When it comes to hitting what you shoot at, human frailties become obvious in a hurry. Muscles tremor, hearts beat a rhythmic, aim-defying cadence, and adrenaline can cause a miniature physiological earthquake when attempting an all-important shot at a big buck or distant X-ring.
Ever since wily American Revolutionary fighters decided that they didn't have to stand in a line in the open while the enemy flung large lead balls in their direction, good shooters and hunters everywhere have been finding ways to steady their aim.
Sandbags, backpacks and various types of multi-legged shooting supports, such as bipods, all have their place. Of them, backpacks are the most portable (and have the added convenience of being along for the adventure anyway) and sandbags are the most stable, but bipod-type rests offer the best combination of stability and portability.
There's one classic, popular type of multi-legged, stowable shooting support (read: bipods) that outranks all others combined in popularity, and we'll look at it in detail, but it's worth noting that it's not the only fish in the stability sea. There are also monopods and tripods in various guises, both those that mount semi-permanently to one's rifle and in non-attached variations.
We may as well take a look at the elephant in the room first. Far and away the most popular type of legged shooting rests are the traditional bipods secured firmly to the rifle's forend. It's a favorite for several reasons. First, it works, and with correct technique, works incredibly well. Plus, once one is attached to your rifle, it's always there, folded out of the way but deployable in just a second or two.
Many variations exist, including different lengths designed for shooting from the prone position, from shooting benches and from the sitting position, as well as those with tilting-head designs that make it easy to rapidly adapt to less-than-level terrain. Most bipods have telescoping legs that provide a variety of heights — within limits.
The type of shooting you do most should determine what height best fits your needs. I'm a prone kind of guy, and I like the shortest 6- to 9-inch adjustable bipods the best, because they are the most comfortable for me and offer the most versatility when it comes to shooting uphill and downhill. I've got shooting buddies with deeper chests than I that need the slightly taller 9- to 13-inch bipods.
Contrary to traditional prone-shooting technique, when getting behind bipods, it's not best to be angled off to the side with one knee drawn up. Get straight behind the rifle, spread your feet at least shoulder-width apart and lay them down, and used your toes to scooch forward and "load" the bipod. Ideally, you don't want the feet on the bipods resting directly on a concrete or other hard surface, for two reasons.
First, when the rifle fires, vibration will travel down through the legs and "buzz" against the concrete as the projectile travels down the bore, which can cause the rifle to bounce ever so slightly and throw the shot high. Second, it's hard to load bipods standing on a hard surface, because the feet skate. If possible, dig the feet of the bipods into then ground slightly, or shoot off of a mat with a ridge across the front that you can push bipods against.
Why is loading bipods so important? Most critically, it helps control muzzle shift caused by recoil. If you're lying directly behind the rifle and have bipods loaded correctly, you can spot your own bullet impacts at longer distances, even with rifles that recoil substantially. Loading bipods also adds vital consistency in the way your shoulder supports the rifle. I've shot many of my best groups off a bipod, from the prone position. Any more, I prefer it to shooting off of a bench and sandbags.
The only drawback to rifle-mounted bipods is that they add, depending on manufacture and model, from eight ounces to a pound and a half, and is more awkward to carry than a rifle with a sleek, bipod-free forend.
Without doubt, the most popular bipods — by many times over — are Harris's outstanding versions. Generally you're best served spending the extra few dollars and getting the Series S-LM model with the tilting head and stepped leg adjustments. Most shops carry them for around $105.
Another popular brand, one that's gaining a good name among the tactical precision crowd, is the Atlas. The Atlas offers 30 degrees worth of panning movement, which is arguably an advantage on moving targets, but retails at a minimum of about $200. The more advanced models sell for $300.
One other type of bipod bears mentioning. A company called GPS LLC (and perhaps others) makes vertical fore-grips for AR-15-type rifles that more or less turns into serviceable bipods. Internal feet come out of the bottom, and while they have some flex and little adjustability, they are much better than nothing. Price ranges around $100 to $150.
