How to Zero Your Rifle for a Hunt
Make sure your gun and glass are tuned just right at the range, so you’re on target in the field—where the stakes are high.
This fall was a big step for me in my journey as a hunter. After many years shooting shotguns and upland bird and turkey hunting, I actually had a big game tag in my pocket. Thanks to the generosity of Weatherby, Inc. I was going to be hunting pronghorn antelope during the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt in mid-October. Brenda Weatherby had outfitted me with a Mark V Camilla rifle with a Maven RS.1 scope, but the onus was on me to make sure the gun was zeroed in and I was a confident shooter with my gun. As a new big game hunter, it was absolutely essential to me that I kill my antelope as quickly and humanely as possible. Here are some of the steps I took as a new hunter to get me and my rifle ready for the hunt.
Making sure your gun is properly sighted in is the most important part of being prepared for your hunt. Having never zeroed in a rifle by myself, I knew I had to get it right. I had to be confident with my gun’s accuracy out to 200+ yards (my comfort range for taking a shot). Some of that is simply spending time shooting and getting comfortable with the gun, but I knew that having the gun zeroed in was the essential first step. I talked with Cade Maestas, co-founder of Maven who is also a hunter education and shooting instructor, about the best way to sight in a rifle.
Set the Scope
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the first and most important step is to get your scope properly mounted on the rifle. Unless you have a lot of experience, which I certainly don’t, this should be something you have a qualified gunsmith do for you. Make sure the mounting rings that you use are of good quality and specific to the gun on which you are mounting the scope. A qualified gunsmith will also ensure that the scope is positioned properly along the top of the barrel and that it is level. When it’s set, they should then tighten the rings only to the recommended torque setting.
“A lot of inaccuracies in shooting can be traced back to an improper setup,” Maestas told me. “Often this comes with over-torqueing the screws in the rings which can actually squeeze the scope tube affecting its ability to properly adjust the crosshairs.”
I learned exactly what he means by this with my daughter’s rifle. On a recent trip to the range her gun was WAY off target. After making a number of adjustments and trying to get it right we suspected exactly what Cade described. We confirmed it when we took the scope off – the gun shop that had mounted the scope had over-tightened the rings and we could actually feel the indentation on the scope tube. A difficult and costly mistake, but much better to figure it out at the range then to take wild shots when out hunting.
With the scope properly mounted, the next step is to bore sight the rifle – all this means is that where the rifle barrel is pointing is what you see in the scope. There are fancy laser bore sighting devices on the market, but Maestas says that he is most confident in the old fashioned way of just looking down the barrel.
Take the turret caps off of the scope and then set the gun up on a table or other flat surface using a vise or sturdy rest to ensure it is stable. Then, pull out the bolt and look down the barrel at an object that you can see with your naked eye, maybe 50 to 75 yards away. Center the barrel on that object and make sure it is secure in the vice while centered on the object. Now look through the scope to see if the object that you looked at through the barrel is in your crosshairs – more than likely it will not be.
Here’s the first chance to adjust the scope and you need to understand what the turret adjustments do. The top turret is the elevation turret, this moves the crosshairs in the scope up and down. The turret on the right side of the scope is the windage turret, which moves the crosshairs left and right. The turrets will be marked to show which direction to turn the knob in order to move the crosshairs up/down or right/left.
While later you might be making fine adjustments to improve your accuracy, bore sighting is simply intended to help you get the first shots on the paper target. You can make fairly large adjustments – don’t worry about counting clicks – to both your elevation and your windage turrets at this point to make sure the crosshairs in the scope are lined up with the object that you see when you look down the barrel. Once they do, you are ready to go to the range.
Zeroing In with Three Shot Groups
When your scope is zeroed in, it means that the bullet goes to the center of where you are aiming. Typically in the East, where shooting distances are often much closer, you might zero your gun in at 100 yards; most western hunters will zero their gun in at 200 yards since they are likely to encounter longer range shots. No matter what, your first shots at the range should be taken at 50 and then 100 yards to take the rifle from being “on paper” through the bore sighting process to closer to the center of your target.
Use a sight in target that has a 1-inch grid pattern across the target, this will allow you to see how far off the center your gun is shooting so that you can make adjustments to your scope. Champion Target’s Redfield Style Precision Sight-In targets work well for this purpose. We also shoot at Colorado Clays’ 100 yard rifle range, where they provide the grid targets and each shooting bay has a video screen that shows your target to make it easier to see where you hit without requiring a spotting scope or binoculars.
Set your rifle on a stable rest on a shooting bench, this helps to mitigate the variables that you could bring as the shooter. To start, we used Champion’s Enhanced Rifle Rest which allows you to keep the gun very steady while quickly adjusting the elevation of the barrel to keep it steady facing the target. You can also use sand bags for this process, like Champion’s Gorilla Range Bag, but there can be more variability with this rest so I find that a more stable rifle rest is best for those first shots to get you closer to center.
When your cheek is on the stock and you are looking down the scope, you should not have to make adjustments to the barrel to keep the crosshairs level on the center of the target—that’s what the rest should do. Make adjustments to the elevation of the rest and from side to side to make sure you are pointing directly at the center of the target.
