The most challenging part of hunting is the inherent unpredictability of the sport. Changing weather fronts affect game movement and force hunters to deal with blistering heat, pouring rain, and deep snow — sometimes within the same week. And, of course, the animals themselves are largely unpredictable. As much as we’d like to believe that a mature whitetail buck will appear by our tree stand just before sunset like he has on a month’s worth of trail camera photos doesn’t mean that will be the case. The best hunters are able to overcome these variables, and that’s what allows them to consistently fill their tag.
The best hunters have one other trait in common: they leave nothing to chance. Hunting is such an unpredictable pursuit that to be successful on a consistent basis you need to exercise control over the aspects of the sport that are within your command. The first and most important aspect of the hunt that you can control is your firearm. Being able to deliver an accurate shot that dispatches an animal as quickly as possible is paramount, and while you can’t control the wind, the weather, the animal’s behavior, or the shot presentation you can ensure that you and your equipment are ready to perform.
A successful shot begins with proper rifle setup. Here’s a step-by-step protocol that will help you ensure that you and your gun are ready to make the shot when everything comes together this hunting season.
The function test begins when you unbox the gun and is the equivalent of a pilot’s ground check before a flight. Odds are a rifle won’t slip out of the factory with any major issues, but now’s the time to check. Start by reading the owner’s manual. With the gun unloaded, perform a visual inspection on the rifle and cycle the action. Familiarize yourself with the controls and check to be certain that everything seems to be in proper working order. If the gun ships with a threaded-on muzzle brake be certain that the brake is correct for the caliber. Gun companies like to add stickers or sleeves to the barrels for brand recognition so it’s important to remove those stickers before firing so you aren’t left with a sticky residue after the barrel heats during firing. Dry fire the gun to begin to develop a feel for the trigger. I also like to wipe the gun down and remove any excess oil and grease.
This is a critical step when setting up your new rifle. Incorrect optic mounting is responsible for a lot of misses, and it’s frustrating when you can’t get a new gun on paper only to find out that the scope is loose or improperly mounted. Begin by assembling the required components: the firearm, scope bases, scope rings, and the optic (and note: the scope ring diameter, given in inches or millimeters, must match the tube diameter of the scope). Bear in mind that not all rings with work with every scope design. For instance, if you’re mounting a scope with a 56mm objective lens there’s a good chance it won’t fit in low rings simply because there isn’t enough clearance. Once you’ve gathered all the components, degrease the screws, the screw holes in the receiver of your gun, and other key components. I’ve stopped using the wrenches provided by the optics companies and instead use a Wheeler adjustable torque wrench for one simple reason: I can set the tension to match manufacturer specifications. Mounting bases with screws that are too tight or too lose can cause problems, and the only way to know for certain that you are tightening to the proper poundage is to use an adjustable wrench with a gauge like the Wheeler.
After mounting the bases begin mounting the scope rings. Some companies suggest lapping the rings (cleaning the inner surface with a lapping compound) to ensure better surface-to-surface fit. Other scope ring manufacturers like Warne don’t recommend this process when mounting their vertically split rings. The best advice is to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Place the scope in the rings and level the crosshairs using a level or, that failing, hang a plumb line and align the center crosshair. Tighten the ring screws to the appropriate weight and ensure that the firearm functions properly with the scope in place.
I begin my initial sight-in session by bore sighting the rifle. This can be accomplished using a laser bore sighter that projects a beam of light to the target, allowing the shooter to align with the crosshairs of the scope with the projected beam of light on the target (although you must remember to remove the bore sighting tool before firing!). If you don’t have a bore sighting tool you can accomplish this task by removing the bolt and aligning the bore with the target. With the gun locked in place and the middle of the target in the center of the bore at 100 yards and adjust the windage and elevation so that the crosshairs of the scope align with the center of the target as well. This process won’t eliminate the need for fine-tuning, but it will help you get on paper quickly at 100 yards without wasting a lot of ammo.
Once I have my rifle hitting on a paper target at 100 yards, I begin accuracy testing. In reality, you’re testing precision, not accuracy. I prefer to test at least five loads, but if you have the time (and money) test every load possible. Some guns simply prefer one load over another, and there’s not always a clear explanation for exactly why. But once you’ve found a load that produces good three-shot groups you’re ready to move onto the next phase.
Advanced Sight In
The first question you need to ask is how you want your hunting rifle to be sighted in. If you’re using the holdover method, one option is to sight the rifle in a couple inches high at 100 yards. Depending upon the ballistics for your particular load, a rifle that shoots one to two inches high at 100 yards should be dead-on at 200 yards. At 300 yards, the gun will shoot somewhere between 6 and 9 inches low. That gives you a good estimate of where the bullet will strike out to 300 paces. Get much beyond that and holdover shooting becomes a real challenge.
Like so many other hunters I prefer to dial for distance. I sight my rifles in dead-on at 100 yards and, once that is accomplished, I reset the zero on my scope’s turret. I know that the rifle will strike dead-center at 100 yards and a couple inches low at 200 yards. Beyond that I can dial the range using data I’ve obtained from a ballistic app or from the manufacturer’s website. I prefer scopes with MOA adjustments simply because I am most familiar with MOA, but you may prefer a scope with MIL adjustments instead. With my scope zeroed at 100 yards, I can then range the animal, plug the distance into my ballistic app and get an accurate holdover. If, for instance, I see an animal at 375 yards and my app tells me that I need 4.25 MOA of elevation I simply dial my elevation turret to 4.25 MOA, center the crosshairs, and fire.
Field Position Practice
Unless you plan on lugging a shooting bench along in the field you’re going to have to learn to shoot from field positions. Gilt-edge accuracy is all for naught if you can’t develop a steady rest in the field so take the time to practice from field positions. I carry a backpack and a pair of Primos Trigger Sticks with me to the range and, once advanced sighting in is complete, I begin practicing from field positions at known ranges. Lying prone and resting the rifle on a pack is the most stable field position, and that’s where I begin. From there, I’ll begin switching positions, first to a sitting and then kneeling position using the shooting sticks to stabilize the rifle. If possible, rest the elbow of your strong side arm on a rock or some other solid object. With some rifles, specifically big-bore guns for dangerous game, I’ll also practice shooting from a standing position since it’s likely I’ll be standing when I deliver the first shot.
Once the gun is sighted in and I am familiar with the rifle, I’ll do my final check. I begin by cleaning and lightly lubricating the rifle. Double-check the scope screws and be certain that they are properly tightened. Also, be certain that the sling studs are secure before heading in the field. On an elk hunt in New Mexico I had the front sling stud of my rifle come loose from the stock, and as a result my gun fell off my shoulder and tumbled end over end down a rock slide while I stood helplessly watching it descend, cringing every time my gun slammed off a boulder. Needless to say, we headed back to camp, wiped down the various scars on the gun and scope, and re-zeroed the rifle. That poorly installed sling stud cost me a half-day of hunting. To prevent these types of accidents I suggest that you perform a final butt-to-muzzle inspection of your rifle before heading out this fall.
There’s a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing that your gun is ready to make the shot when that big game animal finally appears. You’ve prepped for this hunt for a long time and beaten the odds of bad weather and unpredictable animal behavior. Don’t let the last chapter of your hunt be a missed shot or a wounded animal that was the direct result of your failure to prepare properly. Now’s the time to get your gun ready for hunting season.