Shooting Groups in Summertime (Craig Boddington)

Summer is the Perfect Season to Improve Your Accuracy and Technique by Shooting Groups

Turkey season—and its ridiculously early mornings—is finally behind us, so it’s time to catch up on sleep! Unfortunately for hunters, just about all other hunting seasons are behind us as well. Fishing may be good, but for me, the summer doldrums offer a good time to get some serious shooting done.

It doesn’t matter much where your interest lies; all shooting is good practice, and all shooting is fun. Whether you’re into rolling cans, punching paper, ringing steel, or breaking clays, it’s all good! The summer is also a great time to take your kids to the range—with school out, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to teach them how to be safe shooters and to show them how much fun shooting can be.

I particularly enjoy summer shooting sessions. The long daylight hours let me take my time, and in the summer I’m usually not in a big rush to get a rifle ready for a hunt. I can work on loads and take my time shooting groups, and in between I can plink with a .22, bone up on handgun skills, and throw some clays. This month, I’m going to show you how you can make the most of your summer at the range by shooting groups.

Determine the Accuracy of Your Rifle

Your interests may be different than mine. Maybe all your shooting is primarily for fun, or maybe you’re a competitive shooter in one or another discipline. When I was (a lot) younger I was a serious trapshooter, and I shot “bullseye” events with both rifle and pistol, smallbore and large. These days, I use handguns and shotguns mostly for fun. I no longer compete in any rifle events, either, but I’m still serious about my rifle shooting. I use range time to make myself a better rifle shot and to try to wring optimum accuracy out of my rifles.

One of the best ways to optimize your rifle for more accurate shooting is to find a load your rifle likes best and learn the level of accuracy a given rifle can produce. This is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of testing, and you really shouldn’t rush it. Long summer days help with the process, so long as you remember to give your barrels time to cool off in the heat.

Rifle barrels, like people, have unique preferences; some rifles shoot a variety of loads with similar accuracy, but most vary quite a bit. Finding the right load can be frustrating if you shoot factory ammo. The availability of factory loads can sometimes be limited to popular cartridges, so you may miss out on some good, less popular cartridges because you can’t find ammo for them. Hopefully you’ll be happy with your accuracy, but you can’t really know how well your rifle actually shoots—you can only know how well it shoots with those limited loads. Popular cartridges offer a variety of loads to choose from, including different brands, bullet weights, and styles of bullets. These can all make a difference, and sometimes those differences can be dramatic.

This Savage 116 shows extreme variance with loads, including some “pet” handloads top left and top right, and semi-custom loads bottom left and bottom right. A Federal Premium factory load with 180-grain Barnes TSX! However, groups can be flukes both good and bad, so now more groups should be fired and an average taken before a decision is made.

In addition to being time-consuming, figuring out which load works best can feel wasteful and expensive. For example, say you buy a box of 20, but the first couple of groups are terrible. They’re not likely to get better, but don’t let that discourage you. I use “bad” loads for practice shooting field positions at closer ranges. If you choose a popular cartridge like a .270, .308, or .30-06, your choices in factory loads are almost infinite. No one is going to buy all the different loads, but over time you can keep trying until you find something that works for your rifle. Make no assumptions; some brands are known for accuracy, but I’ve seen rifles respond to seemingly unlikely choices. Handloaders enjoy a huge advantage because they can vary their loads indefinitely: different powders, charge weights, primers, bullets, and variance in seating depth. And you only have to load a few cartridges to know what is and isn’t going to work for a particular rifle.

 

Master Your Benchrest Technique

All of the above assumes we’re determining the rifle’s accuracy and not the shooter’s skill, so maybe we should briefly review benchrest technique. The general idea is to remove as much human error as possible, so first of all, the rifle must be solidly rested. Adjustable rifle rests are probably best, but sandbags are fine. The bench must also be solid, with no movement whatsoever. Your chair or stool should be tall enough that you can gently lean into the rifle comfortably.

Good benchrest technique with an excellent adjustable rest. The rifle is solidly rested both butt and fore-end, and the supporting hand is curled against the rear sandbag, snugging the butt. One problem: Let’s hope I’m demonstrating and not shooting: Shooting glasses are on the bench, but I need to put them before I load the rifle.

Start with the empty rifle rested both fore-end and butt. Adjust the rests so the rifle is on target with no movement—if you have to “muscle” the rifle to get it on target, you’re introducing human error. Don’t hesitate to pad your shoulder; a folded towel works, but for range sessions with hunting rifles I usually wear a PAST recoil shield. With heavier rifles, a recoil-absorbing rest like a Caldwell Lead Sled is marvelous—just be aware that you may not get a true zero because the rifle cannot recoil naturally. Consider placing a small sandbag or pad under your shooting elbow—at the bench, it doesn’t take much recoil to start losing some skin. The best placement for the supporting hand is to keep it away from the fore-end of the rifle. Instead, curl your hand back under the butt, using it to snug the rear rest into your shoulder.

