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Finding Zero

by Ed Migale

Accurate (adj.) 1.) careful and exact 2.) free from mistakes or errors; precise 3.) adhering closely to a standard --- from Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Dejected and confused. That’s how the shooter on the bench to my right looked when, after peering through a binocular at his target set 100 yards away, he slowly shook his head and muttered inaudible – yet clearly understandable – words under his breath.

I eased my spotting scope to the right and snuck a peak at his target, a full sized photo of a buck deer, complete with highlighted vital area.

Oh, there were bullet holes in the target, but not a one was in the vital area. One was in the hip. Another in the lower foreleg. Yet another nudged the tail, while at the other end of the spectrum, one had hit the jaw.

To make matters worse, this was just days before the opener of the deer season!

Realigning my spotting scope, I confirmed that the three shot, bench rest fired group on my target was right about 1 inch in diameter … at two hundred and fifty yards! Clearly, I was ready for my upcoming hunt while the hunter next to me was not. The difference between he and I? To be fair, I was shooting carefully prepared handloads, while he was not. But the reason for my success -- and his failure -- was something much more obvious. The proverbial blind man could see it in a second and even Shakespeare would have to settle for a one word explanation: technique.

Shooting Bench Finesse

Yeah, I’ve heard it before, too. “There aren’t any benches and bench rests in the deer woods, so it’s dumb to practice from one.” And technically that statement is correct. The distinction therein though lies with the word “practice” and with so many – too many – hunter’s inappropriate use of the shooting bench.

Shooting from the bench is not for practice. Its two primary purposes are for 1.) sighting-in – or “zeroing” -- the rifle, and 2.) ascertaining the rifle’s ability to group specific ammunition loadings.

Yet, the fellow next to me was trying to get his rifle to consistently place its fired bullets into the vital zone of his target from a very unstable shooting position. His “rifle rest” consisted of a rolled-up sleeping bag tossed on the bench. The problem was it was too high for his upper body length and in struggling to get the rifle leveled, the barrel see-sawed up and down. And because his arms were not in contact with the bench, the rifle swayed from side to side.

In stark contrast, my rifle’s fore end sat in an adjustable bench rest with the rear portion of the stock set in a “rabbit’s ears’” sand bag rest. Upon leaning into the rifle, the scope was at eye level, and both my feet were firmly planted to the ground. My left arm from the elbow (pointing directly away from me) to the wrist was lying on the bench (NOT touching the rifle), left hand grasping and pinching the “rabbit’s ears” in order to make tiny vertical adjustments. My right hand held the stock’s grip, trigger finger at the ready.

Invest in Basic Gear

You don’t have a bench rest or rear bag? Then a small investment is in order. You do not have to spend oodles of hard-earned cash as a capable set-up can be had for around $100 to $125. The bench rest will outlive you, and I guarantee infinitely better results than if using a sleeping bag.

Three more indispensable items:

  1. A shoulder harness recoil pad. I know … you’re tough, but get one anyway. The amount of felt recoil from the sitting position used at the bench will take its toll and accuracy will suffer as pain level increases.
  2. Hearing protection. I know … the noise doesn’t bother you. But each time you fire without protection you are subjecting yourself to damaging levels of noise and permanent hearing loss.
  3. Eye protection. I know … you’ve got the eyes of an eagle and don’t wear glasses. But wear some impact resistant nonprescription shades anyway and protect that gift!

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

Let’s add to Mr. Webster’s above definition. Accuracy is repeatability. And to consistently repeat putting fired bullets close together way out yonder, you’ve got to do the same exact thing, the same exact way, time after time. And a big part of that is body position. Mentally check and re-check your position before every shot.

Shoot a Rifle You Can Shoot

Still not getting them close together? Are you shooting too much gun? In the 21st Century’s bigger-is-better-and-faster-is-first mentality, cartridge cases seem to be getting wider and/or longer every year. Basically, more case capacity means more powder, which, when ignited, enables higher velocities, providing flatter trajectories. A good thing. To a point. That point being when recoil becomes intolerable.

To find the zero of your rifle and selected ammunition, you’ve got to start at ground zero with the basics. Think solid. Think error-free. Think repeatability. Then, and only then, should you think about venison in the freezer.

Ed Migale Articles

While big game, waterfowl, and upland game bird hunting, as well as saltwater fishing for the past two decades Ed Migale has had hundreds of articles published in national and regional publications and has received numerous writing awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of California. Ed has hunted and fished for over 40 years throughout California, as well as in five western states, three Canadian provinces, and in both mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. In March of 2011 he called in and killed an Osceola gobbler in central Flroida, thus completing a ten-year quest to bag all five subspeciies of the wild turkey in North America — the "Royal Slam."

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