Getting the Most of Field Rests
by Wayne van Zwoll
There’s more to supporting a rifle than finding a tree.
It began as an ordinary day in October: calisthenics on the cabin floor, a bumpy drive along forest roads in the dark, many short steps up a moonlit slope. Breath in white bursts against frost-hardened hills. Brittle aspen litter breaking the stillness.
I slipped through deadfall at ridgetop and into a charred basin, the toothpick tops of lodgepole skeletons piercing night’s fog. Dawn followed slowly. With it came the drum of hooves. The elk rattled through the timber like marbles. I stepped forward, pressed my forward hand against a sturdy pine and steadied the crosswire on an opening. When the first cow of the trio filled it, I triggered the 7mm-08. The bullet backed her up, but she recovered and dashed off behind the others. I cycled the Remington. Then, in winks of color through the boles, I saw her legs fail. She stumbled, somersaulted, kicked and lay still. The hoofbeats of the others faded.
It’s easy to say I could have killed her without help from a tree. In truth, I’d have been a fool to try. Even close, quick shots yield better results if you steady your rifle with something solid. We make do without when there’s no time to find a rest or when the elk is moving. Vitals the size of a punch bowl give us some latitude.
One day long ago I came upon a small band of elk in open timber. The shot was ridiculously easy. The bull fed across my front like a Holstein. I fired hastily. The bullet missed. All the elk left. I concluded that I did not need a rest at 70 yards to hit an animal big enough to saddle, but I did need to shoot more carefully. A rest would have helped by delaying my shot and encouraging precise aim.
A useful delay needn’t be long—just long enough to ensure a deliberate shot. Finding a rest, where one is available, shouldn’t take long either. When you’re slipping through cover, it’s a good idea to look for rests as you look for elk. When you stop, stop strategically, with shot alleys open to you and your feet planted for an offhand shot. Have a rest in mind—any limb, stump, rock or other feature that will steady your hand or support your body.
A couple of seasons back I killed a bull after an hour-long stalk through burned timber on a snowy slope. A big herd had scattered to bed. Lots of eyes watched through the naked black boles. The bull didn’t show vitals until I’d crawled inside the perimeter, my arm now in a sling. A great pine had fallen across a stump a stone’s toss ahead. It became my mark. “If I can reach that, I’ll fire.” Perhaps an immediate shot from the sit would have taken the bull. But crawling to that log accomplished three things: It gave me time to think through the shot, encouraged me to shoot deliberately and rewarded me with a steady sight picture.
Not long thereafter, in another state, I still-hunted through broken sub-alpine benches. Elk tracks led me to a timbered cleft. The wind was wrong for a proper approach. Stupidly, I capitulated to my impatient self, ascending crosswind but exposed from the bottom. I figured the elk would hold until I reached the conifers’ hem, where I’d have cover, a rifle rest and a close view of the cover. Alas, the elk beat me. I heard a rock roll as the group—four cows and a six-point bull—sifted silently through the Doug firs, then up and over the ridge. I could have fired. But though the range was short, the animals never paused.
Disgusted with myself, I turned back onto the trail, still-hunting too fast. A quarter-mile farther on, I forced myself to stop. A confluence of game trails unraveled on an open bench. Ridges ran in three directions. They begged scrutiny. But rather than lift the binocular, I found a big rock and leaned back against it.
The elk appeared as a tan stump, its antlers branches in a distant lodgepole. When it resolved itself in my glass, it was looking at me. Had been, probably, for some time. Fortunately, I already had my support. The rock held my torso still as the lever rifle eased up over my knees. The bead quivered gently on the middle ribs. I forced it left, to slide the bullet close past the pine. I crushed the trigger; the bull vanished at the explosion. I found him just back of the ridge, at the end of a furrow he’d plowed nosing into the snow. Rests don’t have to be under your hand.
There’s a proper technique to using a rest. I’m really good at using back rests—even a cave man can do that. But supporting the rifle with a rest isn’t as easy as it looks. Benchrest shooters, who fire match ammo through heavy, accurate rifles over sophisticated rests, are very conscious of technique. Even if the rest is solid, your shoulder can nudge the rifle at the instant of firing. Your trigger pull can tug it off target. Even the pressure of your hand or a sling can affect point of impact. So here are some tips.
