The Offhand Rifle
by Wayne van Zwoll
Offhand is the most difficult position and the one you’ll use for fast, urgent shooting. It requires plenty of practice, a fine trigger and a rifle that handles with uncanny grace.
The biggest elk I’ve shot was someone else’s. It had been crippled. The hunter and I hurried after it to beat dusk, and we found it on a sage flat.
“It’s probably the one,” I whispered. A big bull, indeed. But it looked alert, bedded on the knoll. No wound was visible, and we had to be sure. “Let’s get closer.”
We crawled a few more yards, and I took the Weatherby to give my companion a breather. At that moment the bull got up and spun toward the rim of a canyon, scant yards away. The way he moved left little doubt. With no time to return the rifle, I jumped up to clear the tall sage. The crosswire swung into the shoulder crease, bounced and kept swinging. The bull continued on and vanished over the lip before I could cycle the action. But I’d felt the kill. It had come to me at the instant of discharge, the confidence that the bullet had found its mark.
In my delinquent youth I shot sparrows with an air gun. My tallies steadily improved because I shot a lot and because the gun had so little zip that I could watch BBs in flight. Tracking them, I learned to correct my mistakes. (It was no coincidence that offhand practice with Daisys turned recruits into air gunners in World War II, teaching them lead, swing and follow-through.) Mostly, I shot standing, or offhand. The gun was light enough to hold, and position shooting was far in my future. Besides, the most colorful marksmen I knew about shot standing. Men like Ad Topperwein.
A century ago, Winchester began employing “missionary” salesmen, who’d call on dealers for orders which they’d turn over to jobbers. Among these salesmen were exhibition shooters who’d demonstrate the product. Adolph Topperwein had begun his shooting career at age 6 in the circus. A Texas native, he started work as a Winchester missionary 26 years later in 1901. “Ad” accomplished many remarkable shooting feats over his long career, but he’s best known for his endurance shooting with rimfire rifles at hand-thrown wooden blocks. These measured only 2½ inches square. Shooting steadily for 10 eight-hour days in 1907, Ad shot at 72,500 blocks and missed only nine. Of the first 50,000, he missed four. His longest run without a miss was 14,540! By the way, his wife Elizabeth (whom he met in a Winchester loading room) had her own following. After Ad taught her to shoot, she accompanied him under the nickname Plinky. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, “Plinky” broke 967 of 1,000 trap targets. Three years later she hit 1,952 of 2,000.
I wanted desperately to shoot like Ad Topperwein, and like Winchester’s post-war marvel, Herb Parsons. The air gun would be a first step.
Between nickel tubes of BBs, I amused myself by hitching rides with a local milkman. He drove a van with a nearly vertical steering shaft and a seat that folded back. He was a lean young fellow who never sat. Bounding from his van, he’d grin and wave us urchins up onto the truck. He’d stride back with empty milk bottles and squeeze between us to get at the wheel. We’d hang as far out either side as he’d allow. We thought it great adventure, though the truck probably never topped 15 mph between stops. We could not have dreamed of a time when children would be harnessed in vehicles and delivery trucks would not give rides, when air travel would entail marching past metal detectors on the premise that safe is the antithesis of sorry and precaution more important than adventure.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate as much as those milk runs is common-sense engineering. The vertical steering column on that truck let the milkman drive without sitting. Like the Winchester rifles I ogled as a lad, it was made to use standing up. But rifles have been reconfigured over the last century to accommodate people who’d rather sit. These days, hunting rifles look and feel more like they were birthed on a bench, with thick butts, square forends and grips that can’t accept the heel of your hand. Combs are high and generous to place your eye along the axis of big, powerful scopes in tall rings. Stock toes don’t hang as far down, a boon on the bench but offering little shoulder contact to offhand shooters.
That’s a shame. Sure, killing elk is easier if you shoot from a rest or a low position. But there’s not always time or opportunity for that. The most able hunters are those with the rifles and skills to shoot offhand as well as from a rest.
Offhand is the most difficult shooting position and the one you’ll use for fast, urgent shots. In some terrain and cover, it’s the position of last resort; in others places, it’s your only option most of the time. Whatever the circumstance, when an offhand shot presents itself, you’ll seldom have time to make peace with an ill-fitting rifle.
