By: Serena Juchnowski
“Relay one, claim your firing point.”
The nerves set in. The line grows quiet as everyone prepares for the offhand portion of the competition. Deemed by some as “awful hand,” many competitors dread the standing stage of the high power service rifle courses of fire.
The Prep Period
NRA High Master and Distinguished Rifleman Roy Mitchell says the standing stage poses particular challenges because of shooters’ physical limitations and mental barriers.
Shooters have some time at the ready line – the line behind the firing line – before they are called to shoot. The time spent on the ready line varies from match to match, from just a few minutes to half an hour, depending on weather and shooter responsibilities. All individuals who are not safety officers, currently shooting, recording scores, or pulling targets should remain behind the ready line until they are called to the firing line.
When a relay, or set of shooters, is called to the firing line, they have two minutes to move their gear. Following the two minutes is a three-minute preparation period during which time competitors may handle their rifles. All of this prep precedes either a ten minute, ten-shot offhand string (Civilian Marksmanship Program National Match course of fire), or a twenty-two minute, twenty-shot, two-sighter offhand string (National Rifle Association 80-shot match course).
For readers unfamiliar with high power terminology, a string is basically a series of shots taken from a single position. Standing is both a position and a stage, or section of a match. Typically, one string refers to ten shots, so a twenty-shot stage would consist of two ten-shot strings. Any series of shots for a score, not just ten, can be considered a string.
Efficiency and Improvement
There is no one way to shoot standing that works for everyone, of course, but after watching from the pits as Roy Mitchell cleaned an offhand target, I decided to consult him about his technique.
To maximize dry firing time during the preparation period, Mitchell recommends that competitors set up their scope and stand at the ready line. Basic offhand equipment includes an offhand box or container to hold rounds close to the body, a timer, score book, and single-loading or extra empty magazine. Having a dedicated magazine for offhand can help add weight to the rifle, depending on the magazine used, and also prevents the shooter from having to load rounds into a magazine before the subsequent rapid-fire sitting string.
Mitchell told me that once he had memorized all of the basics of the standing position and found ways to economize his time, he looked for ways to improve his scores. He noted his scores really started to go up when he added a piece of surveyor’s tape as a small wind flag to his spotting scope stand. Many shooters do not worry about wind at the 200-yard line, but, “It’s important what the wind’s doing at the muzzle,” Mitchell said.
Wind Call, Ability, and Equipment
“If you are High Master, you should be worrying about both [the wind and tight groups]. Shoot a tight group and make the right wind call,” Mitchell said.
A ten or “X” is the highest value a person can score for a single shot, and it is ideal if a competitor can hold a group that will fit in the ten ring. Being able to shoot a group (several shots in the same area) proves a shooter’s consistency. As a person improves, his or her groups get smaller or tighter. The reason rifles have adjustable sights is so the shooter can move his or her group from wherever it lands on the target to the center. A rifle out of the box will very rarely land shots in the center of a target without sight adjustments.
Everyone sees through a rifle differently. The size of the group is contingent upon the shooter’s ability and skill level, and getting a tight group takes a lot of practice and work. The group’s center, by contrast, can be easily adjusted. The sight settings for elevation and windage that will land a bullet in the center of the target at a certain distance is called a zero. Zeroes can change from day to day, from shooter to shooter, from rifle to rifle, and from range to range. Having a zero you are confident in as a starting point is an absolute necessity.
Mitchell notes that environmental factors such as wind can change a bullet’s impact, even at the 200-yard line. Even if a person is aiming at the center of a target and is able to shoot a tight group, the wind may move those shots slightly out of the center of the target. In other words, the wind has made sight adjustments necessary.
To avoid the problem of a tight group in the wrong spot, which can cost a competitor points, Mitchell likes to adjust his sights so that even with some wind, most of his shots will land in the X-ring, as opposed to the ten ring or some lower value. At the most advanced level, match wins are determined by X-count. For most shooters, though, wind is not a significant concern during the offhand string. It will not take you from shooting 6’s to shooting X’s. Wind reading can be incredibly complex, and while nearly essential to good long-line scores, it will not typically make or break a beginning or intermediate shooter at the short line.
The key to the entire process is confidence. One must be confident in one’s wind call, ability, and equipment. It is imperative that the beginner, intermediate, and advanced competitor know exactly how his or her rifle shoots. Just as every person is different, Mitchell asserts that each barrel has its own “personality.” Everyone should spend some time finding the best load for his or her rifle. A talented shooter may shoot scores below his or her ability because of poorly performing ammunition or equipment, which is not, by the way, an excuse for poor scores, especially at the 200-yard line; it’s simply a reminder for those who have hit a plateau in their scores.
