Rifle Testing for Dummies

22 February 1999
By Scott Powers

There are few things simpler than checking your equipment for performance and function.  Unfortunately, most of us put it off for the proverbial "rainy day".  While everyone likes to punch paper to verify the status of their rifle and telescope, few will take the time to really put their rifle, scope and ammunition through their paces once an accurate load has been chosen.  Much effort goes into load development or choosing an accurate factory load.  We all like to smile about our .4 moa groups and rave about the once-in-a-lifetime screamer group that seems to make it into old geezers' wallets for the occasional gun show presentation.  But beyond this, the casual shooter seldom takes the time to test his rifle and telescope for cold barrel shot history, adjustment repeatability, and retained zero.  Naturally those of you reading this have a greater interest in such matters, but often those new at the game of precision shooting do not really have a grasp of how simple keeping good records can be.

This article is for those of you just getting into the tactical shooting game.  It will presuppose that you have already gone to great lengths to discover what load works for your rifle at 100 yards, be it factory or hand-rolled.  Why do I say 100 yards?   Well, most people beginning this sport have had little opportunity to shoot beyond this distance.

Now that you are ready to push the envelopes of performance, finding a longer range is a must.  As many shooters simply never shoot beyond the 100-yard range, they never really test-proof their gear for the possibility of greater demands.  They seem happy to hold bragging rights to tight groups at this one range.  Being a reader of Sniper Country, you are certainly aware that your rig is capable of much more.  We will also assume that you have a rifle capable of allowing you to see discrepancies in your gear.  You can certainly use these simple methods on your 1.5 moa deer rifle, but discerning if that horrid group was on account of you or your equipment becomes more problematic.  We must also assume that since you are getting into long-range shooting, you have acquired a telescopic sight capable of being externally adjusted for elevation and windage.  A hunting scope with a screw-on cap will not really cut it here.  You need finger adjustable target turrets of one form or another.

Record book

The first step in testing the general capability of your rifle is to create a record book.  Without this, you can never keep track of your performance.  For the purposes of this piece, I will not be discussing a sniper's data book or, in civilian terms, a rifle data book.  By all means, keep those written records also.  They are very important -- they represent a complete history of your rifle and the environment in which it is fired.  These books are certainly a must for the serious shooter.  Since these are an article in and of themselves, I will say no more on them at this time.

What I am referring to in this piece is a physical cross-reference to those books -- a physical record of your equipment's performance that you can use in conjunction with the data book.  That means holes in paper.  Purchase an 8.5 x 11 three-ring binder.  This will hold every single target you ever shoot with ONE specific rifle.  You can put dividers in the binder for several rifles, but why be thrifty here... binders are cheap!  You will need to create several targets.  With computers in everyone's home, this is a simple matter.  I will sell you the booklet and targets, but you can make them just as easy.  Print them out before you go to the range or use the Xerox at work.  What your boss doesn't know won't hurt him... or you!

Cold Barrel Shot (CBS) target

The first target is the Cold Barrel Shot (CBS) target.  This is the first target you will shoot every time you visit the range.  Knowledge of the CBS is very important to the sniper and no less important to the serious competitor or hunter.  I can make a good argument that if you are in the habit (due to your local terrain) of shooting game at long range, the knowledge of the CBS is only going to enhance your skill.  If you know that your rifle consistently places its first shot one-inch left of the center of your established point of aim, you can adjust for this on target.  This could mean the difference between a miss on that prairie dog or worse, a wounding shot on a deer.  Hitting three inches left at 300 yards does not seem a big deal when shooting a deer, but when you add this to human error and effects of wind, it could mean the difference between a lung shot and a gut shot.

Note

When shooting this test, pace yourself out.  If you are using the multiple CBS target discussed below, you can get in several cold barrel shots in a single day by allowing the rifle to cool completely as well as cleaning it between shots.  I would not recommend this, as it is easy to cheat and not allow the barrel to cool.  It is better to first just one CBS per range visit.  It takes longer to develop the data, but it will be honest.

You have several layout methods for this target.   One example would be to place six one-inch black circles or squares on this page.  Space them out.  You only shoot one for each time you visit the range.  Eventually the page will fill and you will have a running record of where your shot goes with a cold clean bore.  This method is great, but it requires you to bring this same target out to the range on each trip until you have shot into each circle.  The obvious advantage is being able to immediately see how your rifle fires the CBS all on one page.  Of course you do not stop here.  Always fire a CBS when at the range.  The more data you have, the more likelihood of accuracy.

The second method (and the one most people tend to opt for) is to place only two aiming marks on the page.  Spaced vertically and five inches apart, the upper point is for the CBS and the lower point is for the first five-round group.  Again, over a period of time you will see a pattern emerge.  If you are lucky, there will be no pattern and all of your CBSs will go into the same location on the upper mark as the main body of the group below it. In other words, it will fall within the standard dispersion of the group. Either target style is acceptable for this test.  The second method gives you an immediate way to compare the CBS with your stabilized group.

