Sling vs. No Sling, Part 2: Sitting

You may recall from my last article that shooting prone without a rest or sling to aid me was extremely difficult for me.  My groups were much worse.  My experience in sitting was quite different than my experience in prone without the sling.  My sitting position tended to support itself much better, and was qualitatively much closer to my experience with the sling than the sling vs. no sling in prone.

My clothing was messing with both the sling and non-sling sitting positions.  In particular I was wearing very warm boots that I bought for when I need to be outside and not moving around much.  The thickness of the boots was unfamiliar, and the snow didn’t seem to offer as much of a solid pad for optimum lateral stability.


My normal footwear is in the center, for scale.



Shooting without the sling demanded more of me than shooting with the sling.  I had to time the release of the shot more carefully, and I had to be more aggressive on the trigger to make it happen at the right moment.  My recent work in the standing position was very helpful in this regard.

Results below:

With Sling:

1-4-15 Cross Ankle Sitting with Sling
I was pleasantly surprised to see six of the shots in such a nice, tight cluster.  Incidentally, this is a bit better than my group in the same position in October.


Without Sling:

Cross Ankle Sitting no sling 1-4-15 FN


The extreme spread of the non-sling group was 38% larger than the sling group.  The mean radius of the non-sling group was 67% larger than the sling group.  The disparity between the numbers is because most of the sling groups were grouped in a tight cluster right at the point of aim, and the extreme spread number only counts the worst two shots.

As with prone, shooting without the sling was more physically demanding.  That, coupled with a normal length shooting session in cold weather, had me a bit worn out by the end.  I experienced a strange phenomenon in which my trigger finger was getting passive.  The “auto fire” seemed to have shut down, and I would see a perfectly good sight picture come and go without the gun firing.  In fact, I actually felt my shoulder buck instead of the shot firing in one instance, near the end.  You can also see that one shot went pretty horribly askew.

The First Experiment:

In December, in the midst of all my standing work, I tried the sling/no sling experiment with my AR in cross ankle sitting.  I got different results!

With Sling:

Sitting with sling

Without Sling:

Sitting without sling

In this case, the extreme spread of my sling group was 20% larger than my non sling group.  The mean radius of the sling group was 14% larger than the non-sling group.  I was more than a little shocked by that result.

What it means to me is that there is probably a continuum of how much a sling will actually help that depends on a few things.  The weight of the rifle is probably pertinent. The Noveske is much lighter than the FN.

I believe that the intrinsic precision of the rifle matters, as the sling will not squeeze blood from a rock.  In other words, if the rifle’s absolute baseline group size is larger than the difference between the shooter’s absolute level of precision in the sling and non-sling group,random dispersion could cancel out any ability to clearly see the difference between the two.  It was that aspect of the groups that convinced me to use the FN, so I could see the results with more precision.

Related to the above, I also believe that the more skill the shooter has, the more he can make do with less.  After practicing standing for two months, getting into a steadier position and using the same skills of deliberately steadying the hold, timing the shot to coincide with an acceptable sight picture and applying a high degree of follow through made it possible for me to use skill to compensate to a degree for the lack of a sling, especially in a rifle that isn’t so precise as to let me see the exact differences.  I think that a few years ago my non-sling group likely would have been significantly worse under exactly the same conditions with the same equipment.

Of course there is more than one way to skin a cat, such as a sitting position that uses no sling and beats the above conventional seated position, sling or no sling.  I’ve also done this experiment in standing, and hopefully I’ll be able to get kneeling in as well before the month is over.

How Does the Shooting Sling Work? Part 1: Prone

As in, “How well does it work?”

I have been using shooting slings to steady my aim in various positions for several years now.  Since the first time I used it I have always been sure that using a sling steadies me.  Since I have been using a sling, I really haven’t shot much without something to steady me up, be it a sling or some kind of support.  Why not use it if it helps?

It’s been so long since I’ve shot groups without a sling that I really don’t know how much it helps.  Honestly, although I fully believe it helps to the point of surety, I could not prove that it does or give an idea of how much.  I approached this topic with some trepidation.  I sell slings.  What if I do a set of comparisons and there’s no difference?  That could be bad for business.  Oh well.  I’m more interested in finding out what works and how effectively.  If I couldn’t sell slings anymore it would take me a day or so to get over it.

Keep in mind that when viewing the following groups that I don’t pretend to be a valid sample size that will be relevant to the general population of rifle shooters.  I’m just one guy who shoots, and these results really only pertain to me.  You’ll have to find out for yourself if they pertain to you.

So far I have shot comparison groups of ten shots each in prone, sitting (cross ankle), and standing with and without the loop sling.  I regularly shoot with a sling in sitting, sometimes in prone, and never in standing because I don’t think it helps.

