This past weekend while visiting close friends in the Appalachian Redoubt, I had a real treat by being unexpectedly asked to attend a Basic Marksmanship course as a ‘guest instructor’ (Range Safety Officer/Coach) by one of the primary instructors. Every shooter participating was new or somewhat new (consciously skilled) to the platform, which were primarily AR series ranging from the most basic to complete ‘bells and whistles’ models. The home cadre did a great job teaching the class the ins and outs of basic nomenclature, the cycle of operation, malfunction drills, admin, tactical, and combat reloads, and so forth. What became very apparent was that many in the class weren’t familiar with the zeroing process to include iron sight and optics windage and elevation adjustments, as well as the math to compensate for condensed ranges (1 click at 100 equals 4 clicks at 25), so folks with 1/2 MOA at 100 wheel clicks on their chosen optics had a difficult time figuring out how many clicks that would equal at 25 to move the strike of the bullet 1 inch. Some were firing their AR’s for the first time. Most of the AR’s were run dry; a few of the more experienced had lubed their pieces, and it showed by lack of malfunctions.
As is the case many times, the new shooters and a few of the not-so-new shooters had a hard time zeroing their rifles; following the steps below before going to a rifle drill class will help make it much more enjoyable, and will get shooters in the habit of having their rifles zeroed at all times, against no-notice, ‘failures of civility’ as there won’t be time to zero then! For NPT members using a military pattern platform (AR, FAL, M14 type, Garand, AK etc), the ‘general purpose’ zero, or ‘battle sight zero’, is defined as having the round impact on a torso sized target (20 inches X 20 inches) from the muzzle to the farthest point away from the muzzle that the bullet flight path crosses the line of sight and still effectively hits the target without adjusting the sight. This is the definition of ‘point blank’ range. Typically, that distance is about 250 to 300 meters with either the 5.56 or 7.62 NATO cartridges when shot at either 25 or 36 meters. Other calibers mileage will vary.
While sub-MOA (Minute of Angle) accuracy is great, you’re not shooting a precision instrument, especially if it’s “off the rack” (accuracy is important, yes, but for this subject, we are focused on practical accuracy). So forget precision shooting for now. The idea is to get your rounds on target hitting vital zones as far away as possible without further sight adjustment. Your groups will tighten with your dry and wet fire practice, especially of you perform dry fire 3 or more times a week for 10 minutes religiously and learn to use your sling. Taking the time to navigate the ‘zeroing process’ will really help the new and not-so-new shooter to learn their rifle and it’s inherent accuracy (see above) potential, strengths, and weaknesses. Know that it will take a bit of effort, and more than 15 minutes, so don’t plan on zeroing your rifle the morning of a NPT qualification shoot. All you’ll end up doing is annoying everyone else who’s done their homework prior to training. An aside: When holding a NPT qualification check (match), the participants must shoot their rifles without benefit of ‘zero confirmation’. Here’s a sure way to make sure you can zero your rifle so you start hitting where you want to hit in your training:
Step 1: Detail disassembly, cleaning, lubricating, reassembly, and function checking (especially with a new rifle, even if it’s just ‘new to you’). Take your time. If it’s a new rifle, get a manual or have someone who knows how to take it apart come over and teach you. Make sure you oil (thick or thin liquid) and lubricate it per specs (lube is typically grease or a semi-paste). In the AR’s case, this includes the buffer spring and buffer tube. Get the best you can afford. We prefer Gunzilla or an extremely light coat of Frog Lube, but there are other really good ones out there, too.
Step 2: Check the sights. Make sure they’re mounted solidly with no ‘play’ in them. Set to mechanical zero. On iron, this entails running the windage adjustment all the way to right or left, counting the clicks all the way across, dividing by two, and bringing it back half way. Same with elevation. New optics generally are already at mechanical zero, but used ones may need to be reset. Take care with these, as over tightening the wheels can cause damage.
Step 3: Make sure your zero ammo is the same you would carry if SHTF. Different manufacturers and different bullet weights will make your job harder. If your SHTF ammo is 55gr Lake City ball, zero with that. If it’s 147gr South African ball (7.62NATO), use that. Later, after your rifle is zeroed, is the time to mix all the ammo types you have together randomly and see how your rifle shoots when it’s fed whatever you can find.
Step 4: Known Distance Range Familiarization Fire (AKA ‘getting it dialed in on paper’). This is the only time I recommend bench shooting for actual training. Set the piece on either sandbags or a rest. Start close. 10 meters is fine. Make sure you’re hitting approximately where you think you should be. Use a smaller target, say 2 inches square, especially if you’re shooting irons. Shoot 3 shots, making sure you do a complete cycle each round.
- Breathing Cycle – Deep, regular breathing, two in, two out, stop midway through the third.
- Aiming – Get the sight on target and start to adjust your sight alignment and sight picture.
- Sight Alignment – Top to bottom/side to side (irons); No side or top ‘shadow’ in optical picture.
- Site Picture – Sight aligned on aiming point on target (some folks use different aiming points, but the principle is the same). Focus is on the front sight or the reticle, NOT the target.
- Take Up – On a two stage military trigger, this is called, ‘taking up the slack’ and it will not discharge the piece. Make sure you know whether or not you have a two stage or single stage. Single stage triggers skip this step, because you’ll inadvertently discharge the piece.
- Trigger Depression – Ball of the finger, straight to the rear, space between the rest of the finger and the pistol grip (otherwise, you’ll ‘drag wood/plastic’ and cause your round to hit in other areas than you desire).
- Follow Through – Ride the recoil all the way until the rifle settles back into the rest or sandbag. Don’t take your face away just yet.
- Target Reacquisition – Get eyes on the target again.
Repeat for two more rounds before you look at the target. Check the target, and if you’re on paper near the 2 inch target, you’re on your way. If not, adjust your sights using whatever increments multiplied by 10 (at 10 meters). If you have to move the sights 3 inches up, that’s 30 clicks for a 1 inch at 100 elevation adjustment. If you have to move the sights 2 inches left, that’s 20 clicks for a 1 inch. Your adjustment at 10 meters, though, will most likely be minimal.
You may have a group on the target that’s low, high, left or right. That’s ok. You’re on the paper. Now move the target to 25 meters and repeat the cycle. Now you can start adjusting your iron sights or optics realistically. Remember, 3 shot groups is all you really need with semi-automatic piece for basic zero. Remember to let the rifle cool every once in awhile, because you’re also checking it’s inherent accuracy (all things being equal, the shooter, the rifle, and the ammo, how tight it shoots and the shape of the group) looking for that tell-tale triangular group indicating a consistent cone of fire.
Step 5: Achieve Battle Sight Zero. Once you’ve put three 3 shot groups center at 25 from the bench, it’s time to move off the bench and get your practical zero. Set up a clean target, go back to your firing line, and take up a prone position. Support yourself with a ‘hasty’ sling wrap. Sandbags or whatever you have is fine for this particular exercise (as a second choice).
Shoot another 3 shot group without looking at where you’re hitting, following the basic steps above. After the group is shot and you’ve cleared and grounded your piece, now go check your group and determine any sight adjustments necessary. Fire two or three more groups to confirm.
Step 6: Practice at ranges out to your ‘point blank range’ with a 20×20 inch target. Note the different points of impact at different ranges. You’ll still be on target, but will most likely note that at about half distance to max battle zero, your rounds will impact high. This is simply because the round is at the highest point in the trajectory necessary to hit the target at the max point blank range.
Step 7: Do your dry fire. Make sure you do it painstakingly correct. It’ll make a difference come ‘Basic’ or ‘NPT Qualification day.