Is Your Rifle Ready?

Did you know that you can diagnose your rifle's accuracy problems by feeling its pulse? Find out how and up your odds for a successful hunt.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Did you know that you can diagnose your rifle's accuracy problems by feeling its pulse? I'm not kidding, and I'm not talking about voodoo gunsmithing. I'll tell you how a bit later on, but first indulge me for a moment while I rant about a vexation that irritates me like an acacia thorn sticking through my sneaker.

What I'm getting at is the way some hunters -- and would-be hunters -- festoon themselves with the latest camo garb, load their belts with high-tech gadgetry, spray themselves with doe scent until their tree stands and hideouts smell like woodsy bawdy houses and then miss the shot of a lifetime because they neglected the only truly essential tool of the hunt -- their rifles.

Some hunters are awed by their rifles and regard them as mystic totems with magical powers they'd rather not know too much about. If you don't believe me, check out some of the shooting and hunting Web sites and see for yourself. Some of the dialogue reads like a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials.

Myths notwithstanding, there's really nothing mysterious about rifles, and, like a gorgeous woman who renders you tongue-tied at first meeting, they can be a lot of fun once you get past the bashful stage.

Actually, a rifle, no matter how powerful, is a pretty docile critter once you get to know it, and almost always will perform the way it is prepared to perform. Preparation is the key, and one of the best tips I can pass along is to begin your pre-season checklist with the assumption that your rifle is not ready to take hunting. Makes no difference if it was perfectly sighted-in last season. Besides, prepping your rifle is also an important part of the ceremony of prepping yourself.

** Prepping Repeaters**
If you have a new rifle-and-scope outfit, or an older one that hasn't been prepped, start with the basics. Unlike bolt-action models, pump, lever-action and autoloading rifles usually can't be easily disassembled (some require special tools to do so), but there's a lot you can do anyway. Begin with a thorough inspection and cleaning of the action and barrel. Be sure to check the stock for looseness because a loose stock may eventually crack or chip where it joins the metal and also can cause erratic accuracy.

Cleaning presents a quandary because while it's no secret that clean barrels shoot more accurately, cleaning a rifle from the muzzle, which is necessary on most fast repeaters, creates some risk of damaging the muzzle, which can profoundly affect accuracy. That's why you don't want to scrub the bore with a cheap cleaning rod that can do irreparable damage. Muzzle protectors are available that fit in the muzzle like a funnel and prevent rod contact. Pull-through cleaning cords are also a smart option.

After a thorough cleaning, three or four drops of oil on a clean patch passed through the bore reduces hard contact between the bullet and the bore and helps to reduce copper fouling.

The ejection ports of some repeaters are too small to get into with your fingers, but accumulated oil and dirt can be blasted out of tight places with spray-type super-solvents such as Outer's Crud Cutter (do this outdoors) followed by a light oiling. If your rifle is equipped with a scope, be sure to check the tightness of the base and ring screws with a screwdriver. When everything is clean, oiled and tight, you're ready to go to the range to check your zero (more about this later).

** Bolt-Action Basics**
With a bolt-action rifle I start by taking the barreled action out of the stock. This is done easily by removing the action screws in the trigger-guard assembly. Some older guns may have rust spots where moisture has collected between the wood and hidden metal. Usually these can be scrubbed away with fine steel wool; put a few drops of oil on the steel wool and it works better. Before reassembling, clean all the mal and apply a light coat of gun grease or one of the new rust preventatives. Pay particular attention to the trigger mechanism, because grungy debris tends to seep into the trigger mechanism through the sear opening in the bottom of the action to gum up the works. Crud Cutter blasts this away.

Some bolts can be taken apart easily, exposing the firing pin and spring. Too much grease on the spring can cause sluggish action in cold weather, so wipe it clean and apply only a light coating of oil. If the stock inletting has a good coat of finish, all is well and good, but many stocks don't, and raw, unfinished wood is an open door to moisture, which can do ugly things to accuracy. The best interior protection is several coats of a tough epoxy or polyurethane floor varnish, but these take a day or so to dry thoroughly before reassembly. If you don't have time to wait, at least rub some paste floor wax into the exposed grain. I prefer scrubbing the bore while the barrel and action are out of the stock by holding it securely in a padded vise. Be sure to use a bore guide.

When you put the barreled action back in the stock, put everything together but leave the guard screws sloppy loose. When you finally tighten the guard screws you want the action to be in its rearmost position so that the recoil lug is fully bearing at the rear of the recoil-lug mortise. This is important because otherwise you don't have good recoil-lug contact, and with progressive firing the action may creep rearward in the stock and possibly cause a shift of zero.

** Getting a Pulse**
Now tighten the front guard screw first. I use a torque wrench to tighten the screw to 65 inch-pounds, which is pretty tight. Without a torque wrench, turn the screwdriver about as tight as you can with one hand.

Next, only slightly tighten the rear guard screw and you're ready to feel the rifle's pulse -- it's the secret I told you about earlier. With the rifle held vertically, butt down, hold the stock with your left hand (if you're right-handed) about two or three inches from the forearm tip, and position your hand so your fingertips are lightly pressed into the juncture of the barrel and stock. In other words, you want to feel both the barrel and stock with the sensitive pads of your fingertips.

With the other hand, alternately tighten and loosen the rear guard screw with a screwdriver. If everything is as it should be, you'll detect a slight movement -- "pulse" -- between the stock and barrel. Even if you can't see a movement of a few thousandths of an inch, you'll feel it. Be suspicious if there is no movement at all, because this can mean something is binding where it shouldn't be. If the movement is 1/16-inch or more, you can figure the action bedding isn't as good as it should be and accuracy may be suffering because of it. What you're feeling when the movement is excessive is the flexing of the action area of the stock caused by an uneven fit of the metal. The action is probably also flexing a bit too, leading to uneven contacts of the locking lugs and subsequent erratic barrel vibration and loss of accuracy.