Telescope repeatability test

The next target you will need is a telescope repeatability test target, often called a round robin -- a misnomer due to the fact the target is actually square.  This one is simplicity itself.  Telescope repeatability is the ability of your riflescope to be returned to zero (and any other setting) when you have displaced the turrets for elevation or windage adjustments.  You need one aiming mark, preferably located in the lower left corner, about two inches from the edge horizontally and three inches vertically from the bottom of the page.  I find that putting a one-inch grid on the target is most helpful for later analysis.  This grid should cover the entire page and be of the thinnest line weight you can print out.  In practice, this target is used to check the repeatability of your scope.  This is a very important test, one often overlooked by those not really serious about their shooting.  Here is how it works:

Fire one round into the aiming black.  Dial your elevation turret UP five minutes by either counting the proper amount of clicks or using the BDC dial (if provided).  Fire your second round.  Dial the telescope's windage turret five minutes to the RIGHT.  Fire a round.  Dial the elevation turret DOWN five minutes and fire a round.  Dial the windage turret LEFT five minutes and fire a round.  This last round should have hit the paper within a very close proximity of your FIRST round.  Now repeat the process until you have five rounds placed into the first three points on the square.  The fourth point was also your starting point so it will have ten rounds fired into it.

Ideally, the groups should not be different in average size or shape than any group you would normally fire without moving the turrets from zero.  Further, your groups should fall on a point that precisely represents how far you adjusted the adjustment turrets.  If you dialed UP twenty 1/4-minute clicks from the first shot, the mean point-of-group impact should be 5 inches above that first shot, but centered in the vertical plane.  If it is not, you need to keep track of this information, as your scope may not be capable of repeatedly returning to zero once you have adjusted it.  A small (VERY SMALL) amount of play can be expected and possibly even acceptable for target shooting, but if the scope is drastically off, return it for replacement.  This is one of the first tests you should do with any telescope purchase.

Telescopic sight advancements have been nothing short of amazing in recent years, but if you plan on shooting at long range, you cannot just trust that your scope will repeat accurately.  Tactical-type shooting requires a lot of turret dialing.  You might run the turrets up and down from zero to 1000 yards twenty times a day, more if you are training.  Knowing that the scope can always return to zero or any given point in between goes a long way in building confidence and trust in your system.

Note

When shooting this test, pace yourself out.  Do not blast away and try to get it all over at once.  Fire a round and wait 60 seconds.  Settle down between shots.  You are shooting for groups just like any other time.  In other words, each and every shot should be treated as if it was the only shot of the day.  Give it the respect it deserves.  Also remember that you are using the SAME point of aim on each shot no matter what the current adjustment you have dialed in (center mass of the single black aiming point).

You needn't fire the repeatability test often, but several times a year is a good habit to get into.  Things can happen over time that you might overlook if you just leave the scope set at zero.  If you have dropped the rifle or it has suffered any other kind of mishap, immediately test the scope in this manner.  Scopes are pretty tough today, but even the best can get knocked out of adjustment now and again.

Basic grouping

The last target is actually two.  It is what you would call your basic grouping target.  I have two styles -- one for 100 yards and one for 200 yards, which just happens to be the maximum distance at my local range.

The 100-yard target, as with all the targets mentioned here, has space for environmental details.  It also has a one-inch black circle (or square) in the center of the page.  Lately, I have been leaving the center white, as it seems to help me in centering up the cross hairs.  The 200-yard target has a two-inch circle that keeps the target proportionally the same in my sight picture as the 100-yard target.  If you really plan on shooting a lot, put four aiming marks on each page.  That is 20 rounds per page, which is a good range session for beginnings and regular shooters alike, coupled with the CBS and the first five-shot group.  This can only be done on the 100-yard target.

At 200 yards, you now have to start dealing with a little wind, so it is better to simply have the aiming point centered in the page.

Keeping these target results as a record will give you the health history of your rifle.  You obviously will not be able to keep every group you ever fire since you will be attending competitions, training courses and hunts.  But for those times you spend at the range, the targets presented here will keep you on track and show you how your system is holding up.  When used in conjunction with a rifle data book, a complete picture will be presented for evaluation.  You will immediately be able to see where the pattern is changing as the rifle ages or develops problems.  Used as a diagnostic tool, this booklet of targets is invaluable.

Conclusion

I called this Rifle Testing for Dummies even though it does not go into the incredible wealth of tests available to the conscientious shooter.  It is a primer only.  An attempt to get you, a new shooter, in the tactical shooting game, thinking about how often we take for granted our rifle's performance.  I use the term "dummies" because every one of us can become lax in our recurrent training methods and range time.  Upon arriving at the range, it is easy to simply toss rounds downrange for grins.  Keeping such a book places the emphasis on methodical record keeping, which in turn forces us to practice properly.  Only proper practice has any value in developing your shooting skill.  Simple trigger time does little but reinforce bad habits.

Test your gear occasionally and be critical about its (and your) performance.

I hope to produce a series of articles along these lines for those of you just getting into entry level but serious target shooting.  The next will be how to simply test and compare the optics in a scope you're interested in purchasing.  If things go well, I will try to produce one article a month on these basic topics.



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