Bench Time by Randy Rowley


It always amazes me when a hunter tells me that the last time that he went to the range was two (or three, or five, or ten) years ago! Usually this answer is in response to the question, “When was the last time you checked your rifle’s accuracy at the range?,” which is asked after the hunter missed a relatively easy shot at a deer, hog, etc.

Many hunters seem to think that rifles are “sight in and forget” instruments. They sight in their rifle, put it in a case, hunt with it for several seasons, and then are shocked to find that their rifle is shooting seven inches low and three inches to the right the next time that they head to the range.

Despite the fact that quality scopes are made to stay on zero after being subjected to recoil, they do not do nearly as well when introduced to movement from being dropped or bumped. On the 3/7/03 – 3/9/03 Hog and Sheep Hunt at the Arrowhead Ranch I bumped the rear bell of my Redfield 4X – 12X scope on the tailgate of the guides truck. I didn’t think anything of it until it took me six shots to kill my Catalina Goat. The first shot (which was about 50 yards), using the roof of the guide’s truck as a rest, resulted in a miss (the goat was facing to the right). The second shot, aimed at the goat’s chest hit his back gut (he was facing to the left). The third shot missed (facing to the right again). The fourth shot, was a repeat of the second shot. The fifth shot, aimed at the goat’s neck hit his lungs (facing to the left). The last shot, a neck shot, was from two feet away. Later I shot a feed sack that was just 40 yards away, using my truck as a rest. I hit a solid foot to the right! The next day I shot a target from a bench at 20 yards and hit six inches off to the right. The miss-aligned scope was six inches off at 20 yards and a foot off at 40 yards. It probably would have been more than two feet off at 100 yards!

Rifles with wood stocks are well known for having a shifting point of aim due to changes in temperature and humidity, which causes them to expand and contract. If you sight your wood stocked rifle in during October (with it’s usual mild temperatures) it will probably group somewhere else when you go hunting on a cold January day (where wearing lots more clothing can also change the parameters).

Here are two targets shot with my Remington 7400 semi-automatic .30-06. It has a wooden stock and forearm. At the time, it was topped with a Sightron SII illuminated 3X – 9X scope with a 42 mm objective lens. The scope retails for $425 but can be bought at some websites for $325. I used the same ammo – Remington 165 grain Accubond’s (from the same box) on both range sessions. Both targets were shot at 100 yards from a bench at the Eagle Peak Shooting Range (as were all other targets shown). The left target was shot on 10/15/05. It was around 80 degrees and the humidity was around 60%. As you can see, the target has one inch squares. For measuring groups you measure from the center of the two holes that are the farthest apart. For this target the group was a little under one inch and was centered a half inch right of the bulls eye. The right target was shot on 1/16/06 (three months later). It was around 38 degrees and the humidity was around 30%. The .30-06 holes are the three to the right. As you can see, I still shot an approximately one inch group but the center had shifted to 2 inches right and an inch down. The center moved 1 1/2 inches right and 1/2 inch down from the October session to the January session. Nothing had been changed on my rifle or scope and the bullets were the same.

Here’s another example. I shot the target on the left (the same target on the right above) with my Remington 700 BDL in .25-06 (also on 1/16/06). It has a wood stock and was topped with a Burris Signature 3X – 9X 40 mm objective lens scope with an Electrodot and their Posi-lock system (once you get it sighed it you tighten a screw and the reticles are locked in place) at the time. The scope retailed for around $425 when I bought it (the Signature line has since been replaced with the Signature Select line, which refined the Signature and now retails for around $525). I was using Federal 115 grain Fusions for both targets. As you can see for the first target I shot a very tight three shot group (almost toughing each other). I then adjusted the scope and put the next one exactly where I wanted it (an inch above the bulls eye). I was running low on ammo so I didn’t expend any further shots. The right target was shot on 4/21/06 (three months later). It was about 80 degrees and the humidity was around 50%. As you can see I again shot less than a one inch group but the center was 2 1/2 inches to the left of the bulls eye (the .257 caliber hole in the left section of the bulls eye was shot after I adjusted my scope – I only shot one shot as I was low on ammo; the three .308 caliber holes are from my .30-06). The center moved three inches to the left from the January session to the April session. Again, my rifle and scope were not adjusted and the bullets were the same.

