Book Review: “The Art of the Rifle” by Jeff Cooper, by J.S.

I recently finished reading Jeff Cooper’s The Art of the Rifle and thought it would be good to share the relevant points with the readers here.

Reviewer’s Note: I’m fully aware the author was a retired Marine Colonel, and as one who served as a Marine myself I know that it would be proper, when referring to the author, to include his rank. However, Cooper does not emphasize his military service in the book, and there on the cover in bold white letters it reads “Jeff Cooper”, so I will refer to him in this manner. There is no offense or slight meant.

My one-sentence overview, for the very busy folks or those who just want to scroll down to the Odds ‘n Sods: Get a centerfire rifle of moderate power (.308/.30-06 class) that is easy to handle, and practice with it until you can reliably and quickly hit man or game-sized targets at unknown distances out to at least 300 yards, if not more.

What It Isn’t

This is not a book crammed with tables, data, and studies on the most effective gear and techniques. If it were, a more appropriate title would have been The Science of the Rifle. It is not objective in the slightest. Cooper had a philosophy on riflecraft that he honed through years of personal and anecdotal experience; one reads the book to obtain a sliver of his experiences and thoughts, and also to read about real ways to improve one’s ability to shoot a rifle. It is not a book that talks much about gear and equipment. In this way it is fairly timeless; as long as there are shouldered weapons that project aerodynamic bits at high speed that are affected by wind, gravity, and other factors, this book will remain relevant. The book can help a strictly range/target shooter, but it is intended for the field shooter, whether a hunter of game or of men. It is not, however, intended for the high magnification, ultra-long range crowd specifically.

What It Is

The book is actually quite short– not quite 100 pages– and was written in 1997. I am not aware of any newer versions, and as the author passed in 2006 this book will remain unchanged. As noted above it is more about Cooper’s personal philosophy and not a living document on the very best and latest in rifle shooting. It does cover the essential elements of rifle shooting, and Cooper makes it very clear that few completely master the basics. It is not the author’s analogy, but riflecraft is simple, like hitting a baseball with a wooden bat is simple, though very, very few get to the level of Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, et cetera.

Chapter Summaries:

Reviewer’s Note: These summaries are not intended to act as Cliff Notes or condensed versions of the chapters themselves. In no way should anyone believe they have read Jeff Cooper’s book in shorthand by reading these summaries! If you want to actually obtain anything relevant, buy the book and read it yourself.

  1. The Queen

    Overview of Cooper’s philosophy: the decline in interest in accurate field shooting, pragmatism (rifles are amoral instruments), and a short history.

    Good quote: “If the shooter does not cherish his weapon and feel sensual pleasure in handling it, it is unlikely he will ever make it perform as efficiently as it can” (Page 2). Meaning, you should care about your rifle! Take care of your tools and you know the rest.

  2. Why?

    “Why do you want to learn how to shoot a rifle?” In Cooper’s view, a rifle is a tool of power that a skilled wielder can bring to bear upon his environment. “Who is a good shot?” To Cooper, consistency and being able to perform on demand are what matters. One great shot doesn’t make one a good shooter. This is simple logic and applies in just about every area. Any schlub can head out to the local golf course and hole-in-one the very first par 3 with simple dumb luck on his side; it does not make him ready for the PGA. (This, again, is my analogy, not the author’s.) Cooper’s example was of Billy Dixon, who shot a man in battle with a “buffalo rifle” at over 1,300 yards in 1874. Even Dixon called it a lucky one-off shot, but he is still honored as one of the finest rifle shooters in history.

  3. The Instrument

    Here Cooper does write a bit about what, in his mind, constitutes a proper rifle. He feels that nearly all rifles are more accurate than their shooters. He discounts entirely the smaller calibers, especially the .223 that was popular then and is even more so today. His starting point is the .30-06/.308. He advocates a repeater, especially a bolt-action, and does not feel a semi-automatic rifle’s advantages (faster firing) overcome its disadvantages (added weight and complexity). To Cooper, a skilled rifle shooter should be able to fire, keep the rifle in the shoulder, work the bolt, and bring the rifle back down on target just as fast as a semi-auto.

    Reviewer’s Note: This may be one area where the book is a bit dated. Cooper was absolutely familiar with the top .30-06/.308 semi-automatic rifles of his time: the M14/M1A, the G3/HK91, the FAL, and especially the M1 Garand (which is on the cover of the book, BTW). All are heavier than a medium-barreled, sporter stocked bolt action rifle, by a lot, and all have ergonomic shortcomings as well (sorry fans, they just do). I have personally shot an AR10 pattern .308 that, without a scope or magazine was in the sub-eight pound range and, fitted with a muzzle brake, kicked less than an AR15 in 5.56mm. One could get on the next target extremely quickly with this rifle. It was, of course, very loud; this is the trade-off. No, it’s not as light as a short-barreled bolt action, but it is reliable and has twenty shots on hand. YMMV.

