Five Field Shooting Positions You Should Know

Five Field Shooting Positions You Should Know
Here are five “modifications” you can practice on your range to be a better shot in the field.

Sometimes life takes us down various paths, some planned, some by random chance. When I was a lot younger, I participated in various formal shooting disciplines spread throughout rifle, pistol, and shotgun. I competed in high-power, small-bore, bullseye, trap, skeet, sporting clays, you name it. I was generally good, never great. It doesn’t matter now; I dabble, but I haven’t been a formal competitor for years. However, just about all shooting has some basis in time-honored formal competition, so it’s a great background.

For quite some years, my primary interest has been hunting. The great thing about field shooting is there is no rulebook, no score card, no gallery and, often, no witnesses at all. You make the shot or you don’t, and you can never count on more than one chance. Shots at game can take any form. Formal shooting positions offer an invaluable base for hunting, but they need to be endlessly built upon and practiced on your range. Here are five “modifications” you can practice on your range to be a better shot in the field.

Stand Up and Shoot

Unsupported standing or “offhand” as we used to call it, is by far the least stable shooting position. In the field, it is complicated by circumstances – you are often out of breath and usually short on time. It is a great way to miss and, far worse, wound game. Thus, it is the court of last resort and should be avoided if at all possible.

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Standing-1: Unsupported standing is the court of last resort, reserved for close range when there is no steadier option. Because standing is difficult and unsteady it’s wise to practice it frequently. There’s a buffalo in the brush about 15 yards in front of me, a good time to stand up and shoot.

Even so, there are times when there is no better option than to stand and shoot. Therefore, this unsteady and difficult position should be practiced and mastered. In the field, one will always use something steadier, so the only time standing is used during a relatively close encounter is when either no rest is available or there is no time to assume a better position.

So, the best way I know to practice standing is through “gun drills.” Face the target, shoulder the rifle and fire. Then turn and fire facing right, facing left, facing away. If you haven’t done this before you can start with a large target, very close, maybe 10 yards. It is not necessary to withstand recoil or burn expensive ammo; a good .22 makes a great starting point.

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Standing-2: This group was from close-range drill shooting standing with a Krieghoff double .500. The drill was to face away from the target, then on command turn and fire. This is a very good exercise for practicing unsupported standing; a .22 rimfire can be used.

Over time you can move the target out. Wobbles are inevitable, but most of us can become confident and reliable on target at 50 or 60 yards, some to 100 yards or even a bit more. These distances should cover most do-or-die situations but it’s important to know your limitations. Remember, a standing, unsupported shot must not be taken unless you’re sure you can pull it off!

STICKS

Three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal in Africa, but I’m starting to see them all over the place, and I usually carry mine broken down in my gun case. In broken ground, with the legs secured together, they double as a hiking staff, but their primary purpose remains a shooting rest. They get you off the ground, enabling shooting over low brush.

Choices vary, some folks prefer bipods and even monopods better, but I prefer the good old three-legged sticks. There are really only two things to master with sticks: First, the height that is right for you. I prefer the junction of the legs at about the level of my first shirt button; this allows me to keep my feet shoulder-width apart so that I can lean slightly into the sticks.

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Sticks-1: The two secrets to three-legged shooting sticks are getting the height right for you, and learning how to best use your supporting hand to tie the rifle and the sticks together. I like to lean into the sticks, so I set them up with the junction even with my first shirt button.

Second, it’s essential to find the steadiest way to hold the sticks and forend with your weak or supporting hand. This will vary depending on the size of your hands and the circumference of the forend, but there is no rulebook: practice and learn what works best for you.

The forend of the rifle must be rested on the junction, never the barrel. I don’t have big hands, but I’m able to grasp the forend with my thumb and forefinger, then use the other three fingers to tie sticks and forend together.

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Sticks-2: Practicing on sticks with a .22. Shooting off sticks takes practice; the more you use them the steadier you are and the farther you can shoot with confidence. Much meaningful “position practice” can be done with a .22.

Sticks are not a long-range option; some side-to-side wobble is almost inevitable. Sticks, however, are invaluable for bridging the gap between an unsupported shooting position and a solid rest. The more you practice the steadier you will be, and your range envelope will increase. Most of us can become very steady and confident to about 150 yards. My wife, Donna, has a lower heart rate and steadier hands; she’s good to a solid 200 yards off sticks, but I am not. Again, in field shooting it’s essential to know your limitations.

