Mike Morton shows you how to set up both your kit and yourself for the ultimate in airgun accuracy
You’re in position. You’re relaxed and ready to take the shot. The target’s clearly visible and in focus. With your breathing under control you slip off the safety catch and gently apply pressure to the trigger. You fire, sending the pellet on its way. It looks to be the perfect shot, but you miss – it’s a flyer!
What’s worse than having a flyer? Not understanding why the shot’s gone awry for one. We’ve all taken shots like these, and the reason is down to one of three things: shooting technique, rifle/ammunition set-up or environmental factors such as wind. But don’t worry; in the first of a series of articles about developing an accurate rifle, we’re here to help turn things around and make those pellets fly true.
The accuracy quest
What is accuracy? It’s the ability to send a projectile, in this case a pellet, to a specific point, be it a 10-bull on a paper target, a knockdown plate in an HFT contest or a rabbit’s brain in the hunting field. However, it’s not enough to do it just once because that could be put down to luck.
True accuracy is placing a pellet exactly where you want with reliable, consistent and repeatable results. I liken shooting to golf when explaining it to non-shooting friends. Both sports are about precise shot placement. Airgun shooting is just golf with attitude.
Trigger set-up. Scope mounting. Ammo selection. These are just three ingredients of the accurate rifle that need to be looked at in detail. But to get you started – or at least get you thinking – here are a few useful tips to help minimise those flyers and maximise those grins!
Happiness is a clean gun
If you want to get the best out of your kit then you really need to spend time maintaining and looking after it. In the case of a rifle let’s take a close look at barrel cleaning and your general rifle cleanliness.
Do airgun barrels need cleaning? Some people will argue no, but all barrels will need to be cleaned at some stage or else accuracy will drop off – that’s a fact. If you have a new rifle then you should clean the barrel even before you fire the first shot because the manufacturer may have coated the bore with oil or grease for storage purposes. A totally clean barrel does actually need a few shots down it before it reaches optimum performance, but if you keep shooting without cleaning, eventually those groups will start to open up. Accuracy will suffer.
Take the time to clean your gun every time you use it. Use a clean toothbrush to remove any crud that might otherwise be interfering with the correct operation of your gun. Is there any grit in the trigger? How about the safety catch? What about the breech? Removing dirt, dust, grit and grime isn’t just about aesthetics, it really will keep your rifle in good working order. It’s also a chance for you to take a thorough look at your gun, giving it a visual MoT as you do so. Is that a split O-ring? Is a crack developing in the woodwork?
If you have a rifle with a blued barrel, make sure you wipe off any fingerprints as soon as you can, otherwise that bluing may turn rusty. And whether or not it’s blued, if your gun’s been out in the rain wipe it down with extra care. If you have a shrouded barrel consider removing the shroud and check for any rainwater underneath. Remove the stock and see if there’s any water there as well. Store your freshly cleaned and dried rifle carefully, preferably in a warm, dry and safe place.
Adjust your trigger
When you take a shot that pellet should fly down the barrel when you want it to. That might sound obvious, but how many times have you seen a look of surprise appear on a fellow shooter’s face after the rifle went off when they weren’t expecting it? This may well have been because the trigger was too heavy or too light. A heavy trigger will have you squeezing harder and harder, with muscles quivering and muzzle wobbling, until that pellet finally gets sent on its way. This is going to hurt accuracy. Airguns, of whatever calibre, are all about the art of finesse, not brute force.
Similarly, you do not want a trigger that goes off when you merely place the pad of your finger on the blade – that’s just dangerous. You need to find a happy medium that’s right for you. Thankfully, most manufacturers know this, and out-of-the-box trigger weights are pretty good these days. If you do need to adjust your trigger please make sure you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t then take it to your local gun shop or club so it can be adjusted safely.
Make sure your trigger passes the smack test after it’s been adjusted, regardless of who did the work. Cock the rifle, aim it in a safe direction and whack the butt with your hand. Try this with the safety catch on and off. If the gun goes off the trigger has been set far too light. You should do this test without a pellet in the breech if you’re using a PCP; however, you risk damaging your rifle if you dry-fire a springer so double-check the area is safe and load a pellet for the test. If the rifle passes the smack test no shot will be fired; but if it fails that pellet will be released. You must ensure you have a safe backstop for either eventuality. This is actually a good test to get into the habit of doing on a regular basis, regardless of whether you have recently adjusted your trigger.
Ensure the scope on your rifle has been set up for you, not for someone else. This happens more often than people think. Did you get someone to do it for you who carried out the work themselves before simply handing it back to you? Did you buy a rifle/scope combo that had already been set up by the shop or manufacturer? Setting up a scope for you means both eye relief and the fast-focus ring have been adjusted to suit your own eyesight, not someone else’s.
Clean the outside of the scope tube and rings before installation to ensure they are free of grease, oil or anything else that could cause the scope to either twist or move backwards/forwards with use. And make sure the reticule is perpendicular to the action. Consider using a spirit level to set up the scope. Also consider mounting a level to your rifle to use as a shooting aid and conquer cant, although you should be aware that this is not allowed in some target disciplines.
Use a torque wrench to correctly tighten your mounts to the rifle and the top rings to the lowers, following the manufacturer’s torque recommendations. Under-tightening the scope mounts could lead to the scope shifting while over-tightening could damage the scope. By tightening the ring screws in an X-pattern you will ensure an even spread of tension across the scope tube.
Scope covers are a great idea to prevent your lenses from accumulating dust and dirt as well as protecting them from the rain. Most scope lenses that end up getting scratched are usually damaged by over-zealous cleaning. So keeping them grit-free in the first place, and therefore reducing the need to clean the lenses, will minimise the chance of any damage. Just don’t ask me how I know!
