How many shots do I need to sight-in a rifle?

How many shots do I need to sight-in a rifle?

Good question. Somebody asked it over at the 24HourCampfire in the optics forum. I won’t point you to it, because it quickly degraded into another pissy flame fest, common to that forum these days. (Sigh!)

How many shots do I need to sight-in a rifle? How many have you got?

Update:  Here it is, 2014, and I the more I thought about this piece, the more I wanted to say more.   See  How Many Shots. . . Really .  This is a very popular article, so I did not want to leave you with the idea this was my idea of the final word on the subject.

Let’s assume you have a new store-bought deer rifle, and a couple of boxes of ammo. You take it out to the range and . . .

Wait. Did you ask the guy at the store to bore-sight your scope for you? A lot of places will do it for free with a new rifle or scope. Some charge $5. It’s worth it. What bore-sighting does is make the bore and the scope point to roughly the same place. Getting that done, might be a long way to getting the rifle sighted in. If you bore-sight more than one rifle a year, by a bore-sighter.

If you didn’t get the rifle bore-sighted at the store, and it’s a bolt-action rifle, you can get pretty close if you have a good solid rest. Pull the bolt out, and look through the barrel and adjust the barrel to where you have the center of the bullseye centered in the barrel. Now adjust the scope to the same point. Ideally you are able to do this at a target about 25 yards out, but you can do it with the target pasted to the wall of your living room.

Pick a time when the range is not crowded. Don’t go out on Saturday afternoon, when it may be an hour between ceasefires. When I was stuck, going to public ranges, I learned to go in the off-hours to do initial sight-ins. It got things done a lot faster.

Done.Right?Nope.It’s not that simple. Now you have to see where the ammunition shoots. That should at least be on the paper at 25 yards with a bore-sighted rifle, but it is no guarantee.If worse comes to worse, hang a piece of newspaper behind the target to see where it hits.

A long time ago, I was set to go boar hunting with my buddy. I had a used Remington 742 in 30-06, and four boxes of Winchester 180 grainers. I drove out to a public range after work and sighted it in. Four boxes of ammo later, I was no closer to having a dependably sighted rifle, and I was getting panicky. I called my buddy and he suggested I go out the next day and try Remington ammo instead. That was a lucky call. As it turned out most of the problems revolved around the ammunition. Second, I did not do the next important operation.

Once you have an idea where the rifle shoots in relation to the target, fire at least two more rounds at the bullseye and see where they print in relation to the bull. You may get a group that’s an inch in diameter, it may be as big as a pie plate, but don’t adjust anything until you know where the group is printing. THEN make your scope adjustments.

This can be done at 25 yards, 50 yards, or 100 yards. It makes no difference. At 25 yards you will do a lot less hoofing. If you need to start at 50 or 100 yards, you may want to invest in a spotting scope. Believe me: 25 yards is a lot easier.

When you are confident you know where the bullets are printing, adjust your scope to place the center of the group over the bullseye, and fire another group. Don’t be too hasty, either.Remember to let your barrel cool between shots. The heat will often make a barrel change its point of aim somewhat.

Assuming that your next shots are in the general area of the bullseye, sighting in per se should cease. At this point, your efforts should be turned to reducing the size of the group. If the group is satisfactory, you’re ready to go hunting.

Done. How many shots was that? Maybe seven. I have done it with a new load in a known rifle in far less. I’ve also done it with a new scope and a known load in less. From a standing start, with all three things unknown, I have been lucky to get it done in seven shots. Bore sighting helped tremendously, as did starting at 25 yards instead of 100.

So why did I have to go through boxes and boxes of ammo early on?

1) I didn’t trust myself. I kept trying to shoot a bum combination of rifle and ammo, and thought it was me. When I switched from Winchester to Remington ammo, I went from an 8 inch spread down to 4 inches. Rifles are like that.

2) I would not wait for a group to develop. I would shoot once and then move my scope.

3) I was shooting at 100 yards. 25 yards is plenty for the first couple of shots. It gets you in the ballpark. If you cannot make it work at 25 yards something is a problem. It can be a loose scope, bad ammo, or a boogered muzzle. Distance only exaggerates all of your other problems.

4) I was letting the barrel and myself heat up. I was impatient.This was September, and I had an hour drive and less than a half-hour at the range to shoot before it got dark. If I didn’t succeed in getting the rifle sighted in my first boar hunt was going to be screwed up.I was not being cool.Sighting in a rifle should be an unemotional affair.

As it turned out, the boar I shot was less than 25 yards away. All I did in my worry and haste was drop about an extra $40 on ammo and acquire a better familiarity with the care and feeding of my rifle than if it had gone easier. Still, it was a traumatic couple of days getting ready for the trip.

That was a long time ago. The 742 is now a wall hanger due to a freak gust of wind that tore it out of the gun rack on the last day of hunting in 2004. I took a new-to-me Remington 7600 out last fall with only a couple of weeks before opening of deer season. I used my bore sighter to collate the rifle before my first trip. I went out to the farm to do my first shooting, so I would be the only one on the range. My first three shots were on a pie plate at 25 yards and I tweaked the scope a little and then took five more at 100 yards before setting the zero to 2 inches high. On opening day, I placed three into the same hole in the side of a big buck, dead on his feet and refusing to fall over.

What about that method of sighting in with one shot method? Theoretically it works. Shoot once at the bull, then carefully adjust the scope until it points to the bullet hole. Done.

Did it tell you where and how your ammo groups? No.Is the rifle sighted-in?Maybe and maybe not.

But I used premium ammunition!

Premium ammo does not mean squat to this– Nor does having an expensive rifle. This is not a process that one can simply throw money at. As a matter of fact, it took a few years, but I found that the absolute best store-bought ammo that old 742 liked was some $5 a box Musgrave, and that was my primary Bambi-slayer for years. I bought a case of it, and I still have a few boxes left. Most of that case went into sighting-in that rifle year after year—a few shots here and a few shots there with an occasional tweak of the scope.

This is a dance. You, the rifle, the scope, the ammo– you are all moving in space and time. Picking up a brand new Remington 700 BDL in 300 WSM is like going out on the floor with a brand new chickie and trying to tango. It will take more than seven rounds to make the magic happen, just as it would take more than one dance to keep you from standing on your partner’s toes. Over time, it comes, and if the match is right the floor will empty and you and your partner will be left in a singular moment, functioning as one breath-taking pair.




How many shots do I need to sight-in a rifle? — 2 Comments

  1. Who in the world thumbed down this write-up? It is all solid advice. Very good information here. I learned about the barrel heating up and it just about gave me a panic attack because I was getting frustrated.

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