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Controlling for external factors like wind, temperature and elevation, accuracy is largely affected, for better or worse, by two general elements; the mechanical and the human.
The mechanical element consists primarily of the quality of the firearm itself, but optics and sights, ammunition, and some accessories also play a major role in how accurate a given rifle is.
The human element consists of factors such as aptitude, physical fitness, and mental state. A more detailed overview of how these two elements come into play follows.
Anyone who, like me, has spent far more time reading through internet gun forums and other various firearms related publications than is wise or healthy has probably seen the acronym MOA bandied about regularly.
MOA - Short for Minute of Angle (aka 1/60th of a degree), 1 MOA is approximately 1 inch at 100 yards.
This means that a rifle capable of MOA accuracy will, when all shooter error is factored out of the equation, place 3 to 5 shots within 1 inch of each other at 100 yards.
This level of inherent accuracy is the current gold standard for most rifles produced by major manufacturers and such a level of accuracy is more than adequate for most medium and big game hunting, as well as some forms of competitive shooting.
Those interested in hunting small varmints such as prairie dogs at long ranges or those interested in extremely long range competitive shooting such as F-Class may want to obtain rifles capable of sub-MOA (smaller than 1 minute of angle) accuracy. By the way, if you're brand new to hunting, visit our Hunting Guide to learn the basics of what it takes to get started.
Typically, rifles capable of sub-MOA accuracy right out of the box will carry a noticeably higher price tag than their MOA counterparts.
While most recently manufactured rifles boast 1 MOA or better accuracy, there are a number of mechanical factors that can cause groups to go from tight clusters to something that resembles a buckshot pattern.
A trigger that requires a heavy pull as opposed to a light squeeze will result in more contraction of the hand and arm muscles, which will result in excessive movement of the rifle as a whole while the shot is being taken, which typically translates to poor accuracy.
Similarly, a trigger that has a great deal of creep can create unintended movement on the part of the shooter and may in some instances contribute to the development of a flinch.
In the past, trigger pull could typically be safely improved only by a qualified gunsmith. Today, however, many makes and models are equipped with user adjustable triggers that can be safely tweaked at home, even by those with little to no mechanical aptitude.
Trigger adjustments should obviously be made only in accordance with a particular rifle’s user manual.
Generally speaking, rifles with thick, heavy barrels (often called bull barrels) produce better accuracy than those with thin barrels.
This is largely due to the fact that thick barrels are stiffer and are less susceptible to flexing under the stress of a bullet being forced through them at high speeds.
Thick, heavy barrels are also slow to heat up and an overheated barrel typically produces less than stellar accuracy. It should be noted that a heavy barrel naturally adds a great deal of weight to a rifle.
While this additional weight makes the rifle more stable from a rest and reduces felt recoil (further increasing accuracy), it also makes the rifle miserable to carry and handle in situations that require a great deal of walking and hiking.
On a spot-and-stalk elk hunt, for example, a light, handy rifle capable of adequate accuracy is a better choice than a heavy, bull-barreled rig that shoots one-hole groups but carries like a utility pole.
The quality of a rifle’s bore (the inside of the barrel) also greatly impacts accuracy.
Pitting on the bore from rust, gouges from improper cleaning, lead and copper fouling, and defects from the factory can all destroy accuracy. It is therefore a good idea to shine a light down the bore of any rifle considered for purchase and check for such damage before bringing the gun home.
Finally, it is important to know the rate of twist of the rifling in the bore. Typically denoted as a ratio such as 1:10 or 1:14, rate of twist or twist rate is a measure of how fast the rifling will cause a bullet to spin.
To elaborate, a rifle with a 1:10 rate of twist spins a bullet at a rate of one complete revolution for every 10 inches of forward travel. A rifle with a 1:14 rate of twist will spin the bullet at a rate of 1 complete revolution for every 14 inches of forward travel.
Twist rate is important as it dictates what bullet weights will be most accurate when fired from a particular rifle. As mass is increased for a bullet of a given diameter, the length of that bullet will increase. For example, a 180 grain, .308” diameter bullet will be noticeably longer than a 125 grain .308” diameter bullet.
In general, the longer a bullet is, the faster the twist rate needs to be in order to ensure stability in flight.
A long bullet fired through a bore with a slow twist rate may yaw in flight and even impact the target sideways (a phenomenon known as key-holing). Luckily, there are a number of calculators available online to assist with appropriately matching a bullet to a rifles twist rate.
A stock that is too long or too short for the arms of the user will make it uncomfortable to shoot and difficult to achieve proper form.
Additionally, the absence of a good recoil pad can result in painful range sessions that can in turn lead to the development of a flinch and few things poison accuracy like a flinch.
Unlike in days past when butt plates on rifles were either metal or hard plastic, many rifles now come from the factory equipped with soft rubber recoil pads.
Furthermore, there are a number of rifle stocks, both OEM and aftermarket, that are fully adjustable for comb height and length of pull (the distance between the front of the trigger and the edge of the butt stock) that can thus be easily made to comfortably fit any shooter. Boyds At-One Adjustable Gunstock accomplishes this.
Although exceptional accuracy can be achieved, with practice, using iron sights and peep sights, most hunters and target shooters will choose to mount some form of an optical sight on their rifle.
A good scope shortens the learning curve of marksmanship, unlocks the full accuracy potential of a rifle, and gathers light, thus improving sight picture in low light conditions.
A cheap scope, however, might not hold zero. “Zero” typically refers to a scope that has been sighted (adjusted for accuracy). A scope that holds zero is one that stays accurate without needing frequent adjusting.
A cheap scope will also likely provide a dim sight picture and may be more prone to breaking under typical field conditions.
While inexpensive optics can be tempting after dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a rifle, they are ultimately counterproductive and disappointing. It’s best to factor the cost of quality optics into the overall cost of a rifle purchase.
While a quality rifle is essential for top-notch marksmanship, without some degree of operator aptitude, it is little more than an expensive doorstop.
Entire libraries have been written about becoming a better rifle shot, so it follows that only the very tip of the rifle-shooting iceberg can be touched upon in the length allotted here.
That said, there are some fundamental techniques that when practiced correctly will improve accuracy results for most shooters.
Impeccable trigger control is crucial to shooting tight groups at the range or humanely taking down game while hunting.
Pull the trigger forcefully, as one would while swinging a shotgun on a clay pigeon or pheasant, and the muscle contractions in the hand and arm may cause the rifle to wobble and move off target.
As noted in the video below, it is crucial to apply careful, even pressure in a straight line toward the back of the trigger guard.
The inescapable laws of physics dictate that gravity and wind will affect a bullet in flight. Gravity obviously pulls the bullet toward the Earth while a cross-wind will push it off course. At closer ranges (100 yards and closer) these effects are negligible. As distance increases, however, even a gentle breeze can mean a complete miss if the shooter fails to appropriately compensate.
Thankfully, there is a plethora of information available on how to adjust and optic so as to compensate for bullet drop and wind deflection at various distances.
Once a rifle is properly zeroed, it’s important to get away from the stability and comfort of the bench rest and learn to shoot in a variety of common positions. After all, game animals rarely present themselves when a shooting bench is available, and many forms of competitive shooting require accurate shooting from a number of unsupported positions.
As with all other sports, proper form is the key to optimal performance. The video below presents an overview of proper techniques from common shooting positions.
Ultimately, developing proficiency with a rifle takes a degree of dedication and equipment of decent quality, but there is no magic or mystery involved. As with the development of any other skill, it boils down to getting to the range regularly, practicing the right way so as not to ingrain bad habits, and perhaps most importantly, having fun along the way.