Heresy: An Introduction to Combat Riflecraft

Mountain Guerrilla – by John Mosby

(The following article is the first in a series that will discuss the Combat Rifle POI as I teach it.) –J.M.)

“Shattering illusions, and crushing misconceptions…It’s just what I do.” –Me, to my mother-in-law recently.

The purpose of the combat rifle is to allow the combat rifleman to engage and kill, directly or indirectly, armed enemy combatants with precision aimed rifle fire. The rifleman’s ability with his weapon is one of the most fundamental measures of his effectiveness and survivability in combat. If the expects to function effectively in combat, he must be both willing to, and capable of, projecting lethal force on the enemy. The ability to engage the enemy with accurate rifle fire in a confident, competent manner is the best insurance the irregular warfighter has for survival and success.

Unlike the sportsman, the combat rifleman does not have the luxury of using his marksmanship as a test of his ability. He is not, like the competition target shooter, trying see IF he can hit a target under the prescribed conditions. Unlike the field hunter, a miss does not simply mean an empty freezer. The combat rifleman must KNOW he can make his shot, because failure means death.

Combat riflecraft is not a sport. It’s not a game. The fighting rifle is not, contrary to the whining pleas of the morally bankrupt, a “sporting arm.” It is, like an axe, a tool, specifically designed and engineered for one purpose. The axe is designed to chop wood; the fighting rifle to kill people. The fact that the axe is sometimes used for sporting applications such as lumberjack competitions or axe-throwing does not change it’s fundamental purpose–nor the fighting rifle.

Realistic, effective combat rifle training is more than just marksmanship training. It teaches the rifleman how to use the tool for it;s intended purpose, in the most efficient manner possible. A well-developed and executed training program will teach you how to zero your rifle, at what range, and why, based on the operational environment, mission, and weapon. It will teach the shooter how to engage single and multiple hostile targets, at realistic ranges, under realistic conditions, from the most appropriate firing positions, while stationary or moving. A good training program will explain the differences between speed reloads and tactical reloads, as well as how, why, and when to perform each type. It will teach the most efficient methods to clear a malfunction, and get the gun back into the fight, as well when to ignore the malfunction and transition to an alternate method of killing the bad guys.

Finally, a well-developed and executed combat riflecraft class will serve some more holistic purposes. It will help to teach the neophyte how to most efficiently set up and run the support gear they do have, as well as determine what they should replace, and with what. It should introduce the shooter to the concept of shooting at people who are shooting at them, even if they can’t see the enemy directly, and how to use the rifle in coordination with an armed partner, utilizing the concept of fire-and-maneuver.

A combat rifle course should emphasize precision marksmanship, not as an end in itself, but as a necessary requisite to making solid, fight ending shots on minimally exposed targets under real-world conditions. A professionally trained combat rifleman is able to engage single or multiple hostiles, at any practical range, quickly and effectively, through the practical application of the fundamentals of marksmanship and good gunhandling.

The Fundamentals of Marksmanship

Traditional military marksmanship training is based on competition target shooting. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that; after all, people who can shoot and win at Camp Perry can shoot very well. Unfortunately, things are really just not that cut and dried. With the obvious exception of the intermediate goal being to direct the tiny, fast-moving projectiles where we want it to go on a target some distance away, there are actually very few real correlations between competition target marksmanship and the application of the fundamentals of marksmanship in combat situations. While the fundamentals of marksmanship do remain the same–they are the fundamentals after all–the execution can be drastically different.

a) a solid firing platform: the necessity of a solid shooting platform should be self-evident. After all, if the gun is moving around, it can be awfully hard to shoot accurately. The combat rifleman’s firing position must demonstrate three inherent qualities in order to be consistent and effective: it must be stable, solid, and durable.

