Defining Practical Marksmanship

Since the beginning of this blog, I’ve but an emphasis on “practical” marksmanship. The tagline at the top reads, “Practical, Not Just Tactical.” Something I realized, though, is that I’ve never really talked about what “practical marksmanship” entails.

The term itself is nebulous. Practical as opposed to what? Tactical marksmanship? Precision marksmanship? Dynamic?

Allow me to reference the Cambridge Dictionary:


adjective /ˈpræk·tɪ·kəl

    1. Relating to actual experience or to use the knowledge in activities rather than knowledge only or ideas
    2. Fitting the needs of a particular situation in a helpful way; helping to solve a problem or difficulty; effective or suitable

Ok, there, I made it sound official and a little academic. I suppose that is interesting, but it’s not really satisfying. What am I really getting at?

To me, practical marksmanship is really about keeping the end goal in mind. I do not discount the value of competition and a focus on precision, those are both vital components of my vision. However, to me, winning a competition is not the end game in of itself. Rather, the focus is on the ability to apply the skills learned through practice and competition and apply them to real world use of hitting targets that need to be hit. That could manifest itself in hunting, field competition, or defensive action. The long term focus is not on the skill in a vacuum, but how that skill will be applied in the real world.

How is that different than tactical or precision marksmanship? I suppose it is not, really. In my view, tactical marksmanship is primarily focused on relatively close range defensive marksmanship (as opposed to hunting or competition); it is a subset of the practical. Precision marksmanship is a bit more vague, and I more closely associate it with competition or long range shooting with more time and planning available.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but its just something that I’ve been thinking about. My vision has always been one of being able to walk around with a rifle in the field, recognize the need to take a shot, take a stable position, and hit the mark. I want to do this at any range I can see the target under any weather condition. That is practical marksmanship.

You can see this manifest in a variety of ways. My gear choices and weapon configurations could easily migrate towards specialized setups that would be better for precision, or better for home defense, or better for shooting 3-Gun. But they don’t, because I realize that such configurations are really tailored to specific circumstances. “Space Guns” that run on the ragged edge of reliability in order to decrease shot split times work well enough in a relatively sterile USPSA match with a tailored hand load, but would probably choke after being exposed to cheaper surplus ammo and a healthy dose of dust. Long and heavy barreled F-Class rifles are great for maintaining those tight shot clusters at range, but you sure wouldn’t want to hump one for miles up a mountain on a hunt.

Keep the end goal in mind, and work towards it.



Why Marksmanship?

Over the years, I’ve been involved in many discussions/debates/arguments with folks who do not understand or respect the importance of their 2A rights. In fact, one of the more memorable debates occurred when my interlocutor tried to explain why AR-15s should be reclassified as weapons of mass destruction. I made them feel quite foolish about their opinion when I informed them of my background as a nuclear weapons launch officer, and the actual capabilities of real WMDs (though, I’m also quite sure they continued to use such foolish language after I was done with them).

Every so often in these debates, someone will say that people like me are just upset about having my hobby limited or taken away. They tell me that I need to get over it, and that I should want to give up my hobby if it meant saving lives. “Why should anyone,” they will ask, “be involved in a hobby that is all about killing?”

While I will certainly admit that I laugh at these kinds of arguments, as they come primarily from a place of ignorance, I cannot fully write them off. It is easy for us to parry such an statement with pointed language about competition, and how our guns have never killed anyone, but such a counter has never quite felt complete, if not hollow. The question has always lingered in the back of my mind: why do I enjoy what I do so much? Why is it that I fight so vehemently to keep my rights as they are? If this was purely about marksmanship and competition, then logic would dictate that I could do just as well with a bolt action or a simple .22 LR.

Sooner or later, we must dig into our motivations. I’m not talking about whatever thing first drew us to firearms in general. Some people like the noise and flash of shooting. Others enjoy the engineering and mechanics of it all. Yet more appreciate the historical context. Those are all great in their own right, but those things are what got us started. What is that actually makes us want to keep practicing?

I’ve written before on how we should communicate and the culture we should strive for. I’ve also written about the challenge of mastering marksmanship. I’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the why *I* think it is important to continue teaching marksmanship, but not everyone will agree with my reasons. Something I’ve never really tackled, though, is the question that the antis present: why get involved in a skill/sport/practice/hobby that is so closely died with death and destruction?

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we shy away from that truth. We deflect by talking about competition, history, collection, and maybe hunting, but we rarely confront it head on. When presented with the notion that firearms are primarily designed as weapons, we recoil and redirect- perhaps to our own credibility’s detriment. Like any martial art, becoming proficient in the use of firearms is to become proficient in the application of violence. Whether or not we actually intend to use it is immaterial. I believe, culturally, we avoid the subject because we want to believe that “violence never solves anything.” Deep down, though, we know that this is simply not true. Violence, as horrid and unsavory as it may be, can be used to solve problems when necessary. For example, all forms of law are ultimately backed up with the threat of violence by the state. That is a simple fact that many forget. Sooner or later, someone committing illegal acts (even relatively benign ones like parking tickets) will be confronted by an armed agent of the state and will be threatened with violence. By becoming proficient in the use of violence ourselves, even if we never intend to use it, we presumably challenge that monopoly by the state. That fact terrifies a lot of of folks on the anti side. This is not a post about the benefits of breaking that monopoly, however. Instead, I want to discuss some of the other benefits and reasons that I enjoy practicing and encouraging marksmanship.

