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How to Zero a Rifle in 3 Easy Steps

In this guide, we're going to break down 3 easy steps you can use to ensure you hit what you're aiming at. Whether you're a seasoned marksman or a novice shooter, understanding the principles of zeroing your rifle and applying the appropriate steps is essential. These are:


  1. Shoot a Grouping

  2. Adjust Your Sight

  3. Confirm Your Zero


You can only zero your rifle for a single distance - in other words, if you zero your rifle at 100 m, then try to engage a target at 200 m, you will no longer be hitting where you're aiming. However, zeroing your rifle allows you to use the elevation adjustments on your sight in order to compensate for this. These range adjustments are sight-specific and for this reason we will not discuss them in this article.


Canadian Forces soldiers participating in a rifle shooting competition
Running and shooting is hard enough - if you don't zero your rifle, your poor cardiovascular fitness will be the least of your concerns...

Zeroing a rifle refers to aligning the point of aim (POA) with the point of impact (POI) at a specific distance. This process ensures that when you aim at a target, the bullet hits exactly where you intend it to. Factors such as gravity, bore angle, and environmental conditions can affect the trajectory of a bullet, making zeroing essential for accuracy.


Understanding Zeroing


AR 15 and rifle scope zeroing process


There are two factors you need to know in order to understand why zeroing is necessary:


  1. Since our sights sit on top of the rifle, there is a difference (bore axis) between where our sight is pointing and where the bore is pointing.

  2. Bullets aren't laser beams - they don't shoot straight, rather they start falling (in relation to the bore) the second they leave the barrel


When we zero our rifle, we are adjusting our sight to compensate for these two factors so that our point of aim is a close as possible to our mean point of impact (MPI).


There are many variables which effect the point of impact including the forces our bodies impart on the rifle as well as the harmonics of the barrel itself as the projectile leaves the barrel. This is what we refer to as rifle accuracy, and you will most commonly hear it referred to as "X MOA" (for example, sub-MOA or 1 MOA). The variables within the rounds themselves also play a huge part in our point of impact, such as projectile weight, grain weight, muzzle velocity and others. All these variables mean it is impossible to have the exact same point of impact on every round. It is for this reason that when we zero a rifle, we make adjustments to our MPI rather than any single point of impact.


Rifle target with MPI from bullet point of impact
Ignoring the two "wingers", our MPI is the center point between our three shots.


Step 1: Shoot a Grouping


Aim small, miss small - rather than trying to aim at the center of the target, pick a distinct feature that you can easily reference. For example, rather than trying to hold your sight pick in the center of a bullseye, aim at the intersection point between two lines on the target. This is a much more precise feature and eliminates any guesswork.


We recommend a grouping of 3-5 rounds. Less than three and you won't have enough data to work off of, more than five and you'll clutter your target and make it too difficult to identify the MPI.


It is CRITICAL that you take the most precise shots possible when shooting your group. For marksmanship tips, check out our article "Mastering Marksmanship: The Four Essential Principles for Perfecting Your Shot".


Canadian Forces soldier shooting a bolt-action rifle
Sometimes "eye" protection just gets in the way...

Step 2: Adjust Your Sight


Using the elevation and windage dials, move your POI to your POA. In other words, you are moving the impact of the rounds to the part of the target you were aiming at, NOT the other way around.


Sight adjustments are most commonly calibrated in one of two measurements:


  1. Minutes of Angle (MOA) - more friendly when using the imperial system

  2. Milradians (MILS) - more friendly when using the metric system


Common adjustments are 1/10 (0.1) MIL or 1/4 (0.25) MOA. A 1/4 MOA adjustment equates to a 1/4 (0.25) inch adjustment on paper at 100 yards, and a 1/10 MIL adjustment equates to a 1 centimeter adjustment at 100 meters.


In the competitive shooting community, you will commonly hear the phrase "chasing your grouping". This refers to the improper practice of making too-small adjustments to your sight in between groupings. The solution to this is to BE BOLD with your corrections, and bracket in the MPI. For example, if you think you are hitting 1 inch low and 1 inch left at 100 yards, adjust your sight 5 clicks up and 5 clicks right, then back off by 1 click respectively if necessary on a following grouping. Without going into too much detail, this is a more effective practice as it allows you to use your point of aim to bracket in your adjustments. This will prevent you from chasing the grouping and subsequently burning a fatter hole in your wallet.


Step 3: Confirm Your Zero


Shoot another grouping while changing as few variables as possible between your initial group and your confirmation - if you shot your first grouping upside down with a bottom lip full of chewing tobacco, let that bad boy ride and shoot again. Any adjustments to your position and body mechanics will introduce factors beyond the dynamic between the sight and the rifle itself.


If your POI still doesn't match up with your POA, rinse and repeat steps 1 and 2 as necessary.


Conclusion


Zeroing a rifle is a fundamental skill that every shooter should master. By following these 3 easy steps, you can ensure that your rifle is accurately zeroed, leading to improved shooting performance and confidence in your abilities. Remember, whether it's paper or people, you can't hit what you're aiming at if your not aiming where you think you are!

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