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Prioritizing Your Marksmanship Training Zones

I’m going to ruffle some feathers today. In fact, I’m highlighting something I’ve been doing poorly for years. While I was putting together the hierarchy of physical fitness for the Martial Marksman, I realized there was a need to do the same thing for firearms training and marksmanship. We tend to focus on the things we’re already good at, or at least the things we most enjoy. For me, that tends to be scoped precision rifles and relatively long distances. That’s fine for a general interest, of course, since fun is allowed. However, if my focus was on cultivating the Martial Marksman skill set, the priorities would look very different.

So here’s the challenge: can we establish a standard set of training priorities for the average person preparing for Scenario-X? I think we can.

Setting the Boundaries

First off, my goal is less about dictating what weapon to become proficient with than it is about establishing what distances you should focus on. In some cases, the distances involved naturally lend themselves to specific weapon types. Rather than force that on you, I’m stating the range bracket and letting you decide what weapon platform makes the most sense for you and your circumstances to meet the requirement.

Second, most marksmanship training standards focus on an angular standard like 4 MOA (minutes of angle). This works ok, honestly. It’s rather convenient to tell someone to always train for a 4 MOA standard, and then adjust the size of the target based on the range they have access to. At 100 yards, that’s a 4 inch target. At 50 yards, it’s 2 inches, and 1 inch at 25. Or if you shoot at 200 yards, the target is 8″. However, when you think about the context of a Martial Marksman, targets stay the same size regardless of the distance. This is something I picked up from John Simpson’s latest book, and it’s an important point to consider.

Example Time

Here’s an example. Let’s say the target is a circle eight inches in diameter. The target is always 8″ regardless of the distance. At 200 yards, that target is about 4 MOA. However, at 50 yards, the target is still 8″ and is now approximately 16 MOA. Your perception is that the target is now much larger even if it’s the same size it always was. What does that mean in practice? It means that your priority should be hitting the target even faster, not necessarily “more accurately.”

In the Martial Marksman’s world, there are not bonus points for hitting the 1″ x-ring if any hit on the 8″ black would have done. Taking the extra time to hit the x-ring might mean losing to the opponent who sought to be just fast enough to hit you first. In the real world, that means coming in second place during a gun fight. For our purposes, the goal is hitting a target of set dimensions at a variety of distances with as much speed as possible.

Establishing the Target

Training principle #1 for the Martial Marksman is train for the target. So what is it that we’re looking to hit? I’ve theorized on it before, and now it’s time to make it official.

The target of a Martial Marksman is a 10″ circle. For practice, you could go as low tech as a common 10″ paper picnic plate, but I’ll get a little more specific and say that the official training target is an NRA TQ-4. Alternatively, you could use an NRA A-25, which uses the same bullseye and ring format, but places three targets per sheet.

NRA TQ-4 target

On these, the black goes out to the 7 ring, and it’s 8″ in diameter. The 6 ring is 10″ in diameter, and the final 5-ring is 12″. For our purposes, the 6 ring and better counts. The fact that we also have a 12″ and 8″ demarcation is merely convenient for other training purposes, and I expect to leverage that in future discussions.

Why 10″?

This is another takeaway from my talk with John Simpson. 10″ is not a convenient number to work with, frankly. If the easy route was the way to go, then a 12″ target would work better because it’s easier to explain and divide by various distances. However, we’re using 10″ for a reason.

Something John pointed out to me was that most police and military train on silhouettes shaped like an adversary squared off and facing you. On average, that presents a target about 19″ wide. However, in the real world, targets aren’t often directly facing you. They could be turned to the side, walking or running perpendicular to you, and generally trying not to get shot. John’s argument is that we should train for the smallest average dimension that would be presented as a target. That translates not to the width from shoulder to shoulder, but the depth from sternum to spine.

I dug into this a bit more, and it turns out NASA did a bunch of research on anthropometry. From their research, the median American male has a chest depth of 9.8″. That’s the 50% mark. The 5th percentile, meaning the smallest men, have a depth of 8.6″. The largest men, in the 95th percentile, came in at 11.1″

A snip from NASA’s research, we’re focused on measurement number 236.

