The Back Position

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Written by: David Minshall

The back or supine position (sometimes referred to as the Creedmoor position) was known at the end of the 18th century. Captain Ferguson demonstrating his famous breech loading flintlock rifle at Woolwich in 1776 was noted to have “hit the bull’s eye at 100 yards, lying with his back on the ground.”

The picture below is from Ezekial Baker’s “Remarks on Rifle Guns” (1823). Note that the sling is looped around the foot and it is this that takes the recoil. There is no support of the butt from the body and the head also remains unsupported.

Remarks on Rifle Guns

Colonel Beaufoy (c1808) noted that “as the position is not only awkward but painful, this method is seldom used as a position of practice.”

The back position was revived by a small number of shooters early in the 1860s with the introduction of competitive long range shooting at the NRA(UK) rifle meetings.

Reporting on the prize meeting of the Edinburgh and Midlothian Rifle Association, the Volunteer Service Gazette (28 June 1862) noted the following:

“In the leading competition – that for the Edinburgh Cup at 800 and 900 yards – the first prize was taken by Mr. Farquharson, gamekeeper to Lord Rosebery, who used a Henry rifle. The position in which Mr. Farquharson shot was the subject of much curiosity; but the fine shooting made proved its utility. Mr. Farquharson stretches himself on the ground upon his back, the rifle is supported upon the groove or hollow made by the limbs, the head is raised to take the sight by the left hand being placed under it, and the trigger is pulled by the right hand. The position is remarkably steady one, the rifle being sustained solidly over nearly all its length, and the vibration being reduced to a minimum”

Captain Heaton in his “Notes on Rifle Shooting” (1864) also includes comments about shooting from the back position and discusses that adopted by Mr. Farquharson:

“He lies on his back, or rather on his right side, crossing his left leg over his right, and rests his right elbow on the ground. The most remarkable part of the whole performance is the manner in which Mr. Farquharson twists his left arm round his neck and holds the butt of his rifle, thus giving support to his head. The rifle is allowed to rest comfortably as it were along the body. For those who are able to adapt themselves to this position, it is doubtless a very good one, as none can be more steady; but I fear few men will find themselves as much at ease as Mr. Farquharson appears to be, indeed must be, from the excellent shooting he makes.

“There is a kind of later edition of the ‘Farquharson Position,’ where the firer, instead of twisting his arm around his neck, holds the butt of his rifle with his left hand, and supports his neck by holding his coat-sleeve with his teeth.”

Captain Ross observed in 1868: “The Hythe kneeling position is an admirable one for soldiers and when firing in line, but it is not good for match shooting, or for skirmishing, especially if there be a strong wind. Almost all the good shots now shoot lying on the ground flat, and resting both elbows on the ground. Some shoot lying on their backs; and a countryman of mine (Farquharson) makes marvellous scores in that position; but almost all those who have imitated him have failed.” Sportascrapiana, edited by C.A. Wheeler (Simpkin, Marshal & Co., London, 1868)

The back position really developed during the 1870s when there was a great interest in long range shooting associated with the international matches held at Creedmoor (USA), Dollymount (Ireland) and Wimbledon (Great Britain). American long range marksmen had much success with the position, which provided a most stable platform for the rifle. It should be noted that in competition no artificial support (including slings) was permitted and the back position was superior to shooting prone unsupported. British riflemen began to adopt the position following American triumphs at long range and the position continued in use into the 20th century amongst match riflemen.

The variety of positions adopted gave the cartoonists of the day a source of mockery, as illustrated by the following cartoons two from Punch, magazine in England.

Position Optional

Dizzy: “What position shall you take?” –
Hartington: “The easiest!!” –
Dizzy: “So shall I!!!”
(Punch, 25 July 1875)
This is actually a political cartoon.
Benjamin Disraeli (“Dizzy”) was the Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party.
The Marquess of Hartington was Leader of the Liberal Party.

A Position in Practice

How a doubt suddenly occurred to a noted Wimbledon Prize-Winner
(who had volunteered for Zululand) as to the advantages of
the “back-position” in actual warfare!
(Punch, 30 August 1879)

The following lithograph was published in 1875. At that time the US Long Range Rifle Team travelled to Dollymount to compete against Ireland, and later to England to shoot at Wimbledon. It was by C.M. Vergnes for Courrier & Ives, and features American, Irish, English and Scottish riflemen.

The Crack Shots

Following are photographs of the back position in use with muzzle loading match rifles. Note that the shooters use heel mounted rear sights.

Back position (supine)
Back position (supine)

To support the head the shooter at the top has attached a rubber loop to the sleeve of the jacket which is clenched by the teeth. A variant of this is to loop a strap around the neck through which a hand is passed, as shown in the lower picture.

There are a number of variations of the position.

Sir Henry Halford is shown in the following two pictures. The upper picture is from 1877 when he was Captain of the Great Britain team to Creedmoor to shoot against the USA. The lower picture was published in 1893 and was titled ‘Sighting a Shot.’ Note that the placement of the butt varies between pictures. Halford is shown in 1877 firing a muzzle loading rifle with tang-mounted sight, where as in 1893 he has a breech-loading rifle with heel-mounted sight.

Sir Henry Halford
Sir Henry Halford

Two further contemporary views of shooters adopting similar positions as above are top, G.W. Yale (USA) and bottom H. Fulton (USA). Both illustrations are from the 1870s. Yale has a Sharps and Fulton a Remington breech loading rifle.

Yale and Fulton

Finally, the picture below is from the US range at Sea Girt in 1899. It shows a shooter in an unusual variant of the back position, known as the “Texas Grip” invented by Sergeant Tabler, of the 22d U.S. Infantry. The gun sling is under the left leg above the knee, that leg resting on the right, the right hand so placed that the trigger is pressed with the thumb, the left arm behind the head and the hand grasping the top of the butt.