Reader T. von Rosen writes:
If cars are one of your passions, you know that speed costs money. Likewise, in shooting, accuracy costs money – in ammunition, optics, accessories, and more. The better, more consistent accuracy you want to achieve, the more expensive it will generally be. Given that it takes a big investment in both time and money to determine the best accuracy that your firearm is capable of, let’s look at some key factors you need to consider in your pursuit.
To get the best accuracy of your firearm, you need quality ammunition. That means purchasing match/competition ammunition, not hunting, range or general military surplus loads. Precise match ammunition is made by numerous manufacturers.
You can Google for the top performers, research what the top shooters use (if they use factory ammunition), or just try a selection of whatever is available nearby for purchase. As you probably already know, individual firearms can be finicky about ammo, so you may need to test a variety of brands/loads/bullet weights and styles.
If you handload — and if you’re really serious about accuracy, you eventually will — the good news is that there has never been a better selection of quality match/competition bullets. In no particular order, Sierra, Hornady, Nosler, Lapua, and Speer (among others) all make extremely high-quality projectiles. Better yet (in my experience) are Berger bullets.
Most accurate of all (and most expensive) are small batch custom bullets favored by benchrest shooters, such as Bart’s. Eley and Lapua dominate .22 rimfire competitive shooting, although other brands can also perform well.
Can you shoot small groups with a 4-power optic? Yes. Can you shoot small groups with inexpensive optics? Yes. However, if you want to determine the best accuracy that your firearm is capable of, you need top-quality, high-magnification optics. Look at what the best shooters use, save up, and purchase accordingly.
I recommend no less than 12 power, and am more and more inclined to prefer scopes around 20 power, for ranges out to 600 yards or so. Some top brands, in no particular order, are Leupold, Steiner, Sightron, Weaver, Nightforce, and March Optics.
Good glass isn’t cheap. However, buying used optics with top-quality warranties (such as Leupold’s lifetime warranty), is a great way to save some money. You may eventually settle on one scope for all your testing needs, and merely move the scope from gun to gun as needed.
I do all initial accuracy testing from the bench. That means having certain equipment to ensure the best, most consistent results.
First, you need a quality front rest. Think Sinclair and Caldwell, among others. The best are cast iron (you want the weight for stability), and have windage-adjustable tops.
You’ll want a bubble level for your front rest, and a variety of sand bags of different widths (so you can accommodate various stock widths).
You’ll need a rear sandbag for stability as well. Again, the bags available at your local mass-market discounter won’t cut it. Order from a specialty shop or buy used quality bags from retired benchrest shooters. You’ll want to remove your rifle’s sling and the swivels (these will catch on the bags and throw your shots).
You need to ensure that your rifle is in the exact same position on the bags every time, or as close as possible. I frequently use blue painter’s masking tape to indicate on my stock exactly where it contacts the rear bag. Finally, make sure you have a rock-solid seat or stool.
Accuracy testing without wind flags is like peeing into the wind. If I’m testing a sporter (non-competition) rifle, I usually use a foot or two of surveyer’s ribbon, tied to an old camera tripod. I put that at 25 yards (if testing at 100 yards), and fire only when I get the condition I want.
Attaching some surveyer’s ribbon to the target frame can help, too, although knowing what the wind is doing closer to the bench is far more important than knowing what it’s doing at the target. Some folks use simple wooden stakes with ribbon stapled on placed at consistent distances.
For benchrest guns and others capable of extreme accuracy, I bring out the professional wind flags. If flags aren’t your thing, at a minimum you need to memorize indicators of wind speed, such as the wind speed at which tree leaves will rustle. Hand-held electronic wind indicators are (well, can be) excellent. In summary, you need to know what the wind is doing to produce the smallest groups you can.
Whatever equipment you have, the most important factor in using it is consistency. Whatever you do, you need to do it the exact same way, every time. Whether your front rest is a $1,000 benchrest premium rig, a rice-filled sock or a bipod, set it up with repeatable precision and consistency.
You may be a bag-squeezer or you may hold the forward part of your rifle stock in a death grip. Those are different topics for a different post. However you use your non-primary hand, do it the same way, every time. Put your feet on the ground in the same place for every shot and learn to control your breathing.
There is a broad base of knowledge out there that you can leverage to shoot tiny(er) groups with minimal investment. For example, let’s say you’re trying to get a .223/5.56 rifle to shoot better. Thankfully, both Uncle Sam and thousands of competitive shooters have already paved the road for you.
For anything with a 1/9 to a 1/7 barrel twist rate, I’ll select a 50-60 grain match bullet for ranges out to 200 yards. From 200-500 yards, something in the 68-70 grain weight range is perfect. Ranges from 600 yards or more call\ for 75-80 grain bullets (note – the 1/9 barrel probably won’t stabilize bullets of these weights, so you’re likely stuck with using lighter weight options). Nonetheless, if you can’t get small groups with a .223/5.56 at those ranges, with those weights of match bullets, then, son, you’ve got a gun, equipment, or technique issue.
Again, that’s just one example with a few possible options. Your rifle, ammunition and conditions can and will vary. But you can do some homework before you ever get to the range that should let you get closer to the results you want in less time with fewer rounds expended.
Accuracy testing is a time-consuming and expensive pursuit. Frequently, most of us stop either when we achieve a certain level of accuracy (say, one MOA) or when we get tired of sinking so much time and effort trying to achieve that certain desired level of accuracy.
Wherever you stop, while it can be fun, remember that accuracy testing isn’t (for most of us) a sport in and of itself. After all, accuracy testing is just one step in the process. There are hunts to go on, competitions to participate in, and principles of marksmanship to master. Given that none of us have unlimited time and/or funds, a few shortcuts here and there can make a big difference.
Hopefully, the experience I’ve shared above, gained through decades of shooting, can help you to quickly determine the top level of accuracy that you and your firearm can achieve. While it’s true that accuracy costs money (as does speed for your vehicle), a few key purchases – plus some good technique – can bring out the very best in your firearm.