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Foundations of Patrol Rifle Marksmanship: Know Your Objective!

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A little while ago, John Simpson released an updated edition of his book, Foundations of Sniper Marksmanship. I did an update post as well as an interview, which drove home the idea of cheating in training is essentially stealing from yourself. Though I didn’t publish it, John let me know that he had another book incoming- this one targeted at regular patrol rifles as opposed to preparing for police sniper school.

The impetus for this book, Foundations of Patrol Rifle Marksmanship, is largely the same. When a new law enforcement officer arrives on the job, the only experience you can guarantee they’ve had with firearms is that they qualified with a handgun. The further and further away our culture gets from mainstream rifle marksmanship as part of competition, hunting, or other recreational pursuits, the more likely that a new patrol officer simply does not have sufficient experience with a carbine or rifle.

This very challenge is among the reasons I began the Everyday Marksman, though with a slightly different audience in mind.

John sent me a copy of the book ahead of time to read and digest. His underlying goal is providing the basics for a patrol rifle training program for police departments, but the content is relative to just about anyone. We then got the chance to talk again, and whenever we talk I end up walking away with a lot of lessons learned and context for future exploration.

Here’s what I learned this time.

Defining Your Target

This was a recurring message throughout our discussion, and I want to put emphasis on it here because you’re going to see this idea more and more in  my thinking.

Last year, I put a lot of time into thinking about “minimum capable” standards for everyday marksmen. I interviewed a bunch of folks to try and assemble an “average” of what they all said and thought. But the truth is that the line of thinking was flawed from the beginning.

aimpoint lower third cowitness

What I lacked was an actual vision for the outcome. Of course, talking to competitive shooters yields minimum standards of a-zone sized targets at quick speeds from the draw.

John pointed out that if you ask a bunch of experts without providing any additional context, they tend to make it up arbitrarily. Instead he offered that we should be thinking in terms of the desired outcome against the target.


The example he used went back to the Trainfire program introduced in the 1950s. After years of research, they published a series of guidelines for the standard an infantryman should be trained to for marksmanship. Among those standards was an outside edge of 300 yards.

Lets arbitrarily assume a 12″ vital zone at 300 yards. If you do the math on that, it’s about a 4 minute of angle standard (MOA). From here, it would be easy to simply state that every infantryman should be trained to a 4 MOA standard of accuracy. In fact, many militaries have done just that.

However, John’s point would be that the target is always 12″ regardless of distance. At closer distances, say 50 to 100 yards, your goal shouldn’t be to produce 2″ or 4″ groups, but to still hit the 12″ vital zone even faster. Otherwise, you’re training yourself to slower than you should be for the sake of more accuracy than you needed.

The Simpson Drill

One of my favorite parts of the book, and I’m not shy about it, is something I’m henceforth calling the Simpson Drill. We talked about this quite a bit during the interview, but think of it as a bit of a head-to-head competition between two shooters. The targets are a series of balloons scattered across a range at unknown distances. They can be partially obscured by cover, different elevations, or even be near one another. Each balloon is unique from the others in some way, typically by color.

Two shooters begin on the line. When the RO calls out a unique balloon, it’s a race to see which shooter is able to hit the target first.

Shooters can use whatever position they want, but the goal is to be the first one to hit it. The idea is imagining if you were two rival shooters who spotted each other at the same time and it’s a race to shoot the other guy.

John said it’s disconcerting when you’ve got the balloon in your sights only to see it vanish before your eyes- knowing exactly what that would mean if it was “real life.”

This teaches an important lesson often forgotten in a world where everyone focuses on group size: be as fast as you need to be to make the hit, be only as accurate as you need to be to be quick. Again, back to the earlier idea of outcomes against actual target sizes, not tiny groups. There are no points for second place just because you were about to send an even more accurate shot.

I mused during the interview that this could be made to suck even more if you could attach the balloon to a wood dowel, which in turn was fixed to a remote control car. There’s some mover practice for you as well.

The audience that this book is written for has already made the decision to deploy patrol rifles, so I don't need to talk you into it. They've picked the manufacturer and model of the rifle they'll use, so I don't need to sell you a particular product. And they've picked the ammunition design, so I don't need to make recommendations.
The point is that you've got your patrol rifles and you want to know how to train with them. That's why you're reading this book now.