First, we build confidence in ourselves and our capabilities. This is true for anyone who has taken a self defense class, whether armed or unarmed. This is true for people who compete in athletic events like marathons, Spartan Races, Tough Mudders, and even GORUCK events. This is true for anyone who learns and practices a new skill that demonstrates control of yourself and your surroundings. When you become proficient at marksmanship, you understand that you now have a capability to take care of yourself- be it defensively, putting food on the table, or any other reason. When you succeed at these challenges, you feel more “in control” of your destiny. That is a significant revelation, and a scary one. I’ve taken a handful of folks shooting who were scared at first, but them came to enjoy it “a little too much.” Perhaps these folks recognized some dark trait in themselves that drove them to choose not to become firearms owners, but at least they now understand what shooting is about. Confidence and self reliance is a powerful thing.

Secondly, becoming proficient at marksmanship builds self control. Getting really good at shooting requires a lot of time, practice, focus, and self discipline. Marksmanship also requires a relentless awareness of safety and a conscious effort to ignore impulsive behavior in order to maintain that safety. Shooting in the real world is not like the movies, where the average person picks up a rifle and shoots like a USPSA Pro. People have practiced martial skills for millennia, be it boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, defendu, krav-maga, archery, fencing, and many more. None of these disciplines will be mastered quickly, and all of them require self control. I find it interesting that individuals who are into shooting probably also engage in these other activities as well. Perhaps this it out of an appreciation for martial arts in general. To me, a good day at the range is almost meditation. When I am shooting, I am focusing on breathing, relaxing into positions, visually focusing on a small point, and controlling small muscle movements. All of these things help build self control by teaching the individual to be mindful of their actions, thoughts, and bodies.

Third, shooting is a useful skill. While this is related to confidence, I wanted to break it out as a separate category. Proficiency at marksmanship means that someone has a skill useful to society as a whole. The need for security is a fundamental component of life. Just as we need farmers, tradesmen, and teachers- we need people who can provide security (and food from hunting). It is naive to think that our high standard of living will also go along uninterrupted. The flooding in Louisiana happening right now is a good example. You never know when you might unexpectedly thrust into a situation where you are responsible for the safety of yourself and your loved ones. When that moment happens, you will either be able to meet the moment with your learned skills, curse under your breath about “shoulda woulda coulda” and improvise, or perish.

I know that these things can all be achieved by other means, but that is irrelevant. I understand the desire to be viewed as a “normal” person when engaged in these discussions. We don’t want to come across as violent people obsessing over a hobby that kills thousands per year. At the same time, however, we must also own the fact that we are practicing a military skill, no different than the hundreds of other martial skills that have killed billions throughout history. Ours is simply the modern iteration of personal small arms. This is not a bad thing. These skills have value both personally and societally, and we need to remember that fact.

AAR: GORUCK Light, Vandenberg AFB 13 August 2016


Back in April, I posted that I signed up for a GORUCK Tough event as a way to test myself and give me something to train for. That challenge was held on August 5th in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, about three weeks before the event, a back injury I caused about a year and a half ago flared up quite badly. I originally injured myself during back squats at the gym, and thought the issue had gone away. When it hit me this time, I couldn’t even turn my head to look around. It went away in about a week, but I decided it was better to play it safe and moved my registration to later this year. However, Vandenberg Air Force Base happened to be hosting a GORUCK Light event the following weekend under the headline of Vandenberg Team Cohesion Challenge.

The Light events are billed as being about 4-5 hours and 7-10 miles (as opposed to 12 hours and 15-20 miles on the tough). I figured that was a great opportunity to see where my weakness are, how my injury would be affected by the strain, and to do some gear testing along the way.

We arrived slightly before the 0800 start time on a cool and foggy Saturday morning. Cadre Michael “Shredder” in-briefed us and got started promptly. He mentioned that he loved the team cohesion challenges put on at various military bases because it meant that they got to push people a bit harder than they usually would for a “light” challenge. From there, he went right into physical challenges to start “gassing” people and see where our limits were.

I’m not going to relay every individual component of what we did because it’s not terribly relevant and because GORUCK likes keeping a semi-tight lid on what happens during its events. I will simply say that between the long marches, runs, climbing objects, and creative ways of moving nearly half a ton of “stuff” for miles and miles, all under time constraints, the event is a good test of your mental and physical endurance.

As Cadre Shredder repeatedly put it: “Nobody cares how you perform when you’re 100%. It’s how you respond when you’re exhausted and have nothing left that’s going to tell me what kind of person you are…”

In all, the event took six and a half hours, and covered twelve miles.

As far as my performance goes, I gleaned some valuable information. My lower body strength continues to be my strong suit. Carrying and pushing all that weight did not cause cramps or strain on my legs. My ankle, which has traditionally given me trouble, did great (physical therapy works, people!). However, my upper body needs work. In particular, I need to build up shoulder and back strength. I think fears of aggravating my neck/back injury have caused me to shy away from strengthening the area. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always give you the chance to choose when you need to act- so you need to be as capable as you can be. While I succeeded in the event and pushed to the end, there are several components that I don’t think I would have been successful at without the help of my team. Honestly, that goes for everyone there. That is the point of the event: to force people to rely on one another to push past weaknesses and succeed. When I do another GORUCK event, I don’t just want to make it to the end- I want to be the guy who really helps the team and helps others get there.

