By Mark V. Lonsdale, STTU
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been on the range and run into a shooter who was having trouble zeroing his rifle, and often a brand new rifle. A good number of these were attributed to the scope being installed incorrectly, and in particular, loose rings or bases. It several cases the action bolts were also loose allowing the action and barrel to jump about in the stock. So let’s look at a few checks you should run on a new rifle, plus each time you clean the rifle, and before entering a competition or going hunting.
When you receive a new rifle, either factory or custom built, the first thing you should do is remove the barreled action from stock to ensure everything looks good and that the metal to stock fit is of acceptably close tolerance. If it is supposed to be aluminum pillar bedded, then check that the pillars are there. This will affect the toque values for the action bolts.
Aluminum pillars in a McMillan A5 fiberglass stock
If the rifle has an aftermarket trigger such as Timney or Jewel, this is the time to set the trigger pull since it cannot be done with the rifle in the stock. Keep in mind that both of these trigger can be delivered with the trigger set at about 8 ounces, a fraction of what you may be used to with a factory 4+ pound trigger. For a Jewel trigger it is screw #3 in the instructions; for a Timney Calvin Elite it is the lower screw on the front of the trigger frame, but for either, be sure to read the instructions before making adjustments.
Timney Calvin Elite trigger mounted under a Kelbly’s Atlas Tactical Action
Next, replace the barreled action in the stock and torque the action bolts. I use 65 in-lbs for fiberglass stocks with aluminum pillar bedding. A factory wood or plastic stock without pillars would be considerable lower, 35-45 in-lbs, but check with the manufacturers before going gorilla on your action bolts. Next take a business card and run it the length of the barrel between the barrel and the forend to ensure that the barrel is fully floated. This also works to get any debris out of the forend channel in the field.
Using a business card to verify that the barrel is floated; (R) torquing the action bolts
Cycle the bolt and trigger to ensure everything is working as expected. Set the safety and pull the trigger to ensure that the safety works; then release the safety to see if the action fires. This has been a recall issue in the past, where rifles could fire when the safety was released.
At this point you can mount and torque the scope rail, rings, and mount the scope. (See last month’s article on scope mounting). Ensure that the scope reticle is perfectly vertical and plumbed to the rifle.
At the Range:
If the rifle has an adjustable cheek rest, set the cheek rest so that your eye lines up perfectly with the scope. Bore sight the rifle at 25 yards, then zero the rifle to shoot about an inch low at 25 yards. This should put you very close to dead on at 100 yards. Once you are zeroed at 100 yards, loosen the turrets and zero them out so that your elevation is “0” and windage “0.” If the scope has a bullet drop compensator, then set the elevation for “1” or “100.”
If you are a serious long range shooter, you will need to chronograph your chosen load in this rifle since you will need the muzzle velocity (MV), ballistic coefficient (BC), and scope above bore height to generate a ballistics solutions chart or input the rifle’s data into your Kestrel. Keep in mind that your printed data is only valid for the environmental conditions at the time and elevation when you zeroed the rifle. Changes in temperature and altitude can have a noticeable effect at longer ranges, but the Kestrel will adjust your firing solutions for environmental conditions and wind.
The Kestrel 5700 Elite with AB ballistic firing solutions has become the standard for long range shooters and hunters
Rifle Checks Prior to Competitions or Hunting
Any competitor or hunter who travels to compete or hunt will know the importance of checking bolts, screws, and zero after a long trip. Whether driving or flying, screws can vibrate loose and a scope can go out of zero, especially if some ham-fisted baggage handler decides to play shot-put with your rifle case or it falls off the conveyor belt. Many shooters will remove their scopes and hand-carry them, but this will also require re-zeroing at the first opportunity.
Since you cannot assume someone will have the tools you’ll need, here are a few suggestions for a small tool kit. When rifle shooting I carry a small collection of Allen wrenches and Torx wrenches to deal with scope rings, rails, bases, and turrets, plus a 1/2″ wrench for the scope ring bolts. With handguns, I carry Allen wrenches and screw drivers for sights and grip screws. Pennies and dimes also see a lot of action with the local shooters zeroing their slot-turret sporting scopes before hunting season.
Small tool kit with essential Allen wrenches, Torx wrenches and 1/2″ wrench
Just because a rifle is new out of the box or fresh from the custom rifle builder, you cannot assume that all screws and bolts are correctly tightened and torqued. And be assured, any looseness defeats the prime principle of accuracy – “Accuracy is the Product of Uniformity.” For a rifle/scope system to perform as expected, there can’t be any inconsistency in fit or torque values. So provided that the rifle system and ammunition meet the standards of uniformity, then the rest is up to the shooter to do his or her part. Uniformity of grip, stock pressure, shooting position, and trigger control are of even greater importance than the rifle. A good shooter with a 1 MOA rifle will out shoot a mediocre shooter with a ½ MOA rifle.
Preparing a new rifle for F-TR competition. Atlas action, Bartlein 30″ barrel, McMillan A5 fiberglass stock with adjustable cheek piece and 3-way adjustable butt plate, Phoenix Precision bipod, topped with a Nightforce ATACR 7-35x56mm scope.