Basic maintenance, ammo selection, and sighting-in for rifle season
By Matt Emmons
Archery hunters spend lots of time in the months before season tuning their bows, preparing their equipment, and practicing their shooting. I would say that many of them know what kinds of shots they can and can’t confidently make. On the flip side, how many rifle hunters know their equipment that well? If you’re rifle hunting this year, are you confident will you be able to connect on a 300+ yard shot with the first bullet? If you’re not sure, or sitting on the fence, read this article!
Before you go to the range
To make the most of your time spent at the range, here are some things to check and do before you leave the house.
First, your rifle. If you’re using a bolt-action, make sure your bedding screws are tight. These are the screws on the underside of the rifle on the floorplate that hold the stock and action together. Loose or unevenly tightened bedding screws hurt accuracy. If your bedding screws are for a flathead or Phillips head screwdriver, try to change them for allen-head screws. Take a torque wrench and tighten each screw to about 45 inch-pounds. If you don’t have a torque wrench, try to tighten each screw evenly and snugly, but not so tight that you can’t get them loose again.
Next, make sure the rifle is clean. If you use copper-jacketed bullets, use a good copper solvent to get the copper fouling out of the barrel. If you use moly-coated bullets, use a solvent designed for removing the moly coating. My favorite solvents are from BoreTech, but there are several others that are also very good. Whichever you choose, follow the directions they recommend and make sure you get all of the fouling out. Make sure that you always clean from the breach to the muzzle and use a bore guide for the cleaning rod, if you can. Cleaning from the muzzle can damage the crown of the barrel and kill accuracy.
After you’re done these two steps, check any other equipment you have on the rifle. Make sure your scope mount is properly on the action and all the screws are tight. Next, make sure the scope is in the right place for your eye (meaning you comfortably have enough eye relief behind the scope), then make sure the scope rings are tight on the scope. Check that any other accessories on the rifle are functioning and clean.
Another part of your homework is to begin selecting ammo. This article is not meant for handloaders, but for the guy buying factory ammo from the store. Select the type of bullet you want to shoot based on the game you’re going after and possible distances you might be shooting. In a nutshell, do you want to shoot a bonded bullet, solid bullet, partition, or some type of quicker expansion bullet? Once you have figured that out, look to see what different manufacturers offer. Going to the store and buying just one box of ammo with a bullet you like doesn’t mean it’s going to actually shoot well out of your rifle. I recommend trying at least three different types of ammo. Yes, that costs money, but you have to ask yourself how much it’s worth to you that you know you can connect on the animal of a lifetime when needed.
Once you’ve done all of this, you’re ready to go to the range.
At the range
Your rifle’s clean and ready, you’ve selected a few different types of ammo to try, so what’s next? First, pick a calm day to do your ammo testing and sighting-in work. It’s fine to practice shooting in the wind, but it’s not wise when doing any sort of equipment testing. Next, pick a good target. For testing the ammunition, I prefer a grid-style target with 1-inch squares. There are lots of options out there that have multiple aiming points, or bullseyes, on one target. I like the 1-inch grids because it’s easier to line up the scope crosshairs on the target and it makes measuring group size easier, too. The last step before shooting is to make sure you have a good set of sandbags, or a Lead Sled, and a stable shooting bench.
Put two to three targets up at 100 yards. On one of the targets, get the rifle sighted-in. It doesn’t have to be perfect yet, but you need to be able to hit a 3-inch circle. Sight the rifle in so that it’s hitting where you’re aiming. Do not factor in any bullet drop yet. That comes later. One note: take your time and make the best shots you can.
Once you have the rifle sighted in, move to the next target and begin testing ammo. Take the first type of ammo and shoot a 5-shot group at the bullseye of your choice. Any fewer rounds doesn’t give you a good sample size to see if the ammo is actually good or not. Make NO sight adjustments. Just shoot a group. You can always move the groups later. What’s important now is seeing how tight of a group each type of ammo can produce. Do the exact same thing with every different type of ammo you have at a different bullesye. When you’ve finished, go gather your targets and write on the target the brand of ammo, type, and bullet information. Measure the group size. Whichever one shoots the tightest group is the one you want to hunt with. If you have a couple that are close, shoot some more 5-shot groups with them if you like. Anything that shoots under 2 inches is acceptable, my goal is always 1-inch or less. With a factory rifle and factory ammo, however, finding something that produces 1-inch or less is challenging.
The next step is to thoroughly clean the rifle there on the range. If you have the luxury of time, let the rifle sit for an hour or two to cool down. If needed, come back another day. On a cold and clean barrel, you’ll want to see if your selected ammo duplicated what it did before. Another thing is to see where that first shot goes in relation to the others. In many rifles, the “cold bore” shot is predictably different than the next shots. If it is always outside of the group in the same place, take note of where it always goes because that’s the shot you’re taking on an animal.
Now you can sight the rifle in how you like. Know the ballistics of the ammo you have chosen. Are you going to sight-in to compensate for bullet drop, are you going to “hold over” at distance, are you going to take clicks on the elevation turret for longer shots? For me, it usually depends on the scope I’m using and the hunting situation. Generally, though, with a centerfire scoped rifle, I sight-in for a 200 yard zero. With most calibers I use, that means roughly 1.5 to 2 inches high at 100 yards. If I’m using a scope with a target-style elevation turret, I will take clicks for elevation for shots beyond 300 or so yards. Further, when I’m sighting-in to be 1.5 inches high at 100 yards, I make sure the heart of my 5-shot group is 1.5 inches high.
If you’ve done all of this work, the next piece of the puzzle is practice. I could write a lot more about shooting fundamentals and positions, but I’ll keep it simple for now and simply say practice as often as you can. Air rifles and .22’s are fantastic training tools to work on technique and get trigger time. If you hunt with a scope, put a scope on an air rifle or .22. Practice shooting from a rest, leaning against a tree, shooting prone using your backpack as a rest, kneeling, standing, or any other situations you might actually come across while hunting. If you can get out to shoot your hunting rifle, practice shots at distance. If you can, put targets at 300 or more yards. Don’t try to hit them just once, but time after time. The more you practice all of these things and know what you and your rifle are capable of, the more chance you have to make ethical shots in the field and bring home the game you’re after. Good luck and good hunting!
Matt is a member of the First Lite Team because he's about as unassuming as a hunter can be, and it just so happens he's got enough medals to sink a small boat. See what Matt is up to by following him here.
If you have questions regarding this post please leave Matt a comment here at the campfire.