    Cooper also writes about optics, very briefly, and recommends one in the two to four power range. He leaves newer (in 1997) devices like red dots, reflex sights, and NV scopes as “to be considered when they have proven themselves.” Most of the chapter, though, is taken up by ergonomics, specifically weight and stock length of pull. Then, as now, shooters tote around rifles that are too heavy far more often than ones that are too light. He also speaks about having a good trigger (more about this in another chapter summary).

  4. Gun Handling Cooper’s four rules:
    1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
    2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
    3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 80 percent of firearms mishaps.
    4. Be sure of your target. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.

    Cooper also writes about how to care for a stored or cased rifle. He is also a proponent of carrying a rifle, in most cases, loaded with an empty chamber (Condition 3). Much can be debated about this approach, but he makes a strong, reasoned case here. Other important points: Don’t leave your weapon unattended, keep the muzzle out of the dirt, don’t overclean your rifle, never depend on the safety (see the Four Rules).

  5. Sighting and Aiming

    Here, he covers far more about practical field use than target range shooting. He includes the use of different types of iron sights and the low magnification scopes Cooper preferred. He is clearly not a proponent of field doping– mechanically changing the point of impact of sights or scopes based on elevation, wind, or range. Cooper is far more concerned about accounting for vertical drop by simply moving the reticle or aiming point. Most of the chapter focuses on precisely where to aim to achieve maximum effect, especially on game animals.

    Good quote: “Where to aim is fully as important as how to aim.” (Page 25)

  6. Trajectory

    Here Cooper dispels some common myths about bullet trajectory and also admits this bleeds more into the realm of science than art.

    Good quote: “High average velocity, with accompanying flat trajectory, is desirable, but no trajectory can ever be flat enough to compensate for bad marksmanship.” (Page 28)

  7. The Firing Positions

    This is probably the longest chapter in the book, with the most photos. He describes the prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing/offhand positions and also compels a sportsman to get as close and as steady as possible to the target.

  8. The Rest Positions

    Not, as one might initially believe, shooting from a bench rest, but this is about how to properly rest a rifle in field conditions. In short, don’t rest the weapon itself on anything other than your own hand; the hand always goes between the rest (tree, rock, or whatever) and the rifle. Here, he also covers proper bipod use, but Cooper discounts its actual use in field shooting.

  9. The Hand and the Finger

    Here Cooper writes about how to actually hold the rifle and a lot about what constitutes a quality trigger (single, two stage, or set). Cooper prefers the two-stage style.

  10. The Eye

    Cooper goes into greater detail on some topics from Chapter 5, specifically iron sights and also scopes. Surprisingly, he does not specifically describe the “scout scope” concept that he is well known for. His requirements for a properly mounted scope are no farther back than the trigger guard, which is farther forward than some might prefer but certainly not a true “scout” mount. Throughout the book, however, there are photos of rifles with the scope mounted in the forward “scout” position. His technique for proper scope use is to get on target with your usual unaided binocular vision, then to quickly transition to the scope and make a clean shot. This guards against trying to follow game through the narrow field of view a scope offers. Cooper also writes about field awareness– actually looking for game/targets. It doesn’t matter how good a shot you are if you never actually identify a target.

  11. The Shooting Sling

    Here Cooper writes about a lost art– using a sling to support accuracy, not just to tote the rifle around. As he is writing about practical field use, most of the chapter is how to quickly get into a proper shooting sling. He writes at length about the “Ching Sling”. As most rifles do not have the swivels to mount this particular flavor of sling, it would take modifying an existing rifle to use this sling and technique. It is very fast, however.

  12. Breathing

    This is a very short chapter on proper breathing for field shooting.

  13. The Snapshot

    Up to this point, most of the book has covered shooting with time, a few seconds at least, to prepare for the shot, where one has time to get into a good, solid position, work the action, line up the rifle with the target, take it off safe, and pull the trigger smoothly. Here, Cooper writes about the quick shot, especially in tight cover and/or against dangerous game. He advocates a three count, where the shooter gets the rifle to the shoulder (while taking it off safe and placing the finger on the trigger), confirms the target, and presses the trigger.

  14. Wind

    A surprisingly short chapter on accounting for wind in field shooting. As expected, Cooper does not describe how to properly change your scope’s POI (point of impact) using the turrets or fancy reticles. He does point out that heavier bullets are better for long range shooting, and lighter, faster bullets are typically better at closer ranges. Heavy bullets have more arc, but they carry better and drop less at longer ranges.

    Reviewer’s Note: In 1997, this would have been revelatory to a lot of people. Since then, the focus has definitely been on longer range shooting, which has led to an emphasis on progressively heavier and heavier bullets in the common calibers. The 150ish grain .308 has fallen way out of favor for the 168 and 175 grain projectiles, and in .223 most of the development has been with 75+ grain bullets.

