Silhouette Shooting Overview

Click here for the complete NRA Silhouette rulebook


Silhouette shooting is one of those things in life that is a lot harder than it actually looks. The range is laid out as follows:

Chickens Pigs Turkeys Rams
Smallbore 40m 60m 77m 100m
Cowboy Smallbore 40yds 50yds 75yds 100yds
Air Rifle 20yds 30yds 36yds 45yds

The targets are usually arranged in banks of 10 so one round consists of 10 shots on chickens, 10 on pigs, 10 on turkeys, and 10 on rams for a total of 40 (unless it is a 60 shot match - then it's 15 of each for a total of 60). The irregular shape of the targets add to the challenge. Let's face it - shooting from a standing position without any specialized clothing or additional equipment is arguably the most difficult shooting technique to master.

The Rifle

In general, any rifle that can shoot 1 inch groups at 50 meters and 2 inch groups at 100 meters has enough accuracy to be used effectively in silhouette. Bolt actions are the rifle of choice but a good semi-auto can do the job also. For cowboy smallbore, rifles can be lever action, pump, or semi-auto as long as it has a tubular magazine - no clips or single shots. If this is the case, why do most shooters opt for high dollar rifles with superior accuracy? The answer to this lies in the difficulty of the standing position. The standing position is inherently the most unstable position to shoot from. This instability usually manifests itself as a wobble that is quite noticeable when looking through the scope. Sometimes, the wobble causes a shooter to launch a shot when aiming at only a small portion of a target (say, the tail of a chicken). So if your rifle is only shooting 1 inch groups at 40 meters (chicken distance) you may not get a hit when holding on such a small portion of the target. If the rifle is shooting much tighter groups (say, 1/3 of an inch at 40 meters) you are more likely to get a hit when your hold is less than optimum.

Some folks buy high quality, expensive rifles that are highly accurate. Some folks prefer to buy lower cost rifles and make them into good shooters by adding aftermarket parts and having a gunsmith work on it. However you acquire an accurate rifle is up to you but most good shooting rifles have several things in common:

A smooth, crisp trigger that is not too heavy

A good barrel with a tight chamber and a crowned muzzle

A stock that fits the shooter well and provides good overall balance

All of these features must keep the rifle within the measurements specified in the rules. This can be challenging but with a little ingenuity it can be done.

The Sights

For cowboy silhouette you can use open, tang, or receiver sights but NO scopes.

As for air rifle and smallbore silhouette, most rifles come with open sights typically used in hunting. These sights are good for rapidly acquiring a good sight picture when dealing with moving game but they do not have the resolution necessary for super accuracy. This is why almost all silhouette shooters opt for a scope. And while it is true that any scope can be used for silhouette, most shooters choose scopes with a good deal of magnification (usually in the 12x to 24x range) and target knobs for easy adjustment of elevation.

Scope magnification can be tricky. Low magnification will minimize your wobble but you may not see a large enough sight picture to maximize your hits. High magnification will provide a nice and large sight picture to aim at, but it will also maximize your wobble. It is also possible to "get lost" in your sight picture when shooting at high magnification because your field of view is so small. The best bet is to choose a variable scope with a range of magnification you are comfortable with. You can start low and then increase your magnification as your hold improves.

Target knobs are considered a "must have" by many silhouette shooters. Since there are multiple ranges involved there is not enough time to fiddle with a screwdriver or other implement to adjust for elevation between animals. Nice high target knobs that are easy to grab and turn greatly facilitate the process. It is also worth noting that many standard scopes do not like to be constantly adjusted. They want to be zeroed at one distance and the shooter will have to "hold over" or "hold under" to shoot at different distances. Some shooters use this technique very effectively but most feel it is advantageous to always put the crosshairs right on the target.

Scope repeatability is another factor to consider. If the scope is not made well there may be internal slippage when turning the elevation knob, causing an error in your elevation setting. If the slippage is very bad the cumulative errors will build to the point that your elevation settings are way off and you will have to re-zero. Scopes used on piston-powered air rifles must be rated for heavy recoil or they will fail.

