If there is anything more important to the preparation of a hunt than properly sighting in your rifle it escapes my notice. You have one physical connection with the game you are hunting. It all comes down to the bullet and where it strikes the animal. That is something you have total control over, yet I see so many hunters who do it all wrong.
The only way to sight in a rifle is to shoot from a solid rest. It’s not a test of your shooting ability; it is an adjustment process for a precision instrument. You must eliminate all human error, and your skill—or lack of it— should not affect the outcome. Don’t use the hood of a truck or the seat of a 4-wheeler, use a shooting bench.
Once you have that foundation, the next key is to use a proper rest. The rest will react with the rifle when you fire, so like Goldie’s beds, a rifle rest should be not too soft, not too hard, but just right. If it’s too hard it will cause the rifle to bounce and shoot high. Too soft and the rifle will become unpredictable when firing.
This last point was driven home to me a few years ago. I had a rifle I had built myself and I knew it was very accurate. Yet I missed a deer at an embarrassingly close distance. (We later found I had hit a limb that I failed to see in the early-morning light.) I stopped at the shooting bench on the way back to camp. I found a 4x4 piece of wood and put my thick, fluffy gloves on top.
The gun shot all over the target. Back at camp I checked all the screws but nothing seemed wrong. We headed back to the range, this time with sandbags. The gun was spot on and shooting half-inch groups again. It was those fluffy gloves making the gun shoot so erratically.
Sandbags are a good choice for a front rest. You can buy commercial bags or make your own. The downside of using sandbags is there is little to no adjustment with them.
Over the years I have come to really appreciate a “machine” style front rest with its range of adjustment. This is typically a metal rest with three legs and a threaded center column for adjusting height. The platform on top will be fitted with a sandbag designed to fit the rest.
Regardless of what you use, you must support the forearm, never the barrel of the rifle. You must also support the toe of the stock near the butt. A “toe bag” will support the rear of the rifle. Without it you are depending on some sort of human influence to hold the butt of the rifle, which is a mistake. The rear bag is moved forward or back on the stock to raise or lower the point of aim.
The ideal bench should be shaped so that there is a “wing” along your right side (for right-handed shooters). This allows you to support the rear of the rifle while your body is positioned correctly for shooting.
Your gun should be bore-sighted before you start. Bore sighting will only get you on the target to allow you to finish sighting in by shooting. You should never consider hunting with a rifle that has only been bore sighted.
Use your non-shooting hand to move and adjust the rear “toe” bag until the crosshairs are on the bullseye. You should not be supporting the gun’s weight at all, let the sandbags do that. The minute you try to hold the gun you introduce movement.
At this point you and the rifle should be rock steady and the crosshairs should not be moving. If they are, then you need to re-evaluate your rest and your position at the bench until everything is stable. With the gun empty, aim at the bullseye and slowly squeeze the trigger until the gun dry-fires. (This will not hurt a modern centerfire rifle.) The crosshairs should not waver off the bullseye. Continue to practice dry-firing until you can do it every time without the crosshairs moving.
Now it’s time to shoot. Being careful to squeeze the trigger slowly, fire a group of three shots.
Do not make adjustments on one shot. One shot hides problems, and many frustrated hunters find they are out of ammo after chasing bullet holes all over the target. A three-shot group will show if you are flinching or experiencing other shooting problems or if your rifle has accuracy problems. One shot will not.
Find the center of your three-shot group and measure straight over to the vertical line on the center of your target. This will give you the amount of left or right adjustment you need to make in the scope. Now measure up or down to the horizontal line and make the adjustment for that.
Allow the rifle to cool down a bit and then fire three more shots.
Your group should now be centered on the target. If for some reason it is not, repeat the process until it is.
Let the rifle cool off before firing your final group to see if there is a point-of-impact change from a hot barrel. Remember you will always fire your first shot at big game from a cold barrel. Make certain that you adjust your final point-of-impact from the same cold barrel.
Recoil can be a problem off the bench. Everybody will flinch at times, and you can never zero a rifle if you are flinching.
Consider a Lead Sled rest to mitigate felt recoil. I use mine when I have a lot of rifles or a hard-kicking rifle to zero. If you are concerned that the point-of-impact will change, simply fire your group off the sandbag or machine rest.
Fine-tune your zero and protect your rifle and you can shoot with confidence when the buck of a lifetime accepts your invitation.