At dusk a big mule deer buck eased into the field edge, tempted by 20-something does who fed nonchalantly in the open. He was tall, wide and handsome, deep forks and long tines reaching skyward. Six-hundred yards away, four hunters sat atop a little hill in the field, watching the deer feed toward them. As I observed from a distant ridge, I felt sure the buck had seen his last sunrise.
The hunters didn’t wait until the buck came within easy range, though it would have been inevitable. They opened up when he was still perhaps 350 yards out with a volley that had dust spurting from the ground all around the buck. He bolted for cover, covering the ground with huge bounds, bullets dusting the ground around him. He made it too, though he left a little blood on the ground behind him. In all, I counted 36 shots fired at that big old deer. Heartsick with disgust, I made my way off the ridge and headed home.
Too many hunters fail to capitalize on those rare opportunities when a big buck presents a shot. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that hunters fail to properly prepare their rifles for the hunt. Often, I’ve heard a hunter say, “Shot my gun last night. I hit a paper plate, so I’m good!” Fact is, he’s probably not. Close may be good enough in horseshoes and hand grenades, but it’s not good enough for hunting. You should be able to hit a golf ball at 100 yards, not just a paper plate. That takes work and careful preparation, but when a big buck or bull steps out and offers you a shot it makes it all worthwhile.
Here are five steps you can take to get your rifle in shape and ready for hunting season this fall.
Step 1: Inspect and Clean
The first thing you should do upon digging your hunting rifle from the safe or out of the closet corner is dust it off and inspect it thoroughly. Make sure the scope is clean and undamaged. Look through it and verify the lenses are clear with no fogging or distortion. Check rings, bases and screws to verify they are still tight and secure. Inspect the sling for wear or loose attachments points. Work the action (with the rifle empty, of course), and test the safety. If you find anything wrong, now is the time to get it fixed.
Next, clean the barrel. You should have cleaned and oiled the rifle thoroughly after last season before stowing it away, so this should simply mean using a clean patch to wipe the oil out of the bore. However, if you put the rifle away dirty, you will need to give it a thorough cleaning. Just so you know, leaving a rifle’s bore dirty between seasons will promote corrosion and rust, significantly shortening the life of your firearm. If you live in a humid or moist climate, rust can permanently destroy your rifle’s accuracy in a very short time. Your best strategy is to thoroughly clean and oil your rifle after each season. Then, all you have to do preseason is wipe away the oil and admire that gleaming bore.
Step 2: Test Ammo
Rifles are individuals and will prefer a specific load. You should sleuth out your gun’s favorite ammo, then always use that load.
If you’ve already completed this in years past, you won’t need to do it again unless you’re going to hunt something different this year. For instance, perhaps you normally hunt whitetail deer with Winchester Deer Season ammo, but this fall you’ll be hunting moose in Canada. You’ll need a tougher, deep-penetrating bullet, so testing is in order. Here’s how you do it:
First, purchase four to six different kinds of ammo for your rifle. Then, schedule a day at the range. Try to schedule on a calm-weather day. Now, buy or borrow a simple chronograph with which to measure ammo velocity and consistency (I use a $125 Shooting Chrony). You’ll need a tripod to set it up on, 10 or 12 feet in front of your muzzle. Next, post a target at 100 yards and shoot three very careful three-shot groups with each kind of ammo. Shoot from a good bench rest. Allow the rifle to cool until the barrel is comfortable to touch between each three-shot group. Fire all nine rounds of each ammo type consecutively, so your chronograph can record a good average of information.
Now, measure the groups from each ammo test. Write each measurement on the target next to the group. Now add the three measurements together and divide by three. This is your accuracy average for that particular ammo. Write it on the target, along with the ammo brand, bullet type and bullet weight.
Lastly, record the information from the chronograph. The important information is your average velocity, the SD (standard deviation) and the ES (extreme spread). This information tells you how fast your bullet is traveling (which is important for Step 4) and how consistent the ammunition is. The lower the ES and SD numbers are, the better.
