Shooting Better by Staying Low

Prone, sitting or kneeling, you’ll get sandbag accuracy with these techniques and assists.

Shooting Better by Staying Low

“Take the shotgun!” We grabbed it as we left, dawn yet a promise. Scent had hooked the hounds yesterday, then pulled them over steeps and through jungles until night had drawn the curtain. While we gulped first coffees, they’d been loosed again, their native handler wise to the habits of caracals and keen to tree this big male. Miles on, we took a gravel track threading canyons and hopping passes. Atop a rough-hewn ridge we killed the engine, hoping to catch a far-away bellow in darkness still silent. The knob was an island afloat on thick gray mist. More black bumps stretched to the Indian Ocean.

We waited as predators and predator hunters do, restless, straining for evidence of prey. It came as a distant bump, as if a woodpecker had tentatively struck a hollow tree. Long minutes later, the hollow boom of a bluetick! Afoot, we plunged down into the bush. Faint light tugged us along a game trail until the clamor of the dogs pulled us off, through thorns and vines and contorted limbs of trees that sprawled rather than towered, as if to brace themselves on the near-vertical slopes. We scrambled up another ridge. Its crest suddenly amplified the din. The hounds were right here!

Twelve-bore in hand, Ken fought his way through the thicket ahead. It swallowed him in seconds. 

Then the bang — just one — and a crashing of limbs as the cat plummeted to earth. It was a magnificent male, long and red and heavy, with lynx-like ears, a caracal big enough to take antelopes as well as birds and hares. 

“About 8 yards,” Ken grinned. He’d fired offhand — his first with the ancient double. He’d not even loaded the stiff charge of No. 4s.

Local outfitter Charl le Roux had put us onto a wary nocturnal predator few hunters see on safari. The wizardry of his dog handler and five savvy hounds had brought my friend his shot. What a treat! But that’s not how most hunters stateside kill predators. The use of dogs has become a political issue. And many predators are more effectively taken with calls and/or from stands. Few shots come offhand at spit-wad range with buckshot or goose loads.

Equipped with an Arca rail, this Gunwerks rifle is fully tripod-supported in the shop and on the range.
Equipped with an Arca rail, this Gunwerks rifle is fully tripod-supported in the shop and on the range.

Practice Offhand

“You have to practice offhand,” said my coach long ago. “Low positions come easy.” Well, yes and no. They’re steadier than offhand because your center of gravity is closer to the ground, and because you have more contact with it — not just your two feet. But low positions beg high standards for accuracy. In the four-position rifle matches of my youth, a score of 91 or 92 offhand was very good. But sitting and kneeling tallies were expected to stay well above 95, and failure to “clean” the prone stage with a perfect 100 drew Earl’s “you can do better than that” sigh. 

Predator hunters can empathize, with shooters such as me who struggle offhand, and with Earl, who expected center hits from low positions. Coyotes and foxes are smaller than their winter coats make them appear. They’re only sometimes fully visible, standing side-to at known yardage. They seldom wait for you to quell your rifle’s quivers. Consistent hits from low positions are neither alchemy nor good luck. They’re the union of sound technique and physical assists.

An improvised rest is the obvious assist. Aware of every boulder, limb and stump, of fence posts and hillocks on which to plop that rifle, you’re on the path to center hits. Time to find a rest after you spot game is a luxury. The humiliation of wretched offhand shooting, suffered at a tender age, put me ever on the lookout for improvised rests.

Better with Bipods and Tripods and Slings

Bipods have gained traction from the trend to long-range competition and hardware that extends hunters’ reach. Among various types, the Harris is still most popular. Strong and reliable, it attaches to an Uncle Mike’s QD swivel stud and can be had with legs long enough to steady a rifle from the sit. It does add ounces and can chafe the shoulder on the carry. Every good thing has a price.

Whatever your bipod, get the most from it prone by “loading” it. That is, after you belly to earth, with bipod feet planted, press your body and the rifle forward, using your toes for leverage. This pressure cements your position and ensures the bipod feet are anchored. It also limits rifle movement at the shot, so coming out of recoil, you’ll quickly have the sight back on target.

Some sitting positions — especially knees up, heels dug on a slope falling away toward the target — beg higher support than most bipods offer. Enter the Arca (or Arca-Swiss) rail. Developed in the 1990s by a German firm, it comprises a grooved (dove-tailed) plate that slips into a clamp, which secures it. Think of a scope ring grabbing a grooved .22 receiver. Arca plates first appeared on big cameras, to marry bases on tripod heads; hence the system’s celebrity in photography and motion picture circles. But shooters find it steadies rifles, too. Unlike a bipod that becomes a rest for barrel and forend, a tripod joined by Arca rail to a rifle’s balance point can be its sole support. 

A ball head on an Arca-friendly tripod is as helpful under a rifle as under a movie camera. A CF (carbon fiber) 32 tripod from Athlon Optics recently absolved me of holding a Gunwerks rifle. With the CF 32 at proper height, I had only to add light pressure with cheek, shoulder and trigger hand to keep the sight on target. No joint wobble, muscle tremor or pulse bounce to send the bullet wild.

The Arca-Swiss union is one of those “surely someone thought of this in the 15th century” ideas. Basic in concept, it is not, however, easy to produce. Nor is it cheap. The plates are machined from high-quality alloy to precise dimensions. An Arca-compatible tripod is bulky, and even a CF version can weigh as much as a bull ’coon after a night in the corn. It’ll be a while before Arca rails proliferate on rifles for still-hunting big game or walking up coyotes.

