There are few things more frustrating than wasting ammo trying to get your rifle zeroed. If you just can’t find the paper or can’t seem to chase that zero down, turning expensive ammunition into nothing but noise gets old real fast. Since I’m constantly bolting optics onto loaner rifles, I thought I’d share how I get zeroed at 100 yards with as few rounds fired as possible.
First and foremost — non-negotiable to this process, actually — is a rock-solid rifle rest. Jon Wayne Taylor and I have gravitated to the Caldwell Stinger this year, but there are many Lead Sled options and other inexpensive ones that use straps and clamps to keep things stable.
Keep in mind you don’t actually have to shoot from this rest. You do need to shoot in as accurate a manner as you and your rifle are capable of, but the rest is only needed for holding the rifle absolutely steady while you’re making adjustments to your optic.
Your first step is to establish a rough zero. The only goal of this step is to land your first bullet anywhere at all on the target.
If you’re shooting a bolt action rifle, remove the bolt. If you’re shooting an AR platform rifle, remove the upper receiver, then remove the bolt carrier. With the rifle or upper (or whatever assembly contains the barrel and mounted optic) on the rest or otherwise held absolutely as rock steady as physically possible, look right down through the barrel.
The chamber end will be a larger circle and the muzzle end a smaller one. To ensure you’re looking straight down the centerline of the bore, center that muzzle circle in the chamber circle.
Adjust your rifle rest set up until you have the target — visible through the barrel — centered in the bore. It’s more difficult to be precise with this if you have a short barrel with a large bore rather than a long barrel with a small bore, though seeing the target while using the barrel as a zero-magnification telescope is easier. Try to get your eye closer to the chamber if you’re having difficulty seeing your target through the barrel.
Run the turrets until the reticle is centered on the bullseye. Usually that’s clockwise on the elevation turret to move the reticle up and clockwise on the windage turret to move the reticle right, but knowing which is which doesn’t much matter. Just turn ’em and watch the reticle move and move it to the center of the target.
Confirm that the target is still in the center of the bore when you look through the barrel.
You’re now bore sighted. This is a [very] rough zero. You can also use a laser bore sighter to accomplish this, but they’re often very difficult to spot at 100 yards in daylight. If it’s visible, though, it’s even easier than looking down the bore.
Firing and Adjusting
Get stable — remember those fundamentals — and fire a shot. If you know your rifle and ammo combination is extremely accurate and feel confident you made a good shot, one round can suffice. If it’s a new gun or a gun that puts up a bit of a spread, fire three to five shots to create a group. You’ll use the center of this group for the next step.
Re-adjust the rest (or put the rifle back on it if you weren’t shooting from it) so the reticle is, once again, perfectly centered in the bullseye.
Now, dial the turrets until the crosshair is on your bullet hole (or centered in your shot group).
At least, in theory. You’ve matched up your rifle scope’s point of aim with your rifle’s point of impact, and that’s what this game is all about. It may be nice to confirm things with another shot(s), though, and do any fine-tuning that’s needed.
You may also want to consider tapping your turrets with a little tool or a round of ammo or something. Not enough to move the rifle at all, of course, but enough to unstick the widgets inside the scope just in case your hardware is old, cheap, etc. Then make sure it’s still centered on that bullet hole.
Bingo! I got quite lucky when I chose to go through this process on camera for the video above — the confirmation shot was effectively dead-on with this ~1 MOA rifle (which I’d normally give the 5-shot group treatment). “In real life” I expect to do a final fine-tuning if I want the rifle and ammo combo to be truly dead-on zeroed.
There you have it: a straightforward zeroing process for jumping right to 100 yards, sighting in, getting your first shot on paper, and zeroing your scope quickly. And all while using as few as one single round of ammo.