The Prone Position:

I don’t know how long it had been since I tried shooting in prone without a sling.  I typically use a bipod or try to find some support.  I used my FN PBR-XP with a McMillan A5 stock and Bartlien barrel (.308 Winchester) for this comparison, shooting out of a single lot of Black Hills loaded 155 grain Amax bullets with a muzzle velocity of approximately 2684 fps.  It still is wearing the Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50.  The rifle weighs in at 15.0 pounds unloaded, although I suspect that it might me a tick heavier with cartridges in it.  It balances at the front of the magazine.  I also shot a bipod group for a reference.

Range conditions were:


Bipod and rear bag:

Bipod Prone 1-4-15

10 Shots Bipod Prone

Sling only:

Prone With Sling

Sling Prone FN 1-4-15

No sling:

Prone- No Bipod, No Sling

Prone- No Sling 1-4-15 FN

The numbers turn out like this:

Prone results chart

In comparing the bipod group with the sling group, the sling group was obviously larger in both measures.  The sling groups extreme spread was 19% larger than the bipod group.  The mean radius of the sling group was approximately 29% larger than the bipod group.  To be honest, I was surprised that so many of the shots were hitting so close to the target center.  It wasn’t until shot 9 that the group really opened up, and until that point I was wondering if I really do shoot better with the sling than with the bipod, as has been the case of late more often than not with the X15.

Without the sling I was in for a surprise.  After shooting it I don’t feel as though I was prepared for the difficulty of the challenge.  The first thing I noticed was that my natural point of aim was way different without the sling.  I tended to be much more straight back.  It was also physically demanding.

The extreme spread of the non-sling group was 204% as large as the sling group.  The mean radius of the non-sling group was 259% as large as the sling group.  This represents the best case scenario for the non-sling group, as I had some doubts as to which hole in the target belonged to which shot.  In this case I would have been better off using a single target and shooting it 10 times, versus what I did, which works better when several bullet holes are on top of each other.

I was out of breath by the end of five shots (I shot 5, got up, loaded a mag, rested, then shot the next 5).  The rifle was heavy and it shook a lot.  I think that a lighter rifle would be easier to shoot, and would probably not exhibit so much more dispersion in comparison to the sling group.  I had to be quite aggressive on the trigger in order to get my shots off near intended point of aim.  My elbow did not seem to belong directly under the rifle as it would with the sling.  Instead my elbows were ‘bipoded’ out, and they became progressively more so as I continued shooting under the weight of the rifle.  You can see from the target that there were some questions about which shot belonged to which target.  The composite above represents a best case scenario, for a conservative comparison with the sling group.

I was not prepared for the impact that the lack of the sling had on my bolt work.  It’s much harder to work the bolt with the relative lack of resistance.  The sling simply keeps the rifle locked in and resistant to movement.  Without the sling, sometimes the movement of pushing the bolt closed was enough to unsettle the position.  There were a few instances in which the rifle would slide forward as I was closing the bolt, which made it tougher to close.

Next up will be the sitting position.

How Does Sling Design Affect Ease of Use?

A ton.

The last article provided my opinion, borne out by testing in the field, that any loop sling will produce results downrange similar to that of any other loop sling in terms of precision.  I have to leave out dedicated competition gear from the discussion because I have no opinion to offer there.  So what, then, is the difference between one sling and the next?

There are a few attributes in slings that define what a sling is best for.  The attributes I can think of at the moment are reliability, durability, loop stability, comfort, adjustability, and rapidity (ease) of looping up.  Some of these tend to be directly related, such as reliability and durability.  Others are generally inversely related, such as reliability versus ease of adjustment, illustrating that every design is a tradeoff intended to fulfill a specific goal of the designer.  Other attributes are unrelated, such as reliability and ease of looping up.

I tend to think of reliability in terms of design and durability in terms of materials.  Durability simply means resistance to rot, wear and breaking.  Slings that come to mind with durability issues are the leather 1907 and the cotton USGI web sling.  Leather and cotton are both subject to break down and rot much more readily than nylon or biothane.  I have had no personal problems with either sling in this respect, so taking care of the sling may delay such wear to a great degree.  Leather is very hard to cut, but it does have a propensity to stretch, which brings us to reliability.

For people who depend on their guns, reliability is usually at the top of the list of demands.  In a sling, reliability means that the sling will not fail to fulfill its role as long as it is not broken.  In carry mode if the sling fails, the rifle falls, possibly subjecting it to damage (or at least some doubt as to its zero).  In shooting mode, if the sling fails, the loop fails to take the place of the arm muscles in supporting the rifle and the benefits to precision are lost.  The only slings that have ever failed in either function have ironically been military slings.  The leather 1907 sling’s adjustment holes tend to elongate, which allows the ‘frog’ hooks to slip out rather easily.  The hook can slip out when the sling is not under tension, which makes for a surprise when tension is applied.  Competition shooters either buy new slings or sew the holes to re-tighten them.  On the USGI web sling, the adjuster that makes the sling so easy to adjust on the fly can come open if it’s worn or not closed tightly enough, which will give a similar unpleasant surprise.  Both have happened to me under normal, casual conditions.  The loop can be under significant tension during shooting, and many of us have heavy and expensive guns, so reliability is very important.

