Mastering the Rifle Shot

Jim Gilliland looking through a rifle scope while in a prone position

Making a clean shot with your rifle is not only paramount to a solid sight-in process, but it's also what puts backstraps in the freezer and makes shooting fun. When you're hitting what you're aiming at, you’ll enjoy shooting more and do it more often. Few offer better or simpler advice for how to do this than the former leader of the Army's legendary Shadow sniper team, Jim Gilliland. In 2015, he made a lethal shot from a distance of more than three-quarters of a mile with his 7.62mm rifle. In addition to Gilliland's sniper status, he is also an accomplished hunter and a practical guy who knows how to focus on what really matters.

Take A Breather

Before we dive in, however, he’s quick to point out that his checklist doesn't have one word about breathing. Here's why.

"Breathing and rifle shooting is a touchy subject," he says. "You need oxygenated blood for your body to function correctly. Generally, speaking though, teaching breathing as part of the rifle shooting process takes focus away from the process of shooting."

long range target

Gilliland said it’s scientifically proven that a human can only focus perfectly on one thing at a time, and if you're focused on breathing, this takes away from focusing on where the sights are on the target and pulling the trigger without moving those sights.

"If you come into perfect focus on your target through your sight, your brain will take over for you and heart rate will slow, and your breathing cycles will shallow out. If your body needs oxygen, it will tell you. Your eyes will tremble a bit, or things will go in and out of focus. If that happens, come off the scope, get a quick breath and get right back into the optic."

The Checklist

A good shot isn’t magic. It’s the result of a series of relatively simple steps. Do each one perfectly, and move to the next until you’ve executed the shot.

  • Place the rifle on a natural gun target line, meaning the gun is naturally pointing at the target you want to shoot.
  • Build your natural point of aim. When you get behind the rifle, position your body so it does not move the rifle.
  • Proper body position means everything lines up so you can accept the recoil in a straight line. This means once you fire the rifle, the sights can come away from the target and go back on target while you remain in the same spot.
  • Body positioning should be kept in parallels or perpendiculars. Stay away from body angles. The shoulders, hips, and elbows are square, and the spine is neutral.
  • Eye relief should be set correctly, and the sight picture should be clear. When you're behind the scope, there should be no tunneling or hazing. The picture should be a perfect clear circle.
  • Focus only on aiming at the target.
  • When the trigger is pulled, it should be pulled straight to the rear. This can only be accomplished if the rifle is a good fit for the shooter.
  • Follow-through is a must. You don't want to move from the scope during your follow-through. Let the rifle recoil and rest, and then you can move.

target haning from wooden support

Now Do It

That’s it—a simple collection of steps and concepts that every shooter can master with practice. The key is not overcomplicating the process. Develop a routine based on Gilliland’s advice and practice until it becomes muscle memory. Do this, and not only will you become more proficient behind your rifle, but your groups will shrink, and so will the amount of space in your freezer.