Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part I - Safety
In this series on basic rifle marksmanship skills, we will attempt to describe the steps in firing a rifle competently, with the goal of making the process comprehensible to someone who may never have fired a rifle before. Ultimately, you will be judge of our success or failure, so feel free to throw compliments or rocks, as appropriate, in the comments section.
The first step we must take is to learn some basic rifle nomenclature and safety rules. Note that although this particular rifle is an M16 military rifle, most rifles will have some functional equivalent of the parts we will be describing.
1. Starting from the left and moving towards the right, we first encounter the rifle’s muzzle (a/k/a “where the bullet comes out”), which in this case features a flashhider at the end of the barrel.
2. Moving along the barrel from left to right, we next encounter the front sight assembly, which contains the front sight. The corrugated items to the right of the front sight assembly are known as the handguards.
3. Continuing from left to right after the handguards, we find the carrying handle on the upper surface of the rifle. At the rear of the carrying handle (behind the area that appears to be missing), the rear sight assembly is located. Immediately below and slightly to the right of the rear sight assembly is the charging handle, which is used by the shooter to move ammunition from the magazine (that curved object protruding from the bottom of the rifle) into the chamber of the rifle to be fired.
4. Immediately after the charging handle is the upper surface, or “comb”, of the rifle’s rear stock, or “buttstock”. The end of the comb is the top surface of the rifle’s buttplate, which is the surface placed into the shooter’s shoulder area for firing.
5. Now moving from right to left along the underside of the rifle, we move from the lower surface of the buttplate along the lower side of the buttstock. The item protruding from the buttstock is the rear sling swivel, through which an adjustable cloth or leather strap will be threaded.
6. The next stop along our journey is the pistol grip of the rifle, which is placed in the shooter’s firing hand immediately prior to firing. The shooter will then extend his index finger for use as the trigger finger, placing that finger on the trigger, immediately ahead of the pistol grip. Both the M16 and its civilian cousin, the AR15, have the safety selector switch immediately behind the trigger in the wall of the rifle’s receiver.
7. Ahead of the trigger in the receiver’s left wall is the bolt catch, by which the shooter can release the rifle’s bolt assembly forward into position for firing.
8. Moving forward of the receiver now, we travel along the underside of the handguards, coming to the front sling swivel (companion of the rear sling swivel), the bayonet lug (where present), and return to our starting point at the rifle’s muzzle and flashhider.
9. Looking at the right side of the AR15/M16 rifle, you should look closely at the receiver underneath the carrying handle and focus on the button immediately forward of the trigger. That’s the magazine release, which when pushed allows the magazine (which provides ammunition storage) to fall clear of the receiver well into which it fits.
SAFETY NOTE: It is imperative when unloading all magazine-fed firearms (rifles, pistols, and shotguns) to remove the magazine FIRST before clearing any live ammunition from the weapon’s firing chamber. Failure to unload the weapon in this order (remove magazine first, then clear chamber) leads each year to deaths and permanent injuries. Don’t let it happen to you!
Those of you with an interest in the details of the AR15 platform can click here for an excellent graphic for the component parts of the M16A2/AR15 rifle when properly field-stripped. You can also go here and download the Bushmaster manufacturer’s operators’ manual (thanks to the good folks at Bushmaster and AR15.com.
But before I lose you to the wonders of the Bushmaster and AR15 websites, let’s use the shared language that we now possess to learn the basic rules of firearms safety. Folks, these rules are literally a matter of life and death, so I not only want you to read them, but I want you to memorize them and their meaning so that you can, at command, recite them and describe what you mean:
Jeff Cooper's Rules of Gun Safety
RULE I: ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED
RULE II: NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
RULE III: KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET
RULE IV: BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET AND WHAT IS BEHIND IT
RULE I: ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED
There are no exceptions. Do not pretend that this is true. Some people and organizations take this rule and weaken it - e.g., "Treat all guns as if they were loaded." Unfortunately, the "as if" compromises the directness of the statement by implying that they are unloaded, but we will treat them as though they are loaded. No good! Safety rules must be worded forcefully so that they are never treated lightly or reduced to partial compliance.
All guns are always loaded - period!
