In short range Benchrest, bench set up is a prerequisite to accuracy and precision. Get it right, and you have a chance to shoot some small groups. Get it wrong, and you are in for a frustrating day at the range.
In hunting, although not talked about much around the campfire, setup is still fundamentally important, Whether you are tuning a new load for your coyote rifle, overlooking a prairie dog town, or lining up the crosshairs on that trophy antelope, the way you are set up will influence the shot.
Bench set up is very subjective which makes it difficult to explain. Each person will have their own routine that works for them. And...each rifle will have a setup that works best for it. Through mentors critiquing my set up, advice from others, and years of trial and error, I have found what works best for me and the rifles I shoot. The intent of this blog is to share my routine so that you can create a process that works for you.
Bag Set Up
I like to use Heavy Sand in the base of the rear bag. Heavy Sand can be purchased at stores that specialize in reloading and shooting. For the front bag and ears of the rear bag, I use regular playground sand. I sift the sand using a screen over an ice cream bucket to get a more uniform consistency.
A funnel with a long tube is used to help fill all the sandbags. The tube can be used, not only to put sand into the bag, but to pack the sand into corners and other hard to reach areas.
Experience Tip: Make sure you follow all the rules for each organization you belong to. This includes sand bags and bench set up.
I have found best results when the base of the rear bag is as hard as possible. When pressed with a finger, the bag should indent very little if at all.
The ears of the rear bag should have some give to them. In other words, when pressed with a finger, the bag should indent. How much it indents will be up to you and your rifle. However, make sure there is enough sand for the ears to hold their shape. The ears should not move when sliding the rifle back and forth.
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The front bag set-up is similar to the rear bag in the ears should have some give to them but should not move when sliding the rifle. Be careful that there are no air pockets in the ears of the front bag. The difference is the base. The base of the front bag should also have a slight give to it.
Experience Tip: The sand will settle in all the bags. It is important to occasionally "fluff the pillows". When needed, add sand.
Bench Set Up
There are basically two goals a shooter needs to accomplish when setting up their bench: First, proper tracking. Align the rear bag, rifle, and front rest with the target so, when the target is in the sight picture, the rifle will track properly. Stated another way, there should be a straight line starting at the target and running through the muzzle, ears of the front bag, stock, and extending through the ears of the rear bag. When the round is fired, the sights should move straight back and/or straight up the target.
Second, time. Accomplish the first goal in a short amount of time. We do not want other shooters waiting on us. More importantly; the faster the set up, the more time there is to study the conditions before the relay starts.
I will explain my bench set up according to phases. These phases are used simply to help with the organization and flow of the writing. I use a joystick type front rest. If you use a different type of rest you will need to make adjustments to the following procedures.
Experience Tip: I like to do my initial set up the night before or before the first relay starts in the morning. That way, I can take my time to get the set up correct. I then mark my rear bag and super feet. When it is my time to use the bench, I simply use the indicator marks for placement.
Phase 1 = Rough Set Up – without a rifle
The first operation is to get the shooting stool adjusted to the correct height. Having the appropriate height will allow the rifle butt to rest squarely in the pocket of the shoulder. I also want the correct sight picture without straining my neck. Through trial and error, I found the height that works for me. I use a short section of rope with an indicator line marking the distance from the top of the seat to the bottom of the bag. It is a quick and repeatable way of ensuring I always have the correct seat height.
Experience Tip: If you decide to measure - make sure you measure to the bottom of the bag, not necessarily the top of the bench. On some benches you may need a bag spacer to raise the stock up.
On the same piece of rope, I have another mark for the distance from the front edge of the bench to the rough placement of the rear bag. In both the IBS and NBRSA the muzzle of the rifle has to extend past the end of the bench. Since my rifle length is not going to change, I am able to have a consistent measurement from the front of the bench to the rear bag. This measurement was found after I had completed multiple setups.
When possible, I like to keep the rear bag ¼-½” from the side edge of the bench. I think this offset is important because when you lean, you should be leaning against the bench, not the rear bag.
Before I place the front rest, I will stand behind the bench and get a rough alignment of the bag by lining up the target through the ears of the rear bag.
Experience Tip: On some benches, the rear bag will not be parallel with the bench due to the angle to the target.
A third indicator mark, on the same piece of rope, gives me an idea of the forward/back placement for the front rest. I like to use super-feet under the three pegs of the front rest. Once placed in the rough location, I adjust the front pegs to get the rest level.
The last part of phase 1 is to stand behind the bench and align the front bag in relation to the target and rear ears. This gets me decently close to where the front rest should be.
Phase 2 = Rough Set up – with a rifle
I loosely set the rifle up in the bags and take a quick look to see if there is a straight line from the target through the rifle and extending past the rear bag. Next, I make sure the muzzle is overhanging the front of the bench.
I then check to make sure the indicator mark on my stock matches up with the line on my rear ear. This indicator mark ensures I have the same “feel” each time I sit behind the rifle. The lines also serve as a safeguard to make sure the stock overhangs the bag the correct amount. This is important because when I put shoulder pressure onto the stock, I do not want to touch the rear bag. It is not uncommon to make slight adjustments to the rear bag to match up the lines.
I will move to the front of the rifle and look over the forend to make sure it is parallel with the metal portion the front bag sits in. If it is not, move the feet of the front rest until they are parallel.
Next, I stand behind the rifle to make sure the rear ears, rifle, and front bag all make a straight line to the target. While here, I will also check to make sure the rear bag is centered under the rifle. I can check this, on the bag I use, by making sure the stitching is the same on both sides of the stock. This is crucial for proper tracking. Slight adjustments are almost always made.
Experience Tip: Many times, while aligning all three, I make a quick check by looking down the bore of the rifle to see the target.
