Prone isn’t the fastest shooting position – nor is it always practical, but it’s by far the steadiest.
Photo: When shooting from prone in mountain country, a backpack adds steadiness.
It was a wild, exhausting stalk. Guide Reg Collingwood and I had spent five grueling hours climbing to the crest of British Columbia’s Skeena range. Once we reached the top, I flopped down to give my rubbery legs a rest, while Reg dug sandwiches and a spotting scope from his pack.
I was halfway through the sandwich I’d packed for lunch when Reg said, “Come and look at this!” The eyepiece showed a set of tall, curving antlers jutting from a patch of snow two miles away.
“That’s a great mountain caribou!” he said. “A terrific rack with double shovels. Want to try for him?”
We’d climbed the mountain to hunt goats, but the caribou changed my mind. “Let’s go,” I said, fatigue forgotten as I stood and shouldered my pack.
We hurried to the far side of the ridge. Keeping the ridge between us and the dozing caribou, Reg and I scrambled along the steep mountainside. Crossing a shale slide was scary. “Just keep running and don’t look down,” Reg said. “Whatever you do, don’t stop!” I could hear slabs of shale sliding to the edge and cascading into space. The slide was just 50 yards wide, but it seemed like a mile.
A half hour later, we reached our destination. According to Reg’s dead reckoning, the caribou should be just on the other side of the ridge — provided he hadn’t finished his nap and wandered off.
My chest heaved as my oxygen-starved lungs gasped for air. “Stay here and catch your breath,” Reg said. “I’ll climb to the top of the ridge and see if I can spot him.”
Moments later, he was back. “You’d better get on up there,” he said. “The bull is on his feet and could take off any minute. He’s straight downhill from us, between 300 and 350 yards away.”
Still out of breath, I bellied to the top of the ridge, pushing my backpack before me. A quick glance showed the animal facing in my direction, clearly ready to leave. I rested my rifle on the pack, then took a breath and let it half-way out. Because I was lying flat on my belly behind the backpack rest, the crosshairs were steady on the bull’s chest when I fired.
I wouldn’t have attempted that shot from any other position. Sitting or kneeling didn’t give the kind of rock-steady support I needed when my heart was doing a bongo-drum beat and the breath still rasped in my throat.
I learned to appreciate shooting from prone when I competed on a college smallbore rifle team. The bull’s-eye was exactly the diameter of a .22 Long Rifle bullet, and if your shot wasn’t perfectly centered, it cost you points. Before moving to the firing line, each competitor strapped himself into a snug-fitting canvas shooting jacket with heavily padded elbows. A bulky, fingerless glove was placed on the supporting hand, and the rifle was snugged to the body with a guitar-string-taut leather sling. Once you were belly down facing the target, the rifle steadied of its own accord. If an instructor could reach down and push the rifle off target, he’d tell you to tighten your sling.
When there’s time, the terrain is right and the shot is long, I’ll always go prone. This is the preferred position for military snipers. A few years back, I was hunting Montana pronghorn with Larry Tahler of Serengeti Rifles. As an Army 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam, he led an elite sniper detachment. He was with me when I used my last round to wound a good buck at 450 yards. Instead of lying on my belly, I’d lazily shot from sitting with the help of a bipod rest. As the animal struggled toward a fence we were prohibited from crossing, Tahler asked, “Need some help?”
“Please!” I said, berating myself for the poorly placed shot and the fact that I had no spare ammo in my pocket. The buck didn’t deserve a lingering death.
Tahler quickly went prone with practiced ease, cleanly dropping the buck at a lasered 562 yards.
My good friend Randy Brooks, who owns Barnes Bullets, has killed a number of distant trophies while shooting from the prone position. They include a Marco Polo sheep, a desert ram, elk and at least one massively antlered deer. Ranges varied between 600 and 800 yards. Years of practice and bullet testing have made Randy a superlative shot. But his extreme-range shooting is invariably done from prone with his rifle resting on a backpack.
Backpacks make great improvised rests. If you’re hunting in mountain country, chances are you’ll be wearing a pack filled with extra clothing, spotting scope, lunch and other gear. There’s nothing better for steadying your rifle when you shoot from prone.
I often lie on my belly to shoot prairie dogs with a heavy-barreled varmint rifle. For this kind of specialized hunting, a good, adjustable bipod from Harris or some other manufacturer is better than a backpack rest. Select a short-legged model designed for prone — not one intended to be used while sitting or kneeling.
Because of his sniper background, Larry Tahler used a sling to help steady his rifle when he made the 562-yard shot. Most hunters use slings only to hang their rifle from a shoulder while walking through the woods. They’re missing out on a good thing.
The classic military/target sling is leather and features multiple holes and brass adjusting claws. If you know how to use them, these complicated-looking straps can’t be beat for holding a rifle steady. Most of my rifles wear plain nylon or leather carrying slings lacking sophisticated adjustment hardware.
Even simple carrying straps can make a big difference in long-range accuracy, particularly when you shoot from prone. The trick is called a “hasty sling.”
First, adjust the length so that you can insert your left arm (the right arm, if you’re a southpaw) from left to right through the sling. Then move your forearm to the left, wrapping the sling around your wrist as you grasp the rifle’s fore-end. Finally, move the rear of the sling upward and around your bicep. Once you’re on the ground in shooting position, adjust the sling as tight as you can get it. This may take a few seconds of trial-and-error experimentation. It will be uncomfortable, at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it once you see the results.
Prone isn’t always the perfect position for hunters. While it’s by far the steadiest shooting position short of a sandbagged bench, grass, bushes and the terrain itself can block your view of the target. You can also get a crick in your neck, particularly when shooting uphill. Prickly pear cactus and ants present problems of their own.
While it’s not as fast as shooting offhand, you can assume the prone position in a couple of seconds. Simply face the target, then drop to both knees. Next, lean forward until both elbows are on the ground. Spread your legs a comfortable distance apart, bring the rifle to your shoulder … and you’re ready to shoot.
If you’ve never bothered with the prone position, try it! You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
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This article was first printed in the October 2008 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.