Serious benchrest shooting is one of the most demanding shooting disciplines. It’s essentially a scientific search for ultimate accuracy. I don’t pretend it’s my game. I’m primarily a hunter, and my preference is to get away from the bench and spend as much practice time as possible shooting from field positions.
However, shooting from the bench is essential for achieving the desired zero, as well as determining the level of accuracy your rifle delivers and which loads produce optimum accuracy. So, although I have never been and probably never will be a benchrest competitor, I do a lot of benchrest shooting.
Create a Sturdy Foundation for Benchrest Shooting
The basic concept is to let the rifle do the work to eliminate as much human error as possible. Start with the bench itself: it needs to be solid and free of vibration. It doesn’t have to be fancy—a heavy, old-fashioned picnic table can be perfect, but it must have plenty of flat, level surface for the sandbags or rest, and should preferably be accessible for both right- and left-handed shooters. The chair or seat also doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s essential to get it to the proper height so you can sit comfortably, lean into the rifle, and ground your elbows without straining or struggling.
As for the actual rest, plain old sandbags work very well, but commercial rests and adjustable rifle seats do, too. You need a higher rest or several sandbags for the fore-end, and a lower rest for the toe of the stock. At the bench, recoil will quickly take the skin off your elbows, so I keep a couple of smaller “elbow bags” in my range bag.
We’re not ready to shoot yet, but let’s talk about recoil a bit. The benchrest accentuates recoil; the body has little give and no place to go except to take the pounding. This is not a problem with smaller calibers, but with big boomers, benchrest shooting can be extremely unpleasant. I carry a PAST recoil shield in my range bag; the shock-absorbing polymer really helps, and if I’m shooting anything above about a .270 I put it on. A towel folded over your shoulder can also help.
The easiest way to reduce recoil is to add gun weight, and the Caldwell Lead Sled is one of the greatest gadgets for reducing benchrest recoil, up to a point. It’s simply an adjustable gun rest with a harness for the butt and a central tray underneath. You put a 25-pound bag of lead shot in the Lead Sled tray, and you’ve just added 25 pounds to the rifle. When I’m in California, I visit a great little range on a friend’s ranch, and we have a range setup at the Kansas farm. Most of my gear in the two places doesn’t match—different benches, different rests, different chairs, etc.—but I have Lead Sleds in both places.
The Lead Sleds make shooting groups a lot more pleasant, and I use them frequently. However, when using weights like this you have to keep in mind that the recoil-reducing weight will make the rifle recoil in different ways. As a result, the point of impact might shift, and of course the more recoil there is the more it can shift. If I’m getting a rifle ready for a hunt I may shoot a lot of groups off the Lead Sled, but I’ll do my final zero check off sandbags or a rest.
Don’t Forget the Basics: Eyes, Ears, and Targets
Don’t forget shooting glasses and hearing protection, and a spotting scope—that makes life a whole lot simpler. Oh, and something to shoot at! Targets have gotten pretty sophisticated these days… and shockingly expensive! Good old bullseye targets are okay, but for shooting groups I like squares and diamonds because I can center them more consistently and shoot tighter groups. I also like a grid (half-inch or inch) so I can tell at a glance how my groups are doing.
Setting Up Your Rifle on the Bench
Okay, now we’re almost ready to get started. With the action open and clear, rest the rifle securely so that it’s pointed at the target. This is a good time to make sure the barrel is free of obstructions and all screws are tight. Check the action screws, plus scope mount and ring screws.
If you’re starting from scratch with a new rifle or scope, you’re going to have to get it on paper first. Collimators and laser bore-sighters work well, but I usually do it the old-fashioned way. I do my own bore-sighting, then align the barrel on a target (here a round bullseye is best), and finally adjust the scope.
The only problem with bore-sighting is that it doesn’t work for every rifle. Because you have to be able to see down the barrel, bore-sighting is easy with single-shots, bolt-actions, and ARs—you just have to open the action for the single-shot and remove the bolt for the ARs and bolt-actions. However, bore-sighting is thus almost impossible with lever-actions, slide-actions, and many semiautos. I can usually bore-sight well enough to get on paper at 50 yards, but if you have trouble, use a bigger target and go closer! I usually get a rough zero at 50 yards, and then I’m ready to move to 100 yards to shoot groups.
