Hunting Rifle Accuracy

Acceptable Accuracy in Hunting Rifles

At that risk of making a heretical statement I often feel that hunting rifle accuracy is over-rated.

Further to that, I also feel that a lot of the advice on what constitutes acceptable accuracy is more oriented to target and benchrest rifles.

Case in point was a recent visit to my local range.  I was slowly shooting a series of spaced, three-shot groups as I honed in on an optimum hunting load in my 7×57.  At the bench next to me there was a young chap banging shot after shot through his rifle, and clearly not enjoying himself.

At the next cease fire I struck up a conversation with him.  He was pretty steamed up with the “expensive lemon” – his words – that he had recently bought.  Propped up on the sandbags was a nice new, premium factory rifle in 308 with a large, quality scope on it.  It was a light weight hunting rifle. The scope was a varmint model in 6-18×50 with an adjustable objective lens.

We walked down to the hundred metre target frames together.  His targets were peppered with large, random ten shot groups of about 4 to 5 moa.  My targets had three shot groups, varying from a best clover-leaf of about 0.3 moa to a worst of just under moa.

As we walked back to the benches I asked him what he intended to use his rifle for?  Deer and pig hunting was the reply.  Back at the benches he commented that when I put a “better” scope on my rifle and shot some “proper” groups they would most likely be pretty good.

I sought a bit more clarity on the “better” and “proper” comments.  As I said, I was shooting three-shot groups and the rifle, a stubby Ruger no 1 RSI carbine, was topped with a Nightforce 1-4 x 24 scope; good glass in most people’s books!

I normally shoot only three shot groups in my hunting rifles.  With a new rifle, a new load, or a perceived misbehavior I might shoot five shot groups to be a bit more sure of the grouping. With a new rifle and an established hunting load that groups nicely I would probably fire a single, fast, ten shot group to get a feel for what drift to expect under those conditions.

The young fellow was reasonably new to shooting and had obviously done a lot of reading on the sport before purchasing his rifle.  It was a nice bit of gear and the calibre was certainly ideal for his intended application on deer and pigs.

It quickly became clear that he was under the impression that his rifle should be routinely turning in sub moa ten-shot groups “even with factory ammo.”  There were a couple of boxes of cheap factory ammo on his bench.  Nothing wrong with that, I always test the cheaper ammo in rifles I do not intend to handload for and sometimes the cheaper ammo performs very nicely.

The thing was he had gone and bought 200 rounds of the stuff on the presumption that any and all factory ammo would shoot sub moa in a decent rifle.  To add to his problems he had never properly cleaned the rifle in putting about 100 rounds through it since new.

I was not in a hurry and he took up my offer to retreat to the back bench so I could clean his rifle for him.  Not surprisingly, the barrel was quite heavily fouled and the cleaning took a while to reach the standard I was after.  We chatted while we worked on his rifle.

I explained that I hunted deer and pigs as well, and had been doing so for decades.  Having had the opportunity to observe many experienced hunters over the years and also to try a variety of calibres, rifles and scopes myself, I had become comfortable with what was important in a hunting rifle.

The rifle should be well-balanced and pointy.  That is, it is comfortable to carry and handle and readily springs to shoulder, naturally coming to point of aim with minimal, virtually sub-conscientious effort.  That is far more important than being light in weight.  My 458 Winchester Magnum meets that criteria despite weighing in at nearly ten pounds.

For hunting purposes, lower powered scopes make for quicker target acquisition and shot taking.  Large magnification scopes on hunting rifles are a handicap, not a help.  I use variables on my hunting rifles, 1 to 4 on the larger calibres and 3 to 9 on the rest.  I always set the scopes to minimum power when hunting, and check that regularly as matter of habit.

If a higher magnification is required for a longer shot I will dial up the power for that and then reset the scope to minimum as part of the ejection procedure, before moving on.

I consider that judging the accuracy of hunting rifles on the basis of ten shot groups is pointless. I regard a hunting situation where I would fire more than three shots in quick succession to be rather unlikely.

Over the years I have seen many fine hunting rifles that would shoot nice initial three-shot groups, but as their light barrels heated rapidly, would produce much  bigger groups as more shots were fired.  That did not in any way detract from their performance as hunting rifles.

So, what group size do I look for when sighting a hunting rifle off the bench?  Obviously, smaller is better, but for a medium sized calibre hunting rifle to be used on deer sized game out to 200 metres then anything around, or less than, 2 moa is fine in my book.

From field positions when hunting in the bush there are very few shooters who can consistently group better than 2 moa no matter how accurate a rifle they have.

Having cleaned his rifle, my young acquaintance turned in a few better three-shot groups, letting the barrel cool between times.  He then went to the range shop and bought a couple of packets of other factory ammo to try.

When I packed up and left him to it, he was achieving some 1.5 moa three-shot groups and looking a lot happier.