Non-benchrest rifles can be generally described for this discussion as rifles weighing approximately 10 lbs or less that have a forend configuration that is rounded. Hunting rifles, position rifles, most tactical rifles, and many varmint rifles fall into this category. These rifles are not designed to be shot from a supported mechanical rest.
Benchrest type rifles will usually weigh over 10 lbs and have wide, flat forends. Our definition of a benchrest rifle for discussion purposes would include any barreled action in a benchrest stock, hunter class rifles, and some varmint rifles. Competitive 100-yard and 200-yard benchrest rifles can have a maximum forend width of 3” and the bottom can be flat or convex. The bottom of the forend cannot be concave. This prevents stock makers from designing a stock with edge rails. This definition rules out what we won’t discuss in this article.
Proper setup of your equipment on the bench is critical to a good shooting technique. When setting up your rest on the bench, locate the front rest as close to the left edge of the bench (opposite for lefties) as you can, but with the front rest points remaining on solid, level concrete. Most benches have a bevel on the edge; stay away from this. Positioning the rest on the left will put you in a more comfortable shooting position. Make sure the rest is positioned far enough forward so the end of the barrel clears the top surface of the bench. Failure to clear the bench with the muzzle can create a lot of reflected muzzle blast that blows concrete dust, usually at the shooter next to you.
Once your rest is positioned, place your rear bag about 14” behind the rear foot of the rest. This will get you pretty close to having the rear bag in the right location when using a rifle with a standard stock on a tripod rest such as a Sinclair rifle rest. Different rests, different stocks, and different rear bags will affect the final position of your rear bag. Place your rifle on the rest and rear bag, then adjust the position of the rear bag so it supports the rifle about 3” to 4” behind the pistol grip. You don’t want the pistol grip positioned so that it rides up on the rear bag ears during recoil. With that said, you don’t want to get carried away and position the rear bag so far behind the pistol grip that you can’t reach the butt plate with your shoulder without disturbing the rear bag.
When you have positioned the rest and bag at the correct distance, stand up and get behind the bench. Observe the alignment of the bag and rest. Your rifle should be aligned with the rear leg of the rest and the v-notch between the ears of your rear bag. Once this alignment is reached, sit down and look through your scope at the target. You will probably need to shift your entire setup to get the rifle on target. When you are down behind the gun, make sure you are comfortable behind the rifle. As you move everything, try to think of the process as moving an entire unit. Don’t just move the rear bag; this will put your stock in a bind with the front bag on the rest. The same thing goes with moving the front rest. Once you have gotten on target, again check the alignment and positioning of the rest, rifle, and rear bag. Refine the position of equipment as needed.
Once you have your position established, lay a towel or shooting pad on the bench for your elbow to rest on. Many of us favor a small hand towel or mat, this gives us something to lay our ammo, bolt and lens covers on as well. Others use a commercial “Shooter’s Pad” while others use a scrap of carpet underlayment foam. The concrete can rough on your elbows, especially in the summer when you are wearing short sleeve shirts.
Sit down behind the rifle again and see how it feels. Stool heights are not ideal for everyone, which is why many shooters bring an adjustable stool with them when shooting off a bench. A wobbly wooden stool that has been at the range for years can cause you to lose focus on your shooting. Positioning your body at a comfortable height keeps you from stretching to reach the rifle. Try to avoid leaning hard into the bench, since you can easily move loose, wooden benches enough to significantly disturb your bullet impact. Also, the concrete benches will bruise your ribs by the end of your shooting session. Shooting off a bench is like any other shooting position; you’ll shoot much better if you are comfortable and physically and mentally relaxed.
Upon finishing your setup, lightly dust your leather bag ears with Sinclair Bag Wax, talcum powder, or baby powder. If you are using bags with Cordura ears, spray them lightly with a food grade silicone spray. Always let the spray dry a few seconds before placing your gun back in the rest. Benchrest shooters usually treat their sand bags with powder or silicon spray to help the rifles recoil with the same results each time they are fired. This is important to a shooter testing loads as much as it is to a competitive benchrest shooter. If the rifle recoils inconsistently, you will see the effects vertically on the target. Many benchrest shooters go a step further and wax their stocks or add Teflon tape to the forend and rear stock to reduce the friction between the bags and stock.
When shooting non-benchrest rifles, especially those having a lot of recoil, you need to hold onto them more. The more recoil they have, the more you need to be concerned about maintaining consistent shoulder pressure and grip with both the trigger hand and the forend hand. Too much grip and you will find yourself moving the rifle during trigger pull. Too little grip and you will find the rifle moving uncontrollably out of the bags during recoil. The amount of recoil can be a significant factor, especially when shooting off the bench. Rifle weight, cartridge, load and stock configuration will affect the amount of “felt” recoil and also the way the rifle responds in the rest. When a rifle recoils, it doesn’t do it entirely in a straight rearward push. It will have some rotational forces as well so the rifle will want to roll over a bit. Most non-benchrest rifles tend to be somewhat top heavy, which, when combined with a rounded forend, makes them much more difficult to control when firing them from the bench. The severe drop in the comb will create a balance issue as well.