If you were thinking of doing one of these, I highly suggest committing to it. If you have a regular strength/cardio routine and can comfortably run 3-4 miles at a time, you will be fine. You will be huffing and puffing, but everyone else will be as well.

As far as stuff I brought:

Pack and contents

  • GORUCK 26L GR1 pack
  • Source 3L water bladder
  • Pelican 1040 mini case for wallet, ID, phone, and keys
  • Magpul medium Daka pouch with two Cliff Bars and a pack of Cliff blocks
  • Packable wind breaker
  • Outdoor Research 20L dry bag with fresh shirt and flip flops
  • GORUCK 20lb rucking plate secured in place with cut up yoga block foam and paracord
  • Petzl Tactikka+ headlamp (not used this event, but required to bring per the rules)
  • Various caribiners and S-biners to hold things in place
  • Reflective ankle bands attached to the outer MOLLE of the pack for visibility (also a required per the rules)


  • Athletic boxer briefs
  • Under Armour long sleeve golf shirt
  • TAD Recon AC pants
  • Darn Tough light cushion socks
  • Salomon Forces Jungle Ultra boots
  • Baseball cap
  • Mechanix gloves


In all, everything held up well. I had been using the zippered laptop compartment of the GR1 for all of my training with a 30 lb weight, but switched to using the sleeve inside the main compartment for this one. The sleeve combined with some foam lining and paracord tie downs to the internal molle webbing helped keep the weight in place. During training, I found that the weight shifting around and bouncing in the ruck was quite annoying; this modification helped immensely for the actual event. I have a pending review of the excellent GR1 to post after a bit more testing.

The Salomon boots are fairly new, maybe about a month old. I purchased them to replace my worn out Belleville 633 Sabers, but the shade of “sage” is too dark to meet Air Force uniform requirements. Instead, they are serving as my go-to boots for everything else. Salomon boots tend to run narrow, so I had to spend a lot of time breaking them in, especially around the toe box. If I had to buy them again, I would probably go a half size up. I think I just squeaked by on this one, as they caused only minor rubbing during the event rather than the blisters I had when I first got them. Some folks got by with athletic shoes and shorts, but I was thankful to have boots and pants once we started moving over uneven terrain and thorny desert brush.

A huge lesson learned here came from load carriage. The GR1 has plenty of cushioning in the straps, and is built to carry loads, but does not have a hip belt or anything else to distribute that load. All of the weight is carried on the shoulders. After six and a half hours carrying about 35 lbs in the pack, my shoulders were in a lot of pain right under the straps. Some of that is a signal that I need to work on my shoulder strength. A lot of it is also the reality that carrying weight for long periods on just your shoulders sucks. Be it from the pressure or the friction of the strap rubbing on the same spot, I wasn’t very happy by the end. The folks out there thinking that they are going to roam around in a TEOTWAKI situation with a loaded down shoulder backpack are gravely mistaken.

For the rest of the day after finishing the event, I kept asking myself, “Why do that again?” I felt the sore shoulders, saw the bruised arms and legs, and had trouble walking from sore feet. But, 48 hours later, I’m sitting here thinking about how I’m going to make myself “better” for the next one. I suppose that’s true of most of these types of endurance/athletic events, be it marathons, Spartan Races, Tough Mudders, or some Crossfit event. You do it the first time to see if you can, and then some folks will decide that they want to be better at it.

Sometimes a man (or woman) just needs to challenge themselves. GORUCK is a great way to do that. The team building aspects are awesome. I have never seen anything like this outside of the military, and even the school I’ve been to didn’t take it as far. In a way it makes sense, since the Cadre of GORUCK come from a world where their job is to help individuals find the best versions of themselves and become teams. The leadership and teamwork lessons that you learn along the way are invaluable.


Using the Shooting Sling

It occurred to me that in the two and a half years I’ve been writing here, I’ve never really touched on the use of a shooting sling. Sure, I’ve talked quite a bit about the various slings I’ve tried, but never how the sling actually helps the shooter increase precision.

If you are relatively new to shooting, your primary exposure to rifle slings will come from the tactical and hunting arenas where they are used mainly to carry weapons. Some of the newer designs feature easy to use adjustments that help cinch the sling closer to the body to free up the hands, or to loosen the sling for easy transition to the back, shoot with the opposite shoulder, or use some other carry method. Quick adjustable slings are primarily retention tools that can be used to aid in precision in a pinch by tightening them into the shoulder pocket. This will meet the needs of most shooters just fine. But, if you have the time to take advantage of a true shooting sling, you will see a great improvement in your marksmanship.

Shooting slings (as opposed to tactical slings) are designed to help mitigate the primary enemy of good marksmanship stability: the support elbow. The general principle of all rifle positions is to adopt a good bone-on-bone position and relax into it in such a way that there is no muscle involved in supporting the weapon. Without a sling, there is always a weak link with the supporting arm. When the elbow is rested on a stable surface such as the ground or knee, the arm will be bent and the hand will be forward of the elbow in a type of open-ended triangle. As the shooter relaxes into position, gravity will do its thing and want to make the triangle open up by pushing the hand forward and the rifle down. The only way to counteract this is to use muscle tension, which inherently introduces variables.


This is the rifle supported without sling. Notice the open area between my front hand and shoulder of the support arm. In order to continue supporting the rifle, the supporting bicep must be flexed, preventing me from relaxing into the position.