Given all of that, 10″ is a nice round number to work with, with 8″ being a decent “next level” to strive towards. Convenient that our chosen TQ-4 target has an 8″ black as well as a 10″ scoring ring.

Now let’s look at the distance breakdown and how I established it.

The Martial Marksman Range Hierarchy

Here we go. As with the physical fitness hierarchy, the way to read this is not that you should master one bracket before moving on to the next. Every bracket has value. Rather, it is a way to view prioritizing your time and training effort. If you have a lot of training capacity throughout the year, then the whole spectrum is open to you and you should leverage that. However, if your time or facilities are limited, then spending the bulk of your effort at the lower end of the hierarchy has the most return on investment.

  • 0-50 yards: Critical zone
  • 50-200 yards: Proficiency zone
  • 200-300 yards: Operational zone
  • 300-600 yards: Skill-building zone
  • 600+ yards: Specializtion

The 0-50 Critical Zone

This is the serious meat of a Martial Marksman’s training regime. As fun and rewarding as reaching out to further distances can be, the reality for Martial Marksman is that things tend to happen much closer. Think about the proverbial “bump in the night” situation, where you might have to defend yourself or your family inside your home. Even the largest homes don’t have sight lines beyond 10-20 yards (30-60 feet).

In concealed carry situations out in public, beyond 50 yards is definitely with the zone of “better to escape and evade.” Even the vaunted Eli Dicken incident happened at 40 yards inside of a mall. It was notable for being such a long shot for a concealed carrier.

Even during Scenario-X, the sight lines between houses in your average residential neighborhood are rarely going to be longer than 50 yards, or “across the street” distances.

For these reasons, the Martial Marksman seeks to be incredibly capable over short distances of 0-50 yards. That includes multiple weapon platforms as well, such as handguns, rifles, shotguns, and PCCs. Each have their merit, especially within this critical zone.

While I’m also focused on marksmanship and “ballistic” solutions in particular, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that that “0” in 0-50 also means your personal capabilities regarding physical fitness and even hand to hand combative training.

The 50-200 Proficiency Zone

I call this the “proficiency zone” because every Martial Marksman should strive to be very good within this range bracket. The 0-50 zone is absolutely critical, but 50-200 is where we develop well-rounded capability. Why do I say that?

First, I dug into the statistics around hunting. Outside of special circumstances like open plains hunting in Wyoming or Montana, the vast majority of animals taken during a hunt happen at less than 200 yards. A lot of that within a space of 75 to 150 yards. Sometimes more or less depending on terrain. In emergency situations where you’re on your own to acquire food, this is something to keep in mind.

Second, research done by the US Army Operational Research Office (ORO) indicated that most infantry fighting occurs in this range bracket. The average casualty in Korea was just over 100 yards. The jungle environment of the WWII Bougainville Campaign shortened that to 75 yards. Separately, the British found that 80% of effective light machine gun and rifle fire happened at distances of less than 200 yards.

Lastly, I like the 50-200 yard window because it works well with point blank zeros. In general, regardless of whether you’re picking a 25, 50, or 100 yard zero, the 50-200 bracket doesn’t require adjusting sights or significant holdover to land hits on a 10″ target.

Another Perspective

To throw one more argument in favor of the Proficiency Zone, I refer you again to John Simpson’s work with the American Sniper Association. In the latest edition of his Foundations of Sniper Marksmanship book, Jon dug into the statistics of law enforcement sniper utilization. From that, he drew conclusions about the ranges to prioritize for sniper training.

It turns out that 98.5% of LE sniper engagements happen at less than 200 yards. While most engagements happen at less than that, often far less, John suggests that 200 is the distance professional LE snipers should routinely train for. He goes on to suggest that even though the bulk of training should be for up to 200, LE snipers need to be capable up to 300 as well. That gets to the next bracket.

