You’ve heard it before: “I can’t understand that shot. Scope must have been off.” Truth is, scopes hardly ever conspire against you. They can fail—fogging and reticle breakage were reasonably common in my youth—but modern scopes are nearly foolproof. Nearly. A fool can still render them useless.
Many bungled shots can be traced to a flawed zero. Zeroing or sighting in a rifle is properly done when you’ve no other chores waiting or people talking to you. A hurried few shots does not a zero make. Nor should you zero on soda cans. After boresighting, I fire from a rest at a small target on big paper 35 yards away. I adjust the sight after the first shot, again if a second is necessary. No sense burning ammo here—I’m simply getting holes on paper. Moving it to 100 yards, I adjust the scope so bullets hit 2 inches high. Most frisky loads then strike point of aim at close to 200 yards, and stay within 2.5 vertical inches to 250 yards or so. I check impact by firing from 200, 250 and 300 yards. Then I get off the bench.
Your position affects the point of impact. A rifle free to bounce off a sandbag or a padded shooting rest throws the bullet to a different spot than it does when you’re wrapped in a tight sling. A .30 Magnum that gave me tight, centered groups at 200 yards from the bench delivered equally tight groups from prone with a sling—but impact shift was a full 4 minutes (8 inches!) to 7 o’clock. I re-zeroed, because on a hunt I typically shoot with my Brownells Latigo as taut as a violin string. Such wide variation due to position is not the rule, but you can expect some shift. The only way to find out how much is to shoot at paper.
“If you fight the rifle, it will always win.” Earl Wickman’s fiery mop was dimmed by the smoke from his omnipresent cigar, and the blue lead dust that curtained my sight picture in his basement range. I remember that mantra because, decades ago, he repeated it often. It still applies. “A rifle wants to point somewhere,” he’d tell me. “Your job is to let it. Point your body so the rifle wants to point at the target.” He championed bone support, relaxed muscles. “Force that rifle onto the target, and at the last instant it will rebel. Instead, make your body a bench. Hold the rifle where it wants to point. The hits will come.”
Remember that even if your shooting position is solid, the rifle moves as you finish squeezing the trigger. Some of that movement comes from your pulse, muscle twitches, trigger travel and the pressure of your shoulder, hands and cheek on the stock. As the striker drops, it creates vibrations within the rifle. Ignition and building pressure in the case add movement. When the bullet enters the rifling, it transmits torque, and as it travels down the bore, the barrel shudders violently. All this shifting affects the position of the muzzle in space. Sling tension and upward pressure caused by a rest or a bipod under the forend deliver a final vote as the barrel fires the bullet downrange.
Of course, if you flinch, a center shot becomes as likely as a date with Heidi Klum.
I’m convinced many errant shots in the hunting field result from poor shooting positions. Others follow a flinch. Jerking the trigger is a flinch. I did that last month, muffing an off-hand shot that would seem easy to a child with sprained fingers. No one is immune from anticipating a shot. The more violent the rifle on discharge, the more likely the flinch. Practicing with light loads helps you fire without flinching.