Once you’ve completed testing all your different ammo, you will know exactly what your rifle shoots best, and which is most consistent. Stock up on that stuff, then move on to Step 3.
Step 3: Perfect Your Zero
This step is simple, but super important. For all-around hunting, zero your rifle at 200 yards. (It goes without saying that you must use your rifle’s favorite ammo as determined in Step 2.) With most modern hunting calibers, this will allow you to aim dead-on from zero to 250 yards. Beyond that you should dial for distance. Shoot 3-shot groups between scope adjustments, and refine your zero until the center of your group is dead on at 200 yards. Okay, you’re ready for Step 4.
Step 4: Stretch Out the Range
If you live and hunt in big woods or brush country where you never shoot beyond 200 yards, you can skip this step. But if you live and hunt out West, or over bean fields, or any place where shot distances can be long, this step can triple your effective range. One caveat: you must have a high-quality scope with a dial-up type turret for this to work.
Now that your rifle has been cleaned, inspected, tested and zeroed at 200 yards, it’s ready to shoot long distance. Start by installing Hornady’s free 4DOF ballistic app on your phone or mobile device. Now, enter all your pertinent information into the app. If you haven’t used a ballistic app before, it can take a little while to figure it out, especially if you are technologically challenged like I am. They’re fun though, and you’ll learn a lot from using one.
Okay, you’re ready to stretch out the range. Find a place where you can shoot long; at least 500 yards and preferably double that. Set up a target or spot a likely rock to shoot at. I like steel targets because they make such a delightful sound when my bullets hit them. Now, use a laser rangefinder to measure the distance to your target. Let’s say it’s 500 yards. Go to your ballistic app, enter or scroll to the yardage and find the “come up.” This is how much you need to dial your scope in order to hit the distant target, and for most of us will be measured in MOA, or minutes of angle. Dial your scope to the recommended come up, settle in for a steady shot and press the trigger.
You’ll need a buddy looking through a spotting scope to call your impact, but if you’ve done everything right, you should be on target. Awesome. Now move your target to a different distance (or find another rock) and repeat. Keep this up until you become adept. In the process, you’ll figure out your ethical maximum distance when hunting; for instance, if you can hit a 10-inch steel plate every shot at 500 yards you’re probably good to shoot that far at game. If you can’t, keep shots closer.
Step 5: Build a Turret or Drop Card
Once you’ve figured out how to shoot long, you should get a custom turret cut for your scope. Many manufacturers provide this service, and some include a free custom turret voucher with each new scope they sell. To order your custom turret, simply give them all pertinent information such as scope model, bullet diameter, weight, design and velocity, average elevation in your hunting area, and average hunting temperatures. Then they will laser engrave a turret to match your ballistics, with yardages marked around the perimeter. Install it on your scope. Now all you must do is range your target, crank your turret to the corresponding yardage and press the trigger.
Not all scopes are compatible with custom turrets. If that’s the case, you should simply print out a drop chart from your ballistic app and keep it ready to hand. I like to tape mine to the side of my rifle’s forearm with clear packing tape, where it’s readily visible when I’m settling in for a shot. This also keeps it somewhat waterproof.
Get You Ready Too
No matter how good your setup is, it cannot function as intended unless the nut behind the bolt is working properly. (Yes, that’s you.) You must shoot well, with steady form and good trigger control. Practice your shooting from every field position imaginable. I highly recommend dry-fire practice; it allows you to watch your crosshairs through the “click” and monitor what they are doing. It’s also a lot cheaper than live fire. Don’t neglect the live fire practice though, it’s essential as well.
Put in the work to get your rifle and yourself in shooting shape for the fall hunting seasons. When that big buck or bull steps out and gives you the shot of a lifetime, you’ll ease into position, settle the crosshairs and touch off a perfect shot.