Basic Rifle Marksmanship–Is It That Basic?

To be the best at something we must start out at the basics.  But in marksmanship, what are the basics?  The basics don’t start when we put the magazine in our rifle.  The basics start well before we fire the first shot.  We don’t want our first marksmanship test to be when we absolutely have to fire a shot in defense or necessity.  Marksmanship is something that many don’t come by naturally.  It must be worked on.  For those who it comes naturally to, practice makes perfect and some things need to be discovered in practice before they are discovered too late to correct or save your own life.

The first thing in rifle marksmanship is knowing the weapon that you are using.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a bolt action, a semi-auto, or any other type of action.  In this article we will focus on one of the more popular weapons and in my opinion one that is extremely user friendly.  We will focus on the AR-15, M16, M4, “Black Rifle”, or whatever name you want to call.  I use a Bushmaster in 6.8 SPC for a little more power than compared to the 5.56 mm.  Caliber really isn’t a huge issue when it comes to marksmanship because even a well placed shot from a .22 LR will do enough damage to stop someone or something.  We don’t need to cover the components of the rifle with their proper name, but we must know how the rifle functions.  We must sit down with our rifle and become 100% comfortable with its feel, action, and handling. 

Everyone knows how to walk around their own home or apartment.  We feel comfortable with the situation if anyone comes into my domain, I will be at an advantage because I know the terrain.  Walking around the house with no weapon in hand, not worrying about being harmed, and at our leisure is much different than holding a rifle while trying to protect ourselves as the defender, and protecting anyone that we reside with.  It is much like a vehicle, we must know how to handle our weapon in a vehicle with a seat belt on, opening the door, and exiting the vehicle.  Our homes are no different than dismounting a vehicle without knowing how to get our rifle out with a seat belt on. 

I have walked around my house with my rifle in hand clearing the stairway, a bedroom, etc. It is just like urban combat, but we are in our own home, not a war zone or a shoot house.  My house looks entirely different with a rifle held at the ready, I know most people would feel the same way.  A few dry runs may seem ridiculous at the time, but when it comes to a time when your life is at stake, feeling comfortable with your rifle and your domain is a very important part of marksmanship.

Moving on, we get to see the function and actual handling of our rifle to our own body.  We will focus on magazine changes, malfunctions, and overall non-live fire procedures.  Lets start at the sling.  There are all types of slings on the market, there are one point slings, two point slings, and even three point slings.  The one point sling is practical with a chest rig or body armor, but isn’t the best when wearing just a T-shirt or a jacket.  A three point sling is the least practical because the sling itself passes in by functioning parts of the rifle, the bolt release, the magazine release, and the charging handle.  The two point sling is preferred and one that adjusts is the best option.  A two point sling that adjusts by pulling on part of the sling to lengthen or shorten the overall length of the sling. 

The magazine change is an important part of marksmanship because running out of ammunition and not being able to effectively reload puts the shooter at a very big disadvantage.  A magazine change should be simple, quick, and effective.  When ammunition is getting low or completely gone the first thing to do is raise your rifle up at an angle where the magazine well is at eye level and the barrel is putting towards the sky.  Using the trigger finger to press the magazine release and grab the magazine with the non-firing hand.  Place the empty magazine in a pocket or a drop pouch and grab a full magazine with the same hand.  While keeping your eyes on your target, or down range, looking past the magazine well, place the magazine in the magazine well until it seats with a click.  Press the bolt release and allow the bolt to slam the next round into the chamber.  Immediately raise your rifle to firing position which should be a quick movement because your eyes should have never left your target.  The key to effective magazine changes is not looking at your magazines, but continuing to look at your target so you can adjust your next shots and never lose sight of your target.

Malfunctions are a fact of life.  No matter what rifle you are firing, someday you will have a malfunction.  Clearing a malfunction is much like a magazine change.  Your actions need to be smooth, quick, and once again effective.  By knowing your rifle’s action you will know when the recoil or any thing else is not normal for your rifle.  When your AR type rifle malfunctions it is a simple fix, in most cases.  Simply leave the rifle on your shoulder while maintaining a grip with your firing hand.  Quickly reach back with your non-firing hand and charge the weapon several times.  The expended brass should be ejected and rounds should be fed into the chamber of your rifle.  If there is a double feed, or a feed when two rounds or more try to enter the chamber at once, you must drop the magazine, allow the rounds to drop from the magazine well, replace the magazine and continue firing.  Clearing a malfunction is possible without ever having to take your eyes off of your intended target.  Practicing with dummy rounds (fired rounds with a bullet replaced) will make clearing a malfunction second nature and quite possibly save your life, or the life’s of your loved ones.

