February 23, 2023
By Mark Fingar
Tripods have steadily gained popularity with shooters. If you’ve tried shooting off of a tripod and didn’t like it, odds are you selected the wrong one or just need some coaching. As a full-time photographer, tripods are an essential piece of equipment that I’ve used nearly every day for years. Many of the techniques developed by photographers are directly applicable for use with a rifle. I’d like to share a few tips that might come in handy.
1: Quick Height Adjustment
Most modern tripod legs can be deployed from fully closed to standing in under a minute. However, finding that perfect sweet spot for a rifle can take time. There’s a simple trick that can save you a lot of frustration. First, get into your desired position with your spine fairly straight up and down. Standing, seated, kneeling, it doesn’t matter. Don’t lean into or away from the tripod. Next, put your shooting arm straight in front of you, pointing at the target. Position your hand “bladed,” thumb side up. The bottom of your hand is where the top of your tripod generally needs to be. Adjust your tripod legs until you reach the desired height. Attach your rifle, and your sight picture should lineup when you shoulder the rifle and get a cheekweld. Tweak and reference as needed.
2: Mounting Up
The head is the interface between the tripod and the rifle. While shooting, you’ll be putting some decent forces on the head. Overkill is a good thing that’ll translate into greater stability. There are many options when attaching a rifle to a head, Arca-Swiss being the most widely used today (35mm-wide plate with a 45-degree dovetail). Cameras have used this interface for many years, providing an endless variety of plates and head options for shooters. Today, there are a slew of handguards and rail adapters that have an integral Arca interface. Companies like Really Right Stuff (RRS) manufacture quick disconnect (QD) heads that attach to either Arca or Picatinny, giving you much more flexibility. Other great options are adjustable saddles that grip rifles without attachment points and even mounts containing QD magnet sockets, like the Spartan Precision hardware.
3: Rifle Placement
Resist positioning a tripod where you would attach a bipod. If possible, mount your tripod as close to the centerline or magwell as you can. This will give you a greater side-to-side radius without having to shuffle your body. Being a little forward-heavy will also help manage recoil and help with follow-up shots. Your tripod head will be less fatigued too. As a bonus, mounting to the rear allows you to keep your bipod attached for quick prone options.
4: Don’t Sweep the Leg
As a general rule, one leg should aways point towards your target. If you have multiple targets, split the difference and point the forward leg into an area between them. Doing this will allow 130 degrees of side-to-side rotational movement without a leg being in your way. Two legs facing towards the rear will also manage recoil more evenly.
5: Getting Behind the Rifle
With your tripod height properly set, bring your shoulder to the buttpad with your upper body straight up and down. Position your lower body as you would shooting offhand, kneeling, or sitting. With a hand on the grip, obtain a proper cheekweld and bring your support hand underneath the buttpad, locking it into the shoulder. Your support hand should swing free to adjust and lock the head. Let the tripod do all the heavy lifting. You should now be able to gently let the rifle completely go, and it’ll stay on target without issues.
6: No Touching
Any gripping or bracing on the tripod legs will likely translate into movement and vibration, affecting accuracy. Once correctly balanced, your interaction with the tripod should be minimized to making fine adjustments to the head tension. Some tripods have a centerline hook underneath for bags and weights. Avoid using these, since a slung weight is likely to pendulum and upset the rifle’s stability. A lower-mounted rock bag is a better solution for stability if needed.
7: Quick Reference Marks
Since we’re naturally creatures of habit, you’ll tend to repeat the same few leg positions used for your particular shooting style. That being the case, it makes sense to make note of your favorite positions and heights by marking the legs with a Sharpie or paint-pen. Now, you’ll get to your favorite configuration in seconds. My tripods are covered with reference marks for my most common heights.
8: Twist Locks
Pick a tripod model that uses twist locks on the leg extensions instead of cam locks. Twist locks are simple enough to use one-handed and tend to not snag on branches, gear, and everything else. A twist lock does a better job at keeping out dust, sand, moisture, and won’t mechanically fail as quickly as a cam lock.
9: Extending Legs Like a Pro
Almost all tripods have telescoping legs. Each section gets thinner as you work towards the foot. Inexperienced users pull the feet sections out first and work up towards the head. This creates a weaker platform. To extend properly, work your way from the head down, extending and locking each section until you obtain the height you need. This way, you are utilizing the strongest sections first, keeping the weaker sections supported inside. If minor height adjustments are needed, it is fastest to unlock and manipulate first sections near the head.
10: Carbon is King
Avoid aluminum tripods when carbon fiber is an option. Carbon is much stiffer and better at managing vibration from wind and shooter movement. Carbon fiber is roughly 10 times stronger than aluminum and extremely lightweight for its strength, making it a no-brainer for hunting. Prior to the popularity of carbon fiber, preferred tripods were made of hardwood for the same reasons. While there is a significant cost difference, carbon fiber is well worth the price tag.
That’s my top 10. There are many more little tips and tricks, but these are the main ones that’ll put the average shooter on a better path. Hopefully, you learned a nugget or two that is worth applying to your next range visit with a tripod.