Off-Hand and Trick Shooting

By Paul Vallandigham

If there is an art to rifle shooting, it is only because we don't train to shoot rifles with open sights, from our two legs, standing, as was the practice 65 years ago. When WW II broke out, Americans were proud of the fact that they had learned to shoot rifles at an early age. Even with the population shifting from the rural area to urban settings, high schools, scout camps, 4-H clubs and the like provided ranges where the fundamentals of marksmanship were taught, so the average draftee entering the service then had at least basic skills at rifle shooting.

Much has changed since then, not the least of which is the prevalence of scoped sights on hunting rifles. These were originally offered to aid in identifying the target, and what was beyond it, for safety reasons, and to aid in bullet placement. A telescopic sight assists in treating wild animals to a quick and humane kill. Scopes have since become a substitute for practicing marksmanship fundamentals.

If you want to learn about properly shooting a rifle, I recommend joining the NRA and buying the books they offer about these skills. The books are absolutely terrific, and will teach you the basics. What I want to do here is teach you some of the "tricks" of shooting rifles, so that you can have more fun shooting. The more shooting you do, the better you will get.

I began my formal shooting by joining a Black Powder Rifle Club about 30 years ago. They needed a lawyer to help them with their incorporation paperwork, and I was a friend of one of their officers who had met me at a local trap shoot.

I went to one of the club's demonstrations, where they were doing some "trick" shooting. In this case, they were splitting the round ball on the edge of an ax blade, and breaking two clay trap targets, one on either side of the axe blade. This I wanted to do.

I later watched some of their shooters cut playing cards on edge with their round ball, and years later participated in a candle-snuffing contest. In this event you blow out the candle flame with your ball, without cutting the wick, or the candlestick. I wanted to do those, too.

Along the way, we shot at all kinds of small targets, including raw eggs, swinging from a line, clay targets on a line, bottle cap sized targets nailed to the backstop, etc. We broke cookies, and wafers, and rolled our share of pop cans, and bounced them too.

The fundamentals of shooting a rifle can boil down to stance, aiming, trigger squeeze, breath control, and follow through. Most shooters screw up because they haven't a clue about a proper stance.

To shoot a rifle accurately, you have to mount it to your shoulder. Balance the forend on either the palm of your off hand, or on the web of the offhand. Stand so that the bones of your body, and not the muscles, support the weight of the rifle. Muscles fatigue, and when they are strained you develop shakes, which destroy your ability to hold a sight picture.

Assuming you are right handed, and that you want to hit the edge of an ax-blade so that you split a round ball fired from a muzzle loading rifle to break two clay birds at one time, here is what you do.

Stand sideways, looking over your left shoulder at the ax. Before lifting your gun to your shoulder, you want to walk back and forth and finally just move your head back and forth to find that spot where the edge of the ax "disappears" from your view. If the ax is sharp, you can't possibly see the edge of the ax at any distance, facing it. When you find that spot, hold your eyes and head on it, and move your left foot so that you are comfortably looking at the ax with your body angled slightly toward the target.

Then, and only then, mount the rifle to your shoulder. Move your back foot, right or left until your weight is evenly distributed and you feel balanced, comfortable. Normally, your feet will be spread slightly wider than the width of your shoulders.

Now, aim the gun at the ax, and close your eyes. Slowly count to five. Open your eyes. The front sight of your gun will probably have moved to the right or left of the ax. Move your rear foot in the direction you need to put the sight back on target. If, for example, the front sight has moved left, move your rear foot left a couple of inches, or whatever is needed to bring the sight back on the ax.

Put the gun down and breathe deeply, and exhale to get rid of the lactic acid in your arm muscles. Roll your head around to give your neck muscles a rest. Take a deep breath and let it out. Then mount the gun to your shoulder again, aim at the ax edge, and again close your eyes. Count to five. Open your eyes and see how close to the ax edge your sights are now. Make another adjustment. Keep doing this until you naturally are pointing the rifle at the target.

The purpose of closing your eyes is so that your muscles will force you to balance your body while holding the gun. Your body will tell you when you are forcing a shot, if you will let it speak to you. The point of this is to find that position where the gun is being supported by your skeleton (bones) and not your muscles. (Your muscles have other work to do shooting; I will get to that later.)

