Shooting Positions for the Hunt—There's No Benchrest in the Field

Unlike practicing at the range, your shooting positions afield are likely to be far less supported. 

Shooting Positions for the Hunt—There's No Benchrest in the Field
Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
Shooting from a benchrest is one thing but adapting to field conditions is another.

Last deer season, I was descending one of the steeper portions of the Catskills area we were hunting that day, when the tips of my snowshoes crossed, my left went under my right and I ended up a snow-encrusted ball of anger. I did my best to stand up, wipe off my face (and my bruised ego) and regained my vertical stature. 

Wondering just what I was doing in three feet of fresh snow, and momentarily doubting my sanity, I caught a glimpse of deer legs moving through the hemlocks. Doing my best to maintain my balance, I saw the curl of antler on both sides of his head and estimated the distance at just about 175 yards, with a healthy downhill angle. It was hard enough to stay standing, let alone be steady with my rifle, so I improvised the best I could: I backed my snow-covered rump against an oak tree in order to steady the crosshairs. 

It worked. Standing over a fully mature eight-point Catskill Mountains whitetail made me forget all about the trials and tribulations of snowshoeing in that terrain. It also made me think about the best ways to improvise a rest when shooting in the field. 

So many of us are taught marksmanship skills on a rifle range, where the majority of lessons are from a benchrest. While this is a fantastic means of both sighting the rifle and measuring the accuracy potential of rifle and shooter, there are very few instances in the field that resemble a shooting bench. Out there, we are forced to adopt new positions and adapt to the circumstances presented. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The offhand, or unsupported position, is one of the most difficult positions from which to place shots accurately.

Holding the rifle unsupported, commonly known as “offhand,” is the least steady position available, yet is often something we are forced to use. Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to take another eight-point whitetail in those mountains, after having been forced to shoot offhand at just under 60 yards. While this may not seem to be a difficult proposition, add the excitement of the hunt and the cold weather conditions, and those crosshairs can become awfully wobbly. I’ve taken a good number of animals offhand, at distances from 15 yards out to 200. It requires practice, and while the results on the paper target may be humbling, that practice will improve your performance. Perfecting it for hunting is the difference between a miss, a badly wounded and lost animal and an ethical kill. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The prone position can be very effective for target shooting but isn’t always practical while hunting.

That said, offhand is the least desirable of the field positions. The prone position—laying on your stomach and facing the target—on the other hand, is one of the steadiest positions available, The drawback is that the opportunities to employ the prone position are few and far between. Grass, trees, bushes, really, just about any ground covering you can name, usually prevent a clear shot. Yet, there have been a few such shots in my hunting experiences, and they’ve worked out wonderfully. 

Shooting prone, your body weight is supported by the ground, you can root your legs and ankles, and if you’ve got a bipod on your rifle or some sort of rest under the fore-end, prone may be the best you can get. I know many serious target shooters who prefer the prone position to the bench. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The kneeling position can be wonderfully steady; the distribution of weight is key.

The kneeling position—more specifically, shooting with the non-trigger elbow supported by the knee of the same side—can be surprisingly solid, as the “bone-to-bone” contact keeps things steady. You’ll want to try to make a straight line from your foot to your hand and keep the trigger-side leg firmly planted on the ground from knee to ankle, with the majority of your weight leaning on it. You can get into this position quickly, and it elevates you above most ground foliage. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
If you can get into a sitting position, with your elbows on your knees, your crosshairs will become very steady.

Getting into a sitting position will be a great aid and, like the kneeling position, you want the knee-to-elbow contact, but this time you want both elbows on your knees. It puts the muzzle a bit lower to the ground than the kneeling position, but it can be steadier. If you can get your back against a fixed object, be it a rock, a tree or whatever, it makes the sitting position much more steady. Add in a bipod and you can really have it made.

In addition to bipods, shooting sticks are a great way to quickly obtain a steady hold in the field. Usually associated with African safaris, they can require a bit of practice to become proficient with, but once you’re familiar with them, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. They are becoming increasingly popular here in the United States—my guides in Colorado on a combination elk and mule deer hunt all carried sticks—especially in the West where the shots are longer and there is more time to set up the shot. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
Classic three-legged African safari shooting sticks are a wonderful means of steadying your rifle, and they are becoming increasingly popular here in the U.S.

There are many styles of shooting sticks, from the common three-legged tripod to the two-legged version, and there are even monopod models. I prefer the classic safari-style tripod, whether made of simple wooden sticks held together with a piece of innertube or made of aluminum or carbon fiber. I have a favorite set from African Sporting Creations that screw together in three sections. These sticks are covered in leather where the rifle rests, and they are easy to break down for travel. 

Once you’re familiar with shooting sticks, you will become very confident, as they are a fantastic shooting aid for the field. I grip the rifle’s fore-end and the joint of the sticks with my left hand, and try to get my body as close to perpendicular to the line of the barrel as possible for the steadiest position. The vast majority of my African game animals have been taken off sticks, and they a godsend when hunting coyotes and foxes. 

About the Author: Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.