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A Marksman’s Guide to the Standing Position

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Apart from sport shooting in the Alps, I do not see the standing position as practical. If one has time to shoot slow-fire, one has time to acquire a stable position. I have used the standing position but once in the field…

Jeff Cooper, “The Art of the Rifle”

The standing position is simultaneously the least useful, from a marksmanship perspective, but the most used of the rifle positions. It’s the one you see most at any tactical class, shooting range, or a day out plinking. Just because it’s the least useful, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice it. In fact, you should practice it a lot.

If you’re using the standing, then you didn’t have time to get to a more stable position like kneeling, sitting, or prone.

There are several variations on the standing position. The one you choose is highly dependent on the circumstances of the shot. Is this a shot taken in CMP-style competition, where stability is more important, or is it taken in a defensive or USPSA style manner in which speed is the priority?

Army TC 3-22.9 has this to say,

This position should be used for closer targets or when time is not available to assume a steadier position such as short-range employment. The upper body should be leaned slightly forward to aid in recoil management.

Variations of the Standing Position

When we talk about the standing position, I’m going to use it interchangeably with the offhand position, though Jeff Cooper argued that they are two different things. I’ll touch on that later.

There are three primary variations of the standing position. I bucket all of the other techniques I see into one of these categories:

  • Tactical— Characterized by a forward lean and aggressive stance
  • Erect— Upright with the spine nearly vertical and over the center of gravity
  • Target— Slight rearward lean with the supporting elbow braced against the hip to provide a rest

These offhand positions progress from fastest and least accurate to slowest and most accurate. Which one you choose depends on the circumstances.

Let’s start with the tactical stance

Tactical Standing Position

The tactical standing position is the most modern, and the one you see the most if you follow tactical trainers. It’s also the one depicted in TC 3-22.9:

TC 3-22.9 depiction of the standing position, unsupported
TC 3-22.9 depiction of the unsupported standing position

This is a pretty standard position for modern rifle combat. The forward lean helps with the recoil and follow-up shots. 

Pete Lessler, in his book about rifle marksmanship, called this the “trapshooter” stance, owing to its similarity to shotgun sports.

The forward-leaning “trapshooter” stance is what I favor, probably because I used to do a lot of shotgunning. Mount the rifle correctly as described earlier. Lean your body weight well forward. You will probably want to take a slight step forwards with the support side leg when assuming this position from ready. The lead leg should be bent at the knee. Face your chest about 80 degrees off the line of fire, your front foot pointed towards the target.

Excerpt From: Peter Lessler. “Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifle Marksmanship.”

Elbow and Hand Position

Pete goes on to describe keeping the support arm under the rifle and raising the firing elbow to produce a pocket in the shoulder. This is always a valid technique, but the pistol grip of an AR-15 means you don’t need to raise the elbow as high. We call that “chicken winging.” 

Some people see that position as a dead giveaway for a newbie, but it still has some relevance. If you’re not target shooting, just keep the elbow low and comfortable.

For the supporting hand position, you have to options: traditional and clamping.

The “c-clamp” became a fashionable way to grip the rifle some years ago. With that variation, you drive the supporting hand out on the handguard as far possible and grabs the rifle from the side. The index finger of the support hand is sometimes laid parallel to the bore so that the support hand more or less “points” at the target.

USAF shooting team member using the C-Clamp grip
A member of the USAF Shooting team using the “C-Clamp” grip. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

This variation usually includes a very “squared” stance to the target.

The touted benefit of the “c-clamp” is that the shooter “drives” the rifle more quickly from target to target. But it’s not particularly new. There are pictures of the Rhodesians using the stance with FAL for close range combat during the Bush War.

For most people, in most circumstances, placing the support hand under the rifle works just fine.

Either way, the tactical standing position is the quickest way to get several shot off in a hurry.

The Erect Standing Position

The “Erect” position is the most traditional for hunting and sporting purposes. 

The normally-erect position places the body just so. The spine is straight. The support arm is well bent, with the hand cradling, but not gripping, the rifle under the magazine, and the elbow directly under the rifle. The strong-side elbow is high to form the “pocket.” Body weight is centered between the feet, which are slightly more than shoulder width apart. This is perhaps a better position than the “trapshooter” if you may be taking more time to aim, since its lack of forward lean reduces muscle tension.

Excerpt From: Peter Lessler. “Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifle Marksmanship.”

Again, you don’t need to raise the elbow high with an AR-15. With my M1 Garand or my bolt action rifle, I need to raise the elbow higher to get a solid shoulder pocket.

The video is from WWII, and shows similar instruction with the M1 Garand. 

Notice the huge difference in the elbow position. That’s the “chicken wing.”

The Head Position

Something to look out for is the position of your head. The trend in tactical shooting causes people to tuck their heads down low and set the stock deep in the shoulder. As both the military instruction videos point out, this puts a lot of strain on the neck and reduces your marksmanship potential.

Instead, the stock should be higher in the shoulder pocket, with about the top quarter above the shoulder altogether. This gives you a solid cheek weld and keeps your head erect. This position is much more relaxed and helps produce more consistent shots.