As stated before, marksmanship begins before any live round is fired from a weapon.  With a magazine placed in your weapon get into a steady firing position.  Feet shoulder width apart, dominant leg slightly forward.  Keep your back straight, but bend slightly forward to help control the recoil of your weapon.  You should raise the rifle to your head, not put your head to your rifle.  Your non-firing hand needs to be as far out on the rifle as you can safely hold.  Holding your rifle this way eliminates the “wobble” zone between your two hands.  No matter what position you start in, prone, kneeling, or standing, your rifle and eyes are always on the target.  When going from standing to prone, you should squat, place your non firing hand flat on the ground and quickly kick both legs behind you simultaneously. Grab your rifle with your non-firing hand, as far out as you can.  Your non firing elbow, magazine, and firing elbow should all be on the ground while in the prone position.  Getting to your feet is the exact same thing you did to get prone, but in reverse order.  Remember, your eyes and rifle will always be pointed towards your target.  For kneeling, the basic premise is that you do not want your elbow on your knee, or bone to bone.  You want to place your non firing elbow into the thigh of your non-firing leg.  By doing this, you reduce even more “wobble” in your firing position.

Firing from cover from any position is also very simple and uses the same fundamentals as any other firing position.  If using a wall or any type of barrier, there are things to do that can steady your shot and make you much more effective.  No matter what position you are in, you simply place your non firing hand on the barrier.  Make a “C” with your thumb and fore finger.  Your remaining three fingers should be flat against the barrier.  Grip your rifle with your “C” and get behind your rifle like you are in any other firing position.  By using the barrier, your hand, and a steady firing position your rounds are extremely effective.

The hard parts of marksmanship are the ones that take the most conscious effort:  Breathing control and trigger squeeze.  Mastering these two can make a world of difference in how well a person shoots.  Breathing control is the hardest of the two.  You must exhale and inhale normally while concentrating on doing it.  Sounds a little strange, but try to control your breathing with a conscience effort and you begin to hold your breath too long or not long enough.  You want to fire on your normal pause between an exhale and an inhale.  That slight pause is the most effective time to fire a round in.  If you hold your breath too long, your body will begin to shake, which makes firing effectively extremely difficult.  If you can control your breathing you are on your way to becoming effective with your rifle. 

The next thing is trigger squeeze.  The operative word is squeeze, don’t pull.  By squeezing the trigger you apply constant pressure backwards until the trigger breaks and the round lets go. [The following is true for most semi-autos:] Do not release the trigger all the way back to the front!  By doing this you reset the trigger and must take the time to pull the slack out of it again.  Slowly release the trigger until there is a definite click, then stop.  Your trigger pull will be significantly shorter if the trigger does not completely reset.  This requires constant attention, but is easily mastered.  A shortened trigger squeeze will save precious milliseconds and will make a substantial difference in your shooting.

Finally we get to the good stuff.  Making ourselves effective shooters using live rounds.  This is sometimes a time consuming, ammo consuming, but fun and exciting experience.  I love getting behind a rifle and firing live rounds.  I don’t fire the old school 3 rounds, adjust, 3 round adjust, 3 rounds, Done.  I fire strings of 5 rounds, observe, 5 rounds, observe, 5 rounds adjust.  Start out at 100 meters or yards it really doesn’t make a difference.  Get in a good prone firing position and fire your first 5 rounds while aiming center mass or at the bull’s eye of the target.  Walk to your target and observe your group.  If it is tight (within an inch or so) you are good, if it’s loose, don’t worry, 5 more rounds and we will see.  Fire 5 more rounds. Observe your target.  We want our rifle to be zeroed at 200 meters so at 100 meters your rounds will be 1 inch high above the bulls eye or the center of your target.  If your group is acceptable to you (that’s your call) you can move your target out to 200 meters or yards.  The process repeats itself over and over again until you as the shooter feel comfortable with your firing.  I have seen people I have trained need over 250 rounds to get good at 200 meters.  What is acceptable to you is your call, but at 200 meters a group should be under 2 inches in diameter.  Since our point of aim is center mass, our point of impact is going to be center mass.  Point of Aim/Point of Impact.  After this is complete you can move onto bigger and better things.  A great exercise that I found to be fun and helpful is an easy one to accomplish.  While standing at 25 meters, fire a shot.  If it hits move back to 50, then 100, 150, 200, keep moving to backward until you miss a shot.  It’s a fun way to test your standing shot ability.  Another exercise is to move between two barriers at a rapid pace while engaging different targets at different ranges.

You may say this all good if you have open spaces, but what about a person who is confined to an indoor range?  The same principles and fundamentals apply to a person inside or outside.  Every indoor range I have used has allowed prone firing.  Move the target as far back and possible and execute the fundamentals and fire.  The same goes for those who do not want to spend the money on the amount of ammunition needed to train effectively.  Go through the dry fire exercises I’ve mentioned and when you go to the range with a few rounds you will be comfortable with your abilities and will be effective on that day.  Every little bit of practice makes a difference when it comes to being effective behind a rifle.

In closing, a little about myself: I was an United States Army Infantryman for seven years.  For two of those years I was an Infantry Drill Sergeant at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  I spent countless hours on and off a range teaching soldiers how to shoot effectively.  I have been trained by the Asymmetrical Warfare Group’s Combat Application Course, and my company was the pilot company for integrating that block of instruction into basic training throughout the Army.  I cannot tell you how many rounds I have fired on a range, but every one has been “a blast.”  Hopefully this article will help you understand the importance of being effective in every aspect of your weapon.