Snugging your cheek into the rifle stock is critical for consistent accuracy. Why, then, is it so difficult?
By Bob Robb
What do a golf swing, bowling, and shooting a rifle have in common? The old adage, “Keep your head down.” In these and many other athletic endeavors, one must keep their eye firmly on the target to be successful. You can’t do that if your head is not in the proper position.
Why, then, is it so difficult to keep one’s head in position on their rifle stock?
The evolution of the modern hunting rifle itself is one reason. The earliest flintlock and percussion rifles had lots of drop in the comb to facilitate proper use of iron sights. Black powder cartridge rifles were similarly designed, and they morphed into smokeless powder cartridge rifles. One example is the iconic lever action Winchester 94, designed to be used with open sights and wearing a rifle stock that mirrored the design of many earlier rifles. But if you have ever tried to mount a scope on a Model 94, you quickly realize it is difficult shoot simply because the stock design allows only a small part of your face to make contact with the stock.
Now take a quick look at the stocks offered by today’s most popular production hunting rifle manufacturers. The classic stock style by far is the most popular, yet most do not properly fit the vast majority of shooters for one basic reason: They do not take into account riflescopes.
Over the past two decades, the quality of affordable riflescopes has improved by leaps and bounds. At the same time, hunters continue to demand maximum light transmission through these optics when used on the cusp of daylight. The solution is to employ larger objective lenses on the scope, which, in turn, means higher rings are required with which to mount the scope on the rifle—but that places the eye well above the center of the bore. To properly see through such a scope means you’ll have to lift your cheek slightly up off the stock, and that makes a proper “cheek weld”—the place where the cheek and stock meet—impossible.
Serious shotgunners take great pains to duplicate placing their cheek in an exact spot every time; if they do not, their shot string will not fly where they intend it to fly shot after shot. Basic rifle marksmanship teaches this same principle, but somewhere along the way rifle shooters seem to have forgotten this foundational principle. A lack of a solid, consistent cheek weld creates no end of problems, the worst being a tendency to flinch.
A poor cheek weld is especially apparent with shooters using a modern sporting rifle (MSR) of typical design with an optic on top; the only way the shooter can see through the scope is to lift the head. MSR shooters can remedy this problem a lot easier than a shooter using a wood-stocked bolt-action rifle by employing a bolt-on cheekpiece on the synthetic buttstock, an accessory that will bring the eye up to the same level as the scope. Not only does this make the rifle more enjoyable to shoot, it provides improved shot-to-shot consistency.
There are other simple solutions to this raised-head problem. Synthetic tactical-type stocks are becoming more common each year. These are often adjustable for cheekpiece height, as well as length of pull, and some even allow for cast on or cast off and pitch. “Cast” is the term used to describe the bend of a buttstock or, in the case of these synthetic rifle stocks, adjusting the stock a little to the left (cast on) or right (cast off) to bring the shooter’s eye directly in line. “Pitch” is the angle of the butt in relation to the top of the barrel or in the case of a rifle, the center of the bore.
Aftermarket stocks are also available for many popular rifles, with many designed to raise the cheekpiece to accommodate popular scopes. Also, major firearms manufacturers, including those of MSRs, are finally beginning to get the message and design factory stocks with scope sights in mind.
There are also several aftermarket products that can help you get the proper cheek weld when using a riflescope. They range in price from less than $20 to over $100, and most are designed to be fitted impermanently, so no permanent changes to the stock are required.
Another important factor in getting the head into the proper position is the length of pull (LOP). LOP is the distance between the center of the trigger and the back center of the buttplate or recoil pad. You can determine your rifle’s length of pull (on an unloaded gun pointed in a safe direction) with any common tape measure. Most factory rifles have an LOP between 13 and 13 ¾ inches.
A first test of physical fit is to rest your index finger on the trigger face (again, with an unloaded gun pointed in a safe direction), then bend your arm 90 degrees. Ensure the buttplate is nestled in your elbow. The LOP is too long if you are unable to bend your elbow. If there’s more than an inch of space between the buttplate and the crook of your elbow, the LOP is too short.
Next, shoulder the firearm as though you are about to shoot from the standing position. Check the distance from the thumb of your firing hand to your nose. A rule of thumb (no pun intended!) is that the thumb of the firing hand should be about 1½ inches from your nose. The LOP is too long if the distance is greater and too short if the distance is less.
Stock length can be adjusted pretty easily. Some manufacturers now offer synthetic-stocked rifles with an adjustable LOP built in, which makes things simple. If not, the stock can be shortened by removing the recoil pad and replacing it with a thinner one for a quick fix, or it can be lengthened by adding spacers or a thicker recoil pad. The smart move, though, is to visit a local gunsmith to have the work done. They can help you determine the exact measurement the finished stock needs to be and do the work professionally. They can also help determine how much the cheekpiece needs to be built up and either do that permanently or recommend an aftermarket product they have confidence in.