Sniper School 101- Part 1: Before You Go to the Range

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Sniper School 101

Learning to feel your heartbeat can be a valuable tool in sniper school. For the long shot any uncontrollable muscle movement is going to throw you off.  

Part 1: Before You Go to the Range

by SPC Ben Becker

Every sniper candidate in sniper school begins training without a rifle in his hand. If the most elite marksman start this way, how much more so someone who doesn’t have the time and finances to practice shooting day after day.

Whether the extent of your long or even medium range scope assisted shooting will bring you to the fall season of the whitetail, to a field of competition, or to the battlegrounds of Iraq or Afghanistan, your abilities as an elite marksman will start in the same place. They will start with breathing, heartbeat, trigger control and how you handle your rifle. Save yourself some money on match grade ammo and some embarrassing 3″ groups at the range with your competition rifle and try a few things at home to get you started.

The Sweet Spot

Find yourself an open spot to lie out and take up a prone position, without a weapon. Lay there and take deep breaths while paying attention to your heartbeat. The point of this exercise is to predict your heartbeat. Your optimal time to fire would be at the bottom of your breath, between heartbeats, because that is when your body has the least amount of movement. Don’t skip the prep and lie down to practice pulling the trigger when you have a space between breaths and your heartbeat. You may be a “natural” at this, but give yourself some time to “feel” what is called the “sweet spot.”

The bottom of your breath is naturally occurring. If you force it, it is useless for shooting purposes. That being said, you can work on calming your breathing down to the point where you feel completely relaxed, so you may focus completely on your target. You won’t be able to “clear your mind” in the sense of a yoga guru, but you are training to be a professional here, even if it is for deer season. The pressure to shoot a whitetail is not the same as a battlefield, but people are also different, and stress for one may not be stress for another. Try to clear your mind when you look down your rifle. Focus on your breath, try to hear for your heartbeat, and try to shut things out that don’t belong there in that moment, when all that matters is your target, your rifle, and your ability to control your body and your rifle.

If you try to control your breathing you will most likely just succeed in quickening your heart rate. Take the time to lay down and feel where your “sweet spot” is, for both your breathing and heart rate.  

Predicting your breathing and heart rate is simpler than you think. Take a run around the block to bring up your heart rate, then without pause, lie on the floor in a prone position, position your hands in the same position they would be with a weapon in them. Calm your body down and clear your mind. Feel your breath and your heartbeat. Snap your fingers between every heartbeat and you will soon see that it becomes monotonous and mind numbing. You have now effectively found your rhythm when you can time your finger snap with the bottom of your breath. Now take what you have learned to feel and lie down with your rifle, dry firing in that “sweet spot” that you should now be able to feel. Make sure your gun is empty of course, and if you are concerned with work hardening the firing pin on your rifle by dry firing, buy a snap cap and dry fire with that.

The Death Grip

One of the most common mistakes I see at the range (or anywhere for that matter) is the way the rifle is held! Who started the notion that you need to keep a death drip on your rifle? All that does is give you a wider range of human error. Try holding anything in a death grip and staying still and see how that works for you. Try making fine movements. You can’t. How much more so for even a firmly rested rifle that you must keep excruciatingly still and be able to adjust and control with micro movements that make minute differences in shot placement hundreds of yards away. The tighter you grip your weapon, the harder it is going to be to keep still, and the harder it will be to make small movements and affect a trigger squeeze that doesn’t shake the rifle.

Let your rifle lay on your (left) hand, don’t close your hand around it and slightly pull your rifle toward your shoulder with your right hand so that the recoil doesn’t send it reeling into your chest like a ton of bricks. Practice your breathing, remember, the right shot only comes once. Once you have brought your heart rate down to a predictable level and you feel confident that you can get your

Using a Lead Sled by Caldwell to get you to release your death grip on your rifle is actually quite effective. It can teach you to feel that solid is all the rifle needs, and that muscle tension only throws off your shot.  

shot off without disturbing your pattern, (dry) charge your weapon so that you can feel your finger press the trigger without disturbing your breathing. Now it’s time to bring the aforementioned breathing technique into play. This isn’t a race, so don’t rush yourself. When you feel comfortable let your finger do the walking. Practice this repeatedly to maintain proper stance and relaxation method. Once you have mastered this technique, you are ready get down to controlling your trigger.