Essentially, a shooting sling closes the open triangle by connecting the front of the rifle to the top of the arm (above the bicep/tricep). With this connection made, muscle is no longer required to support the rifle. As a bonus, a tight sling will pull the stock of the rifle deeper into the shoulder and result in a tighter lockup.


This is the rifle supported with sling. The sling is wrapped around the upper arm and connecting to the front sling swivel, which now closes the open triangle. In this configuration, I do not need to apply any muscle tension whatsoever to support the rifle. 

As a side note, be cautious about going *too tight* with a sling unless you are wearing heavy layers. A very tightly cinched sling will induce pulse jump in the sights.

Here are four of my shooting slings representing different design philosophies. From top to bottom: Riflecraft RS2 (attached to my M1), Turner Biothane 1907 sling, TAB Gear Sling, and a Short Action Precision Positional Sling.


While I spend the most time with the Short Action Precision, all of these slings do effectively the same thing. Each of them is adjusted to a desired carry length for moving about with the rifle. Once you need to take a shot, you insert your supporting arm through the shooting loop until the loop is above the bicep, cinch it down, wrap the supporting hand behind the forward sling mount, take aim, and fire. Realize that the amount of length needed for the shooting loop is different for each shooting position. Generally, you can use the same shooting length setting for kneeling, sitting, and squatting. Prone will probably require more slack, since your body is no longer upright. Here is a great demonstration by Jacob Bynum of Rifles Only with a modern shooting sling (directly comparable to my SAP). While this is a modern sling, the principles remain the same.

The differences between the pictured slings come down to adjustability. The TAB and Riflecraft slings are meant to be set to a single carry length with a “general purpose” shooting length (most likely sitting or kneeling, since prone shots in the field are rare), and then out the door you go. The 1907 sling is designed to be field adjustable with the metal claw hooking into the holes at the desired length, but it is comparatively slow. It was meant to serve as a carry strap outside of conflict, but the doctrine at the time presumed the soldier would hook into the shooting loop prior to engaging in battle, and then stay “slung up” until the fight was complete. The SAP sling is the most quickly adjustable, with loops that are pulled and released to quickly adjust shooting length for each position (this is why I prefer it over the others for my practice sessions).

Using a shooting sling should be somewhat uncomfortable, but the tighter you get the lockup the better your precision will become. I am generally a 2-3 MOA shooter from the sitting while using a sling, and 5-6 MOA without it.

Another factor to consider when using a sling is how the rifle will be carried. Modern methods, particularly for carbine carry, involve slings that loop around the shooter’s back. Most shooting sling designs will not work this way since there will be too great a difference between the carry length and shooting length of the sling. There are exceptions, though, and they usually involve a length of very tough bungee material.

For shooting slings, the traditional method of carry is over one shoulder with either the rifle on the shooting side shoulder with the muzzle pointing up (American style), or on the support side shoulder with the muzzle pointing down (Rhodesian, or African, style). There is a third one taught at Gunsite called European carry, but I personally don’t see any benefit of it over the other two. Here is a short video explaining each of these carry methods.

Which one you choose is ultimately up to you and your personal preference.

You can use modern adjustable tactical slings as shooting aids as well. There are two methods to doing this. By cinching down the length adjustment and otherwise using correct shooting form, you will help stabilize the rifle by a good amount. It is not quite as good as a true shooting sling, but it will work well enough for most people when speed is of the essence. This really only works well if you have a sling attachment point at the forward end of the handguard, where a traditional sling might be attached. If you mount it close to the receiver, you might have trouble creating the right amount of tension. For this reason, most of my carbines have two QD sling points: one near the receiver and one near the end of the handguard. I like to have options.

Some modern tactical slings with the quick adjusting loops can be pressed to serve as a makeshift shooting sling as well. For instance my FTW sling creates a sizable loop when the adjustment carriage is moved forward. I can take advantage of this loop and put my arm through it in a pinch. It does not cinch down and hold position like a traditional shooting sling would, but it works well enough for a shot or two.

Not all slings do this, though. My BFG Padded VCAS, when adjusted to have a large enough loop, has far too little space between the back of the loop and the front sling point. Despite that, it can still be used with the first method (tightening the carry length and pulling the rifle into the shoulder pocket).


Slings are an important part of good marksmanship, but one that is often ignored. Most of the training I see people doing revolves around very close range and very fast engagements. The practical marksman should be thinking a bit further out than that, and should use all tools available.

More Standing Position Tips

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.

  • Standing at the largest “100” yard target
  • Kneeling/Sitting at the “200” yard target
  • Prone with tight time limit at the “300” yard target
  • Prone with lots of time for the “400” yard target

As you can see, successive stages require the shooter to adjust NPOA between each target.


One of my Appleseed AQT targets from August 2014

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.

The Standing (Offhand) Position

I’ve avoiding writing much about the standing position for a few reasons. Chiefly among them was that I am still working on this one myself, and it is my weakest position by a wide margin. Another reason I’ve avoided it is that there really isn’t a single correct way to perform it. There are several variations on the standing, and which one you choose is highly dependent on the circumstances of the shot. Is this a shot taken in CMP-style competition, where stability is more important, or is it taken in a defensive or USPSA style manner in which speed is the priority?

Army TC 3-22.9 has this to say,

This position should be used for closer targets or when time is not available to assume a steadier position such as short range employment. The upper body should be leaned slightly forward to aid in recoil management.

