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How Does the Shooting Sling Work?

(Originally published in my “Art of the Rifle” blog, January 14, 2015)

I’ve written a lot in the past about rifle slings and how to use them to steady a shooting position.  I’ve touched on why to use them and why not to use them if a supported position is available.  I’ve gone into considerable depth on how to use them.  One thing I haven’t really written about is why the shooting sling works.

I like to watch how people use their slings.  I frequently see people do things that are ineffective, or less effective than they could be.  My response to this has always been to beat the drum of better technique, but I think there is a more fundamental way to approach the problem.

Part of understanding how to use a tool is to comprehend how it functions.  It took a long time for me to even consider this with reference to the rifle sling.  I first thought of the sling as something to buy, as in which one do I want based on who uses it, how it looks, what it’s made out of, price, etc.  Then I thought of the sling as a process.  It’s a rather complicated thing for a new shooter, so I spent a long time processing how to use it, improving my technique, re-evaluating different types of slings based on what I’d learned in the process of becoming a skilled shooter and then an instructor.  When I felt my knowledge in sling shooting had matured, I designed my own sling, and I thought and worked a lot on how to make it better over time.

To really understand how to employ the sling and what it can and can’t do for you, the primary lesson to learn is visible in its structure and function.  Let’s take a look at the sling in use to better understand what exactly it is and what it does.

 

Structure:

 

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RifleCraft RS-2 sling, demo model.  I made it special with a foliage loop portion and coyote tan rear portion so it would be easier to point out exactly what I’m getting at.  This photo, and those that follow, depict the totality of the line of force of the loop sling.  From the forend, and wrapping the arm.  That’s it.

First of all, we need a precise definition of what it is we’re looking at.  I’m not an engineer, so I apologize it you are because I made up my own terminology and definitions.  A loop sling is simply a direct, closed, and isolated connection between the arm and the forend of the rifle.  Direct means that it goes straight in one line from the arm to the forend.  Wrapping the support hand in the sling won’t compromise this attribute, as the hand effectively becomes part of the front connection.  Closed means that the length of the connection is fixed and not subject to change without a deliberate user input.  Isolated means that there are no other related connections that impart forces in any other direction.  Although a connection to a different section of the sling that makes it usable as a carry strap can be, and usually is present at the rear of the loop, it should be slack when the loop is used.  Put another way, the loop is a simple, single line of tension from the arm just below the armpit and the rifle in front of the support hand.

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Function:

The function of the loop is directly related to its structure.  What can a line of tension do?  Perhaps this is best revealed by examining what holds a rifle up in absence of the loop sling.  The greatest degree of oversimplification I can make is to say “bones and muscles” hold the rifle up.  Bones are structurally rigid and can’t be removed from the equation unless there is something to set the rifle on or suspend it from.  Obviously the loop sling is not capable of replacing the structure that bones provide.

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It should be apparent at this point that the tension of the sling takes the place of the muscles between the origin and insertion of the loop.  When optimally configured with the support hand wrapped in the sling and front swivel used as a hand stop (as pictured), those muscles include the biceps and all the muscles that control the wrist, hands, and fingers.  Muscles, being subject to fatigue and errors of control and coordination, are major contributors to a shooter’s arc of movement.  Eliminating their necessity and use whenever possible is the mark of a skilled and efficient rifle shooter.

 

Limitations of the Sling:

Recognizing what the loop sling does not do is just as important as knowing what it does.  The simple loop sling has very little ability in assisting, supplementing, or replacing any muscle outside the length of its span.  The little ability is does have in this regard is due to the tension that is imparted toward the interface of the rifle butt in the shoulder.  This is why Jeff Cooper was correct in his adamancy that the benefits of the loop sling could only be fully realized with the support elbow planted, whether that be on the ground, a solid object, the knee, or somewhere else.  If the support elbow is not planted, many muscles are brought into play in order to keep the elbow raised and the posture of the body in the shooting position.  This does not negate the effects of the sling within the length of its span, but it does minimize the significance of those effects to a large degree.

