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Realistic Expectations

By Matthew Cameron

The new rifle owner looked with disbelief at the holes in the target – a three-shot group larger than three inches! There had to be a major problem. His new rifle was chosen with care, as were the rest of the components, it was supposed to be accurate right out of the box.


If he was shooting factory ammunition it was time to change to another brand or projectile type. In simple terms the rifle could not achieve its true level of accuracy with that particular cartridge or projectile combination. If on the other hand he was shooting handloads and this load was the lowest in charge weight, the results on paper might not be unusual. He would probably notice that the next highest charge weight actually produced a smaller group. This is normal. Often the subsequent groups will continue to reduce in size, then start to open up again. It is also possible that the maximum load will produce the best groups.


Many riflemen have unrealistic expectations about the capabilities of both their rifles and their own ability to produce the expected accuracy, both during load development and in the field, which incidentally are two vastly different scenarios. The situation is further complicated if the shooter has loaded his own ammunition.


What level of accuracy can you expect from a modern rifle? If we break the question down we need to consider the condition of the rifle, the care taken to produce the ammunition, and the ability of the triggerman. How we shoot groups has a huge bearing on the outcome.


Modern rifles are capable of much better accuracy than previously due to the computer controlled machinery that produces them. The loose tolerances of the past have long disappeared, and modern standards are repeatable. Today’s precise metalwork was once the domain of the custom gunsmith, and came with a price to match.


Even so it will be claimed that brand “X” typically produces better accuracy than brand ”Y”. However these days it is unusual for any factory rifle not to produce acceptable accuracy within the capabilities of the average rifleman.


“...often the accuracy requirements for a hunting rifle are overstated when you consider the size of the vital zone on a game animal and the distance you’ll likely be shooting at.”


At the bottom of the range are the entry level rifles built to a price and often combined with a scope as a package, usually for less than a $1000 total. Within our family we have had three from different makers, a 7mm-08, a 7mm Rem Mag, and a .25-06 Remington. Fed with good handloaded ammunition all three were capable of three-shot groups of less than 1.25 inches consistently, and usually below one inch.


In my opinion this is very good from such low-priced rifles. For use on goats and deer their accuracy is more than acceptable. The .25-06 used factory ammo initially, and only the 7mm Rem Mag used a premium projectile (Nosler Accubond).


Changing to a better projectile may improve your cartridge’s performance - weights and shapes can make a big difference.


The next step up the ladder are rifles costing over $1000. With these, MOA performance with handloaded ammunition is almost guaranteed in my experience. I can’t speak with authority re factory cartridges as I almost always handload. However my shooting mates who use factory cartridges are not complaining – in the local gun shops there’s a much wider range of projectiles available including premium types in many calibres.


Further up the price ladder we are getting into specialist rifles for target and benchrest shooting. A good competitive rifle for either could have a price tag of $4000 or more depending on individual requirements. The same could apply to a custom varmint rifle usually built to benchrest standards. Many custom makers in the U.S.A. will guarantee 0.25 MOA accuracy with premium handloaded ammunition. No matter what your budget is, today it is possible to purchase a rifle that is sufficiently accurate for most applications straight out of the box.


This is the kind of accuracy you’re looking for. Most modern rifles are capable of shooting this well, or at least close to it.


Aside from the rifles, handloading can affect the accuracy you want for a particular application. The first requirement is to decide what the rifle will be used for. Target shooting aside, often the accuracy requirements for a hunting rifle are overstated when you consider the size of the vital zone on a game animal and the distance you’ll likely be shooting at.
One of my sons shoots a lever-action 1995 Marlin in .45/70 for bush work. Its normal load is a modest charge of ADI AR 2207, standard primer and a 300 grain flat-nosed hollow-point Sierra projectile.


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It will never win any speed contests and its accuracy is somewhere in the region of 1.5 inches for a three shot group at 100 yards, but for its intended use it is more than adequate, particularly when you consider that most shots are at short ranges. Why spend time, effort and cash trying to reduce the group sizes on a rig like this ?


When we get into longer range hunting and varmint rifles however there is a division in relation to handloading in terms of effort and requirements.


For hunting goats, tahr, chamois and deer with cartridges up to about .30-06 size, case preparation requirements are minimal. Also premium projectiles can be used to increase the capabilities of a particular cartridge that might otherwise be considered marginal. The same applies to heavier hunting cartridges intended for an African hunt, but in these calibres premium projectiles are an absolute must. All our smaller hunting cartridges will shoot MOA or better, and some of the heavies do also.


It would be unrealistic to chase sub-MOA accuracy in the lever-action rifles the .45/70 cartridge was designed for. For hunting larger animals at close range in bush or scrub the rifles and cartridges are perfectly acceptable just as they are.