Trigger Control

Trigger squeeze is fairly simple in technique, yet easily forgotten in the heat of the moment when you will tend towards more off a slap or jerk as opposed to a slow and sensitive squeeze. A slap or a jerk is going to be something of a violent and sudden motion, and this is going to throw off all of the work you have been doing to overcome the natural movement your body creates with breath and heartbeat. The simplest word to describe as regards trigger pull is “careful.” Be careful! Carefully depress the trigger with just the tip of your finger until you feel it start to engage the sear. You should be practicing with dry fires as much as possible, but live fire is worth its weight and expense here. When you know the gun is going to go bang at some point in the travel of the trigger you tend to be more careful. Find that spot in your breath and heart rate, line up your target, allow your eyes to adjust, and find the control of the travel of that trigger until you can feel where the gun goes bang.

Common with experienced and inexperienced shooters alike, is the tendency to anticipate the recoil of the weapon. Don’t do that. Give yourself ample time to relax between shots so that you aren’t putting your muscles through undue stress. This ties in nicely with breathing control, if you are calm then your muscles won’t be anticipating the recoil.

Where we separate the boys from the men and the ladies from girls is when it comes to recoil pads and rifle rests. This is the way it goes. If you want to go to the range and work on trigger control, men and ladies use a Past or similar recoil pad or even a Lead Sled (made by Caldwell). Little boys and little girls have to look tough at the range and allow themselves to get pummeled to hamburger by a deer rifle all afternoon. I strongly suggest that you purchase some form of recoil management before you go to the range, especially if you are shooting a fixed breach (ie: bolt rifle) firearm. The Lead Sled, or similar products, will take your body motion mostly out of the picture so that you can focus on your trigger, your ammo, or your sight picture.

Don’t worry about not being a natural at smooth trigger control. Don’t waste your ammo. Dry fire as much as you can in a very organized and aware manner, so you can note your improvement.  

Shooting with a friend can be really helpful here, but it has to be a friend with a good poker face. Have him or her load your rifle for you and hand you either an empty rifle or one with a round in the chamber (and the safety on in both cases). When you fire the rifle you will see if you are jerking, anticipating the recoil. If you don’t have a friend to work with, our instructors in sniper school had us practice by balancing a pencil on the end of the rifle and if the pencil fell when we fired it was considered not good enough.

The last thing I’ll mention is shooting with one eye closed. They do this in the movies of course, but it isn’t going to serve you best in real shooting. When you drive you car, do you close one eye? NO, you don’t. The reason for that is that you only get true depth perception with both eyes open. This works for shooting too, and you be surprised at how your sight picture changes when you open your non-shooting eye.

Maybe snipers are born. Maybe they are just any other guys who find a way to get well trained and well rehearsed. I think it may be a little bit of both. These techniques are going to get you started on your way to learning to control your body and your weapon when you have to make that shot.

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SPC Ben Becker Joined the army in mid- 2005 fresh out of high school. After basic training and infantry training was deployed to Iraq for OIF 3. Upon returning, opted to enter sniper training and re-deployed for OIF 5 during which he spent most of his time in Baghdad. He did two 90 day deployments in Afghanistan, and was given an honorable discharge at the end of 2009.

 

{ 17 comments }

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Terry Kaminski December 4, 2010, 6:59 am

    Ben Beckers article Sniper School 101 “Before You Go To the Range” is a superb and much appreciated help to all of us who have either developed incorrect shooting habits, or to others that may be new to the shooting sports. Its like having a shooting coach at your side and actually encourages me to practice these fundamentals as often as I can. One question: can we expect a whole series of these articles to be forth coming in the near future and how can I obtain all of them for my shooting library? Can’t wait to see the next one! Don’t stop with this one Ben!

  • Kevin Taylor December 11, 2010, 9:04 pm

    I too hope this is not part one of one. I coach 4-H shooting sports BB gun and Air rifle and am always lookng for tips and different approachs to help the kids. We always tell them not to drink pop, eat suger or candy, and avoid caffiene the day of practice. These “before the range” fundamentals are just the thing to encourage them to try! Of course an 8 year old may think we’re nuts, but a few will catch on!! Kep ‘em coming Ben!!