Also, some of the potential benefits of the sling, particularly those involving the muscles governing the hand, are dependent on the use of a handstop when shooting with a loop sling.  Without some kind of handstop the support hand will need to grip the forend.  The location of the support hand will also be subject to potentially (very likely) greater variability.  Consistency is important, so the lack of handstop and the resulting variation in location, coupled with the need for muscular input will likely compromise precision.  Target shooters use purpose built handstops.  The rest of us use our front sling swivels, so the location of the front swivel is another important component of rifle fit

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In the next installment I will examine the influence of individual sling designs on how the sling functions as a marksmanship aid to enhance precision.

 

The Products

Products main post pic

To properly understand what makes the RifleCraft slings unique, and why there is a demand for them, one should first understand exactly what a rifle sling is and what it does.  To the uninitiated, the rifle sling is a simple strap used to carry a rifle, analogous to a holster for a handgun.  This is part of what a sling is designed to accomplish, but perhaps the less significant role.  The word ‘sling’ denotes something that is also designed to aid the shooter in the process of actually firing a shot.  The vast majority of the straps that are used to carry rifles do not have the capability to function as a proper shooting sling.

At least as far back as the late 19th century, rifle shooters have been using rifle slings to steady their positions in competition and in military training.  The sling attaches to the rifle’s forend (the handguard or the front of the stock) in the front, and to the shooter’s arm at the rear.

The rifle sling, when attached to the rifle and the shooter’s arm, effectively acts as a substitute for all the muscles within its span, which include the arm, forearm, and hand muscles.  Because the sling is doing the work instead of the muscles, the shooter can relax.  This makes the shooting position much steadier, more repeatable, and therefore more accurate and predictable.  It is generally accepted by skilled shooters that a shooting sling can improve a shooter’s accuracy by approximately 50%.

The skill of using a shooting sling, once limited mostly to competitors and military trained shooters, is becoming more prevalent among general shooters.  Organizations such as the Civilian Marksmanship Program and the Appleseed Project have offered very low cost and widely available instruction in the use of the shooting sling.  This has increased market demand for easy to use shooting slings.

Traditionally, rifle slings have required some manipulation to alter their configuration from “carry mode” to “shooting mode”.  To carry the rifle using the sling, the sling must be attached to both the front and rear of the rifle. Military slings, which are generally considered to be the standard, require that the sling be detached from the rear of the rifle in order to use it as a shooting aid.  This is a slow process, which has relegated the use of the sling as a marksmanship aid to competition use.  The reason for this is that in a field setting, such as hunting, opportunities for shots are generally fleeting.  Since time is limited in these situations, shooters have not had the luxury of utilizing their slings to steady their shots.

Attempts have been made throughout the years to design a sling that was quick enough to use in a field shooting situation, but for the most part these designs have not succeeded because some alteration of the rifle was necessary for installation.  The majority of shooters aren’t willing to drill holes into their rifles.  A further deterrent is that shooters don’t want to alter the appearance of their rifles.

The RifleCraft slings are designed in such a way that their appearance is that of a traditional carrying strap as used by the vast majority of shooters.  The benefit that they offer is that they also function as a shooting sling without any preparation to transition from “carry mode” to “shooting mode”.  It’s possible to be carrying the rifle in one moment, and to assume a shooting position with the sling steadying the shooter without adding any time to the process.  In other words, donning the sling as a shooting aid takes no longer than it would take the shooter to get into a shooting position, and can be done concurrently.

 

RifleCraft Sling Models:

There are three models of RifleCraft slings, the RS-1, RS-2, and RS-3.  RS stands for RifleCraft Sling and the model numbers represent their order of introduction to the market.

