Like many of us, I was mostly
I remember that first day, proudly pulling my super cool SHTF-ZPAW rifle and ready to go. We started practice with the standing position, and the trainer ran up to me and said, “Get that arm down, you’ll get it shot off!”
That day ended up being pretty damn humbling. Right up to, and including, accidentally leaving my shooting gear at the range. Thankfully, the guy running the gig, a USAF Master Sergeant, noticed and brought it to my home later that day.
There’s something to be said for being stationed at small town in Montana.
You’ll Get Your Arm Shot Off
That statement about getting your arm shot off gets echoed countless times in practically any AR-15 oriented message board. A new shooter posts a picture of themselves holding the rifle, and the more experienced members crawl out of the woodwork telling them to “Put that elbow down!”
For many, the appearance of the raised elbow is a surefire indication that the individual had poor instruction on shooting form. Surely, they think, the person needs another enthusiast to come along and correct them.
I saw it so often that I adopted the mantra myself in all of my shooting, always making a conscious effort to keep my firing elbow nice and tucked down to my side in order to “minimize my profile to the bad guy.”
But, I was wrong.
I think it’s time we had an honest conversation about the chicken wing. Despite the keyboard commando howling, there actually is a time and place for this style of standing position.
This is my go-to vintage rifle training video.
Defining the Chicken Wing
To be clear, I’m not talking about the common stance of new shooters with possible upper body strength limitations. These individuals usually have a distinctly unsteady lean as they try to counterbalance the weight of the weapon.
Let’s look at an old WWII training video.
The instructor emphasizes the importance of tucking the stock of the rifle into the hollow of the shoulder. This provides better control the rifle during recoil. The only way to create this hollow is to have the firing elbow at least slightly raised.
Modern pistol grips mean that the elbow does not need to be raised as obviously as in the video, but some elevation is helpful in the standing position. In this case, the instructor has the shooter raise the firing elbow as high as possible in order to give more ‘meat’ to brace against.
Experimenting With Chicken Wings
As an experiment, I took the traditional standing position with the stock of the rifle tucked into the hollow, and then dropped my elbow.
Almost immediately, the rifle rolled off the right side of my shoulder as the hollow disappeared. This is simple biomechanics.
In order for the tucked elbow to still work, you must roll torso forward into a much more squared off stance. This almost always accompanies a shortened stock and moving the support hand further down the handguard.
“That’s the correct way to shoot!” The keyboard commandos declare.
I can’t say they are absolutely wrong, as this position does work well for controlling recoil and rapidly transitioning between targets. This is very similar to the tactical standing position. This aggressive stance is popular with tactically-oriented instructors and three-gun competition.
But that doesn’t make it the only way to do things. Rather, it is a tool in the toolbox of marksmanship.
The squared-up-tucked-elbow position has some interesting mechanical elements. Some of them are counterintuitive.
For instance, whereas the long history of combat shooting dictates that you want to present as small a target as possible for the enemy to shoot, this position has the shooter increase the visible target area by squaring the shoulders towards the target.
This seems counter to traditional wisdom. That is until you also account for the fact that this is often used by people who wear ballistic plates for a living. Squaring up the shoulders means that the strike face of the armor is more directly facing the enemy and better able to protect the shooter. In this context, squaring makes sense and the shooter is able to drop the shooting elbow without compromising the shoulder pocket.
In a more traditional bladed stance, a shooter aiming at an enemy in front of them is more likely to get shot in the side, where there is less armor coverage. This is like hitting a deer on the broadside, where you could have the bullet pass through both lungs and the heart.
Another feature of this ‘dynamic’ position is that it allows you to lean forward and hunch down onto the rifle. Again, this better controls recoil forces during rapid fire strings or when the shooter must walk and shoot simultaneously.
This is all well and good for shots made at relatively close distances on relatively large targets. However, this tactical position supports nearly the entire weight of the rifle with shooter’s muscles. The way the shooter must crane his or her neck down onto the rifle induces strain. This is both more inconsistent for rifle support and fatiguing to the shooter.
Both factors are counterproductive to accurate shooting.
In contrast, the traditional offhand stance with a bit of a chicken wing is more balanced and transfers more weight to the skeletal system. The bladed positions of the torso and feet provide a better center of gravity. If you’ve ever studied martial arts, a better center of gravity helps you naturally deal with recoil forces. Better yet, it does that without relying on the constant tension of the muscles.
Remember, relaxed muscles mean better marksmanship.
The chicken wing, particularly the with the elbow very high, is more commonly associated with old-school high power shooting. Modern pistol grips mean you don’t need to get as high.
Still, It should really be considered for any situation that requires a higher degree of accuracy than “minute of bad guy at 50 yards.”
I’m not advocating that either the chicken wing or tactical stance is better than the other. Rather, a modern marksman should understand and practice both. Using one or the other depending on the situation and accuracy demands of the shot.
Avoid being quick to dismiss something outside your comfort zone just because it falls outside of what you normally see in whatever shooting discipline you prefer. How you position the rifle stock in your shoulder, and your elbow with it, depends on a lot of factors. Keep that in mind.
Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He’s former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He’s a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.