I find maintaining a relaxed neck position this way and maintaining a nose to charging handle cheek weld to be challenging. But that might just be me.

Target Standing Position

The target standing position is what you see Olympic and high power rifle competitors using.  You know it by the slight rearward lean and the supporting elbow jammed closely into the torso.

500-yard off-hand individual standing stage
A Master-at-Arms 2nd Class aligns his sites during the 500-yard off-hand individual standing stage of the 2006 Fleet Forces Command (Pacific) Rifle and Pistol Championships. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Brian Brannon (RELEASED)

Note that this is not the same kind of unsteady rearward lean you see when someone little upper body strength holds up a heavy rifle. The target rearward lean is very intentional and allows you to brace the bone of your arm against the bone of your hips to provide a stable-ish platform.

The target standing position requires work and practice. I have a long torso, which means I have trouble resting my elbow on my hip (it’s closer to my lower abdominals). There are other tricks you can do if you are wearing load bearing gear, such as resting the elbow on top of a magazine pouch or some similar anchored object.

Standing Position vs Offhand Position

Jeff Cooper described the standing position as above. It’s for target shooters looking to make an accurate shot. 

Whereas the standing position is deliberate, the offhand is not.

Jeff Cooper, “The Art of the Rifle”

The offhand position is built for the snapshot. Jeff describes using it to quickly take dangerous game within 15 paces. He goes on to say that the best way to practice the snapshot is to try and hit clay birds with a 30-06.

Pete Lessler has more practical advice.

From standing ready (rifle at port-arms, rifle butt at hip, muzzle in line between eye and target), try for a fast mount with an instant line-up with the target…At 25 yards, use a target diameter of about four inches. At 50 yards, use the eight-inch smallbore target black. Time limit is 1.5 seconds! 

Both Jeff and Pete recommend something akin to the tactical standing for this.

Supported Standing Position

The supported standing position assumes you have something to rest the rifle on while you are standing. Sometimes this might actually be an obstacle you can set the rifle upon, but sometimes not.

TC 3-22.9 shows it using a wall.

TC 3-22.9 depiction of the supported standing position
TC 3-22.9 depiction of the supported standing position

The easiest way to do this is to place your supporting hand flat against the obstacle and extend your thumb into a “V” shape. Set the rifle into the “V” and hold it with the thumb.

A German instructor coaching the supported standing position with a G-36. Army Photo by Abigail Meyer Fort Bliss Bugle Staff
A German instructor coaching the supported standing position with a G-36. Army Photo by Abigail Meyer Fort Bliss Bugle Staff

Use of the Sling

A shooting sling is invaluable for most situations, but less so for standing. There is a hasty sling technique described in the USMC training video above, but I’ve never found it to work all that well for me. 

Jeff Cooper mentions looping the sling through your belt to provide another point of contact. I see the potential, since you use the tension to steady the rifle. But I also don’t see myself walking around with a sling looped through my pants.

If I have the time to implement a hasty sling, then I probably have time to find a more steady position to begin with.

Wrapping Up

As I opened this post with, standing really is not all that practical for you outside of competition.

That said, when you need it, you need it right now. You should practice all three variations of the standing position: the tactical, erect, and target. Each provides you with different benefits for different conditions.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the one way you were taught is always the best way. They are all valuable tools in the box.

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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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Ignazio A. Ciccolini
Ignazio A. Ciccolini

After many years of Marine Corps learned competition-style shooting, practically facing away from the target and twisting around etc; I’m moving towards a lean forward tactical stance for work purposes. That means keeping my right arm/elbow horizontal to keep the rifle from sliding off the body armor, and grasping the support hand around the mag well.
I’m hating the the single point sling for not allowing a hasty sling option !

Ignazio A. Ciccolini
Ignazio A. Ciccolini
Replying to  The Marksman

Four years, long ago.
The sling was chosen for us. It’s great for walking along with the AR dangling at your side, nearly bouncing off the ground

Ignazio A. Ciccolini
Ignazio A. Ciccolini
Replying to  The Marksman

Agree. Once put it on your strong side, you gotta leave it there if you suddenly need to shoot off the weak shoulder !

Colorado Pete
Colorado Pete

Nice article sir. I appreciate the quotes from my book. Even though standing is the position you never want to use, when it’s forced on you, you have to deliver. So, since it’s the most difficult, you end up having to spend as much time on it, as all the others combined, if you’re serious. And we’re all serious, right? The target dimensions and time limit for the snapshot are straight from Col. Cooper. Shooting flying skeet with a rifle was an exercise in his General Rifle class, and an activity when we had yearly student reunions at the NRA… Read more »

Phill D
Phill D

One thing not mentioned here is the relevance of the grip angle. The “chicken wing” stance you mentioned is a natural reaction to the ergonomics created by the wrist position. A standard AR/M16 grip is angled at about 30 degrees. This a grip angle places your wrist in a position that tends to make if more comfortable to raise the elbow in order to reduce the binding of the wrist. An M1 stock has even more angle, and drives the elbow up even more. The old pictures you would see of Match/HPR shooters with their elbow as high as their… Read more »

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