This is the associated diagram of the standing:

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.25.21 AM.png

This is a pretty standard position for modern rifle combat. The forward lean helps with the recoil and follow-up shots. There is an alternative supporting hand position known as the “c-clamp” that became fashionable some years ago. With that variation, the supporting hand is driven as far out on the handguard as possible and grabs the rifle from the side. The index finger of the support hand is sometimes laid parallel to the bore so that the support hand more or less “points” at the target. This variation is almost always paired with a more squared up shoulder stance and shortened stock.

The touted benefit of the “c-clamp” is that it helps the shooter “drive” the rifle more quickly from target to target at relatively close ranges. It’s not particularly new, honestly. To me, it appears to be an evolution from a stance the Rhodesians adopted for close range shooting with the FAL during the Bush War.

The weakness of this “dynamic” stance is that the rifle is nearly entirely held up with muscle strength. That may work well for situations where speed is more important than precision, but you will begin to fatigue quickly when using this position for long periods of time. In practice, it shouldn’t really be much of a factor for the practical user since you should always be seeking a more stable position than unsupported standing. Unless you are in a defensive situation, where you need to return fire immediately, you will probably have time to find a supported position or take a kneeling/sitting position.

The exception, of course, is when it comes to situations where precision is very important and a more stable position is either impossible or not allowed (as with competition). This stance is characterized by a much more bladed position, the supporting elbow anchored on the support side hip, and supporting the rifle under the handguard (or magazine) wherever it provides the best center of gravity for the shooter. When in this stance, there will sometimes be a distinct rearward lean and a “chicken winging” of the firing side arm. This style permits better support of the rifle by mixing bone into the equation. It is still not perfect, but better than the prior alternative for precision shooting.

Some shooters, who are almost invariably committed to “dynamic” tactical shooting using the c-clamp, will decry anyone using this latter  position as an untrained newbie in need of correction. While there are certainly new shooters who will adopt rearward leans due to lack of upper body strength or instruction, it is a very different lean than the ones illustrated above and is clearly much more unstable. If you come across a “tactical” shooter badmouthing the traditional offhand stance, challenge them to a marksmanship match with someone proficient in such a stance…at 200 yards.

Standing is something that requires work and practice. I have a long torso, which means I have trouble resting my elbow on my hip (it’s closer to my lower abdominals). There are other tricks you can do if you are wearing load bearing gear, such as resting the elbow on top of a magazine pouch or some similar anchored object.

Realize that none of the above techniques are the final word. Consider each of them to be tools in the toolbox, with each one having an appropriate time and place for use. Proficiency in each of them, and knowing what works best for your individual body mechanics, will make you the best shooter you can be for any situation that appears.



New Steiner Intelligent Combat Sight

The Firearm Blog recently broke a story about Steiner’s entry into the intelligent optics market. The Intelligent combat Sight (ICS) appears to be a pretty solid entry into Category V optics that I wrote about last year. Here is a quick video about the scope.


Interestingly, the optic housing looks suspiciously like something made by ELCAN, even though the companies are unrelated. It even has similar external adjustment mechanisms and backup sight configurations. While ELCAN is owned by Raytheon, Steiner is owned by Beretta. Of note, Beretta also owns Burris Optics, which is known for their Eliminator series that seems to have similar functionality to Steiner’s ICS. With a weight 27 ounces, it’s no lightweight- and the ranging mechanism on the left side certainly adds some bulk.

At $3500+, it is certainly outside of my price range, but still a fraction of what the TrackingPoint M600 system costs at nearly $10K (including the AR-15 pattern rifle). To me, this signals that the steady march of technology continues to bring prices down and improve ruggedness across the market.

Steiner has recently made splashes with the release of its M332 and M536 combat sights, which seem to offer great glass and ruggedness for half the price of an ACOG. If the trend continues, I really do wish them (and others) luck with bringing more options to bear.

Let’s Make it Official



Finished in 5th place for the base, I’ll take it. Dunno when I’ll get to start wearing this nifty new badge, but it will be nice to have something different.

EIC Match After Action Report

Today was my go at the EIC course of fire. It was day two of the overall match, and I was in the second relay. I attempted to do this same event two years ago, when I first started this blog, and ended up showing up on the wrong day and missing my time slot. Not today.

I arrived at the Combat Arms Training & Maintenance (CATM) facility a solid twenty minutes early. The halls smelled of coffee and CLP, and the dark spots on the carpet could have been either. After being herded into the training room, I selected an M-16A2 off the back table and picked a seat. The rifle was well-worn, with shiny silver spots on the slip ring, brass deflector, bolt release, and other areas. The FN-marked receiver was covered in little scratches and nicks. I can’t say what this rifle’s history was, but I’m sure it’s gotten around.

I immediately noted that the chamber was absolutely filthy, and the bolt was dry. I would never run my own rifles this way, but this wasn’t my rifle. This combination of buildup and dry bolt would cause me concern during the course of fire. As far as the training session went, it was just a quick safety brief, function check of the rifle, and a description of the match rules. We then headed out to the range.

I was given five 30 round magazines (haven’t played with those in a while! Thanks, California…), 60 rounds of M855 green tip on stripper clips, and a stripper clip speed loader.