  15. Zeroing

    Some quick points about this chapter: You should zero your own rifle. You should zero it first from a steady bench rest (and at different known ranges), but then also from a typical firing position.

  16. Reloading and Readiness

    Cooper reiterates his stance on Condition 3 carrying and goes into greater detail about how to quickly reload your rifle. Since his emphasis is on manual repeaters throughout the book, nothing is mentioned of semi-autos here.

  17. The Mind of the Rifleman

    This includes some of Cooper’s thoughts about the psychology of shooting.

  18. The Mystique of the One-Shot Kill

    More anecdotal and philosophical musings are included in this chapter, specifically about wishing for but never expecting a one-shot kill. Always reload and expect to have to fire again. Observe your target, yes, but with a round in the chamber!

  19. Testing and Evaluation of Marksmanship

    These are practical tests that Cooper honed at Gunsite: Snapshot, the Rifle Ten, the Rifle Bounce. In the essence of not plagiarizing Cooper, I won’t describe them here, but they cover a series of known distance drills, for time, that he feels are good range tests of practical marksmanship.

Takeaways for the SurvivalBlog Reader

I should interject here with my own level of experience. I served as a Marine infantryman and was a ninety-fifth percentile rifle shooter and ninety-ninth percentile pistol shooter, which was good enough to take part in my unit’s shooting team but not good enough to take trophies or attain the rarefied air of the Marine Corps shooting team. I also served as a range coach for pistol, rifle, and machine guns. I am also a deer, elk, and bird hunter with a moderate level of experience, not nearly to Cooper’s extent. I have not attended the school Cooper founded, Gunsite (although I would love to). In short, within the four stages of ignorance (or competence, for you glass-half-full people), I am somewhere in between #2 and #3: I am just conscious enough to know that I have a lot to learn, and there are many, many people who are beyond me in skill and experience.

I feel this book is intended for people just like me. On the ten scale, with 1 being, “I have never shot a rifle…does the big end go on my shoulder?” and 10 being, “I am one of the hundred best rifle shooters in the world,” Jeff Cooper’s book is probably best suited for the 3-6 crowd– people who have some familiarity with rifle shooting and want to be better, fully understanding that a book alone will never get them to become a 9 or 10. The experienced 7+ people likely already are either doing what Cooper describes in his book or subscribe to another valid system that works for them.

I believe the book is perfectly suited to the preparedness mindset and the civilian rifleman concept. So much is written about military precision shooting, but as a sniper or designated marksman you are called on to be a specialist, and you’re not alone. As a civilian rifleman, whether hunting for meat to put on the dinner table or to defend home and family, you normally do not have either the freedom or the opportunity to specialize too greatly. Cooper’s idea of a general purpose rifle that can take down all common game animals, while also allowing someone to deal with human threats out to realistic first-shot distances, holds true for any of us in any survival scenario. We will also be faced with a conservation of ammunition issue and the ability to make accurate first shots to the vitals (hunting or combat) will be critical.

While firearms restrictions are unfortunate and by no means is this sour grapes, but the Cooper-type rifle is about as legal-friendly as can be. It even works with antique, pre-1899 rifles.

Cooper’s concepts allow us to have one good, general use rifle in a common, easy to find caliber that does not have to be particularly expensive. In the book he expounds upon the Krag rifle; sporterized, yet still useful, Krags can be found for $200 or less. Mosin-Nagants, while long and heavy, fit fine in Cooper’s requirements and are even less expensive. Unlike video games, one cannot realistically carry multiple long arms for all scenarios. Sure, a Barrett in .50 BMG will be able to deal with targets that a Cooper-type rifle will not, but it is a poor choice for general use. Few of us could fire one effectively without quite a bit of time to prepare a position, deploy the bipod, et cetera.

I personally found it interesting that the two most popular rifle platforms in America today– the AR15 and AK– do not meet Cooper’s requirements in any way. Neither fire a cartridge he would consider adequate (yes, even the better AR loadings like the 6.5 or 6.8). Both have terrible stock triggers; if you insist on one as your primary rifle, you MUST get a better trigger. They are very rarely slung; when I use my sling at the rifle range, in firing positions, others look at me as if I’m from Mars. It is not something solely used to carry your rifle around anymore than your head is solely used to carry a hat. As I mentioned in my note above, I believe a 16” barreled AR10 pattern rifle, built lightweight, ultra-reliable, with a solid A1-length stock, could meet the requirements.

Most of all, practice now! When things fall apart, it is too late to zero your rifle and ensure you can hit targets quickly. Reduce the variables as close as possible down to the rifle and ammunition itself. It does no good to have a ½ MOA rifle if you, the shooter, introduce 12 MOA of variation in point of impact through poor positioning, nervous shakes, poor breathing, and poor trigger use.