You have to hang onto these rifles, not a white knuckles grip, but a firm consistent grip. Keep firm, consistent pressure on the pistol grip while applying shoulder pressure at the same time. Either pull the stock into your shoulder or lean into the stock. Regardless of your technique, don’t mount the rifle so that the butt plate is riding high on your shoulder. You want as much contact between the butt plate and your shoulder as possible. This distributes the recoil more evenly and reduces vertical movement of the stock. The contact area should be in the pocket formed by your torso and your shoulder joint, not the torso or upper arm, but. If this isn’t a natural position at the bench, either adjust the height of your stool or reposition your rest and bags. Make sure you are positioned directly behind the gun. Remember, the most important goal in achieving the proper position and setup is to obtain shot-to-shot consistency!
A front bag that conforms to the contour of the forend is highly desirable. Do not try to capture the forend completely; all that is needed is about 120 degrees of contact between the bag and rifle. Light rifles may jump clear off the front bag during recoil if the cartridge has sufficient energy. Don’t worry about it – just let it jump. If your hold is correct, the rifle should pivot on your shoulder and settle back into the bag. Prior to shooting hunting rifles, you may want to remove the front and rear sling swivel studs, depending on your stock configuration and the rear bag design. You may find you only need to remove the rear stud. We place hunting rifles further forward in the front bag than we do benchrest rifles so the front sling swivel stud is not always in the way. Most studs will remove easily. Removing the sling swivel studs temporarily keeps your rifle from bouncing during recoil when the studs hit the bags. It also protects your bags from being torn as the stud passes across the bag during recoil.
While we are on the subject of sling swivel studs, one gunsmithing job we highly recommend on wood and synthetic stocks is to have your sling swivel stud replaced and remounted. If your sling swivel studs are simple wood screws threaded into the stock, have your gunsmith bed and epoxy a metal sleeve in the stock. This relatively inexpensive job gives you more security and can prevent you from damaging your stock, especially when using a bi-pod, and most especially on a rifle with heavy recoil.
The location of the forend on the front bag has a lot to do with the overall weight of the rifle and the barrel weight. The lighter the barrel, the further forward the stock should be in the front bag. On hunting weight rifles, we usually position the rifle so the front bag is a few inches forward of the front of the action. There is not a set rule for this, but you don’t want all the rifle weight in the rear, nor do you want it to be positioned so it is barrel heavy. If there is a forend stop on your rest, we usually lower it out of the way or remove it when shooting heavy recoiling rifles. Place the rear sandbag as described earlier so the pistol grip is several inches in front of the ears. You don’t want the pistol grip in the way during recoil. The butt should protrude enough so your shoulder can make full contact with the butt plate. The ideal position is when your shoulder is just shy of contacting the bag and is making full contact with the entire butt plate. Your trigger hand should be in a normal, comfortable position on the pistol grip with a firm grip. Your cheek should be spot welded to the comb or cheek piece.
Now what do you do with your non-trigger hand? We have shot light rifles off the bench many different ways. If you are using a windage top, you can hold the rifle just below the action. It doesn’t have to be a death grip; all you are doing is trying to prevent it from leaping uncontrollably out of the bag. On heavier rifles without a lot of recoil, you may not want to hold it at all. If you don’t have a windage top, you can obtain some lateral movement by squeezing one ear or the other of the rear bag with your non-trigger hand. You can also fine-tune your elevation by squeezing both ears. Curl your non-trigger arm around so it is underneath the rifle and place your hand directly in front of the rear bag. Pivot your hand upward and squeeze the ears with your thumb and first two fingers to adjust elevation and windage. Hold this position during firing. On very heavy recoiling rifles, you may not be able to do this because you need to hold onto the forend. Remember, your non-trigger hand isn’t really going to reduce recoil significantly, but it will act to help control the direction of recoil. Your shoulder acts as a pivot point and shock absorber.
Regardless of what you do with your non-trigger hand, your goal is to make the rifle, the rest, the bag, and yourself one complete unit. When the rifle is fired, you want to control the energy or dampen it somewhat. We can’t stress this enough, you don’t want to stop the recoil, you simply want to manage and control it. You want the rifle to recoil backwards primarily, and secondly pivot upwards off the shoulder in a controlled manner so it doesn’t twist during recoil. It is extremely important that you concentrate on your sight/scope picture as much as possible. The more you can focus on your sight picture, the less you will be thinking about recoil. This concentration level should be so high that you are almost surprised when the trigger breaks and the rifle fires.
Trying to shoot a light rifle or a heavy recoiling rifle off the bench is definitely a challenge. In order to successfully load test these rifles, one needs to develop a position that utilizes as much of the body’s bone structure as possible instead of relying on brute muscle control. You must also develop a consistent hold especially with the shoulder pocket, the cheek weld, and the firing hand. Concentration on the sight picture is a must. If you feel you are flinching, have a friend work with you on some flinching exercises.
We hope this helps with your load testing and shooting from the bench.