On the bench with a .375 H&H using a Caldwell lead sled. Recoil-absorbing rests like this are invaluable for shooting groups with heavy-recoiling rifles. There is one caution: Although recoil is significantly tamed the rifle cannot recoil naturally, so final zero may not be perfect.

While the bench teaches you little about field shooting, it does remind you constantly of the basics of breathing, sight alignment, and trigger press. Dry-fire a few times. Concentrate on taking a few breaths, letting the last one partially out. Confirm once more that your sight picture is steady as you slowly increase pressure on the trigger. When the trigger breaks there should be no movement.

Benchrest shooting is all about the rifle, not the shooter…but it does allow concentration on the basics of breathing, sight alignment, and trigger press.

 

Five-Shot or Three-Shot Groups?

When I was a kid, five-shot groups were the standard. Today, three-shot groups are more common and they’re certainly easier to hold. But your shooting group depends on the rifle and also on your purpose. Slender barrels are now more common in hunting rifles, and they can heat up quickly. In fact, many pencil-thin barrels simply cannot hold more than three shots before barrel heat causes the bullets to “walk.” With heavier barrels, whether varmint or target, five-shot groups are better indicators of accuracy. Nevertheless, three-shot groups are statistically as valid as five-shot groups—you just need more of them. For instance, the average of five three-shot groups is as meaningful as three five-shot groups.

These are the first groups from a new Sauer 100 in .270 Winchester, fired with four different factory loads. This is spectacular performance from a factory rifle with factory ammo, an average of less than .75-inch. These five three-shot groups are statistically as valid as three five-shot groups.

 

Keep Cool: Consider the Barrel Temperature

As with variance in loads, some barrels group better warm. You can experiment with this out of curiosity, but don’t let your barrel get too hot to comfortably touch. The range I often visit faces west up a canyon, and temperatures vary widely there—freezing in the winter and blistering hot in the summer. Some afternoon temperatures climb well into the 100s, and on days like those, I spend a lot of time waiting for barrels to cool! Shade helps, as does a breeze (or maybe a fan if you have electricity), but on a hot day it can take 20 minutes and more for a barrel to cool properly between groups. Remember, too, that barrel wear accelerates with heat, so overheating a barrel does damage. I’ve seen barrels ruined in a single day in a prairie dog town!

On hot summer days expect to spend a lot of time waiting for barrels to cool. Shoot other guns or just chill out, but be patient. A barrel should never be allowed to heat to the point where it’s uncomfortable to touch.

With a hunting rifle, we care most about the first shot from a cold barrel, perhaps followed up by one or two follow-up shots. So, to me, three-shot groups are a fair protocol for a hunting rifle. But if you want to see what your rifle is really capable of, vary the routine.

This rifle, a medium-weight sporter, showed extreme vertical stringing with a three-shot group. When stringing is this gross—nearly 2.5 inches—barrel heat is a likely factor, but you need to suspect improper bedding in either barrel channel or action.

Recently, I was shooting a very tricked-up .45-70 from the Marlin custom shop. That’s a slow cartridge, and velocity makes a difference in barrel heat—but not in this rifle! During zeroing, it appeared to be unusually accurate for a tubular-magazine lever action. I was shooting for an article, and that publication’s protocol calls for five-shot groups. I immediately saw significant vertical stringing. I suspected that barrel heat was the cause and slowed down. With fast three-shot groups the rifle was as good as any .45-70 needs to be, but when I waited five minutes between shots it became a Minute-of-Angle rifle with five-shot groups—spectacular for both the cartridge and the action type!

This Marlin 45-70 from the Marlin custom shop was exceptionally accurate, but it had a quirk…
Initial five-shot groups fired at normal pace showed significant vertical strings.     
I slowed down, allowing the barrel to cool five minute between shots and the groups immediately shrank to spectacular for any rifle of this type and cartridge.

 

Another thing you can do to minimize heat is frequently clean the barrel. Some barrels shoot best when freshly cleaned and many shoot after a few shots for fouling, but few shoot well when badly fouled. Experimentation will show you what works for your rifle. While I’m not usually OCD about a clean barrel, I’ll clean it after about 15 shots when I’m serious about shooting groups. Cleaning also speeds up cooling!

I do most of my cleaning at the range, generally after maybe five groups—but more frequently when breaking in a new barrel. After cleaning fire a couple of “fouling shots” before firing groups for measurement…point of impact often varies slightly with a freshly-cleaned barrel.

Don’t Overdo It!

Aside from heat there’s one other thing to be careful of on those long summer days: don’t overdo it! It takes a lot of concentration to shoot for accuracy. Even with mild cartridges, one can only shoot so many groups without getting jumpy, and as recoil increases that number drops fast. If you start getting tired or, worse, jumpy, then it’s time to quit. You aren’t learning anything, and you might be damaging your shooting. It’s easy to acquire a flinch, but it’s difficult to get rid of it. We’ll talk about that a bit more next time, and we’ll move on to sound practice for field shooting.


Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.