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A Marksman’s Guide to the Prone Position

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The shooter’s body is the gun mount. It not only stabilizes the rifle so that efficient sighting can be achieved, but it also affects trajectory initiation by moving slightly as the projectile moves from the chamber to the muzzle…Prone is the most stable of the standard positions, and a good shot can hit about as well from prone as he can from the bench rest.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle

The prone position is the bread and butter of a skilled rifleman. The position removes the most number of variables by keeping the shooter low and with the most body contact to the ground.

The underlying problem with prone is that it’s slow to get into and out of. Additionally, the terrain or surrounding vegetation might block your shot. In hunting, for example, your line of sight might end up below the tall grass, logs, or a fold in the Earth.

Despite that shortfall, the prone position is the best test of your raw marksmanship fundamentals. There are two variations to know about: unsupported and supported.

Unsupported Prone Position

The unsupported prone position is the most common. Think of dropping to the ground right now and aiming your rifle. Your muscles and skeleton are the only things holding the rifle up.

TC 3-22.9 depiction of the unsupported prone position
A diagram of the unsupported prone position depicted in Army TC 3-22.9, Rifle Marksmanship, 2016 edition

Your spine will be offset some from the rifle, as opposed to completely in line with it. Ideally, you would be straight behind it, but the realities of reaching the support hand out on the rifle make that difficult.

Place the support side elbow directly under the rifle as much as possible. Try to use the flat just behind the elbow more than the bony point, as this provides more stability. This is your pivot point, which remains planted on the ground while the rest of the position revolves or pivots around it. With an AR-15 and a 30 round magazine, getting the elbow completely under the rifle is more difficult if you are very low. With a bolt action rifle or something like an M1 Garand, it’s not an issue.

Shimmy your hips to adjust your natural point of aim. Do not move your support hand or elbow to change your aim point.

Place the firing side elbow to the side in a comfortable position. Don’t make it too far, nor to close…just right.

Now the legs. The honest truth is to do what’s comfortable. Some people advocate for keeping them straight behind you. Others, like Appleseed Events, will teach to tuck the firing side knee up as high as you can. This tucked knee version takes some pressure off the abdomen, which might make it more comfortable for you especially if you’ve got bulk around the waist. Raising the abdomen also helps reduce the up and down motion of the sights as you breathe.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s perfectly fine to rest the magazine on the ground to help stabilize the shot. If this causes malfunctions, then you have a bad magazine.

Supported Prone Position

TC 3-22.9 depiction of the supported prone position

There are really two sub-variants here. The first is what I call “combat supported,” which is the style seen in field manuals and old instructional videos. The second is “precision supported,” which seems to be more common among the long-range target shooters.

For combat supported, there is little difference compared to the unsupported prone position. You rest your hand on a surface like a pack or a sandbag and then place the rifle on your hand. Note that you rest the rifle on your hand, not grab the rifle.

M-16 fired from the supported prone position
A 2nd Lt. shoots the M-16 from a supported prone position. Notice that the support hand is not under the handguard, but moved rearward to support the stock. Also of note, the lieutenant’s feet are not flat. Oops. Photo by Amy Perry, Fort Lee Public Affairs

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to put your hand under the rifle, it works just fine without it. Given the option, quickly shooting off a pack is an easy way to go here. But when you go that way, you are closer to the precision supported position.

Precision Supported Prone Position

The precision supported position, also known as bipod prone, is mechanically different.

Imagine a line drawn straight through the rear of the rifle and through your body. Ideally, this line is parallel to your spine. The feet are straight out back, and flat. The support hand, rather than supporting the front end of the rifle, supports the stock. Sometimes you might use a squeeze bag to help adjust elevation.

These straight parallel lines of the precision prone position mean much better recoil control. With enough practice, spotting your own hits becomes possible for rapid follow up shots.

Meanwhile, in the Real World

We don’t live in a prone world.

