Helping new and developing shooters with their rifles and giving them rifle shooting tips can be a lot of fun for experienced shooters. If the experienced shooter remembers that all shooters are on a lifelong learning journey, everyone at the range will come out ahead and enjoy this art form more and more every day.
Many shooters will take a very basic and introductory course. Usually a Hunter Safety Course, to get into the field of rifle shooting. For most of this article, I will focus mostly on the bolt action rifle, because that seems to be the beginning point for most who enter this area of marksmanship and long range shooting.
The fundamentals are best taught by the hard working and caring people that take beginners to the range and get them ready to go into the world with safe gun handling. Because these fundamentals are so critical in person, I will not attempt to cover that. To the professional educators who teach these skills, my hat is off to you.
I am going to place the focus of this article on the simple and surprising things that can be done by anyone. Tips to improve the enjoyment of the sport and gain further knowledge of what to do after class and at the range.
Rifles | 11 Surprise Things that New Rifle Shooters Need to Know
1. Rifles 101 – Range Gear
When it comes to range gear, there are plenty of articles that talk about the latest and greatest new stuff, so I will not do it here. The range conditions that could surprise a shooter can be managed to make it more enjoyable and safe with range gear.
First, protection from the elements. The need for bug spray cannot be overstated. Always have bug spray, and lots of it, nothing will upset a shooter faster than calling it quits due to bugs.
Second, environment protection from the sun like hats, long-sleeved shirts, long-tailed shirts, and sunscreen. Make sure the sunscreen is the type that if it gets in your eyes it will not send you home, look for ones designed for kids.
Third, environment protection from the bench the rifle sits on and the bench the shooter sits on. Most ranges are open to the environment, either directly or under a simple cover, and usually maintained by a volunteer staff working with about 1/10th the needed money. Protect yourself from the splinters that may come. Simple blankets thrown into the range kit is a simple fix.
Finally, there is seldom running water for either drinking or cleaning up after you use the facilities. Make sure you have plenty of water and a clean towel. Even when it is cold outside, you need water, and waterless hand cleaner to take care of hygiene after facility use and after handling lead from ammunition.
2. Rifles 101 – Accuracy vs. Familiarity vs. Competence
So on this subject, we are going to cover the example of crawl-walk-run as it applies to beginner rifle shooters.
When reading about rifles, the first and most memorable stories are about an expert shooter making a 1000-meter sniper shot. Usually, in the rain with no food for six days and so on. That is extreme. However, most need to be introduced to rifles and shooting at 25 meters to start with.
If a new shooter starts putting rounds thru a target at the 25-meter line, they can see how well they are shooting. Eliminate just shooting until the range master clears the firing line to travel downrange and check on the progress after 20 shots.
The focus of the first time or very new rifle shooter should be to get to know the gun. Don’t worry about tight groups or “hold over and drop compensations” that the long-range authors write about, just put the sights in the middle of the target and pull the trigger. Start to get the feel of the gun, get to know the weight and balance. Get comfortable on the cheek weld, and learn to make the recoil just a thing of the past.
After the shooter becomes familiar with their rifle, then it is time to work on competency. This is the “walk” part of rifle shooting, so this is operating all of the rifle parts like a champ. Work on flawless or near flawless loading of the magazine, whatever style the gun has. Work on reaching and activating the safety both on and off without breaking away from the gun. Smooth and safe operation of the bolt, if it is a bolt action; smooth and flawless operation of the semi-auto bolt, or whichever style they own. All these operations need practice without taking the cheek from the stock, the eye from the sights and the sights from the target.
Now start working on learning very precise breath control and smoothing out the trigger pull to become a near effortless action. Trigger control and all other very specific actions need to be practiced to become the very best rifle marksman.
3. Rifles 101 – Rifle Weight
Weight in a rifle does a few things, some good and some bad, like everything else in the world.
First, on the good side, the weight will help absorb much of the recoil. In most cases, the energy it takes to start a heavyweight moving and keep it moving will be dispersed pretty well.
Second, on the good side, the weight will help the gun aim and stay on target quite a bit easier. The same principle applies; it takes more energy to start it moving. The downside of this point is, once the weight starts moving, it keeps moving so muzzle sway may become a factor.
