Long-Range Shooting: Becoming Your Own Spotter

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Calling Shots 1

You won't always have a buddy on the glass next to you, so becoming your own spotter is key for consistent long-range shooting success.

Why It's Important To Become Your Own Spotter:

  • On a miss, it gives you data for your correction.
  • Properly doing so means your correctly managing recoil.
  • It improves your focus, which is a key element in making a long-range shot.

I always put a heavy focus on the fundamentals of marksmanship in my articles. One of these fundamentals is natural point of aim, which we describe as rifle pointed to the target, body pointed to the rifle.

If we go back in time and look at sling shooting, we notice that the shooters were positioned to one side behind the rifle with their dominant leg kicked up. The purpose of this position was to align the support arm directly under the rifle. You need proper bone support; and, in an unsupported, or sling-supported prone, that means your forearms are aligned straight under the stock.

Fast-forward a few dozen years, and we’ve moved from shooting with a sling to shooting with a bipod and rear bag. The shooter’s body position needs to change now to manage the recoil in a straight line. Recoil management tells the bullet where the barrel is upon releasing the shot. This controls your zero, because each person will manage it in a slightly different way.

Alternate positions use the same type of recoil management techniques. The style of rifle or type of support changes very little.
Alternate positions use the same type of recoil management techniques. The style of rifle or type of support changes very little.

By eliminating angles in your body position, we line up directly behind the rifle, our spine parallel to the bore. When the shot is fired, recoil will exit out the legs, and the rifle will stay straight and in line with the target.
This concept sounds simple, right?

Going further back in time, I can’t help but think about my USMC days, when I was a young scout sniper. The mindset was that the senior member of the scout sniper team was assigned as a spotter, and the junior member of the team was the trigger-puller. Setting up as a two-person team, you have the shooter in position, awaiting instructions from the senior member. All directions come from the spotter. The only job of the shooter is to execute his commands … and that’s not a very good way to do business.

Today, I question taking the senior man out of the fight. Why give the most effective member of the team a spotting scope? We have learned so much since 2001—and recoil management is probably the most significant of all lessons learned. Through recoil management, we can put both members behind a rifle in the fight.

When shooting off a bench, get square behind the rifle and plant both elbows on the bench. It’s not a bad idea to place a block forward to press the bipod into.
When shooting off a bench, get square behind the rifle and plant both elbows on the bench. It’s not a bad idea to place a block forward to press the bipod into.

If the target is of such high priority, why not use a set of “talking” guns instead of just one?


Get On Target With Precision Shooting:

Two Scenarios

Scenario 1: The spotter lines up the target for the shooter. The spotter instructs the shooter onto the mark and gives him the current wind call. The shooter fires on command, and the wind call is wrong. The spotter observes the impact while the shooter is running the bolt, and correction is given. The adjustment is made, and a second shot rings out, impacting on target. This is a typical shooter/spotter dynamic.

Scenario 2: Both members are on their rifles. The same calculations are made—except this time, when the shot misses, the second shooter sees it. He immediately adjusts his rifle and fires the shot before the first shooter has time to react. If things go south in any way, there are now two shooters in the fight, versus just the one.

Becoming Your Own Spotter

Spotting your own shots isn’t difficult, but it does take practice and understanding. It’s all about recoil management, which focuses mainly on technique and body position, in addition to lining up straight and square behind the rifle and eliminating those angles I spoke about earlier.

These techniques work in a variety of situations, and they allow the individual competition shooter to spot his own impacts and correct on the fly. With most tactical-style precision rifle matches, you don’t have a spotter helping you, so it’s up to the individual to master these techniques from a variety of positions.

Don’t overlook having someone knowledgeable watch you place the buttstock of the rifle into your shoulder pocket. Aligning he rifle straight back into the pocket helps keep recoil in line.
Don’t overlook having someone knowledgeable watch you place the buttstock of the rifle into your shoulder pocket. Aligning he rifle straight back into the pocket helps keep recoil in line.

In alternate positions, such as a barricade, it’s about being straight and square behind the rifle. You don’t want to shoot bladed off to the side, as many will do off a bench. Step in square and lean over a bit, placing the shoulders in front of the hips. This may sound strange, but if you chronograph your rifle from the prone and then chronograph it from a bench using a tall, bladed position, you’ll see a change in muzzle velocity. Try it; the results might amaze you.