The RS-1 and RS-2 are designed to be used with traditional rifles, and the RS-3 is designed for modern carbines, such as the AR-15 (currently the most popular production rifle in the United States).  All three share the attribute of having the capability to be used as a shooting sling (marksmanship aid) and a carry sling without any reconfiguration of the sling, as would be required by a traditional sling.

 

RS-1

RS1

The RS-1 is distinguished by being the fastest traditionally mounted shooting sling to don as a shooting aid.  This is due to a reinforced section at the base of the shooting loop (near the center of the sling) that keeps the shooting loop open, allowing the arm to be rapidly inserted into it.  The base price of the RS-1 is $47.00.

 

 RS-2

 RS2

 

The RS-2 shares the same basic design as the RS-1, but lacks the reinforcement at the base of the shooting loop.  The RS-2 fulfills the needs of most shooters without any unnecessary frills, which is why it is dubbed the “Rifleman’s Essential Sling”.  This is the sling I typically recommend for most shooters.   The base price of the RS-2 is $35.00.

 

  RS-3

 
RS3

 

The RS-3 is fundamentally different from the RS-1 and RS-2 in that it allows the user to ‘wear’ the rifle around the body, which enables it to be available for instantaneous shooting from a carry position.  The advent of this mode of carry is relatively new, having become popular in the late 1990’s.  This style of carry is typically seen with modern rifles such as the AR-15, although it can be utilized with other types of rifles.

Carry ModeQuick AdjustKneeling

 

 

The RS-3 has a shooting loop that is identical to the RS-2, while the rear of the sling has two sections, one of which allows for overall length adjustment.  The rear portion of the RS-3 has an innovative buckle that enables the shooter to make quick adjustments to the sling length.  Tightening the sling brings the rifle securely against the body, allowing the shooter to use his hands for other tasks.

 

The base price of the RS-3 is $60.00.

 

Accessories:

Slide Down Loop Keeper

 Slide Down Loop Keeper Foliage Grey

 

Slide Down Loop Keeper

The Slide Down Loop Keeper is a simple piece of sling webbing of the same type that the slings are constructed with, that is used to pull down over the shooter’s arm when the shooter is utilizing the sling as a shooting aid.


SDLK

The Slide Down Loop keeper is available as an option for all RifleCraft slings for shooters who want it.  The selling price of the Slide Down Loop Keeper is $5.00.

 

Swivel Silencers

 Swivel Silencer Foliage Grey

 Swivel Silencers are sewn pieces of elastic webbing that cover the metal swivels that attach the sling to the rifle.  Without the Swivel Silencers, the sling looks like this:

No SDLK

The Swivel Silencers are an optional accessory that not only improve the appearance of the rifle and sling, but make it more comfortable while protecting the metal swivel from accidental damage during field use.  The sale price of the Swivel Silencers is $5.00 per pair.

A Higher Standard in Webbing

Webbing Close Up

 

From a distance, or just an internet photo, it’s easy to dismiss nylon webbing. Most nylon webbing is pretty lackluster stuff, not being at all ideal for a quality rifle sling. The webbing used for the construction of RifleCraft slings was carefully chosen for several characteristics that set it apart from regular nylon webbing. When you feel and use a RifleCraft sling, the quality will be self-evident.

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RifeCraft webbing on the left.  Regular nylon strap webbing on the right.  Note the difference in texture and thickness.

 

Texture and Stiffness

RifleCraft’s sling webbing is thicker and tougher than most nylon webbing. A thinner, less stiff webbing would cause the shooting loop to easily displace as the arm is inserted for looping up.

The texture of RifleCraft’s sling webbing has also demonstrated itself to be less susceptible to fraying than the nylon used in most other slings.  The following photos are of two slings I used and abused over months.  Both were subjected to harsh conditions and hard use.

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A competitor’s 1.5″ sling webbing exhibited a tendency to fray at the edges.  Incidentally, the base price of this product (without swivels) was over double the price of an RS2 sling.

