Improving Your AR-15 Marksmanship Skills

By Glen Zediker published on in Safety and Training

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.

Sharp Front Iron Sight Graphic

If you want to shoot good groups with iron sights, it only matters that the front sight is as clear and sharp as it can be. If the rear aperture and target are blurry, it doesn’t matter. It’s great when we can see it all in focus, but that usually requires some sort of visual trickery, such as aftermarket lenses. A smaller-size rear aperture helps. But trust yourself. We are pretty good at finding the centers of things, even blurry targets, if the front sight is in focus.

Trigger Technique

Trigger Face Finger Contact Point

For best triggering mechanics, this should be the approximate point of contact with the trigger face. It’s not always easy to attain on an issue-format AR-15 trigger, but take steps to get as close as possible. Of great importance is that no other portion of the finger makes contact with the rifle. If it does, there will be unintentional rifle movement during firing.

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.

David Tubb Pistol Grip on an Orange AR-15

A pistol grip that effectively moves the hand back, farther from the trigger, works better for most shooters. This grip is a design by David Tubb that offers a good feel and it also allows the shooter to more naturally extend the trigger finger to attain better control.

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.

Rifle Shooter Glen Zediker Standing Cant Left and Right

If you can adjust the visual levelness of the sight, you’ll find that canting an AR-15 does a lot of good for offhand shooting. The iron sights on this match rifle are adjustable for level. On the right image, look at the handstop piece on the forend and notice the amount of cant I have on it. It’s what’s needed to get my head upright, and also to elevate the pistol grip for a stronger right-side hold.

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.

Glen Zediker with Service Rifle Right Side Standing

When you let the rifle roll inboard, that is, cant it toward you, that brings the stock over to your face, which makes the shooting position more solid. If you’re shooting optics and you find that you perform better with a little cant added in, rotate the scope in its mounts so the crosshairs appear level. Putting cant into a competition iron-sight rifle simply requires having your zeros set up for the distances you shoot. In terms of hold, I grip an AR-15 just as hard as I do any other rifle, and that’s pretty hard. Gripping force can’t be to the point that muscle fatigue comes too soon, and certainly not to the point that the “shakes” come in, but a loose hold allows too much movement to maintain a centered sight. This is especially true when there’s wind to contend with.

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 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 or call 662-473-6107 (weekdays 9-4 CST). Write to P.O. Box 1497, Oxford MS 38655.

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Comments (11)

  • r.j. johnson


    sorry, but I firmly disagree with the ” canting ” idea.

    1) elevation: bullets normally start out from 1.5″ to 2.5″ below the line of sight. when ” sighting in ” a weapon, the elevation game is to cross the parabolic line of arc of the bullet with the line of sight ( straight ) at two points, the rising point and the falling point. when targeting at non-zero distances, the shooter must estimate the arc position of the bullet relative to the line of sight.

    2) windage: In contrast, under normal conditions, the arc of the bullet starts out coincident with the line of sight at all distances, and needs to be adjusted only for site conditions such as wind, which would cause the bullet to drift to one side or the other. if one ” cants ” the sights, then the bullet starts out on one side or the other relative to the line of sight, and the location of crossing of the bullet with the line of sight must be estimated the same as the elevation adjustment. this introduces great complexity in the sighting as one must estimate both trajectories at once.

    by far, introducing the windage uncertainty by ” canting ” the rifle dramatically introduces complexity into aiming.


  • bchunko


    I am not a fire arms guru so here goes. I read an article in American Rifleman some months ago that “barrels are set in” to their cradles and are tilted slightly at an upward angle so that a bullet as it arcs back down will pass the intersection point with the sights or barrel at 200 or so yards down range and be on target (I guess). Now if you cant the rifle this canting negates the above statement. Explain Please! Thank You for your time.


  • DB


    I recently finished building my first AR-15. Can’t wait to try out these techniques at the range. I have been shooting recreationally since I was a kid, and I read a lot about the military, and embarrassingly I’d never heard about rotating the rifle and some of the other techniques. Thank you very much for the tips.


  • spiffthespaceman


    Having been prior military I still found this to be helpful. Being an MI guy we didn’t do as much rifle training as I would have liked. I was fairly consistent shooter but I knew there was more I could do to get better. Since I’ve been out I’ve had far more opportunities to train. I enjoy getting pointers from competition shooters. I just don’t like the ones that want to change everything you do instead of just pointers for improvement.
    The young lady at the range who I engaged was more than helpful. I got ragged on by some of the reprobates there for taking pointers from a woman. At the end of our session I consistently made that 1000 yard target clang with impacts. And they didn’t hit jack all day.


  • Tree Dee


    The sight picture diagram provided illustrates the “european” 6 o”clock
    hold of the front sight. U.S. Army training manuals & the M16 Marksmanship Field Manual stresses that the top of the front sight post must be positioned at center mass. Otherwise, great info. (I have forgotten how to articulate much of it.)


  • RPK


    These are no great secrets to effective weapons control. All BASIC skills taught in the United States military. Unless you are in the rear with gear, most forward unit Troops are formidable opponents with a battle rifle and employ these no-brainer tactics. Those that aren’t are usually assigned to administrative, medic, chaplain or “spoons” food service duties. No offense…just saying.


    • Kevin


      Seriously RPK? You couldn’t think of anything nicer to say? Not every reader was in the military and learned these “no-brainer” tactics. I appreciate the author sharing these tips and find your comment thoughtless and self-serving.


    • RPK is a troll


      I’m going to have to agree with Kevin on this one… RPK is a troll, and nothing else. What percentage of the population is former military? Less than 2%. But I’m sure you already knew that, since they probably taught you that in BASIC. Right?

      “There are no great secrets to effective weapons control.” – That is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a while. Like Kevin said (and the reason for this article) is that most people don’t know the secrets to effective weapons control. So until we learn of it, it’s a secret. I rarely comment on anything but you sir, are offensive and your assumptions are wildly inaccurate. Just like your aim probably is.


  • James Riley


    I thought as a kid I was just plain good.Right? Thanks even us old dogs need s refresher .


  • Steve


    Thanks for the shooting lesson. I’m fairly new to shooting and very new to AR-15’s. I just purchased my 1st about 3 months ago. I’m sure this information will help me shoot better and enjoy my new rifle more.


  • Smitty 550


    Glen: thanks for another GREAT article. I always learn something I never knew when I follow your publications. THANKS!


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