Bevel Brothers: Offhand Rifle Shooting
This month we’ll look at rifle shooting on the Offhand Line. First we’ll talk about the matches because that’s more or less the easy part. The NMLRA offers offhand matches for rifles and smoothbores, flint or percussion, open or peep sights, re-entry and record, and even a couple of International style bullseye matches. The international matches are fun because you shoot thirteen shots but you only count the best ten. It does a lot for my self-esteem when I get to throw out those three wild shots that weren’t really my fault anyway.
You can shoot at targets as close as 25 yards or as far out as 100 yards. You can shoot re-entry for daily and weekly cash pots and of course you can shoot the regular record matches for medals.
Like the Pistol line, the Offhand line has a classification system so you don’t have to start off competing against the very best shots right away. That’s a big help for beginners, because there are some very good offhand shooters on that line that are very hard to beat.
The thing about Offhand rifle shooting is that almost everybody does it, but very few can do it well. Standing up and holding a rifle with both hands while you try to aim at a target introduces several new variables into your target shooting. Those new variables are your feet, ankles, knees, hips, elbows, wrists, spine, shoulder, neck, lungs, and diaphragm. Practically every bone and joint you have is involved in offhand rifle shooting and none of them are made to be locked into just one position. Plus, you have to keep breathing all the time, which complicates matters no end.
There are plenty of books and articles out there about offhand shooting. Mostly they’re written by those Olympic type smallbore guys that shoot fancy rifles made to shoot tiny targets fifty feet or so away. You can learn from those guys about breath control and trigger squeeze and such, but mostly their advice skips over the things most useful to a muzzleloading shooter. With a few exceptions (like the Schuetzen matches) we don’t allow hooked butt plates and palmrests and we don’t allow those straight-jacket style shooting coats that practically turn your upper body into a bench rest. The lock time between when the trigger is pulled and the ball leaves the muzzle is much longer for a muzzleloader, so follow through is much more important for us. But I think the big difference between us and them is that every time we touch off a shot we have to leave the firing line, go back to the bench to reload, and then go back up to the line and take up a shooting position all over again. It doesn’t sound like much, but changing your position between every shot is a big deal. It takes many hours of practice to be able to consistently reassume a shooting position after returning from the loading bench. The key to gaining a consistent offhand position is a combination of foot placement and stock fit.
You should establish your foot placement on the line when you step up to fire your first shot. Make it a practice shot if you can. Place your feet so that when you bring the rifle up to your shoulder it will comfortably point at your target without your body doing any twisting or leaning to get the sights line up on the bull. You may notice that the ground isn’t perfectly even anywhere on the line, so you may have to shift around some before you find that perfect spot where your feet line up and feel good as you aim the rifle. Then you can sort of moosh your feet around in the gravel a little so as to make foot prints that you can come back to every time.
There are two common offhand positions that most people seem to use at Friendship. One position has the shooter standing with his or her weight more or less evenly distributed between both feet with the rifle supported by the left hand (right handed shooter) placed out a foot or so forward of the trigger guard. That’s more or less the classic military style offhand position. In my experience that position works best when the shooter is allowed to use a shooting jacket and sling, neither of which are allowed in most of our matches, but lots of shooters use that method and do just fine.
The other offhand position (again, this is for a right handed shooter), has the shooter standing with left foot forward but with most of his weight shifted back on the right foot. The left upper arm and elbow are tucked down tight against the chest and the rifle is supported in the palm of the left hand just forward of the trigger guard. The palm is reversed so that the fingers of the left hand are on the left side of the stock on the opposite side of the lock. That’s an important detail, by the way, because if you hold your fingers on the lock side under the cap or in front of the touchhole – especially with a flintlock – you will get a nasty burn that will hurt like crazy for several days, probably get infected, and will leave a random pattern blackpowder tattoo in your fingers that will last for years. So watch it – and don’t say we didn’t tell you ahead of time.
Close to twenty years ago we did an interview with Chuck Blender. He is one of the all time best muzzleloading shooters we’ve ever met. He has set records at Friendship from as far back as the 1960’s that still stand. He explained his personal approach to offhand shooting back then and the advice he gave then is still just a valid and valuable now. Here’s what Chuck told us back in 1998:
Chuck Blender: Offhand shooting is a big subject. I gave a speech at the Columbus Muzzleloaders Club a while back that filled a solid hour and there’s still a lot left to be said. The subject of offhand shooting covers a wide range of topics, all of which have to come together on the line to produce consistently winning scores. As far as the rifle goes, I started out shooting offhand with a .50 caliber. Then I went to a .45 and finally settled on a .40 caliber as the best for me. The round ball by nature is a poor projectile. It is difficult to drive at sufficiently high velocity to resist wind deflection and maintain a reasonably flat trajectory out to 100 yards without generating very heavy recoil relative to the velocity produced. Most shooters who favor a larger caliber will say that they do it to buck the wind better. But, if you look up the ballistics tables for various round ball calibers you will see that, although the larger and heavier balls are less affected by wind, all balls are affected. You will also see that at a given velocity of say, 1800 or 1900 feet per second, a .54 caliber ball is deflected by a 5 mph wind only slightly less than a .40 caliber ball at the same velocity – usually you will see only an inch or so difference in deflection at 100 yards between the calibers. But, driving a .54 caliber ball at 1900 fps takes an awful lot more powder and generates way more recoil than it takes to move a .40 at the same speed. To me, the punishment you get from the recoil of a bigger bore more than cancels out any advantage in wind deflection. You still have to cope with the wind whether you shoot a .54 or a .40, and I have found the .40 will perform quite well out to 100 yards, so that has been my choice for many years.