The 200-300 Yard Operational Zone

The aforementioned study published by the ORO went on to talk about other battlefield facts as well. For example, while 80% of infantry fighting occurred at less than 200 yards, 90% happens at less than 300. Furthermore, the study noted that marksmanship starts dropping off significantly after 100 yards, and the chance of getting hit after 300 yards becomes effectively random.

The report cites the work of Pike & Gopel, who performed battlefield visibility studies to determine the practical distance that infantry could actually identify enemy soldiers. After reviewing 18,000 measurements, the ORO determined that 70% of the time, the maximum distance to identify a five-foot-tall target was 300 yards.

Think about where you live and the surrounding area. How often do you have clean sight lines up to 300 yards? Then, within that, is there anything that an adversary could use to hide behind?

It’s because of these parameters, both marksmanship and visibility, that the ORO pushed the idea of a small caliber high velocity rifle. Norman Hitchman argued that the soldier could use a lighter, easier recoiling rifle, and carry more ammunition without losing operational effectiveness.

This led to development and adoption of the 5.56 cartridge and the AR-15.

Practical Use

The operational zone refers to the outer edge of what the Martial Marksman should be prepared to deal with. This is really a 0-300 yard zone, but we’ve already designated 0-200 as higher priority. The final stretch from 200-300 represents polishing of skills. Success here requires knowledge of holdovers, sight adjustment, working with wind, and more.

Building these additional skills is why we use competition environments, especially at even longer distances.

The 300-600 Yard Skill-Building Zone

This is the realm of competition and having fun. By stretching your ballistic legs out to longer distances, you learn a lot about your weapon system, the environment, and the interplay between the two.

I chose 600 yards as the outside edge here because it’s still doable with a .223, especially out of a longer barrel. The Marines still shoot out to 500 yards during training. I’ve hit gongs out to 700 yards with a 20″ BCM government profile upper and 4x ELCAN (granted, they had to be walked on).

Success in the skill-building zone does not necessarily require any additional specialized equipment like a new rifle, fancy cartridges, or crazy optics. Those things will make success easier but they aren’t required. Keep in mind that a 10″ target at 600 yards is 1.66 MOA, which is perfectly doable with a quality-made AR-15 and good ammo. you might struggle a bit more if using cheap bulk ammo and a budget rifle.

For the most part, the reason a Martial Marksman trains at these distances is because it helps them be more capable and confident in that 200-300 operational zone.

The 600+ Specialization Zone

As far as I’m concerned, this is an entirely optional bracket for practical purposes. Success here involves investing in new equipment designed for the task. Outside of competition environments, and maybe some hunting, the chances of a a Martial Marksman taking a shot at these distances is basically zero.

You only get involved here because you have a passion for the ballistic arts, not because it’s helping you be more successful at Martial Marksman tasks.

Other Training Notes

I’ve said nothing about actually standards and drills to use. Those will come later.

Spend most of your time shooting from the least stable position you reasonably can. Most of your training should be from the standing position. It’s the most difficult, but it has the most return on investment for the rest of your shooting.

Don’t shortchange your handgun training, either. It would be easy to divide the 0-50 bracket up into “handgun” range (say 0-25) and “everything else” range of 25-50. However, I think you should aim for proficiency with handguns all the way up to 50 yards. Again, the return on investment is very high here.

Dividing Time

One of the questions you might have is how to implement this into an overall training program? It would be easy for me to say you should spend “X%” of your time in the critical zone, and “Y%” in the proficiency zone. However, there’s not a straightforward answer here. 

Everyone has different training circumstances. For example, my personal situation is that the ranges closest to me for convenient practice only go out to 50 yards. No, that wasn’t an influence in my thinking about the zones, either. I can get out as far as 1000 yards from time to time if I’m willing to travel an hour to an hour and a half each way, but it wouldn’t be a regular activity. 

For others, it might be restrictions on the kind of ammunition they can shoot, if they’re allowed to work from a draw, or if they’re allowed to use any position other than standing or sitting at a bench.