Loop stability is an interesting subject.  Fundamentally, loop stability is dependent on two things: the proper fit of the rifle to the shooter and sound technique.  There is a sweet spot for the placement of the front swivel.  If the stud is placed too closely to the shooter, his support arm will be choked up uncomfortably and the point of his elbow will be placed on the ground in the prone position.  If the forward stud is mounted too far forward, it will allow the support hand to be placed so that the upper part of the support arm flattens out.  This gives the sling loop less of an angle to grab onto the arm, which can make it susceptible to slippage.  Likewise, if the shooter places the loop too low on the support arm it will not have the full triceps to ‘grab’ and will be more likely to slip.

With a properly set up rifle, any quality sling will remain stable in its spot high on the support arm.  With a less optimal setup, some slings will slip more than others.  Constrictor slings tend to slip much less than static loops, the USGI web sling being top in this regard.  Static loops vary widely based on the webbing thickness, how slick the webbing is, and what type, if any, mechanisms are available to close the loop over the support arm (a disadvantage of the Ching sling).  Thinner webbing may bite more, but thicker webbing will spread out whatever friction the material has to offer, so it’s a balance based on the materials.  The degree of slipperiness of the material really depends on who makes it.  Leather can be really slick or it can grab well.  Cotton usually grabs well.  Nylon is typically slick, my RifleCraft slings are exceptions to this.  The nylon in my slings is more coarsely woven and tends to grab like cotton.

Comfort is not a difficult thing to get from a sling, but the designer has to have thought it through just a bit.  The key to a comfortable sling is keeping hardware away from contact with the shooter.  This is what was so disappointing to me about the TAB gear sling.  They put the loop adjustment right where the support hand is wrapped.  The support hand takes a good deal of the recoil force, which causes some pain.  When the shooter starts associating pain with the gun firing, bad things happen to his precision.  The mark of good gear is that it functions unremarkably without drawing the shooter’s attention.

Adjustability is tricky.  It’s hard to find a free lunch here.  I mentioned above that ease of adjustment is generally inversely related to reliability.  Of loop slings, the easiest loop to adjust is the USGI web sling due to its cam lock buckle.  This, along with its cheap price, makes this sling a nice choice for new shooters who are just learning to use a sling, and have low demands for rapidity of looping up or reliability.  The adjustment on the USGI web sling is infinite, which means that if the shooter feels the need to have specific settings for different positions, they will need to be marked (not a big deal).  The 1907 is nearly as easy to adjust, but the adjustments are limited by holes every inch or so (not a big deal).  On both of these slings, as mentioned above, the adjustments compromise their reliability, the USGI adjuster being prone to spontaneous opening and the 1907 adjustment holes stretching and becoming unsecure.

I have come to favor slings with limited ease of adjustment (“set it and forget it”) simply because they make the sling simpler to use and more reliable.  I think the ability to reset the loop length for different positions is vastly overrated.

Rapidity of looping up is a large part of what makes a sling practical for field usage.  If someone thinks that the USGI web sling is viable as a loop sling in the field, they haven’t properly thought it through.  The rear of the sling needs to be removed from the stock.  The loop needs to be pulled from a metal slide, the sling turned, the arm shoved through, the loop pulled taut, yada, yada, yada.  With a lot of practice 20 seconds is probably attainable.  That’s just way too slow in the speed of real life.  Ironically, the 1907, which is the predecessor to the USGI web, can be gotten looped up in about 7 or 8 seconds if the configuration is modified a bit.  If you think about a deer standing still with a nice broadside presentation, 7 or 8 seconds will seem like an eternity.  Both the Ching sling and the RifleCraft RS-1 can be gotten looped up in about 3 or 4 seconds, which in the same situation doesn’t seem quite so egregious a length of time.  The RS-2 is just a second or two behind.

I consider any sling that needs to be reconfigured to go from carry mode to shooting mode and vice versa a deal breaker.  It’s completely unnecessary and impractical.  Any sling that has a propensity toward failure in design or materials is, likewise, off my list for consideration.  That should explain why I made my own sling.

So while there is little to distinguish the many loop slings in what they put on the target, there is quite a difference when it comes to the practicality of using the slings in the field.  While the USGI web sling is better than many for learning, the ease of adjustment becomes a disadvantage due to decreased reliability, and it simply takes too long to loop up with to be considered remotely practical.

How Does Sling Design Affect Precision On Target?

To those of us who are outside the competitive arena and using gear appropriate for the field?

Probably not at all.

There is a plethora of shooting slings on the market.  I often read about such and such being superior to other such and such sling when it comes to grouping downrange.  Precision is one area where sling design really doesn’t matter much for those of us who practice for use in the field and aren’t competing with specialized gear.  This assumes, of course, that the sling is a quality piece and set up correctly.

There are several varieties of loop slings that all function structurally in essentially the same manner.  I pointed out in my previous article that the loop sling is simply a taut connection that runs between the support arm just below the shoulder to the rifle just in front of the support hand.  This connection takes the place of the muscles within the span of the sling and allows them to relax.  Relaxation is much more better than tension if you want your bullet holes to be more closer together on the target.