Some shooters find it best to hold a rifle with their left hand turned forward, with the forestock resting on the web of the hand between the thumb and forefinger, with the back of the hand tugged tight against the front of the trigger guard. This allows the gun to feel more muzzle heavy, and allows the front sight to appear to move less in relation to the target and the rear sight. By moving the hand back to the front of the trigger guard, people with short biceps are more likely to be able to pull that supporting arm into their ribs, and take the strain off their back and abdominal muscles.

Most target shooters rest the forearm of the rifle on the left palm, allowing the gun to rise up, and sometimes off the hand, in recoil. Some will curl their fingers into a fist, and rest the forend of the stock on their fist, to give added length to their forearm, and insure that they do not pull a shot by grabbing the forestock when the gun is fired. These techniques are not very suitable for hunting, where it may be necessary to swing the rifle along with a moving animal.

If you are shooting a gun that kicks hard, you can grab the gun firmly with both hands. Pull the stock back into your right shoulder with your trigger hand and then use an isometric exercise to control recoil by pushing forward with the hand grasping the forestock, so that the muscles in your upper back flex and go into tension before you fire.

Think of drawing the string on a bow and arrow, and you get the idea of how to make this work. The right shoulder takes part of the recoil, and the left hand, wrist, and the shoulders take the rest, in a rocking motion that has to be seen from behind to be believed.

Once you are pointing the gun consistently at your target, you are ready to load the rifle and fire. But first, a word about breathing, trigger pull, aiming, and follow through.

Aiming iron sights, or "open sights" is not as difficult as people try to make it. Target shooting coaches have a mantra they mutter to their students, which is, "Front Sight, Front Sight, Front Sight!" Aiming a rifle requires you to concentrate on the front sight. That means you simply look over and through the rear sight, even if it is just a notch, and concentrate on the front site.

For beginners, it is easier to show them how to shoot iron sights if they first use a rear peep (aperture) sight. A peep sight is usually mounted on the rear of the action, nearer to the eye than a typical open rear sight. You look through the aperture, and concentrate on aligning the front sight with the target. Your eye will naturally look through the center of the peep sight. With on open rear sight I pretend that the rear sight is a peep sight that got a close hair cut! I use the open sight the same way I would shoot a peep sight. It works.

Of course, to hit anything, the sights have to be zeroed for the gun and load that you are shooting. You will also have to decide whether you want to use a six o'clock hold or a dead on hold when you zero the sights. The former is generally used for target shooting, where the range and the size of the target are known in advance. A dead on hold is generally more appropriate for a hunting rifle.

By "six o'clock" we are referring to the old style, dial clocks still found in government buildings, like schools. 6 o'clock is at the bottom of the clock face, and we refer to holding on the bottom edge of the bull's eye by referring to this as a 6 o'clock hold. The rifle is zeroed so that the bullet hits the center of the target when using this 6 o'clock hold, which means that it is striking well above the top of the front sight. The reference to a dial clock will also come in handy when we talk about field conditions, such as shooting in the wind.

Now, no one can stand on their own two feet and hold the front sight of a rifle perfectly still. This is hard enough to do when sitting at a shooting bench with the rifle resting on sandbags, front and back. Don't even try from an unsupported position. So how do you hit anything if the front sight is wobbling all over the place?

Control the wobble by making your own wobble, that's how. By that I mean move the sight back and forth in an exaggerated lazy figure eight, which looks like an infinity sign, or the number "8" laying on its side with the top sides of the two open loops collapsed. Or, think of a pendulum in a Grandfather clock, swinging back and forth from side to side. This is what you do with your rifle to control the movement of the front sight.

As you are moving through the lazy 8, you will cross the 6 o'clock position twice, once from the right and once from the left. Most right handed shooters will find it easier to time the release of their shot if they plan to begin moving the trigger when it is in the 4 or 5 o'clock position, heading towards 6.

Left handed shooters will generally like to begin their release at 8 or 7 o'clock, going toward 6. Whatever you do, your timing is designed so that the sear is released and the gun fires when the front sight is at 6 o'clock to the target, or dead center if you are shooting a gun set up for that sighting arrangement.