Now for the downside or bad side of rifle weight, carrying a heavy rifle for a long distance can be difficult. Depending on the person’s age and weather conditions it can make it more difficult. So this will bring on shooter fatigue faster, and it will set in deeper and stay longer on the average shooter.
Fatigue will always have its first impact on the accuracy. This can lead to frustration making fatigue more prevalent, which impacts accuracy even more, and becomes a self-feeding issue.
4. Rifles 101 – Barrel Floating
One of the most important factors in having consistent and accurate shots is to have the barrel floated. What that means is that the barrel attached to the action, and then not touching anything including the stock. The handgrip portion of the stock is there for exactly that, to hold with the other hand.
The barrel is located in what is called the barrel channel, and you should be able to place a dollar at the very front of the barrel and pull it to the action. If the floating is done correctly, the dollar should not be stopped by the stock.
If the barrel is being touched, the barrel will not consistently give the same performance, and the shot groupings will be erratic. When the powder burns aka explodes, the bullet moves down the barrel and long story short, the barrel makes many vibrations, in every direction. If these vibrations are not allowed to resonate, the rhythm is upset, and the bullet impact will always be in a different location on the target. There are times that a gunsmith will use pressure to adjust “overactive vibrating” for lack of better terms to address that issue, but that is for a different article.
5. Rifle 101 – The Flinch
Most instances of flinching are caused by a combination of three factors:
- Report or noise from the end of the barrel
- Blast or fire from the end of the barrel
- Recoil from the butt of the gun
So a quick way to lessen two of these factors is to purchase a rifle that has a longer barrel, keeping the effector further away from the shooters face.
Another way that is a temporary method to get used to these effects is to wrap a bandana around the shooters face, like an old-time cowboy movie bandit. It will place a barrier between the blast and even the noise from the shooters face and help the new shooter overcome these two effects.
One of the easiest ways to help a new shooter overcome recoil, and this is counter-intuitive, is to lean into the gun, not away from it. The gun and the recoil will be directed where the shooter decided and not where the energy from the gun decided to travel.
A new shooter can overcome the initial exposure to these factors, within about 10 minutes, the shooter will become the master of them. They can either keep using these simple tricks or just learn to accept these forces as part of the joy of shooting rifles.
6. Rifle 101 – Shooting position
When we talk about shooting positions; standing, sitting, prone, bench etc., the one I would recommend to most new shooters is bench shooting if possible.
All the gear that comes with rifle shooting must sit next to the shooter. This is the most comfortable as this is the same position we sit at when we are at the dinner table.
So to make sure the shooter is not working against themselves, the rifle needs to come to the shooter. Avoid having the shooter get into an uncomfortable position – avoid hunching forward and rounding the shoulders.
If the shooter can easily lean forwards, in a position that they are familiar and comfortable with they will remain relaxed. Fatigue is less of a factor for a relaxed shooter and recoil will be easier to deal with. This makes a much more enjoyable experience, and more often the shooter will visit the range and become more and more polished and able to adventure into bigger and better things in the rifle world.
7. Trigger Finger Placement
When we were all in our Hunter Safety class or maybe an NRA first steps class, we were all told to use the tip of the trigger finger. So I have spent years perfecting using the last 1/8th of an inch of my finger right on the very edge of the trigger. The more finger on the trigger meant the shot would be less accurate.
Here is what I have learned since then. The tip of the trigger finger on the edge of the trigger pushes the gun to the left. I have piles of the target to prove it. If the finger is too far from the trigger to the first joint, it pulls the gun to the right.
The proper placement of the trigger finger is to use the pad, or the middle of the fingerprint pattern to pull the trigger. It gives the best performance of trigger pulls and greater control. It will also pull the entire gun back in a straight line with your shoulder. This helps in recoil recovery for the follow-up shot. The best part of this finger position is that it is the most natural, and nearly everyone’s hands will line up without thinking about it.
This simple fix and a bit of training will improve shot groupings almost right away. There will be a tendency to return to an incorrect finger placement, just keep practicing.
8. Rifles 101 – Cheek Weld
When we speak of cheek weld or the comb, it is the area at the top of the stock where the shooter’s cheek is placed to look through the scope or optic the shooter has chosen to use.