The cotton or nylon USGI shooting slings, as well as the Tactical Intervention Slip Cuff are loop slings that constrict around the arm like a slipknot.  I call this variety of loop “constrictor style”.  This type of sling will constrict more tightly as it is pulled with greater force.

The other type of loop sling is simply a loop adjusted to a fixed length.  Instead of a slipknot, picture a simple closed loop that runs from the front sling swivel to the support arm.  Examples of this type include the 1907 sling, the Ching sling, the Tactical Intervention Quick Cuff, the TAB gear standard sling, and my RifleCraft slings.  I call this style of slings “static loop”.

The type of loop, constrictor or static, is irrelevant in determining whether the sling functions as a loop sling and puts the results downrange.  Sling design makes a difference in the technique of looping up and feel, but really only as a matter of preference, ease, and practicality of use.  That is to say that the process of setting the sling up to use may be vastly different between slings, but the final effect once in position is very similar.

Any of the following slings will positively affect precision similarly:

Sling 005
USGI web sling, with constrictor style loop.  Great for target shooting at the range, when speed to loop up is unnecessary.

1907 sling, modified configuration, static loop.  

Tactical Intervention Slip Cuff constrictor loop.

TAB sling on rabbit skins (my wife tanned them).  You have to admit that I have gotten better at taking pictures since I took this one in 2011.  The static loop is just right of the large side-release buckle.

Ching sling with vast, static loop for rapid looping up.  

RifleCraft RS-1 with large reinforced static loop for rapid looping up.

RifleCraft RS-2 Sling with simple, large, static loop.  My favorite all around sling.

I have shot with each of the above slings extensively, except for the Tactical Intervention, which I only used for about a month (it was borrowed).  I can tell you that they are all capable of steadying the shooter, each about the same as the next so long as the sling will stay put on the shooter’s arm.  There is no voodoo about any of them that will cause it to magically do something more that what it’s physically capable of doing (no, not even the ones that are ‘tactical’).

Likewise, whether or not a keeper is used to close the loop tightly over the arm (which is not possible with a Ching sling) is not a critical consideration in understanding how the sling functions.  Another way of putting it is that the size of the loop is not a factor in its fundamental function.  The wide open loop of the Ching does the same thing as the comparatively difficult to produce and extremely tight loop of the USGI web sling.  Sometimes a keeper is a necessary aid for a sling to work properly by staying put on the shooter’s arm, but that it platform and shooter dependent.

As an illustration of the above two paragraphs, a common misconception is that the Ching sling functions as a hybrid of a loop sling and a hasty sling.  It absolutely does not.  The Ching sling, as defined by function, is a loop sling, with all the attendant benefits of a full loop sling, and will produce downrange results similar to any other loop sling.  The technique of looping up in a Ching sling, or a RifleCraft RS1 sling for that matter, looks and feels similar to the technique of using a hasty sling (although actually faster and more simple).  This causes some to mistakenly conclude that the function is somehow less than that of other loop slings that requires a more difficult and elaborate technique to get into.

Don’t make the mistake of confusing effective results with difficulty of use.  A difficult and more elaborate ritual won’t necessarily make for more powerful magic.  The 20 seconds that it takes to convert the USGI web sling to a loop and to get the loop on does not make it more precise than a Ching or RS-1 that can do the same thing in 3 or 4 seconds.  Easy can be just as effective (or more) as difficult.

Without understanding what the sling does and doesn’t do, a shooter can’t use it to its fullest utility.  Misunderstanding the function of the sling can also give a shooter a belief in benefits that the sling cannot convey.  I hope after reading you have a fuller understanding of the sling and its function.

How Does The Shooting Sling Actually Work?

I’ve written a lot in the past about rifle slings and how to use them to steady a shooting position.  I’ve touched on why to use them and why not to use them if a supported position is available.  I’ve gone into considerable depth on how to use them.  One thing I haven’t really written about is why the shooting sling works.

I like to watch how people use their slings.  I frequently see people do things that are ineffective, or less effective than they could be.  My response to this has always been to beat the drum of better technique, but I think there is a more fundamental way to approach the problem.

Part of understanding how to use a tool is to comprehend how it functions.  It took a long time for me to even consider this with reference to the rifle sling.  I first thought of the sling as something to buy, as in which one do I want based on who uses it, how it looks, what it’s made out of, price, etc.  Then I thought of the sling as a process.  It’s a rather complicated thing for a new shooter, so I spent a long time processing how to use it, improving my technique, re-evaluating different types of slings based on what I’d learned in the process of becoming a skilled shooter and then an instructor.  When I felt my knowledge in sling shooting had matured, I designed my own sling, and I thought and worked a lot on how to make it better over time.

To really understand how to employ the sling and what it can and can’t do for you, the primary lesson to learn is visible in its structure and function.  Let’s take a look at the sling in use to better understand what exactly it is and what it does.




