by Ryan Cleckner
The three worst habits of unsuccessful long-range shooters aren’t what you might expect. They aren’t shooting techniques like improper trigger control or unstable shooting positions. While technique is important, improper application of the shooting fundamentals can be overcome with proper training and practice. The three worst habits are attitudinal, and they can rear their ugly heads even after you learn the proper technique. These three worst habits are:
- Focusing too much on the minutia
- Focusing too much on the target
- Focusing too much on misses
Focusing on the minutia
When a shooter is too focused on the minutia of long-range shooting they often forget their fundamentals. The shooter stresses about variables that will have a minor effect on their accuracy — and ends up jerking the trigger.
Well, you caught me. I just said that the three bad habits of unsuccessful long-range shooters don’t involve the proper application of the fundamentals. I just wrote that the #1 bad habit involves skipping the proper application of shooting fundamentals. Let me explain . . .
The problem isn’t jerking the trigger per se. It’s worrying about the spin of the Earth — instead of focusing on proper trigger control. It’s worrying about how level the rifle is — instead of remembering how to breathe. It’s calculating the humidity effect on the bullet’s path — instead of adjusting the scope’s elevation turret for the appropriate distance.
Long range shooting can be difficult. There’s a lot to learn and master. But it’s not that complicated. Accurate long-range shooting can be broken down to two main tasks: pointing the rifle in the proper direction and firing the rifle without disturbing its alignment. Getting the rifle pointed in the exact right orientation is irrelevant if you’re going to change its position by yanking the trigger.
If you want to progress, you need to focus on these basics first and move on to the advanced parts later. If you can’t shoot at least a 1” group at 100 yards consistently, it’s not time to consider the Coriolis effect. If you aren’t able to shoot your rifle without jerking the trigger, you shouldn’t be trying to shoot from advanced positions.
Focusing on the target
A lot of long-range shooters fall in love with the target. That’s because their high-end scopes present a nice clear image of the target; they want nothing in this world more than to put the neat little holes in the middle. So shooters tend to stare at it.
Magnification is not your friend. With a clear, sharp image of the target in a scope, it’s all too easy to look past the reticle and focus on the target. This can cause the reticle to drift out of proper alignment with the target without the shooter noticing.
When I walk up and down the firing line of sniper students I constantly repeat a simple mantra: “focus on the reticle, steady pressure on the trigger.” Whatever the actual reason for their miss, it’s often resolved by focusing on what you can control instead of what you can’t.
One of the fundamentals to accurately shooting with iron sights is focusing on the front sight. Focusing on the reticle of a rifle scope is just as important. You can often correct the bad habit of target fixation just by turning down the magnification on your scope or shooting a bit with iron sights.
Focusing on misses
If you’re a long-range shooter you’re going to miss the target. Or the center of the target. When you focus too much on a missed shot, you increase the chances of missing the following shot. You can hear unsuccessful shooters discussing and analyzing their missed shot instead of discussing what they need to do to make a hit.
Spotter: Oooh, that was a little low.
Shooter: How low?
Spotter: Umm, about a foot. Did you jerk it?
Shooter: I don’ t think so. This ammo sucks/the temperature calculation is wrong/my iPhone application gave me the wrong data/etc.
That’s not to say you should ignore a missed shot. You can learn a lot about why you missed that you can use to get a hit. But once you’ve analyzed an error, even if you’re not entirely sure exactly what you did wrong, don’t focus on it. Change what you need to change and make the next shot better.
Keep it short and simple. After shooting, call your shot and reload your rifle. All that chatter about the direction of the miss, the reason for the miss and the [possible] correction required takes up valuable time. And time is not your friend, either. One example: wind.
Wind is the most difficult variable when shooting long-range. The best time to shoot is immediately after you’ve seen exactly what the wind did to your bullet. If you wait too long, the wind may change and you’ll be back to square one.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen too much attention paid to a missed shot by a shooter who then forgot to reload their rifle. By the time they were ready to shoot again, they made the worst kind of miss possible: the bullet didn’t even get closer to the target because the gun didn’t fire.
When I was taking the U.S. Military’s Special Operations Target Interdiction Course (SOTIC), I learned to accept an inarguable fact: the previous round was down-range. There was nothing I could do to bring it back or change the miss into a hit. I learned to let it go. To go back to basics and focus all my attention on getting them right. To make the next shot count. It’s a lesson that’s helped me both on and off the range.
Ryan Cleckner was a special operations sniper team leader in the US Army’s 1st Ranger Bn (75th) with multiple combat deployments and a sniper instructor. He has a series of basic online instructional videos (more to come shortly) and his book, Long Range Shooting Handbook, is available for pre-order at Amazon.