September 23, 2010
By Patrick Sweeney
A good rifle, a crisp trigger and the right load will provide an edge, but the real key to accuracy is the shill of the shooter.
By Patrick Sweeney
The accuracy and equipment needed for long-range competition is more than most hunters need. Dependability, light weight and ease of handling can mean more than a tight 600-yard group.
Every one of us loves an accurate rifle. We all know members at our gun clubs who carry around a cut-out section of target with a tiny cluster of holes in it. Their talisman proves they own an accurate rifle. Talk at the club invariably swirls around the guaranteed accuracy of this factory model, or that custom rifle, or the performance of a particular load.
And yet the most consistently successful hunter I have ever known has brought home a deer from the north Michigan woods every season since the days of the Eisenhower administration. His rifle? A Winchester M-94 in .32 Winchester Special that had the bluing worn off before Jimmy Carter was president.
He let me shoot that rifle a few years ago, and I eagerly took a few shots at our 100-yard gongs. The first few shots didn't connect on the 10-inch plate. He told me, "It hits a bit left," so I held on the right edge of the plate. In 10 shots, I rang the gong four times.
How did he get a deer every year with this rifle?
"I neck-shoot them in the swamps," he said. "The farthest is about 30 yards, and they drop like someone flipped a switch."
In the hands of a hunting master like him, what advantage is a sub-MOA rifle with a taut-string trajectory? None at all. What about the rest of us? Do we really need to struggle for the last quarter-inch of group reduction? Do things other than accuracy matter? And how much is enough?
It depends on what you do and where you do it. A rifle is the sum of its functions and its qualities--sights, trigger, balance, power, second-shot ability--and not just its accuracy. There are times when the proper rifle selection can leave accuracy last on the priority list. And then the sum must be wielded by you, the shooter.
Even on bowling pins at high speed, one-hole accuracy means less than dependability and correct technique. These pins provide good practice for varmints and big game.
Let me make it very clear that I am not at all condoning sloppy shooting or poor sportsmanship. We owe our game a quick and efficient end, and spraying bullets across the hillsides doesn't cut it. If you buy a new rifle and test it with different loads and brands of factory ammunition, you will probably find a combination that will group two inches or less at 100 yards. Once you get under two inches extra accuracy is nice, but it may not really be necessary in a big-game rifle.
The delivery of a bullet to its intended target depends not only on the rifle and ammunition being accurate, but also on the proper handling of the rifle and in the shooter's confidence to perform and prevail. We shooters spend a lot of time on the rifle and ammunition, and we should spend more on our performance and confidence. The fixation on sub-MOA groups also keeps us securely fastened to our chairs and shooting benches.
I have a Volquartsen-barreled Ruger 10/22 that will put 10 shots at 50 yards into a group you can cover with a fingertip. If only accuracy mattered, we would be using .22 rimfires on deer. No matter how accurate a .22 rimfire rifle may be, I would never use it on deer-size game. Besides being illegal virtually everywhere, I think it is immoral.
Were I to go off and search out a suitable Cape buffalo, I would not take a Sharps buffalo rifle. Yes, it is accurate and has plenty of power, but when playing tag for keeps, I want more bullets, not less. Selecting a rifle solely because it is accurate is somewhat like selecting a mate on one physical attribute. Those who have done it usually regret it.
To consider the value of the relative accuracy of one rifle over another, you must compare them to the intended target and the usual distance. Three sizes come to mind: varmints, deer-size animals, and big critters like elk and moose.
Varmints are small and usually far away. With many proper varmint calibers and bullets, a hit anywhere does the job. A deer has a kill zone nearly a square-foot in size. The average whitetail here in Michigan stands, at most, 3 1⁄2 feet at the shoulder. An elk can stand as tall as 5 or 5 1⁄2 feet, while a moose is 6 to 7 feet. Their corresponding heart/lung area is much larger than that of a whitetail.
Striking a killing blow on any of these animals at typical hunting distances is usually more a test of the shooter than the rifle or cartridge. Provided you punch a properly constructed bullet through the kill zone at a reasonable velocity, the game will fall.
Rather than worry about groups on paper, work on a gong at realistic hunting distances. If you can hit this with the pressure of your hunting buddies watching, you will do well on game.
Most shots at big game are not at long range. Even in the wide-open West, shots over 200 yards are uncommon. Here in Michigan, no whitetail is going to wander more than a few yards from cover, and a long shot might be 100 yards. For that do you need sub-MOA performance? No, what you need is decent performance from the rifle and confidence in your own abilities.
If you are a varmint hunter there is no such thing as too much accuracy. When trying to work over a prairie dog town at 300 yards, you need and want all the accuracy you can get. Or do you? If all your rifle will group at 100 yards is two inches, then at 300 yards the group will, in theory anyway, be six inches across. A prairie dog still fills an appreciable part of a six-inch circle.
Before becoming concerned about the potential loss of a couple of inches of accuracy, consider wind drift. With a 52-grain Sierra hollowpoint at 3,200 fps (a superbly accurate load out of my varmint AR-15) a 10 mph wind will generate more than 10 inches of deflection. A miscalculation of the wind by two miles per hour can cause greater error than a less-accurate load. Putting it another way: Even if your load put every bullet thr
ough the same hole at 300 yards, any change or miscalculation in the wind would cause a miss.
What about competition shooters? Surely they need superbly accurate rifles, right? They have to not only make the shot but make it before the next guy does. Wouldn't a superbly accurate rifle be just the thing? Psychologically, yes. As a practical matter, maybe. One year the brilliant revolver shooter Jerry Miculek won the rifle event at the Second Chance match. (Jerry is really good with everything, but with a revolver no one can touch him.) The rifle course is comprised of 15 falling steel plates shaped like bowling pins, in three banks out to 90 yards. The fastest shooter to knock them all down shooting offhand wins. Re-entries are not only allowed but encouraged.