RifleCraft RS-2 sling, demo model.  I made it special with a foliage loop portion and coyote tan rear portion so it would be easier to point out exactly what I’m getting at.  This photo, and those that follow, depict the totality of the line of force of the loop sling.  From the forend, and wrapping the arm.  That’s it.

First of all, we need a precise definition of what it is we’re looking at.  I’m not an engineer, so I apologize it you are because I made up my own terminology and definitions.  A loop sling is simply a direct, closed, and isolated connection between the arm and the forend of the rifle.  Direct means that it goes straight in one line from the arm to the forend.  Wrapping the support hand in the sling won’t compromise this attribute, as the hand effectively becomes part of the front connection.  Closed means that the length of the connection is fixed and not subject to change without a deliberate user input.  Isolated means that there are no other related connections that impart forces in any other direction.  Although a connection to a different section of the sling that makes it usable as a carry strap can be, and usually is present at the rear of the loop, it should be slack when the loop is used.  Put another way, the loop is a simple, single line of tension from the arm just below the armpit and the rifle in front of the support hand.




The function of the loop is directly related to its structure.  What can a line of tension do?  Perhaps this is best revealed by examining what holds a rifle up in absence of the loop sling.  The greatest degree of oversimplification I can make is to say “bones and muscles” hold the rifle up.  Bones are structurally rigid and can’t be removed from the equation unless there is something to set the rifle on or suspend it from.  Obviously the loop sling is not capable of replacing the structure that bones provide.


It should be apparent at this point that the tension of the sling takes the place of the muscles between the origin and insertion of the loop.  When optimally configured with the support hand wrapped in the sling and front swivel used as a hand stop (as pictured), those muscles include the biceps and all the muscles that control the wrist, hands, and fingers.  Muscles, being subject to fatigue and errors of control and coordination, are major contributors to a shooter’s arc of movement.  Eliminating their necessity and use whenever possible is the mark of a skilled and efficient rifle shooter.


Limitations of the Sling:

Recognizing what the loop sling does not do is just as important as knowing what it does.  The simple loop sling has very little ability in assisting, supplementing, or replacing any muscle outside the length of its span.  The little ability is does have in this regard is due to the tension that is imparted toward the interface of the rifle butt in the shoulder.  This is why Jeff Cooper was correct in his adamancy that the benefits of the loop sling could only be fully realized with the support elbow planted, whether that be on the ground, a solid object, the knee, or somewhere else.  If the support elbow is not planted, many muscles are brought into play in order to keep the elbow raised and the posture of the body in the shooting position.  This does not negate the effects of the sling within the length of its span, but it does minimize the significance of those effects to a large degree.

Also, some of the potential benefits of the sling, particularly those involving the muscles governing the hand, are dependent on the use of a handstop when shooting with a loop sling.  Without some kind of handstop the support hand will need to grip the forend.  The location of the support hand will also be subject to potentially (very likely) greater variability.  Consistency is important, so the lack of handstop and the resulting variation in location, coupled with the need for muscular input will likely compromise precision.  Target shooters use purpose built handstops.  The rest of us use our front sling swivels, so the location of the front swivel is another important component of rifle fit



In the next installment I will examine the influence of individual sling designs on how the sling functions as a marksmanship aid to enhance precision.


Confidence, Part 3: On Demand

The time I spent focusing on shooting from a standing position recently was definitely time well spent.  I have to confess that there was a huge disparity in my level of confidence between dry fire and live fire that was present only in the standing position.  It would not be a great exaggeration to say that I felt like I could hit the head of a pin at 50 yards in dry fire, but I worried about missing a full sheet of paper at the same distance in live fire.  This feeling used to be a lot worse.

When I shot my standing groups in June of 2011 in preparation to launch this blog, I almost had a feeling of anxiety about the group I was shooting.  Dry fire had felt so stable, and live fire was feeling almost unimaginably unstable.  I didn’t generally think my ’06 had a lot of recoil, but I picked up a flinch in short order and it was enough to add to the nervousness.

I made a point recently to get to the range almost every week and shoot a few groups from standing.  The regularity of both dry fire and live fire was helpful.  It made the disparity in feeling between the dry fire and live fire stand out that much more.  What I started noticing was that I was not confident in my ability to make the shot on the 4” target from 50 yards, although in dry fire, I could usually break the shot with the sight very near a target the equivalent of about half that size.

I also noticed that the process of breaking a shot during dry fire was almost casual while in live fire I would hover over a sight picture afraid to disturb it by pressing the trigger.  Too long a hold puts a strain on one’s oxygen supply and everything starts to degrade, so generally things only get worse with hesitation.  Some of the problem was that I had to reinforce my follow through to a point where I could extend my fundamentals through the break.  Another part was a lack of awareness of my balance breaking down which I addressed last month.  Those were all contributing problems, but they were not the primary contributors.

To increase my confidence in live fire, I moved closer to the target, up to 35 yards.  All the shots were on target, but the group size was still mediocre.  As I moved back, the angular measurement of my group got smaller.  My confidence was improving, which allowed me to be more aggressive in my firing.

