did not. The eye that stayed on target is your dominant eye.
If this above strategy doesn’t work or is confusing, here’s an alternative test. I don’t like this one as much, but it’s obviously popular. You only need to watch the first 1:30 of this video to see the eye dominance test:
If you are right eye dominant, you will use your right hand to pull the trigger (“firing hand”) and your left hand to steady the forward part of the gun (“stabilizing hand”). If you are left eye dominant, you will use your left hand to pull the trigger and your right hand to steady the forward part of the gun. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Done properly, your gun should actually make contact with your body in four places. Numbers one and two are your right and left hand. Number three is your “shoulder pocket”, which I will discuss next.
To be honest, the shoulder pocket is a place that eluded me for an embarrassingly long time. I couldn’t seem to figure out exactly where this magical spot was. The purpose of the shoulder pocket is to provide a place for the rifle butt (the end of the stock, or the “back” of the gun) to press against. Because I learned to shoot using a 10/22 rifle (small caliber rimfire) I was able to get away with an imperfect shoulder pocket because the gun didn’t have much kick to it (more formally known as recoil). When I started shooting more powerful rifles with substantially more recoil (25-06, 30-06, .308, etc), I would immediately feel it my shoulder pocket position was poor. It hurt!
For new (or not so new) shooters, I hope to save you the same pain I had to do through before figuring this out. Start at the center of your chest and find your collarbone. Run your fingers out along the collarbone toward your shoulder. Once you’ve identified the entire collarbone ridge, take your hand and place it horizontally just below your collarbone and press inward somewhat firmly. With the tips of your fingers you should be able to feel where your shoulder bones begin. You should also be able to feel a somewhat soft “empty” space just before you get to your shoulder bones. (Hint: you’re not quite at your armpit yet, but close). This is the so-called “shoulder pocket”. The butt of your rifle should rest here in this fleshy, muscled area and not touch any hard, bony parts of your body. The top of the stock should sit just below your collarbone and the side of the stock should sit just to the inside of your shoulder bones. The primary error I was making was that I was letting the stock touch my collarbone; I was holding the gun too high.
So we have your two hands and your shoulder pocket. But I promised there are four places where the gun should touch your body. The last one is actually your cheek. “Cheek weld” refers to the firm contact that your cheek should make with the top of your stock. When adjusted properly, good cheek weld should allow your dominant eye to comfortably look straight into your scope or sights. It also has the benefit of serving as an additional “anchor point”, a term I borrow from archery. In archery, an anchor point refers to a place on the body that the hand or string will touch with the bow is fully drawn and ready to shoot. This point serves as a cue to the shooter that they are set in a proper position and allows them to reproduce that position with every shot. I use a couple anchor points in my archery shooting. I always bring my index finger knuckle to a bony area just behind my ear and I always make sure the string lightly touches my nose at full draw. Anchor points are critical for accuracy and consistency.
When it occurred to me that rifle marksmanship should operate on the same principles it was a major Ah-ha! moment. The place where the cheek rests on the stock is an anchor point for rifle shooters. If you have ever struggled and had to move your head around to try to get a full, clear image through your scope, you likely have a cheek weld problem. And if you’re anything like me, correcting this problem will result in an immediate improvement in shooting. In my own trial-and-error process, I discovered that I would actually need to modify my stock in order to achieve proper cheek weld (I will discuss this in much greater detail below).
Position Options for the Field
These four ingredients can come together to produce a variety of shooting forms. The goal is to choose a position that is 1) practical for the field, 2) comfortable for you to be in, and 3) very stable. A wobbly person makes for a wobbly gun, which makes for inaccurate shooting. The video below focuses on body positions that may be useful for hunting. Absolutely worth viewing all the way through.