This must be your mind-set. If someone hands you a firearm and says, "Don't worry, it's not loaded," you do not dare believe him. You need not be impolite, but check it yourself. Remember, there are no accidents, only negligent acts. Check it. Do not let yourself fall prey to a situation where you might feel compelled to squeal, "I didn't know it was loaded!"
RULE II: NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
Conspicuously and continuously violated, especially with pistols, Rule II applies whether you are involved in range practice, daily carry, or examination. If the weapon is assembled and in someone's hands, it is capable of being discharged. A firearm holstered properly, lying on a table, or placed in a scabbard is of no danger to anyone. Only when handled is there a need for concern. This rule applies to fighting as well as to daily handling. If you are not willing to take a human life, do not cover a person with the muzzle. This rule also applies to your own person. Do not allow the muzzle to cover your extremities, e.g. using both hands to reholster the pistol. This practice is unsound, both procedurally and tactically. You may need a free hand for something important. Proper holster design should provide for one-handed holstering, so avoid holsters which collapse after withdrawing the pistol. (Note: It is dangerous to push the muzzle against the inside edge of the holster nearest the body to "open" it since this results in your pointing the pistol at your midsection.) Dry-practice in the home is a worthwhile habit and it will result in more deeply programmed reflexes. Most of the reflexes involved in the Modern Technique do not require that a shot be fired. Particular procedures for dry-firing in the home will be covered later. Let it suffice for now that you do not dry-fire using a "target" that you wish not to see destroyed. (Recall RULE I as well.)
RULE III: KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET
Rule III is violated most anytime the uneducated person handles a firearm. Whether on TV, in the theaters, or at the range, people seem fascinated with having their finger on the trigger. Never stand or walk around with your finger on the trigger. It is unprofessional, dangerous, and, perhaps most damaging to the psyche, it is klutzy looking. Never fire a shot unless the sights are superimposed on the target and you have made a conscious decision to fire. Firing an unaligned pistol in a fight gains nothing. If you believe that the defensive pistol is only an intimidation tool - not something to be used - carry blanks, or better yet, reevaluate having one around. If you are going to launch a projectile, it had best be directed purposely. Danger abounds if you allow your finger to dawdle inside the trigger guard. As soon as the sights leave the target, the trigger-finger leaves the trigger and straightens alongside the frame. Since the hand normally prefers to work as a unit - as in grasping - separating the function of the trigger-finger from the rest of the hand takes effort. The five-finger grasp is a deeply programmed reflex. Under sufficient stress, and with the finger already placed on the trigger, an unexpected movement, misstep or surprise could result in a negligent discharge. Speed cannot be gained from such a premature placement of the trigger-finger. Bringing the sights to bear on the target, whether from the holster or the Guard Position, takes more time than that required for moving the trigger finger an inch or so to the trigger.
RULE IV: BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET (and what is behind it)
Know what it is, what is in line with it, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything you have not positively identified. Be aware of your surroundings, whether on the range or in a fight. Do not assume anything. Know what you are doing.
Make these rules a part of your character. Never compromise them. Improper gunhandling results from ignorance and improper role modeling, such as handling your gun like your favorite actor does. Education can cure this. You can make a difference by following these gunhandling rules and insisting that those around you do the same. Set the example. Who knows what tragedies you, or someone you influence, may prevent?
I hope Colonel Cooper, who died last year after a long life unlike many others, would forgive me if I added one more rule, derived from his summary:
RULE FINAL: EVERYONE IS A SAFETY OFFICER
It will do you and those around you very little good to be completely observant of all gun safety rules if the knucklehead two positions down fires a rifle bullet into your spine while trying to clear a malfunction. You simply must make sure that everyone around you observes these four rules, all of the time. Remember - it will very likely be their bullet that kills or maims you.
A stern “MUZZLE!” or “TRIGGER!” command will advise those in the know that they have erred by failing to control their muzzle or keep their trigger finger indexed along the side of the receiver unless the sights are on target. If the person does not understand your attempted correction, make it clear to him. If he violates the rule again, leave the area. Someone is going to die or be permanently injured because of that person, and you don’t want that for you or your people.
Before we end today’s lesson, let’s make sure that our rifles are unloaded:
1. Always keep the muzzle under control and pointed in a safe direction:
a. downrange if safe,
b. straight down at the ground, or
c. if nothing else is available, straight up in the air.