Reverse Kneeling

The formal kneeling position has the supporting-side foot grounded, knee up, the supporting hand grasps the forend and rests over the supporting knee. The shooting-side knee is grounded, foot either upright on its side, haunches perched on that foot.

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Kneeling-formal: The formal kneeling position, though steadier than standing, isn’t a particularly steady position. It’s useful for a fast shot at very medium range, but in the field it’s usually better to modify it.

This is not an especially steady position, but it’s fast to drop into and beats standing. However, we are tossing the rulebook, and we’re always looking for a solid rest.

The biggest problem with the formal kneeling position is the shooting elbow is up in the air. So, rest the forend over a rock, log or a low bipod or tripod. Reverse the knees, grounding supporting-side knee under the rifle and behind the impromptu rest. That elbow is no longer important because the forend is rested.

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Kneeling-reverse-1: The “reverse kneeling” combines some kind of rest with the shooting-side knee up to stabilize the shooting elbow. This picture was taken on a Coues deer hunt in Arizona nearly 40 years ago, so I guess I’ve been doing the reverse kneel for a long time!

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Kneeling-rever-2: This was a weird position in Nepal, with a Himalayan tahr at 465 yards. I put the fore-end over a low branch, sat on a pack because of the slope, and got my shooting-side knee up to stabilize my shooting elbow. I held about 18 inches into the wind and the shot worked perfectly.

The shooting-side foot goes out maybe 45 degrees, foot grounded, knee up. Now that shooting-side elbow can be rested over the shooting-side knee. You can’t use this position at Camp Perry, but in the field it’s dramatically steady!

The Vertical Rest

Horizontal rests are natural. My preference is always to throw a daypack down, and then you’ve got about as close as you can come to a benchrest with sandbags. However, there are probably more trees and fenceposts than handy rocks and logs. Vertical rests are not as steady as horizontal, but, aside from being unavoidable, are faster to use.

Two things when using vertical rests: First, never rest the rifle barrel directly on anything. With a vertical rest it’s as important to get something between the forend and the solid object. Often you can use your supporting-side hand or a cap scrunched up in your hand.

Second, on any vertical rest, go to your strong side. So, left-handers (like me!) go to the left side; right-handers go to the right. This puts your supporting hand in a good position to cushion the rifle against rest. Remembering these are field positions, this puts your body behind the rest, giving you a bit of cover. If it’s a big tree you may be able to lean into it, grounding your body and your shooting elbow.

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Vertical rest: New Zealand outfitter Chris Bilkey demonstrates how to use a fencepost for a vertical rest. He’s right-handed, so he’s on the right side of the rest, using his hand to cushion the fore-end.

Stabilize That Elbow

I mentioned using reverse kneeling to stabilize the shooting elbow and also looking for big trees. In field shooting, absent a rulebook, one of the biggest destabilizers is having the shooting elbow flapping in the breeze. With a standing tripod, you can have a buddy or guide grasp the legs and offer a shoulder to rest your shooting elbow. This little trick can, honestly, double your shooting distance off sticks. With a low tripod or bipod, you can often set a backpack upright and use it for an elbow rest. Likewise, with a horizontal rest or anything else.

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Elbow-1: We were set up over a big swamp in Tanzania, hunting sitatunga. I had a tripod set low so I could sit behind it, and I had an upright pack to rest my shooting elbow. This was the position I used for the shot…but just in case I had standing sticks set up as well!

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Elbow-2: Given a choice I’ll always throw a pack over handy boulder, but an extra pack to stabilize the shooting elbow is even better.

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Elbow-3: At the SAAM shooting school instructor Doug Pritchard shows Caroline Boddington how to pull a pack into her lap to stabilize the shooting elbow. Keeping that elbow from flapping in the breeze is one of the greatest secrets to steady field shooting.

Get that shooting elbow stabilized! Texans are big on deer hunting from box blinds. Take a board or even a walking stick and wedge it on your shooting side for an elbow rest. It’s amazing how much steadier you’ll be when you’re able to rest your shooting elbow from any position.

I hope I’ve given you something to work on at the range. Preparation leads to success and you have to be prepared for the unknown if a shooting situation presents itself.

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