Sighting in a Rifle: Do it Right,
So You Can Depend On It

Sighting in a rifle properly requires exacting attention to details. Shooting at a stump and “getting close” will set you up for failure when taking a hard-earned shot at an elk or other big game. A less than precise approach might result in a wounded, unrecoverable, wasted animal that you expected to take home as a trophy. At least a little perfectionism is in order when sighting in.

Two people don't see exactly the same way through the scope. If you are shooting someone else's rifle, be aware of that fact. Sighting in a rifle is a personal thing.

Sighting in a rifle or rifle practice is frustrating if the rifle scope is not one with the rifle. Simply put, the scope should very accurately predict where your rifle will send a bullet at any reasonable distance. Wind, temperature, humidity and other conditions may affect the results in reality, so take as many variables out of the picture that you can control as possible when sighting in. Do it on a calm day.

Zero at 200 Yards?

Most hunters will “zero” at 200 yards, when sighting in a rifle caliber big enough for hunting elk. While traveling forward, the bullet will drop faster and faster as it slows down. Because your scope is mounted above the barrel, your bullet will actually arc above the flat “sight line” of your scope. The bullet will rise above and then drop back down across your straight sight line.

If you “zero” your rifle at 200 yards, that is, set it so your point of impact is the same as your point of aim at 200, you will be good to go all the way out to 250 or farther, depending on your caliber and ammo. Check the ballistics from the manufacturer of your ammo to determine how high it will be at 100 and how low it will be at 300, when zeroed at 200.

On a large animal, a few inches of variation will easily allow you to hold on the same spot and still keep you safely in the large lung area, especially on an elk. All you have to know is how far out you can hold on the same spot, before the bullet drops too far. At that distance you know you have to begin to hold higher, or not take the shot. Determine that critical distance when sighting in a rifle.

Secure a Quality Scope with Quality Mounts

The first step to sighting in a rifle is securely installing a quality scope with quality scope rings to your rifle. A good scope on cheap mounts that cannot hold up to the violent jolt of a powerful gun, renders the whole rifle undependable.

Buy the best rifle scope and mounts you can afford. A good quality used scope (if it’s still a good scope) may be better than a new scope of cheaper quality. A scope of dependable quality can easily cost as much as, or more than, the rifle it will be mounted on.

Bore Sight Next

If you buy a scope and/or rifle from a reputable dealer, you can usually have them mount the scope and bore sight it for you. That will get you “on the paper” at a close distance. If you have a lever action or semi-automatic rifle, bore sighting is a little more difficult. If you want to bore sight your bolt action rifle yourself, it's easy. You can buy a laser bore sighter , or do it this way:

1. Take the bolt out and stabilize your rifle so it can’t move.

2. Point the rifle at a close object that you can see through your barrel.

3. Center the object (door knob, top of fence post, target, etc.) as you look through the barrel.

4. With the gun very stable, change the windage and elevation adjustments until the crosshairs (reticle) of the scope are on the center of the same object.

Start at 35 Yards

When sighting in a rifle that has been bore sighted, take your first shot at 35 yards to begin with. If you’re still off the paper, move closer. Turn your scope’s windage and elevation knobs a few clicks at a time to begin bringing the bullet’s point of impact to your point of aim. A consistent shooting rifle should be able to put three shots in a fairly tight group at one hundred yards.

Ammunition Quality

You can start with cheap ammunition to “get close”, but switch to premium ammo that you will use for hunting to readjust to those bullets. Using low end ammunition for big game is a recipe for failure. Premium ammo costs significantly more, but gives you the best “shot” at hunter success.

Regardless, all ammo will fly differently. Even the same kind of ammo can fly differently when made from a different “lot”. The difference probably won’t be huge, but a new box should be checked for flight pattern.

Free Paper Targets

Free Shooting Targets

If you don’t have access to a furnished rifle range, start with a good backstop that won’t allow stray lead to travel or bounce. Use something stable to hold your paper targets. You can click here to print our free paper targets , or just use four-inch square plain white pieces of paper on a box at a hundred yards. Use larger squares for 200 yards. A box weighted down with dirt works fine to tape or staple targets to.

Stabilize and Cushion Your Rifle

Use a range finder or accurately step off a hundred yards to begin with. Use a stable shooting bench or low table of some kind with a fore stock and butt stock rest on the table to hold the rifle steady. A sand bag under the butt will keep you from having to grip the gun tightly to hold it.