Here’s a third example. The target on the left (which is the same one as the above right) has three .308 caliber holes that was about a 1 1/4″ group that was centered about 1/2 inch below and 1/2 inch to the right of the bulls eye. The target on the right was shot on 11/11/06 (almost seven months later). The first two shots grouped an inch apart but were 2 1/2 inches to the left of the bulls eye and three inches to the left and 1/2 inch above the 4/21/06 group. I then adjusted the scope and grouped two 3/4 inch apart and 1/4 inch below and 1/4 inch to the right of the bulls eye. I then switched to a Federal 180 grain Barnes X-Bullet and almost got a perfect bulls eye on the upper left target (I was running low on ammo so I only shot two shot groups and decided to only shoot one of the costly X-bullets).

Two other times I have had things go wrong due to no know reason. In March of 2003 I bought a Browning A-bolt. It is a .30-06 and has the BOSS accuracy tuner/muzzlebrake. I moved my Burris Signature scope (that I had on my Remington 700) onto the Browning. It shot one-inch groups. However, when I went back to the range a few months later it still shot one-inch groups, but they were exactly six inches to the right of the bulls eye! To my knowledge I hadn’t bumped the scope and certainly hadn’t dropped the rifle. I also hadn’t changed ammo or changed anything else. The Browning has a wood stock but a six inch change due to temperature and humidity changes is a bit much. I was perplexed to say the least.

When my son, Ryan, returned from Iraq he wanted the Browning badly. I sold it to him. He didn’t want the scope so I put it back on my Remington Model 700 and sighted it back in. I then went on the 3/10/06 – 3/12/06 Hog Hunt at the Y.O. Ranch (Charlie Batts’ place). I was hunting the feeder behind the camp. Charlie has a nicely built blind for two that is as solid as a rock. Like Tim, he has his feeder 64 yards away from his blind. At dusk I had a herd of hogs come in. I picked one out and squeezed the trigger. I saw the hog go down. I waited a few minutes and went to get the pig – but it wasn’t there. A search revealed blood under the feeder and another spot of blood about 20 yards away, but no pig.

Once again I went back to the range. Low and behold I once again grouped exactly six inches off to the right (which caused me to probably gut shoot the pig). Again, to my knowledge I hadn’t bumped the scope or dropped the rifle. I also hadn’t changed ammo or changed anything else.

This time I took the scope off of the rifle and shipped it back to Burris (they have a “Forever Warranty”). They couldn’t find anything wrong with it after taking it apart. They recharged it with nitrogen and sent it back to me.

The solution to this problem, I discovered, is to free float your barrel. Free floating keeps the barrel from contacting the wood. Because the wood does not contact the barrel it will not be affected by changes in temperature or humidity. You can do this yourself, but in my opinion this job is best suited for a qualified gunsmith. You can get it done for around $65. This can only be done for one piece stocks.

Surprisingly to many shooters, different brands of ammunition can group several inches apart. Even shooting the same ammo with a different grain bullet (180 grain .30-06 instead of a 165 grain .30-06) or shooting the same bullet, but from a different lot number, can result in significant changes. Here are two examples. These two targets were shot on 3/23/07. I had only four rounds of Federal Fusions left so the left target was shot with Winchester Supreme 115 grain Silvertips in my .25-06 (the bottom two, far right, and top right holes were already on the target – I got lazy and used someone else’s target that they left on the target holder). The last time that I shot the Fusion’s I was right on. My first two rounds with the Winchester’s were three inches high and 1/2 inch to the right. I adjusted my scope a little too much and centered the next three rounds two inches below the bulls eye. Finally my last three rounds were center 1/2 inch above and 1/2 inch to the right of the bulls eye.

Then on the right target I decided to shoot my remaining four Federal .25-06 rounds. I aimed for the bottom right diamond target but missed the paper with my first two shots. I then switched to the bottom left diamond target and grouped my last two Fusion’s nicely (about 3/4 inches apart) but they were centered six and 1/2 inches to the right and one inch below where I was aiming! Remember, this is right after I sighted the gun in with the Winchesters. The Federals and the Winchesters were shooting six and 1/2 inches apart from the same gun during the same bench session! That would be enough for a clean miss if I were aiming at the neck of a deer.

