It’s finally fall here in northern Alabama and the first few cool snaps have begun to give us a chill when we walk out of the house in the mornings. To many across the country this first bit of cool air signals the beginning of hunting season in the near future. For the thousands of deer hunters, fall is the time to dig out the rifle and make sure the scope is still zeroed by shooting a paper plate on a fencepost at 100 yards, give or take. For years I have taken part in this annual observance of accuracy, at least until I learned that you are better off to shoot more often and in different positions than once a fall over a truck hood. I’ll take up the cause of regular shooting in another post and stick with the basics of zeroing a rifle here. If you’d like to know more about some good practice habits, read my post on dry fire training Here.
Before handling any firearm for any purpose, please read about the four cardinal safety rules Here.
What Does It Mean To Zero A Rifle?
The simplest and most accurate definition of zeroing, or a zero, is adjusting the sights of the gun to match the location that the bullet impacts the target. It sounds very simple, and at a fixed distance, it is. However, gravity and other factors work together to make it impossible to have a fixed zero for every range. If you’ve heard the words “Kentucky Windage,” then you have heard of someone using an estimation based on distance and wind to compensate for the variables and still hit the target by aiming high, low, or to the side. Long range shooters may use telescopic sights (scopes) with exposed turrets to adjust the impact point to compensate for wind and distance as well. These skills can be very useful, but a solid base zero is where it all starts.
What Range Should I Zero My Rifle At?
If we asked this question in a message board, we would likely get almost as many different answers as there are members in the group and most of them would likely be correct given a certain situation. I’ve done a pretty good bit of shooting, both hunting and competition, and I’ll offer my findings in this post, but you may find that something else works better for you so I don’t expect or encourage anyone to take this as gospel. I propose that we zero our rifles for the range that we expect to use them. For a .22 caliber rimfire rifle used for small game such as squirrels, 25 yards or so is probably going to be pretty close to perfect. Here in Alabama, the average shot at a whitetail deer is probably just under 100 yards, however the ballistics of most high powered rifle cartridges allow the bullet to hit within a couple of inches over the first 200 yards so for my purposes, a deer rifle can be perfectly zeroed at 200 yards and will shoot 1-2 inches high at 100 yards. That’s well within the vital zone of a deer and allows me some breathing room at slightly farther shots too. An elk hunter out west might find a 300 yard shot to be common enough to zero there and make adjustments for shots closer. The military zeros are often 25 meters because the arc of the bullet’s flight makes it practical to hit a human size target in the vital zone of the torso from up close to well past 200 yards or meters. I personally zero my defensive rifles at about 200 yards and know how much to compensate to hit accurately at 300-400 yards. This setting covers me from up close to well beyond the range that I would plan on engaging targets in a defensive situation. With all that said, we have to base or zero distance on our situations and plan to adapt if need be. It isn’t set in stone and if we find ourselves needing a different setup then its a matter of a few clicks of the turret. Click the picture below for some good targets to zero your rifle or pistol with.
Types of Sights
A brief description of sight systems is helpful for us to understand how to zero our rifle, so I grouped them as broadly as I could to keep from going too far down each rabbit hole in this post.
Iron Sights: Since the rifled gun barrel was invented in the late 15th to early 16th century and vastly improved in the 18th century with the Kentucky long rifles, we have had some sort of sighting system that has consisted of one or more aiming points attached to the barrel or receiver of most guns, rifle or pistol. These sights can be as simple as a front bead at the end of the barrel to a dual aperture target sight capable of very precise adjustments such as the ones used on Olympic style competition rifles. The most common sights that we will likely find on our hunting and defensive guns will either be a buckhorn or an aperture rear sight with a post of some sort on the front. Depending on the setup, the adjustments can be limited to drifting the rear sight back and forth in its slot to correct windage and sliding up or down the ramp to correct elevation, to more precise screw type adjustment knobs. Some rifles such as AR style guns, require adjustment of the front sight post for elevation and others such as the AK style sometimes require front sight adjustment for windage. I’ll do separate posts or videos later to cover some of those.
Telescopic Sights: Often called a “scope,” a telescopic sight magnifies the image through a series of lenses just like binoculars or glasses. In fact, a rifle scope is really a telescope with a reticle of some sort to provide an aiming point and a way to adjust it. Early target style scopes, such as those made by Unertl, even had all of the adjustments made into the mounting rings which meant the body was almost identical to a telescope. Because of the advantage of magnifying the view of a target, scopes have become almost standard on most hunting and target rifles, unless the rules of a particular sport don’t allow them. Many modern scopes are variable power and have magnifications that can be adjusted by turning the eyepiece or a dial. Common hunting scopes are 3 to 9 power or 4 to 14 power. By “power” the manufacturers mean the magnification. An object in a 3 power scope appears 3 times closer than it would to the naked eye. A large number of defensive rifles are outfitted with 1 to 4 or 1 to 6 power scopes because the lower magnification helps keep the field of view wider and its easier to scan the area for threats and avoid tunnel vision. Precision and competition scopes may run from magnifications similar to hunting scopes all the way up to around 50 power magnification. While these can provide great visual clarity of a distant target, the field of view is very small up close and it can be difficult to locate a target with one of these. For a decent quality scope at a good value, click the picture below.