As hunting rifles evolve, it seems offhand shooters should benefit. Anyone can hit from a bench. Prone, sitting or kneeling, you have assists from sling or bipod, plus lots of ground contact and a low center of gravity. If you have time to use a low position, you probably have time to get comfortable with just about any rifle. The rifles of men who explored the West and of those who hunted elk during the post-war boom were designed for offhand shooting. Lever- and slide-action rifles were obviously engineered to be shot standing; the most popular carbines of a century ago handle with uncanny grace from standing.
But if the industry is following the market, there’s now scant demand for trim, long-waisted rifles that jump to your shoulder and swing by themselves. The advent of Remington’s flat-bottomed “walking varmint rifle” and Savage’s low-profile M112 indicate that varmint shooters prefer rifles that rest without rocking. Some elk rifles get the same treatment. The archetypal flat-bottomed sporter stock, Weatherby’s Mark V, is now available as an after-market item for other rifles from Boyd’s, the nation’s largest supplier of wood stocks.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a flat forend, but it won’t conform readily to the contours of a cupped hand. You don’t see boxy forestocks on English double shotguns, or square butts on flyrods. Steering wheels are still round or oval in cross-section—as are grips on revolvers and long bows, as well as handles on power saws and other tools we must support and control for long periods. We don’t get blisters from angular forends. But we don’t benefit from them either, except on flat rests.
Another feature accepted at the bench but not so good in the field is the tall forend, whose depth puts the barrel—the main part of a rifle’s forward mass— palpably over your palm instead of in it. Again, consider a British grouse gun. Quick pointing and easy control come largely from that low center of gravity up front. Tall forends make a rifle feel tippy. “Hand-filling” forends and grips force a tighter hold than you’ll want for fast shots or for a swing, when the rifle must be allowed to quickly “sift and settle” and perhaps swivel in your hand. If total hand contact were desirable, you’d see thicker wrists on baseball bats, golf clubs and axe handles. Likewise, thick stock walls around the magazine make the rifle hard to hold in one hand at your side and slow to get from there to your shoulder.
The best way to build a bolt-action hunting rifle that points easily from all positions is to make it slim, almost round in cross-section from the bridge forward and with a slight tilt to muzzle. No need for a shotgun-length buttstock; a relatively short pull keeps the rifle’s mass close to your own center of gravity, so your muscles do less work. Besides, a short stock is quicker to mount, easier to swing.
You’ll want a grip that’s slender, vertically oval in cross-section and slightly wider at the rear. I like a long grip radius, with generous fluting at the comb nose for the heel of my hand. The comb should be low enough for fast sight acquisition and thin enough that you won’t have to press your cheek hard into it or cant your head. You may have to shave the comb or glue a piece of leather on to raise it.
Up front, look for a slender, smoothly tapered forend that’s pear-shaped in cross-section, slightly compressed but at no place flat, with a slight taper up to the barrel’s midpoint.
Like a steering column for standing drivers, an offhand stock won’t seem ideal from all positions. But stocks built to accommodate a position that allows little movement offer less active control and fewer position options than those shaped for standing shooting. Stocks carefully reduced to minimum dimensions are more versatile and faster on target.
Stock dimensions figure heavily in a rifle’s balance. At the bench or from a low, sling-supported position or off a bipod, you depend on the rifle’s weight to steady it and on artificial support to keep the sight aligned with the target. Offhand, you must rely on muscle and bone to hold the rifle, aim it and keep it still as you press the trigger. The rifle’s balance helps you manage its weight and time the let-off, so the sight is near where you want the bullet to hit when the shot breaks. The muzzle of a butt-heavy rifle bobs around and has too little inertia to help with follow-through. Excessive forward weight can make a rifle sluggish and tire you out when you must hold it a long time. Ditto for a long stock.
The mass and distribution of steel in a rifle also determines how it feels in the hand, how it comes to your cheek, how it settles, how it responds to your pulse and tremors as you pull the trigger. Most of the weight of a rifle is in the metal. I’ve used synthetic stocks as light as 11 ounces, but the rifles so equipped still scaled 5 pounds. Like the stock, metal should ride low in your hand. Deep magazine wells make for tall forends. I’ll forgo a high-capacity magazine for a rifle that holds two rounds down and cradles easily in my palm. The bolt handle is best kept close to the stock, the knob round and without checkering that can tear up cases and scabbards and impede easy rotation in your palm. Follow-up shots shouldn’t be needed often, but when they are, you’ll want to cycle the action without looking. The knob, like a safety, must be immediately at hand. Sights, incidentally, should also lie close to the rifle’s center. Whether you choose a scope or irons, a low line of sight offers faster aim. Scopes too big to clear the barrel in low rings are too big.