The first 10 rounds were loaded into three magazines, 4-3-3, to be used for zeroing. I shot the first 4 from a supported prone into a tight little cluster that was a bit low and right. I made the adjustments and fired the next 3 into a very tight cluster just a bit high. The last three made another tight group right across the middle. Shooting off of a barricade would later prove problematic; I should have zeroed from the unsupported prone. While checking targets, I happened to notice I was producing much tighter groups than my fellow competitors.

The match itself consisted of four stages, all at 25 yards:

  • 1 minute to shoot 10 rounds offhand
  • 1 minute to shoot 10 rounds kneeling
  • 1 minute to shoot 10 rounds sitting
  • 1 minute to shoot 20 rounds unsupported prone

There was about 30 seconds before each stage to load and get into position. All of my practice really paid off here, since I could drop into a comfortable low kneel, crossed ankle sit, and prone relatively quickly and adjust to a good NPOA. No shooting aids were allowed for the match- no slings, gloves, jackets, bags, mats, or anything else.

The event was very rapidly paced; we did not pull and check targets between stages. Only hits in the 7, 8, 9, and 10 ring would be scored. Anything lower was counted as a miss. Nearly all of my shots ended up in the 10, 9, and 8 rings. There were and handful of 7’s from the offhand and kneeling, though.

My final score was 427/500. As far as I can tell, the only shooter who outscored me during my relay was the Security Forces commander, who scored 430. Scuttlebutt is that someone scored a 451 the previous day (the high score), and that there was another 440’s score as well. It appears nobody else in my relay broke 370.

The top 10% of all competitors over the two days are considered the “winners,” and receive an Excellence in Competition rifle badge to be worn on the uniform. Scores will be released later in the week, so we’ll see where I stacked up.




Now, some things to note for the future. By zeroing my rifle from supported prone, I think I did myself a disservice. For nearly the entire match, my shots tended to cluster high and left, which is direction I adjusted my sights during the zeroing phase. Had I not made those adjustments, and zeroed from unsupported prone, the sights may have worked better for me during the match.

Secondly, my rifle was on the verge of malfunctioning for two of the three stages. At one point, as I hit the bolt release during loading a d the bolt carrier nearly hung up before slowly sliding into battery (I had to use the forward assist). I suspect lubrication and a new action spring would help. An Army officer in my relay was not so lucky, and malfunctions cost him valuable time and points.

Overall, I felt pretty good. I had a good practice session recently, and I went in with a good positive mindset. I really hit my groove with sitting where I fell into a perfect rifleman’s cadence. Prone was good, but felt rushed by the need to fire twenty shots in a minute (not to mention the distraction presented by the other rifles tightly packed under a small space). I did surprisingly well with kneeling, and I attribute it to the physical therapy I had on my ankle- I felt no pain and could better focus.

Offhand will still require some work.

AR-15 Guide for First Time Buyers, Ver 2.0

I decided it was time to revisit one of the most popular posts on this blog: my advice to first time AR-15 buyers.

For a variety of reasons, the AR-15 platform is now the best selling rifle platform in the United States. With that popularity comes competition for your money, and unless you know how this market works, you are very likely to waste money in the process of buying one for yourself. This guide is intended for folks who are relatively new to shooting and are looking through Google, message boards, and other places for help on what to buy. If you have plenty of experience shooting, you will still find this guide useful- but you will be able to skip some of the advice since you probably already have a good grasp of what you are looking for.


Before getting on with it, I want to explain where I went wrong with my first AR-15 (pictured here). I purchased a stripped lower and immediately started scouring the internet for what I should do with it. Over the course of about 10 months, I purchased each part individually as well as the tools to assemble them. I built a $3,000 carbine that the internet would be proud of. It was a sleek, bad ass looking, SHTF-ready general purpose carbine. It made a fantastic range toy that impressed everyone around me. However, once I actually started using it in local three gun competitions, its shortcomings became immediately apparent to me and I knew it was going to cost me more money to do some things over again. I then built a second carbine taking things back to basics (as I will advocate here). After shooting with that for a bit, I went back to my first AR and rebuilt it using lessons learned from my actual usage.

This brings me to my two fundamental laws of purchasing gear:

  1. Let the mission dictate the configuration
  2. Buy Once, Cry once

Let me explain these.

Let the Mission Dictate the Configuration

As simple as it sounds, this is the most difficult law for people to grasp. The AR-15 is so customizable that most buyers will immediately begin tailoring it to some perceived need even before they fully understand how they are going to use it. It took me years to understand one fundamental truth: a very generic weapon will do reasonably well at just about any task the AR-15 can be used for. The more specialized you make an AR for any particular use, the worse it will perform at others.

The last thirty years have seen an explosion in the possible configurations of an AR. We’veQyFiZ gone from the classic M16A2, to the M16A4, the M4A1 Carbine, the Mk 12 SPR (and it’s shorter cousin, the Recce), the Mk 18 CQBR, and a myriad of others in between. As the internet has filled with pictures of each of these, and the warriors who carry them, there is a certain element of, “I want that!

