Airgun shooting tips – learning from the past

Soldiers carrying the Lee-Enfield had a thorough Small Arms Training regime, and Mike Morton finds out if modern airgun shooters can pick up any tips.

History, as I was told at school, isn’t just a record of what once happened. It’s more important than that because learning the lessons of the past can help us shape our present and our future. That’s something I’ve taken to heart ever since, and I believe this applies to airgun shooting as well.

When The Shooting Party released the long-awaited CO2-powered, BB-firing Lee-Enfield SMLE I began to research the Lee-Enfield family of rifles and how soldiers were trained to use them. One document I came across was Small Arms Training Volume I, issued by the War Office. This booklet was written in 1937 and revised in June 1939, just three months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Lee-Enfield SMLE is best known for its use in the First World War, but while it should have been replaced by the more modern Rifle No. 4 at the start of the Second, countless Commonwealth soldiers trained with and went into the action with the SMLE.

I initially wondered whether I could apply what I read in the Small Arms Training manual when shooting The Shooting Party’s CO2 SMLE, but soon found out that much of it is as relevant to the airgun shooter of today as it was the Lee-Enfield rifleman of the Second World War. I hope you agree!

The Objective

According to the Small Arms Training booklet, the main object of weapon training is to make the shooter proficient in handling and firing his rifle in order to give him confidence in the gun and in his capacity to use it effectively, explaining that no individual can be considered fully trained unless he is able to use efficiently any of the weapons with which he may be armed. In the soldier of the day, this meant the Lee-Enfield rifle plus a pistol, light machine gun and anti-tank rifle. This is an interesting one, as I’m sure very few would have become efficient in all four.

The airgun equivalent of this objective would be for us to be proficient in the use of all the airguns we own. I wonder how many of us can honestly say we meet that objective? There’s a saying “beware the man with one gun” and those of us who do own more than one rifle will probably not shoot them all to the same standard unless we put in some consistent practice with each.

The Rifle No. 4 had a capacity of 10 rounds, which was huge in its day, while the CO2 SMLE holds 15 BBs and this .22 HW100 can take 14 pellets

Whenever we visit the range, even if it’s just a fun plinking session, we are practising and honing our skills. The question is – to what extent? Whoever wrote the 1937 booklet was well aware that people get tired and bored, and the counter to this was to give shooters alternately difficult and easy periods of training, interspersed with breaks. The booklet also points out that a training period should not exceed 45 minutes. 

This might not sound that long, but is quite sensible. My typical range session is about 90 minutes, and while it’s certainly good fun it can be mentally draining. I’m going to introduce a self-imposed break period next time I go to the range in the hope that I’m more refreshed for the second half of my session, which should therefore be more productive.

Aiming

Soldiers training to use the Lee-Enfield went through a set – and very sensible – procedure, first learning how the rifle worked and how to clean it. How many airgun shooters do that?! I know plenty of people who don’t even know they’re meant to clean their air rifle, let alone do it on a regular basis, although powder-burners are admittedly a lot dirtier than airguns.

Next up in the basic training programme was a demonstration of the rifle plus instruction on how to aim the gun. This was followed by live fire on a miniature range using the .22 rimfire version of the Lee-Enfield before graduating to a 30-yard range with the .303 and then eventually shooting at 100 yards and beyond. 

The SMLE and Rifle No. 4 had iron sights, something that those of us of a certain age can certainly relate to with airguns. Nowadays the vast majority of air rifles are shot with a telescopic sight on board, although the principle is the same: in order to make a successful hit, you need to know where you should be pointing the barrel.

Unless we are only ever shooting our airguns at the same set distance, we need to account for the flightpath of the pellet. That means shooting the gun at several distances, say from 10 yards to 45 yards at five-yard intervals, recording the fall of shot and the correction required to make a successful hit at each distance. 

This will be obvious to anyone who’s been shooting airguns for any length of time, but it’s amazing how many beginners don’t appreciate what happens when the pellet leaves the barrel, so it’s up to more experienced shooters to help teach them.

Stance

Initial rifle shooting with the Lee-Enfield was carried out in the prone position as it’s the most stable of all the shooting stances. Soldiers going prone, which is simply termed “lying” in the Small Arms Training booklet, were taught to rest the forearm and wrist of their supporting arm on the ground – but not the rifle itself. This is a good technique that works well for recoiling air rifles such as springers and gas-rams, but has fallen out of fashion with many shooters using a recoilless PCP, who can support their air rifle more easily with a bipod instead.

One thing that can enhance the prone position, whether or not the rifle is being supported, is the way the shooter’s legs are positioned. There are three methods, which I’ll loosely term “British”, “German” and “Freestyle”. The British method, for a right-handed shooter, sees the left leg stretched out behind and the right leg cocked. This is not the most stable position, but it does have the advantage of elevating the chest from the ground, so the shot
is less affected by the rhythm of the shooter’s breathing.

Anyone who played with Airfix soldiers as a boy may remember the odd leg position adopted by the German figures who were depicted shooting prone, with both legs outstretched in a V-shape and the feet turned out to the sides. Airfix got this absolutely right, as the official German method was indeed to splay the legs this way, offering maximum stability at the expense of the rise and fall of the chest as the soldier breathed in and out.

The Freestyle method is to place your legs however you like, which will naturally be the position you find most comfortable depending on the ground you’re lying on. My favourite Freestyle position is to cross one ankle over the other. 