When I got back to 50 yards, I don’t know if it was a psychological hurdle, or that my ability to group was pushing the limits of my target size (probably both), but I had a setback in my angular group size for one group.  It was a good opportunity to observe the phenomenon of my performance choking a bit, and I quickly got back in form.

Why Did I Choke At the Range?  Aim small, miss small.

Here’s what I think was going on.  Calling shots in dry fire is a bit of an interpretive game.  Recently I would pick out a cluster of red berries on a tree outside and dry fire at them.  Many of the clusters were smaller than I’m capable of hitting on demand, but I was pretty happy if I could keep my shots within a certain radius, say a mil, from the center of the intended target (for reference a mil is 3.438 MOA, and the largest radius that will fit inside the 5 point scoring area on the standing portion of the AQT is 3.493 MOA).  However there are no stakes for “hitting or missing” because it’s dry fire.  Therefore I was accepting close misses in large proportions without worrying about it at all because the angular measurement of my total shots appeared to be consistent with a pretty good group size.

Another type of practice I did that had me frustratingly choking at the range was single hits on targets at both the 7 yard and 25 yard lines.  My practice in this venue was time driven.  To improve my times I would also accept a proportion of misses as part of getting faster.  This method of working speed is known as “zero or hero”, as opposed to a reliable “on demand” type practice that is more conservative.

I think that accepting misses in practice created a disparity between my attitude in dry fire and live fire.  In live fire I really don’t want to miss, and there is no credit given for misses, even if they would represent a decent group.  A 50% hit rate is garbage, in my opinion.  Thinking of it in that way made it clear to me that for the type of shooting performance I feel I need to be capable of, the zero or hero methodology is fatally flawed, and at maximum should be carefully employed in very limited doses.

Know Your Limits, Then Push Them

The old adage “aim small, miss small” is not applicable to people who don’t want to miss.  I think it’s actually a recipe for learning to miss.  Showing up to the range and wondering what’s going to happen may be exciting, but it does not foster confidence.  In my experience it caused me to be nervous when my performance was on the edge, even when the stakes were only photos of my groups in the internet.

A better approach is to be well aware of what you are actually capable of, then deliberately train to increase your capabilities incrementally.  It’s similar to using progressive resistance to get stronger.  It would be silly to go through the motion of deadlifting with no weights, then to head to the gym and attempt to do it for real with 500 pounds, just hoping for a good outcome.  A messed up back is something that gets one’s attention in a hurry, but for some reason a bad group is very easily written off as a fluke.

It’s important to be the type of shooter who hits the target.  Starting from a point where hitting the target is a given will train the mind to get hits as a matter of course.  Increasing the distance incrementally after hitting the target is well established will allow the shooter’s capabilities to grow.  He will also be able to discern what type of shots he can and cannot make, which will allow him to make informed decision on ethical shots in the field- with confidence.


Confidence, Part 2: The Other Half

Knowing the Objective

In the last article, I introduced the importance of confidence to the rifle shooter, which I defined as follows:

Confidence: A reasonable belief, based on prior measured performance, that there is a likelihood of successfully accomplishing a given task, where the performer has knowledge of the necessary requirements for that task.

I thought it was similar in principle to a quote by Sun Tzu that I have read many times:

“One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.  One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat.  One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.”

In modern terms, and with respect to shooting, to “know oneself” is to have a handle on one’s measured performance (preferably with reference to a standard).  What does it mean to “know the enemy”?  The ‘enemy’ in this context is the objective, whether it actually is an enemy, or is a target dimension, distance, and environmental data, or perhaps a known course of fire.

Going into a task blind is like rolling the dice.  No matter how good a shooter is, without knowledge of the problem he is going to solve, he cannot have real confidence.  Feeling confident in such a situation is foolhardy, which I would define as overconfidence.  The only acceptable way to proceed in such a situation is to accept that you don’t know what the outcome will be and do your best, which I would define as uncertainty.

Example: The AQT

I started shooting the Appleseed AQT in 2009.  Of course I showed up with some pretty green rifle skills not knowing how I might do.  I was optimistic not only for a ‘rifleman’ score of 210, but secretly hoping that I might even score a perfect 250.  I ended up with I the high 220s or low 230s.  Between events over the next few years I would do something to get better, and show up hoping to shoot a 250.  It wasn’t until October 2014 that I figured out that I should do something about knowing my objective.

I realize that at any point I could have just pulled out an AQT target and shot it.  The idea of practicing on the AQT just doesn’t appeal to me for some reason.  I understand that specificity in training is theoretically ideal, but the AQT is more of a guilty pleasure, like pizza.  I don’t want it to color my training in such a specific way, and I need my primary diet to consist of meat.  I also think I can get the data I need in ways that will make it more generally applicable to my shooting.