This sentiment is understandable, these guns all look amazing and they all exist because they have proven useful and reliable. But here is what you have to keep in mind: these configurations all exist to serve as compliments to one another. The M16 series offers the best all-around ballistic performance on an open battlefield, but its extra length will be more difficult when moving in cramped spaces. The Mk 18 and its 10.5″ barrel are great in cramped spaces, but it produces skull-rattling concussion and loses a huge amount of velocity (which limits its effective range). The Recce and SPR fit more into an intermediate category, but their precision optics and stainless barrels make them more useful for precision and less useful for volume of fire (for more information about how barrel length and material affect performance, please read my post on barrels). Everything is a trade off. It’s not a big deal, though, if the taxpayers are buying your weapons for you and you have a squad to outfit with a variety of weapons to compliment each other. It’s a different story if you have to buy them yourself and it may be the only rifle available to you in times of need.

maxresdefaultWhat does this mean to you? As I said before, a generalized weapon (such as the M16 or M4A1) will do reasonably well at any task you throw at them. The specialized weapon configurations really only shine when put in the hands of a skilled and practiced user. Put another way, a NRA high-master shooter will still shoot a chrome-lined M16A2 better than the average joe will shoot a fully customized national match rifle. Special parts and configurations only matter when comparing two skilled users who can take advantage of the capability. If you are a new shooter, you have not gained the skill and experience to even know how you will be employing your weapon, much less take advantage of the nifty gizmos you want to attach to it.

So what do I recommend for a first time buyer? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Buy Once, Cry Once

Don’t be cheap. There is a lot of competition for your discretionary income, and that means there is a lot of marketing dollars spent to sway you to one product over another. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to listen to gun store lore that says Brand X is “just as good as” Brand Y even though it is significantly cheaper. There is no such thing as a free ride. Every reduction in price must be paired with some other reduction in cost to the manufacturer. Typically, these costs will appear in material selection, quality control procedures, manufacturer tolerances, or other areas. If you are interested in the components of a quality AR, please read this post on technical specs.

Like most things, there absolutely is a point of diminishing returns. In the AR world, that point starts at about $1400. In my opinion, the sweet spot is between $900 and that $1400, where you are getting very high quality weapons that you can depend on for protecting your life, your family’s life, and performing in competition. Am I saying that a $500 Model 1 AR is going to fall apart tomorrow? No, not at all. But I am saying that the methods the manufacturer took to get the price point that low could affect the reliability and long term durability of the rifle; and you would have no way of knowing it was a problem until it becomes one (and that usually happens imgresat the absolute worst moment). If you know this weapon is purely a range or hunting toy that you will not bet your life upon, then no problem. If, on the other hand, there is the slightest chance that you might need this weapon to function in a desperate moment- that extra few hundred dollars is cheap insurance.

This doesn’t just apply to rifles, either. I have seen many a shooter buy a cheap red dot sight only to have it break in a couple months. By the time they have bought their third replacement, they have spent as much money on those three optics as they would have spent buying one quality optic up front. If you think a component is worth having, then its worth buying a high quality one at the start. That quality component will last the life the weapon, and probably a couple weapons after it.


Now that I’ve discussed my guiding principles, lets discuss what your first AR should look like. First, you are going to start with a basic configuration that will serve pretty well at just about any task you might have. I suggest only buying a complete rifle, or buying a complete lower and upper separately. At this point, do not attempt to piece together a rifle one part at a time (as I did). You will end up spending more money than you think on tools and shipping. Even then, you don’t have the technical knowledge on properly assembling parts together (especially mounting barrels and checking headspace). Sure, you could take it to a local gunsmith- but unless they truly know what they are doing, you will always wonder if the job was really done right. In that instance, you might be tempted to blame poor performance on the gun rather than yourself. That attitude will only drive you to spend more money on gear rather than ammo and practice. Buying a properly assembled quality rifle up front means any shortcomings are probably yours rather than the weapon’s.

Once you have your new AR, I suggest only spending enough money to get it up to the status of “minimum capable” for whatever it is you want to do. Once there, spend the rest of your money on quality ammunition and some training. Shoot the thing so much that it becomes second nature to you. Compete with it in a variety of styles from CMP/High Power to USPSA. Burn out the barrel. Once you have gone down this route, it will become very obvious where you should spend your money to best suit your needs. By this point, you will have expended enough money in ammunition that the cost of the widget in question will seem….paltry.

All of that said, here is my basic “minimum capable” recommendation for first time buyers. I will discuss variations afterwards.

  • 16″ Lightweight mid-length chrome lined barrel with a fixed front sight base
  • Either plastic handguards (Magpul MOE, Standard Round, BCM) or a quality free floated rail
  • Quality collapsable stock, without being too fancy, containing a H2 carbine buffer and spring (alternatively, I’m a big fan of the VLTOR A5 system)
  • Quality pistol grip of choice
  • Quality (but not fancy) trigger. The fanciest I would suggest at this point would be an ALG ACT or BCM PNT
  • Quality rear sight, with or without adjustment (Magpul MBUS/MBUS Pro, LMT L8A, Daniel Defense A1.5, Larue Lt 103, or even a carry handle from BCM or Colt)
  • If you have the money to buy an optic at this time, then go ahead and grab one that suits your needs- just remember to buy quality (Aimpoint, Trijicon, ELCAN, Zeiss, etc.)
  • Bonus: If you plan on using the weapon for defensive purposes, then you really should mount a white light on it (InForce WML, Elzetta, Surefire, etc.) and learn how to use it properly (i.e., only use in momentary bursts of light)
  • Bonus: You should get a sling.

