By Mark V. Lonsdale, STTU
The premise for this paper is that no matter how much you shoot or how many competitions you win, the basic fundamentals of marksmanship remain the same. You never graduate from reinforcing the fundamentals, or as we say, “Being brilliant at the basics.” The only difference between a rookie who has been correctly taught the fundamentals and the championship shooter, is that the fundamentals have become second nature for the pros, ingrained by thousands of repetitions.
So let’s take a look at some useful tips:
- Invest in quality equipment – Remember, “Accuracy is the product of uniformity,” or what some shooters call consistency; so if you don’t have an accurate rifle and good ammunition, you can never achieve an acceptable level of success. Think of the rifle as a system made up of the rifle, the scope, the bipod, the ammunition. Then, within the rifle itself, it is a system made up of primarily of the action, barrel, stock, feed system (magazine) and trigger. All of these components affect accuracy and consistency, so the trick is to assemble a system that is a reliable tack driver. For the most part, custom built rifles with match-grade barrels will out shoot off the shelf factory rifles. But there are factory rifles that are sufficiently accurate to get started in most forms of competition or hunting. That said, it is critical that you have a rifle that shoots better than you so that you cannot blame misses or large groups on the rifle. The same is true for ammunition. While there are excellent factory match-grade ammunitions from Federal, Berger, Hornady and Black Hills, hand loads tailored to the rifle will invariably out shoot factory ammo.
.300 WinMag with a Bartlein Heavy Palma barrel in a McMillan A6 stock, topped with a Leupold Mark 8 scope. Test ammo is Berger factory 185 grain Juggernauts and 215 grain Hybrids
2. Focus on the fundamentals – These are body position behind the rifle, grip pressure, sight alignment, breathing, trigger control, and follow through (staying in the scope). For the most part, the ideal prone position is a relaxed natural position where the shooter is carrying minimal tension in his or her muscles. This may require seeking out professional coaching, since it is easier for a trained observer to spot flaws in your technique than for you to self-evaluate. However, once you have mastered the fundamentals of a natural shooting position and trigger control, your accuracy, grouping and targets will tell you when you have an issue with your shooting position or technique. One additional point, get away from shooting from the bench except for load development. First master the prone position, then a variety of field expedient supported positions.
PRS shooting requires a variety of hasty supported positions, in addition to prone stages
3. Be prepared to shoot a lot – This goes back to the old adage of, “You don’t need a $2,000 handgun – you need an $800 gun and $1,200 in ammunition for training.” When you budget for a rifle, you should also budget for match-grade ammunition or invest in a reloading setup. If you are not shooting hundreds of rounds a month to begin with, you are not developing the muscle memory needed to become a good shooter. Similarly, if you can’t afford to feed a .338 Lapua Magnum or .375 CheyTac, you may want to start with a more economical caliber. For the ELR shooters who do not want to burn out the barrels on their $6,000 rifles, or find the cost per round prohibitive ($6-$10 per round), then use a more economical match rifle for practice. 308 Win, 6.5 CM, and 300 Win Mag are all good training rifles. Many of the PRS shooters will also set up a rifle in .223 Rem to save burning up their 6mm and 6.5mm match rifles. But once you have mastered the fundamentals, then you do not need to shoot as much just to maintain skills. A final note on reloading – while hand loading ammunition is more economical than buying factory ammo, most top shooters reload for improved accuracy and precision and less for cost saving.
4. Frequency is more important than quantity – Understand that frequency and quality of shooting is more important than quantity. In other words, shooting 20 to 50 rounds every week in a discipline training program is more beneficial than shooting 200 rounds once every two or three months. The reason for this is that you are developing and reinforcing neuro-muscle memory and good shooting habits through repetition. You also need to ensure that you are not shooting so much that you become lax and develop bad habits. On the same note, there is not substitute for shooting in matches. A new shooter will learn more in one match than in ten informal range sessions. He or she will also find the other competitors in their squad friendly and helpful.
5. Dry fire – The value of dry firing practice is an inexpensive way to work on shooting positions that also allow the shooter to observe trigger release through the scope. This is similar to the “ball and dummy” drill used in pistol training. When looking through the scope, and holding the crosshairs on target, any movement off the X during trigger release is indicative of problems with trigger control. In addition, when working on different supported shooting positions, the crosshair dancing around on the target gives immediate feedback on how stable the shooter is in that position. (Safety Note: Always ensure the rifle is unloaded before dry firing – check and double check)
6. Be confident in your shooting ability – This is not the over-confidence of a chest beating big ego, but the knowledge that you can produce the required precision and accuracy on demand. If you are laying behind the rifle and “hoping” that you hit the target or shoot a good group, then you lack the confidence that comes with experience. If you have done the required amount of practice, and have the rifle and ammo squared away, then you should “know” what you can do before you even pull the trigger. When you allow doubt to creep into your thought process, then your mental game is shot (pun intended).
