Legendary rifle coach Bill Pullum shows you how to build a top-flight standing position that you can use in almost any rifle or handgun competition.
We’ve found that the most practical way to teach marksmanship principles is to discuss international-style rifle shooting. Worldwide, this is the most common form of competition and is very challenging. It demands the utmost concentration and physical effort. Experience has shown that a person who can apply the principles of free-rifle or standard-rifle shooting is invariably able to transfer these skills to other forms of shooting with surprising ease and confidence—even to handgun and shotgun shooting.
Skillful shooting is based on a foundation of knowledge, but it is built by practice and training. Perhaps the most important fundamentals to acquire are the basics of shooting standing. Standing is the most important position because standing scores often determine who wins a three-position event. Moreover, the air-rifle event is shot entirely from the standing position, so you must be able to shooting standing to be competitive in that game.
Standing is the most difficult position for several obvious reasons. It has the smallest support area, or area of contact between the body and ground, and the highest center of gravity. It is, therefore, the most susceptible to loss of equilibrium. To master this position and realize your potential for good scores in international rifle, conventional rifle, air pistol, and free pistol—as well as disciplines like high-power, bullseye pistol, rifle and handgun silhouette, or any other competition in which standing plays a part—certain basic rules must be followed. Here’s what you need to know.
Building The Position
One of the major sources of bone support in standing is the vertebral column, a series of 24 stacked vertebrae joined by relatively flexible spinal disks. The arms and legs have many fewer bones and joints. Moreover, instead of being arched in a single direction as it is in the kneeling position, the spine is bent and rotated into a twisted S-shape. The torso can move easily in a number of directions, resulting in the position having a rather large natural area of aim rather than a natural point of aim. These factors combine to require the greatest degree of concentration on body control and performance: the kinesthetic sense (the feel that you have of your body and the positions of its various parts) must be aware of a much larger number of muscles directly involved in supporting the body, and attention to hold must be expanded to maintaining almost all body muscles at a level of tension which will sustain equilibrium. Because the body has a tendency to drift constantly out of equilibrium, this means that the level of tension in different muscles must constantly be changing to correct for changes in the center of gravity. The mental effort demanded by the position is great because the body must be made to hold a point of aim in what is only naturally an area of aim.
The only correct way to fire from the standing position is to hold the rifle still and pull the trigger without disturbing the hold. A dependable score cannot be fired by pulling the trigger as the rifle drifts across the 10 ring, for the changing recoil and muzzle jump incurred by such a technique will cause wide shots even if the shooter can time the trigger pull to coincide with the coming together of the 10 ring and the drifting point of aim. A beginning shooter has begun to establish a good position when he can consistently expect the rifle to settle somewhere within the 5 or 6 ring. As the position is refined, the rifle will come to rest consistently inside the 7 or 8 ring. Ultimately, the position can yield a 9- or 10-ring hold if the position itself is sufficiently refined and if awareness is sufficient to hold the body/rifle structure nearly motionless.
Orienting The Position
Orient yourself to face about 90 degrees to the right of the line of fire. The feet are placed in a natural, comfortable position, usually slightly less than shoulder-width apart. As nearly as possible, weight should be distributed equally on both feet. However, experiments show that absolutely equal weight distribution is almost impossible to achieve, and that successful shooters usually have slightly more weight on one foot than on the other. It seems unimportant which foot bears the slight additional weight if the position feels comfortable and stable and weight distribution remains consistent. A type of shoe should be used which provides maximum ground contact with, and weight distribution across, the bottoms of the feet. Shoes which create pressure points on the bottom of the heel or on the balls of the feet create a more critical and unstable support area and should be avoided. Shoes especially made for shooting sports are now available. Any shoe is okay if it’s legal and provides a solid support area and a sense of equilibrium.
The legs are held straight, but without the muscles locking the knees. The quadriceps (muscles in the front of the thigh) should be mildly engaged to support the body. Contraction in the leg muscles should be only slightly greater than the minimum needed to remain upright. (A slight additional degree of contraction seems to facilitate both kinesthesia and hold and does not bring on appreciable fatigue.)
The pelvis should remain level and either directly above the feet or displaced slightly toward the target. If the pelvis is displaced forward, the weight of the entire structure should be balanced fairly evenly between the two feet. The spine bends and twists to place the shoulders and head behind and to the right of the pelvic bones. This twist and bend, it should be emphasized, begins above the hips, which remain level and facing 90 degrees away from the target. This bend and twist should not place an unnatural strain on any part of the body. It will at first create soreness in the back muscles, which may last for several days. The only way the back muscles can be conditioned to the position is by holding and aiming the rifle in this position.
The purpose of the bend is to achieve a state of equilibrium by balancing the weight of the body and the weight of the rifle over the support area created by the feet. The twist creates a different kind of equilibrium by putting enough tension on the torso to make control of it as a single unit possible. Beginners will generally create a state of equilibrium with little durability, but durability can be increased by refining the position. This will require time and constant analytical effort.
Refining The Position
Body sway in particular can be minimized by refining the position. Muscle movements within the position structure will be minimized primarily by developing improved equilibrium and increased control over the muscles.
The left arm carries the weight of the rifle entirely by means of bone support. The section of the arm between the shoulder and the elbow rests against the rib cage. The elbow may reach the hip bone, in which case the hip bone is used for support; but generally the elbow does not reach this far—and it does not need to. The bones of the rib cage provide adequate support. The upper arm rests against the rib cage at a position that is comfortable, aligns the rifle on the target, and provides complete bone support so that no muscles are involved in lifting the rifle to the target during the hold.