So here’s my answer to where to spend most of your time: address your weak links. Most of us are not as good in the critical zone as we think we are. We should naturally spend more time there until we’re up to snuff. How do we know if we’re there? I’ll post some drills and tests in the future to help, but it’s really a judgement call for yourself. Likewise, if you’ve identified a weakness in the proficiency or operational zones, then spend more time there (circumstances allowing).

Get to It

So there you have it. Use this as a guide for prioritizing your range time. You might also use this as a reference point for how to configure your equipment and rifle. That’s a discussion for another day, though. Now go have fun!

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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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Paul Kent
Paul Kent

Excellent Matt! A well thought out ‘train for capability’ plan. Additionally – it makes one consider how to ‘set up’ your ‘go to’ weapon. Instead of chasing ‘distance goals’ much past 300 yards (especially with these ‘old eyes’ and my ‘run of the mill’ AR) I tend to switch calibers and platforms with capable optics and downrange energy. I read a statement once in a popular gun magazine decades ago likely from a very experienced shooter who said something like – ‘if you can hit an 8 inch pie pan at 100 yards 10 times in one minute from the standing position then consider yourself a good shot’. I’m fairly sure he was referring to the use of a bolt action rifle with some recoil (quite a feat) but none the less… Your 8 inch target reference reminded of that. Great post!


Once again, a well-researched article updating the rational and reasoning, which established the High-Power across the course (XTC) competition dating back to 1904, at Camp Perry. Most commonly referred to as the National Matches. The arguments you formulated in your article are in large part the same thinking that was behind the National Match course of fire. Which is fired at 200, 300 and 600yds.

I’m wondering if you’ve competed in Highpower XTC competitions?

Replying to  Matt

Matt, Not sure if you’re familiar with the Civilian Marksmanship Program? If you’re not, here’s the website Home – Civilian Marksmanship Program ( You mentioned the EIC (Excellence in Competition) match; these are the matches in which one competes in order to achieve the US Distinguished Rifleman’s Badge. A badge which is authorized in accordance with 36 USC 40722. The CMP administers the badge. The CMP has a good history write up on the badge within their website. Many military snipers first achieved their Distinguished badge, prior to sniper training. One very famous example is Carlos Hathcock USMC. In fact, he won the Wimbledon in 1965.

One of the best ways to get introduced to highpower shooting and Camp Perry is to enroll in the Small Arms Firing School (SAFS), during the National Matches. The schedule is at the end of July and the exact details are on the CMP National Match website. The SAFS instructors are all from the US shooting teams and/or are Distinguished shooters. If you have an interest, let me know.

John Simpson
John Simpson
Replying to  Dave

The arguments you formulated in your article are in large part the same thinking that was behind the National Match course of fire.

Not exactly. For example, the National Match 200 yard target 10 ring is 7 inches in diameter and the 600 yard MR-1 target has a 12 inch 10 ring. So the target gets larger the farther out you go.

Replying to  John Simpson

John, Sounds like you’re a highpower competitor and yes, your numbers are correct. In my experience, development of the positions, concentration, sight alignment (irons or scope) and reading the wind are the key factors to marksmanship. If one is shooting the reduced course of fire say at 100 or 200yds, the bull (black) remains the same size, but the scoring rings become smaller, based on the position your’re firing from.

John Simpson
John Simpson
Replying to  dave

Actually I’m the guy who wrote the books that Matt is quoting from. And I wasn’t talking about scaled silhouettes but how scoring rings get larger the farther the range is. That’s because long ago the Service Rifle Record Fire was just to evaluate how individual soldiers could “hit the mark.” Then, training in collective firing against silhouettes was given to squads, platoons and companies in what was called Musketry Training in the States. Back when soldiers carried the .45-70 because of it’s “rainbow” trajectory and velocity variations due to black powder, the qualification bull’s-eyes were oval shaped so as not to penalize the shooters. Then Field Fire, Battle Fire or Combat Fire (depending on time period) would use targets representing human beings and the units were evaluated on the effectiveness of their collective fire.

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