Red Dot/Holographic Sights: A sight system that has become almost standard in defensive weapons of all kinds in the last 20 years is the “red dot” sight. there are different ways that red dot sights work, however most of them are unmagnified and simply have a red or green illuminated dot that is the aiming point. These offer the user quick target acquisition and can be used with both eyes open so threats can be identified as early as possible. You can combine the red dot sight with an external magnifier or purchase a scope with an illuminated dot within its reticle to get a similar experience but with the option to see more distant targets too. If you want to try out a red dot sight, click the picture below for a quality sight at a reasonable price.
Basic Sight Adjustment
Because of the numerous designs of sights on the market, I will just give the basics of sight adjustment based on the adjustable rear iron sight, the standard telescopic sight, and the standard red dot sight. As I said before, some of the most prolific battle rifles we use as defensive guns have their own iron sight adjustments that I’ll cover in separate posts or videos.
Establishing Point of Impact: The first step of adjusting a sight is to determine the current point of impact. If we have a sight or scope professionally mounted, we might have the shop or gunsmith bore sight the sight to get it close before we start. Even then, a few shots are required to know for sure where you are hitting the target. If you want to save a few shots, you can click the picture below to get a bore sighting kit for yourself.
Find a Steady Rest: Either laying down on your stomach or sitting at a table or bench where you can support the rifle’s fore end and the butt stock with sand bags or a rifle rest is necessary to get an accurate point of impact. Good shooting requires consistency in grip, trigger squeeze and follow through and there are hundreds of videos and posts available for you to help perfect yours, but in person training is the best way to learn. You can use a purpose built mechanical rest like the one pictured below with some shooting bags to get a firm position to fire from. Click to picture to look closer.
Find Initial Point of Impact: Fire 2-4 rounds slowly from the steady position you have created. Sometimes it is necessary to begin this with the target as close as 25 yards to “get on paper.” No adjustments should be made until we are able to place multiple shots in an area very close to each other. If we are having trouble getting multiple shots in a small group, we need to first check our grip and firing position then check the weapon and ammunition for problems.
Making The Sight Adjustments: Again, this will vary by type, but most scopes and red dot sights will have some form of turret or screw that will adjust elevation and windage. Some iron sights will be similar, while some may have to be slid over manually and elevated with a movable ramp. The standard rule for adjusting scopes and rear portions of iron sights is to move the blade, aperture, or reticle in the direction you want the bullet to go. If I am hitting below my aiming point, I will adjust the sights or the scope dial up. (scope dials are usually marked in at least one direction, such as “up” or “right.” Most scopes will have markings that specify how much each click of the dial moves the sight at a 100 yard distance. If our scope has 1/4 inch adjustments at 100 yards and we are hitting 4 inches low, we would adjust our elevation up 16 clicks. (In theory this sounds great, but I have found that the accuracy of the click values varies based on the quality of the sight. Don’t be shocked if you have to make multiple adjustments to get your point of impact perfect.)
Fire A Group to Verify: As I mentioned, the combination of variances in the sight and human error on my part usually mean I have to make more than one adjustment. To verify the adjustments I make, I need to repeat the first step using the same rest and grip as I did to fire my first shots. I need to have the verification shots form a close group as well. This process should be repeated until we are satisfied with our zero point.
Protect the Adjustments: Sights and scopes are reaching unheard of levels of durability in the last few years, however, they can still be disturbed. By replacing the turret covers on scopes and red dot sights and tightening any set screws on adjustable iron sights, we can prevent them from being accidentally adjusted. It is also important to avoid impacts to the sight system or its mounts. Dropping a gun to the ground or banging the sight on a doorway when its slung over a shoulder both can cause a shift in the zero and the rifle should be checked for accuracy as soon as possible.
Final Points on Sight Zeroing a Rifle
As with much of the information I share, this post is more about awareness of a skill than an absolute method to follow, however there are a few notes that I feel I need to add. The first is that not everyone is a born shooter. We have different learning curves and whenever possible, using a coach or trainer can really help us progress much more quickly than trial and error. Either way, don’t get frustrated that perfect shooting isn’t instantly obtainable to you. The second is that burning powder generates a lot of heat which can cause the barrel of a rifle to deflect slightly. To get the most accurate grouping of your bullet impacts, let the gun cool off after a few shots. Firing repeatedly can have us chasing a point of impact that keeps moving and we just make things worse.
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