The left forearm and hand constitute one of the most critical structures in the position. The bones of the forearm serve to support the rifle and transmit its weight to the elbow, upper arm, and rib cage. No part of the left arm should be involved in active muscle support of the vertical alignment of the rifle. However, the left forearm easily pivots right and left over the elbow and is thus very much involved in the horizontal alignment of the rifle. The muscles of the left arm are involved not in holding the weight of the rifle up against the force of gravity, but in holding the rifle in a precise alignment with the rest of the body. The relationship between the left arm and the rest of the structure are almost too complex to describe, for every remaining portion of the body becomes involved in adjusting for balance. If the forearm moves to the left, the center of gravity is shifted to the left and the whole position must therefore shift right in order to bring the center of gravity into a point of balance above the support area. If the body sways right, the center of gravity, which would otherwise move right, can be maintained over the center of the support area by a compensating sway to the left by the forearm and rifle. The left forearm and rifle, then are integrally and crucially involved in maintaining equilibrium. The automatic accommodation of the rifle to body sway is not only an aim reflex, but apparently also a balance reflex.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that the left forearm is not the sole means of effecting horizontal alignment of the rifle: rotating the spine affords a means of rotating the body left and right over the hip bones. Thus, a combination of horizontal movements, located first in the lower spine, and second in the left elbow and forearm, are responsible for fine horizontal alignment of the rifle and target. The whole problem of the relationship of the forearm to the rest of the body in achieving rifle alignment and equilibrium is much more easily understood through actually trying the position than through a verbal description.
Not surprisingly, the position of the left hand (and the palm rest if one is used) is quite important to the proper functioning of the left arm. The left wrist should not be bent or twisted in any unusual manner. It should bend naturally and comfortably, and the stock or palm rest should feel solid and well-balanced. The sole purpose of the palm rest is to raise the rifle so the shooter can see through the sights without bending his head or using muscle support in the left arm. The palm rest should be adjustable in every direction, and capable of retaining an adjustment indefinitely. However, a growing number of good marksmen are discarding palm rests and supporting the rifle either with the hand, fist, or split fingers and thumb. This technique may be used with either a standard rifle or a free rifle and seems to be completely satisfactory.
The head is as erect as possible, with the eyes looking straight out of the sockets. The rifle should be brought into alignment with the head, rather than the head being tilted to align with the rifle. If the rifle is too low for good vision, the palm rest and butthook should both be lowered to raise the rifle in relation to the rest of the body. If the rifle cannot be brought into alignment by this method, some other mechanical means should be attempted. Raised or offset sight mounts may be used. Another method is to cant the rifle. With enough practice, one can learn to hold the head erect and cant the rifle just enough to produce a nearly vertical recoil (in contrast to the 1 o’clock recoil of the uncanted rifle). Whichever method is used, it is of great importance to achieve consistency of recoil in a string of shots.
The right arm has no other purpose except to get the right hand up to the trigger. The angle at which the right elbow is held from the body is unimportant. Some shooters keep the elbow high, others low. The position of the right arm should be comfortable and allow for the greatest degree of control of the muscles of the shoulder, arm, and trigger finger. Beyond that, the only requirement is that the placement of the arm should be consistent. Changing the elbow from a high to a low position will probably result in a significant change in the center of gravity of the position and cause a number of minor changes throughout the structure. Certainly the position of the right arm should not be changed in the middle of a string of shots during a match.
The right arm should be positioned in such a way that when the trigger finger moves, nothing else does. The right hand functions merely to keep the trigger finger in position. The thumb may be through the thumbhole or alongside the stock. The fingers may grip the stock loosely or tightly. The major considerations are consistency and a technique which allows the greatest degree of control.
The butt-hook (not permitted on standard and air rifles) should fit snugly and comfortably underneath the right arm and provide support for the rifle, keeping the butt of the stock both from tilting upward (from the weight of the barrel levering down over the fulcrum of the left hand). The hook has some value in preventing the rifle from moving forward away from the shoulder. Another important function of the butt-hook is to position the stock consistently against the shoulder each time the rifle is placed in position. The butt-hook should be adjustable both vertically and horizontally. Modern factory models are fully adjustable and satisfactory for most people. A few individuals eventually design a special hook to meet their specific needs. All butt-hooks, of course, must meet shooting-organization specifications to be legal, and range officials are usually immediately suspicious of homemade models.
Major horizontal adjustments to the position are made by moving both feet in such a way as to keep them in the same relationship to each other. The effect should be as if the position had been adjusted by rotating the shooting platform. Small horizontal changes are made by moving the left hand and forearm. Changing any structural relationships will probably result in a change of center of gravity and necessitate a change in muscle function to achieve a new point of equilibrium.
Final vertical adjustments are made by raising or lowering the palm rest if one is used, or by changing the position of the left hand. Changing the amount of back bend is not usually a satisfactory means of making vertical adjustments; the degree of back bend should remain consistent. It frequently happens that shooters moving from one range to another encounter target frames of different heights and, without knowing the reason, have difficulty controlling their positions. The reason is that the body is forced out of its usual position into an unnatural or unfamiliar back bend by the different target height. Make large vertical adjustments by changing the height of the palm rest or by moving the left hand forward or rearward. Small vertical adjustments are achieved by breath control. The easiest method is to take a deep breath and exhale, letting the rifle come down on the target. The flow of air from the lungs is cut off as the rifle enters the 10 ring.
These are the major points to consider in building or refining your standing position. By concentrating on the basics of balance, body control, and consistency, you can raise your scores by being fundamentally sound, whether your game is rifle shooting, pistol competition, or even field shooting.