It’s not super-stable, and I still need to watch my breathing, but it’s a comfortable enough position and is something that I can adopt for long periods of time without fidgeting. Anyone who’s been shooting for a while will no doubt have their preferred prone posture, but for anyone who’s new to the sport, it may be worthwhile to do some experimenting to see just what works best for you.

In battle, and indeed in the hunting field and at the range, it’s not always possible to shoot prone, so soldiers were also taught to shoot kneeling, sitting and standing, with and without supports and/or cover. These stances will be very familiar to many airgun shooters, especially those hunting or taking part in HFT, FT or gallery shooting.

Aiming Off

Aiming off for wind was another skill that the rifleman was taught early on. Wind is a topic in its own right, and is something that can outwit even the most experienced airgun shooter. My own and admittedly very crude method of shooting in windy conditions is simply to wait until it dies off momentarily, but we don’t always have the luxury of being able to time a shot like this, and those airgun shooters who can read the wind and accurately place a shot really are masters of their craft.

Another skill that soldiers were taught was taking inclined shots. Although this seems fairly rudimentary, it’s another aspect of shooting that can really fox inexperienced shooters – airgun or otherwise – if they don’t understand the way gravity affects their projectile. As a very rough guide, the distance to the target, and therefore the amount of holdover or holdunder, should be measured along the horizontal, which will be a shorter distance than if it was measured directly to the target on the incline.

Knowing the distance to the target is essential to making an accurate shot, and nowadays we have the benefit of modern devices such as a laser rangefinder

Rapid Fire and Snapshooting

One of the reasons for the Lee-Enfield’s success was its detachable 10-round double-column magazine, which had around twice the capacity of contemporaries like the five-round Mauser Kar 98k and Mosin-Nagant 91/30, and the six-round Carcano 91/38.

As well as having a solid ammo capacity, the Lee-Enfield was also quick to fire, with a well-trained soldier capable of firing up to 37 aimed shots a minute. Apparently, some enemy forces coming under fire believed the British soldiers were using machine guns rather than rifles due the amount of fire laid down. All well and good, but is any of this relevant to the airgun shooter?

Outside of rapid-fire competitions, most airgun shooting is carried out in a slower and more deliberate way, although there are several benefits to learning to shoot an air rifle quickly. The main ones are muscle memory of loading the gun and cycling the action, as well as improving the shooter’s overall familiarity with the rifle. Another is the fun factor which comes from shooting under pressure. Rapid-fire shooting will also help hone target acquisition and engagement.

A Typical Practice Programme

The Small Arms Training booklet suggests several practice programmes, with a typical one testing a soldier’s competence in the following areas:

  • Accuracy of aim at small and large representative targets
  • Snapshooting and rapid timed exposures
  • Points of aim, including wind
  • Rapid fire – 10 rounds in 45 seconds
  • Fire and manoeuvre – short rushes, getting up and down quickly, firing after each rush
  • Use of aiming rests

I’m not too sure about fire and manoeuvre (I could probably have managed this 20 years ago!), but the other tests are easy enough to carry out with an airgun. I may well draw up a club competition based on this – and you could formulate your own version too.

Shooting at a target either or above or below the horizontal is known as taking an inclined shot, and it’s a skill that requires plenty of practice

How It Works

Something I was pleasantly surprised to see was the requirement for soldiers to learn how their rifle worked, particularly in regard to ammunition. They learned how pressure is generated by the rifle cartridge: when a round of ammunition is fired: the gases formed by the burning of the charge push the bullet forward through the bore.

They were also taught about the shape of the bullet, the advantage of an elongated bullet being its greater weight in proportion to the surface directly opposed to the air, giving it greater velocity, range and striking power.

Do many airgun shooters know exactly how their rifles work, or why certain pellet shapes or weights may offer better ballistics? I guess it’s a bit like driving a car. You don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to get behind the wheel and drive from A to B, but a greater understanding may help you operate the car more efficiently and troubleshoot any problems more effectively.

Final Thoughts

For some reason which the booklet fails to explain, members of the regular Army were expected to carry out their small arms practice wearing fighting order, while members of the Territorial Army wore drill order. In terms of regular soldiers, this was an excellent idea, as it meant any shooting they carried out would be done in the same clothing, be it in training or in combat. 

This transfers well to the airgun shooter too. There’s little point practising at the range in comfortable, light clothing if you’re then expecting to wear heavier and thicker clothing in the field.

Another concept the booklet highlights is the effect a bayonet may have on point of impact. No airgun shooters are likely to be mounting a bayonet, and even military PCPs like the Austrian army’s 18th century Girandoni didn’t have one, as it was too fragile to have one fitted. 

What airguns may have, however, is a moderator, and it’s up to us to determine whether fitting one has any effect on where the pellet ends up. If that’s the case, my advice is to shoot the rifle with the moderator fitted all the time rather than having to learn two sets of aim points.

I reckon military shooters from the 1940s weren’t all that different to us airgun shooters of the 2020s, and the breadth of their training is something we can incorporate into our own. So if you only shoot one stance, try another. If you shoot slowly and deliberately, try taking on a faster course of fire. 

Even if your Small Arms Training-inspired session is just a one-off it still represents a change of pace, and you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it more than you might think. With that in mind, I think I’d better go and have a bully beef sandwich, drink some tea from a chipped enamel mug and then practise a few standers…

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