Getting the Most of Field Rests

In Gear 101 by Wayne van ZwollLeave a Comment

There’s a proper technique to using a rest. I’m really good at using back rests—even a cave man can do that. But supporting the rifle with a rest isn’t as easy as it looks. Benchrest shooters, who fire match ammo through heavy, accurate rifles over sophisticated rests, are very conscious of technique. Even if the rest is solid, your shoulder can nudge the rifle at the instant of firing. Your trigger pull can tug it off target. Even the pressure of your hand or a sling can affect point of impact. So here are some tips.

Rest the forend, never the barrel. During a bullet’s passage, the barrel vibrates like a tuning fork. Any direct pressure will cause the muzzle to sling the bullet off course, typically in the direction away from the pressure.

Try to position a rest under the forend, not to the sides. Zeroing your rifle, you probably laid it over a sandbag or a padded mechanical rest. The rifle bounced up away from the rest. Duplicating that bottom-side pressure in the field, you keep the bullet on the same track as when you zeroed. Pressure from the side, as when you lean the rifle against a tree, gives the bounce a horizontal component.

Position the rifle so the rest contacts the forend near its midpoint. If you bear down heavily on a rifle rested too near the forend tip, you can bend the forend into the barrel, increasing pressure there or closing the gap on a free-floated barrel. Support far to the rear robs you of control; the rifle can swivel and see-saw.

Whenever you employ a rest, pad it with your hand. First, you want to maintain control of that rifle during recoil so you can cycle the action quickly for a follow-up shot. Secondly, you want the rest to steady the rifle, not jar it, which is essentially what happens during ignition if the rifle’s motion bangs it against a hard surface. Resting the forend across a pack or clothing makes sense, but only because it cradles and cushions your hand. Incidentally, while benchrest and heavy varmint rifles are typically stocked to be fired directly off padded rests, hunting rifles, especially those that kick hard, should be held when you zero. You’ll hold them when shooting elk. Again, keep every aspect of the bench-shooting routine as close as you can to what will happen afield.

Details matter. However solid the rest, mind your body position. A rifle support can’t ensure a good shot; it only helps you make one. If your body shifts even a little during the shot, that movement nudges the rifle. Your shoulder, grip and trigger finger all pressure the rifle; keeping those pressures under control starts with a relaxed position held in place mainly by your bones, not your muscles. The notion that a rest will guarantee a hit leads to sloppy positions and shooting technique. It’s also the reason many shooters fail to drill tight groups from a bench.

“We’d like to guarantee minute-of-angle accuracy from our rifles,” a gunmaker once told me. “They’ll shoot that well. But we have no control over the customer or his ammunition.” The ammo matters less, typically, than the shooter. While some rifles are fussy about loads, a properly designed and carefully fitted rifle should shoot a variety of ammunition well. Not long ago I fired a Cooper M52 with six types of factory ammo. Average group size: .9 inch. Had I thrown out the worst group (1.5 inches), the average would have shrunk to about .7. For a hunting rifle, that’s excellent accuracy, a testament to both the rifle and the wide variety of factory loads used. Perhaps it could have been improved upon with handloads. But an unsteady position would have shaken those groups loose. Even one flier disappoints. A series can send a shooter to the phone.

“This rifle isn’t as accurate as you said it would be.”

A long pause. Or was it a sigh? “Send it in. We’ll check it out.”

Almost always, groups from the shooting tunnel confirm there’s nothing wrong with the rifle. Poor bench technique was the culprit. Explaining this delicately to the customer is a true test of diplomacy.

In the field you must not only have confidence that your rifle will hit where you aim, but that your body won’t wreck the shot. So, while most of your practice is best done from unsupported positions, taking scrupulous care at the bench matters too. Rest your right arm on something padded so recoil doesn’t scrape skin from your elbow or abrade your shirtsleeve. I grip even gentle hunting rifles firmly because that’s how I’ll grip them on a hunt, and I want the rifle to respond just as it will in the field over an improvised rest. Depending on the rifle, I’ll either grasp the forend just behind the rest or tug on the sling at the front swivel. Even if there’s a log or branch or rock handy when an elk appears, I try to sling up. So pulling on the forend at the stud instead of just holding it or letting it bounce free makes sense at the bench.