All the above steps are done before I sit down on the stool. If done correctly, once I sit down I should not have to get back up. However, do not be concerned if you have to stand up a couple times to get things in the correct location.
With the joystick in the middle of the adjustments, I look through the scope to make sure the vertical crosshair is in-line with the target. (I am not too concerned with the height just yet. Since the stock is still sitting high in the ears, the horizontal crosshair will rise once the stock is pushed down.) I move the front rest for major adjustments and the rear bag for minor adjustments.
Phase 3 = Fine Tune/Check – with rifle
Now is the time to check the range of motion in all directions. Make sure the rifle is settled into both bags by pushing the stock of the rifle down into the rear ears and sliding the rifle back and forth in the bags. This sliding motion will push the sand to where it needs to go. I like to have the center of the target in the center of the joystick movement. Move the front rest up or down until you are comfortable with the movement.
Experience Tip: After you shoot a couple targets it is not uncommon for the right side of the front bag to settle more than the left side. When this happens it will look as if your rest is unlevel. Simply "fluff the pillows" and resettle the sand.
Do not forget to tighten the front ears. As with most set up items, this is subjective and each rifle will like a different amount of grip. My bench rifles do not like very much grip on the front end. Experiment with different tightness, but a general rule is that you do not want the rifle to “break loose”. When you move the rifle back, it should move smoothly.
The last part of the set up, and the primary reason for doing it in the first place, is to make sure the rifle tracks straight. Without putting any shoulder or hand pressure onto the rifle, slide the rifle back in the bags. The crosshairs should move straight back and/or straight up the target. If the rifle does not track straight, check the alignment of the rear bag first. There could be multiple reasons why the rifle does not track, but the most common issue I see is the rear bag is not lined up correctly.
I attach my ammo holder, stopwatch, and spotting scope stand to the front rest. Having those items connected to the front rest ensures they are always in the same location and decreases the time to set up/take down.
I also highly recommend some sort of cushion for your brass to fall on. I use a towel. When the wind is really blowing I have a “snake” filled with sand that holds the towel in place.
Lastly, I have two sandbags. One for my trigger elbow and one for my joystick hand. These sandbags allow me to be completely relaxed at the bench and not use any muscles that can fatigue after a full day of shooting.
Experience Tip: Keep the “accessories” to a minimum when you rotate or share a bench. This will save a lot of time when taking down and setting up.
Range of Error
Benchrest shooters are notoriously meticulous. This characteristic is helpful in many areas of precision shooting. However, bench set up does not require the use of a micrometer. There is some forgiveness in the setup. Conditions, tuning, and follow-through are going to play a much bigger role in the outcome once the target is in the sights and the rifle tracks true.
Marking the Bench
Marking the bench will serve as a “check” to make sure your equipment did not move and expedite set up when you have to remove your equipment for another relay.
However, other people will also be using and marking the same bench. Use small marks to indicate the front and back of the rear rest and two of the three feet on the front rest. I have seen some competitors completely outline their equipment. There is no need for that. Common courtesy will go a long way in this department.
Photo Disclaimer: I took all these pictures on my private shooting range. Since I am the only one on this bench, I previously made larger marks. I tried painting over the previous marks, but you can still faintly see them. The small, visible, green marks are what I would put on the bench during a tournament.
Experience Tip: At some ranges, the 100 yd marks will not work at 200. In those situations, I use two different colors. One color for 100 yards and a different color for 200. Try to pick colors that no one else is using on that bench.
This is an example of a bench at the 2021 NBRSA Score Nationals. It is pretty easy to see why it is important to use different colors and small indicator marks.
After I mark the bench, there are only three things I check on the following setups; the joystick range of motion, the tightness of the front ears, and tracking. These marks make it very quick to set up the equipment, allowing more time to study the conditions.
Hunting Set Up
In hunting situations the same two goals are present; align with the target so the rifle tracks true and accomplish that in as short an amount of time as possible. However, the way we achieve those two goals is completely different.
In Benchrest, the target and bench are stationary and solid. That allows there to be one set "rigid" procedure that will consistently reach the end goals. When hunters are testing loads at the range, they can apply these same benchrest techniques. Granted, hunters may not have a joystick front rest, but the basics still apply. The rifle's forend should be parallel with the front sand bag, there should be a straight line from the target traveling through the stock, and the rifle should track straight up/back.
In actual hunting scenarios, the rules change a little bit. Hunters have to be much more adaptable to the situation. Maybe to the point in saying; the more "rigid" the hunter is in the set up, the less likely they will reach the end goals. The reasoning is simple, the target and “bench” are not always stationary or solid. If the hunter is not adaptable in their setup, the animal could move before it is in the sight picture.
Hunters need to practice with multiple setups; sitting using a bipod, sitting using the knees, laying prone using a backpack, standing free-hand, etc. Think about the different shots you have taken the last couple years and practice those same setups. During this practice, first focus on stability then move on to quickness.
Each set up will have a maximum effective range. True; off a bench, the rifle might be able to place five rounds in a four inch circle at a quarter mile. Can you do the same sitting using a monopod? The only way you will truly know your shooting limitations is by practicing from different setups at different distances. For example, a coyote is in deep trouble if he is standing 250 yds and I have a solid rest with my bipod. However, the same dog is perfectly safe if I have the same shot but standing free hand. Since I know I need a lot more off-hand practice, I would not attempt that shot.
Precision is not always a linear endeavor. Many times it is cyclical. Often, developing in one area of shooting will "open the doors" to improvement in other areas. Having the correct bench setup will allow you to shoot tighter groups. When your groups tighten up you will start to notice needed corrections in your equipment, condition reading, tuning, and yes; your setup. You have now entered the positive cycle of precision and accuracy. Until next time, enjoy the experience.