It must be stable enough to reduce any movement of the weapon that would negatively affect accuracy. Unlike the competition target shooter, who is required by the rules to shoot from prescribed positions of varying levels of instability, in order to test his marksmanship, the well-trained combat rifleman makes a conscious effort to “cheat” by acquiring the most stable position the situation allows him to achieve. This means that, except under very specific conditions involving speed-shooting demands at close-quarters, he will always strive to support his firing position with the use of a weapon rest, even if that rest is just the magazine of his weapon (contrary to popular mythology, this will not induce malfunctions. If it does, you need to replace the magazine).

The firing position must be solid, so it is not affected by “outside” factors, such as the recoil cycle of the weapon. It is both mechanically and physiologically impossible to “defeat” recoil in a centerfire weapon. Instead, we attempt to mitigate the effects of recoil as much as possible, and ensure that the weapon completes the recoil cycle in the exact same position it started the firing cycle in. This will allow the shooter to “run” the gun as fast as mechanically possible. A solid shooting position will facilitate this.

Finally, the combat rifleman’s position must be durable. Whether it takes five shots to defeat the enemy, or five minutes of shots, despite the physiological stresses of a gunfight, the rifleman must be able to maintain or repeat the position for as long as necessary. In aiming, the weapon must become an extension of the body. The shooter must learn to adjust his body position so that the rifle naturally points at the target. In order to maximize the durability of the firing position, the shooter must minimize the amount of muscular tension required to hold the weapon in position. To avoid this muscular tension, he must shift his entire firing position in order to move his natural point-of-aim (NPOA) to coincide with the desired point-of-impact. Once he’s learned his NPOA for a given firing position, repetitive, perfect practice of that position will allow him to mount the gun the exact same way every time, making the position exponentially more durable (as a bonus, he’ll be faster getting his rifle into the fight as well).

b) sight alignment and sight picture: On the modern battlefield, the use of iron sights should serve, at most, as a back-up system in the extremely unlikely event the primary optic fails. American riflemen, dating back to at least the Civil War, have held optics in disregard, ranging from a healthy distrust to a visceral scornful disgust. Among the most notable reasons for this were: optics were seen as slower to acquire a sight picture with in the dynamic environment of the battlefield (only partially true at best), not as robust as iron sights (absolutely true until relatively recent times), not very useful except for snipers and other designated sharpshooters (demonstrably untrue), and the misunderstanding of the cliche that “optics don’t help you shoot better” (categorically false….sort of…).

–With the arguable exception of tube-type telescopic optics that can often provide a very narrow field-of-view, it is a fact of human physiology that optics are faster to acquire a sight picture with than iron sights. Iron sights require the eye to pick up objects in two (aperture sights) or three (“open” sights) different focal planes. The human eye however, is physically incapable of focusing on more than one focal plane at a time. A quality optic places the reticle and the target in the same apparent focal plane visually. Since the eye only has to focus on one focal plane, the optic is faster to acquire the final sight picture.

This sometimes falls apart however, when shooters try and run traditional, tube-type optics such as low-powered magnified telescopic sights. Due to inconsistent eye relief, shooters find themselves craning their necks and bobbing their heads to find the correct eye relief and sight picture. That’s not the fault of the optic however, but of piss-poor sloppy gun-handling. Good gun-handling means you mount the gun THE EXACT SAME WAY EVERY SINGLE TIME. A consistent cheek-to-stock weld, and the application of the NPOA means there is no need to “hunt” the sight picture. The gun comes up, into your line-of-sight, and the reticle is there. It just doesn’t get any faster than that.

–Historically, iron sights were inarguably more robust than optics. After all, they were made of iron and had few, if any, moving parts. Optics on the other hand, were narrow tubes of thin aluminum, with fragile glass lenses and very fragile, finely geared moving parts. Further, optics were manufactured for relatively benign hunting use (I’ve hunted in the Rockies and in Alaska, I know it can be tough…it’s still not f#@king combat), with any combative applications a distant secondary consideration, at best.

