August 05, 2014
How will you know if your rifle is capable of shooting 0.75-inch groups if you can't shoot with that level of precision? Proper benchrest shooting is a necessary evil for testing a rifle's accuracy with various loads and for zeroing scopes.
There's one thing to remember when shooting from the bench that transcends each category that we'll discuss: consistency. The rifle must held the same way, in the same wind, with the same recoil impulse for every shot. A few key elements will help us achieve the consistency we desire. Let's explore some techniques and products that will help boost your benchrest shooting skills.
It should go without saying that to perform from the bench, the bench itself must be steady and sturdy. It doesn't matter who you are, you're not going to shoot tight groups from a platform that isn't rock solid: this is the reason we're shooting from the bench in the first place.
I recently built my own shooting bench constructed entirely of steel-reinforced poured concrete. Steady benches can be made of wood as well, but they don't last very long in the heat and humidity of the South. A bench carved from solid granite isn't worth a darn if you're sitting on a wobbly stool. A simple wood or metal stool is fine, so long as it doesn't flex or move as you shift your weight.
Once you have a bench that isn't blowing in the wind, it's time to rest your rifle on something solid. A pile of sandbags will do fine if you're on a budget, but they aren't ideal if you're going to be doing this type of shooting with any regularity. I'm personally not a fan of cradles or rests that hold the entire rifle. They do not allow the rifle to recoil freely, they can also affect point of impact or cause stocks to split. If you're so scared of a rifle that you need a device to hold it when you shoot, you need a different rifle.
A steady and adjustable front rest paired with a rear bag is pretty much-settled law when it comes to the best equipment for this job. The closer we can emulate the equipment used by professional benchrest shooters, the better our results will be.
Brownells sells a variety of quality rests; I use a Wichita rest and a friend shoots tiny groups with the Caldwell Rock. Find something that works for your needs and budget—the heavier the better.
Call the Wind
A full-value 5-mph wind will drift an average centerfire rifle bullet 0.5 inches at 100 yards. If you're not accounting for wind, group size can easily double even if you're doing everything else correctly. Competitors win and lose benchrest matches based on their ability to dope wind effectively.
Shooting early in the morning when winds are usually calm can help mitigate wind, but this isn't always practical. The only way to know what the wind is doing at various distances is to employ some type of visual wind indicator. Wind flags are the best option as they tell the shooter both the speed and direction of the wind. Winds can vary during the bullet's travel downrange so wind flags are often positioned at numerous points on the range.
At a minimum, a foot-long section of orange flagging tape stapled to the bottom of the target gives the shooter a general indicator of wind conditions and is far better than nothing. The best part about this technique is that you can see the tape through the scope. Ensure that the tape is at the same position for each shot, and you're in business. Where appropriate and permitted, smoke can also be used to read the wind at various distances, as practiced in this episode of Guns & Ammo TV, on Sportsman Channel.
Set up For the Shot
The best gear on Earth won't make you shoot well; your abilities are also needed.
The name of the game is consistency from beginning to end. Develop a routine that works and make it a habit. Here's a seven-step setup routine I suggest using:
1. Start by placing the front rest and rear bag on the bench and getting behind the gun.
2. Move around until you find a natural point of aim. You shouldn't have to wrestle the reticle onto the target; it should be there by default. This process will take some moving of bags, adjusting the rest and shifting your body position. Take your time.
3. Once you find your natural point of aim, mark the position of the front and rear rests on the bench with tape or a pencil—they will move under the repeated recoil and you'll want to be able to put them back in place.
4. Once your bags are set, place your rifle in the front rest so that the front sling swivel stud will not impact the rest under recoil. By the same rationale, make sure that the grip cap area will not impact the rear bag when the gun goes bang. Either of these occurrences will change the way the rifle recoils—think of it as your "follow-through." Note the position of the rifle in the rest and ensure that it's in the same spot before every shot.
5. Ensure your scope is focused on the target so you have a crisp image. You know that adjustment ring on the back of the scope that you never use? Play with the focus until both the target and crosshairs are crisp. If your scope has an adjustable objective, make sure it's dialed for the correct range and by all means crank the scope's power up to its highest setting.
6. Now it's time for some dry-fire practice to work on trigger control, breathing control and grip. Get relaxed, take a few deep breaths and settle into the rifle. With rifles up to the recoil level of .30-06 to the .300 Magnums, grasp the rifle with one hand on the grip and one supporting the butt at the rear bag. With heavier-recoiling or ultralight rifles, grasp the forend with the weak hand. The idea isn't to horse the gun, but to hold it with just enough pressure to prevent the rifle from coming off the rest.
7. Take a deep breath, settle the crosshairs on the target and concentrate on a smooth trigger press. When I do this, my brain is saying something like "target, trigger—trigger—target—trigger—trigger". When the trigger breaks, the crosshairs should not move on the target. If they do, keep dry-firing until they don't. If you're working the trigger and you feel like you're straining or out of breath, back off the trigger and take a breath—this isn't a race.
Now you're ready to load the rifle and shoot for the money. If you've just cleaned your barrel, send a fouling round downrange to put some copper into the bore. You might as well make it a good shot so you don't waste the ammo.
It doesn't matter whether you're firing one round, three rounds or twenty rounds, the routine should be the same: check the position of the rests, check the position of the rifle, check the wind indicator(s), find your natural point of aim, and start your breathing.
Focus 100 percent of your attention on what you're doing—the world does not exist beyond the confines of this shot. Maintain that level of concentration and run through the checklist every time you prepare to pull the trigger. If something is out of place, your shot will be out of place.
Shooting a rifle to its potential takes more than just flopping down on a bench and putting shots downrange. Good equipment, proper technique, concentration and most importantly—consistency—must all come together for optimal results. Like anything worth doing well, learning to shoot from the benchrest probably won't be an overnight success. Stick to the fundamentals and you'll see your groups shrink and your confidence grow.
Stop guessing the distance of your targets and measure it out like the pros.
Rangefinders like this Bushnell Elite 1-Mile Laser Rangefinder
make accurate readings so you can adjust shot placement and optics to keep it in the 10-ring.
Sand bags are a great option when adjustable rests aren't available. This Mini Gorilla Range Bag from Champion
can be used in a variety of shapes and configurations to fit any shooter or rifle.
Orange Flagging Tape
A foot-long section of orange flagging tape from any hardware store stapled to the bottom of the target gives the shooter a general indicator of wind conditions and is far better than nothing. The best part about this technique is that you can see the tape through the scope. Ensure that the tape is at the same position for each shot, and you're in business.
An adjustable rifle rest is key to getting a sturdy platform to shoot from. Make sure the rest has a wide stance and at least 3 points of contact with the bench. This Sinclair Benchrest Style Lightweight rest
works well with all types of rifles, from bolt-action hunting rifles to AR-15s.