rifle on a stand

Let’s Get Zeroed: A Newbie’s Guide to Pro-Level Rifle Shooting

Want to Start Driving Tacks at the Gun Range? Well, it's Safer and Easier Than You May Think . . .

Take a few deep breaths and relax your muscles. Focus your eyes. Feel the carved wood on your cheek and cold steel in your hands. Release your breath halfway. Now gently pull your index finger back slowly . . . slowly . . . slowly . . .

KAPOW!

Wasn't that fun?

Now just imagine the buzz you'll get popping off a few clips with a real rifle at a real gun range.

Let's face it. Guns are controversial and they can be straight up scary if you don't know what you're doing. But they can also be safe, ridiculously fun, and super useful. How, might you ask, are guns useful for anyone other than cops and soldiers?

For one thing, shooting sports are awesome. Seriously, how cool are those dudes in the Olympics cruising on itty-bitty skis while lighting up metal targets in spandex jumpsuits? That's right. They're very, very cool. You know who else is cool right now?

Hunters. Believe it or not, hunting is having Renaissance. From onetime hippies to plaid-jackets hipsters, a new wave of hunters are learning how to shoot so they can ethically harvest meat of their own. But plinking targets and filling your freezer aren't the only benefit of rifle shooting . . .

Thinking about personal safety is a drag. We get it. Why would anyone want to think about nightmare scenarios when you could just kick it and eat Oreos? The reason is that it could save your life. Keeping a firearm for personal safety may not be for everyone, but a gun will stop a perp more effectively than some Double Stufs. At least most of the time.

For all their bad PR, firearms have tons of upsides. There's a reason they've hung around since the 14th Century and got a nod in the U.S. Constitution. But what if you're a total newbie who wants to learn safe rifle shooting? It can be scary (and dangerous!) to even touch a rifle without the right experience. Fortunately, you can do a lot of leg work before ever heading out to the range.

danger sign

Image via pngimg.com

Homework That Doesn't Suck

So you're ready to jump in and learn a thing or two about rifle shooting. There's more to study up on than you might think. But trust us, these topics are way more fun than trigonometry:

Intro to Rifle Shooting 101: The Absolute Basics

  • Firearms Safety: The VERY Most Important Thing
  • The DNA of a Rifle
  • Learn the Laws, Don't Fight `Em
  • The Many Types of Rifles
  • Choosing the Right Gun

Intro to Rifle Shooting 201: Takin' Baby Steps

  • All About Optics
  • Getting Loaded (Not Like That . . .)
  • Physically Taking a Shot
  • How To Actually Hit the Target This Time
  • Sniping Like a Sniper


First Off, Don't Get Dead.

If you're interested in rifle shooting you're probably also interested in life. And by that we mean preserving your own life and the lives of those around you. If this is the case then you ABSOLUTELY MUST go all in on firearms safety before you do anything else. Rifle shooting is a fun, rewarding sport, but people (including you) can die if you cut corners. Take these safety rules to heart, `cause they ain't no joke!

Ahh Yes, Sensei . . 


Wax on, wax off . . .

As far as we know it's not possible to learn rifle shooting by osmosis. You can get the gist of things on YouTube, but that can't replace real-world practice. One of the best possible ways to learn gun safety is by enlisting a mentor. Most hunters and sport shooters learned from a mentor of their own at some point and many are willing to pay it forward for a new sniper-to-be.

Don't Point That Thing at Me!

Some rules of firearms safety are obvious. Muzzle control is one of those rules. Practicing good muzzle control means that you never (EVER) allow the muzzle of your gun to point towards yourself or another human being. Not when your gun is loaded, not when you gun is unloaded . . . really . . . not ever.

While maintaining proper muzzle control seems stupidly obvious, you'd be shocked how many people screw this up. It's easy to get overconfident once you've been rifle shooting for a while and found a groove with gun safety. Just remember it only takes a nanosecond of carelessness for that muzzle to end up pointed somewhere dangerous.

Un-Lock and Un-Load

It's pretty hard to accidentally shoot someone with an unloaded gun. That's why it's important to keep your rifle completely unloaded until you're ready to shoot. Never bring a loaded firearm into a home or a vehicle and store your gun and ammo in separate locked cases. This is one of those common sense rules that should be easy to follow, but it's not the only one . . .

