Is Prone Shooting Position Best for Rifle Accuracy?

Accurate rifles and laser-flat loads bring game to bag only if you can keep your sight on target. Find out if the prone shooting position is the best way to do that.

Is Prone Shooting Position Best for Rifle Accuracy?

Practice cycling from prone, a restrictive position. Firing at game, you may need a second shot fast!

He lay like a beached crocodile, waiting for the wind. Finished, but down a point after shooting into a reversal, I had my scope on Johnny’s target. Seconds raced by. Then the mirage returned to a lazy 4 o’clock drift. His rifle snapped. An X. His hand flicked — up, back, down. The mirage stalled; so did Johnny. It picked up, and he fired again. A 10. Eight seconds left. Bang. Snick-snick. Bang. 10. X. At the buzzer, he dropped his sling, rolled over and with a handkerchief dabbed sweat from his brow. “Tricky out there.” I didn’t look happy. He smiled. “Sometimes you have to sleep through the switches.”         

Johnny Moschkau taught me a bit about keeping bullets in cranberry-size bullseyes. It’s all more useful than I could have thought 40 years ago — not just in competition, but in hunting. From prairie dogs to moose to Cape buffalo, prone has blessed me with game I’d not have shot from any other position.  

A tree sways in the breeze; only stiff wind makes a stout bush bend but a log on the ground doesn’t move at all. Offhand, or standing, you balance on your feet alone, your torso and the rifle weaving atop a stack of quivering muscles and wobbly joints. Kneeling and sitting, your center of gravity sinks closer to Mother Earth, three contact points helping you shoot more accurately. Prone, you’re supported over your body’s length, its center of gravity as close to ground level as you can bring it without digging a hole. 

There’s more to good prone shooting than just bellying down. As in other positions, natural point of aim matters. You want the rifle to relax onto the target. Forcing it there strains your muscles, which tire and quiver. At the shot, even before the bullet is gone, the rifle will suddenly relax off-target. Orient your body before you drop into prone. On the ground, you should only have to tweak your position. Practice falling prone to aim at a small mark, placing your feet, then knees so as your elbows meet the earth the sight pegs the target.

A solid prone position depends very little on muscles, mostly on bones to support the rifle. Bones have no pulse or nerve endings. They don’t tire. Unless you’re using a bipod, place your left elbow almost directly under the forend where it can bear the weight of the rifle with little effort. Your right elbow is the lazy leg of your “arm bipod.” But it’s still valuable support. Moving it slightly in or out, you can jack the barrel up slightly to clear grass or bring it down to minimize your profile on a ridgeline. Tradition has your legs spread behind you, knees straight, toes out, instep to the ground. I favor different geometry. Bending my right knee about 120 degrees rolls mid-section weight off my belly onto my left hip — onto bone. 

A bipod can pull most movement out of your sight picture. You’ll get best results if you push the rifle forward with consistent pressure. The remaining pulse-bump is the going price for a beating heart. A shooting sling can deliver equal accuracy, and I’ll choose it over a bipod on a predator rifle. It’s quicker to deploy, useful in sitting and kneeling as well as prone, and adds less weight and no chafing hardware to the rifle.

A carrying strap, incidentally, is not a shooting sling! The sling has an adjustable shooting loop. You adjust it so when encircling your left arm above your triceps, the loop comes taut to the front swivel, tugging the rifle into your shoulder. The sling must be slack from your arm to the rear swivel! If it isn’t, or if you’ve installed a carrying strap instead of a sling, tension on the stock’s toe pulls it away from your shoulder and cants or tips the rifle.

A soft pack helps this rifleman steady the rifle for a long shot. Rest the forend, never the barrel!
A soft pack helps this rifleman steady the rifle for a long shot. Rest the forend, never the barrel!

Before inserting your arm into the loop, give the sling a half-turn out. That way, when your hand comes over the sling to grasp the rifle’s forend behind the front swivel, the sling will lie comfortably flat against the back of your hand or wrist. 

My favorite sling for hunting rifles is the same now as it was 40 years ago. The Latigo Sling is of top-grain leather, tan or black, 1-inch or 11/4-inch width. You can get it with or without swivels. Unlike the heavier two-piece military sling, it has no brass hooks to bang noisily against your rifle and scratch the stock. Its only hardware is a two-piece brass button and a square ring at the base of the shooting loop. Prone, sitting or kneeling, a Latigo Sling can halve your group sizes. 

