It’s customary on any hunt to check the zero on your rifle before heading to the field. Usually, the process is just a simple step to verify that the gun is performing the same way it was when you left home.
There are times, however, when the simple task of double-checking your zero becomes a monumental chore.
I had just such a dilemma on a deer hunt in Montana. I’d found a factory load that agreed with my rifle, and I had mounted a premium scope on the gun. But when I fired the first shot from sandbags at the 100-yard target on that hunt, the shot was low and left. Odd. I sent another round downrange, and, to my terror, the bullet hit 2 inches to the right of center. This is a gun that had been printing sub-MOA groups at that range just a few days before. But now, it would take a bit of luck to even hit a cantaloupe at 100 paces.
“… because you can’t control the weather, temperature, moon phase or the game animals, themselves, you should, at the very least, be certain your rifle is living up to its end of the bargain.”
It turns out that the rear base screw had worked its way loose. I remedied the problem and managed to get the gun back to zero, but I lost a half-day of hunting in the process, because we’d recognized the problem the night before and set out on the first morning of the hunt to correct it. That was a four-day hunt, so I lost about an eighth of the budgeted time I had to hunt fiddling with a mechanical problem on my rifle.
I got off easy. A gentleman I knew—a world hunter with a lifetime of experience on big game—took his .460 Weatherby Magnum to Africa for an elephant hunt some years back and noticed that, as with my deer rifle, the shots were drifting. But the .460 Weatherby Magnum, a potent pachyderm stopper, pushes back with roughly 100 foot-pounds of felt recoil. This is far more than most shooters can handle for a single shot, let alone an extended sighting session. As it turns out, the scope rings had broken; and because they were in the hinterlands of Botswana, there was no way to fix the problem.
Rifle problems can be a real problem. There are enough variables in the world of hunting, and because you can’t control the weather, temperature, moon phase or the game animals, themselves, you should, at the very least, be certain your rifle is living up to its end of the bargain.
Here’s a checklist to help you ensure your gun is performing properly before the upcoming fall season.
There are some hunters—many hunters, perhaps—who shoot a rifle once a year and call that adequate. If you’re shooting at short-range, stationary targets, that will sometimes work. However, you need to understand that zeroes can drift over time. It might be something as dramatic as seared scope rings, but it often takes far less than that to shift your gun’s point of impact.
If you own a rifle with a wood stock, you’ll have to contend with the natural swelling and shrinking of the wood with regard to ambient humidity and temperature. You can also have shifts in point of impact due to altitude changes, so it’s vitally important to confirm the zero on your gun when you’re climbing or descending from where you last checked it. Sure, if you’re flying from New York to Alaska, you’ll naturally want to verify point of impact, but something as simple as a day’s drive into higher altitudes with lower humidity can affect how the gun shoots.
Even if you don’t change locations, you need to check to make sure that your gun is performing as it should. Ideally, you’ll be practicing all year with your rifle, but if you’re a deer hunter who shoots from the same stand in the same patch of woods every year, I sincerely doubt you’ll set aside the time for monthly tune-ups.
A single range session before the opener will usually suffice, but be sure to shoot the same loads you’ll be using to hunt. You can save a few bucks by buying cheap practice ammo, but anyone who has ever tested multiple loads in a single rifle will attest to the fact that not all rounds shoot the same, even if they’re the same grain weight.
I’ve had to shoot from some pretty awkward and uncomfortable positions in the field, and if you’ve done a lot of hunting, you’ve probably found yourself in the same situation.
Benches are a great place to verify your zero, but once your rifle is shooting the way it should, it’s time to shun the shooting bench. The primary shooting positions include kneeling, prone and standing, and your only option for a rest might be the items that surround you in the field—a rotted stump, a backpack or a lump of dirt.
Field shooting is more challenging than benchrest shooting, so you’ll need some practice. I shoot with sticks more frequently than I used to, and they help a great deal, but you have to know how to use them. Standing on a ridge above a bugling bull elk you’ve flown halfway across the country to find is not the right time to learn to do so.
Prone should be your go-to field position, because it is the most stable, but because of terrain, I’ve shot more game from a kneeling position than anything else. If possible, use your shooting-side foot as a prop to support your backside and your opposite knee as a rest—remembering that the knee bones should be placed against the soft, lower portion of the triceps muscle. If you get into proper position and practice frequently it’s surprising how far one can accurately shoot from a field position. It’s not natural, but if you learn the proper technique and—most importantly—consistently position yourself in the same way—kneeling allows you to shoot accurately in the field.
