There are numerous shooting aids on the market today from monopods to tripods to sandbags and complete gun cradles designed to be packed into the blind.
Some products are gimmicks, and some are a boon to shooters, but none replace the fine art of learning the fundamentals of field position shooting from the standard four positions.
The four basic “NRA” or “competition” rifle shooting positions are prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing (also called “offhand”). These are in order of steadiness; generally speaking, the closer you can get to the ground, the steadier you are.
An awful lot of years have passed since I used these positions in either competition or military qualification, and of course, many of us have never used them in either.
On the other hand, I have used all of these positions in the field.
As we’ll see, absent competitive rules or screaming drill instructors, all of these positions can be endlessly modified for field use, but I genuinely believe all rifle hunters should be familiar with these basic shooting positions…and should practice until they become second nature!
Prone is simply lying down behind the rifle. I will invariably use a hasty sling, but the basics are easy. Both elbows should be solidly grounded, with the supporting elbow directly under the rifle. The rest of it depends on what works for you.
The classic prone has the body at an angle (left for righties, right for lefties). The more modern prone has the body more directly behind the rifle with your strong side leg slightly bent.
At the range (or in your backyard with an absolutely safe weapon) start from a standing position and pick out your target. Wrap your arm into the hasty sling and drop down into prone, sighting at the target. Close your eyes.
When you open them you should still be aiming at the target. If you aren’t, then your position is off.
A good coach would walk down the line and firmly kick each muzzle. If the shooter’s sight picture returns after the kick, then body alignment is good. If not, adjustment is needed.
Prone With Pack or Bipod
The good old NRA prone is great…but if you start with a good, solid body position and then support the fore-end on a pack, bipod, or whatever else, then you can achieve very near to benchrest stability.
Two comments. First, when I’m prone but the fore-end is rested steadily, I actually revert to benchrest technique with my supporting hand. Instead of keeping my hand on the fore-end, I use it to snug the butt into my shoulder. This may not work for you, but it’s worth trying.
Second, make certain the rifle is never rested directly on a solid object. A boulder or log is great, but unlike a pack, if the rest is solid, then put a crushed hat or your hand between the rifle and the rest. This applies to all of the following positions, so I won’t repeat it.
Prone is the steadiest by far and easiest to master…but it will probably be the least-used in the field because, all too often, vegetation gets in the way and obscures the view. So you have to get higher.
A proper sitting position is extremely difficult to master, and to do it right, you have to be fairly limber. The steadiest sitting position is with crossed legs, body about 45 degrees to the target, ankles flat to the ground. As with everything else, sling tension really helps.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Ideally, you bend forward from the waist and rest your elbows over your knees, not on top of them. I freely admit that this is getting a bit more difficult. The alternative, which is faster and easier to assume (especially if you have—horrors—a bit of middle-aged paunch), is with the knees up, feet flat on the ground, legs spread about 45 degrees.
This is not as steady…but you don’t have to be quite as much of a contortionist!
Done properly, the sights are in perfect alignment on the target, and the shooting hand is really doing nothing other than gently holding the pistol grip and steadily squeezing the trigger. The test for correct body position is the same as prone.
Ensuring you have a completely empty and safe rifle, get into your best sitting position and aim in at the target.
Have someone push the rifle rearward, as if in recoil. You should come back right on target. If you don’t, you probably need to scoot your butt a bit one way or the other and change the angle.
All positions are strengthened through the use of a “hasty sling.” The sling is used to create isometric pressure to increase steadiness. The formal “tight sling” is actually detached from the rear sling swivel and tightened above the bicep of the supporting arm.
Using the now-rare two-claw sling, I have actually done this in the field for tricky shots in both prone and sitting. This is almost a lost art today, and most rifle slings (really, carrying straps) don’t allow it. That’s OK. Almost any carrying strap can be used in the “hasty sling” mode.
The steadiness achieved is almost as good as a tight competition sling—and it’s a whole lot faster.
If I’m following game in heavy cover, I usually remove the sling and put it in a pocket. It’s just one more thing that might make noise or catch on brush. But in general I always have a sling on my rifle, and in many positions it’s now a 40-year habit to use a hasty sling.