Use Your D*mn Head!

The A-number one best way to stay safe while rifle shooting is to simply use your head. Common sense is absolutely critical when handling guns and there's no replacement for good judgement.

DO

  • Compulsively check that your gun is on "safe" until you're ready to shoot
  • Double down on muzzle control when loading and unloading
  • Keep your gun's action open when it's unloaded

don't

  • Lean a loaded rifle against a car or building
  • Mix rifle shooting with drugs, alcohol, or exhaustion
  • Shoot with people who practice substandard gun safety

There are some times in life (like punk rock and professional cycling) when breaking the rules is kinda cool. Rifle shooting is not one of those times. Lock up your gun safety habits and you'll get WAY more cred.

This Is Not `Nam Smokey, There Are Rules . . .

So we know that rifle shooting can be super fun. You know what's not super fun? Getting arrested. While it's critical that you build A+ gun safety skills, you'll also need to get familiar with the local and federal laws governing rifle use and ownership in your area.

Gun Laws Are WAY Serious. Who Knew?

Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that guns are a touchy subject in the U.S. Think we're kidding? Take a look at some gun laws across the country. Strict states like New York and California have minimum sentences that include jail time. Less strict states like Texas and Alaska can hit you with massive fines. Learn the rules in your state, but don't stop there.

Rules of the Road

If you're planning to take a road trip that involves rifle shooting, err on the side of caution and borrow a gun from a friend when you get there. If it's imperative that you bring your own, then carefully research the gun laws in each state on your itinerary. There may be special regulations about how and when you can travel through a state with your rifle. Don't fight the law. The law will win (again).

The Literal Nuts and Bolts

Safety is king when it comes to rifle shooting. But you'll probably want to know how a gun works too. Let's take a look at a few key components of a rifle:

Rife-What?

The name "rifle" refers to a gun's long barrel. The inside of the barrel has twists called "rifling" like the threads on a screw. The rifling forces a bullet to spin as it travels through the barrel increasing stability and velocity.

inside the Canon rayé première

Image by Med via Wiki Commons

Stock Up, Baby

The stock on a rifle is the area that comes into contact with a shooter's body. The section where the non-trigger hand rest is called the forestock and the area touching the shoulder and cheek is called the buttstock. Yep, we said butt.

Get Into the Action

The action on a rifle is the area where the bullet is loaded and fired and the spent shell casing is ejected. There are several different types of rifle actions. Keep reading to learn more.

SO MANY SHOOTIN' IRONS, SO LITTLE TIME . . .

If you plan to start rifle shooting you should know what kinds of rifles are out there. Let's have a gander:

Bolt Action

Image by Well

Bolt Action - These World War I era guns push a bullet into the firing chamber manually with a handle directly behind barrel.

Lever Action

Image by Marlin Firearms via Buds Gun Shop

Lever Action - Most often associated with cowboys in the West, lever action rifles cycle bullets with a handle below the action.

Break action gun

Image by CVA via Cheaper Than Dirt

Break Action - Break action guns open at a hinge point allowing the shooter to drop bullets in by hand.

pump action rifle

Image by Core15 via Cheaper Than Dirt

Pump Action - Pump action rifles push and pull bullets into the action with a level that doubles as the forestock.

semi automatic rifle

Image by Sturm, Ruger, and Co. via Buds Gun Shop

Semi-Automatic - Semi-automatic rifle cycle one round at a time into and out of the action the action.

automatic rifle

Image via ​YWD​​​

Automatic - You guessed it. Full automatic rifles cycle multiple rounds through the action by simply pulling the trigger.

Nerd Out and Find Your (Lethal) Soul Mate

We're guessing the one thing you desperately need in your life is an excuse to burn countless hours scrolling the Internet. Well HIGH FIVE. That's exactly what you'll want to do before picking out the right gun for your first rifle shooting adventure. No, you can't learn how to shoot safely on the Internet alone. But you can benefit from a whole world of experienced shooters who have shared their wisdom about what you'll want to look for in a gun.

Set New Life Goals. At Least for When Rifle Shooting.