I favor a barrel length of 36 to 38 inches. I find that a rifle with a barrel longer than about 40 inches is too heavy to hold well through the course of a match without producing undue fatigue. The longer barrels will give you a better sight radius and may for some shooters “hang” better, but you have to be a fairly large person and in pretty good shape to shoot a long barrel offhand consistently well. To get a longer sight radius and better balance, I have used tapered barrels in the past and had good success with them. The tapered and flared or swamped barrels are excellently balanced for offhand shooting, but are most often found on the more traditional type guns than on target rifles.
The weight of the rifle is very important. If it is too heavy, you will struggle to get through a match with it and fatigue will catch up to you no matter what shape you are in physically. To my mind, a 9 to 11 pound rifle is all that most people can handle, and most will want to stay on the lighter side of that range. You can adjust the weight and balance of a rifle by adding lead to a cavity drilled behind the buttplate, or by replacing a wooden ramrod with a steel one.
I believe that the most important single consideration in choosing an offhand rifle is stock fit. The key to stock fit is that it should rest in your shoulder naturally. You should not have to struggle or fight with the rifle to get the sights lined up and keep them there. The two greatest detriments in a rifle to good offhand shooting are a stock that has too long a pull and a rifle that is too heavy. A poorly fitted stock or a too heavy gun will be very discouraging to all but the most dedicated shooter.
The dimensions of the rifle that fits an individual shooter must be determined basically by trial and error. If you can’t build a rifle for yourself, or have one built for you, then the next best method is to try the fit of as many rifles in as many variations as you can possibly get your hands on. Then try to find a duplicate of the one that fits you best. The stock should come up to your shoulder easily and rest there naturally with the sights neatly lined up just as you hold the rifle. A good test of a stock that otherwise feels good to you and balances well is to close your eyes and shoulder the rifle. Then open your eyes to see where the sights are. If the sights are already lined up when you open your eyes, then you have a good fit. A rifle that feels good and has good balance, but that makes you strain to get up or down on the stock to line up the sights will not give you good results on the offhand line. You can adjust sight alignment within a small range by using shorter or taller sights, but this fix can only go so far. If you are raising or lowering your face on the stock in order to get your sights to line up, then your shooting will suffer over time. A big part of shooting offhand is the ability to repeat your position from shot to shot. A rifle that naturally and consistently puts you back to the same position behind the sights from shot to shot will make a tremendous difference in how you place in the matches.
If you have the ability to build a rifle for yourself or can have one custom built for you by a very patient builder, you will be able to make a rifle that fits you best. One good way to start is to find a rifle that seems to fit you well and then copy its dimensions onto a stock blank that you can cut out and shape to suit. An even better way is to first copy those “pretty close” dimensions onto a piece of cheap lumber, set the barrel into a rough channel, and play with the dimensions until it is perfect. With the cheap stock you can vary the dimensions by cutting off wood, gluing it back on or gluing on more wood. You can add height or width or depth with Bondo and shape it to where you want it with a rasp. You can shorten or lengthen the pull with washers between the buttplate and the stock. Once you have a stock that fits you just right, you can transfer those exact dimensions to a good piece of wood and build your rifle.
I’ve found that just the thickness of a buttplate can make a big difference in how the length of pull affects sight alignment. On one rifle that I used years ago, I found that, although it fit fairly well with a cast brass buttplate installed, it fit much better with the buttplate removed. Removing the buttplate on that rifle not only shortened the pull slightly, but also subtly changed the curvature of the butt so that it fit my shoulder much better. I left the cast buttplate off of that rifle and replaced it with a piece of thin sheet brass pounded on to fit the inside curve of the butt as it was cut. I have found that a relatively flat buttplate works best. The sharply curved plates that are found on rifles such as the Vincents and some of the Tennessees will plant the buttstock in your shoulder in only one place. There is no room for adjustment on your shoulder, so if the fit isn’t just exactly right, you will find that it is a struggle to use.
Now if you happen to be one of the many shooters out there in Readerland who doesn’t have the means to order a custom rifle, or the patience to build one for yourself, or just plain don’t want to get into offhand competition that deeply before you even know if you like it – fear not!! Right there at Friendship we have an offhand match made just for you.
Match 111 is a special weekly re-entry (meaning you can enter and shoot as many do-overs as you want) for your unmodified store-bought off-the-shelf right-out-of-the-box factory-made production rifles. The match is shot with patched round ball at 25 yards at the big ol’ six bull slug gun target. It’s for open iron sights only, but adjustable ones are allowed. It’s great fun and you have a good chance of winning back enough money to actually pay for your powder! Plus, if you manage to shoot a 50 score (all five shots in the ten ring) you get a cool “50” pin to stick in your hat. Like Grandma used to say, “You can’t hardly beat that with a stick!!”.