The newest Appleseed newsletter was waiting for me in my inbox this morning (which reminds me, two of my work friends are off doing an Appleseed this weekend- good luck, guys!). One of the articles is titled, “Secrets of Offhand Shooting” by Agrivere. I thought it was worth sharing. Much of what the author says is right in line with my experience. A lot of shooting, like many activities, is about the mental game and solid practice.
To add context, if you’ve never shot an appleseed, the targets are all military F-Type Silhouettes scaled to simulate firing from 100 to 400 yards while shooting at the 25 yard line. The shooter works their way through each position at smaller and smaller targets under varying time limits.
As you can see, successive stages require the shooter to adjust NPOA between each target.
Secrets of Offhand Shooting by Agrivere
Shooting offhand (the standing position) sounds pretty simple. All you’ve got to do is stand there and shoot that HUGE target. How hard can that be? It’s those little ones at the bottom that are hard – you can barely even SEE those. Can’t be hard to hit that huge one at the top, right?
Then you pick up the rifle and start looking at that huge target, and not only will the sights not stay on the target, they may not even stay on the paper. It feels like the sights spend as much time on your neighbor’s target as they do on yours, right?
If any of that sounds familiar, you’re in good company. Offhand shooting is hard, and doing it well is even harder. If you’re one of those folks, and I know a few, who picked up the rifle for the first time and started shooting great groups offhand, then this article may not be for you. And for the record, I’m jealous, because learning to shoot offhand well has been quite a challenge for me.
Unlike a lot of the champion shooters you read about, I started out just like most of us, just trying to shoot ten shots that scored. My rifle was moving all over the place, and I considered it a major victory to have a shot that hit the black. Plenty of shots didn’t hit the target at all.
Today I’m a Master classified NRA Highpower shooter, and in the interest of full disclosure I wouldn’t say I’m a great offhand shooter, but I’ve finally gotten pretty good, and I’ve picked up a few tricks and tips I want to share. These are things I’ve learned either from other shooters or through trial and error which I think can help you to improve your shooting.
There’s a whole lot to talk about when it comes to making good shots offhand; far more than can be covered well in one article, so this is the first of a three-part series. In Part 1, we’ll talk about some of these “secrets”. Part 2, will be a more advanced discussion of how to build, or rebuild, your offhand position to maximize stability. Then in Part 3, we will cover how to create a shot process and how to execute good shots.
First, you need a goal. My goal for this series for you to be able to clean the standing target on the AQT. Not getting lucky once in a while, but to consistently shoot 8 MOA groups standing, every time. Why 8 MOA? Well, you can just fit a 2” circle inside the 5 ring of the AQT target, and a 2” circle at 25 yards is 8 MOA. What about the rest of the five ring? Well, any shot that hits outside of our 8 MOA circle could just as easily be a four as a five, so if it happens to catch a five that’s just luck. And luck isn’t what we’re looking for.
I’m confident that if you’re willing to put in the effort and the time, this goal is achievable for pretty much everyone. As always, feel free to take what works and discard what doesn’t work for you. There are many ways to shoot offhand, and what works for me might not work for you. But I hope you’ll keep an open mind and give it a try! That said, don’t give up too easily and use “doesn’t work for me” as an excuse. Some of this stuff is hard, and you will need to be persistent to unlock the secret and understand why it works. This is especially true if you need to unlearn some bad habits first.
Here are the secrets of successful offhand shooting:
1) Shooting is 90% mental, and the other 10% is in your head.
This might just be the very best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten for shooting, which comes from a former National Champion shooter on the All Guard Gold shooting team. Of course it applies to all positions, and all kinds of shooting, but it is particularly appropriate for offhand shooting.
The mental side of shooting, especially offhand, is important on many different levels. First and foremost is the practice needed to turn conscious activities into subconscious process. Remember that the conscious mind is only capable of doing one thing at a time, and when shooting we need to be able to do many different things simultaneously – align the sights, hold the rifle still, squeeze the trigger, and so on. The only way to do this successfully is to train the subconscious mind to do them for us, and this is done through practice and repetition.
Think of your subconscious mind as a supercomputer. While your conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time, the subconscious mind can do many things simultaneously. In fact, when I’m shooting well, my conscious mind isn’t really doing much at all other than monitoring what’s happening. My subconscious programs know how to hold the rifle still, align the sights, and execute the shot. When it all goes right it’s a weird feeling – all I’m doing is watching the front sight, and when it lines up where it needs to be the rifle just goes off, without any conscious effort at all.
