As I’ve noted in the past, I’m still relatively new to the whole gun thing. Sure, I shot my share of guns growing up – mostly pistols and .22 rifles with the occasional shotgun mixed in, but as I never actually owned a gun until about 18 months ago, I never paid all that much attention to things like caliber, ammo type, sight in distances, etc. On the other hand, when I pick up a new hobby, I tend to jump in with both feet and work hard to learn as much as I can. Sure, I make the occasional mistakes . . .

In a little over a year, I’ve sold nine guns that, after buying them, I decided weren’t for me. Did I take a haircut on my firearms flips? Sure. But on the plus side, each one was a learning experience.

I’ve also spent a good amount of time getting training. Over the past year, I’ve amassed over 120 hours with more to come. The latest example of this came about at the two day SIG Sauer Academy Defensive Rifle class. We learned plenty in this class (more on that in a future post), but one of the things that we spent some time on is understanding the proper zero distance for our optics.

Prior to this class, most of my rifle shooting was done on a 300 yard range and I zeroed my optics and iron sights at 100 yards. Everything I’d read and the ballistic programs I got for my iPhone all seemed to default to 100 yards, so that is what I assumed was the “right” distance to use.

In the class, though, we got a different perspective. The instructor emphasized that every decision you make — from the equipment you carry to the distance you zero your rifles — should be designed to fit whatever your current mission is. If your mission is to be the designated marksman or sniper, then perhaps a 100 yard (or longer) zero distance might be appropriate.

But for the standard AR-15 patrol rifle sporting an unmagnified red dot optic, the suggestion was to use 50 yards. The argument to support this suggestion is simple: the typical infantryman, police officer or responsible citizen protecting his or her property just isn’t as likely to find themselves engaging targets beyond the 0-275 yard “comfort” zone range of the AR-15.

Does that mean that you’ll never need to shoot any further than 275 yards? Of course not, but it is very likely that if you are part of a military or police unit, chances are there will be at least one other guy on the team sporting a gun better suited to long range engagement, and the responsible citizen isn’t likely to find themselves having to engage enemies at extreme distances.

The typical AR-15 user in urban combat conditions will most likely never need to go much past 200 yards, let alone 275 yards. Since it’s likely that the “mission” of AR-equipped shooters will be short to medium range engagement, it makes sense to zero your rifle at a distance that will give you the greatest latitude. The chart below maps the ballistics of the standard 55 grain bullet fired out of a 16″ barreled M4 style carbine.

Pay attention to the zone on the chart between the two yellow horizontal lines. That represents 4 inches above and below the zero line, making a total vertical distance of 8 inches. You’ll see why this matters in a moment. Looking at the three ballistic traces, you see that the 50 yard zero, designated by the red line, remains within this 8 inch zone out to just shy of 275 yards. The 100 yard zero is nearly as good, but that round falls outside the 8-inch zone shortly after passing 225 yards.

Why do we care? Well, consider that if the “mission” is to clear a room or defend your property, you arentt likely to be particularly concerned where on the target your round hits, just as long as it’s center mass. If you envision a person with an 8-inch circle on his chest centered roughly near the bottom of the sternum, you’ll quickly find that there are few places you can get hit within that 8″ circle where something major won’t get pulverized by ordnance passing through it.

And that’s the argument for the 50-yard zero for personal defense applications. Will this work for you in competitions? I guess that depends on the competition. Obviously, if you’re in a long range target shooting competition where the number of X’s determines who wins, this method wouldn’t be ideal.

Things might be different in a 3-gun competition where the objective is to hit a steel plate and where you hit the plate you isn’t so important. Hunting, of course, would be still another story. In many hunting situations, you have a relatively small kill zone and may very well want to hit a target further out than 275 yards. Then again you’d probably be using magnified optics with features that allow you to adjust your aim based on the distance from the target.

Looking at that chart again, consider something else; let’s say that your target is presumed to be wearing body armor. This is much more likely to be the case for a military or police user – if a responsible citizen is in the position where they’ll be engaging armored targets, that’s a different kettle of fish.

Once again, let’s draw a circle, but in this case place the center of the circle on the target’s nose. Now we’re probably talking about a 4 inch diameter, give or take. In this case, even at shorter distances, the situation would probably call for a 100 yard zero.

Out to about 175 yards, the 100 yard zero deviates less from the point of aim than the 50 yard zero does. But once you pass 175 yards, the 50 remains good out to just shy of 250 yards.  So, again, you have to consider the mission. A LEO isn’t likely to be engaging targets beyond 175 yards, so the closer the bullet travel holds to the point of aim, the better. Then again, a soldier might well want the extra 75 yards afforded by the 50 yard zero if they’re likely to engage targets in the open at distance.