2. While making sure to keep our fingers off and away from the trigger, remove all of the stored ammunition from the rifle – whether it is in a box magazine as shown in the illustrations above, a tubular magazine running parallel to and underneath the barrel, an internal magazine as part of the receiver assembly, or even a tubular magazine contained in the rifle’s buttstock.
3. When you are sure that ALL ammunition has been removed from the rifle, operate the rifle’s action to eject the chambered round, if any. If possible, lock the action open and visually inspect the rifle’s chamber (located in the receiver end of the barrel) to make sure that there is not a live round present. It is also a good habit to make a tactile check of the chamber using your finger. Doing so does two things:
a. it doubly confirms that the chamber is indeed empty, and
b. it allows you to get familiar with how the empty chamber feels, so that if you ever have to check a rifle’s chamber for safety in the dark, you will know the difference between the feel of an empty chamber and that of a full chamber.
Notice that I did not refer to the rifle’s mechanical safety during the unloading process. The lesser reason is that on some rifles, an engaged mechanical safety prevents the shooter from unloading the rifle by locking the action closed. The greater reason is that you should never, ever rely on a mechanical safety; it is a mechanical device and they are known to fail when stressed. Instead, by faithfully executing Colonel Cooper’s Rules I, II, and III every single moment that you are holding any firearm, your mind and mental discipline become the true safety device.
Simply put, the safety on any firearm is located between the ears of the person using the weapon. As long as that safety is fully operational, any other problem will be avoided, or at least rendered harmless.
For next time, please memorize the safety rules and be able to explain what they mean, on command and out of sequence. We’ll cover sights and sighting in our next session.
Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part II(A) - Open Sights
We'll continue with our Basic Rifle Marksmanship series, once you've gone back and reviewed Part I dealing with safety. We'll wait right here 'til you return.
You're back now, so let's begin. Because we want these lessons to be as useful as possible for a broad audience, we're going to start with the most common form of rifle sights - the so-called "open sights". The other major variant of iron rifle sights - aperture sights - we'll leave for Part II(B) of this series.
Fundamental sight theory requires the shooter to be aware of three discrete elements and their interrelationship:
1) the rear sight (the part in the diagram above that looks like a block "C" lying on its back);
2) the front sight (depicted in our diagram as the somewhat fuzzy post centered in the notch of the rear sight); and
3) the target (the fuzzy gray circle on top of the front sight, which is positioned as just touching the target at the 6 o'clock position).
This interrelationship is managed by the shooter by three concepts, to be performed in the following sequence for each shot:
A) Sight alignment: This term refers to the way the front and rear sights appear to the shooter after he or she has assumed the physical position to be used for the shot. Note that we are NOT talking about the sights themselves - after all, both the rear and front sights are attached mechanically to the rifle. Instead, what is really being analyzed under the label "sight alignment" is the alignment of the shooter's sighting eye with the sights themselves.
The question to be asked by the shooter is simply, "Am I positioned such that the front and rear sights appear in the same line as my eye?"
If so, we can move on to
B) Sight picture: First, take a look at the front and rear sights in our diagram and note how the front sight post is exactly centered in the nothch of the rear sight. Note also that the top of the front post is exactly the same height as the higher (non-notched) portions of the rear sight.
Both of these points (front sight post centered in notch and on the same level as the non-notched rear sight portions) are critically important. If the front post is more to the right, the bullet will hit to the right of your point of aim (POA); same idea (bullet strike to the left of POA) if the post is more to the left. Similarly, if the front post is higher or lower than the non-notched "ears" of the rear sight, your shot will go higher or lower, respectively, from your POA.
Just keep the front post centered in the notch and at the same height as the rear sight "ears", and you'll be fine.
C) Point of aim: Remember how I said that the shooter needed to keep three separate pieces in mind when using one's sights? We've been talking about two pieces (the front and rear sights), so let's add the third element now.
You'll see that in our diagram, the front and rear sights are aligned, and that the front post is centered and at the same level as the "ears".
So far, so good.
Now look at where the front post is placed relative to the target. If the target were an analog clock face, that position of low center would be where the "6" would be, right? That's why shooters refer to the sight picture in our diagram as a "six o'clock hold", since the POA is at the six o'clock position on the target.