Finding Your Natural Point of Aim
Every individual has to find his or her own standing position. Even so, there are some rules that apply to most shooters. Mitchell advises competitors find a good spot to stand on before they even bring their rifle to the line. He keeps his toes slightly higher than his heels. If the ground does not permit this, digging one’s heels into the ground can help. The standard is to plant feet about shoulder-width apart, though I personally ten towards a slightly wider stance. Landmark where you plan to stand (you can use something handy, like a shooting stool) so you don’t lose your spot.
When putting on a high power coat, remember to unzip the zipper on the sleeve if your coat allows. Doing so will help it not to bunch up as much. All buckles should be tightly fastened, but Mitchell warns against buckles hindering breathing. He stands with his legs crossed to make himself as narrow as possible before tightening the middle of his coat first, before moving on to the remainder of the buckles. He then takes a breath. If it feels a little tight, he loosens a few of the middle buckles so he can breathe without feeling too constrained. The nature of a high power coat is restraining and helps stabilize your position, but Mitchell finds that a little bit of “belly breathing” helps his offhand shooting.
Keep the spotting scope close enough to you that you can look through it without turning around or moving your feet, but far enough away that you won’t knock it over. Moving your feet disrupts your natural point of aim (NPA). When you take any position to shoot, the rifle naturally wants to end up in a certain spot. You may move or “muscle” the barrel of a rifle so the sights go where you want them to, but this process is not advisable, since it is not very consistent and can lead to bad shots and muscle fatigue.
It is best, rather, to adjust your position so the firearm points directly at the target without you having to physically move the gun. This position is what is meant by a shooter’s natural point of aim. To find your NPA during preparation time, mount your rifle, close your eyes, and breathe. Open your eyes. If the rifle hovers over the middle of your target, your NPA is good. If your sights are lined-up on another target or somewhere above, below, or in-between, you should adjust your NPA. To do so, pivot one foot (people usually move the back one). Be careful not to lock your knees in the process. Though it can be tempting, locking your knees restricts blood flow through your legs and can be detrimental.
Making Use of Triangles for Balance
Shooting offhand is all about triangles. Triangles are the sturdiest shape, so forming triangles within your position – between your arm, hip, and the rifle – can help stabilize you. The elbow of the arm opposite your firing hand should rest against padding on your coat or in some other stable location. Women can often rest their elbow directly on or just inside their hip bones.
Everyone has a wobble zone. The goal is to minimize it, so that it is ideally ten-ring wide, or no larger than seven inches in diameter on a 200-yard high power target. This is a goal. Mitchell recognizes that beginner and intermediate shooters sometimes have to accept disappointing scores and work toward improving them.
Another key to balance is keeping one’s ears level. To do this, bring your sights or scope to your eyes, rather than bringing your eyes to the sights or scope. Once you find a head position that works for you – remember it! Much of high power success is tied to repetition: gripping the rifle the same way, having the same cheek weld, consistent stock placement, and consistent loads.
Trigger control is another key element of the standing position. Shooters generally want to shoot in the center, or the black region of the target. At 200 yards, the black scoring rings are the nine ring and ten ring. At 200 yards, the diameter of the black is thirteen inches. It takes time for a competitor to memorize how much pressure to apply to the trigger and when to apply it to stay in the black. Mitchell describes the process as, “Becoming more self-aware of what you are actually doing versus what you think you’re doing.”
Try Different Positions
Try different positions, starting with the fundamentals. Greater scores inevitably come with practice and sending more shots down range. During the winter, offseason, and other times of year, practice offhand by dry-firing, going through all of the motions of an offhand shot without ammunition. Even then, of course, be sure to follow all firearm safety rules and keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times.
You can also cross-train with other disciplines, such as silhouette shooting. Shooting without a coat on is much less stable, but it allows you to learn a lot about your stance, your hold, and your trigger control. Both Roy Mitchell and I have found occasionally practicing offhand without gear on to be useful. If you can shoot well without a coat, a coat will only improve your hold and increase your steadiness.
Remember, offhand is not your enemy. As Mitchell told me, “It’s just another position for you to master.”
Update: Roy Mitchell was just declared the 2018 Ohio State Service Rifle Champion. The author was Top Woman and Top Junior in the same match.
Serena Juchnowski is a high power service rifle competitor and regular contributor to Junior Shooters magazine, writing from Ohio. Contact her at [email protected].