The Tactical Chicken Wing

The tactical chicken wing isn’t a ghost pepper-soaked buffalo wing you use as a tertiary weapon in a street fight. It’s a shooting technique that has seemingly faded from existence. The chicken wing is when the elbow of your firing arm is positioned rather high, with the elbow often high enough to be in line with your neck.

Tactical chicken wing

If you pop out the chicken wing at a shooting class these days, you’d likely be quickly corrected. You might also get called a 1980s SWAT operator. The chicken wing goes back well beyond the 1980s, but it’s not a completely invalid or out-of-date technique. Like most things, it does have its place, although with that said, there is some nuance to be discussed. Today we are getting deep into the weeds. We are discussing the history, pros, and cons of the chicken wing.

The Tactical Chicken Wing — Historical Retrospective

It’s tough to say exactly when this technique became part of the rifleman’s lexicon of techniques. Muskets became popular for combat in the 16th century. An early battle where Pike and Shot warfare became the way to win was the Battle of Cerignola. Paintings of that war show the musketeers with a nice high chicken wing; although these are only reproductions of a battle, the artists likely never witnessed the men in action.

US Marine demonstrates the chicken wing arm position while firing a rifle.
It works better with a full-length rifle but causes you to assume a bladed stance, which isn’t great for armor.

I found some early manuals relating to soldiers and small arms. The earliest I found was from 1876. It says, “The rifle should be pressed firmly into the middle of the shoulder, the right elbow being raised to a level with the neck…”

A manual of rifle shooting from the Marine Corps prior to World War 1 wants Martines to get that elbow nice and high. An ROTC manual from 1922 claims that holding the right arm too low is a common cause of marksmanship issues.

vintage war-time magazine page with soldier demonstrating chicken wing arm position
It’s old-school approved.

The chicken wing was the favorite technique of the time. While we associate it with LAPD SWAT guys in modified bread trucks blasting the top hits of 1985, it dates much further back than that.

Why the Chicken Wing?

What’s the point of the chicken wing? There is no way that it stuck around for that long if it was a bad technique, right? The chicken wing is actually pretty handy to traditional marksmanship. When you lift that elbow up, you can move your pectoral out of the way and create a deeper shoulder pocket that allows you to set that rifle into your shoulder.

Try this and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Pull your right elbow downwards and rest it against your body. Take your left hand and feel for that pocket between your pec and shoulder. Now rotate your elbow upwards, and you’ll feel that pocket deepen and increase.

Travis Pike shooting rifle with right arm in chicken wing position
The ole wing works better with a full-sized rifle.

This creates a much more stable position and allows you to minimize some of the movement you get in the standing position. It really deepens that pocket and allows you to get that stock nice and deep into your shoulder. For maximizing accuracy in the standing position, it’s quite handy. If you are using a more traditional stock, you’ll likely find yourself naturally floating to a slight chicken wing position. Longer stocks are also easier to handle with a chicken wing. Look at pics of Marines and soldiers shooting the M16A2 from the early 90s. and it’s got more chicken wings than Zaxby’s.

The chicken wing is really at home with sport shooting, hunting, and marksmanship competitions, with rifles. If you watch Olympic-level skeet shooters, you’ll see a slight chicken wing in play as well. Sometimes it makes sense, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Where the Wing Comes Up Short

The main problem with using the chicken wing these days revolves around how and what you are shooting. Shorter carbines with adjustable stocks and pistol grips kind of kill the need to chicken wing.

chicken wing carbine
It looks awkward and doesn’t work well with a carbine.

Also, Wearing modern armor eliminates your ability to access that pec-shoulder pocket, which eliminates the main advantage of the clucking wing technique. Another issue is that when you get that elbow nice and high, you are likely blading the target. When wearing armor, your biggest section of armor is the front and rear portions. Shooting from a bladed stance presents a less armored region to your opponent.

Another problem is that the wing sticking out can be an issue. When you are trying to get behind cover or concealment, the last thing you want is that arm sticking out from behind your cover or concealment. And when clearing rooms, that wing sticking out is a great way to catch your elbow on doorways and obstacles.

chicken wing behind cover
The chicken wing does make you a little exposed from behind cover.

With the GWOT being defined by carbines and body armor, it’s not a big surprise to see that the chicken wing fell out of favor. A squared-up isosceles stance with your weight forward makes a lot more sense than a bladed stance with a wing.

If you want a pain that smarts, ram that thing into a doorway as you make entry. It’s a great way to get a dead arm and to find the inspiration to spew a litany of curses. There is a time and place for everything, and when it comes time to shoot tactically, it ain’t the time for the wing.

Travis Pike aims rifle with elbow tucked
Keep it tucked with a carbine.

Fried or BBQed?

How do you like your wings? Fried or BBQed, or maybe even buffalo if you like things spicy. The tactical chicken wing is best when served appropriately in the right situation. In a combative environment or in a practical shooting competition, the chicken wing doesn’t really have a place.

In a world where no one is shooting back, it’s perfectly suited for higher-level marksmanship. Hunting or competing in sports like NRA High Power is a great time to embrace the ole wing. How high is up to you, but it’s fairly easy to find the right spot. Bring it up to your neck, or keep it a little lower; do what feels right and doesn’t require a ton of muscle to control and obtain.

Is the chicken wing for you? Does it fit your needs and situations? Or are you all tactical all the time? Let us know below!

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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