In Part II(C) of this series, we'll talk about adjusting your sights mechanically to change where the bullet strikes (known as "point of impact", or "POI") for a given POA. For now, just assume that the sights on your rifle are adjusted to have the POI equal to the POA at the distance you are shooting.
The six o'clock hold gives beginners (and especially not-so-newcomers) a big advantage, in that it forces shooters to concentrate on the front sight post so that they can be sure that the target is just perched on the front post. That's where a more colorful name for the six o'clock hold - "pumpkin on a post"- started.
The key point to remember is that the human eye simply cannot focus with equal clarity on three distinct items located at varying distances from the eye - in other words, the rear sight, the front sight post, and the target itself. That issue being a fact of human biomechanics, the shooter must choose one item and let the others blur to a greater or lesser degree.
Which to choose?
Always choose the front sight post to be clear. It will be hard to discipline yourself at first - you and your eyes will want to try to focus on all three objects, or the target, or the rear sight, all at the same time. Take a deep breath and concentrate only on the front sight, and making sure that as you begin your trigger squeeze, that sharp front sight post stays right there, at the six o'clock position of the round (but somewhat fuzzy) bullseye target.
Say to yourself: "Sharp front sight, pumpkin on a post. Sharp front sight, pumpkin on a post."
Keep repeating that mantra, while allowing yourself only enough attention to the rear sight to ensure that your front post is still centered and on the same level as the "ears".
Do that on every shot, and you'll be a superstar. Promise!
To recap, successsful open rear sight usage comes down to proper sight alignment, the proper sight picture (maintained until the shot is fired) , and the proper point of aim for the target you are shooting.
Next time, we'll deal with the other major vaiety of iron sights - the "peep", or aperture, sight.
Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part II(B) - Aperture Sights
Before we begin today's lesson, please take a few minutes to review our previous discussions on safety and the use of open sights.
Aperture sights, sometimes called "peep" sights, are a relatively recent innovation in iron sight technology. First fielded en masse with the British Pattern 14 rifle, American soldiers encountered the peep sight with the P14's American cousin, the M1917 Enfield. Its superiority over open sights for both reactive and deliberate fire has made the aperture sight a standard on American miltary longarms since then, including today's M16/M4 rifle/carbine system.
The aperture itself is housed on the rear of the rifle's receiver, with the center of the sight's circular opening being parallel with the centerline of the rifle's bore. In using the aperture, the shooter looks through the center of the opening and concentrates on the front sight, per the diagram above.
With the proper focus, the shooter does not see the aperture itself. Instead, the aperture forms the frame for the rifle's front sight, which is then placed properly on the target:
You'll notice in both diagrams that the front sight post is centered exactly in the middle of the aperture. Failute to achieve and maintain this centered front sight post will lead to elevation errors (due to the front sight post being too high or too low) or windage errors (due to the front sight post being skewed to the left or right of center aperture).
That's today's lesson - short and sweet. Remember to look through, not at the aperture, keep the front sight post centered in the opening, and you'll have this lesson mastered in no time.
Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part III - Breathing Control
Before we begin today's lesson, please take a few minutes to review our previous discussions on safety, the use of open sights, and the use of aperture sights.
As suggested by the illustration above, one of the key parts of firing a good deliberate shot, especially at intermediate and long range, is breaking it during the pause between inhalation and exhalation.
At most, you have from three to five seconds during that trough where your sight picture (and hence your shot) will not be affected by your body's movements as you breathe. If you have been exerting yourself, that 3-5 second pause becomes maybe one or two seconds before your brain says, "Time to inhale!"
To make the most of that short period, here are a few tips:
1) If you can, take a few deep breaths before you settle into position for that shot. More breathing means more oxygen in your blood, and that means more time for your respiratory pause.
2) If you find yourself running out of breath, STOP! Your tendency will be to rush your shot, and your accuracy will suffer. Instead, take a deep breath or two, put your sights back on the target, and create a new respiratory pause so that you can make that shot count.
3) If you have really been exerting yourself (say, for example, by running for your life), you may want to use Dave Grossman's autogenic breathing technique:
...The breathing technique that is being taught to SWAT teams, police departments, Green Beret battalions, and other elite forces around the world (sometimes referred to as “autogenic breathing”) consists simply of a deep, belly breath: breath in for a four-count,hold for a four-count, breath out for a four-count, hold for a four-count, and repeat three times.