For game shooting, most shooters prefer a dead on setting of their sights. A 6 o'clock hold works for practice, and trick shots. You will use muscles in your hands and arms to make that front sight swing back and forth in a steady cadence, and it will help you concentrate on looking at the front sight, not the rear sight and not at the target.

Controlling your breathing is the next big thing that you need to practice in order to become a good shot. Take deep breaths to load your blood with oxygen, and remove lactic acid when you exhale. The extra oxygen helps your circulatory system feed your muscles with oxygen, but reduces the amount of jumping your muscles will do every time your heart beats. By mildly hyper-ventilating before you take aim, you can reduce the number of breathes you need to take per minute, and thereby extend the amount of time between breaths, when your body is the most calm.

When you are ready to shoot, have the gun mounted to your shoulder and the sights aimed at the ax, take a deep breathe, and then let about half of it out. Hold the rest of it until after your shot. Now, begin to count seconds in your head. You do not want to shoot before you reach the count of four, or after seven seconds have passed since you took the breath.

This window, 4 to 7 seconds, is when your body is the calmest and your sight picture will be disturbed the least by your heart beat. If you have not fired by the count of seven, remove the gun from your shoulder, relax, rotate the head to relax your neck muscles, close your eyes to relax them, breathe in and out to rid your muscles of lactic acid and load your blood with oxygen. Start over.

This is the procedure used by one-handed pistol shooters. Breath control is very important to shooting a handgun one handed. The only difference in how a pistol shooter presents his gun to the target has to do with stance, since he is only using one hand to hold the firearm.

Pistol shooters shooting bullseye targets tend to set their sights so that they can leave a space of at least 1 inch under the bottom of the bullseye of their target, so that the top of their front sight does not creep up into the black bullseye when shooting. Rifle Shooters can use this same aiming technique, if it works better for them. That usually depends on their individual eyesight.

Trigger squeeze is very important to accurate rifle shooting. The reason for squeezing the trigger gently (rather than just pulling it back when you want to shoot) is so that you will not know exactly when the sear engagement is going to release. That way you don't anticipate the shot and pull off target, or flinch, in anticipation of the recoil or sound of the gun firing.

There are several ways to squeeze the trigger. Since we are talking about off-hand shooting, so let me suggest three methods.

The first involves using the strong (shooting) hand to grasp the rifle stock on the pistol grip, or neck of the stock. The index finger extends forward and into the trigger guard to the trigger, where the pad on the first joint of the finger, or the first joint itself (depending on the reach to the trigger and the size of your hands), touches the center of the trigger. If you can pull the trigger straight back towards your body, you are the least likely to jerk the gun or spoil your sight picture when the gun goes off. Don't use your thumb to grab or twist the stock to help control recoil. That will throw the shot away from where you thought you were aiming. This is essentially how almost all hunters squeeze the trigger in the field.

The second method you can use shooting off-hand is to put your right thumb behind the trigger guard, and your index finger on the trigger. Then you simply pinch the two digits together to fire the gun. This works at the range with light recoiling rifles, but is impractical in the field as it decreases your control of the rifle during recoil and it is the strong hand, gripping the neck of the stock, that swings the rifle on moving game.

A variation on these two approaches is to put your index finger in the trigger guard so that the bottom side of the finger is on the trigger guard, with the pad of the trigger touching the point of the trigger, and not the middle of the trigger. To shoot, you simply roll the finger towards you, pushing the trigger with a rolling motion. The latter two methods make it less likely that you will know when the shot will go off.

Finally, some people put more than one finger into the trigger guard, so the action of bringing the fingers down to be in a straight line pushes the trigger aside and fires the gun. This technique is far easier to use when shooting from a rest than off hand. But it does work. It obviously depends on the size of your fingers, the width of your hand, and the inside diameter of the trigger guard on your rifle.

Follow through is what gets good shooters into a slump, more than anything else they don't do. Follow through means leaving the gun on your shoulder and keeping your face on the stock after the gun fires, and through the recoil cycle so that you bring the gun back down out of recoil to the target again. Follow through keeps you concentrating on that front sight through the shot, so you actually see the flame coming out the muzzle of the gun and in front of the front sight before the barrel rises in recoil. If you practice follow through religiously, you won't jerk a shot off target.

