Congratulations on your new rifle, and I wish you much joy in your future relationship. I trust that you haven’t bought anything that is shiny, or too heavy, or too light, or that kicks more than you can handle. If all that is so, your next step is to find out how well the thing actually shoots—or doesn’t. There are three stages to this process:
1. Check for Function
First, you want to weigh the trigger with a spring gauge, or ask your gunsmith to do it. It should break at not less than 3 pounds and no more than 4. Some very good modern factory triggers require no work at all, but there are also a lot of dogs. If yours barks, it’s off to the gunsmith. There’s no getting around this. A bad trigger on a rifle is like bad steering on a car.
At the range, load the magazine to see if the rifle feeds reliably. A surprising number don’t, particularly those chambered for short/fat cartridges. If your gun is a bolt-action, don’t work the bolt timidly; slam it back and forth. That’s the way they’re designed to be used. It should go through chambering, firing, extracting, and ejecting without a hitch. If it doesn’t, send it back to the factory or take it to a gunsmith.
2. Check the Optics
Make sure the scope-base and bedding screws are tight. These are often installed by uncaring hourly-wage workers, and you can save yourself lots of grief with a few turns of a screwdriver.
Speaking of pain and woe, don’t mount your scope unless you know how to do it correctly. This is so much of a problem that two gunmakers I know refuse to sell their rifles unless they perform this job. Have a gunsmith do it.
The more precisely you can aim, the more accurately you’ll shoot. Generally, you want to have at least 8X available, but personally, I like 9X or 10X a lot better, and on varmint rifles I consider 20X the minimum. Make sure the scope works. More than once I’ve seen a gun apparently go haywire, and it was actually the scope that went weird. It’s easy to spot one with loose adjustments or a busted reticle: The point of impact won’t move up or down or right or left with any consistency, and the rifle it’s mounted on won’t group at all. Few guns, no matter how accuracy-impaired, won’t give you some kind of a group if the scope is working.
3. Check for Accuracy
Pick your ammo. Let’s say your new rifle is a .270. Choose from among 130-, 140-, or 150-grain bullets. What matters most is the type: Do you want tough, premium slugs for tough animals, or the squishy, standard variety for squishy animals? Once you decide, buy a box of each weight in the appropriate type and see which gives you the best groups.
You should do your shooting as early or as late in the day as possible. The more sun there is, the more mirage there is. Avoid wind. At 100 yards, anything short of a gale has little effect on big-game bullets, but strong air currents are fatal to rimfire accuracy and no help if you’re trying for very small groups with a varmint rifle.
If you’re shooting at a public range, pick a bench where you are not next to some dunce who thinks he is Rambo and is blasting away with a semiauto that spits empties at you. When this happens to me I pin a tag that says “LEPROSY PATIENT” on my shirt. This clears the area very quickly.
Don’t let your barrel get so hot that you can’t hold on to it. If an electrical outlet is handy, bring a fan along and stand the rifle in front of it for a few minutes. Or, find some shade and stand it butt down, barrel up. It’ll cool faster.
Here are your goals:
• At least three (or, if you’re of a suspicious nature, go for five) consecutive three-shot groups of 1½ inches or less for a big-game rifle, and five-shot groups of ½ inch or less for a varmint gun or a .22. Shoot at 100 yards, except for rimfires, which should be shot at 25 yards. Really good big-game rifles should print under an inch and varminters close to ¼ inch.
• No flyers, which are errant shots not caused by shooter error.
• All the groups printing in the same place on the target.
That’s it. If you want to sum up this whole article up in a single sentence: “make sure the damn thing works” would do nicely. It’s amazing how many people never take the trouble.