Here’s how. With the sling loose enough for shoulder carry, hold the rifle with your shooting hand and thrust your supporting hand and arm between rifle and sling. Then wrap your wrist around the sling once. Right-handers, with a left supporting arm, wrap clockwise.
Left-handers, with a right supporting arm, wrap counter-clockwise. Bring your supporting hand to the fore-end, usually just behind the sling swivel, and assume your position. The sling tightens across your body, and you’ll be amazed how much additional steadiness this gives you.
There is often a compromise between the most comfortable “carry” length for your sling and the ideal tension for a hasty sling. I keep mine adjusted for the hasty sling!
The kneeling position is not nearly as steady as sitting…but it’s a lot faster and beats the heck out of standing. Getting into position is a simple matter of assuming the hasty sling and dropping into position, weak-side knee and foot pointing at the target, supporting elbow over the knee—not directly on top (because it can slip).
Strong-side leg is out at about 90 degrees, knee on the ground. Depending again on how limber you are, you are either sitting on that foot, with the foot flat, or sitting on the heel with the toes grounded.
In kneeling the shooting hand is pulling the stock into the shoulder, but the primary support should come from the sling and the supporting arm.
The best form is probably to have the shooting elbow out horizontally, but, hey, we’re shooting game, not winning Olympic medals. So practice, see what works, and then practice some more until you can drop to one knee fast!
The kneeling position gets you a bit higher than sitting, which can be important, but it’s really at its best for times when you need to shoot quickly, but it’s a bit too far (or you’re breathing a bit too hard) to risk a shot from the standing position.
All of these positions need practice, but once you get the hang of it you should be able to drop into a kneeling position almost instantly.
Kneeling With Crossed Sticks or Tripod
Kneeling is a wonderful position…but it’s even better if you can kneel behind crossed sticks, a tall bipod, a low tripod, or maybe a handy boulder.
I love the basic positions and I’m not afraid to use them…but I’m always on the lookout for a solid rest.
The idea here is to be flexible. A solid rest beats the unsupported positions just as surely as four aces beats a pair of deuces. So the formal shooting positions are the base, but never hesitate to modify them as necessary if a solid rest is available.
Standing or offhand is by far the least steady position. In shooting at game it should be the court of last resort, to be avoided like the plague if there is any other option for greater stability. On the other hand, there are times when there is simply no option but to stand up and shoot like a man (or woman).
Sometimes there’s just no time to do anything else; other times, vegetation or the animal’s position (like, close) leaves no other sound option. Since standing is the most difficult, while you shouldn’t use it in the field if any other option exists, you should probably practice it the most at the range!
A proper target standing position has the supporting elbow resting on an out-thrust hip. Let’s keep in mind, too, that shooting at game from standing is really a field-expedient position.
You do it only because you must do it quickly or lose the opportunity, and you probably aren’t going to try it unless the range is close, under a hundred yards and more likely half that.
Here is where the hasty sling actually has the greatest benefit of all. Wrap into the hasty sling, plant your feet, and shoot. Ideally, your supporting (weak-side) foot is pointed toward the target. Your feet are about shoulder-width apart, your shooting (strong-side) foot at 90 degrees.
Stock fit is essential in standing—perhaps more than in any other position. You need to have your cheek firmly welded to the stock.
Your supporting elbow should be as directly under the rifle as you can get it, and your shooting elbow should be horizontal so that you have the best leverage as your shooting hand pulls the stock into your shoulder.
Provided your sling strap isn’t too loose, the sling will tighten across your chest and create at least a bit of isometric stability.
The rest is up to you, and it takes practice.
Standing With Sticks and Stones
Three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal in Africa. They get you above low brush and off thorny ground, and standing with sticks is exponentially steadier than just standing. I like sticks; I practice with them regularly, and a takedown set of African Sporting Creations sticks usually go into my gun case.
Whatever your comfortable range is for offhand shooting, sticks should double it—like from 75 yards to 150. There are tricks to double that envelope, like using a second pair of sticks. Or have your buddy or a guide grab two legs of the sticks and give you a shoulder for your supporting elbow.
There are also times when there’s a great natural rest available, but you have to stand into it. No problem. I’ve taken a lot of shots standing into a convenient tree fork or against a tallish boulder, preferably with the rifle over my daypack.