Rifle Fit: Length of Pull

Disclaimer: This article is based only upon personal observations
based on personal practice with the rifles I own.  I have no experience
with fine English doubles, specially fitted stocks, highfalutin safari guns
that sell for $32,000, etc…

If any of you have special experience in this regard, please leave a comment.

Running a bolt action rifle efficiently and effectively involves bringing a number of actions and elements into harmony.  You must bring the rifle quickly to the shoulder.  You must get the head into a position that places the eye properly in relation to the scope or sights.  You must be able to actuate the trigger without disrupting the alignment of the sights.  When all this occurs, you must then work the bolt, which in my opinion should be done without breaking the cheekweld.  Also, again in my opinion, you should be able to do all of the above from both the strong and weak sides (ambidextrous operation).

All of the necessary components mentioned above place competing demands for the proper length of pull.  It’s like putting together a 3D puzzle.  If you change one thing, everything else is affected.

Length of pull is defined as the distance from the trigger to the rifle butt.  Most of us buy a gun and use it as-is.  Most rifles tend to come from the factory with a length of pull in the 13.25” to 13.75” range.  My Sako has a 14.25” LOP.

I’m not sure if a “perfect” length of pull exists other than a design built from the ground up for that specific person with a specific person in mind, or purely by an unlikely coincidence.  The requirements for perfection of length of pull will change if the rifle is to be used in more than one position.  Perhaps this is what confounds the rifle shooter who is able to use different positions.  Unlike a trap or skeet shooter, or maybe someone on Safari, the one “perfect” fit may not exist.

One of the most important things that is affected by LOP is eye relief.  It’s absolutely necessary that your eye ends up in the right spot when you shoulder the rifle.  You should see a clear sight picture with edge to edge clarity.  This is not as easy as it sounds unless, as stated above, you only shoot from one position.  What works from a bipod in prone will not work the same way if you shoot with a sling in prone.  Your eye will be farther away with the bipod.  In a seated position with the sling, your eye will likely be as close or closer than in prone with the sling.  In offhand your eye will be farther back, maybe as far as farther than bipod prone.  Kneeling will bring you just a bit closer than offhand.

Here’s a list of positions with eye relief from farthest to closest (in my experience):
-Urban Prone
-Hawkins
-Standard Offhand
-Kneeling
-Generally improvised support positions would fall in here somewhere
-Bipod Prone
-Carbine style offhand
-Rice Paddy Prone
-Open Leg Sitting
-Crossed Ankle Sitting
-Unsupported prone with sling
-Crossed Leg Sitting

I find that from offhand to open leg sitting I can find the proper eye relief.  If I work a bit, I can get it in crossed ankle sitting  Urban prone is just a mess, as it works better with 1x sights like the EoTech and Aimpoint.  With the up close positions like prone with sling or the seated positions, in which I’m so close to the ocular as to make correct eye relief impossible, I try to get the shaded area to be equal around the edge of the ocular lens.  I just try to avoid crossed leg sitting altogether (there must be other, more fun ways to draw blood than from getting slammed in the forehead).

Eye relief is not just a length of pull issue.  It can usually be adjusted somewhat in how the scope is mounted, although this is limited by scope design, ring height, location of the base(s) on the rifle.  What would also be nice is if the scope had a forgiving range of usable eye relief.  If you have $4000 to spend on glass, I hear that the Hensholdt scopes are great in terms of “eyebox” flexibility.  Whether this pertains to eye relief specifically, I don’t know.

The Leupold scope on my Sako has an eye relief that changes depending on magnification.  It gets longer with low magnification and vice versa.  I’m not sure if this is by design or not.  I have gotten used to it and generally think that it works well.  Look at the list, and you’ll notice that with a few exceptions, the positions with closer eye relief are generally the ones that offer more precision.  It would ultimately be nicer if the eye relief was consistent throughout the magnification range, yet offer at least the same amount of variation that my Leupold changes from 3.5-10x.  More on length of pull and eye relief later.

Another, and in my opinion, more relevant and direct result of length of pull is the ability to cycle the bolt without breaking cheekweld.  This is an area in which I think the Sako’s long LOP has been an asset.  My action is made to work with a 30-06 length cartridge.  I have never been in a shooting position that necessitated moving my head to dodge the bolt.  I have been close enough for the bolt to touch my face when cycling, but not for it to be painful, but I have a really, really fat face (now you know why I black it out).  I don’t know if I could reduce the LOP and still make this claim.

In the wonderful Norwegian rifle competitions, the shooters with the Sauer STR rifles chambered in 6.5×55 have to move their heads to dodge the bolt.  They are able to do this consistently and quickly enough to get multiple successive hits on a head size target at 250 meters at a rate of fire of approximately a round per second (not including the time it takes to change mags).  I don’t know if this is purely a function of LOP, because their sighting system and bolt technique will also place requirements on the rifle setup (these things will bring them closer to the receiver).  What I am saying by bringing up the Norwegians is that if you have to move your head, do what they do.  Make the movement very small, very quick, and very consistent.