Thumb pressure can affect your shot. If your field position forces your thumb down hard on the tang, expect the point of impact to differ from that at bench sessions when you relax that right hand. You’re smart to practice with a relatively open left hand, to eliminate forward thumb pressure and to ensure that when you’re hunting with mittened hands in extreme cold, you don’t inadvertently block your sight-line. If you shoot with irons or a very low-mounted scope, even a natural curl of your fingers can momentarily block your view and delay the shot. A moment may be all you have.

When time isn’t limited, check your position as well as the rest. Jamming that ’06 against a log and firing as the reticle brakes to a stop is for urgent shots only. You don’t want a rock to roll or a branch to give way as the trigger breaks. Not long ago on a steep mountain, I watched a bull elk follow his herd of cows into a treed pocket just below timberline. The wind, exposure and noisy shale underfoot made my approach difficult. My rifle didn’t have much reach, so when I spied the bull bedded and quartering away at 250 yards, I didn’t fire. Long minutes later, inching along on my belly as the shale trickled down below, I squirmed into position behind a log 200 yards from the animal. Carefully I placed my chopper mitts, one over the other, on the log and slid the rifle forward on them. Tempted to shoot, I let the rifle lie and rolled back behind the log, exercising my fingers, playing back the plan in my mind, breathing deeply to get oxygen to my eyes and settle my pulse. When I got back behind the sight, the shot followed easily.

While a bipod isn’t a natural rest, it is subject to many of the variables that plague field rests. Its limited range of adjustment can force you into an unorthodox position if you’re on uneven ground or aiming uphill or downhill. You can move the rifle without losing its support; but the terrain, the cover or the game itself may restrict you to one spot. A bipod also affects forend pressure. Because most bipods attach to the front swivel stud far out on the forend, leaning on the rifle can bend the forend. On a slope, it can twist as well. For all its contingencies, a sturdy bipod from Harris is a wonderful rifle support. If you hunt where shots are often long and open, it can help you kill elk.

So can shooting sticks. Long popular in Africa, where tall grass often precludes use of a bipod or a sling-assisted sitting position, shooting sticks are most convenient (and very fast) when someone else carries them and sets them up for you. Collapsible shooting sticks of very lightweight alloy, pioneered by Stoney Point, are now selling Stateside to hunters and guides. Bog Gear makes excellent sticks, including steadier three-legged versions. If, for convenience, you pick a two-legged model, there’s a trick to getting solid quickly: Shove the legs well out in front so the fork leans back toward you. That way you can lean into the sticks. Your body becomes the third leg of a tripod. If the sticks are vertical as viewed from the side, you’ll work hard to keep yourself erect; the sticks and your rifle will move fore and aft.

While you can use shooting sticks from lower positions, they’re of greatest benefit offhand. So when expecting a shot, I carry them adjusted long. That way I can throw the legs forward for a quick plant, back up a part-step to get roughly the right height, then lean into them with the rifle. Sticks are steadiest when you grasp the juncture, not the rifle.

One field rest to avoid is the shoulder of your guide or hunting partner. If it’s offered, decline it. If asked to provide it, refuse. It’s an imperfect support because it has a pulse. Besides, something may startle the fellow, or he may sneeze at the wrong moment. Most importantly, this is a dangerous practice. Even if the muzzle juts well forward, your amigo is still in front of you. Recoil and a quick re-load will take the rifle off his shoulder. He may move; you may move. With [?] your attention on the animal, you may forget there’s someone out front.

One other note in closing: Be sure your muzzle, not just your line of sight, is clear of other objects! This rule applies when you shoot from unsupported positions too, but is most often violated from a rest. A few years back I watched a hunter fire into a snowbank from a bipod. The elk trotted off. In any hunting camp with a few gray beards, you’ll likely find someone who’s grazed the bonnet of his pickup with a bullet while “just checking zero over a jacket.” Recently, I ran afoul of this rule after a long and, I must say, brilliantly executed stalk on a bedded mule deer. Only the buck’s antlers showed above a basalt outcrop. I crawled silently crosswind. I could have sat at 30 yards, whistled him to his feet and killed him. But no. I wanted powder burns. I bellied closer. At 14 feet, the buck stood up. Prostrate in a small depression, I raised the rifle. The scope showed nothing but hair. As the light switched on in the buck’s eye, I hoisted my left arm to ensure the bullet would clear the rock between us. The blast of basalt stung almost as much as the humiliation.

On any other day, that rock would have made a fine rest.