Sometimes you will be shooting in windy conditions, and because open sights are not easily moved for windage, you will have to learn to " hold off' into the wind. If the wind is blowing from your left, or 9 o'clock, you might want to hold off the center of your target some amount to compensate for the fact that the wind will drift the bullet to the right as it travels from the muzzle of your gun to the target. Instead of holding at 6 o'clock low, you might want to move your sight over to 6:30 low, or 7 o'clock low, depending on how fast the wind is blowing, and the range to your target. This is holding off into the wind.

There is a different place to hold each gun, and cartridge or load, depending on where your target is in relationship to the direction of the wind, and its velocity. This is where you will employ those muscles we try not to use in holding the gun, to make a shot. Because wind velocity and even direction can change, we don't change our sights, or set our feet to shoot into the wind. Rather, we set our feet normally, and simply move the gun into the wind for the shot.

Because we were almost always shooting these "trick" shoots before crowds at public demonstrations, we kept the targets close enough so that the audience could see, over our shoulders, what we were shooting at. People were always shocked when we were splitting the ball on the ax blade, or slicing playing cards in half.

Wind conditions were not very important until you got your targets out to 20 yards or so. Even then, you did not have to hold off much. When using muzzle loading rifles, people would ask us, "Are you actually firing something out of those guns?" with a look of sheer horror at the idea that this was not a Hollywood stunt trick. They would accuse us of cutting the card with a scissors before we put it out to be shot, until we placed the split card on top of another card in the deck to show the doubter that about a half inch of the card was missing altogether!

I always practice my skills first with one of my .22 rimfire rifles. The ammo is cheaper, there is no recoil, and all the skills I need to shoot that gun accurately at any distance transfers to my centerfire rifles, both black powder and modern cartridge guns.

To be a good off-hand shooter, simply staple paper plates to your backstop and shoot for the center of the target. After the first shot hits, aim your next shots to hit that hole in the target.

When you start making very small groups off-hand at close range, move the target back. When you can keep the bullets hitting inside your fist at 100 yards, you are a good shooter, but don't quit there. Keep moving back. It will take a lot of practice, but one day you will find yourself shooting again at 100 yards, after shooting at much longer ranges, and you will be shocked how small that 100 yard group has become.

Always challenge yourself. Practice shooting at targets at twice the distance at which you expect to take game shots, and then limit yourself to that half distance for all shots at live animals. Of course, in the field, even if you are a crack shot shooting offhand, as an ethical hunter you will always use a rest when it is available to support the rifle. No animal worthy of your time hunting deserves to suffer because you thought you could make a shot. Save the off-hand bragging for the target range and for survival situations where you have no choice of shots. But practice correctly, every time you go out to the range.

The secrets to shooting playing cards in half with a .50 caliber muzzle loading rifle are the same as making a good shot on any target with any rifle. You have to mind the fundamentals, beginning with your feet, and ending between your ears. Fine shooting is a mental game, not a physical one. The physical part is the element you can overcome by practicing the fundamentals.

Now, in regards to splitting cards, that .490 diameter round ball I shoot in my .50 caliber rifle is over twice as wide as a .22 caliber bullet. That gives me an edge, as I have a wider margin of error, width wise, when I am trying to hit the edge of a card that is maybe .005 " thick. And, if you have a .62 caliber rifle that shoots well, you have a bigger margin of error, and thus an advantage over me.

We mount the cards on the end of a stick, either in a slot cut into the stick with a saw, or in a wire coil of spring wire. If you are standing facing the card at the right spot you will not be able to see the card's edge, or any other part of the card, just as you won't be able to see the edge of the ax I described above.

So, what do you aim at? I aim at the top of the stick, or at the coil spring wire that is holding the card, and then cant my gun up, so that my front sight is on top of my rear sight, and not nestled down in the bottom of it as it would be if I were going to shoot at bullseye targets. This makes the shot go high, above my aiming point, and cuts the card at a slightly upward angle.

So What? The card is still cut. And, if I am the one placing the card out there to shoot at, I will tip the card forward so that my ball will cut the card even across the card, and the audience will never know what I have done!