Today, quality optics, specifically engineered to meet the demands of combat use, have made this largely a non-issue. Modern combat optics have taken rifle rounds and continued to run. While it is certainly possible to cause a catastrophic failure of an optic from Aimpoint, EoTech, or Trijicon, the force required would probably be great enough that it would result in a catastrophic failure of iron sights as well.

One method I routinely use in classes to demonstrate the robustness of modern optics is generally good for an “OH SHIT!” reaction from witnesses. I grab one of my rifles that mounts an EoTech (generally perceived as the least robust of the big three), and drop it, onto the ground, optic first, from head high. I then run the gun through the class. I’ve dropped it onto asphalt, gravel, pavement, grass, and into the mud, with no ill effect. While I don’t recommend this course of action to anyone, least of all with an optic you plan on using to potentially save your life, it does demonstrate that modern combat optics are at least robust as irons (I should probably admit however, that I have a Burris MTAC 1.5-6X variable scope on one of my other M4s, and I don’t have the stones to try it with that one. I damned sure wouldn’t try it with a Nightforce or Schmidt and Bender scope either, unless one of those companies wants to send me a scope to test…..? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? I’m sure they would withstand it, but I really can’t afford to be wrong either, and it certainly falls under unusual abuse).

–Operating in an unconventional warfare environment, whether an insurgency, counter-insurgency, or simply a grid-down, “oh shit!” Mad Max type environment, no one can afford the negative political impact of negligently killing an unarmed non-combatant bystander. Magnified optics serve the extremely useful purpose of allowing for more positive identification of targets in the moment before you break your shot. Is that dark shape you see flittering across your garden really a mutant-zombie-outlaw-biker-liberal-vampire, or is it the neighbor kid sneaking in to try and convince your daughter to slip off to the hayloft with him? Either one might warrant shooting (“Guns don’t kill people, daddy’s with pretty daughters do!”), but at least you’ll have the ability to make a conscious, informed decision to shoot.

Further, in my personal experience, very seldom have the bad guys been courteous enough to stand up on the range, in broad daylight, in perfect silhouette, like E-Types on the range. Generally, they’ve been hunkered down, trying to conceal themselves behind big things that stop bullets, like rocks and boulders. My uncorrected vision is 20/20, and despite that, I’ll be damned if, at even 100M, I can see a dude’s foot hanging out. With a little bit of magnification however, I can see the shoe sticking out, and smoke a round into it. Even my pip-squeak, anemic, poodle-shooter of a varmint round however, punching through a dude’s Nike is going to seriously degrade his ability to continue to aggressively prosecute the fight.

–The truth is, optics CAN help you shoot better, by providing a more refined sight picture and sight alignment. The M16A2 front sight post subtends approximately five minutes-of-angle (5MOA=5 inches at 100 yards, for the ballistically challenged). The center dot in the reticle of my EoTech subtends 1MOA. While I still have to execute the other fundamentals of marksmanship correctly, I can aim and shoot more precisely (i.e. “better”), with the optic than with the irons, for this reason alone.

Even magnified optics, which “just magnify your errors” can still help you shoot better. The MTAC, set at 6X allows me to discern facial features at 500M, as opposed to simply seeing a vaguely human shape at that range with the naked eye (of course, the chances of actually seeing a bad guy at 500M, even if he IS moving, are some where between slim and no-f#@king-way, but hey, it’s a teaching point, right?) This amount of detail again, allows me to aim with more precision–aim small, miss small.

The original meaning behind the “optics don’t make you shoot better” of course, was that you still needed to execute all the other fundamentals correctly, and optics can’t fix that…unless they help you realize you are f#@king up your other fundamentals…..



