Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sage Dynamics Firearms Training: Off Axis Shooting

When it comes to using a firearm, there are a few things that dictate effectiveness.  A stable platform, proper fundamentals and a shooting position that maximizes hit probability while minimizing (if possible) exposure.  Now, I write this from a view point of weapon use in self-defense or the defense of others.
Off Axis Remington 700
All things firearms training and practice should be rooted to this reality, so I don’t spend much time discussing certain administrative merits of shooting positions if they don’t have a place in reality or would not be prudent in a use of force.  For an example, I would consider bench rest shooting to be an administrative shooting position.  It serves a purpose for a quality weapon zero and is helpful for fundamentals practice, though rarely does that specific position translate to real life as it does on the range.  Prone would be a fair equivalent, or as close as we could get, but it’s not quite the same and unlike bench rest shooting, prone shooting has a very strong root in the reality of use of force.

Shooting position is dictated, primarily, by available cover/concealment, distance to the threat and time to assume the position.  Given sufficient time, a shooter can maneuver themselves into a highly stable position with sufficient and reliable cover, though we often don’t get to decide when and where force will be needed.  The decision is usually someone else’s and we are forced to react based on their actions and use the terrain they chose to behave in a manner that necessitates us to want to incapacitate them as quickly as possible.  The other side of that would be to surreptitiously set up a shooting position to confront a threat, which is a technique largely restricted to the LE and military communities (which doesn’t mean the citizen should not have the basic knowledge of how to do so, of course).

So before anyone starts scratching their heads trying to figure out where I am going with this, I’ll come right out and say it; the use of your firearm in a less-than-ideal shooting position, specifically the off-axis or fetal position.  There are two types of less-than-ideal shooting positions; those we choose to be in and those we are forced into.  A strong and overwhelming desire to not get shot tends to put people into the smallest available spaces, time permitting.

These positions are dependent on cover, as a kneeling position might not be wise if the only available cover is a common street curb, though they are also dependent on personal training and practice.  If you have not been taught to do something and practiced it, there is a real possibility you won’t consider it when it’s needed most.   What I intend to cover here is two shooting positions that for the purposes of the orientation, are one in the same.  Fetal and Off-Axis (also referred to as Special Boat Team Prone or Urban Prone).  These positions are somewhat different in body position, but share a common thread; in each position the weapon is canted off its vertical axis.

Off Axis Concealment
Before we talk about positioning, let’s look at what effects off-axis shooting has on the weapon, specifically, the bullet.  Gravity plays the largest part in bullet behavior and how we compensate for it.  An old myth (that’s still around) is that a bullet rises as it leaves the barrel, which is false.  The bullet begins to drop as soon as it leaves the barrel because that’s what gravity demands. Gravity’s effect on the bullet is in direct proportion to its time in flight.  Handguns and rifles compensate for this reality in slightly different ways though both have to do with design and sights.  For handguns, either the barrel or the sights are angled to direct the path of the bullet to compensate for gravity. Because handguns are not intended for distance shooting, the engineered adjustments for gravity are minimal.

With rifles, everything is built around distance shooting and conversely, close quarters shooting requires a different skill set all together.  A rifles sight or optic is elevated from the barrel and often (especially with magnified precision optics aiming long distances) forces the shooter to elevate the barrel of the rifle to compensate for gravity.  Of course there are other factors that affect the path of a bullet such as wind, ballistic coefficient, humidity, elevation, spin drift, rotation of the earth, etc. but for the practical purposes of off-axis shooting, our biggest concern is with mechanical offset (the height of the sights/optic from the centerline of the barrel) and the degree of cant.  We can compensate for gravity in shooting off-axis just as we do shooting traditionally; it just requires more knowledge and practice.

Bullet Path: Traditional and Off Axis
Mechanical offset varies from weapon to weapon and significantly from optic to optic in relation to the weapon.  The closer the sights or optic is to the centerline of the bore or the weapon, the less exaggerated the effects of offset will be when shooting the rifle in a canted position.  So what are these effects?  Put simply, when the weapon is canted off its intended vertical axis, the bullets path will be altered off the point of aim, impacting in the direction of the optic and low.  The greater the cant and distance, the more exaggerated the difference between the point of aim and the point of impact.

Why does this happen?  It isn’t magic.  Your visual point of aim is your visual axis, which remains the same in relation to your point of aim even when you cant the bore axis.  The barrel of the rifle is now aimed at a different point even though the optic/sights are not.  This adds a cant trajectory to the path of the bullet because of gravity and rotation of the barrel.  Because sights/optics compensate for gravity by elevating the barrel of the rifle/handgun, canting shifts the arc and in so doing, drops the point of impact and pushes it in the direction the optic/sights are canted.  The easiest way I have found to remember this is Sights and Low for where I can expect the bullet to go from the POA with the weapon canted.

Shooter Point of View Bullet Path
But enough about the science of it, because frankly it’s largely academic and a simple understanding is all that is needed for practical purposes (unless we are looking at precision shooting, which requires establishing cant “dope”).  Along with practice at multiple ranges, you will establish a working understanding of POA/POI shift and be able to compensate or hold over accordingly.  For anyone dubious as to the explanation or the possibility of POA/POI shift with a canted weapon, all they need to do is try it.

In regards to a handgun, fetal position shooting will be the most common use of a canted weapon.  Fetal position is either a position we are forced into during an unexpected attack, or one we choose to use to maximize the use of available cover and minimize exposure when firing.

Fetal position shooting with the handgun can provide strong support by placing the weapon between the knees for stability, or by bracing the feet off your cover to allow a full torso extension while still allowing a minimal exposure. 

Off Axis Handgun
Handgun fetal can also be used with your legs braced out against whatever you happen to be using for cover.

