Long range shooting is all about limiting your uncertainties. The more variables you know and understand, the less you have to predict and the more certain you will be of impacting the target. Positional work is no different. If you are attempting to shoot off of a rock at a 12″ circle at 700 yds and you are wobbling all over the place, there is a pretty large uncertainty involved with hitting the target. The goal is to consistently and accurately impact targets at long range. This can only be done if the shooter builds a solid position and applies the proper fundamentals.
When first taught the fundamentals of marksmanship, you were probably informed of the importance of a solid cheek weld, proper placement of the buttstock in your shoulder, firing hand grip, and so on. These in particular enable you to consistently achieve the same sight alignment and ensure the rifle will track properly upon recoil. Shooters differ slightly in positions because everyone has a different shape, size and flexibility to them. However, all of these techniques really boil down to being able to control your rifle effectively and consistently. So, why deviate from these golden rules of marksmanship? This is the proper way to shoot a rifle, isn’t it? Not necessarily! When it comes to any type of dynamic shooting, such as what many of us are used to in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS), variables become involved that make the use of certain fundamentals less than ideal. Some fundamentals become compressed, while others become obsolete. This is when free recoil comes into play.
What Is Free Recoil?
Free recoil is simply a shot process that involves no (or at least minimal) forces from the shooter acting upon the rifle. In other words, your shoulder is not touching the buttstock, your face is not resting on the cheek piece and you are not gripping the rifle firmly with your firing hand. The only moving part is your trigger finger. Now the rifle will recoil completely naturally with very little influence from the shooter, hence “free recoil.” This sounds like a simple technique, but actually requires a good amount of practice in order to become proficient with it. Keep in mind that this style of shooting is not suitable for all rifle setups.
The purpose of free recoil shooting is to stabilize an unnatural position by mitigating body-to-rifle contact. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying “the higher you are off the ground, the less stable you will be.” This is true for the most part because if you are anywhere but lying on the ground, you are forced to use muscles. Muscles always transmit movement when they are being used. Take for example, shooting off of a barricade. If you build a position like what you’ve been told all of your life is a “perfect” position with your body square behind the rifle, buttstock against your shoulder, cheek naturally resting on the riser, etc; all while trying to relax your muscles…guess what? There is a lot of perceivable movement in the reticle! It’s obviously not the ideal position. Now picture yourself having just walked your 50lbs of gear to the next stage; your heart rate is even higher than in practice. Oh, and let’s not forget what happens to everyone once the timer goes off! Combine all of these elements, and who knows how big your area of aim will be. It’s during situations like this when free recoil becomes the most efficient and accurate method of shooting.
Do It Right: Baby Steps
No matter what, shooters will always have their own preferred method of building a particular position. I’m no different; and therefore free recoil shooting may not be a solution or even the best technique for all shooters. However, it is something that can be done regardless of your body type and will eliminate a lot of shooter error that would otherwise be reflected in poor accuracy. You will find success out of doing this if you practice properly and have a rifle that will allow you to perform it properly.
Time and time again I see shooters make an attempt at free recoil shooting and end up doing it improperly. Just like any position, you have to find what works best for you. This requires that you start from ground zero and build up slowly. Simply watching a successful shooter and thinking that since your position looks just like his or hers, that yours is correct is not the right way to go about it. It’s not uncommon to see one shooter’s position simply not work for someone else.
My go-to bag for everything free recoil is Clifton Reasor’s older version of the Gamechanger bag, which I will discuss in greater detail later on. Because of how inherently stable and form fitting this bag is, it was easy for me to find the best way of utilizing it. A rifle will sit completely motionless once placed on the bag. Having a rifle that sits completely still is obviously the ideal end state, so the obstacle becomes trying to get the rifle on target while still maintaining this degree of stability. Since some part of the body will be used to create pressure on the rifle, it becomes tricky because we are introducing another moving variable.
The process starts by the rifle having to be gripped in some manner in order to achieve sight picture and properly pull the trigger. Now instead of the rifle sitting motionless by itself, you are creating leverage by the use of your hand. The bag is essentially acting as a bipod at this point. Many shooters stop right here and think they have an excellent position. The problem is that you are not lying on the ground. You no longer have entire body contact with the ground and are likely in some modification of the standing, sitting or kneeling position. This means your body will be moving.
All positions require analyzing, whether it be by yourself and/or with a buddy. It’s best to begin by allowing the reticle to tell you what to do. The obvious goal is to minimize the amount of movement in the reticle; nobody wants to shoot when they are wobbling all over. Find a position that you feel is both stable and comfortable and access the movement you see. Is the reticle moving side to side, up and down or all over the place? Is there a pattern to the movement? You need to identify the cause and eliminate it. Through trial and error, you will find what works best.