The point of the above tangent on optics versus irons was not to suggest shit-canning iron sights….well, not exactly…It was to make the point that, while gear will never replace training and consequent skill, you should make the effort, whatever effort required, to invest in quality optics and master their use. They will expedite the training process, making you a good combat marksman, faster, if all other elements of the training are equal. I’m sure the Appleseed “experts” and the “big bore battle rifles are best” he-men (and yes, even some well-respected mentors of my own), will censure me forever, for what I am about to say, but nevertheless:

It is categorically, NOT necessary to learn to shoot with iron sights first, in order to become an effective combat rifleman (“Oh my GAWD! Did he jist say that!? Somebody git a rope!”). Yes, learning to execute the fundamentals of marksmanship correctly, with iron sights, will teach you to shoot accurately. Here’s the rub though: Learning to execute the fundamentals of marksmanship correctly, with optics, will teach you to shoot accurately, also…and faster.

“But John! ‘Ten minutes after the lights go out, iron sights will rule the world!’” Yeah, I heard that one too. Mr. Smith, with no undue disrespect intended (seriously!), needs to check his calender. It’s not 1968. Hell, it’s not even 1988! An Aimpoint CompM3 has a battery life, in constant on mode, of 50,000 HOURS. The CompM4 will go 50,000 HOURS! The tritium in a ACOG has a half-life of 12 YEARS….So, yeah, ten minutes, my ass.

Mr. Smith may very well run iron sights better than I run an optic, I don’t know. Hell, I run irons better than most “experienced” guys I’ve seen can run optics, and he’s been shooting longer than I’ve been alive. I still run optics faster and more accurately than I can run irons, and so can Clint (since I’m on a disrespectful tangent anyway and picking on him, can someone please let him know that mod-iso has been proven demonstrably faster and more accurate for pistol work than the Weaver for AT LEAST the twenty years I’ve been shooting professionally. In fact, someone let the yahoos at Front Sight in on the “secret” as well….I’m tired of having to re-train shitty shooters that are products of their classes to shoot better).

Yes, I run back-up iron sights (BUIS) on my rifles, but honestly? I started out shooting with irons and more than anything else, it’s just habit (and well, a fighting rifle without BUIS mounted just looks wrong to me–Hell, maybe I’m just an in the closet hide-bound traditionalist too!). The reality is, in the fifteen years I’ve been running optics, I can tell you exactly how many times I’ve had to resort to my BUIS because of a failure of a quality optic. It was exactly zero (and as previously mentioned, no one can accuse me of “pampering” my gear…). I’ve certainly had cheap optics fail, and I’ve made the conscious decision to run irons alone (once for six months for shits and giggles, and once, for a year, because I was too poor to afford good optics).

If you simply cannot afford good optics, I’d certainly agree that running iron sights is better than trying to run some POS (if I have to spell that acronym out for you, you should quit reading my blog, because you’re probably too young to read half the words I write anyway) budget optics; otherwise, sell a fucking kidney, if you must, but pony up a couple hundred bucks, search the equipment exchanges on the different cool-guy gun forums, and pick-up a good condition, slightly used quality optic like an Aimpoint, EoTech, or even a low-power variable scope.


Sight alignment is the most critical factor in the actual aiming process. A small error in sight alignment increases proportionately with range and will result in misses. With iron sights, sight alignment is simply the relationship between the rear sight and the front sight post, as seen by the shooter. For aperture-type sights, such as those found on American military rifles throughout the last century, the shooter looks THROUGH the rear aperture (never AT the rear aperture), and centers the top of the front sight post both horizontally and vertically. The “trick” is, don’t overthink it. Your brain wants to center it, so let it.

With tube-type optics, sight alignment is the relationship between the reticle and full-field of view as seen by the shooter. The shooter mounts the weapon so that a full field-of-view fills the tube, with no shadowed crescents around the edges to cause misplaced shots.

With holographic sights like the EoTech, and parallax-free optics like the Aimpoints, it’s even simpler: sight alignment literally doesn’t matter. If you can see the reticle and it’s superimposed on the target, the optic is zeroed, and the target you’re aiming at is in range, you’re good to go.

