August 29, 2018
Rather than discuss how many shots per group there should be or how many groups are required to really know how well a rifle performs, I wanted to pass along a few things I've learned over the last few years of gun-wrasslin' on how to get a rifle to shoot to its potential. I hope that you might learn a little faster than I did, knowing some of the mistakes I made.
Getting the best out of a rifle has been an ongoing learning experience for me. No matter where I am on this journey, I remember that good rifle performance starts with building a good position. It isn't as easy as it might seem and there are many considerations.
Rest Be Wary
My first recommendation is to only use a shooting bench if there is absolutely zero wobble in it. If you can put your hand on the table and rock it (even slightly), that wobble will add at least .2 inch to your group sizes.
In this light, be especially suspect of wood benches. Not only do they frequently sit unevenly on the ground, a light wind can sway an otherwise stable wood bench by catching the shooter's body like a sail. Small gusts of wind will push both the shooter and table around enough to add another .1 or .2 inch to a group size. This is why I prefer to shoot from the prone most of the time.
Supporting The Rifle
There are a lot of ways to support the front of a rifle during accuracy testing. I've seen the best results while using either a large sandbag that comes up on both sides of the forend or a bipod that allows the rifle to sit below the point where the bipod legs would intersect at the top (frequently used in F-class matches). Regardless, if you choose a bag or a bipod, the concept remains the same: the front support should prevent lateral and vertical movement.
Using only vertical support under the forend is a common mistake. A regular bipod only provides vertical support because the shooter will likely want to pan left and right to sight in on targets. That ability to pan also allows the forend to wobble slightly left and right when shooting for accuracy because there is no lateral support. Not having lateral support can add .1 to .2 inch to group sizes.
A common mistake that shooters make relates to stabilizing the stock's toe during testing. At the range I go to, I frequently see folks with just a balled fist tucked under the stock or nothing at all. A balled fist provides very little stability to the back end of the rifle. In contrast, rifle shooters with some training and experience will sometimes use a small sandbag. A sandbag provides stability but there's room for improvement.
The next time you're at the range, get settled behind the rifle and have a friend reach up under your armpit and put slight pressure on the left or right side of the stock while you look through the scope. You'll quickly see that any movement at the back of the rifle causes groups to open just as much as movement at the muzzle.
The best solution for rear support I've found is a large sandbag with ears that extend up on either side of the stock. The ears are the critical feature. Any old sandbag can provide the vertical support needed, but those beautiful ears offer essential lateral support. Without that lateral support to the stock's toe, you can add at least another .1 to .2 inch to the group size.
Some rifles also have what I term "triggers with attitude." Triggers in AR-type rifles are the biggest offenders.
To learn more about a trigger, get all settled behind your rifle and dryfire while focusing intently on the crosshair. Sometimes the crosshair jumps when the trigger releases the hammer or striker. The best way I've found to stop this is to squeeze the ears of the rear bag into the sides of the stock. If that doesn't correct things, I'll try the fingers of my support hand. An uncontrolled trigger with attitude can add three-fourths of an inch or more to group sizes.
My last note on accuracy testing has to do with the rifle itself. We live in an age when it's become passé to clean a rifle. No barrel will give its best accuracy when new or very dirty. A factory barrel needs 60 to 100 rounds fired through it to knock all the hemorrhoids out before it is ready to test. Shoot those rounds through it and give the barrel a good cleaning. Then, it's ready for business. Give the rifle 10 rounds or so after it's been cleaned to settle it back down.
These are my personal observations from testing rifles while working for Guns & Ammo. My intent is not to dictate how accuracy testing should or shouldn't be done. If you have a system that you like, by all means stay with it. I'm certain that the years ahead will teach us all some additional tips. I'll be sure to pass mine along.
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