Without a rest on each end you would have to grip securely with your hands in two places, which causes minute movements. You may notice that even your own heart beat will move the gun. (Yeah, that’s scary. Isn’t it?)

An adjustable (padded) fore-end rest will allow you to make fine adjustments mechanically that will stay where you put them while sighting in a rifle. The butt rest will allow you to shoot relaxed with little movement.MTM  Shoulder Guard Rifle Rest - Model SGR-30 Use your non-trigger hand to lightly squeeze the butt-end sand bag to make slight movements to center exactly on your hold spot.

You can pay a lot of money for a rifle rest. We use an inexpensive one by Case-Gard called the Shoulder Gard Rifle Rest™. It works great for us. The butt rest is not adjustable, but the front is. Both rests are padded. It has a compartment to put in weights and store gear.


Weather Affects Bullet Flight

Remember that very cold weather can affect how your gun shoots. Most of us end up sighting in a rifle when the weather is warm in summer or early fall. Consider rechecking it when cold weather sets in.

Relax, Don't be a "Jerk"

You probably already know to “squeeze the trigger”, without jerking or blinking. Sometimes that’s hard to do while anticipating that there is about to be a violent explosion inches away from your face! You have to divorce yourself somehow from the coming explosion. Cool, calm, collected and in control is the mantra.

Relaxing effectively improves shooting, but requires practice. If you’re having trouble relaxing while shooting, consider doing some “progressive relaxation” (Google it) while telling yourself something like, “just relax, cool and calm”. Practice this relaxation technique often and eventually you will only need the words and you can take this ability to relax “on demand” to the range, in the field, and in stressful situations of life.

Check out our further discussion of focused shooting on the rifle practice page.

Establish a Pattern and Adjust

Shoot three shots taken with good, relaxed form to establish a good shot pattern. Make adjustments to move the center of the pattern where you want it to be. Shoot at least two more shots. If the holes are farther apart than an inch or so, take a third shot again.

Keep adjusting until the shot patterns are centered where you want them to be, usually 1½ inches high at 100. Once you are set at 100, try it out at 200. Your patterns should be right on (zeroed) at 200. Ideally, move out to 300 to see what your rifle and ammo does at that distance.

Avoid Pain to Avoid Bad Shooting Habits

Sims Vibration Laboratory LimbSaver  Recoil Pad Here’s another point that I think is very important. We never let our guns hurt us. If you do, you might start developing a flinching habit. We use padding on our shoulders, like a small pillow, while shooting from a bench. Another option is to buy a LimbSaver Recoil Pad for your rifle. These are great products that absorb most of the kick.

Remember that when you shoot at an animal you will be shooting through a cold barrel. Your barrel will heat up if several shots are taken fairly quickly. If it gets hot, let it cool with the action open before shooting again. After you’re through sighting in a rifle, it is best to recheck your final results when the barrel is cold.

(Add your advice about sighting-in effectively.)

Sighting in a Rifle is Not a Once a Year Thing

Don’t assume it will stay sighted in. Check it a couple of times during the season. Do it all over again before the next season.

Keep your gun barrel clean. A clean barrel shoots more consistently than a dirty one. Use solvent, even copper solvent, inside the barrel with a brush at least yearly followed by clean cotton patches and a very light oiling. (Follow your gun cleaning kit directions.)

Properly sighting in a rifle means you know you can depend on your "best elk hunting rifle" and rifle scope to be “on”. Doing it right and keeping it right takes one big variable out of the picture, when you suddenly have that hard earned opportunity to pull the trigger on an elk!

Now go to the next level: gun practice. Consider rifle practice a separate issue from sighting in a rifle.

Click here for the Gun Practice page.


Please subscribe to or our Quick Elk Hunting Tips and Updates newsletter or to an RSS feed (see left column for both) to be alerted whenever new information is added to the site.

We'd appreciate it if you would "Like" us on Facebook, or share this site with others.


Use Google Custom Search to search this site:

Custom Search


Return to Big Game Rifle page, from the Sighting in a Rifle page.

New! Comments

What do you think about this topic? Leave a comment in the box below.



Search This Site Here:

Custom Search

Huntin Fool

Huntin'Fool consultants provide economical hunt planning for your dream hunt. You'll be impressed! Try the 60 day Free Trial, if you like what you see and subscribe to a standard or premium membership, 20% of your subscription will be applied to any purchase over $50 from ElkHuntingTips.Net! Just let us know here and we'll apply your discount to your purchase on this site.

Gear and Services That We Use:
ASAT Camo

Free U.S. Shipping On ASAT Camo


Montana Decoy Elk/Deer
Now Available Here!

Montana Decoy

$99.00 Free Shipping!


Bugling Bull
Game Calls

$5 Flat Rate Shipping
or Free Shipping over $50


ElkNut Productions

Free Shipping on
ElkNut Products Here


The StringSling:
Best Bow Sling Design!

String Sling Bow Sling

$28.95, Including U.S. Shipping

Also, see the XBow Buddy/CrossBow Sling here


Clip-Shot: 1 oz. Camera Mount

$19.95 Free U.S. Shipping


Skull Hookers
Now Available Here!

Skull hooker

$34.99 & 59.99 Free U.S. Shipping!


The Safari Sling:
Best Rifle Sling Design!

Safari Sling Best Rifle Sling Available

$27.99 Free US Shipping


2013 Five Yard Archery Kill Video:

6 X 6 Archery Bull: 5 Yard Shot With Video by: Dave, ElkHuntingTips.Net


Go to Forums

Forum Topic Discussions:


Is a 308 rifle enough for elk hunting?I recently bought a Mossberg in 308 caliber. I am wondering if that caliber is ok..., by Skip (Tucson, AZ)

295 yard kill with a Kimber Montana 325 WSM, by Don from Dallas: My ELk did not even twitch once. He was dead when he hit the ground.

325 WSM is worth considering, Palmer Lake,CO: I believe that the .325 WSM is the ultimate elk caliber...

30-30 for Elk? : I have a 30 30 with 170 grain round nose bullet. Will this work to shoot an elk ?

(More comments about Best Elk Rifle below)

Recent Submissions

Unit 62 in Montrose, Colorado?, by Skip, Anyone hunt Unit 62?

Best and Cheapest State to take Nonresident Youth, by Noel (MN), I've always wanted to elk hunt but $$ and distance has detoured me...

Help needed for 1st DIY Hunt w/Son, by Patrick (Parker, CO), "I was looking for some advice on my 1st DIY hunt for 2014 in CO with my 13 yr old son. I have countless hrs going over stats, topo maps & Google Earth"

Benches?, by Scott (Minnesota)...could you explain a little more about benches? I've read a lot of magazines and they all mention benches and that elk typically bed 1/3 the way down a slope.

2013 elk bow hunt around Pagosa Springs: by Bobby (Little Rock , Arkansas), looking for someone to join my DIY hunt!...

Unique Elk Talk by Idaho Steve (Hailey, Id ), In the middle of the night, a herd of elk came traveling through the drainage and right past my tent...

Smelly Elk Areas? by Jimmy (New Mexico), I've come across many areas that just stink of elk, literally. I have heard two somewhat contradictory stories...

DIY Gear List Must Have's! by Craig (Florida) "Here are some of the items I use on my DIY hunts in the CO backcountry..."

Elk and Deer Hunting and Mountain Bikes, by Skip Shepherd (Tucson, AZ)~ At 67 I am thinking a lot about investing in a mountain bike to get back into remote areas...

Elk Hunting Colorado Unit 85, by Jerry~ I'm looking for any good advice on hunting elk in unit 85 in Colorado Spanish peaks area....


Solo archery hunting -- tips for calling/set up?, by Idaho Steve (Hailey, ID )~ I hunt by myself a lot...I'd love to hear your thoughts on strategic set-ups when solo hunting and calling.

Non- Lead Bullets for Elk?, by Dave, Elk Hunting Tips.Net (Garrison, MT)~ What do you ballistics guys think about the use of non-lead bullets for elk? According to this story...

Rage Broadheads by Chris, ...my buddy gave me a rage practice tip and when I shot it you could not pick out the broadhead from the field points. I was sold...

Recent Submissions:

Finally filled the freezer..., Colorado Rockies~ "I was bummed when I got to the property and no elk, nor any hoof prints in the snow. ...I pulled each of the elk into shade then started gutting..."


Wounded Veteran Elk hunts, by Joshua FL), I am a disabled veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and have always dreamed of hunting elk. I am posting this to see if anyone would know of any elk hunts free to disabled vets....

First Elk with a Bow, by Ryan H. (Colorado), ...Finally after many years of hunting with a bow "I got er did"!

First Elk!, by Tater (Sheridan, Arkansas) I took the advice I received from this website and was successful…I wanted to Thank You and Your Forum and the folks that share on here for the knowledge and information that helped me find an elk I was quite happy with.


Questions

Any success in Unit 14?, by: Dave (MI), "I'm planning on doing a DIY in Unit 14 for 2012..."