The “secret” to sight alignment, regardless of the sighting system used, has already been stated in this article: MOUNT THE GUN THE EXACT SAME WAY, EVERY SINGLE TIME.

For you Neanderthals, with iron sights, sight picture is the correlation between the sight alignment and the target, as seen by the rifleman. The rifleman aligns his sights, then places the top edge of the front sight post so it appears to bisect the center of the aiming point (alternatively, you can use the 6 0′clock, “pumpkin on a post” hold, but I don’t…).

With optics, simply place the appropriate portion of the reticle over the aiming point on the target.

The point-of-aim on a particular target will be dependent on mission, range, and situation. I’m fond of citing the platitude, “Hips and heads kids, hips and heads. All the bad guys are wearing body armor these days!” (In fact, I’m pretty sure I made that up two years ago. If anyone heard it previous to 2011, let me know where, and from whom, and I’ll gladly cite them as the source, if the speaker can verify it as original to them…). The truth is, in a world of relatively inexpensive, rifle-level ballistic plate armor, it’s not a bad ideal to shoot for (no pun intended, seriously). The pelvic girdle is rich in major blood vessels and nerve centers, and of course, the pelvis itself, is a major structural element of the skeletal system. Having it shattered by a high-velocity rifle round (even a poodle-shooting varmint round), makes walking a little uncomfortable. Unfortunately, while this MAY result in a non-ambulatory combatant (I once walked 150M with a broken hip, carrying somewhere around 100 pounds of kit, albeit not very fast…), it may not reliably take him completely out of the fight. After all, he can still hold and shoot a weapon, if somewhat distractedly. Of course, putting two or three or ten rounds into a dude’s hips (or just one if you’re a real man and shoot the magical rhino stopping .308…) makes that rapidly moving head move a lot less rapidly, subsequently making it easier to shoot…..and solid head shots generally do take a dude categorically out of the fight.

The reality however, as I previously noted, is that no one is going to simply stand there, like an E-type silhouette for you to shoot at your little heart’s content. People caught in traffic on ballistic highways tend to look for the off-ramp in a hurry, or at least look for an overpass to hide behind. You’re not necessarily going to get the target you’d like to have, so shoot for what you can see. This is why precision shooting ability is important. If you can consistently shoot 2 MOA at 200M, in less than three seconds, you might get a chance of smoking the dude through the leg or shoulder, or arm, at worst, slowing him down, at best, causing a psychological stop, or at least causing him to expose a more vital target. Just shoot what you can see. If you can’t see anything, but you know the guy is there, shoot there anyway, and keep him more interested in not getting shot than he is in shooting you, and let your Ranger buddy maneuver around and smoke him.

(We’ll discuss the four types of stops that occur from ballistic intervention in a forthcoming article.)

c) breathing and breath control: Breath control is an absolutely crucial element of good marksmanship. If the rifleman is breathing normally, while trying to fire, the rise and fall of his chest will cause the muzzle of the weapon to move vertically. Unlike the relatively sedentary pace of a target range, in combat, the rifleman will be sprinting as fast as humanly possible, in short bursts, while wearing heavy gear, and he will have huge amounts of adrenaline coursing through his system. He will be gasping for air so hard that his muzzle will not just “rise and fall.” It will seem to leap violently upward before crashing back to earth, as his body struggles to force oxygen to his muscles.

Traditional marksmanship teaches to wait for the natural respiratory pause at the end of the exhalation before breaking the shot. Unfortunately, the enemy is only exposing himself for a second or two, and he is probably not operating on the same schedule as the shooter’s diaphragm. Survival and success may make it necessary to take a shot, or a series of shots, at an inconvenient moment. Instead of waiting for the natural respiratory pause, he may simply have to create a respiratory pause–an “induced respiratory pause” if you will–long enough to take a shot or shots, even if the target is presented in mid-breath cycle.

d) trigger squeeze and trigger control: Perhaps the one fundamental of traditional marksmanship that retains most of its similarities in combat marksmanship is the trigger squeeze. The spasmodic reflex of a convulsive grip with the muscles of the hand, when “jerking” the trigger will result in a miss in combat, just as they will on the target range. The trigger must move straight to the rear, smoothly along its axis of travel, and break cleanly, without the sight picture being altered by the action…and it must do so quickly.

