Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fundamentals of Marksmanship

Hoplophilia's Marksmanship Series

In the Marine Corps, the fundamentals of marksmanship are known as aiming, breathing, and trigger control. If you graduated from U.S. Army rifle training, they list the fundamentals as steady position, aiming, breath control, and trigger control (I'm mildly surprised there isn't an acronym for that: STAB). Both curricula are competent, but I'm going to take a different approach: body, sight, grip, recovery.


Perhaps the most dynamic of the marksmanship fundamentals, a shooter's body provides the foundation that supports the firearm. Equipment and stance are variables that change between different firearms, diverse environments, and depending on the particular circumstance or objective. However, regardless of these variables, the body should support the firearm in a manner that provides a natural point of aim.


When practicing and zeroing your firearm, it is important to wear the same clothing and gear you intend on wearing in the field. For police and security, this means wearing your ballistic vest, uniform, and any other tactical equipment you normally wear while on duty. For hunters, it means stepping into those thick overalls and winterized gear you'll be using to keep warm in the wilderness.

All the time at the range will become far less valuable as the additional layers of equipment will change the way you hold your firearm and throw off your point of aim, thus making your battle sight zero (BZO) inaccurate. That initial round may be well off target and force you to adjust or compensate when in a critical moment.


A shooter's stance, or position, is the manner in which the body supports the firearm. A stance should provide a stable platform for precise and accurate fire. A more solid position reduces sight movement, allows for faster recovery from recoil, and makes for more consistent shooting. While aiming a firearm, the shooter should avoid tensing the body and train non-engaged muscles to relax; this helps reduce unnecessary strain and movement.

Usually, the more points of contact between the weapon, body, and rigid structures produces more stability; however, there is also usually a trade-off between stability and mobility (firing from the prone position with a rifle is commonly considered the most stable stance). Stability may be sacrificed for mobility depending on the shooter's role and environment.


Breathing causes the body to move, which in turn imposes movement on the point of aim of the firearm. The body and sight picture will settle during the natural respiratory pause. This pause occurs for 1-3 seconds after exhaling and before inhaling. During this pause a shooter should take the shot. This is where practice and knowing your weapon becomes vital, as a long trigger pull may require the shooter to begin squeezing the trigger before the natural respiratory pause.

A shooter can artificially extend this pause for a few more seconds by holding their breath. However, overextending the natural respirator pause will elicit trembling as an oxygen deficit will occur in the muscles. Role and environment may prevent proper breath control, but knowing that if affects sight picture is still critical.

Natural Point of Aim

Ideally, once in a stance, the firearm should naturally rest with its point of aim on target. If this is not the case, and if role and environment allow, a shooter should adjust their stance or grip to ensure a natural point of aim. Achieving a natural point of aim reduce muscle tension which promotes faster recoil recovery and improves consistency.

A shooter can test for natural point of aim by snapping into position and ensuring proper sight picture and alignment. The shooter then closes their eyes, inhales, exhales, and opens their eyes upon the natural respiratory pause. If sight picture remains unchanged, natural point of aim has been achieved.


Probably the most important fundamental of marksmanship is sight. Issues with sight are also the hardest to diagnose as trainers cannot actually see what a shooter is seeing (yet, given enough time, there will no doubt be technology that supports this). Unless a shooter can establish proper sighting techniques and implement them consistently, then frustration and failure will soon follow.

Eye Relief

The distance between the rear sight aperture and the aiming eye is known as eye relief. When firing from a rifle, eye relief is dependent on stock weld, which is the firm point of contact between the cheek and the stock of the rifle. Regardless if firing long guns or side arms, the head should be as erect as possible as eyes function best when looking in their natural forward position. Though eye relief will vary between stances, it is important to maintain the same eye relief while firing from a particular stance. Changing eye relief changes the point of aim and therefore disrupts consistency.
Sight Alignment

When using iron sights, sight alignment is the horizontal and vertical relationship between forward and rear sights. If the sight uses a front post/blade and rear notch, like most pistols, the top of the front post needs to be flush with the top of the rear sight. When a circular rear aperture is present, like standard military rifles, the top of the front post needs to be centered within the aperture. The front sight also needs to be centered left to right within the rear sight. Sight alignment should not vary between sight adjustments.
Sight Picture

Sight picture is the placement of properly aligned sights on the target as well as the point of focus. The top of front sight is placed either centered on the target, known as center mass, or placed tangent to the bottom of the target, known as six o'clock hold or the lollipop method. The latter six o'clock hold method is usually preferred as it provides the most consistent sight picture.

During aiming, the shooter usually shifts focus between the rear sight (to ensure proper sight alignment), the front sight post (for proper sight picture), and the target (to observe additional threats or results from previous shots). Depending on the role and environment, the shooter may need to focus more downrange, but the optimum sight picture requires the shooter to focus on the front sight, known as a clear front sight tip. If the shooter is focusing on the target, there is a larger margin error due to the inherent blur of the out-of-focus front sight.


All the shooting action happens in the strong-side hand which holds the grip and activates the trigger. Offhand placement falls more under stance than it does grip, since how and where the offhand is used varies widely by role and environment.

Hand Placement

A firm grip is a prerequisite for effective trigger control, but the shooter should not engage the grip with more force than necessary for the trigger to be pulled without disturbing sight. This excessive force, also known as a death grip, can cause the firearm to be unsteady as it wobbles under muscle strain.

In order to obtain an appropriate grip, the shooter should position the natural "V" shape formed by the index finger and thumb of the strong-side hand high on the grip. It sometimes described as shaking hands with the grip.

Trigger Control

There are many nuances that fall under the domain of trigger control including finger placement, the pull, and reset. Finger placement is determined by the strength of the shooter and weight the of the trigger pull. Generally, the pad of the finger is placed on the trigger to prevent lateral movement, but for firearms with heavy trigger pulls, such as double-action revolvers, the first joint may need be used.

A proper trigger pull consists of a smooth, steady squeeze to the rear without lateral pressure that will cause disruption to sight. Disruption to sight caused by poor trigger pull is known as jerking the trigger. The discharge, or break, should actually surprise the shooter thus averting the flinching and tensing of the body, known as anticipation. A practiced shooter can learn to take the slack, or creep, out of the trigger while establishing sight promoting quicker shots.

Finally, the shooter needs to allow the trigger to reset after the break. The trigger finger should only move far enough to allow the action to reset which allows for faster recovery and follow-up shots. The shooter should attempt to reduce overtravel, which is the additional movement the trigger can make after the break.


Proper recovery allows the shooter to re-engage the target or engage additional targets quickly and accurately. Recovery is essentially following through after the break, managing recoil, and re-establishing sight.

Follow Through

Even though a bullet's velocity makes its travel through the barrel take mere milliseconds, it is important to continue the application of the fundamentals of marksmanship after the break. Doing so will improve consistency and allow the shooter to follow-up with additional accuracy shots.
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