Rough Estimating Elk Antler Score, by Tater (Sheridan, AR) "I have booked my first elk hunt out west. My package includes up to 250 inches before the bonus prices increase. Can someone tell me how to estimate the antler size of an elk or at least a 250 inch elk?"


Share Elk Hunting Secrets

Bugle in Herd bulls, by Swiltbank (Az) The key to calling in a herd bull is to get into his bedding grounds and threaten his herd. Start off sounding like…


Best Big Game Rifle?

Best Rifle Caliber?, by Buglemup (Superior, MT), “ I've been reading what people have been writing about rifle calibers and here is what 16 years of guiding elk has taught me."

7mm Remington Magnum, by Dean (Helena, MT. USA) I use my Liberty Ruger M77, 7mm Rem. Mag. for antelope, deer, elk... Comment: "What do you guys think about the idea of hunting elk with a 270? I also know a guy who kills elk with a 243."


338 Marlin Express, "Light, fast shooting, hard hitting, manageable recoil, and for a lever gun - very accurate."


Guns I like for Elk, by Mountain Walker (Kootenays east B.C. Canada),"I think the gun you shoot Elk with should be one you shoot a lot with... "


.35 Remington, by Bill Smith "...my .35 Rem appears to have dropped a medium deer flawlessly, but I now have serious doubts as to its capability to take an elk."


Arizona Elk Hunting

Where to hunt in Az unit 3B?, by Cliffjumper (Tucson, Az) ~ I got a late bull muzzle loader hunt in Arizona unit 3b. Does anyone know how to hunt bulls in the late season?...

First time elk hunter hunting Arizona unit 6A , by Rob Marchio (Omaha, Ne)~ I'm a first time elk hunter hunting Arizona's unit 6A. I'm planning on staying in the Pine Grove campground...


Elk Hunting Colorado

Help needed for 1st DIY Hunt w/Son, by Patrick (Parker, CO), "I was looking for some advice on my 1st DIY hunt for 2014 in CO with my 13 yr old son. I have countless hrs going over stats, topo maps & Google Earth"

Elk Hunting Colorado in 2013, By William (Midland, TX) "I am planning an elk hunt next year in Colorado and I wanted to know if hunting Gunnison National Forest..."

Unit 60 Elk 4th Rifle Season Nov 13-17 Either Sex 2013, By Chester "...Any general advice about the unit would be appreciated!"


Idaho Elk Hunting

Elk Hunting Idaho Unit 8 8A 11, This is my first year seriously trying to track down some elk. Is there anyone that has hunted in any of these units and can give me some friendly advice? Mitchell, Moscow Idaho

Elk Hunting Pocatello by Cameron (Pocatello) Where is the best place to elk hunt around Pocatello, Idaho? I'm a student at ISU and I'm looking for somewhere around here to hunt next season.

How is the elk hunting in unit 30A in Idaho?, by Terry (Richland Center, WI) Has anyone archery elk hunted in unit 30A in Idaho? What can you tell me about the area?


Elk Hunting In Montana

Hunting in Western Montana, by Mike A. (Alabama)

I did not draw a tag for Missouri breaks where I have hunted in the past. Having to start over and try western Montana.


New Mexico Elk Hunting

New Mexico Unit 49, by Silas (Los Alamos, NM)

If anyone has tips on areas to start scouting, I'd really appreciate it.

First Elk Hunt First Elk Hunt, by Big "R" (NM)

I finally got drawn for a late elk hunt in Unit 28, north of Road 506 and south of the boundary line of the Lincoln National Forest...


Elk Hunting in Utah

"This is my first year hunting. I'm trying to make it fun and exciting for my kids. We went to the north slope by Bridger and China Meadows..."


Elk Hunting Nevada

Cow elk in Nevada's unit 222:

"Any good places known in unit 222?"

Northeast Nevada Early Elk hunt, by John (Carson City,NV)

"Any suggestions on what areas I may see some signs of elk?"


Questions from Novice Hunters

Retired USMC MSgt Needs Advice, by Ken Wing USMCRET (Bealeton, Va)


Big Game Recipes

Elk or Venison Steaks Grilled to Perfection Here's how to turn them into steakhouse steaks!

Spice-Crusted Grilled Venison Roast Recipe This Spice-Crusted, Grilled Venison Roast recipe works great for any red meat roasts, including elk, deer or beef roast...

Corned Elk Recipe You can easily make corned venison and elk, moose or corned beef from these instructions...


My wife's website: