In this weeks article on the Evolution of Tripod Shooting we’re going to take a closer look at the shift in tripod choices and technology. In Part 1 we talked a little about where tripod shooting came from, how it was first adapted to long range precision shooting, and the direction its now shifting toward. This week we’re going to discuss more about the individual changes we’re starting to see. Why is one tripod being picked over another? What would make one mounting system better than others when it comes to QD plates? What specifications should you be looking at when considering a tripod purchase for tripod shooting? Things like that, ready? Let’s get to it!
Manfrotto Tripod Shooting
Until recently the Manfrotto line of tripods were pretty standard when it came to tripods shooting with a precision rifle. They are well made and well known in the camera world. Most guys would opt to use the 055 series which came in both aluminum or carbon fiber versions. The aluminum version was significantly cheaper. The carbon fiber version was a good bit lighter. So if you were hiking around from one shooting position to another and had to carry your gear, the benefits of the carbon fiber were quickly realized. However, the weight of the tripod was about the extent of what most people looked at along with price when tripod shopping.
I learned pretty quickly hiking around those three days that ounces add up to pounds and pounds add up to pain! I’m being a little dramatic but the point is the more weight you carry the less fun you have. So over time I started saving up some cash and retired the 190 series Manfrotto to use with my own digital camera. Then it became time to seek a better tripod. I took the next logical step and bought a 055 series Carbon Fiber Manfrotto tripod!
The 055 series has served me fairly well the last few years but I’ll confess to the same ignorance many of us in the tactical precision rifle community suffered from. Not many guys thought about whether or not there was something better. I had taken the advice of Josh who manufactures the HOG saddle and mounted it directly to the center column of the Manfrotto. This eliminates the use of a grip head. Why? Frankly, it was because the Manfrotto grip heads didn’t have enough hulk to reliably support a 15-20lb tactical rifle. It made for better shooting and a more stable setup.
Really Right Stuff Tripod Shooting
Recently, the guys at Really Right Stuff have become heavily involved in precision rifle shooting. They’ve launched a number of new products designed specifically for tripod shooting. I’ve got some of their stuff here already and I’m going to work with it in the coming weeks. You can expect a full report on how all that goes. I can tell you right now that I’m already a believer. However, I want to discuss some of the differences in these lines of tripods and what might be more ideal for precision rifle shooting that makes the RRS tripods a better choice than the Manfrottos.
For starters, let’s think a bit about center of gravity. It’s fairly widely known and accepted when it comes to stability that the lower you are to the ground, the more stable the position tends to be. So lets just think of that as higher up bad, lower down good! Now lets take a look at the Manfrotto 055 again. One of Manfrotto’s features is a center column that rotates 360 degrees but can also be extended and tilted to the side 90 degrees. This means you can drop the tripod down to an almost flat level if you so desire. However, that capability also adds some height between the point where the legs meet at the center. I believe this is a potentially critical area to pay attention to!
Now have a look at the same HOG saddle mounted on a RRS tripod and leveling base. It’s lower. That’s a factor but likely not the most important of them. I believe that perhaps the single greatest factor that was traditionally overlooked was the weight rating of the tripod. Many camera tripods and especially the 190 and 055 series that were so common in precision shooting were only rated for between 8-18lbs or so. While its true that a 16lb rifle can be supported by a tripod rated for 18lbs the question becomes, how optimal is that?
By paying more attention to the weight rating on the tripod the real key to stability has been unlocked. While you don’t need a tripod rated for 50lbs to support an 18lb rifle, it certainly helps! This is fairly common sense when you think about it. TV Camera crews and professional photographers with big cameras that weigh more than the typical point and shoot use tripods with higher weight ratings for stability. It makes sense then that if a heavier camera needs a higher weight rating for stability so would a rifle! Especially when you’re standing and trying to engage targets hundreds of yards away rather than photographing something a lot closer. So it clearly applies to tripanod shooting!
Lastly, the manner in which the rifle is interfaced with the tripod is important. While tools like the HOG saddle are excellent for dropping a rifle onto a tripod there is a small trade off. The padding on the saddle helps mitigate recoil and dampen vibration. It’s also a pliable surface that allows the rifle a bit of wiggle room. By removing as much of the initial wiggle as possible you keep the crosshairs that much more stable. Any movement you see is introduced by the shooter and not by any give or any play in the interface. Is it worth the trade off in recoil dampening? That’s what Part 3 of this series is going to focus on!
So in summary I think the two keys to success when seeking the ultimate in stability for precision rifle shooting you want to try and reduce the distance between where the gun is mounted and the point where the tripod legs meet. Keep the rifle low on the tripod. Next up you want to make sure the weight rating on the tripod is sufficient for the rifle. Doubling the weight of the rifle is probably a good rule of a thumb. Lastly a rigid interface between the rifle and tripod seem to help reduce movement of the crosshairs. If you can direct mount the rifle to the tripod, it will help with stability. We’re going to be testing these conclusions over the next few weeks. We’ll report back as to what had the biggest effect, what helps, and what doesn’t so stay tuned! If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below!