Instead of using my past scores as a barometer of how well prepared I am (was) to shoot a 250, I did some figuring a while back.  I measured the largest radius that would fit inside the 5 ‘ring’ on each stage of the target.  I still think in terms of extreme spread, so I also converted the number to a diameter. The scoring areas are not circular, so I do still have some extra margin for error.  When I cannot be precise I like to be conservative, so I’ll have some extra wiggle room on “the day”.  I converted the measurements to minutes of angle at the correct distance, 25 meters (approximately 27.34 yards).  This allows me to shoot at any distance and relate it to this particular standard.  I even have a section on my spreadsheet that tells me at what distance my ‘standard’ target is equivalent to the size of the 5 ring and the ‘V’ ring for each stage.  This is especially nice because I can be working on pretty much anything and still relate it back to that specific goal.

Whereas I used to ‘hope’ that I might show up and shoot a 250, when I am able to keep my shots within a certain radius with an acceptable amount of deviation (point of aim to point of impact) in each shooting position and time limitation, I will have confidence that I will shoot a 250.  I realize it’s not a guarantee, but it’s a reasonable belief based on prior measured performance, where I have good knowledge of the task at hand.


Confidence, Part 1: Understanding


Confidence: A reasonable belief, based on prior measured performance, that there is a likelihood of successfully accomplishing a given task, where the performer has knowledge of the necessary requirements for that task.

Overconfidence- an unreasonable or misplaced belief in one’s abilities without a thorough evaluation of one’s skill and/or knowledge of the requirements of the task at hand.

Uncertainty- doubt in one’s ability to perform based on inexperience, lack of knowledge of one’s own abilities, or of the challenge difficulty.

Confidence is an indispensable tool for a rifle shooter.  There are many technical processes involved in firing that need to flow along unimpeded for the shot to be released correctly.  If doubt creeps in the chain of those processes gets disrupted, causing the level of one’s abilities to be upset.  Lack of confidence can therefore cause the shooter to miss a shot he would otherwise be capable of.

On the other hand, overconfidence can cause a shooter to make decisions that can lead to a miss.  Mistaking internet lore as normal reality, conflating 3 round groups or bench groups with realistic hit probabilities in the field, or even thinking that the extreme spread of a 10 round group is indicative of the extremes of one’s limits are just a few ways to fall into the trap of overconfidence.  Having a belief in abilities that one does not possess (credit to Derrick Bartlett for that line) is a sad way to exist.

In my own shooting, up until last year perhaps, I experienced a cycle of overconfidence followed by uncertainty.  Those conditions are both associated with a lack of information.  I do not believe I was alone in this respect, and believe that most rifle shooters are in this cycle as well.  I confused what I wanted to be able to do with what I should  be able to do.  I repeatedly set myself up for failure by expecting a mythical standard, and repeatedly being confronted with what I actually was able to do.  I can tell you that the drive home from the range is a downer when the expectations were set too high on the way into the shooting.

How does one cultivate real confidence to take on a given task?  A quote from Sun Tzu came to mind:

“One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.  One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat.  One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.”

The first piece of the puzzle is to know what you are capable of as a shooter.  What you think or hope you can do is not valid data.  A paper target will not lie, but I’ve sure seen that it’s not uncommon for people to interpret what the target tells them in creative ways.  The ego can lead a person to near blindness in order to protect itself.  It’s necessary to fire enough shots to have a valid sample with which other shots taken in similar conditions can be predicted, and then to accept each shot regardless of how badly you wished you hadn’t fired it.

Measuring performance can be difficult, but it’s a step that can’t be skipped.  To make it easier to figure out where to begin, some of the primary variables to take into consideration are time, terrain, and the target.  They are all related, and all will be components of how difficult and demanding the shot will be in the field.

Terrain presents an overall context to the shot and will likely be a decisive factor in determining the shooting position.  That indicates a need to test enough positions to cover the possibilities of height requirements, with and without support.  The amount of time available to fire a shot is inversely proportional with the difficulty of that shot, everything else being equal, so it’s necessary to know what happens to your performance in a time crunch.  The target generally chooses the terrain, sets the time limitations, and its own size finishes off the formula of shot difficulty.  Actually an additional factor is what the target is doing in terms of movement, but to make the matter of measurement one that can be practically carried out we can put it off until later.  For one method of combining these measures, see my October 2014 archives, in which the entire month was a presentation of my position analyses.

Until you are able to accurately and precisely measure your performance you will not, as Sun Tzu says, “know yourself”, and if he is correct, you’ll be subject to defeat in every engagement.  Shooting in a consistent way and measuring it is work. There is no way around that, but work is required to get most worthwhile things done.


2015 looks to have a greater likelihood of stability in my life to actually plan some things and work to accomplishing them in an organized fashion.  Up to this point I have mostly succeeded in making a strong foundation on which to realize some of the things I naively thought I should be able to do a long time ago.

Starting off on the right foot, I decided to come into the year with a good zero.  I made a special trip out to the range to verify last week:


I am still going to be using a 4” target as the basis for my development for the foreseeable future.  I only really cracked the surface of the implications of a small, fixed sized target, and I want to see what the meat of it looks like.

