By Stan Trzoniec
Sighting-in a rifle is a chore that too many hunters put off until right before the deer season rolls around. In terms of excitement, checking the zero on an existing gun ranks up there with painting the house or cutting the grass. You know the drill: Gather up the heavy rest, sandbags, spotting scope and other gear, and head to the range.
Having the right equipment makes a big difference. A solid front rifle rest is a must, as is a stable rear bag to cradle the rifle butt. Such bags are usually filled with sand and small enough to be moved without much effort.
To shoot small groups like those you see in magazines, the bench you use must be stable. It should be the best one at the range, made from heavy lumber or reinforced concrete, and firmly attached to the ground. The last thing you need is to have a bench "walk" while you're shooting. Get everything out now, including your front rest, sandbag, ammunition, spotting scope, ear and eye protection. Once you're settled in and shooting, stay there. Don't pop up and down going back and forth to the car for supplies or additional equipment. You'll shoot more consistent groups if you stay put during a string of shots.
Readying a New Gun
Before I head to the range with a new gun, I tear it down, clean it thoroughly and make sure everything is working right so I don't have to return it to the factory for warranty work. This means checking the action for smoothness, getting rid of the machining oil that's always associated with new guns, and removing the stock for a complete inspection. Separating the action from the stock not only allows you to see the quality of the manufacturer's work, but also lets you look for hidden cracks or defects. While I've only had to send one stock back in over 50 years of shooting, it's still much better to check it prior to shooting the rifle.
When mounting the scope, make sure the mounting holes on the receiver are clean and free of factory oil. Mount the bases carefully, and use a drop of Loctite on each base screw to keep them from loosening. Mount the scope, again making sure that it fits perfectly within the scope rings, check the reticle for proper alignment and adjust the eye relief.
At the range, sit down and get comfortable. Take the front rifle rest and place it under the gun just behind the front sling swivel. Getting consistency off a bench requires keeping the rifle in the same place on the rest shot after shot. Some rifle rests have a fore-end stop to keep the gun in the same location. If yours is so equipped, use it.
The sandbag goes under the buttstock at the rear of the gun. Align the rifle to the target downrange. If the crosshairs are not dead center, use the rear bag to align them. Grasp the forward part of the bag with your left hand (if you're a right-handed shooter). Move the bag up or down, left or right until the crosshairs are where you want them. You control the rifle with your left hand. It should stay in this position during the entire session. Never use the left hand to hold the fore-end.
Your right hand is for firing the gun and keeping it snug to shoulder. Use only the first joint of your trigger finger to fire the gun. The third, fourth and pinky finger should be wrapped around the pistol grip with just enough pressure to hold the rifle against your shoulder. Never steer the gun with your right hand. This will cause lateral stringing on the target.
Tips for Consistency
Try to keep the same cheek pressure on the stock of the gun round after round. The point in this whole exercise is to see how good the rifle shoots, not how well you shoot. If you can keep all the variables to a minimum, you'll wind up with some fine groups.
When shooting in warm weather, try to get a bench that's shaded and let the barrel cool for three to five minutes between each group. Groups are a personal preference. I like three shots for practical accuracy; others prefer five. Varmint hunters who shoot all day want to see what their barrel will do under similar conditions, so five- or even 10-shot groups are in order.
If the rifle is new, go easy on it. Never rapid fire a new gun. Shoot three rounds, rest, and then repeat the process until all of your ammunition is expended. You may not be satisfied with the first couple of groups a new rifle shoots, so keep experimenting with various factory loads or handloads until you find the one your rifle likes. I'm not satisfied until I can get a deer rifle to shoot 1-inch groups. The requirements are even tougher for my varmint rigs. Here, I'm looking for groups under an inch or smaller.
Reading targets is another important aspect of benchresting. If your shots are stringing horizontally, chances are you're flinching, yanking the trigger or using your right hand to steer the gun. Remember, squeeze the trigger; don't punch it just to get off the shot.
Vertical stringing is common with rifles that heat up quickly, so allow the barrel to cool for a true evaluation of your rifle's capability. One shot that's separated from a fine group could mean the barrel is starting to foul from too much shooting or was not cleaned properly.
Weather is another factor. Freezing weather or air temperatures over 90 degrees can make a rifle shoot erratically. Windy days are out, too, especially for smaller cartridges that are prone to drift.
Making sure your gun shoots where it's supposed to doesn't have to be a chore. Testing a new rifle, working with handloads and developing the confidence to take the tough shots overshadows any of the negatives of shooting at the range. Besides, it sure beats painting the house or cutting the grass!
Reprinted from the September 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.