Keep in mind that the type of marksmanship we'll be discussing here has nothing to do with shooting bull's-eyes for score or seeing who can shoot the smallest shot group. Those are fun sports and have their place, but always keep in mind that in patrol rifle training, shooting on the range is a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Patrol Rifle Marksmanship Breakdown

The opening words of the introduction, quoted here, strike at the heart of what this book is about. John bypasses the usual discussions about rile selection, optics, and ammo because those are typically agency decisions. Instead, he gets down to business with getting familiar with both the rifle and the fundamentals of effectively employing it.

I want to draw particular attention to the last line I quoted above, “…always keep in mind that in patrol rifle training, shooting on the range is a means to an end and not the end in itself.”

This sentiment is what separates “real world” and “gamer world” thinking. Years ago, I interviewed Russ Miller (coincidentally, also the cover model on John’s books), and he echoed a similar idea. When you go to compete in PRS or something similar, you have to keep in mind what you’re actually trying to accomplish. Are you trying to win the match for the sake of winning the match? Or are you using the match as an opportunity to test your abilities and equipment for the “real world?”

The answer to that question drives many downstream decisions from your weapon and ammunition selection to how you configure your equipment (i.e. access vs security).

On the very next page, John demonstrates his instructor background by showing a simplified version of what we in the learning business call a job task analysis. He divides a selection of patrol rifle skills into three buckets: mechanical, marksmanship, and tactical application. This chart alone should jar your thinking about how to approach your own training.

And we’re only on page 2.

From here the first half of the book is very close in content to John’s previous book on the Foundations of Sniper Marksmanship. Eye dominance, marksmanship fundamentals, minute of angle discussions, and more are all present. Portions of chapters dealing with precision rifle scopes are absent, not being relevant to patrol rifles, and other sections are refined.

There are a few highlight changes I want to point out, as I think they’re very good additions.

Shooting Positions

True to John’s prior books, he makes heavy use of marksmanship illustrations from the US Army’s 1889 Small Arms Firing Regulations. The point is to show that these fundamentals have not significantly changed in at least 100 years (and probably much longer). The reason is that they work. Too many people look to create their own variations on them just to say they taught something different.

Another worthy change stems from a reference to Dr. Aleksandr Yur’yev’s 1973 Soviet book, Competitive Rifle Shooting. John called out something I’ve also been frustrated by with a lot of modern shooting manuals. Namely, that when these books show demonstrations of the position, they show them while the shooter is wearing full camouflage and equipment.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, when a shooter is hunched down in a sitting position while wearing camo or worse, like a ghillie suit, then it becomes difficult to actually see the contact points between parts of the body like elbows and knees.

What John borrowed from Dr. Yur’yev was using photographs where the subject is wearing minimalist athletic clothing. This minor tweak makes the illustrations much clearer. You can see exactly where the elbow rests on the knee, or what’s going on with the ankles and hips during different positions. Honestly, I’m stealing this for my own book (sorry, John!).

Although the kneeling position can usually be assumed on a rifle most parts of your jurisdiction, placing a knee down at three in the morning in a dark alley littered with broken glass becomes problematic.

The Squatting Position

Another thing to call out is John’s discussion of the squatting position, which didn’t appear in his earlier books. He goes through the history of it’s appearance in various rifle manuals, and discusses it’s practicality for real world use.

We discussed it briefly in our interview as well, with both of us reaching the conclusion that it’s fine, but whether or not you can use it depends on a lot of factors like your flexibility and whether the way you’re wearing your equipment interferes with it.

Live Fire Drills and Moving Targets

John includes a series of activities for use on the range when building up patrol rifle skills. These start with basic zeroing, positional practice, then on to more complicated integrated challenges. In all, these are helpful and build a solid foundation to build upon- particularly as someone moves on to the tactical application phase of their training.

This book also features a new section about moving targets. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but it’s one of the most comprehensive and practical bits of writing on the topic I’ve ever come across. It’s particularly useful for Everyday Marksmen in a bad situation who are more likely to have similar needs to a patrol officer than they are setting an ambush in guerilla warfare.

If there’s one major takeaway for me, it’s that we should all spend more time shooting silhouette targets that are no more than 9 inches wide rather than the the traditional 19 inches. Going back to the principles of Trainfire, the target is actively trying not to get shot- so they’re unlikely to present a full frontal profile to you.

