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A Step-by-Step Guide to Sighting in a Rifle

By: Randy Tucker

Experience often comes from doing everything wrong initially, learning from your mistakes, and doing it right the second time. I learned to sight in a rifle “the hard way” and gained some valuable experience. Thankfully, sighting in a rifle nowadays is much easier than it was when I purchased my first hunting rifle in the fall of 1980.

It was just before antelope season opened in Niobrara County, Wyoming. As a recent graduate of the University of Wyoming, I was only making $785 a month as a first-year teacher and coach, and a gun was a major expense. I found a good deal on a Winchester 788 in .308 caliber at the Coast to Coast store in Lusk, and it came with a fixed four power scope.

With two boxes of shells in hand and some paper targets, I set off to a private gun range owned by a local rancher and proceeded to make epic mistakes. After 20 rounds, I was able to hit the outer area of the target at 50 yards, but the gun was too hot for consistent accuracy. I waited 20 minutes for it to cool, fired another 10 rounds, and hit the bullseye three times at 100 yards. The short-barreled 788 with the steel butt plate has a strong recoil, and I had a purple bruise on my right shoulder at the end of the session.

Bore Sighting
Times have changed for the better, and sighting in a rifle is now much simpler (and less painful). After you’ve selected your rifle, caliber, and scope, many retail outlets will include bore sighting as part of the gun purchase.

Bore sighting involves using a laser that’s set either inside the chamber or at the end of the barrel that emits a steady light on a target. The scope and rifle must both be level when setting the mounting screws to attach the rings to the gun before any sighting takes place. Stabilize the gun, lock it in place, and then adjust your scope until the crosshairs are directly on the red laser dot.

It’s an easy process for veteran gun retailers to conduct, but bore sights are inexpensive, and many gun owners choose to use their own. It’s a good idea to buy one in your specific caliber if you have just a single rifle, or a universal sight if you have multiple caliber rifles and handguns.

Bore sights come in a variety of calibers and resemble a standard brass shell with a laser set inside, replacing the bullet. Turn on the laser and chamber the bore sight, and it will shine a light down the center of your barrel. Lock the light on the target, set your scope onto the dot, and you’re ready for final adjustments at the gun range. The drawback to these sights is the cost of the tiny batteries it takes to power them, nearly as much as the cost of the sight itself.

A universal bore sight is different; it is attached at the end of the barrel with a caliber-specific probe that slides a few inches into the gun. Universal bore sights come with adapters that allow for use on weapons from .17 all the way up to .50 caliber. A complaint some people have about universal sights is the possible damaging of the gun’s rifling when a solid metal probe is used.

A variety of manufactures produce all three types of bore sights and they range from an introductory price less than $20 for a basic model to several hundred for advanced versions. A newer version of laser bore sight is a self-leveling, magnetic sight that attaches to the end of the barrel.

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Ready for the Range
With your new rifle bore sighted, you are ready for the range. A spotting scope and clean targets are musts on your initial visit to the range with your new rifle.

If you’re an avid marksman, recreational shooter, or hunter and spend a lot of time at the gun range, it’s a good idea to purchase an adjustable shooting rest. A shooting rest assures consistent firing and a stable platform to adjust from. The Caldwell Lead Sled is a popular model that comes in a variety of configurations.

If you don’t have a shooting rest, you can arrange sand bags on a bench at the range and stabilize your target practice. With a bore sighted rifle, you can usually start at 50 yards with a standard paper target. Many ranges provide a solid backstop to attach your targets to, but if they don’t, a cardboard box anchored with a sand bag works just as well.

Check for other shooters before you proceed out onto the range. Attach your paper target to the 50-yard backstop and return to your bench. At this point it is safe to load your rifle.

With an empty chamber and the safety on, set your rifle on the shooting base or sandbags and position the sight with the crosshairs directly on the bullseye. Lock your rifle into place or stabilize it as tightly as possible, then chamber a round.

Ease into the rifle, set your eye clearly through the scope on the target, and gently squeeze off your first shot. A partner is handy at this point with a spotting scope to tell you if you’re left, right, up or down on the target, but you can do it alone as well.

Taking two shots before making an adjustment with a new rifle is a good idea. If you hit the same spot twice, you have an accurate measurement before you adjust the elevation and windage settings. The elevation setting is inside the round tube on top of the scope, and the windage is to the side. With the covers removed, the settings are clearly marked up or down and left or right and can be turned with a screwdriver (or a dime, in some cases) for adjustment.

Shoot twice, adjust, shoot two more times, and adjust again. When you’ve hit the bullseye twice, you can move to 100 yards or farther down range as needed.

Check the flight characteristics of your caliber and adjust accordingly to the distance at which you would expect to see game. Some calibers shoot flat to 200 yards, while others drop a few inches at 200 yards from being directly on at 100. The terrain you plan to hunt is a consideration, too. Open, flat habitat is different from high mountain valleys, jagged peaks, and rolling hills with broken patches of timber, which all offer different challenges. Knowing the distance at which you’re likely to spot game is important.

With your rifle sighted in to your preferred distance, reset the adjustment covers, empty the weapon, put the covers on the scope, and you’re ready for your next outdoor adventure.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

Photo Credit: Randy Tucker

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.