The body position that I started out using is actually a modification not shown in the video. I tried sitting with my feet flat on the ground and my knees pointing up (see the photo at the top of this article for demonstration). I rest one arm on each knee for stability. But I found that this position still has substantial limitations. Especially with my heavier, longer gun I found it difficult to keep my crosshairs from wavering off the bullseye. Certainly the prone position would be much more stable, but I’m not confident that I will always have the time and the right terrain to get into a proper prone position while hunting. Even small rocks, bushes, or other terrain features can get in the way of a clear prone shot. As a hunter, you’re never sure what sort of shooting situation you will find yourself in, so you need to be prepared to be flexible.
My solution for the time being is to incorporate a lightweight bipod attachment to my rifle set up. After much research, I decided to order a Snipepod V2 from Kramer Designs Corp at a height appropriate for seated and kneeling shooting. I will report back on my experience with this bipod after adequate field testing. Check back for updates!
Adjusting the Rifle to Fit You
There are many, many rifle modifications one can undertake to optimize shooting performance. That being said, I think there are only a small handful that are critically useful and applicable to the average hunter. I will focus on the the best three modifications a beginner hunter can do to improve their rifle marksmanship.
The first thing I’ll suggest is not so much an adjustment as it is an addition. Optics. A moderately good rifle scope will do wonders for you. It would be extremely difficult to make a clean kill on a jackrabbit at 100 yards without a good magnification of that rabbit to zero in on.
But you can’t just buy a scope and slap it on top of your rifle and expect to be a great shooter. You could purchase the best scope in the world and have it professionally mounted and it will still serve you poorly if it’s not adjusted to fit you. As Ryan Cleckner says in the video below, not adjusting your scope to fit you would be like “buying a top of the line sports car and then never adjusting the mirrors or the seats from their factory positions”.
There are a few things you will have to consider adjusting on your scope. One is the focus. Everyone’s vision is a little bit different and you may be able to set the general focus on the scope to compensate for your eyesight. Another is height. Typically you want you scope to lay as tight to the gun as possible. The last primary scope adjustment is related to how far forward or back the scope is on the gun. Eye relief is an inherent quality in all optics that refers to the distance you eye can be from the lens to see a full, clear image. If you position your eye outside of the acceptable eye relief range, the image through the scope will be cut off. Minimum 3 inches of eye relief seems to be the magic number from what I’ve read.
The take home message is that you always want to adjust the scope to the position that works with your body. You do not want to force your body into a less-than-ideal position to fit the equipment you are working with. So if you have adjusted your scope to be as ideal as possible but you still can’t see through it without tensing or straining your neck, you will need to modify your cheek weld. The video below explains all of this far better than I can, so please watch it. Not to be hyperbolic here, but this video rocked my rifle marksmanship world, and the changes I have made because of it have benefited me greatly.
The Cheek Rest
As you can see, the stock of the rifle in the video is built up with some padding to elevate the shooter’s head a bit. When I started diagnosing my own cheek weld problems, I quickly realized that with such a petite face I would need more than just a little padding. I wanted something more stable and more permanent that would provide a significant boost in height. I ended up choosing a hard mounted kydex cheek rest from Matthew’s Fabrication. It does require drilling holes in the stock, but given that I plan to have my guns for my lifetime as a hunter, I didn’t mind. I installed one on my Ruger 10/22 (small game rifle) and the other on my Tikka 25-06 (deer and other big game rifle) and I love them so far. For those wishing to avoid any permanent stock modifications, I’ve heard great things about the Bradley adjustable cheek rest, but be forewarned — they are quite pricey. To maximize the role of my cheek rest as an anchor point I am considering sticking some felt or other fabric to the rest on exactly the spot where my cheek makes contact. That way I’ll have additional tactile confirmation that I’m in the right spot time and time again.
To sum up, for beginning hunters, obtaining a decent scope, adjusting that scope properly, and creating good cheek weld is not too technically challenging and absolutely worth the investment.
Sighting In a Rifle
“Sighting in” refers to the process of making sure that your scope accurately reflects where your bullet is going to hit at different target distances. First you need to make sure your scope and bullet trajectory are generally aligned. Then, you need to learn how to adjust for target distance.