Once before I switched ammo and had amazing changes in the locations of groups. In 2002 I was using Hornady Light Magnum 115 grain Soft Point Boat Tails in my .25-06. The Hornady’s grouped well, but I had heard good things about Winchester Supreme Silvertips (and they were cheaper than the Hornady’s). I decided to see how my rifle shot with them. I choose 115 grain Soft Point Boat Tails (the same bullet type and weight as the Hornady’s). I shot three shots with the Hornady’s, which resulted in about a 1 1/4 inch group dead on at 100 yards. I then shot a three shot group with the Winchester’s. Although they grouped tightly, they grouped seven inches off to the right and three inches down!

Sometimes the slightest change to a rifle can cause dramatic results. At the 12/31/06 “Bring in the New Year” Rifle Range Shoot I checked the accuracy of my .30-06. It grouped about 1 ½ inches at 100 yards, about an inch low of the bulls eye. When I shot it I noticed that the forearm was lose. I tightened up the forearm screw and put it in the case. Big mistake! I then went on the 1/12/07 – 1/13/07 Hog Hunt at the CzC Ranch (just 13 days after the range time). I hunted Tim Price’s stand (which is well built and steady as a rock). His feeder is just 64 yards away from his stand. At dusk I had a herd of five hogs come in. The two largest were about four yards behind the feeder. I choose the one on the left. It was happily munching on my hog slop and not moving. I put the reticles on its neck and squeezed the trigger. Hogs went running everywhere including the one that I shot at. A careful search revealed no blood. It was a clean miss at 68 yards! I don’t excel at many things, but I regard myself as a good shot. I hadn’t missed an animal in five years. I knew that something was wrong.

On my 3/23/07 trip to the range, I found to my amazement, that although I shot a 1 1/2 inch two shot group, it grouped 6 1/2 inches high! That little change (tightening of the forearm screw) had dramatic results. I then adjusted my scope and shot a three shot one inch group 1/2 inch to the right of the bulls eye and 3/4 inch below (yes, it’s the same target as the above right one).

No matter how experienced or good you are (I’ve been shooting and hunting for 31 years) spending time at the range is essential to hunting success. At a minimum each hunter should check the accuracy of his rifle right before hunting season (October for deer and January for hogs – as they’re typically hunted in the spring). However, as I mentioned earlier, if you have a rifle with a wood stock you will probably find that it shoots differently during different times of the year. Therefore, I try to go to the range three times a year – when it’s warm, when it’s cool, and when it’s cold. I usually combine my range trips with pistol shooting and sometimes clay target shooting to get the most bang for my buck.

Every time that you go make sure that you plan on spending plenty of time there. If you’re in a hurry, you will likely have big groups, which will just frustrate you and cause you to hurry even more. Patience is the key to success.

I let my rifle cool down at least one minute between shots. In order to save time I’ll take both of my rifles to the range. I’ll shoot a group with one and then switch to the other (usually on a different target). When I’ve shot a group with the second rifle I’ll then switch back to the first one. This switching ensures that the barrels cool down adequately between groups.

I usually use a shooting vice (when I don’t forget it), combined with sandbags, and a spotting scope. I hold my rifle fairly tightly. I practice breath control. If the reticles aren’t where I want them while holding a breath, I’ll breath again and start over.

Sometimes I’ll even clean my barrel if I’ve fired around 10 shots. A dirty barrel is an inaccurate barrel.

One of the best tools in your arsenal should be your friends. When you go to the range with a buddy he can often tell you if you’re flinching, canting, etc. Talking to each other also gives you something to do while you’re waiting for your barrel(s) to cool down.

If possible, go to the range during a weekday. I’ve found that often no one is at Eagle Peak when they open on a week day.

It is also wise to practice shooting without the sandbags, using your elbows as your rests. You’re not guaranteed that every shot will come from a box blind.

As Christian men we know that God gave us dominion over the animals. But with that dominion comes a responsibility to ensure quick, humane deaths. Spending time at the range greatly increases your ability to put animals down for the count, with a minimum of suffering.

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