This technique will both calm you and replenish your bloodstream with sufficient oxygen so as to make a steady shot more possible.
4) Your dry-fire practice will pay dividends here as well. The more practiced you are at assuming a firing position, establishing your sight picture, and firing an accurate dry-fire shot, the better you will be at the range or in the field.
Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part IV - Trigger Control
As usual, I'll ask you to recap our previous lesssons on safety, the use of open sights, the use of aperture sights, and breathing control before we begin today's class.
All standard triggers can be grouped into two categories: singe-stage or two-stage. A single-stage trigger, as the name suggests, features a constant resistance to trigger pressure applied by the shooter. Once the requisite force has been applied, the hammer is released to contaact the firing pin and thus fire the rifle. A two-stage trigger, as found on many military and military-style firearms, features an initial stage of minimal resistance to the shooter's trigger pressure, followed by a final stage of greater resistance until hammerfall.
In learning how to shoot your rifle effectively, you must first determine whether your rifle's trigger is a single-stage or a two-stage trigger.
By dry-firing your rifle, after confirming, both visually and tactilely, that the chamber is empty and all ammunition has been removed from the rifle. In fact, you should never fire a rifle for the first time with a round in the chamber without first teaching your mind and body about its trigger via a few dry-fire executions.
Steps in dry-firing:
1) Confirm that the rifle is completely unloaded, both as to its ammunition storage and its storage.
2) With the rifle pointed in a safe direction (remember- all firearms are always loaded, even when you have confiremd that all ammo is removed), disengage the mechanical safety and slowly press the trigger, after assuming a proper shooting position.
3) Cycle the rifle's action manually to recock the hammer and prepare for the next dry-fire "shot".
4) Confirm that your shooting position is still proper (much more on this point in subsequent chapters).
5) Slowly press the trigger, and repeat 3 and 4 once again.
Note that I say "press" the trigger, rather than the more common "pull the trigger." The key to successful trigger operation is for the shooter to deliver into the trigger/hammer mechanism just enough energy to cause the hammer to be released without causing the rifle to move at all via the shooter's exertions.
Too much energy and the rifle will move, thus causing your shot to move from the intended point of impact.
Similarly, when you provide the wrong type/direction of energy into the trigger/hammer mechanism, you will also cause your shot to go other than where you intended.
So what is the right type and direction of energy for a proper trigger press? Consider the following factors:
1) Trigger finger placement: You should never have the front surface of your rifle's trigger any deeper along your trigger finger than the crease of the index finger's first knuckle. Better still is to place only the very tip of your trigger finger against the front surface of the trigger.
In the illustration above, proper trigger finger placement would be between the first crease (labelled "bent finger") and the end of the shading in that first finger segment. As long as the shooter can get sufficient muscle power, the optimal trigger placement would be on the finger tip at the end of the shading.
2) Direction of effort: As you begin your trigger press sequence, the musular effort should be directed into the trigger face parallel to the centerline of the rifle's bore. To the extent that such effort is not parallel to boreline and straight back towards the rifle's buttplate via a curling of your finger, your wrist, or both, you will be introducing lateral action into your rifle that will move its muzzle and thus the placement of your shot. Straight back and only straight back.
3) Quality and quantity of effort: Remember, all you want to do is deliver sufficient energy into your trigger so that the spring pressure energy of the rifle's hammer is transferred to the firing pin. The delivery of that energy should be done as smoothly as you can possibly muster, and the pressure that you apply to the trigger's face should be very, very gradual.
When I teach a class, I ask my students to take the tip of their trigger finger between the index finger and thumb of their other hand. Slowly squeeze the trigger finger tip such that you can barely feel the increase of pressure. Doing so helps to illustrate, in a tactile way, the quality and quantity of pressure needed to achieve a successful trigger press.
Finally, you will read, on the 'Net and elsewhere, some discussions about "surprise trigger breaks" and "controlled breaks". Both camps have their points, but what I have found to be most effective for me is to know, via repeated dry-fire and live-fire executions, when the trigger is just about to break. This so-called "controlled break" allows me to concentrate on my sight picture and, when just right, place just the slightest bit more energy into the trigger mechanism so that the hammer falls as my sights are correctly on target.
That is, when I do everything else right -- :-)