Reading Rifle Targets
June 02, 2011
by Scott E. Mayer
Bullet holes indicate where the sights were really aligned at the time of the shot rather than where the shooter thought they were aligned. Consistent poor shooting can indicate a consistent shooter error. We all throw a shot now and then, but knowing how to analyze the thrown shot from what the target indicates, and then correcting for it, is what makes the difference between a good shooter and a great shooter.
What your trigger finger was doing at the time of shot is something a rifle target can show you. For right-handed shooters, having your finger too far across the trigger can result in shots stringing to the left. This "dragging the wood" happens when the part of your finger closest to your palm drags the right side of the grip. While not a common error for experienced target shooters on the line, essentially the same error can show up in the field when a hunter is wearing heavy gloves because the glove does the dragging. If your shots are consistently to the left, take a good look at where your finger meets the trigger. It should be either centered on the last pad, or close to the first joint.
Another finger error that can be pointed out by a target is when the shooter jerks the trigger. If you look at a target as if it was the face of a clock, jerked shots tend to land between 3:30 and 5:00. In my experience, jerking occurs when a shooter is either fatigued by recoil, or excited at the shot. Jerking your finger because of excitement is usually coupled with jerking your head up off of the stock to see the effect of your shot. Both types of jerks combine for either a poor shot or a clean miss. Here, the solution is to take a breath, slow down, and deliberately squeeze the trigger.
It's also possible to see from your target if you're flicking your trigger finger forward too soon after the squeeze. The result of this lack of follow-through is shots up in the 10:00 to 11:00 position on the target. Lack of follow-through doesn't just take the form of a flicking finger; it's also seen as relaxing too soon and allowing the shoulder to drop back and similarly throw the shot. As with jerking, the solution to flicking is conscious and deliberate squeezing of the trigger followed by determined follow-through.
Lack of follow-through isn't limited to only your trigger finger. "Bucking" the rifle, which is a push to the butt in anticipation of recoil, occurs the instant follow-through should begin. Bucked shots typically hit low and to the left on the target as the shoulder tips the butt of the gun slightly upward and the forearm pivots around the supporting hand's thumb. If you're bucking, it could be solved by lots of practice while wearing a recoil shield and using lighter kicking loads to overcome the fear of recoil.
Another shot anticipating type of shooter error that is overcome by deliberate practice with light loads is heeling the rifle. Heeling is when the shooter tries to "help" the rifle at the instant the shot is fired by pushing forward on the grip with the heel of the trigger hand. Shots end up stringing high and to the right on the target because the pushing motion levers the muzzle upward.
If you rest your cheek at slightly different points along the stock during shooting, stringing can result. Changing your cheek weld can be overcome by assuming a comfortable and natural position when shooting.
Assuming a natural and comfortable position will give you a natural point of aim, which is where the gun points before you make any corrections for aiming. The closer that natural point of aim is to getting you on target, the better your shooting will be. When you have to muscle a rifle onto the target, the tendency is for your body to pull it back to the natural point of aim during the shot. That can result in nice groups that are not in the bullseye, but between it and the natural point of aim. If you find that your gun groups nicely but not consistently in any particular place on the target from various positions or different shooting sessions, suspect natural point of aim. Correcting for it begins by getting into the shooting position with your eyes closed and then opening them to see where the sights are aligned on the target. Rather than simply move the rifle so the sights are aligned, move your whole body instead.
As part of your shooting position, watch for canting the rifle. The effects of cant are seen on the target as horizontal stringing, and the farther the target and the worse the cant, the worse the stringing.
Finally, if your shots are all over the place with no consistent grouping, it could indicate that you're not concentrating. If shooting iron sights, make sure you're concentrated on that front sight and that it is in focus. If you know there's nothing wrong with either the gun or ammunition, take a break, get something to eat and shoot better later.