Off Axis Fetal
Using the fetal position with the rifle is more complicated, though only because a proper cheek weld with the rifle is nearly impossible to obtain.  This is a significant issue for iron sights, but not an issue for properly zeroed optics such as an Aimpoint, EoTech or Vortex.  Magnified optics with an optimum eye relief will be more difficult to use and the shooter must be conscious of shadowing in the scope (which shows eye relief and alignment issues with the optical lens that will further alter the POI of the bullet).

Once you get comfortable with fetal position shooting with the rifle, you may find that it is more stable than prone; however recovery from the fetal position is not as fast, which limits mobility.  This may not be a position you choose to be in consciously, though considering that the vast majority of objects in the real world are not conveniently body sized with multiple mouse holes in them for engaging your threat, the fetal position may offer you the ability to get real small real fast and still be in the fight.

Off Axis with AR Using 45 Degree Reflex
The other shooting position that commonly places the rifle off its axis is Off-Axis Prone (again, also referred to a Special Boat Team Prone or Urban Prone).  Given the unpredictable nature of available cover and the unpredictable behavior of our threat, the two unpredictable conditions can combine to force the use of the rifle in an off-axis position, most notably when the available cover provides a minimal exposure for the use of the rifle (as little as a four- inch-height mouse hole will prevent the use of a rifle and a handgun unless the weapon is canted).

Can this actually occur?  It happens in the LE and military communities quite often, especially with Marksmen/Snipers.  In a barricaded suspect situation, hostage situation or a hasty overwatch position/hide, the use of a long gun in a traditional firing position may be impossible due to the position.

In the LE world, some callouts leave few options for an optimal shot angle, forcing snipers to improvise.  Having to deploy the weapon while staying out of sight necessitates the ability to use the weapon canted in any direction.  I have spoken with snipers from the LE community forced to deploy under a bed, aimed out a sliding glass door to a home on the other side of the street, or under a parked sedan to a store front.  Patrol officers also find themselves with very little cover choices and deploy their rifles accordingly.  Even with a twenty round magazine in an AR-15, it is generally impossible to fire under a car (and some trucks) in the traditional prone position.

With these things in mind, we have to take ballistics into account because of the rifles increased range and the likelihood that our threat can present from a greater distance.   This greater distance would necessitate the use of a rifle, and the greater the distance, the more exaggerated your POA/POI will be.  Now, I’m not talking about long range shooting per se.  Outside of the military, even precision rifle engagements are short.    The average police sniper engagement in the US is 56 yards (2011 Police Sniper Utilization Report, American Sniper Association) and (from the same report) the longest, verified and clean engagement that resulted in an incapacitation was 187 yards.  Longer distances have been fired, but none with instant and final results and more often than not, at much shorter distances.  That being said, moving past 25 yards (or even 15 depending on the size of your threat exposure), there is a noticeable shift in POA/POI that can be accounted for with proper practice.
Off Axis Prone
Body positioning is mostly straightforward.  The shooter assumes a prone position, then cants the rifle inwards and rests it as low to the ground as possible without obscuring the path of the bullet. The support hand can be laid under the handguard/rail to elevate the weapon or stabilize as needed.  Proper cheek weld is not possible due to the cant of the rifle.

Using a red dot or holographic sight minimizes the issue due to the sights being parallax free and a proper cheek weld is not needed for accurate fire. With traditional iron sights, the lack of a proper cheek weld will present a problem but it can be overcome by focusing on a proper sight picture even absent a good cheek weld.  With a magnified optic, or any other optic requiring eye relief for a proper sight picture, conscious movement of the head is needed and I would recommend you position your head as far back as possible due to there being limited stock/shoulder contact with some shooters, the recoil of the weapon may remind you to not put your eye so close.  For variable magnification optics, using the lowest setting the situation allows assists in getting back on the threat quicker, as ingrained mechanics, the unconscious knowledge of how the weapon recoils and how to reacquire will be greatly affected by the cant of the weapon.

Alternately, off-axis shooting can be done from a kneeling or sitting position as well, which again is cover dependent.   My personal experience with Off-Axis in a prone position was maintaining overwatch on the front of a building from across the street, behind a brick wall.  The wall had a pattern of open gaps starting at waist height and extending in a stagger to perhaps head height.  Each gap was one brick height, perhaps 4 inches, and eight inches wide.  The small opening ruled out anything but canting the weapon and the height of the openings ruled out anything but standing or sitting.  I started in a standing position but ended in a sitting with a commandeered lawn chair.  My shot, had I made one, would have been between 30-35 yards.  Not a great distance, but the POA/POI shift could have factored in seriously if my threat minimized their exposure by using cover. 

Off Axis from Concealment through Small Exposure
So what does the bullet do?

To provide a visual detail of Off Axis shooting, I took it to the range.  Using a 5.56 Loki and a .308 Remington 700.  I shot both weapons unsupported (using only my body and the weapon for support) and have provided the targets below.  The off-axis shift, as already mentioned, is not significant even out to 100 meters with practical accuracy in mind, but for precision accuracy it can complicate shot placement if you have not practiced either your hold-over points for precision optics or know what your DOPE adjustment should be.

62 Grain 5.56mm at 15, 25, and 50 Yards - Traditional Off Axis
175 Grain .308 at 100 Meters
As you can see, the POA/POI impact is not significant in the sense of practical accuracy, though for precision accuracy, increasing distance exaggerates the POA/POI shift.  For practicality, this is a shooting position I would recommend working into your personal practice as it provides one more method for working cover/concealment that you may have not been using before.

Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction from the fundamentals to advanced skills for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor overseas and as a police officer.  In addition to patrol he worked as a a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer.  Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others. When he isn't teaching or training, hes writes semi-regular for Recoil (web) and Breach Bang Clear among others."

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