This article will outline my thoughts on balance as it relates to the standing position with the only one goal in mind: putting each bullet near the center of the target as possible. This approach is impractical for field purposes in that it does not have a practical need to consider the requirement of speedy bullet delivery (“HOT AND FRESH BULLETS! GET YER HOT AND FRESH BULLETS!!!).
I finally figured out that it might be important to consider accuracy and precision before making changes to accommodate competing performance demands. That would have been a logical progression to have taken from the beginning before bringing practical considerations into the mix. Unfortunately, choices in the real world of learning rifle shooting are seldom presented logically, and it’s usually up to the novice to choose his own path to follow.
I looked to smallbore and air rifle shooting for examples of form. There are undoubtedly some idiosyncrasies that stem from the specialized gear used in those disciplines. For example, I’ve never used a shooting coat, and I don’t know how it influences the technique. I’m sure that all of the gear influences how they shoot to some degree, but I see these disciplines as the pinnacle of refinement of the standing position as optimized for precision. Here are some points I picked up:
The head is a disproportionally heavy piece of equipment and its location at the top of the body doesn’t help make it any easier to balance. The easiest way to balance the head is to keep it upright as with a normal standing position. A significant part of our equilibrium is also in the ears, so keeping it upright and steady is optimal. This is the reason that when you were taught to shoot a rifle in standing you were taught to bring the sight up to your eye instead of vice versa. I think that adding the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ would make for a much more persuasive argument to the beginner that would likely result in better skill retention, transfer (adaptation of skill to settings different than the training environment), and future improvement.
Bringing the rifle up so that the sight is brought to the eye when using a ‘normal’ rifle (not one designed for target shooting) means that the shooter may only end up with a portion of the toe of the stock in his shoulder pocket. Target rifles have a means of adjusting the drop at heel so the butt can be fully seated while keeping the head erect and the cheekweld at its optimum. Another way of accomplishing nearly the same thing is what David Tubb did with his “chin gun” (a very, very high scope mount and the chin in contact with the comb), although that design also had the effect of lowering the rifle in relation to the shooter.
U.S. shooter Matt Emmons in standing. Note that his head is almost fully erect. Also note the adjustment hardware on the stock, how it’s adjusted, and the amount of the butt that is in his shoulder even after all that adjustment.
The starting point for a standing position seems to be to place the feet facing approximately 90° in relation to the target and approximately shoulder width apart. Body types and rifles vary, so there is a likelihood that the shooter will need to vary their feet from this starting point. I’ve found that some very proficient shooters have what seems to me to be an abnormally wide stance, but if it can work for you it’s likely to be more stable.
Length of Pull:
Altering the rifle’s length of pull changes the relationship between the shooter’s center of gravity and that of the rifle. Shortening the length of pull reduces weight to the rear, and therefore moves the rifle’s balance point slightly forward. When the shorter length of pull is brought to the shooter’s shoulder, it has the effect of moving the rifle’s balance point closer to the shooter, and this effect outweighs the alteration in the rifle’s balance point. As with strength, closer being stronger and farther being weaker, getting the rifle’s balance point as close as possible will improve the shooter’s ability to balance with the rifle.
As far as balance is concerned, the closer the arms to the body the easier the balance. The firing arm would be best tucked down, but the pistol grip will largely determine the angle of the arm. The more vertical the grip the lower the firing arm will be. The chicken wing (high firing side elbow) is largely a relic from the days of the musket.
Keeping the support arm close to the body will make balance more sure and will maximize the strength that one has to support the rifle. Here is where the criticisms I have gotten about my technique have merit. I have never maximized the position of my left arm and hand in reference to balance.
The position I used early on, body erect facing nearly 90° to the target, head moderately erect, elbow under the rifle approximately a fist’s width from the body, i.e. the ‘standard’ offhand position, was maximized for form but not for function. Learning by rote, or “by the numbers” has a way of doing that. That position involves a lot of shoulder holding the rifle, as does my current standing position. This, and the position I currently use, are qualitatively different than a position that maximizes balance and support of the rifle.
Any instability in the support arm will move the rifle, and by extension the center of gravity. This will cause the rest of the body move in order to compensate for the change in balance. Each adjustment will put movement into the rifle. I probably don’t need to tell you that this will decrease precision of shots from the rifle.
To best position the support arm to do its assigned task (none other than for which it’s named), target rifles often use a palm rest, which adds some distance from the support hand itself to the lines of departure and sight (barrel and sight respectively). This allows the arm to rest against the ribs, or in some cases (particularly with ladies) on the hip. Some shooters jut their hip toward the support elbow, but any deviation from the body’s neutral posture will have some disadvantage to weight against what it does for you. The weight of the rifle through the support hand and arm, to the body, and into the body’s weight is often perceived by shooters as a “line of support” from the rifle directly into the leading foot.
Chinese shooter Qinan Zhu in standing. Note the straightness of his body and the line of support from the rifle to his foot.
Stand on one foot and balance for a while. It’s not too difficult. Now, keeping that balance, close your eyes. It’s much more difficult. Balancing with the rifle pointed in is one thing. Obtaining a sight picture effectively removes some of the reference points that you’d be using for your subconscious equilibrium adjustments. Looking through a scope will make that worse than with irons.
Due to the negative effect of taking a sight picture on the ability to maintain static equilibrium, it adds to the complexity of the firing sequence. For me it goes something like this: balance self, balance rifle and self, sight picture, press (automatic while maintaining attention on sight picture), sight picture. If the balance happens to go, everything goes with it, just like when my karate teacher, Mr. Miyagi, shook that damn boat and I fell into the water. The window of time before the balance degrades and affects the hold stability seems to be three to seven seconds. I think that will improve as I pay attention to it.
Looking at the state of the art for precision standing was fascinating to me. It is a substantively rich topic to research if you understand the principles that they are trying to achieve. The next article will briefly outline my attempt at realizing those principles with more standard gear.
If you’d like to learn more about standing in competition, I found an interesting and well-written blog about only that. The following link will start you in an appropriate spot: airrifleshooting