Mike Morton offers some down to earth advice about shooting from the most stable platform of all: the prone position.
Unless we’re in the field and the quarry presents itself a certain way, or we’re in a competition and the rules dictate otherwise, our goal is to take a shot from as stable a position as possible – and that usually means going prone.
When you lie down you are maximising the area of contact you have with the ground, which means more stability and more support. If a suitable target presents itself, it can be enough just to drop down, compose yourself and then take the shot.
The human brain and body are remarkably good at making the most of any given situation, and you will find yourself naturally wriggling into a position that’s pretty comfortable and fairly stable. But there are a few ways we can optimise the way we position ourselves and how we use our kit to make the prone position work for us more efficiently and more comfortably – and that’s important if we’re planning on staying prone for extended periods.
The single most important piece of equipment for going prone is a bipod, assuming you’re shooting a PCP and have the means to attach it. A bipod will take much of the weight of the rifle, both making the gun more stable and minimising muscle fatigue. But this will only happen if the bipod is being used correctly, and that means choosing the right height for your needs.
I do a lot of shooting off a bench, and a bipod with legs that can be extended from 6-9 inches works very well for this type of shooting, as well as shooting prone over perfectly flat ground. But when you factor in sloped ground as well as foliage that can interfere with both line of sight and the flight of the pellet from the muzzle, a bipod with longer legs is a better bet for field work.
Bipods largely fall into two camps: the Harris bipod and its clones, which attach to a sling swivel stud, and the Atlas bipod and its clones, which attach to a Picatinny rail – although there is some crossover, as adapters can be bought for both systems. These bipods can either be bought with longer legs from the outset, or leg extensions can be fitted. It would be nice to have one bipod that could cover all scenarios, but that’s simply not the case, and you may well find yourself having to swap from a medium-height bipod, to a high, to a low and then back again, depending on your shooting.
Bipod legs are either notched or smooth. Notched legs enable you to easily extend or collapse each leg in distinct increments, while smooth legs need to be moved to their desired length and held in place by hand while they are tensioned. Some hunters prefer smooth legs as they are arguably quieter to adjust, but I prefer the convenience of notched legs. Like the safety catch on many rifles, they can be guided into position slowly and carefully, minimising noise.
When setting up a bipod on uneven ground, you can make one leg longer than the other in an attempt to level the rifle. But some bipods offer a more elegant solution, letting you tilt the gun to one side or the other, then locking it in place when it’s level, and therefore conquering the dreaded cant that can ruin accurate shot placement.
A further feature offered by some pods is the ability to pan the rifle – moving it horizontally to the left or right – either
when tracking a moving target or when repositioning yourself onto a different target, such as when switching from one rabbit to another. While very useful, the pan feature is not really essential as it’s fairly easy to lift the pod off the ground a couple of centimetres and reposition it at a different angle to acquire the new target.
Loading the bipod
While a bipod is already doing a lot of work on your behalf, holding the rifle steady to ensure you take an accurate shot, there’s another technique called loading the bipod that will help even more. With your rifle lined up on target and the butt against your shoulder, shimmy your body forwards and into the bipod, ensuring its feet remain planted firmly.
You’ll know you’ve done this correctly if the rifle stays upright when you take away your hands. It’ll be supported by just the bipod at the front and your shoulder at the rear – you shouldn’t need to hold onto it. This ensures both hands are free to do two very specific jobs without any muscle strain.
If you ever watch a novice shooter use a bipod, the chances are they’ll try to hold their rifle the same way they would normally, with their leading hand supporting the forend. But this isn’t necessary because that particular role is already being carried out by the bipod. However, the leading hand hasn’t been made redundant as it can now be used to control the butt of the rifle instead. Curl your arm underneath the butt, make a fist and rest the toe of the butt on top of your fist. Level the rifle so you can look through the scope as normal.
Your fist can then be used to fine-tune the elevation of your shot. If you squeeze your fist, this will force the butt up and the muzzle down, while relaxing the tension in your fist will have the opposite effect. This technique, combined with breathing, will let you control any slight rise and fall in your sight picture.
Leg position and breathing
There are three basic ways you can use your legs to help keep you comfy and stable – what I like to term the British, German and Freestyle positions. All three offer varying degrees of stability and comfort. The position you adopt with your legs will determine to what extent your breathing will affect shot placement, because your chest will be lifted off the ground more with the British position than with the German or Freestyle.
If your chest is pressed again the ground, every time you inhale, your muzzle will have a tendency to dip lower, and conversely will rise when you exhale. Instead of trying to eliminate this phenomenon you can use this cycle of muzzle movement to your advantage. Before taking a shot, take two slow and deep breaths to oxygenate your blood and brain, but exhale only half-way on the second. As the muzzle rises as you breath out, pause when your crosshairs are over the target and take the shot.
If you think you’re going to fluff it up, just hold fire for now, compose yourself and repeat the process.
Choosing the ground
Unless you’re controlling pests on a bowling green or golf course, you won’t always be able to lie down on flat, level, closely cropped ground. You may have to contend with a slope, uneven terrain, scrubby foliage or wet or stony ground, any of which can make for a fairly miserable time if you plan to lay there for extended periods. Watch out for brambles or long grass getting in the way of your muzzle, too.
If there’s no better spot available to lie up in, you’ll have to make the most of it, but it can sometimes be better to abandon the idea of going prone altogether if it’s not practical. Depending on the terrain and the way the shot is presented, you can try sitting, kneeling or standing supported instead.
If you are setting up in the field for a zeroing, ammo-testing or prone plinking session, it can be a lot more comfortable to bring a shooting mat with you. This will give you a nice, dry surface to lie on, and will also let you sort through your kit in a clean environment, even if there’s mud or cow dung underneath.
Heavyweight shooting mats offer the best protection, and will even let you set up on flint or gravel without anything digging into you. A mat will also work as a layer of insulation on cold days, helping to keep you warmer for longer.
For the hunter, a heavy mat is of less use, unless you intend to set up in a known position that’s not too far from your vehicle. If you still want the comfort of a mat but intend to go mobile, lighter ones are available that remain waterproof, while not providing as much protection from rocks or stones.
Even a lightweight mat can be impractical on a hunt, however, and it’s often better to leave the mat in the car and rely on decent clothing instead, especially on uneven ground.
Discomfort will soon spoil a prone shooting session, so make sure before you lie down that you’ve got nothing in your pockets that will either dig into you or get damaged, and your clothing itself isn’t uncomfortable to wear when in position. Chunky belt buckles are the worst offenders, but some zips can be a nuisance too, as can tight clothing.
It’s probably best to keep your mobile phone on you, rather than in a backpack, and chest pockets are usually fine. You can see what works and what doesn’t by kitting up at home and practising going prone in your living room or bedroom.
A springer can’t usually be shot successfully off a bipod as this will interfere with its recoil cycle, but springers can certainly be shot prone – and shot supported, too. If you take a backpack or beanbag into the field, this can be used to support your leading hand, into which you can lay the forend of your springer as normal.
Some springers can be hold-sensitive, so shoot yours in controlled conditions to see if you need to adjust your point of aim when going prone from your normal springer shooting stance.
This technique also works well for PCPs that have no means of attaching a bipod, and in this case you can get away with resting the rifle directly on your pack, as there will be no discernable recoil.
Pellet and kit stowage
There’s nothing worse than getting into position, adjusting the length of the legs of your bipod, levelling the gun – and then realising your pellets, gloves, rangefinder or whatever else you’re looking for are stashed away in your backpack. Think ahead about everything you’re likely to need, then lay it out within easy reach.
As with any sport, if you come prepared, you can prepare for success.