The stick with the card is normally put in the ground at about 25 feet, because the audience behind the shooting line can't see anything if it is much further away. We can hit it at longer range, but no one can see the card if you move it back farther.

The range only matters a little, but how the card is mounted does affect whether you can cut the card entirely in half. Some clubs use a 2 x 4 and cut a slot across the width of the piece so that the entire bottom edge is held in a straight line for the shooting. This keeps the card from warping, or being bent in the wind. If the card is bent, you only cut it half or 3/4 of its width. Again, this is not a contest at your club, but a demonstration of fine shooting before an audience.

We keep the ax and stump close to the shooters for the same reason. If we do take this event to our club range as a novelty match, it is often moved back to longer range.

The "secret" of snuffing candles is to understand how a flame works, and then use a similar aiming technique used to cut cards. If you look at a candle flame, you can see a long cone of air in the center of the flame, just above the wick. The burning gases come together above this cone, where the hottest part of the flame is located.

A bullet snuffs out a candle not by pushing the flame away from wick with its mass, but by " sucking" out the heat of the flame with the vacuum behind the bullet, as it passes through the hottest part of the flame. To hit the top of the flame, raise that front sight up in the notch of your rear sight, aim at the base of the flame, and squeeze off your shot. The ball will go through the top of the flame, and suck, or "snuff" out the candle flame. Just don't miss.

These are the kinds of "trick" shooting that you can practice on your own range, at short distances, to help you become a better shooter. When you get good at fundamentals using a .22 rifle, then try it with a centerfire rifle using reduced loads. Try these with cowboy action style lever guns and pistol ammo for a lot of fun. Then you can move up to commercial loads or full power reloads as a warm up for your hunting trips.

Challenge yourself. If you get to the point where shooting these small targets off-hand becomes easy, then find a smaller target. I like empty .22 casings. Put them on a cross bar (NOT the target frame at the rifle range!), and move farther and farther back, until they are hard to see without sunlight gleaning off their sides. When you can hit those tiny targets using iron sights at 25 yards or more, consistently, you are ready to make longer shots. And you are one of the better off-hand shooters in America.

I once saw a " manually challenged" man shoot at a public range west of Chicago. Because of birth defects or some illness, his hands were curled inwards. A friend had to load and hand this man his rifle, a Garand M-1, .30-06, with an aperture rear sight and a post front sight, while the man was in a sitting position. He proceeded to shoot the wires holding some gear blanks against the backstop at 100 yards, used for high powered, informal plinking.

Granted, he was not shooting off-hand. But the target was 100 yards away, and the wire was no more than 1/4" in diameter! He aimed for and hit the wire where it was tied to a hole in the top of each target. He was cutting down the targets one after another until a range officer stopped him. The range was closed for most of an hour while the staff went out and put the targets back up.

At the time, I was angry that he was destroying range property and ruining the opportunity for us other shooters to shoot. But, I can now look back and admire just how good a shot this man was. And, I remember that not very many shooters out there that day begrudged him for cutting the wires. Instead, more than one shooter walked by to see what he was shooting and went away muttering about how someone could do that with iron sights!

Once you get good at shooting iron sights off-hand, you are ready to shoot that scoped rifle you put together for big game hunting. Don't be surprised to see those cross hairs wiggling all over the target as you look through the scope. If you employ the fundamentals I have discussed above, you can shoot a scoped rifle almost as well off-hand as you could from a rest.

Control the "wiggle" of those cross hairs the same way you controlled the jiggle of the front sight when shooting iron sights. Time your trigger squeeze so that the cross hairs are back on target when the shot is fired. And, you will really understand the benefit of counting to that 4 to 7 window when you shoot a scoped rifle, as well as the time you spend getting your stance correct.

Fortunately, we now have schools where rifle training is again offered, such as Gunsight, in Arizona, or Thunder Ranch, now located in Oregon. These courses require the shooter to take 500 rounds of ammo with him, to be shot over about 5 days on the range. When is the last time you shot that much ammo out of your rifle in so short a time? The ranges will run from 50 yards to 600 yards. And, you will be able to hit targets at those distances by the end of the course.

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Copyright 2005 by Paul Vallandigham. All rights reserved.