I’m hardly the steadiest marksman, but in rimfire prone competition have managed a few 10-shot, 100-yard groups the size of a quarter, and many five-shot, 50-yard knots that miked less than 0.4 inch. Without a sling, my bullets would have strayed all over the paper. 

Benefits of Prone

Going prone in the field has benefits that have nothing to do with position. On your belly you can lizard toward open-country game you’ve spotted from afar. If the animal does see you slithering toward it, you may not be recognizable. Once, caught flat-footed by a buck as I crested a rise, I could only watch as he bounced across a gulch and over half a mile of sage, slowing atop a brushy ridge. On a hunch, I swung wide, then crawled up that ridge, belly flat to the ground at the crest. Antler tips appeared about 50 yards off. Slowly I reeled in half that distance, then trained the rifle where I thought the deer would be. Steady in prone, I thumped my foot against the ground. He stood, then fell to my iron-sighted .300 Savage.

A month ago as of this writing, I was wriggling over a red sand hill in Namibia, not a wisp of grass for cover. Chin scraping a trail, I was low as a puff adder when the wind switched. Horn tips bobbed off toward the desert beyond. But the bull paused as the 8x57 came to cheek, barrel barely clearing the sand. Even this sharp-eyed hartebeest couldn’t identify me as the bead settled in the notch. Slinged up, elbows buried in the sand, I was bench-steady for the 100-yard shot. The bullet struck the shoulder, as intended. 

While prone shots may seem the antithesis of quick offhand pokes, you must still make smart use of time. Be prepared to short-stop an approach and fire quickly. When unable to advance but with no clear look, your lot is to wait, ready. An animal suddenly aware of a close threat will leave at full throttle.

Crawling for a prone shot, I have my sling snug on my arm. Then all that’s needed is to flip my left hand onto the forend, plant my elbows and fire. Years ago, after muffing a long sneak on a whitetail buck, I spied him bedded on a distant bench. I hiked, then crawled closer, finally bellying through shin-high grass. Alas, the earth was flat as a griddle, affording no peek. Loath to press on, lest he pick up my scent, I halted in weeds that opened in a small V over where I’d watched him bed. A breeze to my neck put my eye in the scope. He came up fast, shoulder sun-fishing in the V. My shot was away in the fraction of a second I had. He dropped on his nose.

Woodland Prone?

But prone isn’t just for open country. You’ll find it useful in cover to keep game from spotting you and to give you shot alleys below the limbs of trees, even bushes. Once, in open timber on a Montana hill, I heard an elk bawl just above. Bent double, I dashed across-slope and flopped behind a small grass clump, thumbing my Marlin. He broke cover at 50 steps, red-eyed, heaving, reekng of urine. Prone, I fired and threw the lever in one motion. Stricken, he galloped off, then halted where I couldn’t see. Carefully I snaked toward him. A gap in the foliage opened to a patch of rib. My second bullet found the heart. 

Remember as you practice prone shooting that even good hits on tough beasts can beg follow-up shots. Cycling a bolt rifle from the shoulder as you roll slightly left or jacking a lever as you give the rifle a counterclockwise twist should be second nature. If you don’t open actions smartly — a challenge from a tight prone position — cases can fail to eject cleanly.         

I had thought about that, hugging Zimbabwe earth 15 steps from a buffalo. An alley through the thorn would have ushered a solid from my .375 up the bull’s left nostril. My PH, hunched behind, silently nixed the idea. Shoulder shots were the rule. But he didn’t have my lizard’s-eye view, a prone-steady look through the sight. The animal was alert, nosing lazy air, not about to move. That hulking, mud-encrusted bovine would have collapsed instantly to my shot. But I held to protocol. Seconds later a flip of the breeze sent him off. I saw no more buffalo that week.

You might question the dearth of examples of predator kills here. Oddly enough, my hunting has yielded as many offhand shots as prone at foxes and coyotes. Hunters who call no doubt make the bulk of their kills sitting. Recently, a black-backed jackal fell to my .270 from a position neither easy to describe nor repeat! So it is when animals appear suddenly.

But were I limited to just one position afield, it would be prone. For sure. 

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