A heavy rifle can help you shoot well. Its inertia deadens the bounce of your pulse. But a well-balanced rifle that weighs between 7 and 9 pounds, trailside, won’t become a burden as you climb through the lodgepoles. It will be quicker to mount and faster on the swing and more controllable when you must scramble after an elk. It will hold still longer when you must wait minutes for an elk to show more than its eye. The barrel on such a rifle is best kept between 23 and 25 inches, depending on the cartridge, with a muzzle just broad enough for a slight forward tilt in the hand.
Last fall, in Finland hunting moose, I carried a heavier rifle, a Sako in .300 WSM. The terrain was not rugged, and by day’s end I had enough energy to walk another stretch of forest. But the hunt leader had other ideas: “You post here.”
When he left, I moved just a bit to command a better view. Three small stringer meadows offered 80-yard shot alleys. To my right rose a hill with stubby birches that would not shield a moose.
The drivers came slowly, because the going was difficult. But the moose came fast. A dark flash across one alley. A wink of black in another. I strained to see antlers. Cows were legal, but cows with calves were not, and the brush could obscure a trailing calf. There! Small antlers appeared in the scope just before brush swallowed the bull at the base of the hill. I scrambled to my right to catch a view of the top. The moose broke cover at a trot, angling up. The Sako’s muzzle heft smoothed my swing; the crosswire slid past his ribs and jumped. As with the crippled elk long ago, my memory at recoil froze the reticle in just the right place.
Perhaps the most important feature on any offhand rifle is its trigger. A 2-pound pull works best for me, but many hunters like it heavier. Whatever the weight, insist on a clean, consistent let-off. Gritty or mushy triggers and variation in resistance work against you. If the pull is so heavy that it moves the rifle, you’ll shoot poorly. Triggers that don’t measure up need replacing. Timney offers affordable models for many rifles. In a refreshing break from the jurisphobic trigger designs of corporate attorneys, Savage CEO Ron Coburn recently announced AccuTrigger on Savage main-line bolt rifles. A clever release tab in the trigger shoe must be depressed for each shot. It prevents accidental discharge but adds zilch to the weight of the trigger, which is owner-adjustable down to 2½ pounds. A fine idea that works!
Actually, any aspect of a rifle that enables you to shoot accurately from hunting positions is a good thing and more important than features designed to enhance intrinsic precision. The notion that a rifle’s effectiveness can be measured in groups shot from a bench is a myth A rifle’s performance on the bench runs a distant second to marksmanship in helping you kill game.
What makes some marksmen deadly is an intimacy with their rifles, a feel for each hit before it happens. Practice brings them to that point where honed skills become subconscious and appear as raw talent. The Daisy BB gun of my youth was less accurate than any rifle, but it hit little targets routinely because I was so comfortable shooting it and shot it so often. My offhand shooting has never been better than it was then.
Ad Topperwein and others like him apparently did not feel handicapped using rifles off the shelf. A modern bolt rifle shooting mediocre groups would have impressed them. If Winchester’s missionaries were here now and gearing up for elk, odds are they’d spend little time on the bench. Sifting rifles and loads to get a match that delivered sub-minute groups would, I suspect, bore them. They’d probably be delighted with any modern rifle that had the broomstick pointing qualities of the lithe .22s that once smacked glass balls, wooden blocks and dimes out of the air. Their short list of elk rifles would likely include the Winchester 70 Featherweight, Ruger 77 Mark II, Remington 700 CDL, Kimber 84 and Tikka T3. And a Marlin 1895 carbine. Rifles that all point well offhand.
Of course, if you spot your elk from behind a pile of sandbags, you don’t need an offhand rifle.
Postscript: Even with a rifle that points itself and a trigger that breaks at a wish, offhand shooting is hard. Your effective range is short because the rifle is unsteady.
How far is short? Well, my first offhand kill came at 90 yards, and it’s still one of the longest offhand shots I’ve taken at big game. Under ideal conditions, I can hit pie plates with reasonable consistency half again as far. But in the field, conditions are seldom ideal. If you’re winded, or if wind shakes the rifle, you’ll have trouble holding on a cement truck at 150 yards. Uneven footing, uphill or downhill shooting and bad light hinder you. If the elk is partly hidden or moving, the shot gets tougher. Ditto if your fingers are cold, your eyes watering or rain or snow screens your vision. An elk about to leave adds the burden of haste.
Mostly I use my legs for walking, not shooting. But at the range before season, offhand gets more attention than any other position.
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.