aim small miss small

Aim Small, Miss Small

In Blog by Rich4 Comments

If you’ve been shooting at any point in your life you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Aim Small, Miss Small!” What does it really mean though? How does it apply to precision shooting in particular? There’s really two components to this phrase, the point of aim and the definition of the target at distance. The idea is fairly simple and I’ve found it to be quite true in real world shooting. It’s easiest to see with novice shooters. If you hand them a pistol, rifle, whatever, and tell them to shoot the target they will. The rounds will likely land all over the target whether it’s a traditional bullseye or something more modern. If you tell them to pick a small detail, as in aim at the top button of the bad guy’s shirt…the rounds group tighter. Aim small, miss small!

Aim Small, Miss Small

I honestly had never heard the phrase before Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” debuted in 2000. Obviously, the phrase has been around much longer than that and people have been using variations since who knows how long. I do like to pick some pop culture references when we talk about topics like this because it helps people visualize it and remember it. In the movie, Mel Gibson is reminding his sons about a lesson he’s taught them regarding shooting. They were setting up an ambush of a group of British soldiers. The boys say in unison, “Aim small, miss small!” Again there’s a sort of reference towards young or inexperienced shooters because he’s reminding his children of this shooting advice.

I mentioned that there are usually two components to this phrase earlier. The first component is the point of aim. This part of the lesson is universal. Pick a small point of aim and you will hit a smaller part of your target. If all you do is shoot at the side of a barn, you will hit all over the side of the barn. If you pick a small knot in one of the boards that makes up the door, your shots will group around the knot. It’s very easy to look at targets and just try to hit the target rather than some smaller detail on the target. I encourage you to pick a small detail whether you’re shooting pistol, rifle, shotgun, whatever. It will improve the consistency of your shots and raise the probability of you scoring hits shot after shot.

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Real world example, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Jefferson County was being shot at and returned fire sending a bullet down the bad guy’s barrel

Yes, that’s an extreme example, and no I don’t really think the Deputy was trying to do this when it happened. However, this has happened many times in Law Enforcement. Suspects or targets depicting suspects will often see a cluster of hits around the hand holding the gun. Why? That’s what the officers are focusing on when they fire so that’s what they hit. It’s aim small, miss small taken to the extreme. I wanted to show this to you guys to illustrate how powerful the concept can be. If you pick a small point of aim and focus on it your odds of hitting that smaller point of aim go up quite a bit over people shooting at a more general point of aim.

Aim Small, Miss Small at Distance?

Yes, this still works at distance. Pick a smaller detail on the target you are shooting at and your odds of a hit go up. Try shooting at the bolts holding the steel target on the hangar. If there is no detail and it’s painted plain white, try to hit a mark where somebody already hit it that day. If you’re the first one up, try quartering the target with your crosshair and try to land the bullet dead center. Basically, do all you can to pick something other than the entire target to shoot at!

This is where that second part of the aim small, miss small saying comes in with regard to precision shooting. Your scope and your magnification. I’ll tell you right now I tend to live most of my shooting between about 8x and 18x with my rifles. If you think about people that shoot the smallest groups on earth in Benchrest and F-Class they use a lot of magnification. That’s not a coincidence. If you can’t see the details at distance, you can’t pick smaller things to aim for. I’m not recommending you use a 40x scope for tactical rifle shooting so slow down. Remember in tactical rifle shooting the goal is to get hits without any sighting shots or preparation. You walk up to the line, lay down cold, and make the hits. However, you still need to see what you’re shooting at!

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Be like the Deputy…try and hit him in the barrel, or the eye, don’t just try to hit the bad guy in general

You don’t necessarily need a $4000 scope to do really well in a tactical shooting environment. People do more with less all the time. What I’m suggesting is that you keep this in mind as your distance from the target increases. A 1x-4x scope might be just fine for an AR15 you only plan to shoot out to three or four hundred yards. If you want to shoot farther it helps to have more magnification. You don’t want to dial all the way in and fill up your scope with the target. You do want to have enough magnification to see the target, and some space around it in case you miss so you can adjust. If you think of your field of view through the scope as 100% of what you can see, try this. Adjust your magnification so the target fills 25-50% of that field of view. You want to see both sides of the target to spot a miss, and that should allow you to see enough detail to pick a fine aiming point!

Wrapping Up

Different strokes for different folks, so try this and see if it helps! If you have targets that you set up that are large enough to help zero, throw a little 1″ paster dot on it too. That gives you a fine point of aim while still having large amounts of space around it to help you zero. Try shooting at bolts on steel targets. Try hitting buttons on a bad guy target’s shirt. Pick a pock mark from a prior hit to try and stack rounds on. Just don’t try to hit the target, try to hit a specific spot ON the target! Then I want you to come back here and post in the comments below if it helped or not! If you have your own suggestions, drop them in the comments as well!

Owner and Proprietor of AccuracyTech, LLC. Rich is a Firearms Enthusiast, Precision Rifle Competitor, and Writer. He is committed to bringing readers quality reviews and articles related to the Precision Shooting Sports. If you have any questions for him, please use the contact form on the site.


  1. You have a good site, keep up the good work.

    Growing up I would shoot at nail heads, bullet holes in a piece of wood, an acorn on a fence post and so forth, the smaller the target the better. Holds true to this day, just as you have explained. Turning the scope power down till the cross hairs or target dot covers the bulls eye or some small part of the target really will tighten up you group.


  2. Another idea… I have a really bad “wobble” and hitting really small targets consistently is a problem, ie I tend to circle the wagon with hits. Recently I put a 5 shot sub MOA group right around a dot at 200 yards, I also tend to do this short range with a pistol. I have a hard time hitting the dot itself but cluster the hits right around it. My wobble gets worse as I focus on a specific point. Now that I am getting into longer range stuff I am bringing some of my defensive pistol background with me. A lot of my aiming is with my peripheral vision, meaning I use the edges of the target to aim rather than a specific point, bad guys don’t have bullseye’s on them. I see the edges and use them to locate my shots. I think what makes this work for me is staying focused on the reticle in my scope yet I still see my target edges to use for locating the shot. Definitely a different way than most people aim but it works for me. Great site by the way, really appreciate the common sense advice!

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