Kyle Lamb, in Green Eyes Black Rifles

Along with sitting on a bench, the prone position is where the most time gets spent practicing shooting. But the reality is that you probably will not get to use a perfect prone position in the field. The terrain might not be flat enough, the vegetation could be too tall, or space might be too cramped.

You can, and should, practice your shooting fundamentals in all the positions. But do it knowing that you won’t get it perfect when the pressure is on. I’ve found that the more I practice getting into and out of correct positions quickly, the better I am able to make it work in the moment.

Alternate Prone Positions

In his excellent book, Green Eyes Black Rifles, Kyle Lamb discusses several alternatives to the traditional prone. As a former special operations guy, these were based on the realities of conflict. If you’ve ever shot from behind the jagged lines of a Viking Tactics barrier, you’ve dealt with some of these difficult positions. 

Kyle outlines three alternatives for use in awkward situations.

Rollover prone

The rollover prone position is used to remain low to the ground, but laying on your side. This keeps most of your body behind cover, yet still offers a lot of stability and low profile. It also enables you to shoot under very low obstacles. 

Rollover prone position

For the lowest profile, both elbows need to be tucked on the same side of the body. Otherwise, you won’t get low enough. Be mindful of the ejection port of the rifle. You don’t want spent brass bouncing off the ground and back into the action where it will cause a malfunction.

Don’t expect to get a good cheek weld in this position. It’s best used with red dot optics or other sighted devices that aren’t reliant on eye relief and head position. Also, be aware that rotating the gun sideways means that the bullet trajectory is altered.

Remember that a rifle’s sights are designed to work with the pull of gravity. By rotating the rifle, the sights no longer do that. The natural alignment meant to make you aim higher now makes you aim further to the side. If you want to shoot your rifle rotated remember this: High to the magazine side. How much higher, and how much more to the side depends on the distance to the target.

Reverse Rollover Prone

Reverse rollover prone position

The reverse rollover prone position is the opposite of rollover prone. Instead of laying with the rifle on the low side, it’s on the high side. Imagine laying on your back behind a street curb. Your body is parallel to the curb to get good cover. You mount the rifle on your chest and aiming towards the target.

Again, with the rifle turned sideways, aim high to the magazine side. 

Jackass-Hawkins Prone

Imagine running and diving into a ditch. After crawling up the far side and peeking over the crest, you can see your target several hundred meters away. You want to keep a low profile but need a steady position. 

You have two problems right now. First, most of your body is not behind the rifle, since you’re laying on a downhill slope. Second, you don’t want to raise up too high and give yourself away.

I titled this portion the Jackass-Hawkins, but that is really two different techniques: the Jackass Prone position and the Hawkins Position. Jeff Cooper described the Jackass Prone as an improvised position for resting the rifle on some obstruction, like a hill, and getting your body behind it as best you can.

The Hawkins Position
The Hawkins Position, as shown in the Department of Defense’s book, Become a Rifle Expert. Notice the support hand grasping the sling swivel and resting on the ground. This makes for a very low profile position.

The Hawkins Position means grabbing the front sling swivel with the support hand and then resting the closed fist on the ground. It is an improvised supported prone position. It’s difficult to do on level ground but works great if you’re dealing with slopes or elevation. According to John Simpson, an encyclopedia of sniper knowledge, the name comes from Canadian Private William Hawkins who won the British Queen’s Cup in 1913 using it.

After a Canadian won the prize, the British changed the rules to disallow the position in the future. They still teach it in their sniper school, though.

Laying it Out

If you’re serious about marksmanship, then you’re going to spend a lot of time in the prone position. Reading an article like this provides you with a foundation of knowledge, but you still need to go practice it. 

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Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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I remember the two weeks on the range at Camp Pendleton. The Marine Corps had rifle marksmanship so broken down there was a procedure for ‘getting into’ the prone position. It’s been a long time but I do remember a sequence of body movements where you ended up in the sling with support elbow planted and your shooting side leg being bent at the knee and pulled up high. I shot ‘expert’ and maintained it on the ‘old course’ so I can’t argue with their method! I think much of it was designed for 30 caliber ‘battle rifles’ with more… Read more »

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