    • Administrator December 12, 2010, 12:46 am

      No the second is coming this month in fact.

      • Muhjesbude June 9, 2014, 1:51 pm

        Hey Paul, great articles lately! Especially the one i linked off on the sub-moa rifles right out of the box for under a grand
        Now, we’re talking! Not being a particularly big bolt action hugger, i do have a Savage hiding somewhere in a dark corner that i couldn’t remember why i had it and now i recall. I think i picked it up for a couple hundred bucks and it shot in an inch so i kept it.

        I’m glad to see highly skilled professionals taking the time to give us unwashed a top level lesson on proper shooting. It’s difficult to do a comprehensive ‘lesson’ in such a short essay. But you accomplished the mission. Entire books are just written just on proper Scopes and sniping usage. But you guys did a great focus on the primary functional issues.

        I’m glad Ben didn’t use the word ‘Squeeze’ when referring to ‘pressing’ the trigger. The natural NLP of the word ‘squeeze’ tends to imply an entire grip pressure so many involuntarily squeeze their entire fist while ‘squeezing’ the trigger. When they were constantly told to ‘squeeze’ the trigger. They really meant gently pulling back with the finger tip, or better yet, taking the trigger finger ONLY and pressing the trigger back until it breaks.

        I did my official formal ‘sniper training’ in the early days of sniper deployment in Nam. It was only a 3 week in-country training course that only guys who scored ‘expert’ in basic were encouraged to attend from certain units. The main emphasis was not on breathing or even trigger control, It was assumed that your rudimentary marksmanship, especially after some time shooting in combat where you must have ‘sho’ well enough to survive was good enough, so the emphasis was on using the scope and understanding milradion/mildot for ranging and doping. And then the rest of it was target engagement and tactics in the jungle on sniping missions. Another difference was that unlike Iraq and Afghanistan where sniper teams, especially with the 50 MG could now be a force multiplier almost anywhere, Jungle snipers had a limited effectiveness back then, but ironically still turned out to be the most ‘cost’ effective kill-for-kill, if you were a bean counter, lol!

        So although my certificate of completion of the course hangs with other ‘debris’ of wars and such in my ‘cave’, i never actually deployed as a sniper. On my first hands on mission test, and barely being able to hump the field pack that made the ones in ‘Lone Survivor’ look like summer fanny packs, you even had to squat-hunch under and stand up through in order to get it on your back, and being eaten alive by every monster known to exist while intentionally dragging your chin in the muck crawling around on your belly which was their deli, for hours at a crack without getting up, I declined to actually deploy as a sniper. Back in those days you could do what you want if you were an A team leader. I preferred a nice comfortable base camp by day, and standing up when i fought and i loved the smell of C4 from firing Claymores on night ambushes instead of crawling around in stinky went jungle shit constantly picking land leaches off my balls. Plus, the way we ‘played’ at the time, i thought i could do better in body counts than i could doing one shot one kill type of stuff. But now, i realize, that’s different. Snipers are probably one of the most valuable assets available for both cost effectiveness and effective tactical utility.

        Later on I did sniper training for police and then some ‘private contracting work’ overseas. And I kind of agree with Ben on the fact that it takes a combination of natural talent and good training. Like a Navy Seal has to be born part fish to even make it through the training, or fighter pilots have hollow bones and better than 20/20 vision.

        But i agree with Ben that ‘Flinch-jerking’ is the main problem with shooting accurately with anything but absolutely imperative in precision sniping. The way he described is the best way to lick the problem. Loading your pistol or rifle with one empty or thinking you have a full mag when you don’t and trying to fire on an empty chamber and you will get ‘caught’ if you’re flinching, or jerking.

        They use to tell us to make sure the cross hairs are not moving around before you fire, and don’t let any other body movement, including your trigger finger affect the steadiness of the cross hairs either. As far as breathing, they said to simply stop breathing wherever it felt comfortable right at the start of the trigger press. I do it on the top of the inhale.

        As far as trying to time heart beats, that all sounds good in theory and even some practice but from my humble experience the heart rate will always increase under stress of getting killed or adrenalin surge of ‘the kill’, no matter how much you train, unless you also spent a half lifetime in a Buddhist Monastery focusing on training your organs. So much so that you might become too distracted from the shot itself by becoming preoccupied with ‘slowing it down’. so i never try to time it, I just ignore it by focusing on sight movement and trigger press coordination and only that. It is still a good thing to train and practice if you can’ I mention it to not become discouraged if you simply can’t coordinate it all. You can still obtain precision accuracy that works all the time.

        I don’t really know what i personally do anymore, when it comes right down to it. All that counts is that i never miss.

        The other thing is that since the big thing with ‘sniping’ is that the barrel be MOA accurate, what does that really mean?
        In the ‘MOA out of the box’ article you explained the technical milradian definition, but what does that have to do with ‘accurate’ combat sniping?

        Over simplifying it for all practical shooting purposes, the laws of geometry and physics and other variables of trajectory of a shot provide that whatever the moa of a shot is close the barrel, 100 meters for instance as the standard, the angle will increase out to a circle in degrees, becoming wider the further out you go. Meaning the shot placement will start to spread from the point of aim. This is actually pretty predictable at various distances.

        A general rule is that if your bullets impact within an inch at 100 meters, the group will open to 2 inches at 200 meters, 3 3 inches at 300 meters, 4@4 5@5 and so on, until you reach the real ‘point blank range’–(not the one’s used in pulp fiction phraseology),. which means the maximum range at which the majority of your shots will still hit a standard center mass body target plate which is about 12 x 8 inches before the minutes of angle open up bigger and no longer are capable of an accurate hit where you are aiming. Doesn’t mean they can’t kill you at a farther range. It just means that likelihood of you hitting where you’re aiming is not there anymore at that distance. So whatever that distance is, and it’s longer if you’re shooting tighter moa close in, is your max point blank range, or max effective target aquisition range. Just to split pussy hairs a bit here, this is NOT the same as maximum effective killing range. Which is always much farther. Which is why, despite the odds, WWII German and Russian and British snipers often took greater than 1000 meter shots. There was a target, you had the opportunity, why not try it even though it wasn’t likely you’d hit. Many of them got pretty lucky!

        So for a 1 MOA barrel, your max range effective range is really not much more than a thousand meters for most rounds/guns of 30-06 or lighter. And that won’t be a precision head shot. Yes, of course guys like Ben, here made regular 2000 meter shots in Iraq but they were using heavier calibers with more power and they were professionals.

        But we’re speaking here only of barrel accuracy and physics. So what all this means is that the tighter the groups in terms of minute of angle in inch reference, the longer distance you’ll be able to shoot ‘accurately’ everything else notwithstanding, but certainly helping, like ballistic co-efficiency of the bullet itself, of course power, and probably most importantly for actually hitting your target first shot, is ‘bullet trajectory drop’, and wind deflection.

        So what does this really mean? It means don’t waste good ammo. Don’t try 600 meter shots with your 3 moa AK on a windy day if you don’t want to give away your position by firing all those shots without hitting anything. And remember, even that .5 moa tack driving 5.56 after 600 meters starts to have the foot pound energy of a .22 long rifle, so you might be able to hit it within the rifle’s ‘point blank range’, you might not kill it.

        That’s why international military sniper competition has their max range targets under 400 meters.

        One last thing, if i might add, The range training can help, and all discipline requires absolute mastery of fundamental actions, This is essential for CONSISTENT accurate shooting. But always remember that All snipers are marksmen. But not all marksmen, are snipers.

        Well done instructional, Ben. Eagerly looking forward to the series.

      • Muhjesbude June 9, 2014, 2:00 pm

        Hey Paul, great articles lately! Especially the one i linked off on the sub-moa rifles right out of the box for under a grand
        Now, we’re talking! Not being a particularly big bolt action hugger, i do have a Savage hiding somewhere in a dark corner that i couldn’t remember why i had it and now i recall. I think i picked it up for a couple hundred bucks and it shot in an inch so i kept it.

        I’m glad to see highly skilled professionals taking the time to give us unwashed a top level lesson on proper shooting. It’s difficult to do a comprehensive ‘lesson’ in such a short essay. But you accomplished the mission. Entire books are just written just on proper Scopes and sniping usage. But you guys did a great focus on the primary functional issues.