The most common cure for this ailment is glass-bedding the action or, better yet, pillar-bedding it, as I described in a prior column ("Pillar Bedding," February 1994).

Sometimes a rifle with a bad "pulse" will shoot great, so if it ain't broke don't fix it. On the other hand, one of the things about the pulse test is that if it feels right but you still get bum accuracy, the problem is probably not the bedding, so look for the culprit elsewhere.

Follow the sighting-in procedures in the accompanying sidebar, but remember: Just because you've sighted-in your rifle doesn't mean you're ready to go a-huntin'! You still have 19 rounds in that new box of ammo, so make good use of them at the range. Double-check your zero with a few shots, tweaking any final sight adjustments if necessary, then fire a few more shots from the offhand and sitting positions.

I'm reminded of the old story about the tourist visiting New York City, who asked a wizened native how to get to Carnegie Hall. "Practice, my son, practice," answered the New Yorker. The same thing goes when that 10-pointer or royal bull offers the shot of a lifetime. Will you be ready? Practice, my friends, practice.

One Shot Sight-In
I've described outdoor life's quick-and-easy, one-shot method for sighting-in a scoped rifle before, but here it is again. The technique is so simple you can do it by yourself, but it's easier if you have a buddy to help.

It's essential that you have a solid rest with sandbags or a bipod to steady your aim and hold the rifle motionless while you make the one-shot scope adjustments. One trick I employ is the use of the Accuracy Asset I available from Robert W. Hart & Son, Inc. (401 Montgomery St., Nescopeck, PA 18635; 800-368-3656). These simple plates screw into the front sling-swivel threads. You then can slip the forend into the U-shaped notch of a standard rifle rest sandbag to lock the rifle into the rest and eliminate any twisting of the gun while you're sighting-in.

Since exact aiming is all-important, you're better off using a target with precise aiming squares, such as those we developed at Briarbank Ballistic Lab (to order, call 800-528-4868).

Before loading a live round, dry-fire a couple of shots to test the steadiness of the rests and get a feel for the trigger. If your scope is a variable-X model, turn it up to full power so you can aim more precisely. When everything is settled to your liking, put your earplugs and earmuffs on, load one round, aim carefully and give it your best shot.

You should be able to spot the bullet hole out to 100 yards with your scope. If not, enlarge the hole or draw dark circles around it until you can clearly see it through the scope. This is important. Next, with the scope's adjustment caps removed, again aim at the target while firmly holding the rifle steady.

For illustration, let's say that your shot hit high and to the right of the point of aim. Just hold the rifle steady and instruct your buddy to turn the windage adjustment to the "left." As he turns the adjustment you'll see the vertical crosswire march across the field of view toward the bullet hole. When the wire gets to the hole tell him to stop, and you're halfway there. Now repeat the process with the elevation adjustment until the horizontal wire also intersects the bullet hole. If you want the point of impact to be, say, two inches above point of aim at 100 yards just move the horizontal wire until it is two inches below the bullet hole and it's done.

ents if necessary, then fire a few more shots from the offhand and sitting positions.

I'm reminded of the old story about the tourist visiting New York City, who asked a wizened native how to get to Carnegie Hall. "Practice, my son, practice," answered the New Yorker. The same thing goes when that 10-pointer or royal bull offers the shot of a lifetime. Will you be ready? Practice, my friends, practice.

One Shot Sight-In
I've described outdoor life's quick-and-easy, one-shot method for sighting-in a scoped rifle before, but here it is again. The technique is so simple you can do it by yourself, but it's easier if you have a buddy to help.

It's essential that you have a solid rest with sandbags or a bipod to steady your aim and hold the rifle motionless while you make the one-shot scope adjustments. One trick I employ is the use of the Accuracy Asset I available from Robert W. Hart & Son, Inc. (401 Montgomery St., Nescopeck, PA 18635; 800-368-3656). These simple plates screw into the front sling-swivel threads. You then can slip the forend into the U-shaped notch of a standard rifle rest sandbag to lock the rifle into the rest and eliminate any twisting of the gun while you're sighting-in.

Since exact aiming is all-important, you're better off using a target with precise aiming squares, such as those we developed at Briarbank Ballistic Lab (to order, call 800-528-4868).

Before loading a live round, dry-fire a couple of shots to test the steadiness of the rests and get a feel for the trigger. If your scope is a variable-X model, turn it up to full power so you can aim more precisely. When everything is settled to your liking, put your earplugs and earmuffs on, load one round, aim carefully and give it your best shot.

You should be able to spot the bullet hole out to 100 yards with your scope. If not, enlarge the hole or draw dark circles around it until you can clearly see it through the scope. This is important. Next, with the scope's adjustment caps removed, again aim at the target while firmly holding the rifle steady.

For illustration, let's say that your shot hit high and to the right of the point of aim. Just hold the rifle steady and instruct your buddy to turn the windage adjustment to the "left." As he turns the adjustment you'll see the vertical crosswire march across the field of view toward the bullet hole. When the wire gets to the hole tell him to stop, and you're halfway there. Now repeat the process with the elevation adjustment until the horizontal wire also intersects the bullet hole. If you want the point of impact to be, say, two inches above point of aim at 100 yards just move the horizontal wire until it is two inches below the bullet hole and it's done.