It doesn’t matter if it is a whole new rifle and scope combination or a new scope on a seasoned and loved rifle. The very first thing that you must do is correctly sight-in that new scope. The process is relatively simple. However, the care you take when sighting in a new scope can mean the difference between a successful hunt or competition and disappointment.
Sighting in a new scope is not a job that most shooters do regularly. The excitement of a new rifle and scope or just a new scope can cause problems. Forgetting a crucial step can lead to more problems down the line. Hurrying the sighting-in process can often introduce errors in the scope setup attributed to a bad scope or rings.
When mounting any scope on a rifle, the goal is to attain the best accuracy possible from the combination of gun and scope. Having the proper tools, good technique, and taking your time are key to sighting in a new scope. In this article, we look at the tools we suggest you have on hand and set of step by step instructions to ensure that you sight-in your scope properly.
Before You Begin – Making sure You and Your Rifle Are Ready
The first step in sighting in your new scope is ensuring that the scope is mounted correctly and in the right position. You can check out my guide to mounting a rifle scope at this link for a more detailed discussion of getting your new scope properly mounted on your rifle. In review, these are the things most critical to scope mounting.
- Use the best rings you can find to mount your scope. The best scope in poor rings may never find zero and, even if you manage to get the scope to zero, it probably won’t hold for very long.
- Set the eye relief at the correct distance.
- Make sure the reticle is aligned and not canted in one direction or the other. Small bubble levels are handy for making these adjustments
- Use threadlock on all the mounting screws when everything is right. We suggest blue or medium products. These threadlocks will hold all the screws in place securely but allow you to remove them if necessary.
What You Need to Sight-in Your New Scope
With the scope mounted correctly, you are ready to begin sighting in your new scope. Before you grab your rifle and range bag, there are some things yet to do. First, you need to gather all the tools and equipment you need to zero your scope. We suggest that you have on hand the following.
A laser boresight – It doesn’t matter what style of laser boresight you choose. We have found that either style seems to work equally well when you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Muzzle-mounted laser boresights are more convenient. Logic dictates to me that chamber-style boresights are more accurate. In the end, they all work to get those first critical shots on the paper easily and quickly.
A sled or sandbags – Keeping your rifle and scope in the same position for each shot is critical to sighting in a new scope. Using a gun sled or lots of sandbags ensures that each shot has the gun in the same configuration during the process.
Scope tools – Some scopes require a tool to change the elevation and windage. The turrets may have slots or keys under the caps.
Targets – Black targets are not particularly good for sighting in rifles, especially at longer ranges. It is difficult to see the hits on a solid black target. Many specialized targets for sighting in rifles will highlight the bullet hole in a reflective or contrasting color. Having grid marks related to the style of reticle you have in your scope is also helpful in making corrections.
Ammunition – If you are using your scope for hunting, we always suggest that you use the same ammunition for sighting that you plan to use when hunting. Changing ammunition after you sight in your rifle will probably change the zero on the scope. If you are a competition shooter using hand loads, be sure to have enough of your favorite competition loads ready to sight-in your scope and rifle.
A spotting scope or binoculars – Trudging 100 yards downrange and back to the bench after every set of shots can get tiring. A spotting scope or binoculars can make it much easier to see your shot placement on the target and judge the corrections.
A cleaning kit – Many serious shooters want to start each set of shots with a clean cold barrel. I can see the logic in this myself. Often, a critical shot at your target after a long day of stalking in cold conditions will be with a rifle that is cold and clean.
Your notebook – One of the things drilled into my head by my mentor in the long-range shooting game was document, document, document. He insisted that a notebook that contained every bit of information was crucial to success. Keep a log of all the pertinent information and every correction you make. Your memory may fail. Ink on a page is almost forever.
Getting Your Rifle on the Paper
I have watched many inexperienced shooters struggle at the range to find the target with their first few shots. These shooters didn’t take the time to use a laser bore sighter before heading to the range. A few minutes at home or in the backyard using a laser bore sighter to make some rough adjustments to your scope can pay off in less frustration at the range.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions that come with your bore sighter to perform an initial adjustment to your scope. When using your bore sighter at home, you must consider a few things before you go to the range.
- SAFETY – Remove the bolt from your rifle. If your rifle is a semi-automatic type, make sure the chamber is empty, and the magazine is removed. I make it a point never to bore sight at home unless the bolt and magazine for the rifle are locked in my gun safe. Even then, I visually check the chamber every time I adjust or move the rifle.
- Twenty-Five Yards – I always try to perform an initial bore sight at 25 yards. Twenty-five yards seems to be a good distance for most rifles and is not a problem for most shooters. A hallway, a backyard, or even a garage can provide adequate space for this.