1. Clean the Appleseed AQT. Due date 4/19/14.

I have recently come a long way to be able to realize goal this with my standing work in the past two months.  At this point I predict that I could clean the standing stage approximately 75% of the time.  I need to get better, but I hit a plateau, and I don’t see laying siege to it in the next few months as a worthy use of my time.  I’m going to cycle off of that intensive work in standing and roll into a maintenance cycle as a tertiary level priority.

At the last Appleseed I went in completely cold and was able to clean stage 3 (rapid prone) every time but one (if memory serves).  That leaves sitting and slow prone work as a second level priority.  I’m going to work on the following other things as primary up to March.

2. Complete the positional analysis work that I started last fall. I don’t see that work as a fixed metric of my ability, but rather a comparative analysis of what the positions do best and how to use them most appropriately. The work I have yet to accomplish there is measuring the speed of each position in attaining one shot from a standard ready position, and to measure the speed of transitioning to different targets.  Due date, February 14th.

3. Partially concurrent with the above goal, I am shifting my AR shooting into improving my abilities in the distance spectrum inside 100 yards. Using the 4” target, combined with the imminence that using a gun in this range of distances brings, make this a particularly challenging workspace.  It is a big weakness right now, and I’ll work on that in the early part of the year, tapering off in March.  By March 1st I would like to be able to pass the DD25 drill in 20 seconds, all hits, on my 4” target.  This is not a hard goal, rather an exploratory one, as I need to figure out what I don’t know yet first.

That will be enough to keep me busy in the short term.  In the long term I am very interested in working moving targets to a level of comfortable familiarity and a known ‘on demand” performance.  I need to figure out a good way to do that.  I’m also interested in getting back into competition, and maybe seeing what 3-Gun is all about.

There are some general improvements in methodology that I think will help me make better progress than I have been.

1. Record my observations more carefully at the time I do my shooting and dry fire work. There have been a lot of times when I had to guess back at the reason something happened a certain way. It’s harder to address a poorly defined problem, so I’m going to be more methodical in recording what I see and feel during shooting.

2. Make more methodical use of drills. This morning someone asked me about drills that I use.  I really couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head.  I tend to work more as a process than as an input/output cycle, but I’m going to try to deliberately come up with ways to address specific aspects of performance and share them.

That’s all I have.  It’s modest, but if I try to plan my entire year it will be a waste of time.  Let’s make it into Spring first.

Assessment of 2014

2014: The year of learning my current limitations and not being upset when I encounter them.

It was a disorganized year.  I came into it with what I thought was a lofty goal, but was more of a vision statement.  In the meantime a bunch of opportunities fell in my lap and I pursued the year’s shooting in sort of a semi-random, inductive fashion that worked out really, really well.

If I had done only one of the following, the year would have been a win:

  • Learn in depth about shot groups and zeroing
  • Medium term test of approximately $10000 worth of high end optics in a unique way that taught me what I actually needed in a close to mid-range scope.
  • Learning how to statistically analyze my shooting to get at least an indication of what my limitations are.
  • Finally experience the “AHA!” moment of how extreme spread is not nearly as useful as some of the other measures, that in this modernized world are extremely easy to obtain.
  • Gained a deeper understanding of what follow through is. I think this will make a huge difference in not only offhand, but every position.

I realized that my ‘goal’ was not something that was sufficiently measureable to actually attain.  What I did instead was orient myself to where my performance actually was, which is actually a significant accomplishment, and is really a prerequisite for any effective goal setting and achievement.

In 2014 3040 rounds were fired through the Noveske.  A good deal of that was in scope testing and load testing.  Approximately 500 rounds were spent at an Appleseed.  I would guess that I dedicated 300 rounds or so solely to standing practice.  I didn’t do any real rapid fire stuff with it, as I didn’t want to shoot out the barrel.  I’m removing that limitation this year.

I received my upgraded FN PBR-XP from the gunsmith in April.  Since then, I’ve fired a modest 795 rounds through it in 2014.  That tube still has a lot of life in it.

I don’t know how many rounds I’ve fired through other guns, probably a thousand pistol and a couple thousand through my beater AR.  I would guess 300-500 through the Remington 700, which is getting a new Bartlein right now.

Best Articles:

I literally cannot believe that no one commented on my fake Trigger Aficionado cover.  I put at least 20 minutes into making that thing:

trigger aficionado

Things I could have done better on:

In my enthusiasm for collecting and analyzing data, I included a lot raw data and notes in my blog.  I wrote approximately 102,967 words over the course of 106 blog posts, even with taking most of March and all of April off.  That’s approximately ten articles a month with an average of 971 words per article.  That’s too long for easy reading, so I made it too hard to convey my points over the year, which caused you to either strain unnecessarily to find them or to miss them.  I’m sorry.

Not related to shooting, I moved twice.  I can’t say that I recommend it.  It caused a lot of stress and I had to put a lot of things on the backburner.

I wish that I had conducted my testing of loaned gear in a timely manner.  It was probably annoying to be on the other end of that, and I wish that I had been more timely and held up on my end of things better.

In the next article I’ll make some plans for my improvement in the next year.