In nearly every AR-15 oriented message board, when someone posts a picture of themselves or someone else in a more traditional standing position (firing elbow raised, more erect posture), there are howls of “Get that elbow down!” or “You’re going to get your arm shot off!”
For many, the appearance of the raised elbow is a surefire indication that the individual in the picture has had poor instruction on shooting form, and needs another enthusiast to come along and correct them. I saw it so often that I adopted the mantra myself in all of my shooting, always making a conscious effort to keep my firing elbow nice and tucked down to my side in order to “minimize my profile to the bad guy.”
To be clear, I’m not talking about the common stance of new shooters with possible upper body strength limitations. These individuals usually have a distinctly unsteady lean as they try to counterbalance the weight of the weapon.
I think it’s time we had an honest conversation about the chicken wing. Despite the keyboard commando howling, there actually is a time and place for this style of standing position. Here is that same WWII rifle training video, the applicable portion I want to point out is at 19:58.
Notice that the instructor is emphasizing the importance of tucking the stock of the rifle into the hollow of the shoulder in order to better control the rifle during recoil. The only way to create this hollow is to have the firing elbow at least slightly raised (modern pistol grips mean that the elbow does not need to be raised as obviously as the photo above). In this case, the instructor has the shooter raise the firing elbow as high as possible in order to give more ‘meat’ to brace against as well as raising the butt of the rifle high enough that the shooter can keep his head more erect during sight alignment.
As an experiment, I took the traditional standing position with the stock of the rifle tucked into the hollow, and then dropped my elbow. Almost immediately, the rifle rolled off the right side of my shoulder as the hollow disappeared. This is simple biomechanics.
In order for the tucked elbow to still work, the shooter must roll their torso forward into a much more squared off stance. This almost always accompanies a shortened stock (when possible), and moving the support hand down the hanguard into the “C-Clamp” position.
“That’s the correct way to shoot!” The keyboard commandos will declare.
I can’t say they are absolutely wrong, as this position does work well for controlling recoil and rapidly transitioning between targets. This type of aggressive position has become popular with tactically-oriented instructors and three-gun competition. But that doesn’t make it the only way to do things. Rather, it is a tool in the tool box of marksmanship.
The squared-up-tucked-elbow position has some interesting mechanical elements. Some of them are counterintuitive. For instance, whereas the long history of combat shooting dictates that you want to present as small a target as possible for the enemy to shoot, this position has the shooter increase the visible target area by squaring the shoulders towards the target. This seems counter to traditional wisdom, until you also account for the fact that this position is also commonly taught to people who wear armor plate carriers for a living, and squaring up the shoulders means that the strike face of the armor is more directly facing the enemy and better able to protect the shooter. In a more traditional bladed stance, a shooter aiming at an enemy in front of them is more likely to get shot in the side, where there is less armor coverage. In this context, squaring makes sense and the shooter is able to drop the shooting elbow without compromising the shoulder pocket.
Another feature of this ‘dynamic’ position is that it allows the shooter to lean forward and hunch down onto the rifle, better controlling recoil forces during rapid fire strings or when the shooter must walk and shoot simultaneously (again, useful for combat or action shooting competition).
This is all well and good for shots made at relatively close distances on relatively large targets. However, this position supports nearly the entire weight of the rifle with shooter’s muscles. The way the shooter must crane his or her neck down onto the rifle can induce strain. This is both more inconsistent for rifle support and fatiguing to the shooter. Both factors are counterproductive to accurate shooting.
In contrast, the traditional offhand stance is more balanced and transfers more weight to the skeletal system, reducing the variables for accurate shooting. The bladed positions of the torso and feet provide a better center of gravity, and grants the ability to naturally deal with recoil forces without relying on constant tension of the muscles. With the shooting elbow raised, a deeper hollow is established in the shoulder, better supporting the stock of the rifle. I want to note that you will see Olympic shooters not raising the elbow as high. I discovered that this partially due to shooting low-recoil .22 rifles. If you are shooting a larger centerfire rifle, a higher elbow gives you better purchase on the stock.
While this position, and the more exaggerated version of it at the top of the page, is more commonly associated with high power shooting, it should really be considered for any situation that requires a higher degree of accuracy than “minute of bad guy at 50 yards.”
I’m not saying that one position is always superior to the other. Rather, a modern marksman should understand and practice both, using one or the other depending on the situation and accuracy demands of the shot. Avoid being quick to dismiss something outside your comfort zone just because it falls outside of what you normally see in whatever shooting discipline you participate in. There is more out there to learn. Otherwise, you end up looking like this guy…