Honing Your Bench Technique
Bench technique isn’t written in stone, but the point is to allow the rifle to fire with as little interference as possible. Sit comfortably into the bench, leaning slightly forward into the rifle. The height needs to be right so your shooting hand can curl naturally around the pistolgrip, with your shooting elbow securely grounded (you’ll appreciate a pad underneath that elbow!). The trigger finger must also curl naturally, with contact on the trigger somewhere on the pad between finger tip and first joint. There’s no real right or wrong here; it depends on size of hand, length of fingers, and stock fit, but halfway between fingertip and first joint has always felt best for me.
The big dilemma, and in my view the most common error, is what to do with the supporting hand. The natural tendency is probably to reach forward and grasp the fore-end. Again, this is not really a right versus wrong issue, but since the goal here is to allow the rifle to shoot its best with the least interference, the preferred technique is to keep the supporting hand and arm away from the rifle! Instead, curl that arm under the rifle and place that hand under the toe of the stock. This hand can be used to scrunch the rear sandbag and make slight elevation adjustments. I shoot the same way prone off a bipod and from a variety of supported field positions, using my supporting hand under the toe of the stock to make final elevation adjustments. (And since I’m left-handed, that’s my right hand!)
Take Your Time
Benchrest shooting is a time-consuming process that can’t be rushed. Shot strings and so forth are probably a separate discussion, likewise how often to clean. The main thing, however, is to be patient and methodical… and don’t let the barrel get hot. On warm days—especially if you practice your benchrest shooting in the summer—you may need to let the barrel cool for several minutes. Some very light sporter barrels may be incapable of firing more than two or three shots without the bullets “walking” from barrel heat, but to see how that barrel really shoots you can try waiting a few minutes between each shot.
Practice Your Breathing and Trigger Press Techniques
While bench-shooting is all about the rifle and little to do with the shooter, it is a very good place to work on the basics of trigger press and breathing. The only hand movement should be in the trigger finger, slow, steady pressure until the trigger breaks, that steady pressure continuing through and after the shot. This “follow-through” is critical; the shot doesn’t end until the bullet exits the barrel and hits the target.
Breathing is critical. After loading the rifle and checking once more to be sure the sights or scope are on the target, make no movement and take a couple of deep breaths. Let the last one partway out, put your finger on the trigger, and begin to press. Many times you simply can’t get the shot off without wobbling. No problem, just back off and start over! Especially with larger calibers—or light rifles, which accentuate even mild recoil—recoil causes constant shifting. So, adjusting the rest or sandbags for perfect alignment is an ongoing process. That is also not a problem, just try to be as consistent as possible, and take your time.
Keep an Eye Downrange
A few more things. Both rifle scopes and spotting scopes tend to cause tunnel vision, so keep an eye downrange. In California deer have a bad habit of using a trail between the 100-yard target frame and the backstop. In Kansas cattle sometimes drift through; on public ranges people don’t always follow range commands, so pay attention and keep watching downrange!
Benchrest Shooting with Double Rifles
Finally, when shooting double rifles for zeroing and for groups, normal benchrest technique goes out the window. With the center of gravity between the barrels, doubles must recoil naturally. So, with doubles, I use well-padded rests, but I don’t use the Lead Sled. I grasp the fore-end and barrels with my supporting hand and rest that hand on the forward rest. With large calibers recoil is pretty ferocious, so this is not the best way to practice—shoot offhand or off sticks. Shooting from a steady and solid rest remains a necessary evil for zeroing and checking accuracy but with large calibers I keep it to a minimum…and I wear as much padding as necessary!
In addition to helping you calibrate your rifle and find the best load that works with it, benchrest shooting gives you an opportunity to slow down and focus on basics—like your breathing technique—that are too easy to forget about when you’re in the field. It can help you break bad habits and build better ones, and for all of these reasons (and more), I view benchrest shooting as an important part of my shooting skillset.