I used to have some bad habits when it came to getting ready for hunting season. Like a lot of hunters I spent way more time worrying about my gear and accessories than getting my rifle ready. I’d go out the day before a hunt and fire off a couple of rounds downrange and call it good. Ready to go. Now I’m not saying this method doesn’t work, but it cost me a hell of a nice deer once, and that’s enough reason to figure out another system.
It was early in the morning and frigid as hell and the buck I’d been watching for months, waiting for opening day was just about to cross the property line and step into my kill zone. The monster buck we called “the big ten” flinched as my first round went right over his back. Frustrated, I racked another one and let it go, where it went I’ll never know! The big buck took off like a bolt of lightning and in about all of two seconds he was gone, not to be seen for the rest of the season. That was a pretty bad time to find out that two of the mounting screws on my scope were gone. Just like that buck. I started following these seven easy steps to tune up my rifle before hunting season to ensure that I don’t run into the same trouble again.
1. Clean and Inspect Your Rifle
Most bolt guns are so easy to disassemble and clean that there’s just no reason to jeopardize the few days you get to hunt every year by carrying an un-inspected firearm into the field. After making sure the rifle is unloaded, remove the bolt. Use a simple cleaning and lubricating product to remove the dirt and debris and lubricate the bolt. You’ll want to do the same with the internal components of the action. It might seem pretty basic, but it doesn’t always take very much gunk in the right spot to prevent a bolt from closing. Now, check the screws that hold your action in the stock. There’s generally at least one screw at the front of the magazine and behind the trigger guard. If these screws come loose in the field, you’re in for some serious accuracy problems.
2.Show Your Barrel Some Love
Next, take a cleaning rod and run a patch through your barrel. If the barrel is dirty or you didn’t clean it after your last range session, I’d also run a brush and cleaner through it first. This will help remove carbon debris and copper fouling that hinder accuracy and will help prevent future rusting. You can get a basic cleaning kit from Brownell’s for less than $30, a small price to pay to ensure you get the most out of your rifle hunting for years to come. Some folks get into copper bore cleaners that require a hazmat suit to administer, but for the average hunter it’s really not necessary.
3. Don’t Rush the Range
One thing I have to continually remind myself is that a trip to the range shouldn’t be rushed. Set aside a few hours or an afternoon, enjoy the process, and take your time. Familiarize yourself once again with the nuances of your rifle, from the unique way your bolt runs to the feel of your trigger. Take time to set-up, enjoy the sunshine, and give your rifle plenty of rest in between shots. Not only does slowing down help you focus on proper shot mechanics, it also makes the experience more enjoyable.
4. Believe in the Bench
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fired my fair share of test shots from the hood of my pickup, but that’s far from ideal. If you want to get the most out of your rifle and ensure that shooter error is subtracted from the equation, it’s paramount to invest in a good bench and rest. My go-to setup is Caldwell’s BR Pivot bench ($450), which breaks down quickly and features heavy-duty tripod legs and a hardwood pivoting top, and a Caldwell Lead Sled ($200) rest that helps mitigate recoil and ensure consistency in shooting. I went without these items for years, but to my own detriment. Check out the options at Brownell’s and get something that works for you.
5. Check Your Optics
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had screws on my scope mounts fall out, so I’m a stickler for checking screws on my optics. Once I’ve ensured the bases are fastened down securely, I’ll tighten the ring screws again. My current rifle hunting setup is a Mossberg Patriot Bantam rifle in .308 with Leupold VX-3i scope, and with the Leupold mounting system, I’ve got to take the scope off to re-tighten the bases. At the very least I’ll re-tighten the scope ring screws. Once the scope is secured, I’ll readjust the eye relief and check zero with a few shots at 100 yards.
6. Verify Your Loads
I cringe when I see people shoot different loads from year to year without adjusting their scope or at least verifying zero. Sure, you might be shooting minute-of-deer, but that’s hardly acceptable for the sake of a shooter’s confidence or ethical hunting. Because of the physics of barrel harmonics, different loads and different sized bullets will impact at different points, sometimes with a substantial variance. So if I shot a 150-grain Hornady American Whitetail in my.308 last year, I’m going to re-check zero when I switch to the new Hornady ELD-X 178-grain load for this year’s elk season. If there is a substantial difference, I’ll adjust my scope accordingly, with my preference being 2 inches high at 100 yards.
7. Target Practice Makes Perfect
There are many different styles of paper targets, but I’ve used EZ2C rifle targets for several years now. They’re relatively inexpensive (a 12-pack is less than $5), and the 1-inch grid makes scope adjustments easy.
Whatever target you decide on, the important part is that you get out and practice, practice, practice. Remember, you’re not just making sure the rifle is on, you’re making sure you’re still on, too! Work on your breathing, steadiness, and smooth trigger press. Shoot a group of three shots, let the rifle rest, then do it again. Move around in the field and try shots from shooting sticks or field positions. Try to put yourself in a real-world scenario: Range a target, get in position, and make a timely shot. Good luck!