The rifles below are a selection of various configurations I’ve used that roughly meet the criteria I laid out. The closest two are the one on the top left and bottom right. The top left, with FDE furniture, was my second AR and built with all of the lessons learned from building the first rifle. The second rifle, on the bottom right, was the first iteration of my marksmanship training rifle; it was nearly identical to the FDE rifle except that it had a 20″ barrel and a different stock. That longer rifle is now the one on the top right. The only significant changes are the addition of a free float rail, a muzzle compensator, and a Trijicon TR24. I made these changes only after shooting the rifle for several thousand rounds in a variety of circumstances.

There are many quality manufacturers out there, and I don’t have time to go down the pro/con for each one of them. So, to be blunt, I suggest that your first AR-15 should come from Colt, BCM, Daniel Defense, or Sionics Weapon Systems. These manufacturers all follow a good spec and stick around the same price point. Going much below these manufacturers in price should cause you to ask questions about what was done to reduce costs. Going much above their prices (as with Noveske, KAC, LMT, and others) should make you question if you are paying for a name or features that you are unable to take advantage of. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying its impossible reduce costs without sacrificing quality (supply chain management is one method of doing so). But I am asking that you don’t play that game with your first rifle since you don’t know a lot about the marketplace.

How did I arrive at this spec?

What separates the first iteration of this guide from the new Version 2.0 is that I have softened my stance a bit on a few things- particularly handguard and stock selection. Let me briefly explain each of theelements, and why I chose them as suggestions for a first timer.

I said a 16″ lightweight chrome lined barrel with a mid-length gas system because I gas-systemsbelieve it will be the most versatile for most people getting started in shooting. Heavy barrels really only shine in applications with high volumes of fire or an increased need for precision over the course of long strings of fire. Neither of those describe the average newbie. I used to suggest a 20″ barrel as well, and it is still a very viable option, but I don’t want to limit folks who might start using the carbine indoors for defending home and hearth.

I still suggest starting with a fixed triangle front sight base as opposed to the new trend of low profile gas blocks and rail-mounted front sights. The traditional triangle post is the sturdiest front sight and gas block you can use. If something has enough force to damage it, then there was probably enough force to destroy the whole rifle along with it. The fixed front sight is useful for point shooting, and works great for times where speed is of the essence. If you decide down the line that you want to mount a longer rail, then you can pay $40 to have it shaved down, or do it yourself, and still have one of the toughest and most rugged gas blocks available.

DSC_0339I still suggest most people should start with plastic handguards, but I’ve come around on the subject. There are many free float handguards on the market that are lighter than even the classic plastic ones. While most newbies will not really be able to take advantage of the accuracy benefit inherent in free floated barrels, it will be there for them in the future once they have practiced enough. The caveat, of course, is that you should do your research and buy quality. I take no sides in the Keymod vs M-LOK debate (though I have been using keymod), both will do the job well enough.

I used to suggest a plain collapsable stock like a Magpul MOE or standard Colt. I’ve backed off of that and will now say to pick a quality stock of your choice. BCM makes a great one, and Magpul makes several options. I suggest collapsable to better suit various shooters’ body mechanics. I’m also a fan of fixed rifle stocks, such as the A1, A2, and Magpul MOE rifle. If your primary usage is outdoors or at the range, a fixed stock has a lot of benefits in durability and smoother functioning (due to the longer action spring). Just remember, if you go the rifle route, you will need a different spring and buffer system than the carbine recommendation I made earlier. It’s up to you to do the homework on weight vs capability and how it affects your weapon. Remember, you should always strive for the lightest component that meets your needs and maintains reliability.

190261When it comes to triggers, I fully understand the temptation to jump for a $200 Geissele or Wilson Combat. I run Geisseles in all of my rifles at this point. However, I will admit that I did that before I could really take advantage of it. I’ve been shooting quite a few rifles with the ACT and PNT triggers, and they are all actually quite nice. They serve as fantastic interim triggers while you decide what route you wish to go in the future: combat two stage, light single stage, or any other variation. Once, and if, you go the route of fancy trigger, you still have a quality backup trigger in the parts bin. If you wish to know more, here is a post all about AR triggers.

When it comes to optics, I used to only suggest red dot sights. However, I realize that RearQuarter1many folks might not have eyes made for irons and red dots anymore. Some folks already know they want to go with magnification. For red dots, stick to the Aimpoint CRO, PRO, or T2 series. The Trijicon MRO has been getting a lot of attention lately as well. For magnified optics, the options are wide and varied. I’m a fan of Trijicon ACOGS and the ELCAN Specter series, but there are many more out there. You’re going to have to do your homework. For a quick overview of the market, here are my thoughts on optic selection.

For bonus items, I mentioned white lights and slings. In my opinion, no defensive rifle should be without a white light. It follows rule #4, knowing your target and what is behind it. Without a light, you might just be shooting at shadowy figures that may or may not be family members. As far as slings go, there are a huge number on the market tailored for various needs. You need to decide if you need one to serve more as a shooting aid, a retention device, or just carrying the rifle in the field. Pick one that suits your desires.

The Final Word

As I stated at the beginning, a generalized carbine will perform well at just about any role that can be expected of an AR-15. The more you start specializing it through fancy barrels, triggers, optics, rails, stocks, and accessories, the worse it will perform at all the other roles you didn’t specialize for. More so, those specialized guns only make a difference in the hands of a skilled user.

Until you have developed the experience and skill, then you really don’t know how you will prefer to use the rifle and what you can do to make it better for you. Until then, it’s all just theory and trying to be cool on the internet. Don’t do what I did.