Slings and Carrying Straps

By Chuck Hawks

Hunter Cobra Slings
A selection of rifle slings.
Illustration courtesy of the Hunter Company.

I am a proponent of carrying straps for hunting rifles. The carrying strap or sling can be used to carry the rifle over either shoulder, muzzle up or muzzle down. This frees the hunter's hands for glassing with binoculars, climbing, crawling, holding branches out of the way, etc. To me, a sling is a necessity in the field.

The rifle may be slung over either shoulder either muzzle up or muzzle down. When hunting in the rain it is handy to sling the rifle muzzle down over the off shoulder. This keeps the weapon as dry as possible, particularly the inside of the barrel. Another advantage of this barrel down position is that the rifle may be brought up to shooting position quickly.

To do this the right handed shooter should carry the rifle slung barrel down over his or her left shoulder with the left hand (under the sling), grasping the forearm of the rifle. To bring the rifle to shooting position the rifleman need only to lift his left arm straight out ahead of him and rotate his wrist counter-clockwise 180 degrees. The rifle will be right side up and ready to snug into the shooter's shoulder. (If you are left handed, substitute "right" for "left.")

The only note of caution relevant here is that rifles with long barrels should not be carried muzzle down if there is danger of inadvertently shoving the muzzle into the ground and plugging the barrel. This is particularly worth noting when hiking down hill. I watched a companion carrying a bolt action .300 Magnum rifle with a 26" barrel completely plug the end of the barrel with mud.

Slings and carrying straps normally come in 1 inch and 1 1/4 inch widths and are adjustable for length. They are usually made of leather or a synthetic web material such as Nylon.

Some carrying straps have a "cobra" shape at one end to help spread the weight of the rifle across the top of the shoulder. This wide area is only useful when carrying the rifle in one position (typically muzzle up), depending on the orientation in which the sling is attached. But, if you use quick detachable sling swivels on your rifle, you can easily change the cobra sling to match the orientation in which you prefer to carry your rifle at any given time. And, if you choose to give your "primary" shoulder a break by carrying the rifle slung muzzle down over your other shoulder for a while, the cobra shaped strap is actually no more uncomfortable (used upside down) than any other 1" sling. Cobra slings are typically available in plain leather or with a suede lining to help prevent slippage on the shoulder.

A variation of the basic cobra sling is the padded sling, usually of the cobra shape or with an extra wide, rectangular padded area near the top of the sling. Properly done, padded slings are even more comfortable than a cobra sling for long hikes, but are heavier and bulkier.

Carrying straps are normally just a single length of material that attaches to the sling swivels at one end and loops through the second sling swivel, with some extra length and a buckle for adjustment purposes, at the other end. The true rifle sling is heavier and more complicated than a simple carrying strap, but it can also be used as an aid to shooting. Whelen (1 piece) and Military (2 piece) slings are both useful as shooting aids, although the Whelen type is easier to get into. They are both essentially double straps with claw hooks and keepers for adjustment purposes.

To help steady the rifle, both Whelen and Military slings are used with the lower part of the sling made into a loop that is pulled tight above the biceps of the left arm (of a right handed shooter). The left hand is then shoved tight against the sling swivel at the front of the forearm. When properly adjusted the sling should be tight when the left hand is in place against the forward sling swivel and the rifle butt is pressed tightly against the shoulder.

The "hasty" sling serves a similar purpose, but less efficiently. Instead of making the lower portion of the sling into a loop that is tightened above the biceps, the left arm (of a right hand shooter) is simply snaked between the sling and the rifle from left to right until the sling is across or above the biceps. Then the hand and arm is brought back under the sling to the left, and then up and slipped between the sling and the forearm from left to right and forced against the front swivel. When the sling is properly adjusted for length, it becomes tight when the butt of the rifle is forced against the shoulder and the left hand is forced against the forward sling swivel. Some carrying straps can also be adjusted for use as a hasty sling.

A properly used sling is a definite aid to steadiness. In addition, a tight and properly adjusted sling lets the forward hand and arm absorb a noticeable amount of recoil, thereby reducing considerably the violence with which the rifle backs into the shoulder.

There are a couple of cautions attached to using the sling as a shooting aid that should be mentioned. One is that with rifles of very heavy recoil the hand should not be placed against the forward swivel, because the recoil may bruise it. Normally such rifles have their front sling swivels mounted to the barrel by a band rather than screwed into the forearm.

Another caution applies particularly to rifles with injection molded synthetic stocks, but can be a problem with any rifle. The lateral pressure of the arm through a tight sling may cause the forend to bend slightly and change the bedding pressure against the barrel. This can (and usually does) cause a significant change in the point of impact of the bullet. Plastic stocks may be more impervious to inclement weather than wooden stocks, but they bend more easily (one of the reasons I don't like them). Always check for change of impact at a rifle range by shooting groups from sandbags with and without the sling before using a shooting sling in the field.

The carrying strap or sling is a handy device that makes carrying a rifle in the field much easier. It is one of the oldest firearm accessories, much beloved by the world's armies. Some hunters don't like to use a sling in the woods, claiming it catches on branches and twigs, but I am lazy enough to use a sling whenever and wherever I hunt.

My favorite carrying strap is a suede-lined, brown leather cobra sling decorated with a basketweave design that was made many years ago by the Hunter Company. This sling attaches to 1" swivels and, because I use detachable swivels, I can use it on the majority of my hunting rifles. (My rifles that have permanent sling swivels get their own dedicated slings.) Hunter still offers a very similar model today, their #27-138, which has a 2007 MSRP of $29.50. (That sling is in the middle--the 4th sling from either end--in the photo at the top of this article.) The same sling without the basketweave decoration is a couple of bucks less. For me, it was money well spent.

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Copyright 2007, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.