By Silas Ostaff, Master Trainer and Chief Instructor for 10th SFG (A)’s Sniper Training Program
In my mind, all rifle shooting is based on the four rifle marksmanship fundamentals. No matter how new, fancy or complex the technique or position is, all four fundamentals have to be executed to get a shot off. Additionally, they are perennial. They don’t just apply to the new shooter, but also the expert. The expert must apply them as well, and is likely labeled an expert because of his or her ability to execute the fundamentals in complex positions and scenarios. The knowledge of the fundamentals can be learned and retained, but the body’s ability to apply them when the mind wills it is perishable. Understanding the fundamentals allows a shooter to self-diagnose and teach him or herself. Lets deep-dive the fundamentals so we understand the point of the following drills.
The fundamental of position is the body’s ability to support the rifle in the eyeballs aim. The most important aspect of position is Natural Point of Aim. (NPOA)
1. Natural Point of Aim is the method of building a position that supports the rifle on target. If the shooter must push or pull with a hand, arm, back muscle, or hip flexor to aim the rifle on target he or she is not supporting the weapon in a natural point of aiming. When the shooter is in position, if he or she cannot relax, close their eyes, exhale, relax and then open their eyes and still have the rifle on target, then he or she does not have a natural point of aim supported on to the target.
2. Bone support, not muscular support. Whenever possible a position should be supported with the skeletal system and not with a muscle; this would be contradictory to NPOA using a muscle to support the weapon on target. An example of this is resting the support hand elbow on the shooters knee during the kneeling position.
3. Cheek to stock weld. The proper way to establish cheek-to-stock weld is to apply the chin to the stock’s comb and then slide the vertical face down the comb bunching up facial skin and forming a pad of skin between the cheek bone and comb. In most positions the head and face should be vertical, not canted or laid over onto the stock. The cheek to stock weld placement anchors eye relief. Adjusting LOP on a precision rifle is not so much a function of the literal interpretation of length of pull, as in the length that your arm, hand, and finger pull the trigger from the shoulder like with a shotgun, but actually a function of your eye-relief as dictated by your particular scope and the length between the recoil pad a comb vs. the length between your shoulder, along your neck to your cheek bone.
4. Support and shooting hand grip. The support hand’s purpose is varying and subject to the individual position. When prone and using a rear-bag it is gripping the rear bag -+for tension/ squeeze and controlling elevation cant of the muzzle and sights. NOTE: Not pushing or pulling left or right on the bag to shift the reticle on target horizontally. This would be violating NPOA. The classic shooting hand grip is applying the middle pads of the middle two fingers directly on the front of the grip and pulling straight back. Classically, do not apply the thumb or pinkie-finger as they are subject to sympathetic movement initiated by the trigger finger.
5. When mounting the recoil pad of a rifles stock, the pad should be placed in the “hollow” created by the space in between the shoulder muscle and the pectoral muscle.
Further deep-diving of the fundamental of position can occur in the description of individual shooting positions.
1. Sight Alignment – Sight alignment is based on the relationship of the rear sight and the front sight. Aligning the two to a meaningful zero point of elevation and windage is the primary method of aiming a rifle. Amateurs assume this does not apply to scoped rifles but a sight radius still occurs when the eye is sighting through a long telescopic tube. Errors in sighting at an angle through the tube instead of a centered through the tube constitute as sight alignment errors.
2. Sight Picture – Sight picture is based on the relationship between the sights and the target. Apply aligned sights on the image of a target is applying an aim on a particular part of the target. It is not always the center of the target. The use of “holds” on a target are the use of differing sight pictures to account for environmental and ballistic factors. Wind, decrease in the bullets speed during the constant gravitational pull (drop), etc.
3. Head Position – This aspect spans the gap between the fundamental “Position” and “Aiming”. This refers to the way the eyeball is positioned to view the sights. The head should be positioned mostly vertical to allow the shooter to center the eyeball within their ocular socket. When the head is canted left, right, forward at a tilt, etc. the eye’s muscles strain to focus. When the eyebrow is seen in the shooters peripheral vision he or she is looking out of the top of their ocular socket and likely that position can only be held for a short amount of time until the shooter and their eye are fatigued. Additionally, when eye protection is worn the angles of cant cause the shooter to not look thru the thinnest part of the lens but angularly through the relatively flat lens and thus causing refraction-al and distorted images.
