Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shooting Positions

In the next series of posts, we will look into the subject of shooting positions. There are many positions that one may shoot a firearm from: standing upright, kneeling, lying down, holding the firearm with only one hand, holding it with both hands, standing sideways and (if John Woo movies are any authority on shooting) jumping out of a door with a Beretta 92F pistol in each hand and firing alternately while in the air in slow motion, while a flock of white doves fly out :).

Back in the days when muzzle loaders were popular and rifling was non-existent, soldiers generally stood upright in lines of three and shot at each other. There were good reasons to do this:

  1. Without rifling, firearm accuracy wasn't very good. But if you lined up a group of men and asked them to shoot at a group of targets, chances were good at least one of them would hit a target, even if it wasn't the target he was aiming for.
  2. With a muzzle loader, the user stands it upright with the butt on the ground, pours some gunpowder into the barrel via the muzzle, then inserts a ball and wadding into the muzzle and then rams them down the barrel with a ramrod. These operations are not possible to do sitting down, especially when the muzzle-loader is some 4-5 feet long.
  3. It was considered more macho and gentlemanly by Europeans, to shoot from a position where the enemy can see you,  rather than shooting the enemy from behind cover.

In the early 1800s to about the 1840s, the British rifleman had a rifle with a handle extending down from the trigger guard. When this was grabbed with the left hand, it put the left arm at an angle that steadied it against the body.
A British Rifleman from the 1800s. Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, now in public domain. Click on the image to enlarge.

This was a common position used by many European armies and shooting enthusiasts in the early 1800s.

We also have this account by a Dr. Scoffern, that describes the technique of shooting used by Swiss shooters:
"As regards the Swiss system of loading and firing, both are peculiar. The Switzer unslings a powder-flask of large dimension and turns in a charge of about 2.5 drams of powder. From a side pocket, he next extracts a linen patch, and, putting it into his mouth, turns it round and round, very much as Jack turns his quid. The Switzer's object is to saturate his patch with saliva. This is his way of solving the lubrication difficulty, and, mind me, it is not a bad one. His next move is to lay the patch upon the bore and the picket upon that: which being done, he takes the ramrod in both hands and drives the picket home with one thrust. To be assured that it is home, the Switzer jerks the ramrod down upon it with a ringing thwack. 'Bad practice,' you say: 'he meals the powder'. Not a bit of it! At the end of the ramrod there is a flat iron boss, which only permits it to fall down to a fixed and unvarying extent. Well, the anxious moments of firing are now come round. See how the Switzer employs them. He begins by planting his legs wide apart, left leg foremost. He tries the ground under him for a moment or so, to find whether it be soft, and if he can wriggle out two little graves, one for each foot, the better. Should you have turned away your eye for a moment, and then direct your glance at the Switzer again, you would have found him half as big again as you last saw him. He has puffed himself out with a deep breathing, like the frog who aspired to become a bull. By this deep inspiration, the Switzer has stiffened himself, just after the way one takes the limpness out of a macintosh cushion -- by filling it full of wind. The Switzer is firm planted and rigid now -- he could no more bend from side to side than can a hard rammed sausage. If he were obliged to hold his wind as long as we take to tell our tale, it would be bad for him -- he would burst outright, like an overcharged rifle. Well, with legs apart (like a little Rhodian Colossus) and bated breath, the Switzer shoulders his piece. At the end of the stock is a boss, which he tucks between his right arm and right ribs. Gathering his two hands close together, he rests his rifle on his left hand, placed close in front of the trigger guard; pressing his left elbow, not on the left knee, indeed, but upon the left hip. Lot's wife could hardly be more rigid. Limited power of motion, nevertheless, the Switzer has. Heavenward you see his rifle pointing, and if you observe the Switzer's nose (that organ given only for ornament, as some affirm), it has turned to a purpose of utility. The Switzer is steadying the butt-end of his rifle against it; his nose is a lateral rest. By this time that nose is red on the tip, the face turgid, the eyes projecting. The Switzer's whole position is decidedly not graceful -- one very suggestive of extrusion. Heavenward you see it pointing. Gradually down and down it drops. The blank is seen, the trigger pressed. Rifle crack and Switzer's grunt follow on the heels of each other. He could not hold his breath for ever. Picket and unpreserved breath fly together. Behold him now, panting and puffing like a Cingalese pearl-diver fresh from the worrying of a ground shark. Decidedly, our style of rifle-firing is more graceful and quick."

Method of holding Rifle and Position of Swiss Rifle Shot. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

While Dr. Scoffern might not have thought the Swiss style as "graceful", it was a very effective style, as the Swiss won the majority of prizes as the first British National Rifle Association competition held at Wimbledon in 1860. It must be noted that the Swiss shooters made sure that they had a stable shooting position before pulling the trigger, something that is still emphasized in training today.

In the next few posts, we will look into more shooting positions, both historical and modern.


  1. Not so much "macho", as "if you spread out to take cover the enemy will just charge and overwhelm you." Tactics change when you don't have a machine-gun anchoring your flank, and your supporting fire has a range of fifty yards...
    Skirmishers fought from cover in loose formations, but just couldn't mass enough fires to break an advancing line or column of regulars. Their main purpose was to disrupt the enemy's formation and force him to deploy from a traveling march sooner than he planned.
    And, of course, stop his skirmishers doing the same to your forces.

  2. That stance looks similar to the "bullseye" or "olympic" stance that some competition shooters use.