The other key mental element in play here is belief in yourself. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right”. This is perhaps the hardest part of shooting in general, and offhand in particular. You have to believe you can do it, and the confidence you need will only come from practice. Speaking of practice…
2) The only way to become really good at offhand shooting is to be ankle deep in brass.
This is a piece of advice I received from a High Master Highpower shooter, though when he gave me this advice he suggested the pile of brass needed to be higher than your ankles (it still starts with “A”). Whatever the depth of the brass you prefer, it’s absolutely true that it is going to take time and repetition to get good at offhand shooting. Fortunately, a lot of that brass can be “virtual”, using dry fire practice.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, I frequently use a Scatt electronic trainer, and so far this year I’ve shot (offhand only) 1,920 shots on the Scatt, 310 shots in competition, and hundreds more in live fire practice. Last year was about the same. If you want to be good at shooting offhand, you’re going to need to commit the time to do it.
Dry fire works for most of your practice, but as we all know you have to do it properly. Only perfect practice makes perfect. You have to be honest with yourself, and not cheat. That’s one of the nice things about an electronic trainer, as it will show you things in your shooting that you can’t easily see without it, and help you correct errors you might not even know you’re making.
In addition to programming our subconscious, what is it about offhand practice that magically makes you a better shooter? This is one of the secrets that people won’t tell you, because most of them don’t know, and it’s very simple. You’re training your body and your brain to use different muscles, in different ways, than you’ve ever had to before.
Try to raise just one eyebrow without moving the other. Or move just your pinkie toe without moving the others. For most of us it’s almost impossible. Why is this? There are muscles there, and nerves to send the signals. Why can’t we do it? Because we simply haven’t trained our brains to send those specific signals to those specific muscles. You can, if you want. Practice builds those neural pathways to let our muscles do things they can’t currently do.
And that’s another big secret of offhand shooting that nobody ever tells you. It’s the flip side of the biggest lie we tell when we teach offhand. Anyone ever tell you to relax? Well, the last time I checked, if I REALLY relax when I’m standing up, I’m going to fall down. What experienced shooters really mean when they say “Relax” is, “Relax all of the muscles you don’t absolutely need to stand up and hold the rifle still.” The thing is, when you’re starting out, in all likelihood you can’t do that, no matter how much you want to. You need just the right amount of tension in just the right muscles to execute a good shot. Too much tension and the rifle moves all over the place. Too little and your position falls apart. A big part of practice is learning exactly how that feels when it’s right, and when it’s wrong. One of the biggest points of practice is to build the neural pathways to let you add just a tiny bit of tension to a shoulder, or a hip, or whatever, in just the right way to keep your position balanced and stable. It only comes from repetition. Speaking of a stable position…
3) Your hold has to be 10-Ring to shoot 10s.
This tip comes from Carl Bernosky, one of the greatest shooters in the country, and current co-holder of the national record for Highpower offhand shooting with a 200-15x. That’s 20 shots in the 3½ MOA ten ring, and most of them landing in the 1½ MOA X-ring. That’s some good shooting .
Since we’re not shooting a Highpower target, we’ll adjust his advice a little and say “If you want to shoot small groups, you need to have a small hold.” Sounds simple enough when you just say it like that, but it’s surprising how many shooters overlook this most basic of fundamentals.
We will be talking a LOT more in Part 2 about how to build a position that is capable of holding the rifle quite still, but it won’t surprise anyone to hear that it will be based on the exact same principles as every other shooting position. Holding the rifle still requires using bone support wherever possible – remember bones don’t get tired the way muscles do – and relaxing our muscles as much as we possibly can.
This is especially hard in the standing position, as we simply MUST use some muscles in order to keep standing. The less we use them, and the more carefully we use them, though, the better off we’ll be. Here’s a framework to start thinking about. Think of your muscles like a room full of toddlers. They simply can’t sit still for more than a few seconds. If they aren’t doing anything they have to do something – anything – and if you give them something to do, the next time you turn around they are bored with that and want to do something else.
That’s the biggest reason your sights move around like they do. Your muscles really are trying to help, but just like a room full of toddlers they aren’t all on the same page. They twitch and contract and tense up and the rifle moves all over the place. With practice you can teach them how to hold still and let bone support take over, and that’s the goal.
