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The 13 Steps to Dialing In Your Hunting Rifle: How To

Here's how to get the best out of your precision hunting rifle with 13 easy steps.

The 13 Steps to Dialing In Your Hunting Rifle: How To

Setting up a hunting rifle these days is a far cry from what grandpa did. With the increased precision of modern hunting rifles — and the desire to reach way out — a lot more is required to get a hunting rifle set up and dialed in. Here’s how to get started!

1. Check Stock Bedding

To shoot accurately and consistently to the same point of impact, a precision hunting rifle’s action must be properly mated to its stock. Glass-and-pillar bedding is the historic standard and is arguably still the best. A machined, aircraft-grade aluminum bedding block is also very effective. If you don’t know how to evaluate your rifle’s bedding, take it to a savvy friend or a good gunsmith. If the rifle needs bedding work, get it done. It will never shoot great otherwise.

2. Ensure Scope is Adequate

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You can’t shoot far unless you have a scope built for long-range work. Most important is a quality dial-up turret with a zero-stop and zero-lock mechanism to prevent your turret from inadvertently being spun. Avoid excess magnification. Any scope with 14X to 18X at the top end is plenty. More is not only unnecessary, but it’s counterproductive. If you zoom in much past 12X when preparing for a shot at big game, you won’t be able to spot your own impacts or find your quarry quickly after recoil. Another helpful feature is a parallax focus. This is usually a knob on the left side of the scope and enables the shooter to focus out an optical illusion called apparent reticle movement or parallax.

3. Check Mounts/Rings

Choose quality scope bases and rings. For a hunting rifle, avoid bulky rail-type bases. Pick steel two-piece bases and pair them with top-quality (read, expensive) rings. I like lightweight tactical-type rings machined from aircraft-grade aluminum. Nightforce’s Ultralite rings are excellent examples of the type. Use the lowest rings you can to keep the scope tight to the action and maximize your cheekweld. An alternate mounting system — and my favorite for mountain-rifle setups — is Talley’s one-piece base/ring combo. The lightweight alloy mounts are bull-strong, super light, and are machined with wonderful precision. Plus, they’re much less expensive than tactical-type bases and rings.

4. Set Eye Relief 

Eye relief is the distance from your eyeball to the rear lens of the scope. Close your eyes, mount your rifle, and get comfortable. Open your eyes and check whether the scope is too close or too far from your eye. You should see a perfectly round, crisp view in the ocular (rear) lens. If there’s shadowing, you’ll need to move the scope closer or farther to finesse eye relief until you achieve a perfect field of view every time you throw the rifle up. Before you start tightening screws, mount the rifle from several different field-type shooting positions. Each places your anatomical frame differently and affects your eye position. Set your scope’s eye relief so it’s good with most positions.

5. Anti-Cant Bubble Level

Before you tighten the scope ring screws, level up the crosshairs. There are a lot of various methods, but the one I use most is Wheeler Engineering’s Professional Reticle Leveling System. The tool set runs $60 and works great. At the same time, install an anti-cant bubble level. These range from $15 to $100, and most work at least reasonably well. With eye relief set, the scope’s reticle made level, and an anti-cant device in place, snug down the ring screws and torque to spec.

6. Tune or Replace Trigger

No matter how accurate your rifle is, you’ll never unlock its potential if it has a rubbish trigger. For hunting work, a clean, crisp trigger with a pull weight of 2 to 3.5 pounds is ideal. Don’t go lighter because cold, adrenaline, fatigue, and excitement can cause premature discharges. If you’re not happy with your trigger, take it to a gunsmith. If he can’t adjust it to your liking, replace it with an aftermarket match-grade trigger by Timney, Jewell, or TriggerTech.

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7. Thread Muzzle 

Modern precision hunters should be shooting with either a muzzlebrake (worst solution) or a suppressor (best solution). Here’s why: If you’re going to shoot long on game, you need to spot your own impacts in order to make fast follow-up shots if needed. Without a brake or a suppressor, muzzle jump will cause you to lose sight of your quarry during recoil. Both reduce recoil. Additionally, long-range hunters have an ethical responsibility to shoot cartridges powerful enough to carry plenty of energy downrange. Such cartridges recoil significantly. Brakes and suppressors tame powerhouse cartridges. Brakes are blasty and impart hearing damage if you shoot without protection. Suppressors are quiet and generally benefit a rifle’s accuracy. Plus, a suppressed shot doesn’t spook game the way a normal shot does — a real advantage when hunting. If your rifle’s muzzle isn’t threaded, take it to a gunsmith and have it done. And start the process to get a lightweight, compact suppressor. It will change the way you hunt.