When we shoot off a bench, we first turn the benches to remove the cutout. Next, we choke up tall in the seat and lean forward so that both our elbows are square out from our body and positioned equally on the bench. We are up high and leaned forward to manage the recoil. This position lets us spot our shots from the sitting position. As opposed to prone, it’s consistent.

If you picture your upper body in the prone, the goal is to translate that same upper body position to the alternate positions we might encounter.

The Bipod

Bipods matter; their purpose is to maximize accuracy and manage recoil efficiently. If we take the lowest common denominator in a bipod—the Harris—we see a stiff, stamped metal device with springs and legs that are not necessarily square.

Here, a hunter is taught to shoot properly from a bench. This position contradicts the way many shooting benches are actually built. By changing the bench to be square, we can see the results of our own shots downrange without the aid of a spotter.
Here, a hunter is taught to shoot properly from a bench. This position contradicts the way many shooting benches are actually built. By changing the bench to be square, we can see the results of our own shots downrange without the aid of a spotter.

Loading a Harris is probably the most difficult for a new shooter to master. Because the Harris does not have any flex in the system, it’s hard to understand just how to load it. Most people want to push forward with their shoulders, misunderstanding that the load comes from the core. In other words: Stack your belt buckle behind the rifle—not your shoulders, because they need to be relaxed.

With a Harris-style bipod, a little goes a very long way. The best way to accomplish this is to pull the rifle back into the shoulder pocket and maintain that pressure to the rear. At the same time, raise your chest up a few inches and bring the legs backward a small amount. While elevated, settle down into your position. The bipod is now loaded. It’s a swift up-and-down motion to load a Harris.

With other bipods, such as the Atlas—which has a small amount of slack in the leg system—you’re similarly removing that slack. You’re placing the rifle in the shoulder pocket and then adding that forward pressure to the slack in the leg system to drop down behind. It’s much easier, because you can see and feel the flex in the bipod. If we look back to the old Parker Hale Versa pod-style bipods, they have a ton of slack in the system to load the bipod so the rifle can recoil in a straight line of that movement.

Managing Recoil

To practice this, start on a target with a berm behind it, preferably at 400 yards out. When you consider recoil and time of flight, this is the “sweet spot.” The goal should be to see the results of your shot: hit or miss.

Former USMC scout sniper instructor Marc Taylor demonstrates recoil management with a .338 Lapua Magnum. Note the angle of the bipod legs: The load is visible from a distance.
Former USMC scout sniper instructor Marc Taylor demonstrates recoil management with a .338 Lapua Magnum. Note the angle of the bipod legs: The load is visible from a distance.

Next, you have to drive the rifle through recoil and put 100 percent of your focus on the reticle. The relationship between the target and reticle is critical. You need to “see” what’s going on with the shot; and you can’t do that without looking through the scope.

Some people might whiteout or blackout for a millisecond when the shot breaks, but if you look, you should see it. Don’t forget to back your magnification down a bit too—there’s no reason to do this on maximum power. Stick to something such as 12x or 15x, not more. Less is better when it comes to managing the recoil.

Writing about this is a lot harder than demonstrating it. There’s a host of my videos on YouTube and at least 45 minutes’ worth in my “Online Training” section of Sniper’s Hide—45 minutes that concentrate solely on recoil management instruction. That should tell you something about its importance to the modern precision rifle shooter.

A student with a Harris bipod shoots under the watchful eye of the instructors. The proof is in the groups, which—from a factory rifle—are outstanding.
A student with a Harris bipod shoots under the watchful eye of the instructors. The proof is in the groups, which—from a factory rifle—are outstanding.

Being able to see the results of your shot and then immediately follow up with a correction comprise a critical skill set. So, let’s break it down one more time:

  • Line up straight and square behind the rifle. This means the bipod is correctly adjusted for the shooter’s height. It should not be too high or too low.
  • Bring the rifle straight back into the shoulder pocket, applying as much weight to the rear as possible, because the rifle is heavy. You want the spine parallel to the bore.
  • Stack your core weight behind the process; don’t push from the shoulders. You need to be a “slab of meat” behind the rifle and not influence anything with excess muscling.
  • With the bipod in the shoulder pocket, raise up, removing the slack from the bipod leg system. If you’re using a Harris, knuckle its feet under itself.
  • Put your focus on the reticle-and-target relationship and follow the bullet to the target.

The “Zen moment” in precision rifle shooting is when you see the hole appear at 100 yards in the paper … and that’s when you’ve correctly snatched the pebble from my palm, young Padawan.

The article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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