Another useful feature of a good target scope is an adjustable objective lens. Adjusting the lense for each range you are shooting at will eliminate errors of parallax, an optical phenomenon where the crosshairs will change relative to the target due to your line-of-sight through the scope.

All of the above features tend to make good target scopes pricey. It's best to save up for a good new target scope or buy a high quality used target scope that is in good condition. But keep this in mind: Putting a high dollar scope on an inexpensive rifle is as bad as putting a low quality scope on an expensive rifle. Shop around for a scope that has the necessary features but also matches your budget.

The Ammunition

One great thing about shooting a .22 is that there is no reloading of bullets involved. The downside to this is that you have to test many different types of ammunition to see what will shoot well in your rifle. If you don't test and just buy bulk packed ammo that costs $5.00 per 500 rounds, don't expect to be winning matches anytime soon. You may be lucky enough to have a rifle that really likes cheap stuff. Most of us are not so fortunate. But on the other hand, shooting match ammo that costs $12.00 per box may be overkill. Buy several boxes of ammo from different manufacturers at different price points and hit the range. Some shooters find cheaper ammo has enough accuracy at closer ranges (chickens and pigs) but only the more expensive ammo will do for the longer ranges (turkeys and rams). knowing this can help keep costs down since half a match can be shot on cheaper ammo. In any event once you find a good combination, check the lot number on the box and buy a case because each lot will shoot slightly different.

A special note of caution when selecting ammunition - no high velocity rounds are allowed because they can damage the silhouettes. Keep your ammo choices below 1200fps. And for air rifle silhouette, it is best to keep energy at or below 20 ft/lbs. since higher powers will damage the targets.

Sighting in

Most shooters will sight-in their rifles and scopes to be right-on at each distance. The best way to do this is to set out a target at 40 meters, focus the adjustable objective lens, and get your zero at this distance. Now use a pencil to make a tick mark on both the objective lens ring and on the elevation knob. Next, move the target out to 60 meters, focus the adjustable objective lens, and get your zero at this distance. Again, use a pencil to make a tick mark on both the objective lens ring and on the elevation knob. Follow this procedure out to 100 meters. You now have four tick marks on your objective lens ring and four on your elevation knob. The tick marks are now your reference for shooting during a match. On chickens turn the lens ring and elevation knob to the first mark. For pigs, use the second tick mark. For turkeys use the third and for rams use the fourth tick mark. However, you should always use extreme care to turn the knob in the correct direction! If you turn it in the wrong direction to the wrong tick mark you can get completely lost!

As was mentioned earlier, some folks either don't want to sight in at multiple distances or don't trust their scopes enough to move the elevation knob. These folks sight-in at one distance and then "hold over" or "hold under" to shoot at the different distances. There is no reason this technique can not be employed very effectively. It will just take some practice to learn exactly how much you have to "hold over" or "hold under" at the different distances.

The Hold

All shooting is done from the standing position with no specialized clothing or equipment allowed (i.e. - no shooting jackets, shooting boots, palm rest, etc.). This will force you to build a stable position using only your own body for support. The main object is to use as many skeletal features and as few muscles as possible for support. Too much muscle tension will result in fatigue and an unstable position.

A good place to start is to keep your feet about shoulder width apart with toes pointed slightly outward. Your overall orientation should be slightly open to the targets (for a right-handed shooter, in a fully open stance your entire front is facing the target, in a fully closed stance your back is facing the target, and in a neutral stance your left shoulder is facing the target. This may sound confusing so I'll try to get some pictures up in the future to illustrate). This should provide a stable base.

When shouldering the rifle do not place the butt too high or too low. You want to maximize contact with the butt while placing the rifle high enough to attain a comfortable head position. A stock with a cheek piece or high comb is desireable. Your weight should be evenly distributed on you feet - both front to back and fore/aft. Use the right hand to grip firmly but don't strangle the rifle.