The key to accomplishing this is two-fold. First is to keep the firing hand as relaxed as possible. This reduces the muscle tension in the firing hand, reducing the impact of the nervous system sympathetic muscle reaction, and allows the trigger finger to function as rapidly as possible, without impacting the rest of the grip on the weapon. The second aspect is to mentally focus on making the trigger move straight back, along its mechanical axis of travel. Unless the weapon is severely damaged or worn out of course, the trigger cannot move in any other direction, but trying to force it to move laterally, even inadvertently, will cause the muzzle of the weapon to be moved in the opposite direction. That means you miss.

An additional aspect of combat trigger control is the issue of trigger reset. The importance of trigger reset seems to wax and wane in popularity among tactical shooting instructors. In my experience, at the initial learning stage, its critical to learning how to run your gun as rapidly and accurately as possible. Simply put, caress the trigger to the rear and the as the shot breaks, hold the trigger rearward, until you feel the gun coming out of the recoil cycle. When you do let it out, only let it go until you feel the “click” of the reset. As your reticle settles back into a sight picture, you’ve already “taken up the slack,” so you’ve not only sped up the process of firing your next shot, but you’ve also reduced your margin for error from “jerking” the trigger through the entire trigger stroke on the next shot.

Two major arguments arise opposing the use of trigger re-set. One is that it takes conscious effort to learn and practice and this leads to guys waiting too long to reset, so they can “feel” the reset. This is initially true, and if the shooter never trains past this point, it will cause a pretty severe limitation on how rapidly he can run his gun without jerking the trigger. I can say though, that after almost 20 years of combat riflecraft training, practice, and execution, I don’t remember when I stopped thinking about it. In fact, if I want to NOT utilize proper reset, such as to demonstrate the differences when teaching, I have to focus on the conscious decision to NOT reset. Focus on getting back off the trigger before the gun settles back into a sight picture. Don’t wait to feel the click, because on some guns you won’t feel the distinct “click” of the reset engaging, like you will on a Stoner platform rifle or a Glock pistol. If you can hear your reset click, you’re too late.

The second argument I’ve heard is that it’s a “gamer” trick that sets up a negligent discharge because of the “hair trigger” it sets up. The argument seems to be that, if my last shot put the bad guy down, and I automatically reset my trigger, then could accidentally shoot the non-combatant that was beyond the bad guy, or as I’m transitioning to the next bad guy, I could involuntarily discharge the round before I positively identify my target.

In response to that one, other than shaking my head ruefully, I’ll simply say that I preach-and practice-two things that have, thus far, prevented this from happening: One is that every shot I fire is a conscious, deliberate decision, with a positively identified target (even if that target is the base of a tree or rock that I suspect a bad guy is hiding behind), and two, if my sights are not on a target that I’ve made that decision to engage, such as when transitioning between targets, my finger comes all the way off the trigger and moves to a positive trigger finger reference point on the gun.

(To be continued…..)


John Mosby

SFOB-Rifleman’s Ridge

One thought on “Heresy: An Introduction to Combat Riflecraft

  1. Great article, and food for thought for the old timers. For rifle, I learned on iron sights, but as optics and mounts have become more robust I have no problem with them being taught first. Any methods that make you and your platoon more survivable are not to be discounted.

    Re pistols & lasers, Mr. Murphy usually shows up at the wrong time. Iron sights are mastered first, then any bells & whistle added, but to re-qual, its iron only. At 25 yards, the ‘self defense v. aggressor’ line, it makes sense- shooters become accustomed to the laser only mentality.

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *