When I first got into shooting, I didn’t know a clip from a magazine or a bullet from a cartridge. A lot has changed since those days, but I am still a far cry from where I want to be when it comes to taking accurate, precise shots with my AR-15 rifle. I hit the practice range once a week if I can, but “practice makes perfect” is only true if you are practicing the right habits to begin with.
If like me you are still struggling with your distance shots, here are 5 habits that will help you to become a better shooter.
1. Find your natural point of aim.
When you first get yourself in position behind your rifle, you probably are a little tense because you are busy aligning your sights. A lot of novice marksmen miss this, and try to shoot right away.
But you need to focus on finding your natural point of aim. This refers to getting your entire body aligned with your target, not just aligning your sights. This needs to be the position you are in when you pull the trigger—in other words, when you are relaxed, not tense. So you need to take time before each shot to make sure that you are in that position. So take it slow. Breathe. Close your eyes if you need to for a moment, and then open them again and make sure you are still aligned. Don’t be surprised if your aim is off from where it was a moment ago.
There is a helpful acronym you can use called BRASS to remember what to do:
- Stop (breathing)
- Squeeze the trigger
How do you know if you are struggling with natural point of aim? One dead giveaway is a horizontal spread in your shots. Another way to tell is to simply try what I suggested. If you close your eyes and relax, and then discover your aim is suddenly off, you need to work on this. When you shoot, that “off” aim is exactly where your bullets are going. But once you get to the point where your natural point of aim is aligned with your target, you should start seeing better accuracy. Do it every time, and watch as your precision improves as well.
2. Improve your trigger technique.
This is absolutely essential for precision shooting. You need to be able to pull your trigger without moving your sights. Here are some tips:
- Invest in a high-quality aftermarket trigger if you need one.
- Use only the first pad of your index finger to squeeze the trigger, and try to keep it close to your fingertip.
- Keep your index and trigger fingers away from the pistol grip. If you press on the grip, you will get sideways movements. Yes, this can be tricky with the AR-15.
- Exert pressure only from your finger, not the rest of your grip.
- Avoid tensing muscles elsewhere in your hand, including the lowest finger joint. If you tense these muscles, you can also get horizontal movement.
- Try to keep your index finger in position on the trigger from shot to shot. When you feel the click, you can fire the next shot (assuming you are ready).
Once you get your trigger technique down and you are able to eliminate unwanted movements, you should be able to shoot in much tighter groups.
Here's a video to improve your rifle shooting accuracy.
3. Tighten your hold (despite low recoil with guns like AR-15).
While most of this advice applies across the board, I am particularly focused on the AR-15 since that is what I have. One of the nice things about this gun is that it has a low recoil. But that should not tempt you into thinking that a light hold is best. That is a mistake that I made a lot in the beginning.
Especially with the AR-15, a firm grip is important. When you firm up your hold on the pistol grip, your trigger finger can move more independently, which reduces unwanted motion from the rest of your hand and body. I also find it is useful to have some pressure on the buttstock from my cheek. Doing this keeps the sights steady and helps me to hold my natural point of aim.
4. Practice shooting in the wind.
It is intuitive to want to practice shooting in a carefully controlled environment. It is of course easiest to learn the basics that way. But real life isn’t always so kind, and you never know when you will need to take a shot in less-than-ideal conditions. If you have never practiced shooting in the wind, you may not be able to make that critical shot when you need to.
I recommend that you do practice in windless conditions first. Once you know you have the basics down well enough to make accurate shots without wind, you are ready to practice in the wind. Deliberately plan outings to the shooting range on windy days and practice your long range shots.
While doing this, I also highly recommend that you take notes about both the weather conditions and the impact the wind has on each of your shots in a journal. Using this information, you will be able to get more of a feel for the effect of the wind and what you need to do to compensate across various distances and terrains. It won’t be easy, but it will pay off.
5. Dry fire your rifle to practice (if it is safe for your gun, use snap caps).
Let’s talk about dry firing. You may very well have heard over and over again that you should never dry fire your gun, or you will end up damaging it. In reality, most modern guns can be safely dry fired. There are some exceptions, like rimfire rifles and pistols, but the AR-15 isn’t one of them.
Why can you safely dry fire modern rifles but not older models? The steel used to engineer modern rifles is a lot stronger. It can hold up to dry firing whereas weaker steel couldn’t.
This video teaches the rifle reload in a dry fire drill.
That being said, your gun still isn’t designed for the purpose of dry firing, so you should still take precautions. Namely you should go out and purchase some snap caps. These contain cushioned primers which the hammer or striker of your gun can snap against. Using these while you are dry firing will ensure that you won’t damage the firing pin.
Why do a lot of dry firing? Well, aside from the fact that it will conserve ammunition, it gives you a chance to work on your natural point of aim without anticipating firing the round. If you tend to tense up before you pull the trigger, dry firing may help you to un-learn that bad habit. Work on forming good habits while dry firing, and you can then transfer those habits over to firing with live ammunition. Plus, dry firing gives you the additional benefit of making it easy to practice shooting anywhere.
Dry firing has become a popular practice in recent years for developing trigger control and practicing the finer points of marksmanship. You can even purchase bolt carriers for the AR-15 which will fire a shot-indicating laser.
Whether you are a novice or you have been shooting for a long time, there is always something you can do to improve your precision and accuracy. I have been using all of these techniques for years and they have paid off handsomely. It takes time, effort, dedication, and a lot of patience, but when you start seeing those beautifully accurate tight groups you never thought you were capable of, you will be glad you did it.