Before you can sight in, you need to make sure your shooting technique is in good shape. If you sight in with bad form and then change your form later, you may need to sight in all over again. It is also much more efficient to focus being consistent before you focus on accuracy. By this I mean first practice aiming at the bullseye on your target and shooting a number of rounds one right after the other, keeping your form as consistent as possible. Then check your target. Don’t pay attention to how close your shots are to the bullseye — pay attention instead to how close your shots are to each other. Only after you are able to be sufficiently consistent with your shots, should you move onto scope accuracy adjustments. If you try to adjust accuracy before you are consistent, you’ll go adjusting all over the place based upon inconsistent shots.
How can you practice shooting consistently? First, nail down your basic form as I highlighted above. Get in a stable position and set up your stock so that you have cheek weld that is comfortable and allows you to see through the scope clearly without effort. If you have access to a shooting range with tables to rest your gun on, I highly recommend using these for the sighting in process. The last key ingredient that I haven’t mentioned yet is trigger control.
What most people recommend is to use the pad of your index finger press the trigger slowly, with constant, even force, the entire way from beginning to end. You don’t want to jerk the trigger, press it quickly, or smack it hard with your finger. Aim for smooth, even, and calm. This sounds easy but can actually be fairly tricky. The trigger pull is a big moment — you are expecting the bang at any second. And it’s not uncommon for new (and not new) shooters to be a little bit afraid of the recoil they might face when the gun fires. This anticipation and resulting flinch can do a lot to ruin that “smooth, even, calm” technique.
I think the best thing to do to practice and ingrain proper trigger control is dry firing. Dry firing means pulling the trigger and letting the firing pin in the gun drop without live ammunition in the gun. The mechanisms of the gun will function, but no bullet will be released. There will be no loud noise and no recoil. Serious shooters will often spend a lot of time dry firing for practice. For some guns, particularly rimfire weapons, dry firing can cause serious damage to the gun. If you are not sure, do your research on your specific firearm! You may also want to purchase snap caps or other “dummy ammunition” that is built for exactly this type of practice. I highly recommend you learn about the best way to practice pulling your trigger without using live ammo. Beginner rifle marksmanship can feel overwhelming, but I urge you: prevent bad trigger habits before they start!
When you’ve addressed all of these components of shooting form, you are ready to sight via scope adjustment. There are two videos that I recommend watching on this topic. Both are very clear and very helpful. (Can you tell I’m a huge of Ryan Cleckner’s videos?) The first explains minutes of angle (MOA), a unit of measure you need to know about. It may seem overly academic, but I’ve never come across a clearer explanation in all my searching. The second video walks you through the process of sighting in your rifle to “zero it”. “Zeroing” refers to matching your point of aim (the crosshairs on your scope) with your point of impact (where the bullet hits) at a certain distance of your choosing.
You can do it!
As a new hunter-to-be, marksmanship can feel overwhelming. There’s a lot of terminology and a lot of variables to consider. I’ve tried to distill down what I think are the essentials to get started with. This means holding the rifle properly and resting it in the right places on your body. It means making some relatively minor (but hugely influential) adjustments to your gun so that it fits your anatomy. Don’t modify or strain your position to work with the rifle — modify the rifle and scope to work with you. It means practicing good form and smooth, even, calm trigger pressing. And finally, it means pulling this all together to sight in your rifle to make sure you shoot on target consistently.
Is there something that I mentioned in this article that was unclear or that you’d like to know more about? Some other aspect of beginner rifle marksmanship that you think I should have mentioned? As always, you can let us know in the comments or via the contact page. I’m already planning to follow this article up with the next step in accurate shooting: intermediate rifle marksmanship skills. Happy shooting!
I have no affiliation with any of the products mentioned in this post. All items that I own were paid for by me.
- We haven’t written an article on purchasing your first rifle yet, so it’s worth mentioning here that this right vs. left issue is one that is critical to know before you obtain a gun. Just like a right handed vs. left handed guitar, a right handed and left handed rifle will be set up differently. You want to make sure you buy the right one for you. ↩