How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG
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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 really 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.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

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 type 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 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.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

Bore Sighting

Once your scope is properly mounted, your first step is to establish a rough zero. The only goal of this step is to land your first round anywhere at all on the paper.

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.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

The chamber end will appear to 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.

Once your barrel is on target, it’s time to get your rifle scope on the target. Most important: DO NOT MOVE the rifle AT ALL during this process, or it won’t work.

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.

Move your eye back down and 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, but is should be good enough to get your shot on paper. You can also use a laser bore sighter to accomplish this, but they’re often difficult to spot at 100 yards in daylight. If it’s visible, though, it’s even easier than looking down the bore.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

Firing and Adjusting

Get yourself and the rifle 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.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

Now, dial the turrets until the crosshair is on your bullet hole (or centered in your shot group).

You’re zeroed!

At least, in theory. You’ve matched up your scope’s point of aim with your rifle’s point of impact, and that’s what this game is really all about. It’s nice to confirm things with another shot(s), though, and do any fine-tuning that may be 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.

How to Zero Your Rifle in One Shot
Jeremy S. for TTAG

Bingo! I got 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’d 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, easy 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.

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  1. I’ve known about this process for decades, but never used it. Fortunately, I’m at the point now that I take all my hunting rifles to the range and confirm zero. Occasionally, I might have to tweak a scope an inch. +/- With the lack of availability of ammunition today (and components) we may all go to this with a new rig.

    • “With the lack of availability of ammunition today (and components) we may all go to this with a new rig.”


      My only current rifle is in .22lr, and while my stash of .22lr is comfortable for a year or so, any way to economize is appreciated.

      An Heaven help us if Biden is elected and can pass legislation, the 6o+ cents per-round of centerfire ammo today will be the good-old-days of cheap ammo for a minimum of 4 years…

  2. Near zero like 29 yards, I used to have a near zero chart but a lot of stuff burnt in the fire. Another good reason to reload and buy in bulk. I’ve noticed even a primer lot change can throw your previous zeros.

    • Site Lite works pretty good for this if you don’t mind playing with lasers and you can adjust your near zero distance a bit if you are more limited in range options (indoors)

      • “Site Lite works pretty good for this if you don’t mind playing with lasers…”

        The one I messed with was next to useless. So I finally opened up the rifle’s action, turned the laser on and marked the spot.

        Then I opened the action, rotated the laser ‘bullet’ 90 degrees clockwise, and checked the spot again. It was off by about 2 inches at 100 yards from the previous spot. Opened the action again, and rotated it another 90 degrees and checked the spot again. About an inch and a half lower to the left of the first spot.

        The spot simply would not stay centered concentric with the bore. Is this normal with those bullet lasers?

        • No idea on that version we only have the barrel insert model. It centers well so long as you use the right diameter o ring but naturally those don’t have labels so be ready for some trial and error.

        • You just have to be smarter than the hardware, Geoff. What you were dealing with was an error in collimation.

          If you’d repeated your 90deg turn experiments a couple more times, you’d have discovered that the laser point walked a circle around a point. The center of that circle was the center of its relative concentricity to the bore of the rifle. If your laser’s lens was adjustable, you’d have been able to collimate it, and make it concentric for future use.

          The process for a $10 Walmart-special laser is the exact same as the one they use for a $100MM government-funded astronomical telescope; find the center of the error and adjust to that.

          You just gave up too soon.

    • possum, any thing you change when handloading can change zero. So can changing lot numbers on factory ammo. Mostly why if I found a factory load a rifle loved I bought a case of that lot. I used to handload. I gave it up when premium bullets became available in factory ammo. My time is worth something and reloading just wasn’t that interesting to me. Just me.

  3. Sptznaz zero their rifles in the field with 2 shots at 25 meters.

    (2 shots are much better statistically than 1, and 25 meters gets it near the mark even if way off adjustment.)

    they adjust windage/elevation by knowing the mils per click and run it without verification.

    you can substitute actual verification with knowledge and skill if you’re good enough.

  4. Not new but certainly good to remind people of the way it has been done for generations. Best I can recall I learned it as a kid a friend’s single shot bolt action .22. He had gotten a 4x scope for his birthday, We went down to the range on our bikes and borrowed sand bags from the range guy. It certainly was not as well done as described in this article but I helped hold the rifle steady on the bags while he looked down the bore, then thru the scope. Then we switched roles.

    It wasn’t perfect but got us on the paper.

    Anyway, better gear, follow instructions and it works.

  5. They do make laser bore sights in other than red. My green one is visible in bright light but was not cheap when purchased. Look for a Wheeler Laser Bore Sighter for one that seems to work well and has held up to being lent out multiple times over the past 5 years. I do not aim out that far but a friend who borrowed it it to sight in a rifle for elk said it put him on paper at 100 yards plus. He ended up buying one for himself.
    Only gotchas with it are you need to make sure the part going in the barrel is perfectly clean and it eats batteries .

  6. I use Leupold’s old Zero Point Magnetic Illuminated Boresighter. I was dubious, but it will get you damn neap perfect with a little practice.

  7. Gotta say, in the olden days of fun shooting, my preferred method was a 5-shot group, fiddle with the sight, another 5-shot group, fiddle again, and so forth until satisfied with zero, then several more 5-shot groups, or with an AR maybe 30-shot groups, replace the target and start over, hell, who is trying to save ammo?

  8. Got instructions like these with a new scope. To eliminate the time consuming rough bore sighting step and still have the reference shot hit something, put a large target at 25 yards. Save a target, use a cardboard box side with a dot marked on it (or the side of a barn). Take a shot and adjust turrets as described. Then move target out to 50 or 100 yards and repeat. Did this on sandbags with excellent results, certainly for hunting.

  9. Just don’t let your dumber friends use the boresight. Once let a guy in the group borrow mine and he popped it in the chamber then sent the bolt home on it. Ripped the rim right off when he tried to extract it then he broke another guy’s multi tool trying to get the remaining guts of the laser out of the chamber. Never trust the man with no tools of his own.

    • I know someone who put a boresight in and carefully did the adjustments and pulled the trigger at the end. You know what happened. And why we should always act like the weapon is loaded because in this case it was. Destroyed the boresight and while the barrel seemed OK he listened to others and had the barrel checked. Luckily it passed, he said they showed him pictures of a gun that looked an exploding cigar .

  10. I have found a laser bore sight will get a scope or red dot “on paper” by using the wall of my basement or garage at a distance of maybe 30 feet. A gun vice helps but since you’re looking at the laser through the scope, the rifle doesn’t really need to be stationary. Just remember to account for the scope’s distance above the bore and adjust the reticle accordingly. Then follow with the one-shot method at your desired distance as described above.


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