Is the 50-yard zero ideal for everyone in every case? No, and that’s the point. You need to choose the set-up that fits the mission. For me, I have other rifles with magnified optics and larger calibers that are more suited for long distance shooting, so I can safely relegate my trusty Sig 516 to the role of a short to medium range defensive weapon. As in all things, YMMV.

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41 Responses to Modern Sporting Rifles: What’s Your Zero?

  1. I like the 50 yard zero.

    The 3-gun competitions out here are either extremely close range (100 is a long distance shot) or extremely long range (500 yards would be “normal”), and the 50 yard zero gives me the options I need. If 250 is the tops, leave the optics be. Or if I need a longer shot, I can quickly dial the adjustment.

    But 50 is the ideal starting point in my mind.

    • +1, Nick.

      If you are setting up a rig for personal defense, engagements are going to be at less than 50 meters.

      For competition shooting, you may have longer shots. In that case, I’d go with a 100m zero.

      BTW – I love mil dot reticles. I know there are a lot of “experts” who think they are only useful for calling for fire. Not true. 1 mil = 1 meter at 1000 meters. But, once you familiarize with the scope, a mil dot sight is incredibly useful. If you need to make an adjustment because the first shot missed, you can SEE where it hit, and make the correct offest, without turning any turrets.

      I’m a big fan of a 4x Mil dot zeroed at 100m and offset ironsights. But that’s just me.

      • Oh, yeah. And on a rifle with fixed sights, your sights are a couple of inches higher than the center of the barrel. Don’t be like the dude in Kuwait who shot himself on the convoy protection live fire range, because his sights were clear but his muzzle was pointed at the trailer hitch of the vehicle in front of him. Paralax = no bueno.

        Ricochets hurt.

    • My 5.56, 6.8, and .50 AR’s are all zeroed at 50 yards for the same reason that Nick stated. The .308, .30-06, and .45-70 will be zero based upon my anticipated hunting conditions and specific load choice. I’ll study the ballistics as well as I can, so I can adjust to field conditions.

  2. Good article. The chart was especially helpful. I don’t shoot very much rifle, so this was a topic I hadn’t given much thought to. I’ll be the owner of a shiney new AR-15 soon, though, so I’ll bookmark this for future reference

  3. One gun, one bullet, zero shouldn’t matter.
    One adjusts for point blank range. If you are hunting squirrels with a .22LR. you may want that range to hit an 1 inch target, that is if you plan on eating the critters. “Hunting man” as my former governor Jesse “da body” Ventura would say one might adjust that range somewhat larger.

    Eastwood over Governor Turnbuckle the RNC made a big mistake.

  4. It takes a lot of gumption to present yourself as new to an art or sport and then in the next breath proceed to try to tell people how to do that art or sport.

    • Well, after 18 months, I’m not sure how “new” I am. Also, as I pointed out, I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning things. From a simple time served perspective, I would hazard a guess that a new Marine after three months of boot can shoot a rifle better than the average person who has been shooting for years, so the number of years of experience is somewhat eclipsed by the intensity of the training provided. You might want to consider that in the future before passing judgement. In my last pistol class, I outshot a chief of police with more than 30 years of experience, so I’m not sure that years spent doing something automatically equates to skill level. I’m certainly not comparing myself to any Marines, but simply making a distinction between training and years of experience.

      All that said, as was already pointed out, I was simply passing on the lessons of people with way more real world experience than the average person. I certainly don’t hold myself out as an expert by any means. The point of this post was to offer the benefit of other people’s experience to the community. No more and no less. Anyone who thinks that they have nothing further to learn is fooling themselves.

      • Just go shoot a whole bunch, and not at paper on a range. At some point, you won’t have to think about it.
        ——Going on 60 years with iron.

      • Thanks for the article.

        When someone is kinda new to something, explaining their perspective on a subject is helpful to those in the same position and even those with more “experience”. Reading your article forces the attentive reader to think about their current setup. Everyone here who uses an AR platform has come to their current knowledge point by a different path. It is always a good thing to consciously reevaluate how you are setup and why.

  5. I usually concider the ranges I will be engaged from and sight my optics from that point of view. In my case that range can extend out to 1 mile but will probably be within 500 yards. An M-4gery is not the optimium tool for self defense at those ranges so I plan accordingly, all my optics have hold over reticles so a 200 yard zero works for me

  6. Things may have changed since I was in, but the standard in the U.S. Army throughout the 1980s and early 1990s was the 25 yard zero. Once you had a 25 yard zero, you could hit the “pop-ups” at the range (as the green targets were called) from 50 to 300 meters with relative impunity.

    • True, Joe, but you were setting a “battlesight zero” using a 25 meter target. That’s why you set the elevation knob one click past the 8/3 (300 m) mark, zeroed your weapon, then reset the elevation knob to 8/3. Resetting the elevation knob was supposed to equate to a zero that was effective from 5-300m. At least, that’s what they taught me.