This process is easier when there is some sort of reference point to aim at while trying to work on the positions. I like to have a series of circles that get decreasingly smaller. I build a position one way and identify the smallest circle that my wobble stays in, while not breaking the outer edge of the circle. Now when something is adjusted in my position I have a reference as to how much the wobble was affected. Keep changing the position different ways until you find what is most stable. Get in and out of that position and ensure the results are repeatable.
After trying out many different grips, stances and positions, I’ve found what works best. I press downward on the rifle directly above where the pivot point is. In this particular case, Scott Peterson (pictured to the right) has his hand directly over the barricade, pressing down on the optic. Instead of this point acting as a fulcrum, it’s now a vice. The wobble is not completely eliminated but it’s almost imperceptible. The best part is that an increased heart rate does not affect the amount of wobble I see in the reticle. I could be nervous, in an awkward position, out of breath or completely fat and out of shape, yet I’m going to be just as stable.
Choose the Right Time and Place
A competition is obviously never the place to try something new. Even though you may run into a specific obstacle that you have not encountered before, you should have at least practiced on enough similar platforms to know what will work well. When you visualize a stage prior to shooting it (hopefully you do this), plan out exactly how you’re going to have your equipment set up. This is critical for all types of shooting. You may come to realize that how you had originally planned to shoot this stage will not work. Free recoil shooting does not work in all scenarios. If you’ve mentally went through the stage in your head you don’t have to worry about thinking on the fly during a stage due to having to shoot it differently than expected. That usually ends poorly.
With enough experimentation and practice, you can practically shoot free recoil off of any obstacle or platform. Ultimately, the goal is to glance at whatever you’re going to be shooting off of and know what gear and position will offer the most stability. Obviously you are not going to shoot free recoil if you can flip your bipod down and shoot prone. It’s about weighing the advantages and disadvantages.
A general rule of thumb is that if you are shooting off of something that is rock solid, such as most PRS barricades, then you should also be able to get into a position that is solid. The only moving parts are yourself and the rifle, both of which elements are eliminated via free recoil. However, if you were to shoot off of something that is not quite as solid and perhaps wobbles or bends, then there are three moving parts: the rifle, yourself and whatever you are shooting off of. If you try to shoot free recoil by making a vice, you will likely still have a lot of movement because the “vice” is attached to a moving object.
Advantages of Free Recoil
-Lessens the negative effects of anticipation
-Mitigates body-to-rifle movement / not reliant on the position of your body
-Allows for quick positioning
Disadvantages of Free Recoil
-Must have quality optic that will not bend when you apply force to it (this is something worth testing)
-Must have lightweight trigger (ideally 1.25lbs. and under)
-Slows down target re-acquisition / more difficult to spot your vapor trail
Use the Right Tool for the Job
It seems like every week there is a new piece of gear on the market. There are countless bags, rifle attachments and accessories to try out. Some of them are application specific, while others can practically be used for everything. After getting some hands-on experience with a lot of the latest and greatest, I’ve always come back to using the Gamechanger bag. Despite it’s original intention of being the ultimate stabilizer for barricades (which it is), I’ve found it to be useful in most other scenarios as well.
My favorite characteristic of the Gamechanger bag is its unique shape which allows it to be used in between, on top or around almost any obstacle. It’s always a plus to have one artificial support that can be used for anything, rather than one separate support bag for each scenario. This saves on weight and helps to consistently shoot from similar positions. Of course, this is even more beneficial when having to shoot under a time constraint.
There’s no doubt that this bag is hefty and sometimes a pain to lug around. For many, that’s a downfall; to me, it’s worth every bit of the trouble. The weight and texture of the fill is why this bag conforms so well to the shape of the rifle. If it were lightweight, the weight of the rifle would be a great enough force to move the bag on it’s own.
Typically the larger and beefier a bag is, the more stability you will get from it. At the same time, the bag needs to be practical. I’m not going to go out there with a 4ft bag of sand to put over obstacles because it would be incredibly heavy, difficult to move and it’s simply not practical in any way. I find the Gamechanger to be the ideal size with the perfect amount of surface area to contact the stock or chassis.
If you haven’t tried shooting free recoil already or think you may have given up on it too early, go start from the beginning! Learn from other experienced shooters, but more than anything, learn from yourself. Dry-fire until it’s boring, and then dry-fire some more. You’ll find that being able to shoot with very little wobble while your heart rate is up and you are far off the ground is very advantageous.
The best artificial supports for free recoil shooting are quick to use, offer a high degree of stability and allow you to get into the same position in different scenarios. The method may be different when using other support equipment and bags, but the process remains the same. Don’t marry to a position just because you like it or because someone else does it that way; find what position physically offers the most stability and dry-fire it until you can do it in your sleep. It’s the foundation that all of your other efforts revolve around.
Below are links to some of the more popular artificial supports used in competition: