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America's Rifle: Fundamentals of AR Shooting

America's Rifle: Fundamentals of AR Shooting

AR-pattern rifles are the most popular long guns in the United States, with millions of Americans enjoying the versatile sporting rifle. While some AR owners are experienced marksmen, many buyers are picking up their first AR and have little experience with the platform.

Being able to safely and effectively use your AR-15 is the most important precursor to enjoying it, whether for hunting, target shooting, or competition. Learning the basics can help ensure users know how to shoot their rifle, setting the stage for years of enjoyment.

The below tips are just a few of the basics to help you get started. For more comprehensive instruction and training, consider enrolling in an NRA training course, such as the NRA America’s Rifle Challenge presented by Daniel Defense.

Holding your AR15
Depending on what kind of shooting you’re doing, your shooting stance can vary wildly, from shooting prone to kneeling behind cover, standing, or on the move. However, we will focus on the basics of grip and hold. As you learn more and gain more experience, you can make adjustments better suited for your shooting discipline. 


(Photo courtesy/Jerry Miculek)

Once you choose your position, place your firing hand high on the pistol grip and wrap your thumb over your three fingers on the grip. A firm grip helps prevent additional movement from your trigger finger. Wrap your non-firing hand around the handguard, curling your fingers naturally around the fore-end but not too tightly.

Next, find your shoulder pocket, where the butt of the stock should be positioned against your body. The stock should be positioned in this pocket for accuracy, as well as allowing for recovery and follow-up shots.

To locate your shoulder pocket, hold your shooting hand arm straight out from your body. Using your other hand, locate the high point on the front of your collarbone, and then slide it outward towards your shoulder around the collarbone. Once your fingers slip down and inward, you’ll locate the deltoid muscle of your shoulder. That area is the shoulder pocket where you’ll want to position the heel of the gun’s stock.

On the AR-pattern rifle, you’ll want to position the bottom half of the heel in the shoulder. If the stock is too low, you will have to push your head forward or cant it sideways to get a good sight picture. Keeping the lower half of the butt in the shoulder also helps you develop a good cheek weld.



“Cheek weld” is the contact between the stock of the rifle and your face. This is important because consistent head placement will allow for proper, consistent sight alignment. The full weight of your head should rest on the stock in order to help reduce felt recoil due to the weight of your head, as well as helping to relax your neck.

The rule of thumb when establishing good cheek weld is “bring the stock to your face, not your face to the stock.” Place your cheek over the comb of the stock, not along the side of it. Also, it's important to establish reference points on the rifle when determining your proper shooting hold. With the AR-15, you can use the "nose to the charging handle" method: before establishing your cheek weld, place your nose as close to the rear of the charging handle as you can, then find the fit of the stock to your cheek. This point of reference serves as an anchor, allowing you to be able to repeat this hold again and again with ease.

Using iron sights 
Iron sights serve as the basic sighting system on the AR-15 rifle. Initially using an integrated carry handle rear sight and front sight block, modern AR rifles feature a variety of sights, from the traditional A1 and A2-style sights to flat-top carbines with flip-up sights. While many shooters prefer dot sights and scopes, understanding and being able to use iron sights is an important fundamental skill, especially if your optic fails while shooting.

In our example, we will demonstrate using the sight picture for an AR-15 with a standard front sight block and a standard fixed, windage-adjustable rear sight. Understanding how to use correct sight picture is important for not only shooting, but zeroing your rifle, as well.


(Photo courtesy/Trace Armory Group)

The rear sight features two apertures – a large and small aperture. The front sight is an elevation-adjustable post sheltered between two “ears.” Once your sights are mechanically zeroed and you have your stance, grip, hold and cheek weld, look through the rear aperture of the sight and center the top of the front sight post on your target. 

Some shooters use different methods of sight alignment, i.e. placing the point of impact on top of the post versus behind the tip of the post, etc., but that is a matter of personal preference. Make sure you’re looking through the center of the aperture with your point of impact in the center of the sight. This is correct sight picture.

Control your breathing


(Graphic courtesy/Armystudyguide.com)

Before you stick your finger inside the trigger guard, you’ll want to understand the principles of controlled breathing, and how this impacts your accuracy. Particularly when holding the rifle without a rest, you might notice how your sights move when you inhale and exhale. Now, consider that moving your point of aim just a few thousandths of an inch can result in a point of impact being several inches off target at 100 yards, and it becomes clear just how significant a steady hold can be.

One technique for ensuring your breathing doesn’t impact your shot is to shoot on “empty lungs.” Breathing normally, put your sights on target, and when you exhale and are ready to inhale, ensure your point of aim is on the target. When you inhale again, the sights will likely move; however, the sights should return to the where you mean to shoot upon exhaling. When your lungs are empty, gently squeeze the trigger.

Avoid holding your breath for extended times when shooting, as this could cause more pronounced variations in your point of aim, as your body will move more when exhaling. When you're at your natural respiratory pause, briefly hold before you inhale to pull your trigger. Remember to breathe naturally – don’t overthink it.

Trigger pull
How you pull the trigger is one of the most overlooked contributors to (in)accuracy in shooting by new shooters. Simply put, it’s more than point and pull. Once your grip is established – note: when building or accessorizing your AR, find a grip that fits your hand well – you’ll want to focus on moving only your trigger finger, in all likelihood your index finger. 

The more you move your other fingers (and the rest of your body), the more you potentially pull the sights off your point of aim. While it’s no substitute for actual live fire, dry firing your rifle may help you determine the trigger’s pull weight, and better prepare you for live rounds.

Even though you can expect the rifle to fire complete with recoil and report, don’t anticipate the shot and flinch to prepare for it, as this flinching can also hinder accuracy. Stay in the position with a firm grip through the shot. This may take a few shots, especially for new shooters who may be skittish or nervous, but you will get used to it.

Equally as important is a smooth trigger pull using the center of the pad of your finger. Jerking the trigger swiftly to the rear can move the rifle, and like everything else that causes you to move before a shot, could put you off target.


(Graphic courtesy/Canadianshooter.blogspot.com)

Draw an imaginary line from the bottom of the fingernail on your trigger around to the pad of the finger. That line is the approximate center of the joint, and is where you want to place the trigger. Holding the trigger too far in each direction could cause to you pull the rifle in that direction when shooting and put the shots off target to the sides. By gently and deliberately pulling back with the center of your finger pad, you’re pulling the trigger directly to the rear in line with the bore axis, and in concert with your other fundamentals, should result in rounds landing where you want them. 

It’s important to remember that there is more than one way to learn how to shoot, and there are countless tips, hints, and techniques from a huge pool of experienced trainers from all sorts of backgrounds. The aforementioned tips represent a few widely practiced and regarded basics. If at any time you feel uncomfortable shooting, stop and consult a trainer, experienced friend, instructor or range safety officer. Shooting the AR-pattern rifle can be a rewarding, entertaining activity that provides a lifetime of recreation and fun. With these tips and plenty of practice, you should be on target in no time.

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