The first thing you'll need to decide is what you want to shoot at. Are you planning to eventually hunt? Well, what's the biggest game you'll pursue? Maybe range shooting is more your bag. Are long range competitions in your future or are you happy to just plink some targets. All of these questions should inform your choice.

soldier carrying a rifle on his shoulder

Image via pexels.com

Don't Be a Hero

One of the biggest mistakes many new hunters make is choosing a gun that's too powerful for them. Trust us on this one. Start with the smallest gun that will meet your needs and step up from there. Nobody will be impressed with your bazooka if you can't hold onto it. But there are a bazillion options out there, what's the best brand?

Holler at Your Boys

Reach out to your friends, family, and social media network to help pick through the many brand and model options. Rifle shooters tend to be brand loyalists, so don't take their recommendations on blind faith. Each brand has its own signatures, so keep shopping around until you find one that feels like "your gun." Next, you'll need to put something on it . . .

Kiss My Glass: A Primer on Optics

Finding the perfect rifle is great, but it's not worth much if you can hit anything. This, my friend, is why scopes were invented. Hunters and sport shooters use many different kinds of optics to make sure their projectiles stay on course. Let's learn more:

Gun Mounted Optics:

open irons peep site

Photo by Rab Cummings via Outdoor Life

Open Irons (peep sites) - Non-illuminated, no magnification power

red dot crosshair site

Image by CSSSFIRE via Gun News Daily

Red Dots - Illuminated bead or crosshair over the target, no magnification power

fixed magnification scope

Image via Adobe Stock

Fixed Magnification Scopes - Magnifies target at one constant power that can't be changed

variable magnification scope

Image via Pixabay

Variable Magnification Scopes - Shooter can zoom in and out for 1x to 10x magnification

Non-Gun Mounted:

Binoculars - We all know `em and love `em

man holding a binocular

Image via Pixabay

Monoculars - Less focus than binos, easier to pack and carry

monocular key chain

Image by Scoo via Wiki Commons

Spotting Scopes - Extreme zoom, over a mile or more, very large and heavy to carry

standing spotting scope

Image by Phil Plait via Flickr

Range Finder - Provides digital reading of distance to target

soldier holding a range finder

Image by Tom Ouellette via CJTF-HOA

Ammo Makes the World Go `Round

Getting to know your gun is only half the battle when you're starting out rifle shooting. Here's a shocker: You won't be able to shoot without any ammunition in your gun! Choosing a bullet in the right caliber can be the difference between feeling like a sniper and leaving the range with a sore shoulder. But, um, what's a caliber?


gun ammunition

Image via pexels.com

Seriously, What's the Deal with Calibers Anyway?

When it comes to rifle shooting, caliber refers to the internal diameter of a rifle barrel. At the risk of sounding obvious again, you MUST put the right size bullet in your gun or things will end poorly. Think exploded gun barrels . . . Not good. But what's the right caliber for you? And what's with all the confusing decimal points? Let's dig in.

SO MANY SHOOTIN' IRONS, SO LITTLE TIME . . .

If you plan to start rifle shooting you should know what kinds of rifles are out there. Let's have a gander:


Small Caliber Rounds - These are ideal for plunking cans, target practice, and small game hunting

  • 17 HMR
  • .22 L-R
  • .22 Magnum

Mid-Caliber Rounds - These are your all-around classics for the range, small game, and big game hunting

  • .270
  • .30-.30
  • .30-06
  • .308

Large Calibers Rounds - These rounds will pack a lot of power (and kick!). Save these for your moose, elk, and bear hunts.

  • .300
  • .338
  • .30-06
  • .357 H&H

OK, Let's Send It!

Alright, enough of this book learnin'. It's time to get out on the range and make stuff go boom. Right? Right?!

Wait, But First . . .

It's critical that you double check all your safety precautions in those final few moments before your start lobbing lead. Have you looked over your gun to make sure it's in working order and loaded properly? Do you have eye and ear protection? Is the range safe and clear of all people and obstructions? Sweeeeeet. Let's set up a shot.

CHECKLIST

  • Safety glasses
  • Earplugs
  • A target

Get Yourself Comfy


Finding a stable resting position, or set, is one key to a successful shot at the rifle range. Make sure you're in a comfortable position and your gun is stable on a sandbag, pad, or firing bench. Even slight shakes and jitters in your body and send a round wildly off course. And we mean slight . . .

