Sight-In Right: Three Ways to Zero Your Shotgun

Zeroing a rifle means adjusting the sights so that your aiming point matches your point of impact at a specific distance. The process is quite simple but requires some foresight. How close do you want your point of aim and point of impact to intersect? It’s common to zero a shotgun at 100 yards, but depending on your weapon and where you’re hunting, that might not be the best answer. Here are three sighting options based on anticipated shooting distances. The idea here is to choose the one that best suits your needs with a specific shotgun. So your precision bolt action rifle should probably have a different zero than your Big Woods lever action pistol. Once you’ve decided on the best zero for a given weapon, you can go ahead and aim for it. But you’re not done. Be sure to confirm everything on the range as far as you intend to shoot before you go hunting.

Zero at short range (within 100 meters)

The author took this West Virginia black bear using a close-range zero, which will work great in the woods where shots are typically less than 100 yards. Richard Mann

Some deer hunters will never need to shoot more than 100 yards. Most of my deer hunting is in West Virginia, and I’ve taken eight bucks here worthy of my wall. The average shooting distance for these trophies was only 83 yards. The farthest shot was a 600-foot anomaly through a clearcut a year after we had forested much of our hunting property. Take that shot out of the equation, and the average is just 62 yards.

If you plan to shoot at close range, you need to zero at close range. Don’t make the mistake of zeroing too close. A zero from 25 yards will place a .30/06 bullet about 3 inches high at 100 yards. A zero between 75 and 100 yards works best for most big game cartridges. With a zero of 80 to 85 yards, common wood cartridges like the .45/70 or .35 Remington will hit within half an inch of your aiming point from about 25 to about 100 yards. With a zero from 80 to 100 yards, higher performance cartridges like the .30/06 will do the same from 35 to around 130 yards. This makes it easier to thread your balls over and under the mid brush.

Zero to medium range (up to 300 meters)

photo of rifle and target
With a maximum zero at close range, your rifle will shoot high at close range but put bullets inside a 6 inch area up to 300 yards. Richard Mann

If you’re hunting in mixed country where a combination of woods and open pasture is common, a mid-range zero is best. I compiled the shooting distances for every trophy hanging in my house – 22 animals captured on several continents – and the average was 171 meters. Five of those shots were at 300 yards and five were under 80. With a zero at close range, a .30/06 bullet will be about a foot down at 300 yards, so we need another option.

In this situation, a top zero at close range is the answer. With most modern big game cartridges this will hold you up to nearly 300 yards, and your bullet will hit inside a 6 inch circle up to that distance. This is a cartridge-specific zero; it depends on the muzzle velocity and ballistic coefficient of the bullet. Use a ballistics program to determine how far your bullet travels in one-third (0.33) of a second and simply zero your rifle to hit 3 inches deep at that distance. Then stand at that distance.

It works because gravity is a constant; all bullets drop the same amount over the same duration. The difference is the distance they travel during this time. With flat shot loads of a Creedmoor .30/06, .270, .308 or 6.5, you’ll be ready to go up to around 280 yards or maybe a bit further. Thus, up to about 300 meters, you can hold a little high but still on the animal. With shorter range cartridges like the .30/30 Winchester you can hold your own and still hit a 6 inch circle out to around 200 yards, with around 230 yards being the maximum practical range.

Long range zero (300 meters and beyond)

picture of a riflescope
The combination of target turrets and a zero at 100 meters is a good option for dealing with long-range fire. Richard Mann

Once the shooting distance extends well beyond 300 yards, things change. A 300-yard zero with a .30/06 will put the ball about 5 inches high at 100 yards. You can hold low to compensate, but close shots often have to be taken quickly and you might forget. Also, at 400 yards, your bullet will hit about a foot below your aiming point. That means you only stay within that 6 inch circle between about 260 and 330 yards. It is a narrow window of 70 meters. If you shoot outside, you will guess where you are standing.

If you plan to shoot beyond 300 meters, you will need wheeled artillery or the help of your scope. I once took a scout rifle on an elk hunt in New Mexico and my chance of a big bull came in at 326 yards. Using a Burris 2-7X scout scope with its ballistic reticle, I held the 300 yard aiming point about 6 inches above the kill point. About 4/10ths of a second after pulling the trigger, the bullet pierced the heart of the momentum.

With ballistic reticles that help you apply the right restraint, or with target turrets that let you dial in the right course correction, the 100-yard common zero is a good answer. This will work for close range shots, and you can use the extra aiming points or target turrets for long range shots. There’s also a tip for mid-range shots if you need to take one quickly. With a ballistic reticle and .30/06 and .308 class cartridges, the 200 yard aiming point will hit inside a 6 inch circle out to approximately 250 yards. If using a target turret, leave it at 200 yards for the same result. If you need to shoot further, use a different aiming point or dial in the exact correction as needed.

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