I have spent more than half my life in the Civilian Marksmanship Program shooting sports. When I began my CMP career, I was told by a wise old man at my local club that the sling on a rifle is just as important as the rifle itself. As a young man I casually ignored that advice until I matured as a competitor and learned just how wrong I was.
In this article I will go over the ideology and theory of sling use and how you can use a sling to make yourself a better rifle shooter.
Active vs. Passive Sling Use
There are two primary schools of thought that encompass the world of rifle slings. The first is what I will call ‘passive’ use, where the sling is simply treated as a means to carry the rifle. Passive slings range from the embossed leather straps that your granddad had on his old deer rifle to the bungee-style tactical slings on many AR rifles today.
The passive sling is little more than a strap used for ease of transport. While some would argue that a bungee-style tactical is an ‘active’ sling, I disagree in that it offers no stability for the rifle and instead makes it faster to present while shooting.
For our purposes, an ‘active’ sling is a sling that interacts with the shooter and the rifle during the act of shooting in a way that offers support and/or stability. An active sling becomes part of the package and is a valuable piece of shooting equipment, not just an afterthought.
The active sling can function as a carry strap and it does an admirable job in that role, but it’s best used when looking to stabilize a rifle in the field or the competition line. Not all active slings are created equally. There are things to look for as there are some slings that cosmetically resemble a true active sling, but lack the strength to be functional in that role. Cheap materials and poor attachment points will give away a fake.
In addition, make sure that your rifle has sling mounting hardware that’s able to withstand hard use. 1 ¼” steel swivels hard-mounted to the rifle are ideal. You will find that the screwed-in stud style sling mounts on many rifles aren’t sufficient to bear the loading pressure of an active sling. I have seen these studs rotate and strip out the stocks they are in when a sling is used.
There are several types of sling materials that you will want to take a serious look at when you want to improve your shooting. The first and foremost of these materials is leather. The slings featured in this article can be found at Brownell’s. They are both part of their Competitor Plus line and are available with numbers and without.
I often recommend the Competitor Plus line to my fellow CMP shooters as they are high quality and affordable. A reply I often receive after someone buys one of these slings is that they don’t look like mine. The numbered sling here has seen a great deal of use and has been well seasoned.
The Competitor Plus comes dry and stiff and will need breaking in. An un-broken-in sling will feel hard and slick like plastic, where a seasoned sling is moist and softer. You can clearly see the difference in color between the two in the photos here.
Breaking in a leather sling takes time and patience. I like to do a multi-stage treatment over a couple of weeks of mink oil and heavy-duty leather protector. Saddle soap may also be used to speed this process.
After a fresh application of your chosen leather treatment, you will need to stretch it out by placing the sling under your foot and pulling hard on it for a couple of seconds on and off for a minute or two. This will help the leather last longer and prevent it from stretching out unevenly while in use.
Biothane is another material used in some Brownell’s slings. The Brownell’s Tactical Plus sling is made of this material, which is urethane-coated nylon. It’s weatherproof and doesn’t require breaking in like leather.
The major feature of this material is that it’s almost tacky, which allows it to cling to shooting coats and maintain shooting positions without fear of slippage. This is also somewhat of a downside to some people, as it’s slower and more difficult to adjust than a leather sling.
Nylon and cotton slings are probably the poorest options for hard use, and I know that from how many of them I’ve eventually torn. I have seen cotton and nylon slings rip on the line at the National Matches several times.
You will rarely see good shooters using the same cotton or nylon sling for more than a season as the risk of stretching and tearing is high by comparison to leather and Biothane. Nylon slings also tend to slip much easier than other materials and it frays easily when a minor bit of wear occurs.
Why Use A Sling?
Using a sling is an art in comparison to using a bipod or a rest. Many shooters will eventually refuse the use of either once they become proficient with a sling and for good reason. The sling is attached to the rifle for most of its life and it’s one of those items that is always on hand.
For field use, a sling is substantially faster to deploy than other support gear and is just as stable when used properly. Many tactical junkies are addicted to their bipods and bean bags, but in the field these items have more limited use.
I fondly recall the first time I went out hunting with a ‘tactical’ rifle after having shot long-range matches for years. The problem was, the area I was hunting wasn’t mowed or maintained like a shooting range and I had no place to get prone or get my bag under the stock. I was stuck out there with a heavy gun and no good way to aim it steadily as I simply couldn’t see over the grass or find a fallen trunk to rest it on. I ended up missing my deer on what should have been an easy shot.
A sling in the field can be used from a sitting position in a similar way it’s used in prone and it is nearly as stable.
There is relatively little set-up, so it’s fast and always available. I used a leather 1907 sling on my .450 Bushmaster to shoot a deer last fall. I was in a low valley on the edge of a field and had my back to a tree. There was simply no place to go prone and the deer came in from an uphill angle, so it made tremendous sense to sling up and await their approach.