        I’m glad Ben didn’t use the word ‘Squeeze’ when referring to ‘pressing’ the trigger. The natural NLP of the word ‘squeeze’ tends to imply an entire grip pressure so many involuntarily squeeze their entire fist while ‘squeezing’ the trigger. When they were constantly told to ‘squeeze’ the trigger. They really meant gently pulling back with the finger tip, or better yet, taking the trigger finger ONLY and pressing the trigger back until it breaks.

        I did my official formal ‘sniper training’ in the early days of sniper deployment in Nam. It was only a 3 week in-country training course that only guys who scored ‘expert’ in basic were encouraged to attend from certain units. The main emphasis was not on breathing or even trigger control, It was assumed that your rudimentary marksmanship, especially after some time shooting in combat where you must have ‘shot’ well enough to survive was good enough, so the emphasis was on using the scope and understanding milraden/mildot for ranging and doping. And then the rest of it was target engagement and tactics in the jungle on sniping missions. Another difference was that unlike Iraq and Afghanistan where sniper teams, especially with the 50 MG could now be a force multiplier almost anywhere, Jungle snipers had a limited effectiveness back then, but ironically still turned out to be the most ‘cost’ effective kill-for-kill, if you were a bean counter, lol!

        But although my certificate of completion of the course hangs with other ‘debris’ of wars and such in my ‘cave’, i never actually deployed as a sniper. On my first hands on mission test, and barely being able to hump the field pack that made the ones in ‘Lone Survivor’ look like summer fanny packs, you even had to squat-hunch under the pack on the ground and stand up through in order to get it on your back, and being eaten alive by every monster known to exist while intentionally dragging your chin in the muck crawling around on your belly which was their deli, for hours at a crack without getting up, I declined to actually deploy as a sniper.

        Back in those days you could do what you want if you were an A team leader. I preferred a nice comfortable base camp by day, and standing up when i fought and i loved the smell of C4 from firing Claymores on night ambushes instead of crawling around in stinky went jungle shit constantly picking land leaches off my balls. Plus, the way we ‘played’ at the time, i thought i could do better in body counts than i could doing one shot one kill type of stuff. But now, i realize, that’s different. Snipers are probably one of the most valuable assets available for both cost effectiveness and effective tactical utility.

        Later on I did sniper training for police and then some ‘private contracting work’ overseas. And I kind of agree with Ben on the fact that it takes a combination of natural talent and good training. Like a Navy Seal has to be born part fish to even make it through the training, or fighter pilots have hollow bones and better than 20/20 vision.

        But i agree with Ben that ‘Flinch-jerking’ is the main problem with shooting accurately with anything but absolutely imperative in precision sniping. The way he described is the best way to lick the problem. Loading your pistol or rifle with one empty or thinking you have a full mag when you don’t and trying to fire on an empty chamber and you will get ‘caught’ if you’re flinching, or jerking.

        They use to tell us to make sure the cross hairs are not moving around before you fire, and don’t let any other body movement, including your trigger finger affect the steadiness of the cross hairs either. As far as breathing, they said to simply stop breathing wherever it felt comfortable right at the start of the trigger press. I do it on the top of the inhale.

        As far as trying to time heart beats, that all sounds good in theory and even some practice but from my humble experience the heart rate will always increase under stress of getting killed or adrenalin surge of ‘the kill’, no matter how much you train, unless you also spent a half lifetime in a Buddhist Monastery focusing on training your organs. So much so that you might become too distracted from the shot itself by becoming preoccupied with ‘slowing it down’. so i never try to time it, I just ignore it by focusing on sight movement and trigger press coordination and only that. It is still a good thing to train and practice if you can’ I mention it to not become discouraged if you simply can’t coordinate it all. You can still obtain precision accuracy that works all the time.

        I don’t really know what i personally do anymore, when it comes right down to it. All that counts is that i never miss.

        The other thing is that since the big thing with ‘sniping’ is that the barrel be MOA accurate, what does that really mean?
        In the ‘MOA out of the box’ article you explained the technical milradian definition, but what does that have to do with ‘accurate’ combat sniping?