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My personal RS2 sling was dragged through mud, a cow pie, and a shallow creek during a stalk.  On another occasion it was covered in mud, but washed up nicely in the sink.

The comparatively aggressive texture of RifleCraft’s sling webbing also means that it is less apt to slide down the support arm when the sling is used as a shooting aid. The texture of the solid color webbing is practically indistinguishable from the cotton webbing used in the USGI web slings of old.  The texture of the camo webbing on my slings is similar, but they have a less fabric-like texture and are slightly stiffer.

 

1.25”, The Perfect Sling Width?

Rifle slings have been made using 1”, 1.25”, and 1.5” webbing. One critical performance criteria that is directly influenced by webbing width is carrying comfort: how the weight of the rifle is displaced over the webbing width. 1” webbing tends to dig into the shooter as the weapon is carried with the sling. 1.25” webbing is a huge improvement over 1” webbing for carrying comfort. 1.5′ webbing is, of course, better in this regard, but the difference between 1.25” and 1.5” is not as remarkable as the difference between 1” and 1.25”.

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On the left, the only 1″ sling I own.  Center is 1.25″ RifleCraft webbing.  On the right is 1.5″ webbing.

A second performance criteria that is affected by webbing width is how well the loop “sticks” on the support arm when the sling is used as a shooting aid. A sling that easily slides down the support arm compromises its effectiveness as a shooting aid. In this case, thinner webbing tends to dig into the shooters arm and keep it from sliding down it. It also allows the sling to be placed completely above the meatiest part of the tricep, which helps keep the loop locked in. 1.25” webbing is markedly better than 1.5” in this regard.

Lastly, sling swivels of all styles are only currently made in 1” and 1.25” widths (that is to say I have one 1.5” swivel before that came with a fancy handstop for a match rifle). 1.5” webbing used for slings has thus far been used with 1.25” swivels. It seems to “work” in most cases, but the webbing gets pinched, which accelerates the sling’s tendency to fray. The webbing used in these 1.5” slings is also less stiff. A 1.5” sling of what I would consider sufficient stiffness would not be as likely to work with 1.25” swivels. Why would one choose to use swivels and webbing that did not match?

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This is what happens when 1.5″ webbing is squeezed into a 1.25″ swivel after some regular use.

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Even an abused sling holds up fine when used with an appropriately sized swivel.

What is IR Treated Webbing?

IR stands for infrared. An infrared light, which is not visible to the naked eye, is often used to supplement the ability of night vision optics when the available ambient light is insufficient to provide a usable image. Due to the widespread use of night vision technology in the military, it has become commonplace for military specification (milspec) to require the use of materials treated to minimize the reflection of infrared light.

Man-made fabrics that are not IR treated can reflect infrared light in a way that is different from natural objects and vegetation. This can cause the fabric to stand out from the background, even if the fabric is camouflaged to blend in during the day.  Even a  fabric with the best camo pattern to fit the background without IR treatment can cause the fabric to have a reflective glow when viewed through IR illuminated night vision.

The following two photos were taken of the same four rifle slings. The sling on the left is a non IR treated sling from a popular sling maker. The three slings to its right are RifleCraft slings, from left to right, a coyote tan RS1, a coyote tan RS2, and an A-Tacs FG RS2, all of which are IR treated. Both photos were taken within minutes of each other. The first photo shows the slings under the light of visible flash photography.

Sling Comparison- flash photo

The second photo was taken using a PVS-14 night vision monocular. I used a hand held IR flashlight to illuminate the slings.

Sling Comparison- IR NV

Obviously the untreated sling on the left is brighter. What is also interesting is that the A-Tacs FG camouflage sling, which blends in better with the colors of the trees around it, is barely visible in the night vision photo. It just goes to show that proper choice of color or camo pattern still matters at night.

RifleCraft offers several solid colors and camo patterns. All RifleCraft sling webbing is IR treated.