Perhaps the most important part of a good silhouette hold is the supporting arm. Holding the rifle as a hunter would is great for getting off a quick shot at a moving animal but it is less than optimal for target shooting. At a minimum you should try to bring your upper arm in and rest it against your ribs. Some folks choose to rest their elbow on their forward hip. The hand can support the rifle using the palm, a notch between fingers, or with finger tips.

Breathe deeply just before shouldering the rifle and exhale part way. Now stop breathing, shoulder the rifle in your position, and take your shot with a smooth trigger pull. As a general rule, if you can't break your shot in about 8-10 seconds put the rifle down and start again. Staying in a hold too long will cause excessive muscle flinching and your heart rate will go up. You have 30 seconds to shoot each animal so don't rush. Use all 30 seconds if you have to. Always remain calm since getting too excited will bring your heart rate way up and your score way down.

When looking through the scope it is best to keep both eyes open. The eyes are designed to work together. Closing one eye will obscure important clues the brain uses to calculate balance. It will take some getting used to but it will pay off in the long run. In some cases you may want to try a blinder mounted on the scope or even on your glasses. This way you can keep your eye open and provide enough peripheral vision to maintain good balance without getting distracted by focusing on other objects outside of your field of view.

Everyone is built differently with different biomechanics to consider when building an effective position. What has been outlined here I consider the bare building blocks to start with. Go to a few local matches and watch how everyone else shoots. We're all doing the same thing, we're just doing it differently. Incorporate a little bit of this and a little bit of that into your stance until you develop a consistent, steady hold you feel comfortable with. And never be afraid to ask anyone for advice after a match.

Basic Match Operations

The match director will call all competitors for a relay to the line. At this time, the competitor steps to the line in front of their rifle with 5 rounds of ammunition, either loose or in a magazine. No handling of the rifle is permitted yet. Next, the director will announce the start of the ready period. All competitors now have 15 seconds to handle their rifles and adjust scopes, load, and prepare their hold. 15 seconds may not seem like a lot of time but once you get used to it, it is more than enough. After the 15 second ready period the director will give the command to fire. Competitors now have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to shoot their first bank of 5 silhouettes (that's 30 seconds per shot). One shot is taken at each silhouette in order from left to right. Take care to only shoot your silhouettes and make sure you are aiming at the correct silhouette in sequence (i.e. - aim at the first silhouette on the first shot, the second silhouette on the second shot, etc.) Scoring is simple - knock over the appropriate silhouette and it counts as a hit. Otherwise, it's a miss. When the 2 minute and 30 second time period has expired the director will give the command to cease fire. Make your rifle safe, put it in the appropriate rack and write your score on your score sheet. The director will now call competitors to the line for their second bank of animals and it will proceed following the same protocol. when the second round is complete and the line is safe competitors will now walk downrange to reset the silhouettes. When this is done the director will issue commands and everyone will now shoot at the next bank of animals. Matches usually rotate from chickens to pigs to turkeys to rams. However, if you start on another animal you will rotate in the same direction but from a different starting point. For example, if you start on turkeys your rotation will be turkeys to rams to chickens to pigs. Don't hesitate to ask the director if you have any questions.

This may all seem a bit confusing but after you shoot your first match you will develop a rhythm it will become second nature. Keep in mind that all ranges and match directors are slightly different so be prepared to make some small adjustments to your routine if necessary.

The Bottom Line

You won't get any better unless you get out and shoot. The more you shoot the better off you will be. Dry fire practice at home is also an effective way to train without going to the range every day. You should also make an effort to stay in shape. Well toned muscles, especially in the core areas of abdominals, back, and legs, will create a more stable position. And don't forget to get some aerobic exercise, too. It will be hard to have a good hold if you are still huffing and puffing from walking down range to set up the targets. And it's probably not a good idea to chug lots of coffee before a match.