Mike Morton on the perfect benchrest setup

Mike Morton gets called to the bench to explain how a setup like this can be useful for all air rifle shooters, whatever their preferred activity or discipline.

Mention the word “bench” and two shooting scenarios come to mind. The first is benchrest, a sporting discipline initially associated with US centrefire shooters of the 1950s using the then super-accurate .222  cartridge. But benchrest now applies to airguns too, and can take place over some extremely long distances thanks to the growth in popularity of FAC models.

The second bench scenario involves a group of shooters who are now unable to adopt the stances they used to adopt when they were younger. Both of these scenarios are widely adopted and enjoyed today, and our sport is better for it.

But there are several other reasons to plonk yourself down at a bench. It’s excellent for setting up a rifle, zeroing a scope, testing ammo, checking a rifle’s muzzle velocity and finding out its muzzle energy, especially with a non-FAC rifle when we want to ensure it’s not just consistent, but legal. That’s not all though.

The bench provides a safe environment in which to troubleshoot a setup and check the performance of a gun after any maintenance or repair work has been carried out. 

If your rifle was a Formula One car, its home would be the racing circuit, while the bench would take the place of the pits.

A bench can also be used as a training tool for new shooters. They’ll get the maximum support so they can concentrate on the operation of the rifle, and it makes for a safer teaching environment too as the gun will naturally be pointing downrange. They’ll also get better initial results, which is a great boost to their confidence.

Everything offered by the bench can be done in other shooting environments, particularly from the prone position, but a bench provides adequate space to lay out rifle and ammunition, ancillary gear such as tools, targets, a notebook, a pen, a rangefinder and even creature  comforts like sandwiches and tea.

A good bench will provide a stable base of operations not just for the rifle, but for plenty of other shooting paraphernalia as well

What Makes A Bench?

Individual benches, especially portable models, have a T- or V-shaped surface, providing enough width for the footprint of the front support of the gun and enough length to support the rear, while letting the shooter settle themselves comfortably behind the rifle without having to stretch or strain. While this shape is a good choice for both right- and left-handed shooters, a simple table can work well, provided it’s deep enough to let you properly support the rifle at both ends and doesn’t wobble.

Some shooting clubs that have a regular gallery range for unsupported standing shooting may have a tabletop extension that can be fitted in place to transform the gallery shooting position into a bench. But if your club has a shooting position that doesn’t offer a deep surface, you’re better off prone.

You’d have a well-supported front end, but the butt would be in mid-air, requiring you to support it yourself. While this can present interesting shooting opportunities, it doesn’t provide the super-stable shooting position required for any of the roles described above.

Gun fit is every bit as important when shooting from a bench as any other position, and in a perfect world it would be possible to raise or lower the bench to make it the perfect height for you. This is rarely the case, however, and we are usually lucky to have a bench in the first place, regardless of height, so the only remaining options are to use different types of seat to adjust our own height, use bags or bipods to adjust the height of a rifle, or a combination of the two.

Shooting off a bench, outside of a benchrest competition or practice session, is not meant to be a test of our shooting prowess, it’s a test of our rifle, scope, ammo or some other piece of shooting kit. With that in mind, the rifle needs to be supported by some sort of artificial aid rather than be cradled in our arms when the shot is taken.

Some incredibly elaborate front supports are available, offering fantastic degrees of stability and finesse, with numerous knobs and levers letting the shooter lay the crosshairs over the target more like an artillery piece than a rifle. But these devices are usually very expensive, and most of us will seek a cheaper alternative, and that means a bag or a bipod. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so let’s begin with bags.


Front Support

This Dog-Gone-Good front bag is meant to be used with the forend of the rifle resting in the suede-covered vee. This provides a set height from the bench, but with a little ingenuity it can be configured in a couple of different ways to ensure you’re taking a shot without having to strain any muscles.

In the bag’s default mode, the forend of the rifle is being safely cradled at a height of around 15cm. The suede provides a suitable contact surface that won’t scratch the gun, while still allowing it to move under recoil, although this last feature is admittedly of more use for centrefires or rimfires rather than a PCP.

With the bag tipped onto its side, it now measures 17cm from the top of the bench. That extra 2cm of height might not sound like much, but it does make a big difference when you’re in the aim.

With the bag again standing upright, but this time turned 90 degrees, the forend will sit at the highest point of the bag rather than nestling in the vee. It’s not nearly as secure as the intended position, but the height has now been increased to 23cm. By mixing it up you can find the right height for your chosen rifle. 


Shooting Bags

A good shooting bag, especially when combined with a second bag at the rear of the rifle, can provide superior stability to a bipod when shooting off a bench, or even the bonnet or roof of a vehicle. 

A bag should be soft enough so it doesn’t harm the rifle or the surface it’s placed on, but the real key to a bag’s success is the filler. The filling should be dense, so it doesn’t compress under the weight of the gun, which would shift point of aim.

A good bag also needs to be heavy enough to be stable, but in some cases still light enough to be portable, and inert when it comes into contact with water. Premium bags will tick these boxes, while cheaper bags may be empty, with the shooter having to source the material themselves.

Shooters have come up with numerous ideas for suitable filler over the years, all of which will work to some extent. My favourite material for filling a bag that doesn’t need to be lugged around much is ABS plastic, but it comes at a cost. 

The last time I filled a set of front and rear shooting bags it cost me £20 in plastic pellets. But I’ve carried out a quick check online and to fill the same bags today would cost a massive £45! ABS has two huge advantages though, as it’s waterproof and heavy, which aids stability.

Natural born fillers such as rice or oats are much cheaper, but will absorb water and can start to germinate or go rotten. 

A rifle will usually shoot some pellets better than others, and you need to remove as much of the human element as possible to find out 

They can also attract vermin. Kiln-dried sand is a great choice if you don’t need to carry your bags around too much. Dry sand is very heavy, which, like ABS plastic, makes the bag nice and stable, and sand can be dried out if it gets wet.

A compromise filler is cat litter that’s been made from wood pellets. This is light, dense and cheap, but suffers from exposure to water as it will swell and decompose when it gets wet. Nevertheless, this does help make a very portable shooting bag, and if it’s used outdoors you could always wrap it inside a plastic bag to protect it from the rain.

While a bipod requires some sort of anchor point on the forend such as a sling swivel stud, a bag needs nothing at all, as the rifle just sits on, or is cradled in, the bag. The main disadvantage of a bag is the inability to adjust the height the rifle sits at, although the bag can be tipped on its side or swivelled round to provide alternatives to its predetermined height.

Bipods

If your rifle has the correct fitting under the forend, then a bipod can make a great substitute for a front bag. Some shooters prefer to use a bipod, claiming it’s even more stable than a bag as the device is directly attached to the rifle, while offering more finesse in terms of height.

While most bipods can be adjusted for height, some will be too tall for bench use, even on their lowest leg setting. Some firms, such as Harris, make low bipods designed for shooting from a bench, although you may need a bipod with longer legs for optimal field use. Another feature offered by bipods such as the Atlas or Accu-Tac is the ability to tilt the legs forwards, providing a further degree of refinement in terms of the rifle’s overall height.

If your bipod has the ability to pan, this feature should be locked so the barrel is facing forward, as the concept of shooting from the bench is to eliminate as many variables as possible and keep the gun as still as possible. Similarly, if the bipod has a tilt feature, then the rifle should be levelled to the horizontal, using a spirit level if necessary, then the tilt function locked in place.

Sling swivel studs have been factory-fitted to the stock of this BSA Ultra SE, making a bipod a good choice for bench and field use

Rear Supports

While the rifle should be shot with the butt in your shoulder as normal, for maximum stability it’s a good idea to use a rear support as well, such as a rear bag or monopod. With the rifle set at the optimum height at the front, the rear bag can be used to fine-tune point of aim in terms of muzzle elevation. 

Due to the sweeping contour of most rifle stocks, sliding the bag forwards will cause the muzzle to rise, while bringing the bag rearwards will make the muzzle point down.

My own rear bag is wedge-shaped, and while it’s not intended to be used this way, I find it offers even more finesse if I turn the bag 90 degrees and push it in or pull it out from the side to adjust elevation. Manipulating the rear bag this way is a very handy tool for placing the crosshairs exactly where I want them.

Alternatively, if the stock has the correct fixture, such as a rear sling swivel stud, a monopod can be fitted. Mine is made by Accu-Shot and the handle part is threaded. This means I can spin the handle on the thread to get the perfect height, then secure it with a lock ring.

A monopod works well on the bench and, just like a bipod, can pull double duty when the rifle’s taken into the field as well

Technique

Shooting off a bench isn’t all that different to shooting prone, as many of the techniques are pretty much the same. 

If you were to present an inexperienced shooter with a rifle that had been fitted with a bipod and then asked them to shoot prone, the chances are that they would try to place their free hand either under the forend of the rifle or grab hold of one of the bipod legs. It’s the same with the bench. 

With one important exception, the free hand is better employed at the butt of the rifle. And if a monopod is used, this can provide a handle to grab hold of and pull the rifle more firmly into the shoulder. 

It’s a tried and tested technique – the Bren light machine gun, for example, could even be fitted with a dedicated rear handle for exactly this purpose.

A prone shooter can use a technique called “loading the bipod”, which just means shuffling the body forwards in the aim while keeping the rifle still. 

As long as the feet of the bipod stay put, this forward movement will take up any slack between the shooter and the rifle. 

Shooters using a bench can adopt a similar technique by leaning into the rifle rather than pulling the gun towards them.


Rear Support

This wedge-shaped rear bag is designed to work with the contour of the butt to let the shooter fine-tune elevation.


Springers

Even though they recoil, rimfires and centrefires can be successfully shot from both a bag and a bipod, while springers cannot. The main reason for this is that springers don’t just recoil in one direction, they recoil in two, and can go through several recoil cycles before coming fully to rest.

A light hold is needed with a springer, as is a layer of rubbery flesh under the forend, which allows the gun to go through the recoil process as smoothly and consistently as possible. While bipods are almost always a bad idea for springers, bags can be used effectively as long as the shooter uses his leading hand to cushion the rifle so it’s not in direct contact with the bag. 

You can try this for yourself: take five shots with the rifle resting directly on the bag, then repeat the process with the gun in your leading hand and see which method delivers better accuracy.

Final Thoughts

While the whole objective of shooting from the bench is designed to remove as much human interaction as possible, thereby reducing as much human error as possible, even a rifle that’s being fully supported fore and aft will still be subject to the way we shoot it.

But as long as we follow the basics of good shooting by eliminating parallax error and displaying good breathing control, trigger technique and follow-through, the bench will deliver a level of stability far superior to anything other than clamping the rifle in a vice – and even then, that’s something that can only be done with a PCP.

So with as many variables taken out of the equation as possible, the bench will let us configure, measure, check and test to our heart’s content – and our rifle, scope and ammo combo will be all the better for it.

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