Most shooters are gearheads. That’s not a bad thing. I’m one too. The ultimate goal of raising all that gear, though, is being able to hit the chosen target. Increasing your firing skill with your AR-15 is a big factor in your enjoyment of it, and as your skills improve, your ability to judge the effectiveness of your gear improves as well.
Many years ago for the President’s Match at Camp Perry, I was squadded with a captain from the USMC Rifle Team. Turned out we had similar upbringings and early experiences with shooting. The essence of that conversation went like this: “When I was a kid I could hit anything with my .22 rifle, it was just experience and feel. I could shoot bees out of the air, hit jackrabbits at 200 yards. I never changed my sights, just my aim. It wasn’t until I got on the Rifle Team and learned just how complicated shooting is, and then I realized all that must have been impossible.” No doubt.
As a science, making an accurate shot, especially at distance, brings a lot of knowledge into play, a lot of science and math. But the most basic elements of shooting, the true fundamentals, are these: put the sights on the target, and then pull the trigger without moving the sights.
Focus on the Front Sight
If it’s a two-sight system, as is standard, focus on the front sight. It literally, truly does not matter how sharp the target appears through the system. If you can see the front sight clearly, you can shoot a good group. Test it for yourself by firing groups looking at the front sight, and then shoot groups by focusing on the target with a soft front sight. As long as your head position on the stock is consistent and you can see the front sight sharply, and put that on the target, you’ll hit the target.
The whole “pull the trigger without moving the sights” thing gets a huge amount of help from a better trigger. Choose your aftermarket AR-15 trigger carefully, because not all are reliable.
Triggering technique is vital to good groups. Without good mechanics, sight movement—which of course is also rifle movement—can be introduced. The best triggering control comes when the shooter uses only the first pad of the index finger to depress the trigger, near to the fingertip. Of huge importance is that the index or trigger finger touches nothing else! Don’t let it push in on the pistol grip. Due to the short distance from the trigger face to the leading edge of the pistol grip, it can be difficult for those with even mid-size hands to get a good and comfortable hold for best trigger actuation. Most people find they have better command of the trigger when they have to “reach” their finger just a bit to engage the trigger face, and the AR-15 demands just the opposite. Aftermarket pistol grips that are thicker front to back are a help.
Press the trigger using only pressure from the finger, and move the trigger straight back. Be alert for additional muscle movement or tension in the finger joint (nearest the hand). There should be zero movement there. Dry-firing the rifle from a rest and watching sight movement should tell you all you need to know; then make the adjustments in technique to reduce it. Watch especially for side-to-side sight movement, usually caused either by the trigger finger pressing in against the pistol grip, by first-joint finger movement, or by having the finger too far “across” the trigger face. Due to the higher break weight in most AR-15 triggers (even competition models) using a firmer hand-hold on the pistol grip provides more freedom of independent movement for the trigger finger.
If you’re firing multiple shots, keep your finger in contact with the trigger face shot to shot. With a little practice, as you release the trigger forward after firing, you can feel the moment that the mechanism resets so the trigger can be pulled again to release the next shot. The little “click” is the disconnector handing off the hammer to the sear. It takes a little getting used to, and one of the things I don’t like about aftermarket two-stage triggers is that the reset distance is greater than with a standard-style single-stage. In competition shooting, you will shoot better if you can learn to ride the trigger back and forth for each shot—control it—rather than putting the finger off and on the trigger face for each round.
As a side benefit, this more deliberate focus on triggering mechanics will improve not only the smoothness of the trigger break, but also what some call follow through. To me, that means keeping the trigger depressed for at least a brief time after firing. You will see that the stability of the front sight positioning will improve. This technique always has a “lightbulb” effect on those I teach it to.
The Question of Cant
The following assumes a right-handed shooter. Well, I’m prepared for folks to start jumping up and down over this next part, but I find it very difficult to shoot an AR-15 well when I hold the rifle straight. Due mostly to the pistol grip being suspended so far down underneath the works, I always want to roll the rifle over toward my face (counterclockwise) to get a stronger-feeling right hand and arm.
Another benefit: Rotating the rifle over raises the pistol grip, and hand, upward and lets me seat it better into my shoulder. This also brings the rifle more naturally over the body centerline for a better-balanced stance.
If you’re using an optical sight with a conventional-form crosshair reticle, it’s easy enough to adjust the mounting (just rotate the scope in its rings) so it’s showing level when the rifle is canted how you want. Other-style sights are a little trickier, but it’s a simple matter of a zero adjustment.
I realize that this advice is a tough sell to many, but most competitive riflemen view it as second nature. If you experiment with cant, and take the time to determine your most effective angle, you’ll also see that the consistency of your position will improve. For me, the improvement was to the point that any shot-to-shot dispersion created by a canted rifle was simply adjusted out via sight-zero changes. In other words, the shooting position improves so much that indexing the rifle onto the same plane each shot is natural.
A Firm or Light Hold
Just because the AR-15 produces virtually no detrimental recoil doesn’t mean it responds best to a light hold. Firmness in the hold is key to firing any rifle well outdoors from an unsupported position.
I hold the rifle with enough tension that I can suspend it upside down using only my supporting hand and arm. I also favor a relatively high amount of cheek pressure downward onto the buttstock. This is done to hold the sights in place, and myself in place, not to counteract recoil.
One more note about holding and resting your rifle. If it’s a conventional-style forend (with two-piece plastic handguard), don’t rest the forend itself on anything, and don’t apply tension from the sling. Just hold the forend. If, for instance, you are able to use a fencepost or other rest to steady your aim in the field, place your hand on the rest, and then the rifle on your hand.
Reason: Point of impact will change if different pressures are applied. It has to do with having the handguard attachment also attached to the barrel. If your AR-15 has a free-float-style forend, this shouldn’t matter because pressure on the handguard isn’t transmitted to the barrel.
The preceding is a specially adapted excerpt from “The Competitive AR15: Builders Guide” and “The Competitive AR15: Ultimate Technical Guide,” two books by Glen Zediker and Zediker Publishing. For more information, please check out www.ZedikerPublishing.com or call (662) 473-6107.
Share your tips for improving your marksmanship with us in the comment section.
Glen Zediker has worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet, as well as leading industry insider rifle builders, manufacturers, and proven authorities on gunsmithing, barrel-making, parts design and manufacture, and handloading. And he does pretty well on his own: Glen is a card-carrying NRA High Master and earned that classification in NRA High Power Rifle using an AR-15 Service Rifle.For more, please visitZedikerPublishing.com or call 662-473-6107 (weekdays 9-4 CST). Write to P.O. Box 1497, Oxford MS 38655.
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