8. Install Adequate Bipod

A good bipod provides the ability to achieve benchrest quality stability in the field. However, not all bipods are suitable for hunting. Bipods that attach semi-permanently to your rifle make it cumbersome and heavy. Bipods with exposed springs are noisy and snag on brush. Pick a lightweight, high-end bipod that you can install and remove instantly and carry in your pack or — better yet — your cargo pocket.

9. Research Bullets, Find Accurate Load

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Not all hunting bullets are created equal, and most traditional hunting projectiles are not adequate for extended-range shooting. There are multiple reasons, but the most crucial are inadequate accuracy, poor aerodynamics, and unpredictable terminal performance at long range. With your rifle properly set up, it’s time to choose a load. Pick carefully because your bullet is the only tangible connection between you and that big buck way downrange. Research bullets with a reputation for accuracy (you’ll never shoot half-MOA groups with a 1.5-MOA bullet). Pick options with high ballistic coefficients (BCs). Look for G1 BC numbers approaching .600 or more or G7 BCs of .300 or more. Even more importantly, look for bullets that are built to provide reliable expansion and penetration across a wide spectrum of impact velocities. Each modern hunting projectile engineered for extended-range use has strengths and weaknesses. Research them and choose bullets that fit your needs. Some top choices are Barnes LRX, Federal’s Terminal Ascent, Hornady’s ELD-X, and Berger’s VLD Hunting.

10. Zero at 200 yards

Sight in your rifle to put bullets on point of aim at 200 yards. Zeroing your rifle at 100 yards is a waste of a perfectly good flat trajectory. If you don’t have access to a 200-yard range, crunch ballistics in a capable app, figure out how high your bullet should impact at 100 yards, and sight in so your groups cluster around that point. Generally, with modern high-powered hunting cartridges, point of impact at 100 yards should be between 1.25- and 2-inches high, depending on muzzle velocity and bullet BC. If you’re going to shoot past 400 yards in the field, zero about .5- to 1-inch left at 200 yards to compensate for the right-crawling effect of spin drift. Although launched at a slight left vector, your projectile will drift back to the right, crossing your line of sight between 450 and 600 yards, and be only marginally right out to 800 yards or more. That way, you can simply forget about spin drift in the field.

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11. Zero out Scope Turret/Windage

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Once you’ve established, confirmed, and reconfirmed your zero, loosen your turret cap and rotate it so the “0” mark on the MOA or mil scale aligns with the reference hash mark on the turret. Or, if you have a custom dial engraved in yards for your load, set it so the “2” (representing 200 yards) lines up with the reference hash. With some types of scope turret caps, zeroing out the cap also resets the zero stop. With other designs, you may need to take additional steps to reset the stop at this point. Also reset the windage turret knob to zero.

12. Validate Trajectory

No matter how good your ballistic calculator is, you can’t ethically take long shots at game until you’ve shot far and validated your system. Validating a trajectory requires at least one faraway steel target, but several placed at increasing distances is much better. Fire a shot or two at 200 yards to confirm your zero. Then, with real-time atmospherics input in your ballistic app, dial up and fire at steel downrange. If all is well with your setup, with the parameters you input to the app, and with your rifle, optic, ammo, and shooting position, you’ll smack that steel in the center. If not, you’ve got some troubleshooting to do. Small discrepancies are likely an imperfect zero. Trends that increase with distance are likely a slight inaccuracy in projectile BC or muzzle velocity. Large discrepancies are probably an issue with an incorrect parameter in the app. Double check. Examine muzzle velocity, bullet BC, current altitude, and temperature, shot angle, and so forth. One small error in the app will screw up the whole shootin’ match. With a bit of finessing, you should fine tune your setup to the point where you’re able to ring elk-vital-size steel targets (18 inches) out to 600 yards and, if you’re a good rifleman, to 800 or even 1,000 yards.

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13. Practice, Practice, Practice

Still, you’re not an ethical long-range slayer at this point. Your rifle is properly set up, paired with a great load, equipped with a versatile shooting rest, and your scope settings and bullet trajectory are validated out to long range. But that’s from benchrest-level positions on a formal shooting range. You must become a field-position machine before you can ethically fire at faraway game. This takes practice and good technique. If you’re not well versed in how to quickly build stable shooting positions in the field, get instruction. Find a shooter that is good and get them to teach you. As you practice, continually challenge your skill level. Shoot at vital-size steel targets as far away as you can. The furthest target you can put 90 percent of your shots on from improvised shooting positions represents your ethical maximum range. Setting up and dialing in a modern precision hunting rifle isn’t all about the gear. It’s about how well the gear works together and, perhaps most importantly, how well you work with the gear.

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