It is difficult to read any discussion concerning proper head position when shooting an AR-15 platform rifle without coming across the acronym “NTCH,” which stands for Nose To Charging Handle.
Some will proudly declare that shooting NTCH is the only proper way to fire an AR-15. These individuals have almost always been trained by the military, or by someone who learned in the military. They will talk about stretching your neck up and forward when mounting a rifle, which provides better recoil control. The Appleseed shoot I went to last year also preached this “turkey neck” method as a way of getting consistent cheek weld in the same spot each time. They did it with a Ruger 10-22, but the principle should remain the same on an AR.
I have not experimented with the recoil management component of this position. Rather, it is the consistency that is really important to me. Army Field Manual 3-22.9 Marksmanship states in paragraph 4-41 (emphasis mine):
Through dry-fire training, the Soldier practices this position until he assumes the same cheek-to stock weld each time he assumes a given position, which provides consistency in aiming. To learn to maintain the same cheek-to-stock weld each time the weapon is aimed, the Soldier should begin by trying to touch the charging handle with his nose when assuming a firing position. The Soldier should be mindful of how the nose touches the charging handle and should be consistent when doing so. This position should be critiqued and reinforced during dry-fire training.
Placing one’s nose so that it just touches the charging handle is an easy way to teach individuals to develop and keep a consistent head position every time the rifle is aimed. The relatively short eye relief of military issued ACOGs (TA31 variants) is rumored to be out of a desire to encourage military shooters to keep the same head position they use when trained on iron sights, with the nose to the charging handle.
It is my belief, however, that this rule is not absolute. More advanced shooters familiar with the fundamentals of marksmanship have a bit more freedom to find a position that is more comfortable and still yields a consistent head position. In my view, it is more important that the shooter’s neck is relatively relaxed and free of tension. This belief is shared by many a top level competitive shooter and instructor who will readily mention the role of fatigue in decreasing accuracy over a shooting session. But this “put it where it’s comfortable” idea only works as long as the head is in the same position relative to the sights every time.
With the widespread use of optics with varying eye relief requirements, the importance of NTCH is further diminished. Some magnified optics, with eye reliefs in the 3” to 4” range, may not even allow the use of such a position. In these situations, I have seen some shooters put some kind of tactile marker, like an embedded ball bearing, on the stock to know when they have reached the correct position.
When I first started shooting ARs with a TR-24, my natural head position was a good half inch to full inch behind NTCH. This never caused me any problems, and I competed well with it. If this works for you, then run with it. However, as I started shooting more and more with a shooting sling, I found that the rifle was naturally tucking into my shoulder further, practically forcing me to shoot NTCH. I’ve done it that way for the better part of a year now, and find it to be quite comfortable. I recently experimented with backing off from NTCH shooting and using a more rearward position (about a half inch), adjusting my optic mounts accordingly. I quickly found that the sling tension still pushed me into a NTCH position, causing my eye to get too close to the ocular and creating problems with scope shadow. I was constantly trying to uncomfortably scoot my head backwards, which violates the rule of comfort.
Today, even when shooting without a sling, I find that my head just naturally falls to a NTCH position when bringing the rifle up. As far as optics mounting goes, I ascribe to the practice of mounting the scope in the best position for shooting prone with a sling (where accuracy is the most attainable). All other positions are compromises. I find that mounting my SpecterOS in this manner gives me the best sight picture in prone and sitting, with good picture in kneeling/squatting, and an acceptable picture in standing. This reflects how I generally use my rifle, especially with a magnified optic.
If your priority is speed from standing, then a more upright position that allows for the quickest sight picture is appropriate. You will probably be further back on the stock, and that’s OK. Some modern squared-off shooting positions also encourage this type of head position.
The underlying rule is that you should do what works best for your needs. Analyze your 90% usage, being honest with yourself, and set up your weapon to suit your needs and body mechanics. It’s fun to configure a weapon just like DEVGRU might use on a direct action snatch-and-grab CQB mission. But that is just playing at fantasy if your 90% is actually hunting, mid-range target shooting, or general practical marksmanship. If your priority is accuracy, then taking the extra fraction of a second to attain consistent cheek weld is entirely appropriate.
If you want both speed and accuracy, then practice practice practice.