Jerry had to re-enter to post a better score after someone else edged his time. He managed to scrape enough ammunition together to fill a magazine with a mixture of five or six different loads. On his final and winning run he knocked over the 15 pins with 16 shots in 14 seconds.
In the thickets and woods of many hunting areas, a 1,000-yard rifle is lots more than needed. This hunter will rarely see a shot past 50 yards.
After the run was over he was checking the barrel to see if it was cool enough to put in its case when he discovered that the barrel was loose. Out of curiosity he and I shot it on the practice range. With factory hollowpoints it would do about 2 1/2 inches at 100 yards. Did Jerry need more accuracy? On that day, no.
I can almost hear someone muttering "If non-accurate rifles are just as good as accurate ones, then why do we make such a fuss?" Simple, accuracy is an easy variable to measure and is unlikely to change from one shooter to the next. And accuracy is good for confidence. A lack of it can be bad for confidence.
A customer of mine once bought a steeply expensive and imported sniper rifle. I happened to be out at the range when he was testing it, and found a distraught and unhappy client. "Pat, this thing won't shoot!" he said, waving a target at me. Poked in it was a group of five .30-caliber holes about 1 1⁄2 inches across. Not bad, but not what he expected after spending nearly $5,000.
I sat down to try it. After dry-firing the trigger a few times to get used to it, I shot a three-shot cloverleaf. "Seems all right to me, " I said, smiling. "I'll give you a hundred bucks for it." He grinned and waved me off. "Wait till you see what I can do with it."
Later that day he came over to the range I was on to show me his best group--three shots that would make any shooter happy, all clustered under half an inch. Before I shot the rifle, he had no confidence in it and couldn't shoot it. After I shot it, he had the confidence and proved it. When you are duck-walking down a draw to close the distance to a big buck, confidence in your rifle makes the stalking easier.
The important part of the equation is you and your ability to use the accuracy available to you. How can you improve your performance? You can practice range estimation or buy a laser rangefinder. You can exercise, so you will be less winded or tired at the end of a stalk.
This squirrel is not a big target, but you don't need a benchrest rifle to hit it. What you need is a rifle that responds quickly enough to take the shot before the opportunity is gone.
And you can practice.
Start by accurately zeroing your rifle. If you don't expect to shoot anything farther than 100 yards, zero your rifle at that range. If you think you'll be shooting out to 200 then consult the ballistic tables and sight your rifle in a couple of inches high at 100, then check it at 200.
Once you are zeroed and know how well your rifle shoots, shoot it a lot--not just from the bench but in realistic hunting positions. Or as realistic as your range allows. The state ranges in Michigan require one shot at a time fired from the shooting benches. Many of the gun clubs that have sight-in days do the same. Our club does not have these restrictions, so our members always have friends and relatives asking to come shoot as guests so they can practice kneeling, sitting and all the other field positions. On our No. 2 range they can practice 25-yard snap shots, from standing or sitting. In practicing from realistic field positions, you can see the pernicious effect our excessive emphasis on accuracy has. Let's compare two rifles, one of which shoots one-inch groups and the other two-inch groups. The one-incher is better, right?
Now, hand both rifles to a shooter who can hold a six-inch group at 100 yards offhand. With one rifle he will shoot seven-inch groups and with the other eight-inch groups. Both rifles will keep all their shots inside the kill zone of a whitetail at 100 yards and keep every shot on the 10-inch gong at that distance.
So, which one is better? The one that has the better trigger or the stock that fits you better.
If your club or shooting range allows it, use a target that gives you immediate feedback. Firing a five-shot group offhand and walking 100 yards to find four holes is not only discouraging, it is difficult to learn from. Which shot missed? If you are shooting at a gong, you know immediately which one missed. The gongs at our club are very popular and have to be replaced annually. And if the 10-inch plate becomes too easy, then there are the falling bowling pin plates. If you can go five-for-five on the pins at 100 yards, offhand, shooting while hunting is no mystery to you.
While you are working over the gong, learn to call your shots. If you miss, where was it? Did you see the sights at the moment the rifle fired? Can you tell where the miss was? The big advantage of paper is it records the misses, but if you have a spotter when you are shooting at a gong, the spotter can confirm your called shot. One huge and negative effect on shooting performance is buck fever. The stress of seeing your game and realizing that this is it, the moment you've waited for, can sometimes be too much. I have seen hunters at the crucial moment so stressed that their legs were shaking, and their hands were so numb they couldn't push the safety off.
Competition teaches you to deal with stress. Shoot in matches at your gun club. If you can't, shoot at a gong with a fellow shooter who is close to your skill level. Make the stakes small. Alternate offhand shots on the gong, the first one that misses loses. Or take turns picking a shooting location and field position. The winner is the one who gets the most hits in 10 shots.
Gunsite Academy has a course like this cal
led The Scrambler. There are eight positions from "supported offhand" to "in a tree." The target is a steel plate of generous but realistic size. You take your shot and if you hit, you move on. If you miss, you get to take a second shot. If you miss the second shot, your run doesn't count. The winner is the shooter with the lowest time who has all their hits. It is fun, and it teaches you to deal with stress. If you have the room for it, or your club does, an afternoon spent shooting across such a course with your buddies will do wonders for your abilities. Accuracy is good, but it isn't the be-all and end-all of a successful hunt or a satisfying match. It is only a means to that end.