Sighting in doesn’t have to be a chore

Ross Bielema

It all comes down to one shot.

It might be a chance at a fat doe for the freezer or the buck that only lived in your dreams until this morning, but that one shot depends on your preparations before that day. Sighting in your rifle or slug shotgun is a huge part of that prep.

If you are an iron sights hunter, perhaps favoring Grandpa’s old lever-action rifle to a bolt action, more power to you. Your don’t have many options, other than a Lyman or Williams receiver sight or a simple tweak of the buckhorn elevation “ladder” of the factory rear sight. Keep your shots under 75 yards, just like Granddad did.

Scopes, and their more modern offspring, red dot sights, are the norm for most hunters. If you want a more precise way to hit your deer or other game, or if your aging eyesight makes iron sights difficult, you need a scope.

I recently helped Ryan Kilsdonk, 32, of rural New London and his father, Dan Kilsdonk, 62, of Kimberly, to get their deer rifles dialed in one late October afternoon at a nearby private gun range.

The duo have hunted on Marinette County forest public land near Crivitz for years, spending time in a nearby trailer and sharing time in the woods chasing deer just as more than 500,000 of us will be doing on opening day.

Although Dan’s father, Clarence Kilsdonk, gave up deer hunting with them three years ago (he’s 85 now), his favorite Remington 7400 semi-auto .270 Winchester will be Dan’s gun this season. And Dan has an identical gun of his own that now sports a new gray laminated stock for his backup weapon. The gunsmith who installed the new stock also put on a new scope.

Ryan was dialing in a Rock River Arms AR-10 in .308, a mild-shooting semi-auto that his wife, Megan Kilsdonk, enjoys hunting deer with.

Regardless of the type of rifle or shotgun you are sighting in, you need some large targets (if you can’t see where your shots are hitting, you are wasting ammo), a sturdy bench, some sort of shooting rest (homemade or store-bought) and a place to shoot at least 100 yards. A spotting scope or binoculars is handy if you don’t want to walk to the target every few shots (personally, I need the exercise). Magic markers or target pasters are handy to keep track of your shots on paper. A small notebook and pen help you keep track of what you’ve done to each gun’s sights or scope.

You don’t need an expensive portable shooting rest to dial in. A bunch of sandbags or bean bags work great. A duffel bag of clothes or some old pillows work, too.

If you have a bolt-action rifle, sighting in can be as simple as firing three shots. First, remove the bolt (normally there’s a bolt release somewhere on the rifle). Get your gun locked into the rest or sandbags, look down the bore and then adjust your new scope with windage and elevation clicks until the crosshairs are lined up on the target exactly where the bore is pointed.

Your first shot should be on the target at 25 yards. If not, re-check your base and scope screws. If they are loose, tighten them (a bit of removable Lock-Tite is always a good idea on base and scope screws). Move the target to 100 yards and see where the next shot hits. Once again, with the crosshairs locked on the shot, turn the crosshairs (windage and elevation as needed) so they are now resting on that shot. Your final shot at the bullseye should be on the money. Fine-tune as needed.

This YouTube video explains how to get a bolt-action rifle sighted in with three shots:

If you have a pump, semi-auto or single-shot rifle, follow the same instructions minus the bore sighting.

You can buy an electronic bore sighter or a cartridge that emits a laser to do rough bore sighting at close range before firing your 100-yard rounds.

Follow the instructions with your scope or red dot for adjustments. Most scopes use arrows on their turret adjustments to show which way to turn them to move the shot right or up, for example. Keeping track of all your changes is crucial. Some scopes can be re-calibrated to zero when done so the markings won’t be confusing later and you can quickly see if something has bumped your turrets.

All rifles shoot bullets in a parabola, or arc. This means that common deer calibers like a .30-06, .270 or .30-30 will strike a bit low at about 25 yards, a bit higher on the way to their sight-in distance and finally settle at 100 yards. Depending on the velocity and weight of a bullet, you can look at a chart or ammo box and determine where the round will hit at various distances.

Common practice is sighting in at 100 yards and allowing the round to strike about 4 inches high so that the shot will hit about dead-on at 200 yards for common deer rounds. But if you are hunting in thicker woods where anything beyond 100 yards is rare, then sight in so you are dead-on at 100 yards. In the event that you see a deer at 200 yards in an open field, for example, just hold a bit higher. I prefer the “dead-on at 100 yards” method to guessing about future long shots. Slug shotguns with even higher parabolas can be sighted in to hit dead-on at 75 yards.

Dan Kilsdonk quickly found out his scope bases were loose. After about an hour of effort, both were struggling to dial in. I noticed they were leaning at awkward angles over the bench, so we used a chair to put them in a more natural position. After that, the bullseyes came easy.

Once your firearm is sighted in, protect your scope and gun in a good padded or even hard case to keep it from getting knocked out of alignment. If you drop your gun in the field, be sure you clean the dirt and snow out of the barrel (never try to shoot it out as you will explode the barrel) and check your scope again with a few test shots.

Good hunting to you all.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at