So until we get to part 2, try to think about ways to have more bone support and less muscle support in your standing position, and your rifle will move much less. Here’s a hint. Start from the ground up, and think about each joint from your feet to your head, and whether you’re using bone support or muscle support. Your feet, your ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, neck, everything. There are proven ways to build a position that will maximize stability and bone support, and minimize muscle tension. We’ll talk a lot more about those in Part 2.
The other secret to holding the rifle still is the same as it is in prone, sitting, or kneeling, and that’s a rock solid NPOA. Your success at aligning your natural point of aim with the center of the target will to a large degree define your success in all shooting sports, however, in offhand shooting, finding your NPOA can be extraordinarily challenging, leading us to…
4) The NPOA Conundrum
We’ve all heard it many times. During prep time you should build your position and establish your Natural Point of Aim so your NPOA is aligned with the center of the target. Check your NPOA before each shot. Adjust as necessary.
All sounds good, right? How is that working out for you? Probably about the same for me, which is to say not at all. Here’s the secret nobody is telling you. Until you learn to hold the rifle still, you don’t really have a Natural Point of Aim. I mean sure, you can kinda put the target in the middle of the gigantic wobble area, but it’s not really doing you any good, not really. Lets break this down a bit.
What is NPOA? The definition in the Appleseed manual is:
The place where your body, in its RELAXED state, would place the shot. It demands bone support, not muscle support. Muscles are the enemy of precision rifle shooting!
We already talked about the fact that you essentially cannot relax when you’re standing without falling to the ground (especially when you’re new to shooting offhand), and yet we’re told we need to find and check our NPOA, which requires us to be relaxed. So we must relax in order to have a solid NPOA, but we can’t relax because we’re standing here holding a heavy rifle.
So here’s the secret. It’s all about your position. Building a position which is capable of holding the rifle still is a big part of Part 2, but until you learn how to hold the rifle fairly still while standing on your feet, honestly NPOA is a pretty worthless concept. It’s probably worthwhile to try to put the target generally in the center of your wobble area, but if your sights are swinging across a space twice as big as the target, don’t sweat it.
We will talk more about how to build a solid position much more still down the road, but until then here’s what to work on. Learn to hold the rifle still first. Dry fire on a blank wall. Don’t worry about where it’s pointed, just feel your position and where it has tension, then learn to let that tension go. Hold drills are great for teaching you where you still have tension, so you can reduce or eliminate it. It will take some time. You’ll be tired and probably sore. Make adjustments to your position and see how the sight movement changes. In time you’ll be holding a very small area. At that point we can introduce a target. Why do all this dry firing without a target? Because, simply speaking…
5) The Target is a Distraction
For most of us, the target is really messing us up. It’s a huge distraction. If you’ve followed what we’ve talked about here, you’ll see it. As soon as you put a target out, your hold will increase in size dramatically. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, here’s what happens.
Your brain wants very badly to put the sights in the center of the target. So much so that it will try to help you do it. You’ll muscle the rifle onto the target and not even realize you’re doing it. And all of a sudden, before you know it, your hold size has doubled- simply because you’re not relaxed. Your body wants to help, but it’s working against you. That’s the point of all that blank wall dry firing, to learn what it feels like to hold the rifle still without a target to distract you.
It requires tremendous focus to establish your NPOA in standing, and it will shift over the course of a string, so you’ve got to recheck it frequently. If you’re using a scope, it’s even easier to fall into what I call The NPOA Trap. In the NPOA Trap, simply because you can see the target SO well it’s very easy to muscle the rifle over to it without even realizing you’re doing it. It can quickly turn into a vicious circle, where muscle tension makes your hold bigger, so you try harder to find your NPOA, which makes your hold even bigger, and so on. To break the cycle you simply must relax, and that’s harder to do than it sounds.
So take the time in dry fire to learn how the sights should look when you’re relaxed, by dry firing at a blank wall without a target. Then, when you introduce a target, if they don’t look the same, you’ve fallen into the NPOA trap. Adjust your NPOA and relax until the sights move the same way. Only then have you really found your NPOA, and only then will you shoot as well as your capable of.
Another small trick you can use is to adjust your sights to let you hold the rifle on a “valueless” part of the target. If you can hold your sights on something that has no “value” in your mind, like maybe the corner of the paper, your mind will be far less tempted to try to muscle the rifle around, and your hold will shrink.
I hope you found that useful. We’ll be going into a lot more depth on position and shot execution in the next parts, but until then safe shooting, and as always if you have questions or comments please don’t hesitate to ask!
I will keep an eye out for parts 2 and 3.