Once you have your rest set up and the gun is stable, fire three shots at the target. Take your time, there’s no rush, but you need to fire three rounds to confirm that any inaccuracies are occurring because the scope is off and not because of any shooter error. Hopefully, if your bore sighting was accurate you will hit the paper at 50 yards and be able to move out to 100 yards and then 200 yards to fine tune the scope.
However, sometimes you won’t be on paper. Rather than making wild guesses about where your shot is going (you could fire lots of rounds and keep missing the paper), Maestas recommends berm shooting as the next step to make additional gross adjustments to get you on paper. You need to have a friend or someone else at the range with binoculars or a spotting scope to be your spotter to help you diagnose where you’re missing. Find a target to shoot at on the dirt berm, Maestas uses a clay target because the bright orange color is easy to see for the shooter and spotter.
Aim at the target on the berm and shoot, you don’t need to fire three rounds when you are berm shooting because you are not making fine adjustments to the scope. Your spotter should be able to see where the dirt flies in relation to where the target is to tell you if you are shooting high, low, left or right. Like the bore sighting you can make big adjustments to the elevation and windage turrets to get you closer to the target.
Fire another round and again have the spotter tell you where you are off. Make any additional adjustments and take one more shot that should have you close to the target. Even if you don’t hit the target, if the dust flies close to it you are close enough to be on paper so you can make your fine adjustments while shooting at the paper target. Not all ranges have a dirt berm that would allow for intentional berm shooting so keep that in mind when selecting the range where you’ll take the rifle the first time.
Now that you’re on paper, it’s time to make fine adjustments to your scope to ensure that you are shooting a tight group. Your scope is set up to make these adjustments based on minute of angle or MOA. Imagine a 360-degree circle around you that is divided into degrees, minutes and seconds – as it expands out from you, the circle gets bigger but it is still 360 degrees. At 100 yards, one minute of angle is 1 inch; at 200 yards, one MOA is 2 inches; at 300 yards, one MOA is 3 inches.
To make adjustments to your scope, you need to know how far off from the target you are (remember those 1-inch grid sight-in targets? Here’s where they help) and how far out you are shooting. For most rifle scopes, one click of the turret equals ¼ inch but make sure you confirm this before you begin shooting. So, if you are 1 inch off at 100 yards, you need to adjust the turret 4 clicks or 1 MOA.
For example, after you shoot your three-shot group at 100 yards you see that you are shooting 4 inches to the right and 2 inches high. To get closer to zero, you need to adjust the windage turret on the right of the scope 16 clicks left (4 clicks/inch) and adjust the elevation turret on the top of the scope 8 clicks down. Continue to shoot three shot groups and make adjustments until your groups are consistently near the center of the target.
If you’re hunting in the West, it is best to zero in at 200 yards. As Maestas says, most hunters will be looking to shoot game at 250 yards or less (I know this is my personal comfort zone) so with zeroing in at 200 yards, you can feel confident that anywhere from 75 to 250 yards you can aim your cross hairs at the kill zone and make a clean shot. After getting close to the center of the target at 100 yards, move out to 200 yards to zero the scope in at that distance.
Since your MOA changes the farther out you are shooting (at 200 yards one MOA = 2 inches) remember that your turret adjustments will change accordingly. Using the same scenario above, if your three-shot group at 200 yards is consistently 4 inches to the right and 2 inches high, you would need to adjust your windage turret 8 clicks left and your elevation turret 4 clicks down.
Note that you may have seen an older hunter tap on the top of the turret after dialing it in, or they may dial a click or two past the correct point and dial back to the final position. Maestas says that this is an unnecessary step with most modern scopes. Those techniques were used in older scopes because the internal spring that makes the adjustment to the crosshair would get wound tighter when the turret was adjusted and tapping or dialing past the correct stop point would help to reduce some of the pressure on the spring to hold it steady. Scopes manufactured today have alleviated that pressure, so you can be confident that your individual clicks will make the correct adjustment to the MOA.
Keep in mind that if you are starting to shoot erratic groups, even with a steady rest, step away and take a break. If you’re shooting a lot of shots, the barrel will get hot which can make a big difference in accuracy.
In addition, you may be flinching after taking so many shots and that could be what’s throwing off your shooting. While most rifles have some kick, Maestas recommends not to “over gun”. Make sure you have enough fire power for your quarry, but it doesn’t need to be any bigger because proper shot placement is more important than the power of the gun. Often women or kids will start out with the gun their husband or dad uses, but that gun might not be the best option for them because the recoil is too painful causing them to flinch consistently when they are shooting.
“You need to make a clean, ethical shot when hunting so you want to have enough firepower,” Maestas noted. “However, if you’re shying away from the gun when you are practicing, you might not make a good shot when the time comes on the hunt. Make sure the caliber of your gun is right for whatever you are pursuing – but if you don’t want to shoot the gun, you have the wrong gun.”
Maestas’ last recommendation is to not get caught up in perfection. “If you’re trying to put it in the center every shot, every time, you’re probably just going to get frustrated.”
Remember that the kill area for most big game animals isn’t that 1-inch center of the target. If you are shooting a palm-sized 3-shot group near the center at 200 yards, you are consistently in the kill zone on an animal and can be confident that you can make an ethical shot when you are out hunting. And that is the primary goal of properly sighting in your hunting rifle.