- Use a Rest – A picnic table or patio table makes a decent bench. Use the same sled or sandbags you intend to use at the range to support your rifle. Try to be consistent in setting up your rifle for zeroing, even if you are bore sighting at home.
On to The Range
With your new scope properly mounted and bore-sighted, it is time to head to the range. Gather your equipment, your ammunition and your scoped rifle and head to the range. Consistency is the key to sighting in a scope. Perform each step the same way with each shot your fire. Keep good notes and, above all, practice good range safety.
Setting Up – Preparing for Consistency
To achieve consistent results, consistent and repeatable techniques are needed. Set up at the range is critical for this type of consistency. Some tips to achieve this consistency will help you get your scope to zero quicker.
- Use a sled or sandbags to hold your rifle. Using a sled or sandbags ensures that your rifle and scope are on the same plane each time.
- Load individual shots – For the best results, don’t shoot with a fully loaded magazine. Long magazines can interfere with the sled or sandbags and make it hard to get a consistent, stable rifle position. Firing one shot at a time is, in many ways, safer.
- Have your notebook on hand and ready – Make good notes with each shot. Note the conditions on the range such as temperature, wind speed and direction and humidity. Information about the ammunition you are using to zero your scope may also be critical later. Include a quick note about each shot, where it landed on the target and any corrections you make.
The initial Shots – Replicate your Bore Sight
I like to start my sighting in process replicating the bore sighting I did first. Set up a target at 25 yards and put three rounds on the target with the crosshairs of your scope on the bullseye. Make the necessary adjustments to windage and elevation to zero your scope at this 25-yard range. Once your scope is putting holes consistently in the bullseye, you are ready to move the target to your chosen range.
Where to Zero?
Deciding on the range at which you want to zero your scope is a personal choice. In general, I zero my scopes at 100 yards. I do this for several reasons.
- I shoot scopes with MOA reticles. A scope zeroed at 100 yards allows me to make quick estimates of range and adjustments using the reticle in my scope. Remember that at 100 yards, one MOA is just slightly more than one inch. This one-to-one ratio makes estimations easy for most people who use MOA reticles.
- Most of my hunting is at ranges from 100 to 250 yards. A scope zeroed at 100 yards doesn’t require much in the way of correction at these distances.
If you shoot at much longer distances or use a different reticle style, you may want to use a different distance to zero your scope.
Shooting Groups – Three Shots and Check
With a new target set at your zeroing range, it is time to start putting holes in paper. Try your best to be consistent in the way you load, aim, and fire your rifle. My typical routine when shooting for zero is to:
- Fire three shots with the crosshairs of my scope on the bullseye of the target. Fire slowly and carefully. Use your spotting scope or binoculars to check the grouping of your three shots. If you are using a target with grids, you can easily judge the corrections you need to make.
- Make notes in your notebook about where the shots landed on the target, as well as the corrections you make to your scope’s windage and elevation.
- Dial-in the corrections on your windage and elevation turrets. Follow the directions from the scope manufacturer.
Fire three more shots after you have made the corrections to windage and elevation. Follow the steps above to make further corrections. Keep good notes as your shoot.
If you are making small corrections, your groups may begin to overlap. I like to use targets with multiple bullseyes arranged around the target. Multiple bullseyes on the target allow me to shoot at a new bullseye with each shot group.
A Zeroed Scope – You Are Not Quite Done
There are some things to do when you are satisfied with the way your scope and rifle are shooting. These are mostly housekeeping items but, if done, will help ensure that your rifle and scope maintain zero.
- If your scope has a zero-stop mechanism or a return-to-zero feature, now is the time to set those stops on your turrets. Consult the directions that came with your scope about setting the zero-stop or return-to-zero feature on your scope.
- Replace the turret caps if you have removed them. I often find turret caps lying around the range. These are easy to forget items if you don’t work with a routine. Making the replacement of turret caps part of your checklist will save you lots of frustration.
- Protect your Scope. If you removed the lens covers, replace them before you leave the bench. I suggest that you also use a scope sock to protect your scope during transport and in the field.
- Gather your brass, your trash, and your equipment. Be a good steward of your favorite shooting range and leave a clean area for the next shooter. If you reload, retrieve your brass if the range allows. Retrieve your target stands and dispose or save your targets.
Sighting in a new scope is not a complicated process. However, it can be frustrating if you don’t follow the right steps. Good preparation, proper technique, and a little practice will have your rifle and scope shooting tight groups in no time.
I hope that this article helps you as you zero your new scope. If you have other suggestions, ideas, or experiences, please share them in the comments section below. Everyone will benefit from your input.