If the rifle has open iron sights, the top of the stock or comb should be flat. Also, the stock should not be fashioned as a Monte Carlo style if possible. Flat-top stocks will make acquiring the open iron sights much easier so the cheek can press right to the comb.
If the rifle has a scope, then the shooter has to raise the comb. The scope mounts will raise the sights from the top of the gun, which elevates above the natural sight line. If the gunstock is made with a flat top or comb, an easy way to experience the difference is to use a shooting rest and place the supporting hand on top of the stock to raise the cheek weld and acquire the crosshairs. This easy shortcut is more comfortable to shoot and takes less time to get all the fundamentals in place before the trigger is squeezed.
If the rifle doesn’t have the raised comb, there is no need for a new gunstock. This is true unless the shooter just wants one. To adapt to this cheek weld the shooter can purchase a padded piece that will lace or Velcro onto the stock. This works very well. Though at times it may surpass the carved stocks ability to place the shooters eye directly on the crosshairs.
9. Rifles 101 – Eye Relief
When we talk about eye relief it is nearly always in reference to the rifle scope.
Eye relief is also a factor when shooting with open iron sights as well. Most people automatically compensate for this by a simple rearward adjustment of the heads. The natural tendency is very effective for eye focus and very subtle, but the head and neck are under tension. The tension in the muscles means that fatigue may set in sooner. However, the recoil recovery will be slower due to a constant reacquiring of the rear sight picture.
If the shooter practices repeated placement of the cheek weld, finding the proper placement rapidly and without tension in the muscles, it will make shooting much more productive. They will also have much quicker follow-up shots.
10. Rifles 101 – Bolt Working
The new mantra in shooting is “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. This is a standard of thinking for draw and fire for handgun shooters from the holster.
For rifle shooters, it is the same for shooting positioning, but more importantly for bolt manipulation. When we work the bolt on the bolt action gun, it binds to the chamber at the locking lugs. This causes the bolt handle itself to bind to the action. All this makes for “herky and jerky” bolt manipulations. This can lead to a failure to feed, or worse, jam up the whole action with double feeds. In many guns, there may not be a magazine release or a floor plate to open to fix this easily.
This is not a fatal issue. Unless you are hunting dangerous game, then yes it may be a fatal issue. It is more frustration, not fatal. I have watched the qualification for the ARMY snipers, and the one issue many of the shooters have, top of the game shooters is bolt manipulation. They will work the bolt too quickly and run the bolt home on an empty chamber. They take their time getting the perfect firing solution, apply rear pressure to the trigger and hear the loudest sound on the gun range, the “click” of the pin in an empty chamber. This causes many to run out of time for qualification. Run the bolt action slow and smooth.
11. Rifles 101 – Move the Shooter or the Rifle
When we talk about the position of the shooter, it is prone or sitting, etc. Another type of position we need to talk about with new rifle shooters is the relation between the gun and the shooter, and the gun and the target. This subject could probably (and should) take about ten articles to cover to do it justice. For the beginner, we need to talk about the simplest methods to help new shooters. They have to enjoy the time spent shooting and encourage them to continue shooting rifles.
The easiest to manage and make very significant improvement in shooting is moving the rifle to the target. What we don’t want is to use muscle tension to move the muzzle. In this case, move the gun towards the target and let it naturally lay on target. If the gun can’t move then move the shooter so the gun can lay naturally in line with the target. If we have muscle tension built in the body, a number of things will occur. Because recoil affects fatigue and micro spasms in the body, the muscles that are under tension will relax. The entire gun will also move causing a miss on the target.
When I teach Judo students that are having a hard time “blending” with their opponents, I ask them to look at their feet. Then, I ask them “are your feet nailed to the floor?” The reply so far has been “NO”, it is then I tell them, move your feet, not just the upper body. The same is true for shooting a rifle, move the shooter to line the barrel with the target, make the fine-tuned aiming adjustments, and pull the trigger.
Watch this video by NSSF about a rifle’s long-range shooting technique:
I created these 11 tips for rifle beginners, so they can better understand what they’re getting into. Shooters can have fun and hone their skills in the process. Use these tips and bits of advice while firing your rifle. You’ll find the process less fatiguing, more accurate, and overall more enjoyable.
Do you find these rifle shooting tips useful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Editor’s Note – This post was originally published in March 2015 and has been updated for quality and relevancy.