From some men, learning how to properly and safely fire a rifle is a skill they picked up when they were just knee high to a grasshopper. These guys probably got a .22 for their 12th birthday and spent summers in the woods plinking tin cans and squirrels and autumns hunting deer with their dads and grandpas.
Me? I wasn’t one of those guys.
But lately I’ve been wanting to learn how to fire a variety of firearms. I’m sure there are other men out there who, like me, went their entire life not ever shooting a rifle, but now have the desire to learn. It might be because he wants to take up hunting. Maybe he’s interested in home protection. Or perhaps he’s just interested in marksmanship as a hobby in and of itself. Whatever your reasons are for wanting to learn how to fire a rifle, you need to know how to do it safely and correctly.
A few months ago we did a post on firing a handgun safely and correctly. This time we’ll focus on how to shoot a rifle. So I headed back over to the U.S. Shooting Academy here in Tulsa, OK to talk to Mike Seeklander, Director of Training at the Academy. He explained the very basics of firing a rifle and today I’ll share what I learned with you.
The Four Cardinal Safety Rules of Firing a Rifle
Just as he did when we talked about firing a handgun, the very first thing Mike brought up were four rules, that if followed strictly, will keep you and others safe so you can have a good time firing off a few rounds.
1. Always treat every firearm as if it were loaded. No ifs, ands, or buts. Even if you know the gun is unloaded, still handle it as if it were loaded.
2. Always keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction, a direction where a negligent discharge would cause minimum property damage and zero physical injury. The safest direction to point a gun is always downrange (as long as there aren’t any people downrange!).
3. Always keep your trigger finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until you have made a conscious decision to shoot.
4. Always be sure of your target, backstop, and beyond. You want to be aware of what’s in your line of fire. This isn’t usually a concern if you go to a professional gun range. They make sure that people and property stay out of the path of the guns firing downrange. Where this becomes a concern is when you go shoot with your buddy out on his property. This is especially important when firing high powered rifles as their bullets travel further than bullets fired from a handgun.
Listen to Mike: “Ask your friend what exactly is beyond the target and backstop you’re shooting at, especially when you’re shooting into a wooded area. Don’t just settle for, ‘Oh, don’t worry. There’s nothing back there.’ Ask specifically if there are any houses, property, etc beyond your backstop. Err on the side of being overly cautious.”
Types of Rifles
Rifles are high powered firearms typically used to hit targets at long distances. Rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder. Grooves, called rifling (hence the name rifle), are cut into the barrel of a rifle. Rifling makes the bullet spin as it leaves the muzzle, making the bullet much more accurate and stable in flight.
There are a variety of rifles out on the market that serve different purposes. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common.
Bolt action rifles. Hunters often use a bolt action rifle like the Winchester Model 70 which requires the shooter to manually open and close the breech of the gun to eject a spent casing and load a new one.
Lever-action rifles. If you’re a fan of Westerns, you probably noticed the cowboys in the films firing lever-action rifles. Lever-action rifles use a lever located around the trigger guard area to load fresh cartridges into the chamber of the barrel when the lever is worked. The most famous lever-action rifle of the Wild West was undoubtedly the Winchester rifle, a favorite firearm of badasses like Bass Reeves.
Semi-automatic rifles. A semi-automatic rifle fires a single bullet each time the trigger is pulled, automatically ejects the spent cartridge, and automatically chambers a new cartridge from a magazine. Most modern semi-automatic rifles are made from lightweight synthetic materials that make them easy to hold and carry. The most popular semi-automatic rifle is the AR-15. Here in the United States, there are no federal restriction on civilians owning AR-15s, though some states, like California, do place restrictions on ownership. Other states, such as Texas, have no restrictions and even allow semi-automatic rifles for hunting. The rifle Mike used in our photos was a JP-15.
How to Stand When Firing a Rifle
There are two common stances when firing a rifle: bladed-off and a squared, “athletic stance.”
Bladed-off stance. A bladed stance is when your weak-side shoulder is facing the target. So if you’re right handed, your left shoulder is facing the target; if you’re left handed, your right shoulder faces the target. It sort of looks like how a baseball batter would stand in the batter’s box. Here’s Mike, showing a bladed stance:
Many first-time shooters stand in a bladed-off stance when firing a rifle. They probably saw their favorite cowboys or action heroes in movies take this stance, so they assume it’s the best way to stand. Mike says that while a bladed stance is good for competition shooters who need precision in their aim, it’s not a great stance for shooters in more tactical situations that require rapid shots with minimal muzzle rise.
Squared or athletic stance. Mike and the folks at the U.S. Shooting Academy teach their students to assume an athletic stance when firing a rifle. Square your shoulders up with the target. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart on a straight line. Stagger your strong side foot about six inches behind your weak side foot.
Place the buttstock of the rifle near the centerline of the body and high up on the chest. Keep your elbows down.