Mind Over Matter

Even the movement of your breath and heartbeat can cause a bad shot. Take your time and relax to help lower your heart rate. Breath slowly and deeply. Take one large breath and release half the air from your lungs. Now hold your breath to eliminate motion in your chest before the big moment.

soldier on a machine gun

Image via pexels.com


SURPRISE!

Release the safety mechanism on your gun and focus your eyes on the target. Draw back the trigger so slowly that you feel the slack tighten up from the trigger. Don't pull hard, jerk, or slap the trigger. Your trigger pull should be so smooth that it surprises you when the round fires. How'd you do?

OK, Fun's Over. (JK!)

Dude! Not bad for your first time out!

Your first few shots will definitely be exciting, but don't space out. Immediately eject the spent shell casing, reengage your safety, and ensure proper muzzle discipline. Now let's grab those binos and see if you actually hit anything.

Now Tighten Up Those Groups, Bro.

You did everything right. You followed all the safety protocols. You're shooting a quality gun with solid optics. You even made a silky smooth trigger pull. So why was your shot four inches down and to the left of the bullseye?

close up view of a man holding a rifle

Image via pexels.com

Back to School, Back to School

If your technique is sound and you're still spraying the target then you probably need to zero in your gun.

You need to what now?

The zero point is the point at which the crosshairs on your scope and the muzzle of your rifle barrel hit the same thing. This means that when you put your scope on a target the bullet goes where you actually tell it to go. To find your zero point, start but refer back to your scope's instruction manual.

swat member on his rifle

Image via pexels.com

Baby Steps...

Every scope is a little bit different, so seriously, read the directions. Open the turrets on the top and sides of the scope and determine which controls lateral deviation (know as windage) and which controls vertical deviation (elevation). Make incremental adjustments to each turret between shots. Your shots should not only get closer to the bullseye but also get closer together.

Once you're hitting consistent bullseyes (or close to it) you're zeroed in and ready to take your game to the next level.

HOW TO SNIPE LIKE A BADASS

Let's say you've been clocking some solid hours at the range. You're making good progress, but can't help noticing that steely-eyed regular at the end of the range who is always smoking tiny groups at 500 yards. Seriously, how does he do that? What are the traits the separate elite shooters from everyone else?

Common Traits of Badass Shooters

  • They have elite quality guns, optics, and ammo.
  • They work very hard on breath control, heart rate, and smooth trigger pulls.
  • They intentionally add uncomfortable shooting conditions like bad weather into their practice routine.
  • The shoot more rounds and more days in a year than most people.


The Proof Is on the Target

We've got bad news and good news. The bad news is that you can't become an elite shoot over night. The good news is that you really can do it with practice. Really! Keep a healthy respect for gun safety, take the time to learn your rifle inside and out, put in your time at the range, and we promise you'll see the results on your targets.

If You Remember Nothing Else . . .

There's a lot to remember about rifle shooting, but don't get overwhelmed. If you only take three things from this article it should be the following:


You Can't Shoot When You're Dead (or in Jail)

Firearms safety is always the first priority. No ifs, and, or buts. Period. Full stop.

DO. NOT. BE. A. HERO.

You will have more fun if you're not intimidated by your gun. Pick a style, model, and caliber that feels fun to shoot, even if it's just a .22 or other small caliber.

Sniping Is a Journey, Enjoy the Ride.

It's normal to have bad days at the shooting range. Don't get frustrated if you're all over the target. Tomorrow's another day.

Now Get Out There and Get Loud

Enough talk, let's get out there and shoot! Rifles are tools to be respected, but they don't need to be feared. So find yourself a mentor, do your homework, and get poppin' at the range. With a little bit of experience and a lot of diligence, rifle shooting is a sport that can provide a lifetime of fun and confidence.

Logan

Logan

I'm an avid hunter and I've been doing it for over 25 years. I mainly hunt in Northern Minnesota and Arkansas during the summer. Thanks for reading my blog! I hope you enjoy my Hunting Gear Reviews, guides and blog posts!

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