Finally, in terms of two-legged shooting supports, traditional cross-sticks mustn't be neglected. With specialized technique, these can prove invaluable; without a little know-how, they're just frustrating. For best results, get your back against something firm such as a tree trunk, boulder, or even a truck tire — it's amazing how doing so stabilizes your aim. It also helps to get both of your elbows firmly planted on your knees, rather than just letting them float and expecting the cross-sticks to do all the work.
A set of light, sitting-height cross-sticks can be really effective when paired with a rifle-mounted bipod. (Sure, you'll just go prone with bipods if terrain allows, but what if the grass or sage is above your knees?) Once in sitting position with the cross-sticks in place, hook the legs of the bipod around the legs of the cross-sticks and lean forward against the resulting pressure. It's awkward at first, but practice until you get the knack. You'll thank me someday.
These are the ugly stepchildren of the legged rifle rest community. For the most part, they just aren't as useful and versatile as their two-legged and three-legged brethren.
When used as a primary rest, monopods aren't typically attached to the rifle like bipods. Rather, it's carried in the hand in the form of a walking stick with a Y-shaped top, or a short, compact stick that's the appropriate length for shooting from the sitting position.
Monopods are quick, very quick, but don't offer much support. The best uses I've found for a monopod is when sitting and calling predators, just to keep my rifle up and near shooting position while I work my call and try to hold still. That way I can bring the rifle into action with a minimum of movement, and if I need to shift it right or left to take the shot I can just hop the monopod slightly to the side, which is much easier than manipulating a set of crossed sticks to one side or the other.
Alternately, a walking stick with a top that's the right height and shape to serve as a quick rest can be really handy in mountainous terrain. I've taken more long ridge-to-ridge shots with my rifle rested over a daypack than any other, so pairing your daypack-rested precision skills with a walking stick/monopod for quick shots up close works great.
When used as a secondary rather than primary rest, the monopod typically takes the form of a small, folding leg bolted to the underside of the buttstock. They tend to be heavy, often quite heavy, and costly — around $100, give or take. I've used an Accu-Shot monopod with good results, but candidly, unless I'm working with a rifle that I'm not going to carry anywhere, I prefer to use a small bag with super-light fill or — even better — a traditional stiff shooting glove on my left hand to provide rear support.
For the most part, three-legged shooting supports take the form of standing-length shooting sticks. Most modern sets telescope down short enough to serve in the sitting position, and actually work great employed that way.
While you'll find a few American hunters using three-legged shooting sticks, Africa is where they reign. Heavy underbrush dictates that most shot opportunities are going to be from the standing position only, and as most shooters know, an unsupported off-hand shot is the most difficult to make. A stable, three-legged set of shooting sticks that can be set up quickly makes a world of difference when adrenaline and excitement destroy composure.
To use, flick one leg forward and spread the other two in front of you, then slide into position with the rifle in the cross atop the sticks. Spread your feet broadly side-to-side to minimize lateral sway, and use your support hand to make quick adjustments to the height of the sticks if needed. With the target or animal in your crosshairs, breath, relax and squeeze. For long shots, when you've got the time, ask a buddy to grip the stick beside you and rest your elbow on his arm or shoulder to add another element of stability.
For shooters that expect to take shots from dense grass or brush but typically have plenty of time to set up and aren't packing their gear far, a cradle atop a set of strong three-legged sticks can be a real asset. Once set up, you can lay the rifle in place and relax until the moment of truth. While shooting, the cradle will offer relatively good stability. However, you'd better have a stout, patient nephew to pack the durned thing along with you because they are bulky, heavy and unwieldy.
Another type of common shooting aid that qualifies as a tripod (three legs and/or feet) is the traditional benchrest such as the premium models made by Sinclair International, a company known for its precision shooting tools and accessories. Most commonly found with a small leather or cloth sand-filled bag atop the rest, they're about the best thing going for shooting tiny groups.
When using one, be sure you rest your forend on it in precisely the same spot every time you shoot, and be sure that no metal contacts metal. If your rifle has a somewhat flexible forend, pull the benchrest close to you and place it so that the rifle rests on the small sandbag right at or just in front of the forward action bolt. That will prevent rest-exerted pressure from bending the forend and applying accuracy-destroying, inconsistent contact with the barrel.