4. Eye-Relief – Most magnified optics designed to aim rifles require a specific point of distance from the rear ocular lens for the eyeball to be in order to see the best, fullest, brightest image created by the optic. There is a little wiggle room forward, back, left, and right and this is referred to as the “eyebox”. This is all dependent of the design of the optic. The shooter must locate his or her eye ball within the truest center of that eyebox to achieve the clearest and best possible image the optic can create for the shooter. Compromises in head position and the eyebox can allow parallax, poor light transmission, and refraction to degrade a shooters ability to align the sights within a true sight picture on the target. It is common for experienced shooters to “box out” their head position to determine by process of elimination where the center of their eyebox is and achieve the best head position and thus eye-relief when first building a position.
Sight alignment is the most important aspect of aiming. An error in alignment causes a compounding angle of error at distance while an error in sight picture causes whatever amount of pictured error to exist.
Shooters must breathe, pure and simple. Movement caused by breathing however can cause positional and aiming errors, thus the shooter should not breathe while breaking the trigger. It does not really matter if the shooter holds their breath on the inhale, exhale, or halfway in between. The key point is that the average human body usually contains about a 5 to 6 second natural respiratory pause before the body depletes the oxygen in their blood stream. Once oxygen is depleted the heart starts racing, vision becomes blurry, and muscle weaken. The shooter must simply break their shot within the natural respiratory pause. If the shooter has not pulled the trigger within the pause he or she must stop, breathe, and begin aligning the fundamentals all over again. Forcing the shot is common when the shooter has consumed their natural pause and is rushed to squeeze the trigger. These are one off the biggest causes for misses.
1. There are a few different theories on finger placement on the trigger and they usually vary by weapon type and design. Many pistols and semi-auto rifles have long, heavy trigger pulls so many shooters wrap their finger deep in the trigger well, around the trigger. For the modern precision rifle most apply the meatiest portion of the first pad of the finger flat on the triggers blade. The idea is to pull as straight back as possible. Lighter triggers with little to no travel or overtravel reduce the impact of a potentially sideways or off angle pull because they tend to break before much off-axis force is applied to the rifle through the finger.
2. As a shooter develops he or she tend to create a sequence in which they execute each fundamental in the process of firing each individual shot. Most begin with Position, establishing a NPOA, blending this into head position and applying alignment and picture near simultaneously continually rechecking alignment. The trigger finger placement occurs right after sight picture is established. It is common for the shooter to check and recheck NPOA and Sight Alignment throughout this time. The shooter begins to manage his or her breathing, looking for the timing of a natural respiratory pause and the break of the trigger once NPOA and sight alignment have been verified and allow for a steady sight picture to be applied. The last aspect of trigger squeeze, interrupted trigger squeeze, enables the sequencing of the most important aspects of the precision rifle shooting fundamentals. It should never be a surprise when the rifle fires. The shooter should be familiar enough with their instrument to know exactly when the rifle will fire based on the feel of the trigger squeeze. The shooter begins to squeeze the trigger once the large, coarse fundamentals like position building, and aiming have occurred and stages the take-up to time the coincidence of precise sight picture and natural respiratory pause in an interrupted squeeze.
3. Follow-through. Once the shot breaks the shooter stays in position, holding the trigger to the rear, allowing recoil to push back on them and continues to look through the sights to spot impact, target reaction, or allow for a swing-thru on a mover to be consistent.
Knowing and understanding the fundamentals is a start, but learning to sequence them is the art of applying them in the act of firing a round. Through informed and deliberate repetition, a shooter will develop a repeatable sequence. This is necessary to establish consistency which we all know is the key to precision. The next step is “ritualizing” the sequence into muscle memory or habit to allow the shooter to focus his or her cognitive thought on firing solutions to environmental effects.
Silas Ostaff is an active duty Special Forces Soldier who has served as an Instructor at Ft. Bragg’s SOTIC (Special Forces Sniper Course), Sniper Cell Leader, Sniper Team Sergeant, and most recently the Master Trainer and Chief Instructor for 10th SFG (A)’s sniper training program. The above description of the Four Rifle Marksmanship Fundamentals is his interpretation of the same 4 fundamentals that have been used to teach rifle marksmanship since at least World War II both in the US Armed Forces and in civilian marksmanship programs, youth, Olympic, and national-level shooting teams. These four fundamentals are open-source and common knowledge among Instructors in the shooting community and do not violate operational security measures. Further it is not proprietary information and should be a beginning primer for all precision rifle shooters.