(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.
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.
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.
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
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.