For our family’s varmint rifles we spend time preparing cartridge cases to benchrest standards to achieve the best possible long range results. Cases and projectiles are both weighed and measured for consistency. Everything is done to ensure the best possible accuracy. The old statement that a particular rifle has more accuracy than you can use is not applicable when it comes to varmint shooting.


The other issue with hunting and long range varmint rifles is the size of the scope sight, another minefield for the gun writer! I suggest that for general hunting a 3-9x variable covers the most ground. In bush or scrub a maximum power of 6x (either fixed or variable) is all you need. When ranges are shorter what you want is quick target acquisition.


If your first group with a new rifle look like this, don’t despair. Experimenting with different brands of ammunition and/or handloads will almost certainly produce better results.


Our family has scopes varying in price from $100 to well over $1000. Some of the cheaper models are surprisingly good and have lasted more than thirty years without problems. However, be aware that there are counterfeit scopes available overseas, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is! Buy from a reputable dealer, take a good look through the scope (outside as well as inside the shop) before you buy, and ask your mates what they are using and more importantly, why?


For long range and/or target work high magnification is a requirement, normally 36x power was used for 100 and 200 yard benchrest, but with much longer 600/1000 yard competitions now being held I have read of sights up to 60x. Not sure how these would perform in the heat haze of the summer months?


For the long range hunter a good rangefinder is now considered a must. Once you know the speed of your projectile over the chronograph and its BC it is not difficult to construct an accurate ballistic chart, a necessary requirement if you are to be successful.



To discover the real accuracy of a particular combination of rifle and cartridge it is necessary to shoot with a degree of confidence. The best, most stable rests are the concrete benches available at some ranges. Coupled with sandbags fore and aft, they provide the most stable platform.


If both front and rear sandbags are not available the next best is a bipod, just ensure that the bipod is tight on the stock. Years ago we made a portable bench which is an absolute requirement if you are going to do a lot of testing. It always accompanies us on shooting trips and sees a lot of use on the camp gun range, very useful for long range varminting also.


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A heavy-barrelled varmint rifle like this Remington M700 is expected to perform.


The speed of shooting will have a bearing on the results. Normally I fire a single fouling shot followed by three shots at a comfortable pace and then allow the barrel to cool before the next three. While this is normal practice, for cartridges bigger than .30-06 we take 10 minutes between the series of shots.


The main reason is barrel heating – cartridges with a high powder capacity coupled with a rifle fitted with a slim barrel will skew the results very quickly. We’ve found that slowing down the rate of shooting allows us to find the true potential of the particular load. You should not allow the ammunition to heat up on a hot day either, so keep it out of the sun.



It is also necessary to have a consistent barrel cleaning regime when you’re developing a load. Once again it depends on individual barrels, some foul much more quickly than others. There is some debate as to whether any barrel needs to be surgically clean.


The other issue is the triggerman – you have to be honest and admit shots that were less than perfect. All “pulled” shots need to be logged. For newer shooters, perhaps with their first centrefire rifle, remember that it takes time to get used to a new rig. There are many related factors that affect group size, you have to be aware of them all and try to be as consistent as possible.


You need consistency in shooting technique to achieve the best results, eg; are you holding the rifle exactly the same way for each shot? Are you placing the rifle on the bags in exactly the same position each time? Such factors will reflect on the results. This brings up the issue of keeping records – it is vital that all loads be recorded, for two reasons. First it will show a trend or otherwise in relation to a particular powder and/or projectile, secondly it prevents unnecessary repetition at a later date.


Some shooters store their records in a lap-top at the range; I use a simple school exercise book and transfer the data to my home computer later. When loading any cartridge do not rely on memory, eliminate any mistakes and prevent them before they occur. Keep a permanent record of what works and what fails – you will find it invaluable.


“You need consistency in shooting technique to achieve the best results, eg; are you holding the rifle exactly the same way for each shot? Are you placing the rifle on the bags in exactly the same position each time?”


Further mistakes can occur when you’re attempting to analyse the groups on the target. As an example, I recall shooting a group measuring 1.75 inches for three shots, with velocities of 2944, 2858 and 2953fps. One shot enlarged the group, despite great care in the reloading process. The same load was reshot on another day and produced a group of just over an inch without errant velocities. This is typical of what can occur, the lesson is clear – when in doubt reshoot the load.


Finally you should consider the type of target; I prefer a target with one inch squares and a small central aiming dot, one inch in diameter is ideal. This allows quick analysis when I’m attempting to centralize a load to any position on the paper. We carry paper targets with us on shooting trips to allow us to check just where a particular rifle is shooting, sights can get knocked sometimes and require recalibrating in the field.


Shoot Safely,




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