Rest the forend, never the barrel. During a bullet’s passage, the barrel vibrates like a tuning fork. Any direct pressure will cause the muzzle to sling the bullet off course, typically in the direction away from the pressure.
Try to position a rest under the forend, not to the sides. Zeroing your rifle, you probably laid it over a sandbag or a padded mechanical rest. The rifle bounced up away from the rest. Duplicating that bottom-side pressure in the field, you keep the bullet on the same track as when you zeroed. Pressure from the side, as when you lean the rifle against a tree, gives the bounce a horizontal component.
Position the rifle so the rest contacts the forend near its midpoint. If you bear down heavily on a rifle rested too near the forend tip, you can bend the forend into the barrel, increasing pressure there or closing the gap on a free-floated barrel. Support far to the rear robs you of control; the rifle can swivel and see-saw.
Whenever you employ a rest, pad it with your hand. First, you want to maintain control of that rifle during recoil so you can cycle the action quickly for a follow-up shot. Secondly, you want the rest to steady the rifle, not jar it, which is essentially what happens during ignition if the rifle’s motion bangs it against a hard surface. Resting the forend across a pack or clothing makes sense, but only because it cradles and cushions your hand. Incidentally, while benchrest and heavy varmint rifles are typically stocked to be fired directly off padded rests, hunting rifles, especially those that kick hard, should be held when you zero. You’ll hold them when shooting elk. Again, keep every aspect of the bench-shooting routine as close as you can to what will happen afield.
Details matter. However solid the rest, mind your body position. A rifle support can’t ensure a good shot; it only helps you make one. If your body shifts even a little during the shot, that movement nudges the rifle. Your shoulder, grip and trigger finger all pressure the rifle; keeping those pressures under control starts with a relaxed position held in place mainly by your bones, not your muscles. The notion that a rest will guarantee a hit leads to sloppy positions and shooting technique. It’s also the reason many shooters fail to drill tight groups from a bench.
“We’d like to guarantee minute-of-angle accuracy from our rifles,” a gunmaker once told me. “They’ll shoot that well. But we have no control over the customer or his ammunition.” The ammo matters less, typically, than the shooter. While some rifles are fussy about loads, a properly designed and carefully fitted rifle should shoot a variety of ammunition well. Not long ago I fired a Cooper M52 with six types of factory ammo. Average group size: .9 inch. Had I thrown out the worst group (1.5 inches), the average would have shrunk to about .7. For a hunting rifle, that’s excellent accuracy, a testament to both the rifle and the wide variety of factory loads used. Perhaps it could have been improved upon with handloads. But an unsteady position would have shaken those groups loose. Even one flier disappoints. A series can send a shooter to the phone.
“This rifle isn’t as accurate as you said it would be.”
A long pause. Or was it a sigh? “Send it in. We’ll check it out.”
Almost always, groups from the shooting tunnel confirm there’s nothing wrong with the rifle. Poor bench technique was the culprit. Explaining this delicately to the customer is a true test of diplomacy.
In the field you must not only have confidence that your rifle will hit where you aim, but that your body won’t wreck the shot. So, while most of your practice is best done from unsupported positions, taking scrupulous care at the bench matters too. Rest your right arm on something padded so recoil doesn’t scrape skin from your elbow or abrade your shirtsleeve. I grip even gentle hunting rifles firmly because that’s how I’ll grip them on a hunt, and I want the rifle to respond just as it will in the field over an improvised rest. Depending on the rifle, I’ll either grasp the forend just behind the rest or tug on the sling at the front swivel. Even if there’s a log or branch or rock handy when an elk appears, I try to sling up. So pulling on the forend at the stud instead of just holding it or letting it bounce free makes sense at the bench.
Thumb pressure can affect your shot. If your field position forces your thumb down hard on the tang, expect the point of impact to differ from that at bench sessions when you relax that right hand. You’re smart to practice with a relatively open left hand, to eliminate forward thumb pressure and to ensure that when you’re hunting with mittened hands in extreme cold, you don’t inadvertently block your sight-line. If you shoot with irons or a very low-mounted scope, even a natural curl of your fingers can momentarily block your view and delay the shot. A moment may be all you have.