      Interestingly, I’m not sure what distance a “battle sight zero” actually sets the sights for. Based on my experience on the range, you can hit targets from 50-300m using one.

  7. Go here and you can get more details about the trajectory of any round:

    and go here for a cool balistics app.

    The beauty of the 55 grain .223/5.56 (3240 fps) is that at a scope height of 1.5 inches and a 200 yard zero, the maximum vertical movement of the round is only 1.5 inches between 35 and 200 yards (max height is reached at about 125 yards). 1.5 inches. That’s it! After that, 300 yards is only a 7 inch drop. At 50 yards, you’re only 0.5 inches high. Even with a 62 grain projectile, the data doesn’t change that much: only 1.7″ maximum height. As always, YMMV a little.

    That pretty much says it all. 200 yard zero. Done.

    • Just remember – the height above bore for iron sights on an AR is 2.5-2.6″ not the usual 1.5″ that a ballistic calculator tends to default to.

      With M855 you wind up with a 50/~215 yard zero and 4″ of drop at 280 yards.

      • Good point. If you have AR irons on your gun (ugh), forget what I just said. Although, I wasn’t talking about the AR specifically, I was just talking about the capability of .223/5.56 from just about any gun. My guns will never have irons that high. The scope height (1.5″) is about average for most rifle scopes and red dot sights.

        • Just for kicks I’ll add the same data for iron’s at 2.6″:

          A 200 yard zero also gives you a 60 yard zero and a max height of 1.1 inches between the two at about 130 yards. That’s even more impressive than the 1.5 inches you get with the lower sight height, but at the cost of a reduced range. Most AR’s won’t be accurate enough for that difference to really matter anyway.

          If you sighted in at 25 yards, you’d be 10 inches high at 200 yards.

        • Oh yeah. I forgot to tell you the magic number. If you can get your scope height to exactly 2 inches above the bore, you get a perfect 50/200 yard zero as well with a max height of 1.3 inches at 130 yards.

          I predict an increase in sales in slightly taller scope rings over the next few weeks. LOL.

  8. My AR15 platform was Zeroed with my BUIS sights, a Matech rear sight and a YHM flip-up gas block sight. The Zero instructions for the Matech have you Zero for 300 yards at the 25 meter range. Using the 25 meter Zeroing target for the M16A2 and hit my mark perfectly. That said, your article makes good sense to me. I owe my self a trip to the range and try the 50 yard Zero.

    Thank you.

  9. For ARs with a 16″ barrel, I prefer zeroing at 25 yards for a few reasons. First, as Skyler noted above, with most ammo if the AR is zeroed at 25 yards, it’s zeroed at 200. Second, my indoor range has 25 yard lanes. Third, at 25 yards and with iron sights or 1X optics, I can actually see where the bullet hit and zero in with three shots or so. When I was a yoot with 20/10 vision, I could tell a gnat’s gender at 50 yards in the dark; now I’m lucky to see a 1″ bullseye at the same distance.

  10. For all of my centerfire rifles, I use 100 yards. There’s no magic to that number; it’s just a simple matter of picking a single consistent value from which to calculate come-ups.

    For .22LR, I use 25 yards. That’s a pretty typical distance for engaging varmints around my yard. I have to hold about 4″ at 100 yards, which is easy with a mil-dot scope (just hold at the bottom edge of the first dot down and it’ll be close enough for practical purposes).

  11. I have my AR zeroed with the iron sights to a range that I can consistently hit a 8 inch paper plate (100 yds). My Aimpoint is zeroed for the same distance. Odds are if I have to use it for self defense, the range will be 10 yards or less. I have been taught that the M4 style of weapon is a 125 meter weapon. Yes it can be pushed much farther, but I think that one should know the limitations of their weapon and their abilities. I doubt any civilian in a self defense situation is going to be engaging targets at 100 yds or beyond. Not only that, but how are you going to justify the use of deadly force at such distance?
    I’m rambling, but 50 sounds fine to me.

  12. I took the carbine course at Sig last fall with John Farnum as the instructor. FWIW, he uses 40 meters.

    Here’s Travis Haley’s take on it:

  13. Consider the following statement: “When a rifle is fired horizontally, the bullet leaves the barrel and doesn’t drop at all for the first 75 meters of flight.” Is this statement true?

    • No. That would only be true if the projectile had some sort of “lifting body” design. The drop out to 75 meters may be minimal, but it is certainly non-zero.

  14. Zero for me depends on the rifle but for simplicity I try to stick to 50 yard zero on .22lr, .22mag, .17Hmr(small game) and a 100 yard zero on everything else(large game). It may not be the most technically correct way but learning the rough hold off ballistics from there has made me a more confident shooter outside of an area with marked distances. Actually using those skills seems to keep me from forgetting them when something furry is downrange at an unknown distance. It also falls into the K.I.S.S. category because I rarely have to fiddle with the settings on anything or re-check my zero before I go out.

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