        Over simplifying it for all practical shooting purposes, the laws of geometry and physics and other variables of trajectory of a shot provide that whatever the moa of a shot is close the barrel, 100 meters for instance as the standard, the angle will increase out to a circle in degrees, becoming wider the further out you go. Meaning the shot placement will start to spread from the point of aim. This is actually pretty predictable at various distances.

        A general rule is that if your bullets impact within an inch at 100 meters, the group will open to 2 inches at 200 meters, 3 3 inches at 300 meters, 4@4 5@5 and so on, until you reach the real ‘point blank range’–(not the one’s used in pulp fiction phraseology),. which means the maximum range at which the majority of your shots will still hit a standard center mass body target plate which is about 12 x 8 inches before the minutes of angle open up bigger and no longer are capable of an accurate hit where you are aiming. Doesn’t mean they can’t kill you at a farther range. It just means that likelihood of you hitting where you’re aiming is not there anymore at that distance. So whatever that distance is, and it’s longer if you’re shooting tighter moa close in, is your max point blank range, or max effective target aquisition range. Just to split pussy hairs a bit here, this is NOT the same as maximum effective killing range. Which is always much farther. Which is why, despite the odds, WWII German and Russian and British snipers often took greater than 1000 meter shots. There was a target, you had the opportunity, why not try it even though it wasn’t likely you’d hit. Many of them got pretty lucky!

        So for a 1 MOA barrel, your max range effective range is really not much more than a thousand meters for most rounds/guns of 30-06 or lighter. And that won’t be a precision head shot. Yes, of course guys like Ben, here made regular 2000 meter shots in Iraq but they were using heavier calibers with more power and they were professionals.

        But we’re speaking here only of barrel accuracy and physics. So what all this means is that the tighter the groups in terms of minute of angle in inch reference, the longer distance you’ll be able to shoot ‘accurately’ everything else notwithstanding, but certainly helping, like ballistic co-efficiency of the bullet itself, of course power, and probably most importantly for actually hitting your target first shot, is ‘bullet trajectory drop’, and wind deflection.

        So what does this really mean? It means don’t waste good ammo. Don’t try 600 meter shots with your 3 moa AK on a windy day if you don’t want to give away your position by firing all those shots without hitting anything. And remember, even that .5 moa tack driving 5.56 after 600 meters starts to have the foot pound energy of a .22 long rifle, so you might be able to hit it within the rifle’s ‘point blank range’, you might not kill it.

        That’s why international military sniper competition has their max range targets under 400 meters.

        One last thing, if i might add, The range training can help, and all discipline requires absolute mastery of fundamental actions, This is essential for CONSISTENT accurate shooting. But always remember that All snipers are marksmen. But not all marksmen, are snipers.

        Well done instructional, Ben. Eagerly looking forward to the series.

  • Justin March 21, 2012, 1:57 am

    No hope for a part 2 then?

    • Administrator March 21, 2012, 9:28 am

      No it’s coming.

  • jtf August 5, 2012, 11:03 pm

    This article is way full of misleading .#@%%……my comment and supporting data would be longer than the article itself.
    Next time you write something don’t wing it , the actual data does not support your uh SPEAK. Even in the army.

    I hope you are not a sniper instructor ANYWHERE!!!!

    • Michael October 3, 2012, 5:34 pm

      What, specifically, is “misleading .#@%%”? Just curious that you feel so strongly about how erroneous this is, what is so wretchedly wrong? Not trying to be a smart a**, just curious. Please share what is wrong or what would be better I’d like to learn!

      • Andy April 18, 2014, 7:59 am

        He obviously has nothing to back up his claim….. Just another troll on the internet wasting everyone’s time. Great article

  • Michael October 3, 2012, 5:36 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Already do a lot of these tips, good to know I’m not too weird! A lot of people think the one eye thing is easier, but I always have kept both eyes open, just to keep my peripheral vision available for my surroundings, if nothing else.

  • John January 28, 2013, 12:22 pm

    Ben Beckers – there is a lot to learn from your short article – thank you for your great writing – can’t wait to read the next installment!

  • Dean July 16, 2013, 2:24 am

    I have been out of this hobby for about 45 years and it good to know there are people out there still willing to help out even if you have been out of it for some years.

  • jusin December 17, 2014, 5:16 pm

    where is the second part of the series? it has been years

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