Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thoughts on Rifle Accuracy (i.e. My Rifles Stink.... and That's OK)

I originally planned to title this post "How to: Feel really stupid when talking about Rifles" or "I Just Realized My Rifles Stink on Ice" but fortunately, reasonableness took over.

I know a decent amount about hunting rifles, cartridges and shooting.  99% of this I've picked up by reading and talking with folks and spending not quite enough time at the shooting range.  (Chuck Hawks' "Guns and Shooting Online, The Definitive Firearms Site" website is a superb source for all sorts of hunting, firearm and shooting information).  I'm by NO MEANS an expert but I figure I know more than the average "man on the street".  At the same time, I don't reload my own ammo and I shoot pretty standard mid-tier equipment (Ruger .270 with Nikon glass, Remington 742 in .308 with an el-Cheapo scope).  I keep the equipment mildly clean, buy high quality ammo and practice when I can.  For what I like to do (get in close on a large animal), this is MORE than enough in the accuracy department.  I have a rudimentary working knowledge of such things as minute-of-angle (MOA) but I'm also realistic.  I need/want to consistently hit a 8-10" pie tin inside of 300 yards (preferable inside of 100)....  not shoot the eyes off of a gnat at 1,000 yards.  I'm a hunter, not a sniper.

I can guarantee you that Larry's rifles are more accurate than Larry's skills at shooting said rifles.  I am the rate limiting factor as far as accuracy goes.  I suspect this is the case with 90%+ of shooters/hunters whether they will admit it or not.

But at the same time, I'd rather shoot an accurate rifle than an inaccurate one and I've always appreciated passion and expertise in a person regardless of the topic.  Recently, on a hunting trip with 3 buddies, the landowner stopped by one evening to chat.  Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to rifles and accuracy.  This gentlemen is a gunsmith, loves to build long-distance, highly accurate rifles and shot competitively for 20+ years.  (Please understand, I'm not making fun of him.  This is his passion.  For competitive bench rest shooting, this is needed.)

Listening to him emphasized just how little I really know about firearms and what it takes to make them truly accurate.  Once he got wound up, the general conversation went something like the following (keep in mind, I was only able to partially follow what was being said due to the velocity of the words and a limited working knowledge of what was actually being said.  There is a slim chance I'm guilty of taking some artistic license with parts of the conversation but it is a representative, decent summary):

Owner:  "...well, I quit messing around with wildcatting loads after playing with a .22-243 for a while and that .470 Nitro Express case we necked down to take a .17.  Yeah, that one went through the chronograph at about the 17,000 feet per second but kept blowing out primers and eroding barrels.  No, we really don't work the rifles over too much.  Usually we start with a .300 win mag but the last one was a .30-378 Weatherby mag which we took out about a 1lb by fluting the barrel, backed off the headspacing 2/10,000ths, dropped in a Jewell trigger tuned to break at 6.4 ounces, added a VAIS muzzle brake so it was not so sassy, put a level on the scope to make sure everything is square and in plane on the set-up, all sitting on top of a carbon fiber McMillan stock molded to a 3D digitized scan of my right cheek and shoulder.  Then we start with book loads until we find something she likes.  Rifles, like women, are all different and you need to find out what makes them tick... what she likes.  I started with around 122 grains of SmokeMonkey 6438 since, as you probably know, 6437 had a reliability issue a few years back.  I loaded up 3 cases pushing a 150 grain Schitzzzingrueben boat tail zinc/copper/uranium alloy monolithic bullet sitting on top of 120 grains of 6438, three rounds with 122 grains and three rounds with 124.  The 120 load produced 9s (9/10ths of an inch group), the 122 produced 8s but the 124 produced 3s.  See what I'm saying.... you need to ask her what she likes.  I had to back off to 123.5 grains of 6438 since the primers started to complain a little bit.  Next, I neck sized BUT DID NOT length trim 20 cases and shot them all through the rifle 4 times with 123.5 grains.  These cases are matched to this rifle and will never be used in another weapon.  After that, it was simply a matter of calculating and verifying the trajectory profile in 25 yard increments out to 850 yards and tattooing it to the inside of my left arm for quick access.  Keep in mind.... these are hunting rifles so I'm pretty happy with it shooting 4s.

Please keep in mind, this is, for the most part, what I sorta followed.  This type of "drinking from a firehose" conversation went on for about an hour after which I had to lay down to fully absorb what a piece of junk with which I was currently hunting.

Over the next few days, I thought perhaps I should fill my rifles full of concrete, throw them in the river and take up knitting.  But then it hit me (I'm a bit slow).... You don't shoot competitively Larry.  Having a more accurate rifle will not make the deer or elk more dead.

While shooting at the range from a bench is fun from time to time, when push comes to shove, there are simply too many other variables which will make the rifle perform less than its theoretical potential.  (As stated previously, Hands-on Application ALWAYS wins over Theory)

Shot-ruining insects
A great example of this occurred on a hunt in Three Rivers, TX a few years back.  I was hunkered down in the world's worst makeshift ground blind constructed at lunch, sitting on a wobbly plastic ammo box on uneven ground with my rifle perched on an even more wobbly shooting stick I could NOT stick in the sun-hardened ground more than 1/8th".  The sun was baking my neck and fire ants had literally just started to bite my leg when a beautiful 10 pointer (aka Mongo) came out about 125 yards away.

Mongo, quite dead.
Shooting in these less than ideal "field" conditions with a nearly lethal slug of adrenaline coursing through my veins, I don't think it would matter how accurate the rifle was in my hands.  I aimed squarely at Mongo's shoulder and proceeded to hit him directly at the base of the neck several inches off where I was aiming.  Luckily, there are some really, really important anatomical features in this area and you know what, ..... he became quite dead after keeling over with his rack literally stuck in the ground, never to take another step.

So now, after thinking about this more and reading yet another excellent article by Chuck Hawks about "practical accuracy", I've decided to not worry too much about extreme accuracy.  As long as I have a good Minute-of-Larry (MOL) rifle in my hands, that is going to have to be good enough.

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