7. Be honest with yourself – If you throw a flier or shoot a group that is over 1 MOA, then log it accurately in your data book. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on your best shot or best group of the day. To many shooters crow about the half-MOA group they shot, when all the other groups were more like 2 MOA. Rather, spend time studying the worst groups and worst shots to identify the problem and see how you can improve in the future. Remember, the goal is not to just hit the X ring, but to figure out why you threw an 8 or worse. The same is true for cold bore shots. Many shooters may find that their first shot of the day is a miss or outside the expected group, but this may not be the rifle. It may be that the shooter is cold and not in a perfect position. Your data log book is a valuable tool, but only if it accurately reflects the performance of your rifle, ammunition, and your personal ability.
Every group tells a story when testing different ammunition loads. All should be recorded and logged for future reference.
8. Never stop learning – Part of being a serious shooter, and not just a plinker, is a ceaseless quest for improvement and innovation. A good example is the evolution in shooter friendly ballistic solvers and supporting peripherals in the last 10 years. Probably the three biggest advancements in these shooting tools are Applied Ballistics analytics, the Kestrel 5700 Elite with AB, and a selection of compact, reliable laser rangefinders. The Garmin Foretrex 701 GPS loaded with AB ballistics is another useful tool in the field, especially for the hunter or warfighter.
Tools of the trade for long range shooting – an accurate rifle, hand loaded ammunition, a reliable chronograph (Labradar), and a ballistics solver that tracks changes in the environment (Kestrel 5700 with AB solutions)
9. Keep an open mind – With the recent developments in rifles, calibers, cartridges, and bullets, be open to superior systems and calibers. While the 308 Win., 300 Win Mag., and 338 Lapua Magnum are still relevant, it is worth investigating 6.5 Creedmoor, 300 PRC, 300 Norma Magnum, and 338 Norma Magnum to see if they better meet your long range needs. While it is not necessary to run out and buy every new caliber that comes down the pike, it is worth taking the time to do some online research, find an opportunity to shoot them, and then make comparisons. The same is true of optics. Leupold and Nightforce have both made advances in superior long range optics suited to competition, hunting, law enforcement and military applications.
MK13 MOD7 clone, .300 WinMag, built on a Stiller’s action, topped with a Nightforce 5-25x56mm ATACR, similar to the current rifle used my Marine Corps snipers.
10. Keep your training interesting – All too many shooters go to the range with no defined goals and shoot just for fun. Having fun is important, but working on issues from the previous range session is more important. Let’s say you were shooting great at 100 yards but struggling at 300 yards, then work on your 300 yard shooting. The same is true out to 600, 1,000, and 1,500 yards. A shooter with a new rifle or ammunition will also want to begin with a solid 100 yard zero and then begin collecting data at longer ranges. The goal is to validate the data from your ballistics solver (Kestrel with AB solution) and to establish the limitations of the rifle, caliber, scope, and shooter. Hitting steel plates at progressively longer distances is both satisfying and fun.
Team Global Precision competing at an ELR match in Raton, New Mexico. We would not be able to score hits at 1,500 to 3,500 yards without Applied Ballistics analytics, Kestrel 5700s with AB, and Garmin 701 GPSs
11. Be open to advice from informed professionals – If you’re on a public range or department range and look across at another shooter’s target and see that he or she is absolutely drilling it, maybe there is an opportunity to learn some. In most cases you will find that accomplished shooters are willing to share their knowledge and make suggestions on how you can improve your performance. It may be something as simple as a change in equipment or ammunition, to how to better run the ballistics in your Kestrel. More than once a shooter has asked me for advice on the range, usually because they are struggling to hit what they shoot at. All too often I will find that their scope is incorrectly mounted, they are using cheap bulk ammunition, they are resting the barrel on a hard surface, or they have no concept of squeezing the trigger as opposed to jerking the trigger. All rookie mistakes that are easily corrected with a little constructive advice.
For many of you, much of what has been covered here is old news, but there may be one or two points that gave you cause to think. But for many rookie shooters, much of this is new, so feel free to share it with your friends or shooting club.
HAVE FUN & BE SAFE
.308 Win tactical rifle built by Robar on a 700 Rem action, Bartlein barrel and McMillan A3-5 stock.