Whether you realize it or not, you can't just buy a rifle and expect to point at a target and hit it. An incredibly lucky person might be able to pull that off, but if you want to consistently hit what you aim at, sighting-in your rifle is a necessity. This article will look at what it means to sight-in your rifle, and how to do so properly. Another term for sighting-in is zeroing your rifle.

The Advantages

Sighting-in and accuracy are intertwined, but they don't mean the same thing. You can have a properly sighted rifle and not be an accurate shooter, but it's very difficult to be an accurate shooter without a properly sighted rifle. Sighting-in your rifle has other advantages, as well.

  • It gives you confidence as a hunter or target shooter. You will have better focus and less doubt knowing your rifle is true.
  • Since it requires you to practice, it gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with your rifle.
  • It gives you a chance to see how you influence the aim of your rifle.
  • Sighting-in may seem an expensive waste of ammunition, but once zeroed, it will take less ammo to hit what your target, saving money, and saving you frustration and disappointment.

Always be sure to take the same protections for your ears and eyes when sighting-in that you would when normally shooting targets or hunting game.

When and How to Sight-In Your Rifle

You need to sight-in your rifle after you purchase it to ensure accuracy. To bolster your confidence, however, you should also sight-in before every hunt. It is possible that, in the time since you last shot, your rifle or scope may have been bumped or jarred out of zero. It doesn't happen often, but erring on the side of caution can save you the grief of watching your trophy bound away because your rifle wasn't still sighted-in.

The first thing to do in sighting-in your rifle is to get your rifle "on paper," which is a benchmark done by bore sighting. As the name implies, you are trying to align what is seen down the bore of the rifle with the iron sight or scope of the rifle. On bolt action rifles, you could do this manually by removing the bolt and eyeballing your target down the bore and adjusting your scope until it matches, or you could buy a boresighter. Since prices have come down, a good balance between convenience and price is a laser boresighter that is inserted into the barrel, or a version that is chambered like a cartridge. Following the instructions, you can use the laser dot on the target to rough-in your rifle's sight.

Some boresighters claim in their descriptions that you won't need to fire a live round to sight your rifle, but that is mostly marketing talk. You could do the rough sighting without a shot, but you will still need to take the following steps to fine-tune your rifle. There are too many variables to consider that can't be evaluated without live fire.

Tips to Sight-in

  • To save ammo, and to eliminate factors like wind, start at 25 or 50 yards, shooting at a target with enough blank space around it to see where you are hitting.
  • Before beginning to shoot, eliminate the human equation. This isn't about how good a shooter you are, sighting-in is all about the rifle's accuracy. If possible, use a bench with the rifle resting on sandbags for support.
  • Be sure to follow the steps to proper firing.
  • Shoot at the target in groups of three. This gives you a more accurate assessment of the consistency of the rifle.
  • One of the variables mentioned earlier is the ammo you will use. You will want to use the ammo you will be primarily shooting, because rifles react differently to different loads and types of ammo.
  • Make adjustments to your sight based on the target results. Sights are adjusted by moving them a number of minutes-of-angle (MOA) in the direction you are missing. Adjusting a sight side to side is "adjusting for windage," and moving it up or down is "adjusting for elevation." After you've made adjustments and you are on target, move to 100 yards and repeat the process. If you know you will be shooting long distances most of the time, then you can move out further than 100 yards.
  • The ideal sight position will vary. Bullets do not fire in a straight line; they are affected by gravity as soon as they leave the barrel of the rifle. You can go on the web and use a trajectory calculator to see what the falloff will be for your type of ammo. You can also check app stores—there are calculators made for iOS and Android devices. Often the trajectory information is on the ammo box. Once you know the trajectory, you can adjust your sighting accordingly. For example, many find that sighting-in about an inch and a half high at 100 yards means a dead-on shot at 200 yards.

Once you have your rifle sighted-in, if you follow proper shooting technique, you will be able to confidently hit what you are aiming for consistently.