Length of pull is often brought up in the context of how naturally and quickly the rifle can be shouldered.  A common guideline is that if the butt is placed against the bicep with the stock and forearm running parallel, the correct LOP would place the finger comfortably on the trigger.  After a bit of experimentation, I think that this guideline is probably sound and represents a good starting point.  That measurement for me indicates a good “starting point” of 13.5”.  Since I’m used to the 14.25” LOP, 13.5” feels short from the snapshot without any “re-indoctrination” time, although I’m sure I could get used to it.  I tried a rifle with a 13.0” LOP that’s known for its naturally pointing characteristics, and it felt ridiculously short.  I think that within a range, you can get used to a rifle and become quite good without a “perfect custom fit”.

Another piece of the LOP puzzle is how it affects your ability to reach the bolt knob.  I think that this is the reason that most rifles come with the 13.5ish inch LOP.  It can just be hard for me to reach the knob in positions like prone with sling.  This is why I came up with the alternate bolt technique that I wrote about here.  I could only reach the knob with my fingertips in those positions.  The Norwegians, on the other hand, keep their bolts gripped by their thumb and forefinger throughout the firing cycle in prone, and they appear to sling up tight.  Then again, they have to dodge the bolt, which I am not willing to do.

One thing that I have not been able to do in regard to bolt technique and my long LOP is to work the bolt in sling supported positions left handed.  I just… can’t… reach… it.  And it’s not like the Wonder Twins, where they could magically close that last foot by stretching somehow.  I really… just… can’t… reach… it.  If I had an inch less, maybe I could reach it.
Going back to finding some kind of ideal, or designing the perfect system from the ground up… Winchester, call me, we’ll talk.  You’re gonna thank me for this.

To everyone else, what I think would work best is an action designed specifically for a cartridge that makes use of all those great modern advances in ballistics.  I’m thinking of something like the 6.5×47 Lapua.  This is approximately 16 mm (0.63”) shorter than my ’06.  This gives the bolt less length to hit me in the face.  Even a .308 Win or .260 Rem would be short enough, and would be more widely and currently available.  Incidentally, it makes for a lighter and stiffer action.  Shorten the LOP to 13.5”.  Put a scope on that offers flexibility in eye relief.  That would be as close to ideal as I can think of for a bolt action rifle.

Consider this now…  what if working the bolt was taken completely out of the equation?  Yes, I’m talking about a semi-auto.  That would make the puzzle easier wouldn’t it?  The only considerations would be how the rifle shoulders and eye relief.  Then consider how a stock that adjusts on the fly for LOP would affect your ability to find the correct eye relief in a multitude of positions.

I know that many of you are dyed in the wool bolt action/wood stock kind of guys.  I am too.  I’m just investigating something that seems to make sense from a practical shooting angle.

15 thoughts on “Rifle Fit: Length of Pull

  1. One, I believe Cooper and McBride suggest twisting the rifle clockwise when cycling the bolt so that it misses your face. Unfortunately, this results in loosing cheekweld, at least partially.

    Two, is consideration of the location of your head on the comb; maybe it is too far forward.

    I have had the same problem of the bolt hitting the face. I tried one above which worked but then decided to consciously try to not move or lean my face forward when mounting the rifle and it seems to work.

  2. As per your Qualifying intro- What works for the individual and why. Things change with age(duh) As I am near 70 I have changed to a Youth Rem SPS lefthand 7mm-08 ,2×7 Burris with 1/2min clicks and ballisplex reticle that works for my load to 500 meters,do to neck problems I do not crawl the stock ,I keep my head and neck straight and mount the scope far as I can forward,though I have a long reach this set up works for me.Actual LOP is 12″ I learned to bring the rifle to the eye and not crane or “juke” forward like a shotgun shooter.The rifle has a 20″ bbl and is light ,so I didn’t want a big scope that overpowers the handling of the said rifle ,and I need 4″ of eye relief,and I haven’t had problems with bolt proximity to face

  3. Good stuff RS.

    I recall Cooper writing that in general, a shorter stock length of pull was easier to manage than a longer one for most people (within reasonable limits of course). I find that to be true for me. One of my rifles is so awkwardly long it is due for a stock trimming some time soon.

    While it is desirable to keep your cheekweld while working the bolt so as to not risk error when re-acquiring it for every shot, the Norwegians seem to be proof that enough practice makes for consistently repeatable cheekwelds.

    I find that prone with sling and crossed-ankle positions bring my face closest to the ocular lense, and set my scope far enough forward that eye relief is correct for those positions. In offhand I simply crawl the stock a bit, which blends in with my taking a more aggressive forward lean with my body, which helps resist recoil in offhand with a centerfire.

    Think carefully before deciding to customize your rifle’s stock for yourself, especially trying to set it up to be changeable for individual positions. While this may work well enough in a rigid, structured environment like bullseye target shooting, where you have that preparation period to get everything just right for that stage, it does not bode well for practical use in the real world. There is no prep period when still-hunting through the woods or sneaking across the alley in Fallujah.