Mechanics and Maintenance
Modern hunters, by and large, carry scoped rifles while hunting. Scopes offer a real advantage in the field. Even so, as previously mentioned, a scope is only effective when it is securely affixed to the hunting rifle. Any slop or play is going to send your shots everywhere, so be sure your scope is properly mounted; and check for tightness frequently—even during the midst of extended shooting sessions. Even relatively mild-recoiling rifles such as the .270 Winchester produce enough recoil to shake rings loose if they’re not properly mounted.
That last part is the key. I don’t want this to sound like a rant against the manufacturers of scope rings and bases—quite the opposite, in fact. Modern machining and metallurgy have allowed scope rings and bases to fit more precisely and withstand a serious beating.
However, the key is that you [[must follow proper procedures for mounting the scope]]. That deer camp fiasco I had a few years back in Montana? My fault. I didn’t follow company guidelines for scope base installation; as a result, my optic broke free.
There are plenty of bases and rings that work, and I’ve had success with Leupold Dual Dovetails, Talleys and plain Weaver bases and rings. Some scope base manufacturers suggest the use of an adhesive such as blue Loktite, while other manufacturers might not recommend it. If you don’t know how to properly mount a scope, find someone who does, and they should be able to help you. When properly installed, scope bases and rings can last for years.
The same goes for optics. I’ve had a couple of scopes fail, but not many, and if you take even a minimal amount of care of your optics, they should last. Still, it’s a good idea to check for problems such as fractured main tubes and fogging.
Your whole rifle should be inspected and cleaned as needed. That means the finish should be examined for corrosion, the bolt removed for inspection, and the gun should be cycled while unloaded to verify that everything is working properly.
One thing I always do before my first shot with a rifle that’s been stored is to remove the bolt and look down the bore to make sure it’s clear. Is it likely that, over the course of a gun’s time in storage, anything worked its way down into the bore? Of course not. But anything I can do that takes a few seconds and ensures I have a safe and properly functioning gun is worth the time.
There are many different philosophies about bore cleaning. Some serious rifle shooters clean after every shooting session. Others will clean their bore and then fire a single shot to “foul the barrel.” Some shooters prefer to clean the barrel infrequently, believing that the buildup offers a more-consistent bullet flight. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to clean the bore after every box or two of ammunition, and that works well for me.
Routine inspection of the rifle is important. Check the stock for any signs of breakage or cracking, and double-check the sling studs. A sling stud pulled away from the rifle on an elk hunt, and my gun went over backward, leaving a deep gouge in the scope and marring the barrel. But, as it turns out, I got off lucky. There was a case a few years ago in which a sling broke and the rifle fired when dropped, severely injuring a professional hunter.
Mindset training might sound a bit far-fetched, especially to the serious rifle crank who measures elevation in mils and success or failure in tenths or hundredths of an inch. But proper mindset is key—specifically, retraining your brain and muscles to perform important tasks involved with accurate shooting.
Practice trigger control by dry-firing the rifle, and work on proper sight alignment. I like to cycle the action and dry-fire at least a half-dozen times before any shooting session. It helps me refamiliarize myself with the mechanics of my rifle and become mentally prepared to take a shot.
Don’t overlook this key element of shooting success. There’s a reason the top shooters work so hard to improve their focus and mechanics.
Hunting season is my favorite time of the year, but frankly, it’s more enjoyable when my firearm performs as it should.
Take the time before the opener this fall season to be certain your rifle is ready to perform. When that opportunity at a big buck or bull presents itself, you’ll be glad you did.
Your rifle’s ready, but are you? One of the primary complaints I hear from guides and outfitters is that clients aren’t able to physically do what they said (or think) they can.
This doesn’t mean that physical limitations always hold hunters back—if you’re honest with yourself and your outfitter, you can generally set up a hunt that works for you. But don’t assume you can climb an 11,000-foot peak in sheep country if you haven’t been off the couch in six months.
Eating a good diet free of low-quality carbohydrates is a good start, and that will give you more energy to work out and will help you lose weight. Cardio work is good, but be certain it mimics the hunt.
I was in shape for a half-marathon prior to an elk hunt but found that the same muscles that carry a runner from mile 12 to 13 aren’t the same ones that help you carry a pack up a steep incline for hours on end.
Weight training is very beneficial for almost all hunting, and don’t forget to stretch. Flexibility will reduce the odds of an injury in the field.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.