You'll never get better at something until you're bothered enough by the fact that you suck at it.

Wrapping Up

There is, of course, more in the Foundations of Patrol Rifle Marksmanship, and I definitely suggest it as a primer for just about everyone. To close this out, though, I want to leave a few more thoughts from my talk with John- and he asked that I leave you with his contact information on LinkedIn.

First, the value of competition is continuing to hone your skills. Everyone who is serious about their own capabilities should participate in competition. John pointed out that there are few, or no, athletic world records broken by people doing things by themselves. It’s always done with someone else hot on their heels and battling for the top spot.

The contest is what gives you that extra boost to push yourself harder.

However, never forget that for most people, the competition is a means to an end and not the end in of itself. Too many people get wrapped up in trying to win the game instead of taking away the training value they should have.

Along with that is a quote John cited from some unnamed wise man in his past: “You’ll never get better at something until you’re bothered enough by the fact you suck at it.”

Buried in this nugget is the fact that we must actively choose to do the harder thing. It’s easy to do the things we’re good at, because it feels good. As long as it doesn’t bother use enough that we’re not good at something else, then we’re probably not going to do it.

However, know that failing to shore up and improve on your weaknesses leaves the window open for someone else to more easily defeat you. That might be in competition, where the stakes are low- but it might also be real life in the worst possible moment. Prepare for the latter and do what you suck at.

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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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John Simpson
John Simpson

Yes, you nailed it. At the Fort Bragg school we used to use cutdown silhouettes for moving targets. We figured on a two minute of angle grouping standard (we started out with Vietnam era M21 sniper rifles). because we did movers out to 600 yards this meant that the targets were 12 inches wide. Never mind that most people measuring 12 inches front to back are unfit for military service. They were therefore artificially too wide at 600 and way too big at 200 yards.Eventually we went to 9-inch wide movers and let the chips fall where they may resulting… Read more »


Looks like another interesting book John! I really like your emphasis on effective hit target sizing. I see too many people at the range sitting on their butts using bipods or rests to shoot small groups at 100 yards (with patrol carbines) instead of 6 or 8 inch offhand groups. When the range is slow I like to set up 6” at 50 and 100 yards, 8″ at 200 and 12″ at 300 yards and run through various positions as quickly as I can at these distances. I do similar exercises with handguns always focusing on the balance of speed… Read more »


A couple of points. If you take a training course from a cop, you get a cop’s perspective on what’s important. The same thing happens when you take courses from a soldier, bodyguard, military contractor, or competitive shooter. That’s from Dave Spaulding. The second point is about standards of marksmanship. Stewart Edward White was considered one of the best marksmen and outdoor writers of the early 20th century. He was invited to a target shooting club near Chicago by one of the country’s best target shooters. When he was given the opportunity to shoot, the target shooters found out he… Read more »


wow, that was absolutely a great interview full of great tips. i am an old time rifle shooter from the mid 80’s. i shot several different types of rifle matches. lately i have training very poorly. that will change now.
thank you

John Simpson
John Simpson
Replying to  jon

You’re very welcome.Let me know if anything in particular works (or doesn’t work). BTW the details of everything are in the book itself as well as more info we didn’t cover that you might find useful.

Milo Mirate
Milo Mirate

New shooting competition formats are great, but in order to do one at great scale can take years to grab people’s attention, build a community, etc etc. What is the simplest pre-existing well-established shooting competition where this head-to-head drill (albeit perhaps with a different type of reactive target that doesn’t cause such a mess) fits within the safety parameters of the competition? (i.e. at least, the setup would be familiar to the community; or at most, it could be incorporated into an event as a “fun shoot” interlude or prelude) A counterexample is the only shooting competition with which I’m… Read more »

John Simpson
Replying to  Milo Mirate

This nice person has given a perfect example of what I was talking about in Appendix 6 of the book. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that he hasn’t participated in it and yet he’s already trying to “improve” it (beginning with the targets). It starts as a training exercise, someone changes it to a competition fun shoot and then later, some unwitting trainer will incorporate the modified drill into a training program.

Just for the record, this isn’t intended as something for a shooting match but as an in-service training drill.

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