Less an encumbrance and much less expensive is a shooting sling, such as the Brownells Latigo I’ve used on predator rifles for 45 years. Unlike a simple carrying strap that suspends your rifle on the carry, a sling helps improve your shooting accuracy by steadying the rifle in every position that anchors your left arm — that is, every position save offhand. Snugged above your left tricep, the loop is adjusted so it’s taut to the front swivel and slack from your arm to the rear swivel. The sling transfers the rifle’s weight from your arm to the big muscles in your left shoulder, which more easily bear the load. It also pulls the rifle into your right shoulder. Giving the loop a half-turn out as you slip it on keeps the sling flat on your wrist.

With a padded natural rest and one for his right elbow, this shooter adds finger pressure to the forend to steady the shot.
With a padded natural rest and one for his right elbow, this shooter adds finger pressure to the forend to steady the shot.

Shooting Positions

A requirement for fine accuracy from any position, with or without mechanical support, is your body position. Prone is steadiest because the earth supports your body from toes to elbows. The sling will appreciate help from a bag or your fist under the stock’s toe. As in other positions, the rifle should relax onto the target. Forcing it there strains your muscles, which tire, then shake. At the shot, even before the bullet exits, a forced rifle will relax off-target, onto its natural point of aim. So, before you drop to earth, orient your body to bring natural point of aim effortlessly on target. Practice “going prone” from standing, placing feet then knees so as elbows meet the ground the sight finds the target.

Ace competitive shooters rely on their bones to support the rifle. Bones don’t tire or carry pulse. Best technique: Unless using a bipod, place your left elbow almost directly under the forend, where it can easily bear the rifle’s weight. Legs straight and spread, toes out, instep to earth, you follow military habit. I prefer other geometry, bending my right knee to bring my belly off the ground, my weight onto my pulse-free left hip. The right elbow is a brace. Moving it in and out elevates the barrel to clear grass or pulls it down to lower my profile and broaden my torso’s base of support.

Sitting is a more versatile position than prone, requires less real estate and puts your line of sight above low bushes. The three variations are open (knees up, heels planted), crossed-ankle and crossed-leg. Open sitting is most useful when firing to an opposite slope, and it’s easier as age limits your flexibility. Shifting your feet, you can spin to follow a target and broaden your base to accommodate uneven ground. In this position, my rifle points across my left little toe. Lumbar muscles pull the backs of my elbows hard against the faces of my knees. Resting elbows on (or letting them slip behind) your knees is bad business, because your back has nothing to pull against; rather, it strains to keep your torso folded and the rifle steady.

Crossed-ankle sitting is popular in the National Match course, where the rapid-fire sitting stage is fired from a standing start. When the targets appear, you drop to this sit, lean over and fire. Crossing those ankles while upright and awaiting targets saves a small slice of precious time. On uneven earth a crossed-ankle sit has less going for it, because neither feet nor knees form a broad base. Recoil can rock you from this position. As with the knees-up option, you’re smart to lean well forward, elbows in front of knees. 

The crossed-leg sit, calves resting on opposite insteps, is a natural for many people. It’s a low and steady position. You’re bent well forward, elbows dropping in front of knees. Gravity keeps your upper torso in place, lumbar muscles pulling triceps against the flats of your knees. Alas, the flexibility required by this sit diminishes with age! Back and leg muscles will comply, but only if stretched regularly. Fellow rimfire competitors and I studied for college exams cross-legged on the floor, heavy match rifles slinged up to load our thighs and backs. No yoga classes in your schedule? You’ll get by tucking elbows into the bend of your knees, so long as your torso hangs forward.

Kneeling puts the sight line above grass and is almost as quick as offhand. It keeps your torso upright and your right arm free, so you can handily cycle any rifle action. But like sitting, kneeling affords three-point contact with earth.

The first step is easy: Put your right knee on the ground. Keep your left shin vertical below your left knee. Sit on your right foot, tailbone on your right heel, the front of that foot curled under. The toes and the balls of the foot should bear half your weight. Most of your remaining weight (including the rifle) goes to your left foot, flat on the ground. The back of your left elbow rests on the flat face of the left knee. The point of the elbow will extend just forward of the knee. Sling tension and the rifle’s weight will help join the left elbow and knee. Your right knee — third leg of a “tripod” base — has light duty, bearing only about 15 percent of your weight. Your back should be comfortably straight, your head erect, eyes looking full ahead through the sight.

Don’t slouch! Relieving the sting in that right foot exacts a steep price in stability. A kneeling roll can take some pain from practice. Mine is a tightly rolled 8-inch-wide strip of carpet taped into a cylinder that just snugs under my right ankle.  One problem endemic to kneeling is lateral wobble. Not even Olympic-class shooters can erase it. But you’ll reduce it if you keep your left foot parallel with your right leg. When first you kneel, your left foot points naturally at or near the target. So, you must release enough pressure on that foot to spin it on its heel, turning the toe to point where your right knee points. Wait! Doesn’t this induce muscle tension? Uh, yes. Turning the left foot inward does put left-side calf and thigh muscles in a slight twist. But after you return weight to that leg, that weight holds the twist without effort. The twist resists 3-to-9 wobble.  


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