How to Use Your Sling
There are several methods you can use to improve you shooting using a sling. The two major methods are what we could call fast and slow. The fast way is to pre-set your sling to a given length while leaving it fully attached to the rifle. This is sometimes called a ‘hasty sling’ and it allows you to shoot from prone or sitting with great stability, but at the cost of some precision.
Many people will set this length and use it by putting the support arm through between the rifle and sling, then bring it back in and around the wrist, thus allowing it to be pulled into the shoulder tightly. This method is preferred by hunters and is the idea behind the Ching Sling, which is considered one of the best sling styles for use in the field.
The slow method is complex and occasionally uncomfortable. Competition shooters will use this method to essentially make their body into a rock-solid rest for their rifle.
The method used by the author is a modification of the Marine Corps style and is great for taming the 1903 and M1 rifles. It must be noted that this style can be extremely uncomfortable and can induce severe pain and restrict blood flow to the support arm of done incorrectly.
A good prone position is never really comfortable and anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding you. To use this method, you must create a loop in the main body of the sling that self-tightens as you use it. This cuff is applied to the upper arm and is purposely made short so that the support hand is wedged in near the sling swivel and the stock is manually pushed into the shoulder.
The shooter will then snug in and load into the sling, which will tighten the rifle against the body. Because this is so tight, it creates stability and you are able to, when done correctly, shoot just about as well as off the bench.
The problem with these competition-style sling arrangements is that they’re slow to get into and you will want other gear to make it more comfortable, such as a shooting coat and a padded glove. The glove will prevent your hand from falling asleep when wedged between the sling and rifle. The shooting coat is often used by match shooter to reduce pulse and increase the rigidity of their torso during the standing portion of matches.
How Not To Use Your Sling
There are several times you will not want to use your sling. The first of these is from a standing position. Standing is best done with a sling attached, but contrary to popular belief, it won’t make you more steady. In fact, it will do just the opposite and makes it harder for you aim as there is no way to load into it to reduce movement.
If you plan to shoot from a standing position, the best thing you can do with your sling is to get it out of the way or tighten it against your rifle so that it doesn’t swing freely, which will induce sway and decrease your ability to aim precisely.
Using a sling to increase accuracy only works if you can load into the sling in a way that creates strength. You shouldn’t expect a sling that lacks permanent adjustment points to be either strong or consistent. The 1907 slings here have fixed locations for length adjustment, which means that they are like clicks on a scope.
You will find what works best for you and your rifle and you’ll want to keep it like that. I know that on my pictured 1903A3 rifle there is a specific hole number for prone and for sitting, both of which provide the tension the rifle shoots best with. I have settings listed for if I have my coat on or not as well.
Use What Suits You
Not everyone will understand or make use of a sling correctly. Some may even scoff at the notion that a sling is anything other than just a decoration or a means of carry. I would say that most shooters and hunters today lack the skill to use a sling correctly, and even fewer have the correct sling for their task. This should not be read as a deterrent to using one, but it should be considered a warning against using one incorrectly, as it is easy to mess everything up you have worked hard to establish.
If you’re a recreational carbine shooter or a cop, you will probably have your rifle on a passive sling that lets you walk around hands-free. Your goal is to comfortably carry and use your carbine while making it easy to draw a pistol or perform other tasks. You will rarely, if ever, use your sling for anything else.
If you’re a hunter, you may want to have an adjustable sling that can perform double-duty in carry and aiding your shot. As a hunter with a Ching Sling, you may be on a stalk or perhaps stumble on your quarry with limited time to make a good shot. You want something that is fast to get in and out.
As a competitor, you will want the utmost in precision and thus you will want a sling that allows you to wring it out. Permanent, solid adjustment is necessary at the expense of speed. Once you get into your sling, you will want to stay there until the match is over.
What Does Josh Recommend?
There is a reason I use the Brownell’s Competitor Plus and Tactical Plus slings. I often hear criticism for only reviewing high-end guns and recommending expensive gear, ammo, and scopes. In the most sorry, not sorry way of addressing this, I have developed an idea of what works for me and what doesn’t and I can’t recommend gear that doesn’t work or perform. If you want to buy cheaper, go ahead. In my experience, it will fail at the worst possible time.
I have somewhere around 3,000 rounds of .30-06 on the numbered Competitor Plus sling in this article and an additional 3,000 on the Biothane Tactical Plus sling under heavy tension and in hot, stressed conditions. I trust these slings to perform.
If I had to recommend a sling to improve shooting, I would heartily recommend a Competitor Plus. This sling will serve most shooters and hunters provided they have swivels appropriate to the task.
For serious match work they are completely acceptable when properly broken in. The Tactical Plus is superior for advanced match shooters that compete in weather and conditions that demand resistance to swelling and moisture absorption. These slings are heavy and thick and are not ideal for the hunter.