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The AR-15 is one of the most popular semi-automatic rifle platforms among American shooters. It is reliable, versatile, highly customizable, and ergonomic. It’s also inherently accurate in its best examples. But a rifle’s accuracy mostly depends on the shooter.
Why Marksmanship Matters
Marksmanship is an essential skill for the hunter, competitive target shooter, self-defense practitioner, and law enforcement sniper. This is true regardless of whether you use a bolt-action Remington 700 or a semi-automatic AR-15 carbine. If you want to reliably kill game, win matches, or defend yourself effectively, you need to know how to shoot an AR-15.
How to Shoot an AR-15
If you can’t hit your target, your rifle is an expensive and awkward club. While the AR-15 rifle may have a bayonet lug, you should strive to use it the way that Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite’s engineers intended.
How to shoot an AR-15 must begin with mastering the fundamentals of marksmanship—achieving a proper stock weld, aligning your sights with each other and with the target, controlling your breathing, squeezing the trigger, and following through.
The fundamentals of marksmanship apply equally to an AR-15 as to a bolt-action rifle and consist of the following:
Sight alignment and sight picture
Aiming is an essential part of rifle marksmanship. In the AR-15 rifle, traditional iron sights comprise a front post and a rear aperture. To acquire a sight picture, you must align the front post vertically and horizontally with the rear sight, placing the tip of the front sight in the center of the rear aperture. Then place the aligned sights on the target, shifting your focus between these three points as often as necessary.
If you’re using a rifle scope or other optical sight, you’ll need to be aware of parallax error and adjust accordingly.
A stock weld, also known as a cheek weld, is when you place your cheek against the comb of the stock during the aiming process. Where you place your cheek to achieve a stock weld should be consistent from shot to shot and allow you to see your sights clearly.
An inconsistent stock weld from one shot to the next alters your perception of the sight picture, potentially affecting accuracy.
Eye relief refers to the distance between your dominant eye and the rear sight or rifle scope eyepiece. When using a rifle scope, eye relief also protects your eye from scope bite. While this is less of a concern when firing .223-caliber/5.56mm ammunition, some AR-10/15-pattern rifles chambered in heavy calibers can pose a risk.
You’ve probably heard by now that you don’t “pull” the trigger—you squeeze or press it. When you gradually squeeze the trigger without disturbing your sight picture, this is called trigger control. Squeezing the trigger hastily is one of the most common causes of missed shots and wide groups.
You should press the face of the trigger with the pad or first joint of your index finger, whichever is most comfortable. When your sights are properly aligned on the target, gradually apply pressure until the trigger breaks and the rifle fires. If necessary, you can interrupt your trigger squeeze to reacquire your target.
As you breathe, your chest expands and contracts. This movement can disturb the rifle and affect your accuracy; therefore, it’s necessary to control your breathing at the moment of firing.
This is called breath control and is all about timing. When you inhale and exhale, there is a 2-3 second delay before your respiration resumes called the natural respiratory pause. The preferred technique is to breathe in deeply, exhale, and extend this natural respiratory pause. You should be able to extend this pause for up to 8-10 seconds.
The object is to align your sights on the target and squeeze the trigger during this pause, firing the rifle during breath control.
Regardless of the position that you assume, you should know how to hold the rifle. You should place the butt of the rifle firmly in the pocket of your shoulder and as high as necessary to keep your head upright.
This allows you to see your sights by looking straight ahead, thereby reducing the likelihood of your experiencing eye strain. While the .223 Remington/5.56mm cartridge doesn’t produce significant recoil, a firm hold will keep the rifle steady during firing.
Follow through means you must continue to apply these fundamentals each time the weapon fires and recoils. Don’t interrupt your stock weld, trigger press, or hold until the recoil has subsided and the rifle is at rest.
Natural Point of Aim
When you’re holding the rifle, the natural point of aim refers to the direction that the rifle points when it’s at rest—i.e., when you relax your muscles. For optimal results, your rifle should be supported by your bone structure. To test the natural point of aim, assume the prone position and aim at a target.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, exhale, and open your eyes. If your sights are still on target, you’ve found the natural point of aim. If your point of aim is different, this indicates that you need to adjust your body’s position until you and the rifle are in sync.
Length of pull
The length of pull is the distance between the face of the trigger and the rifle butt. If you can, you may need to adjust this according to your height, clothing, and stance. Fortunately, most modern AR-15-pattern rifles have collapsible multi-position butt stocks that you can shorten or lengthen using a lever.
If you apply these marksmanship fundamentals consistently and practice regularly, you should be able to significantly improve your shooting accuracy with a variety of weapons, including the AR-15.
Some politicians and news-media commentators are fond of portraying semi-automatic rifles as being ideal for spray-firing from the hip. This is an excellent way of wasting ammunition and missing your intended target. Only aimed fire from the shoulder can assure results.
The AR-15 is no more difficult to shoot accurately than any other firearm. It simply requires consistent practice and follow through.