A trip to the rifle range can be heaven or hell. Follow this advice from start to finish and your range sessions will always lean more toward a walk in the clouds. Trust me—whenever I divert from this program, I end up getting burnt.
A Smart Start
Create a gear checklist that you can refer to every time before heading to the shooting range. (I’ve included a bare-bones checklist at the bottom of this post for you to use as a starting point.) Unless you’re lucky enough to have a shooting range in your backyard, forgetting a critical item can waste a lot of time and energy.
If you’re shooting a new setup, bring along the factory manuals for your rifle, optics, or accessories. Making adjustments will be easier and you won’t second-guess your protocol.
Mount optics from the comfort of your home and do it right. An Ultra Scope Mounting Kit from Wheeler Engineering is worth the investment to ensure your optics are mounted level and properly locked down. Use high-quality scope mounting hardware. Check screws—especially action screws—on your rifle to confirm they’re all torqued to spec. Loose screws are easily overlooked, often leading to reduced accuracy and a frustrating mystery on the bench.
Come to the range with a minimum of three different types of ammo. There’s no telling what load your rifle will shoot most accurately, so it’s imperative to try multiple blends—just select bullet types and bullet weights that are designed to handle your target species. Rather than buying full boxes of ammo for every test load, cut costs by hitting up your buddies to see if they have extra rounds in your chosen caliber.
Basics Of Rifle Sight-In
Start with a large, clean target area (4 ft. x 4 ft. is a good size). I prefer bright, reactive targets with a 1-inch grid pattern—Caldwell’s 16-inch Orange Peel Sight-In targets are the best. Align the targets border to border so there are no gaps between them. This will make it much easier to see where bullets are hitting, and how they’re grouping, while minimizing ammo waste.
Bore sighting is used to get bullets on paper by roughly aligning your optic with the rifle’s bore. It’s always the first step in the rifle sight-in process. Start close to your target at 10-20 yards. You can use a laser bore sighter, such as the one included in the aforementioned Ultra Scope Mounting Kit. (Warning: Never forget to remove a laser bore sighter from the rifle’s muzzle before shooting.) The other option is to “manually” bore sight: Set the rifle on a solid rest; without moving the rifle, look through the barrel and adjust the optic so it’s centered on the same point you see through the barrel. Test fire a round and it should hit close to where you expected. Make windage adjustments if necessary, and adjust the elevation so the bullet hits approximately an inch below your aiming point. Now it’s time to move out to 100 yards.
Fire a single three-shot group with each type of ammo at 100 yards. Why 100 yards? Most optics are built to make adjustments based on a target distance of 100 yards—for instance, one MOA of adjustment is about 1 inch at 100 yards. Plus, most conversations about rifle shooting are framed around the 100-yard standard. Why three shots per group? Three shots is a fair representation of how many shots you might need to fire during a real hunting scenario, and it also gives you one shot for a margin of error (bad shot or “flier” from shooter blunder).
Allow the barrel to cool to ambient temperature between each three-shot group, as a hot barrel can affect accuracy and lead to an unfair assessment of your test loads. Use this cooling time to measure the group size and mark it on the target, noting the corresponding load so you don’t lose track of hits.
Don’t be surprised if every type of ammo prints groups in very different areas of your target. Again, every load will shoot differently in every rifle. Focus on finding the load that produces the smallest group size. Once you’ve identified the best/most accurate load for your rifle, it’s time to adjust the optic so it’s zeroed with that load.
There are many schools of thought on zeroing a rifle. What’s most important is to zero your rifle so it’s most likely to match your hunting style. Unless you’re a long-range hunter, probably the most sensible zeroing technique is to use what’s referred to as MPBR (Maximum Point Blank Range).
Follow A Shooting Routine
Every rifleman should have a basic shooting routine. Practice this routine on the range and it’ll become second nature, making for less stress and more efficiency in the field when it’s time to face your quarry.
Remember shooting fundamentals. A controlled trigger squeeze and a stable shooting platform are the two most important essentials to work into your shooting routine—a sacrifice of either will compromise your accuracy. Practice dry-firing your rifle at home (unloaded with ammo locked up separately) to develop muscle memory and become one with your trigger. Use any available objects to steady your rifle and anchor your body while shooting: lie prone and rest your rifle on a backpack; lean into a tree with your back for extra support; or wrap your rifle sling around your elbow. Less movement equals more accuracy.
A rifle’s barrel can be touchy … so don’t allow it to touch anything! There’s a reason most barrels are free floated in the stock. A concept called “barrel harmonics” relates to the vibrations in a barrel that can influence the dynamics between the bullet and the rifling of the bore. In layman’s terms: A bullet can do funky stuff in a barrel with any weird vibrations. Use the forearm of your rifle as the primary resting point.
Once you’re keyed into the fundamentals, choose your shooting routine. You’ll want a routine that gives you enough time to get on target and get steady aim, yet not so much time that you’re liable to miss a shot opportunity. Here’s my shooting routine as an example: 1. Spot target. 2. Range target. 3. Establish a shooting rest. 4. Raise optic to dominant eye while keeping eye on target. 5. Turn off rifle’s safety. 6. Inhale while settling reticle on target. 7. Exhale while squeezing trigger and fire upon moment of pause in exhale. 8. Reload rifle while keeping optic on target.
Practice Like You Hunt
Hunters are athletes. It doesn’t matter if you’re climbing mountains or treestands, hunting requires skills that can only be honed through practice in order to compete against our four-legged opponents. As a rifleman, you should practice like you hunt.
Consider all possible shooting positions you might encounter in the field. Whether it be shooting from a prone position off a bipod, or standing with a freehand shot, you’ll never know how to exercise the best form and maximize accuracy until you try it with repetition.
Keep your heart and lungs pumping during these practice sessions. Rarely will you be calm and collected with a resting heartbeat when you’re in the field. Do some jumping jacks before getting on the trigger.
Practicing like you hunt will teach you how to improvise with shooting rests and get in tune with your body mechanics—not all of us can twist the same ways. You’ll discover the limitations of your shooting and your true ethical maximum range for various shots.
Shooting Range Gear Checklist
• Scoped rifle(s)
• Optics (spotting scope with tripod, rangefinder)
• Rifle case
• Tools (proper wrenches and drivers for optics, rifle, accessories)
• Shooting rest
• Gun cleaning kit with obstruction remover
• Stapler and hammer with nails
• Duct tape
• Ruler or caliper
• Permanent marker
• Hearing and eye protection