Set up your rifle for success

Will O’Meara gives you the lowdown on how to fine-tune your rifle and scope to get the best out of them

When you get a rifle out of the box, you’re bound to be excited, but there are important tasks to attend to before you take into the field – more than just sticking on a scope and heading out the door. The aim of setting up your rifle is not only to fit the scope to the rifle but also to ensure the rifle and scope are fitted to you. Time spent on this process now will translate into confidence later. Follow this step-by-step guide for a set-up that won’t let you down and, importantly suits you.

Remove the barrelled action from the stock.
 Check the bedding, screws and component parts. Clean everything thoroughly with an evaporating cleaner and reassemble. In the reassembly it is important to ensure you have an even torque on both action screws and they are set in line with factory specs (it is surprising what a difference there can be between rifles).

The ‘elbow test’ is a good measure of length of pull suitability

Check that the length of pull suits you. A quick test is to hold the rifle with a normal grip, and lower it so the butt pad is in the crook of your elbow. If the butt pad is not in the crook, it’s most likely too short and vice-versa. Mounting the rifle will also give you a feel of whether it’s right for you or not. This is not best done in the back garden in your underpants. Wear what you normally wear while hunting to give you a practical fitting. The length of pull can be adjusted using spacers or different length recoil pads. There are instances where a shorter-than-normal length of pull can work for a firer, such as in prone shooting, where a shorter length of pull can help get the firer’s body position more directly behind the rifle to better absorb recoil. The most extreme example of this is with .50 calibre rifles, which are ideally fired in the prone position owing to their weight, but the principle can translate to hunting calibres just the same.

The type of trigger you use, be it single or two-stage, is a matter of personal preference. Additionally, a lighter trigger will be more conducive to precision, while a heavier trigger will be considered safer in adverse conditions. A happy medium is ideal.

Your scope mount needs to be as low as possible

Mount the scope. I like the security offered by using the correct Loctite thread-locker (such as 222 MS) on the screws that attach the rail to the action. It would, however, be wise to hold off on applying it until you have proven that this rail is going to work with your scope and provide you with the elevation required to zero and to reach out to your maximum range.

Choose rings that are of good quality and have as few parts as possible. The aim is to have the scope as close to the barrel as possible. The reason for this is two-fold: a lower mounted scope reduces the shooter’s need to crane their neck into position, and the closer the bore of the rifle is to the bore of the scope, the less effect any (unintentional) canting of the rifle will have on your fall of shot.

Bearing in mind the length of the tube, fit the bottom half of the rings to the rail and tighten while applying forward pressure so any securing tabs on the ring bases are fully in contact with the recess or groves in the rail. This will prevent slippage from inertia created by firing. Fit the scope and loosely fit the upper half of the rings.

Next, build up or adjust your cheekpiece to allow your eye to be perfectly aligned with the centre of the scope. Test this by getting into the position you most often fire from. With your eyes closed, let the full weight of your head rest on the stock, relax, and open your eye. You should be looking through the centre of the scope. Retest this until you have the perfect cheek rest. Between tests, stand up, walk around, take a break and relax – this will ensure you don’t force the process. You have achieved a perfect cheek weld once the black ring (scope shadow) around the edge of the eyepiece is even on all sides.

Each scope manufacturer will state an eye relief distance – this may help as an initial setting. Fine-tune eye relief by moving the scope forwards or backwards until the scope shadow disappears or is at a minimum. Retest by breaking from position, relaxing and doing the eyes closed/eyes open test as described earlier. Once you are happy with eye relief, you could use a piece of masking tape on the scope tube to mark its position in relation to one of the rings. This will ensure you don’t mess up your eye relief setting when you are doing the next job: levelling the scope.

A flat bar of suitable proportions can be used to level the scope off the rail

Level the scope. This important step ensures your adjustments for elevation remain truly vertical as the range increases.

It is normal practice to level the scope off the rifle, but this will only work if you normally hold the rifle perfectly level. The most important thing is that your scope is level with ‘the world’. If for some reason you hold the rifle at a slight cant (perhaps owing to body mechanics or equipment you wear), having the scope level with the rifle won’t do you any good. The best way to check this is to start by levelling your scope with your rifle, ensuring ring screws are loose enough to allow movement. You can use two levels or a purpose-built kit for this job. Alternatively, if there is a flat base to your scope adjustment housing, you can use a flat bar to level the scope. This parallels the scope off the rail.

Test and see if you naturally hold the rifle level. To do this you need an area that will give you 100 metres and a wall to set up a plumb line or a marker you know is truly vertical. Hanging a long spirit level from a nail works well. I tape it so it doesn’t move in the wind.

The Fix-It-Sticks 65in/lb torque limiter in use

Go back to the 100-metre line, and with the rifle well supported, align your vertical crosshair with the spirit level. Break position and reassume position, this time with your eyes closed. Get comfortable with the butt in the pocket of your shoulder, and open your eyes. If the vertical crosshair is level with your plumb mark, happy days – you naturally hold the rifle without cant. Tighten everything up using a torque wrench and in line with the manufacturer’s specs.  If your scope is canted, you need to adjust it until (with a natural hold) your crosshair is in line with your plumb mark (get a buddy to adjust the scope while you hold position).

Tighten the ring caps up (mine are 25 in/lb). I use Fix-it-Sticks, which are a torque limiting tool. They are light and compact enough to bring with you on a multi-day hunt, and you can tailor the kit to your rifle. An affordable addition to the tool box that I also use to ensure I don’t over-tighten any bolts on my mountain bike!

If you are fitting a scope bubble/level, now is the time to do so. Line your crosshairs up with the mark on the wall and adjust your bubble until it’s central. View the bubble with your cheek on the stock, positioned as you would be before a shot. Once you are happy that the scope is correctly fitted to you and secured to the rifle, mark the screws on the rings with nail varnish. Now, you can check at a glance to see if your mounting hardware has loosened. 

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