    If, like Rawhider, you simply have to make your rifle fit you because you can no longer fit yourself to the rifle, that is one thing. But, you do not want to become one of those guys who, when picking up any other rifle than his own carefully customized piece, says “Oh, I can’t shoot this, it isn’t set up to fit me.” (whine whine whine etc.) An expert Rifleshooter should be able to pick up any rifle and adapt his/her self to it reflexively. This is how service rifle shooters must work in NRA highpower for multiple positions since the rifle cannot be modified from original configuration. In the field, there may be no time to “adjust your stock for position X”.

    Better to come up with an average generic dimension that is not too far off from factory standards, then study each position to see what you have to do to make yourself fit the rifle in that position, then practice each position until correct acquisition is thoughtless and reflexive.

    • For a good practice drill, I suggest the Rifle Bounce. A steel plate (pepper popper or 10″-12″ disk) each at 100, 200, 300 yards. Six rounds of ammo and an electronic timer or friend with a watch. Start standing with rifle at port arms, or how you would hold it while hunting. The 100 yard steel must be taken from standing. You must hit the current target once before you can progress to the next target. When you hit the 100 then step sideways a couple feet and from the position of your choice, hit the 200 yard steel once. Then move about 2 feet or so sideways and from the position of your choice hit the 300 yard steel once.

      That’s all there is to it. If you want to make it really challenging use 8″ steel disks or squares. Also, you can scale it down for rimfire using 4″ steel at 33, 66 & 100 yds, or 3″ steel at 25, 50, & 75 yds. If you hit all three before running out of ammo, your score is your time. If you run out of ammo before hitting all three, you zeroed out.

      This is a good drill which tests many things: breaking position, movement, and gaining position; efficient speed without error; wind drift and drop compensation at the furthest target (both centerfire at 300 or rimfire at 100). With the clock running, it helps keep you from wasting a second on unnecessary nonsense like twiddling with your scope or fiddling with your sling or stock (steel may sit there waiting forever for you to shoot it, but live targets won’t).

      One rifle, one setting for scope, sling, & length of pull, multiple targets at multiple distances requiring movement between multiple firing points, a time constraint, GO!!

      And then you should be able to borrow your buddy’s unmodified factory rifle, take a minute to get a feel for it, and then run the drill well with that.

  4. This is only half relevant becasue it’s a 10-22. I extended the stock until I could shoot prone with a bipod and not have my shoulder thrown forward for good contact with the butt stock.
    The suprising part was that I could finally get into a decent crossleg shooting position with the lenghtened stock.
    The downside was, in standing, having the weight of the rifle so far out required much practice to overcome.
    There are enough short rifles out there in the world and yes I can contort to shoot them pretty good.
    But there is nothing like the joy of fireing a rifle that fits.
    My lenght of pull is 15 3/4, I’m taller than many men and my arms are just a little longer than normal on a guy my size.

    • Even with how tall you are, that LOP seems longer than one would think you would need based on what the conventional wisdom would say. It makes me wonder if the conventional measurement is not as good a yardstick I as thought.

      David Tubb says that he uses a longer LOP than most, the German kid from the hog shooting video says that his LOP is long, my LOP is long, your LOP is long. If that doesn’t settle it I cannot possibly imagine what could.

  5. According to the old standard measurment of placing the butt of the rifle in the crook of the elbow, I really have to bend my wrist to reach back to the trigger.
    In other word I can reach the trigger with ample forearm, wrist, and hand length to not “drag wood”.

  6. IIRC, the old crook of elbow to trigger finger measurement is for shotguns and wing shooting. If you only shoot off the bench, a longer LOP works. If you’re shooting from field positions, not so much.

    It’s also much easier to shoot a stock that is too short than a stock that is too long. We used to know this-see M1 Garand, 1903 Springdield, etc.

    This is fairly easy to test. Simply get an AR15 with the collapsible stock and shoot it at each of the 6 adjustments from field positions. You’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll shoot and how much handier the rifle is when the stock is set shorter.

    I’m 6’1″, 175 pounds, wear a 44 regular jacket. 13.5 is too ling for me. 12.5 to 13 works much better.

    Semper Paratus,

    Steve

    • Steve,

      I appreciate your insight. I feel pretty much committed to wringing out the Sako for the foreseeable future, and at the moment the LOP seems to be working, but you did plant a seed in my mind, and I hope to revisit your idea some day. Thanks again.

  7. I realize I am dragging this one back from the dead, but I just re-read it. As you mentioned, Cooper stated it is easier to deal with a short length of pull rather than one that is too long. He was speaking, if I recall correctly, specifically of the 1903 Springfield, which has a length of pull of 12 3/4″. Oddly enough, the only rifle I own that I have not altered the length of pull to fit me is my ’03 with a “C” type, pistol grip stock. In my case, a length of pull that is too long greatly impacts bolt manipulation, especially when slung up tight. As a result, my “standard” length of pull is between 12.75 and 13 inches. I start out at 13 and shorten as required for stock fit and eye relief. I should also note that I tend to gravitate towards lower-powered scopes as well, which tend to be more forgiving of eye relief. They are also more forgiving during snap shooting, for what it is worth. Your mileage may vary, send no money now, you will be billed at a later date, etc….

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