When time isn’t limited, check your position as well as the rest. Jamming that ’06 against a log and firing as the reticle brakes to a stop is for urgent shots only. You don’t want a rock to roll or a branch to give way as the trigger breaks. Not long ago on a steep mountain, I watched a bull elk follow his herd of cows into a treed pocket just below timberline. The wind, exposure and noisy shale underfoot made my approach difficult. My rifle didn’t have much reach, so when I spied the bull bedded and quartering away at 250 yards, I didn’t fire. Long minutes later, inching along on my belly as the shale trickled down below, I squirmed into position behind a log 200 yards from the animal. Carefully I placed my chopper mitts, one over the other, on the log and slid the rifle forward on them. Tempted to shoot, I let the rifle lie and rolled back behind the log, exercising my fingers, playing back the plan in my mind, breathing deeply to get oxygen to my eyes and settle my pulse. When I got back behind the sight, the shot followed easily.
While a bipod isn’t a natural rest, it is subject to many of the variables that plague field rests. Its limited range of adjustment can force you into an unorthodox position if you’re on uneven ground or aiming uphill or downhill. You can move the rifle without losing its support; but the terrain, the cover or the game itself may restrict you to one spot. A bipod also affects forend pressure. Because most bipods attach to the front swivel stud far out on the forend, leaning on the rifle can bend the forend. On a slope, it can twist as well. For all its contingencies, a sturdy bipod from Harris is a wonderful rifle support. If you hunt where shots are often long and open, it can help you kill elk.
So can shooting sticks. Long popular in Africa, where tall grass often precludes use of a bipod or a sling-assisted sitting position, shooting sticks are most convenient (and very fast) when someone else carries them and sets them up for you. Collapsible shooting sticks of very lightweight alloy, pioneered by Stoney Point, are now selling Stateside to hunters and guides. Bog Gear makes excellent sticks, including steadier three-legged versions. If, for convenience, you pick a two-legged model, there’s a trick to getting solid quickly: Shove the legs well out in front so the fork leans back toward you. That way you can lean into the sticks. Your body becomes the third leg of a tripod. If the sticks are vertical as viewed from the side, you’ll work hard to keep yourself erect; the sticks and your rifle will move fore and aft.
While you can use shooting sticks from lower positions, they’re of greatest benefit offhand. So when expecting a shot, I carry them adjusted long. That way I can throw the legs forward for a quick plant, back up a part-step to get roughly the right height, then lean into them with the rifle. Sticks are steadiest when you grasp the juncture, not the rifle.
One field rest to avoid is the shoulder of your guide or hunting partner. If it’s offered, decline it. If asked to provide it, refuse. It’s an imperfect support because it has a pulse. Besides, something may startle the fellow, or he may sneeze at the wrong moment. Most importantly, this is a dangerous practice. Even if the muzzle juts well forward, your amigo is still in front of you. Recoil and a quick re-load will take the rifle off his shoulder. He may move; you may move. With [?] your attention on the animal, you may forget there’s someone out front.
One other note in closing: Be sure your muzzle, not just your line of sight, is clear of other objects! This rule applies when you shoot from unsupported positions too, but is most often violated from a rest. A few years back I watched a hunter fire into a snowbank from a bipod. The elk trotted off. In any hunting camp with a few gray beards, you’ll likely find someone who’s grazed the bonnet of his pickup with a bullet while “just checking zero over a jacket.” Recently, I ran afoul of this rule after a long and, I must say, brilliantly executed stalk on a bedded mule deer. Only the buck’s antlers showed above a basalt outcrop. I crawled silently crosswind. I could have sat at 30 yards, whistled him to his feet and killed him. But no. I wanted powder burns. I bellied closer. At 14 feet, the buck stood up. Prostrate in a small depression, I raised the rifle. The scope showed nothing but hair. As the light switched on in the buck’s eye, I hoisted my left arm to ensure the bullet would clear the rock between us. The blast of basalt stung almost as much as the humiliation.
On any other day, that rock would have made a fine rest.
Wayne van Zwoll—journalist, scholar, sharpshooter, hunting guide—has published 10 books and more than 1,000 articles on rifles and big game hunting. Among his most recent works:
Elk and Elk Hunting, Bolt Action Rifles, The Hunters Guide to Accurate Shooting and
The Book of the .22.