You can’t read any discussion about the proper head position for shooting an AR-15 rifle without coming across the acronym “NTCH,” which stands for Nose To Charging Handle.
Some proudly declare that shooting NTCH is the only “proper” way to fire an AR-15. They will talk about stretching your neck up and forward when mounting a rifle, which provides better recoil control. Maybe they preach the “turkey neck” method as a way of getting consistent cheek weld in the same spot each time.
I can’t say I’ve experimented with the recoil management component of this position. But its benefit is the consistency of cheek weld. The previous Army Field Manual 3-22.9 Marksmanship states in paragraph 4-41 (emphasis mine):
Through dry-fire training, the Soldier practices this position until he assumes the same cheek to stock weld each time he assumes a given position, which provides consistency in aiming. To learn to maintain the same cheek to stock weld each time the weapon is aimed, the Soldier should begin by trying to touch the charging handle with his nose when assuming a firing position. The Soldier should be mindful of how the nose touches the charging handle and should be consistent when doing so. This position should be critiqued and reinforced during dry-fire training.
The newer TC 3-22.9 removed the quoted portion, but you can see where nose to charging handle came from. Placing one’s nose so that it just touches the charging handle is an easy way to teach people a consistent head position every time they aim the rifle. The short eye relief of military ACOGs (TA01/TA31 variants) is rumored to stem from keeping the same head position trained for iron sights: Nose to the charging handle.
For all its benefits, this rule is not absolute. Advanced shooters have more freedom to find a comfortable position that still yields consistency. Generally, it is more important that your neck is relaxed and free of tension. Many top-level competitive shooters and instructors understand how fatigue decreases accuracy over time and encourage relaxation. I noticed this myself during an Appleseed event, where my accuracy decreased as the day went on due to fatigue.
But this “put it where it’s comfortable” idea only works as long as the head is in the same position relative to the sights every time.
Optics and Nose to Charging Handle
The widespread use of optics with longer eye relief specs reduces the importance of NTCH. With eye reliefs in the 3” to 4” range, some optics may not even allow the use of nose to charging handle at all. This is common with rifle scopes not designed specifically for the AR-15. In these situations, I have seen some shooters put a tactile marker on a stock as a reference point. It could be as complicated as an embedded ball bearing, or a simple as a piece of tape. When they feel it in the right spot of their cheek, they know they are in position.
When I started shooting ARs with a TR-24, my natural head position was longer than NTCH. This never caused me any problems, and I competed well with it. With a shooting sling, I found that the rifle naturally tucked deeper into my shoulder. This practically forced me to shoot nose to charging handle. I’ve done it that way for a long time and now find it comfortable.
Today, even when shooting without a sling, I find that my head just naturally falls to an NTCH position.
Mounting Solutions for Proper Eye Relief
I mount the scope in the best position for the most common type of shooting needed. This may change from rifle to rifle. If a rifle gets shot mainly from the prone with a sling, mounting the optic for that position makes the most sense. If it’s a rife I’m taking to a training class for running around the woods, then a little more leeway, like a spot good for kneeling with a tactical sling works better.
The underlying rule is that you should do what works best for your needs. Analyze your 90% usage. That means 90% of your actual usage, not imagined SHTF fantasy. Set up your weapon to suit your needs and body mechanics. It’s fun to configure a weapon just like DEVGRU might use on a direct action snatch-and-grab CQB mission. But that’s also just cosplaying for the internet or your friends at a BBQ. If your 90% use is actually hunting, mid-range target shooting, or general practical marksmanship, then taking the extra fraction of a second to attain consistent cheek weld is entirely appropriate.
If you want both speed and accuracy, then practice practice practice.