Be a hero – Properly zero
I use a laser bore-sighter on my rimfire and centrefire rifles, where a single cartridge can cost £1 or more, but pellets are cheap in comparison and so my air rifles aren’t treated to this luxury. If you want to use one, then great – but it’s ultimately quicker and easier just to get out with your airgun and shoot at a paper target.
When you zero your rifle try to shoot it from as stable a platform as possible. You can use a bipod, shooting bags or a shooting rest if it’s a PCP. If you are able to shoot at an indoor range, away from the wind, then so much the better. If not, try to choose a still day. Remember: at this stage all you are trying to do is set your zero, not test your marksmanship skills or ability to call the wind. That comes later.
It’s a good idea, wherever possible, to do a rough zero at a fairly short range, say about 10 yards, where you can easily see where your initial shots are falling. Once you’re in the ballpark you can fine-tune your scope adjustments at your chosen zeroing distance, which will depend on the type of shooting you plan to do. My typical hunting and garden plinking zero is 30 yards, for example, but yours could be very different.
Fire a five-shot group and find the centre of that group before making any elevation or windage adjustments. If you adjust your scope after each individual shot you could find yourself chasing the bull all day. Instead, find the group average and make adjustments based on that.
By this time you should be getting some fairly consistent groups, but you may not be getting the super-accurate results you crave. This is perfectly normal. Even a totally supported rifle shot in perfect, windless conditions may not group well if it is using sub-optimal ammunition or its power is somewhat inconsistent. So don’t get disenchanted because that’s what we’ll turn our attentions to next.
Power to the people
It doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting a rifle held on a Firearm Certificate that’s running at 30ft lb or a regular legal-limit rifle that’s operating at 11ft lb, the key to using this available power is consistency – and you will need to shoot your rifle over a chronoscope to determine exactly how consistent it is. The information gleaned here will tell you the muzzle velocity of your preferred ammo and (as long as you know the pellet’s weight) will also tell you the power output of the rifle. Don’t forget that if you change pellets your results will also change, so you’ll need to chronoscope your rifle again.
Many people I know are happy to take 10 sample shots over a chrono, but I prefer to shoot at least double that to give a more representative spread. And if I’m trying to plot a power curve on a PCP, it could be around 100 shots or more. In terms of general results, a variation of less than 20 feet per second (fps) is regarded as good, with a spread under 10fps viewed as an exceptional performance.
I tested two of my own rifles to double-check my results while preparing for this article. I shot two types of pellet with my Daystate Pulsar, getting a 4.5fps spread with JSB Exact Express and an 8.0fps spread with Air Arms Diabolo Field. I shot only one type through my tuned Weihrauch HW 97, getting a spread of 4.6fps with Exact Express. Needless to say I was a very happy man indeed.
Rifle barrels are fickle: they prefer certain pellet types to others, and even different head sizes within that same pellet type. You’re on a mission to find out which pellets shoot best in your rifle.
First of all, you need to decide what level of accuracy you’re really looking for. Be honest with yourself and your kit, and be realistic about your expectations. Are you happy with a five-shot cluster at 25 yards that can be covered by a 10p piece? Are you looking for a 45-yard group that fits under a 5p coin? Remember: be realistic!
Once you know what you’re trying to achieve then you’ll know when you’ve found a suitable pellet. Chasing the holy grail of airgun accuracy, a one-hole group that’s not much more than a single pellet’s width, gives you an incredible feeling when you do achieve it, but can be soul-destroying when you don’t. It’s not always desirable or necessary to aim for this, though.
Be prepared to test plenty of pellet types. This can get expensive if you are planning on buying a whole tin of each kind or head size to test. Try buying a sampler pack or sharing the cost of a few tins with some fellow shooters. Shoot a minimum of 20 pellets of each type before passing judgement on them. Then take a break! Pellet testing, while seemingly boring, is mentally demanding and will leave you feeling pretty tired. If you find a bad pellet, make sure it’s because of incompatibility with your barrel rather than any mental or physical exhaustion on your part.
You’ve put in a lot of effort so far to help make your rifle shoot as accurately as possible. Now it’s time to hone your own skills, and that means practising your technique as much as possible. Even if it’s too wet or windy outside to shoot for real, you can still heft your unloaded and uncocked rifle and go through the motions of taking a shot. This will really help boost muscle memory. Most of us will have a preferred shooting stance. For a long time I took nothing but prone shots, and almost had to be prised off the ground by my shooting buddies and encouraged to shoot in different positions. It worked. I now really enjoy taking kneeling and sitting shots.
I never quite mastered standing unsupported, but regularly practise with shooting sticks. Being taken out of my comfort zone has ultimately been to my benefit and I now take even more enjoyment from the sport. And, of course, for many target sports, such as HFT, you’ll have no choice but to shoot from a variety of positions. And that’s all to the good.
Working your way through the tips listed above may sound like a lot of hard work, but it all depends on how you define work. I try to break down each section into an activity in its own right, not just a means to an end. Bite-sized chunks are always more tasty than shovelling down a whole meal in one mouthful. Time management is also crucial when trying to get the balance right between hobbies, family life and work. I genuinely enjoy cleaning my guns, for example. As long as I have allocated enough free time it’s a pleasure not a chore. But, like most things in life, if you’re forced to rush something it will increase your stress levels and probably decrease the effectiveness of what you’re trying to achieve. If you find you’re not enjoying yourself then take a break and come back to it later.
For most of us shooting is a hobby, and hobbies are meant to be fun. When it all comes together and you manage to achieve the results you want, all those hours of practice and preparation will pay you back. Fun? Oh yes!