By Mark V. Lonsdale
We’ve all had that four-shot one-hole group only to throw the fifth shot out of the group – what we ubiquitously call “a flier.” The same can happen in any form of bullseye target shooting or running a string of steel plates. There is periodically that one errant shot that ruins a perfect series, but what causes these pesky fliers? Is it the rifle, the ammunition, the environment, or the shooter?
Two examples of fliers where a nice 0.5″ group was forming and then #5 was out of the group
Let’s start with the rifle. Can a rifle cause shots to go astray? Here’s a couple of possibilities that you will hear from other shooters on the range. First, as the barrel heats up it comes in contact with the fore-end and throws shots astray. Second, the action bolts were loose and the action moved. Third, the action is not bedded into the stock allowing the action to move. Solution: If it is a precision rifle with a medium to heavy match-grade barrel, floated in the fore-end and correctly bedded in the stock, the rifle will not throw fliers.
Example of a custom built .308 Win precision rifle with a Bartlein 1:11.5″ Heavy Palma barrel in a McMillan A3-5 adjustable stock. A rifle like this does not throw fliers ( but the shooter can).
Example of groups shot with the above rifle. Hand loads with 168 SMK on the left and Federal Gold Medal Match 168 grain SMK on the right
Now the scope. One of the recurring problems I see on the range with inexperienced shooters is the scope mounted incorrectly. I also see thousand dollar rifles with thousand dollar scopes but mated with cheap $20 rings and bases. But the most common problem is loose ring screws or loose ring bolts allowing the rings to move in the base. Only in one case was the wire reticle actually broken in the scope causing it to move under recoil. Solution: Most precision long range shooters have learned the importance of investing as much in the scope as they do in the rifle with the NightForce ATACRs and Leupold Mark 5HDs leading the pack.
NightForce ATACR 5-25x56mm mounted on a MK13 Mod7 clone built on a Stiller’s MK13 action (similar to the TAC300 action)
Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25×56 mounted on a 6.5 Creedmoor PRS rifle built on an Atlas action, Bartlein Medium Palma barrel, and McMillan A6 stock.
Can we attribute the flier to the ammunition? The simple test here is if the flier is always the fifth shot, it is probably not the ammo. If it is randomly number one through five then it could be the ammo. If you are shooting the cheapest ammo available, or military surplus, then you cannot expect consistent pinpoint accuracy. The same is true for most hunting grade ammo – it is simply not manufactured to the same tolerances of match-grade ammo. But can match-grade ammo throw a flier? Sure. As with anything made on a machine, and where quality control may depend on a human being, there is the chance that a round could slip through with a low powder charge, contaminated powder, a bad primer, deformed bullet, or a loose case neck. Solution: Diligent hand loading of precision match ammo, with proven components such as Peterson brass and Cutting Edge or Berger Bullets, and weighing individual components. But even with hand loads, the individual can have a moment of inattention or get a bad batch of primers. But the bad round will never always be the fifth shot in the group.
Next, it’s worth looking at environmentals. The obvious one, in longer range shooting, is the wind suddenly picked up pushing that one round laterally. At any distance, on a flat range, if the flier goes high or low it is not the wind. Apart from mountain and canyon shooting, wind errors will always be directly to the left or right if everything else is working correctly. One environmental that can cause shots to go high or low is mirage effect. The mirage is a heat shimmer that optically moves the target in relation to the reticle. This could be compared to putting a pencil in a bowl of water and watching the pencil bend. Solution: Do your rifle and load testing in ideal conditions at 100 yards – usually early mornings or evenings with no wind or mirage effect. Then reconfirm results at 300-500 yards.
The shooter’s position can cause shots to go wild, or more accurately, changes in shooting position. If you watch a rookie rifle shooter shooting from the bench over a rifle rest, there is a high probability that the contact point between the rifle and the rest will change or move back after each recoil. This issue becomes a real problem when the fore-end drops off the rest and now the barrel is in direct contact with the rest, changing the harmonics of the barrel. The same can be seen when using bipods in that the bipod moves back after each shot. A bipod will perform differently if it is on concrete, wood, or in the dirt. Solution: The rifle contact point with the rest, and the surface, must remain consistent when shooting.
Precision shooting requires a consistent natural position, which can be unique t each individual shooter. National and world champion, Derek Rodgers, preparing for the Ko2M match which he won in 2017
Now we get to the big one – the shooter. Obviously, if the shooter has not mastered the fundamentals of rifle marksmanship, a natural shooting position and smooth, inline trigger control then groups will be erratic. Similarly, if there are even subtle changes in shooter’s position or contact pressure with the stock, then groups can migrate. This is why you will see F-Open and benchrest shooters “free recoil” their rifles, minimizing contact with the stock. But one of the most common causes of fliers is mental. For example, the shooter is shooting an awesome group, and is watch each consecutive shot go into the same ragged hole. But as he or she approaches the fifth or last shot, the shooter is praying that the last shot will not ruin the group. But then that fifth shot takes the group from a respectable 0.4” to an ugly 1.2”
What has happened here is the shooter has gone from confidently shooting the group to stressing over the last shot. In the process of “trying harder” the shooter has lost focus on repeated, consistent fundamentals. Remember, “accuracy is the product of uniformity.”
To shoot well, a shooter must trust in his or her ability, have a degree of confidence, shoot smoothly, and stay true to fundamentals. It is only through practice, repetition, and experience that a shooter develops this neuro-muscle memory to shoot consistently. But as with many elite athletes who all have equal levels of ability, winning or losing comes down to the mental aspects of competing and winning. Even when alone and just shooting groups, the shooter is mentally competing with him or herself, and it is not difficult to psych oneself out. Or to simply have a moment of inattention or loss in concentration.
Conclusion, if the flier is always the fifth or last shot in a sting, and the shooter was watching the group come together, it was probably the shooter and not the rifle, scope, ammo, or environment. Solution: Only use accurate precision rifles with proven high-end scopes and quality ammunition; and then develop the confidence to shoot without over analyzing your performance mid-group.
A cold shot is not the same as a flier