Guns & Weapons

5 Steps For Better Rifle Marksmanship



Featured | Man directs firearm gun pistol at target firing range or shooting range | Steps For Better Rifle Marksmanship

Take these tips and steps for better rifle marksmanship and get a better chance at self-defense and survival!

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Rifle Marksmanship: How to Be Best with the Rifle

The Rifle Is a Survival Weapon

A survival and self-defense junkie should consider the rifle as an essential tool whether you are bugging out or bugging in. Your rifle is vital not only for defense but also for food procurement.

You should consider your rifle to be a tool with a simple “point-and-click” interface. Although firing a weapon is a relatively easy task, hitting the target isn’t always so easy.

After 20 years of military service and giving hundreds of young men and women marksmanship training, I began to recognize a short list of common mistakes. Mistakes which prevented soldiers from qualifying as expert rifle marksmen or getting advanced rifle marksmanship.

Here are some principles of marksmanship I shared and the steps it takes to better engage and shoot their targets.

1. Rifle Marksmanship Tips: Don't Be Too Proud


The first mistake is pride. It may not seem evident at first, but pride often is the biggest barrier for me to overcome as a trainer on the firing line.

I noticed over time, soldiers who never fired a weapon were the easiest to train. Young men and women from urban areas seemed to adapt quickly to instruction with women being the easiest of all to train.

Why? The answer is quite simple: soldiers who had never fired before, have little if any preconceived notions about marksmanship.

They are “clean slates” and their skills can improve over time. Young men and women who grew up with firearms were the most difficult to instruct because they brought with them bad habits they had developed over time.

These bad habits are hard to displace and even harder when a student is a young man because their pride often gets in the way of learning new skills.

I have seen many young men fail to even qualify on the range and when I ask them what they think went wrong they almost always say, “I don’t know, I usually shoot better than this.”

The truth is they always fire poorly but pride prevents them from learning new skills. The best rifle marksmen in the world will tell you they never stop learning something new and are always seeking to improve.

2. Marksmanship Tips: Sight Picture


The second mistake I often see involves sight picture. Basically, sight picture is the term used to describe the alignment of the front and rear sights.

Most trainees tend to change sight picture frequently. This occurs because they place the weapon against their cheek in an ever-changing way.

Where your cheek rests on the weapon when sighting in is what we call the cheek-to-stock weld. Ensuring that the cheek is always in the same place is key to maintaining a good sight picture.

With the M-16/M-4 series of rifles I usually instruct the firer pull the rifle firmly into the pocket of the shoulder. Then, place the tip of the nose against the edge of the charging handle to ensure a consistent sight picture.

On weapons larger than 5.56mm, I usually have the trainee find the spot most comfortable for them on the stock. Then, we mark the place where the cheekbone rests on the stock with a piece of duck tape.

When the soldier places his or her cheekbone on the tape, he or she will know they have the same sight picture every time. This one simple step often results in a soldier qualifying on the range.

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3. Rifle Marksmanship Tips: Watch Your Breathing


It seems simple because we have done it every day since we were born, but breathing is almost always a cause of missed shots. When we breathe in our chest expands, causing the rifle barrel to rise.

This causes the bullet to strike higher than we intended. Conversely, when we exhale the barrel dips, often putting the round in the dirt.

The tell-tale sign this is occurring is often noticed down range when you collect your target. If your shots are striking the target in an up-down pattern, then breathing is the culprit.

The simplest way to resolve this is by controlling your breathing. There is a natural pause between when we exhale and before we take our next breath.

Practice breathing in and out until you notice this pause. Before they take a shot, I instruct the trainees to breathe in, breathe out, and then fire during this natural pause.

This often eliminates the up-down pattern observed down range on the target. If you wait too long during that pause to fire, however, your muscles will begin to shake and your sight picture will not be consistent.

If this occurs just relax, take a deep breath, exhale and fire.

4. Marksmanship Tips: Trigger Squeeze


The fourth issue I often observe is a trigger squeeze. Most people pull a trigger using the first joint of the index finger.

This is the most frequent bad habit brought to the range by people who have fired weapons before. This habit is easy to spot and correct on the firing line but is even more evident when you examine the target.

A side-to-side pattern of bullet strikes on the target is the tell-tale sign of trigger squeeze issues. This pattern occurs because the weapon is being pulled sideways off target by the pad of the fingertip.

You can practice this by holding a pencil vertically in your non-firing hand and pulling back toward you with the index finger of your firing hand.

You will notice when you pull the pencil back using the joint of your index finger, the pencil is pulled sideways and backward instead of backward.

For a right-handed firer, this means you are pulling the barrel off target and to the right. When pulling the trigger, you should use the pad on the tip of your index finger and pull straight back.

Practice this with your pencil and it should come straight back at you.

5. Rifle Marksmanship Tips: Anticipating the Shot


Anticipating the shot is not as easy to observe as breathing and trigger squeeze.

This tendency only becomes evident after other bad habits are out of the picture. It is evident in the random pattern of bullet strikes on the target.

What generally happens in this instance is that the trainee anticipates the noise. Then, the recoil of the rifle as he or she pulls the trigger.

When this happens they may close their eyes and cringe, losing their sight picture along with muscle control.

I will often instruct them to pull the tension out of the trigger before fully pulling the trigger back so the rifle surprises them when it goes off.


This video from National Shooting Sports Foundation or NSSF gives you the ultimate rifle marksmanship tip:

By better understanding and applying the concepts of consistent sight picture, breathing and trigger squeeze, and techniques for eliminating pre-shot anticipation, anyone can become a good rifle marksman.

By eliminating pride from the equation and recognizing that even the best marksmen strive for improvement, anyone can become an excellent marksman!

Do you have any rifle marksmanship tips you've proven effective over time? We'd appreciate your suggestions in the comments section below!

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Steps For Better Rifle Marksmanship |

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 1, 2015, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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  5. Tom

    June 18, 2019 at 9:59 PM

    very instructive.

    • Bob G

      August 29, 2019 at 2:27 PM

      Identifying eye dominance must also be considered. Make certain the shooter is right eye dominant when using a right handed action firearm and conversely for a left eye dominant shooter. As a former Shotgun Marksmanship Instructor at the 4-H, many youths from large or poor families are forced to use “hand me down” firearms because of economics. Since most firearms are right handed actions, “hand me downs” are almost always right handed actions.

      The Eye dominance test is easy. Without telling them why, ask them to sight point at your nose from 10 feet away. Whichever arm they us as the sight is the arm on the eye dominant side. A Paper Towel Roll Cardboard tube can be used as the sight. There is no doubt about left vs right, as the person always looks through the tube with the dominant eye.

  6. TharSheBlows

    August 10, 2019 at 8:24 PM

    Its 1 AM do you know where your AR-15 is at? Good Tips -Use the pad of your index finger tip for trigger pull. Remember those who hesitate lose.

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