Riflery – the science and the art

The science of riflery is learned at the shooting bench. This is where you also learn to have complete confidence in your hunting rifle's accuracy.

The science of riflery is learned at the shooting bench. This is where you also learn to have complete confidence in your rifle’s accuracy.

To shoot well in the field, you must have complete confidence in your rifle’s ability to put the bullet at exactly the point of aim. Lack of this confidence will undermine your shooting ability more than any other factor.


The discipline of rifle shooting is a blend of science and art. The science is learned at the reloading table and the shooting bench. The art is learned at the shooting range.

Every outstanding rifleman I have ever known has invested much study, thought, time and expendable income into the sport to earn his level of expertise. Although I have heard tales of “natural” rifle shooters of great skill, I have never personally met one. Achievement in any endeavor requires practice as well as talent. Given my own modest level of talent, I must devote considerable energy to both the science and the art to shoot a rifle competently.

Fortunately, learning ballistics (the science) and practicing riflery (the art) is fascinating and fun. Although a bird hunter at heart, I neglect the shotguns in favor of my rifles for several shooting sessions each year. And though I do not go as often as I would like, hunting deer with a rifle is passion that has an unrelenting  grip on a certain part of my psyche.

Despite my enjoyment of the rifle sports, ballistics (the science of projectiles in flight with all its complicated theories, equations, calculations, statistics, and data) is not really my forté. Obviously, I am a devotee of the science. Prominent features of my back yard playground include a shooting bench and 100-yard rifle range, and the counter along the west wall of my “clubhouse” is lined with reloading equipment and components. On the shelves you will find a dozen reloading manuals, a chronograph to measure bullet velocity, a spotting scope, and a thick file folder packed with twenty different types of targets.

But my skills in ballistics are more those of the tradesman than the scientist, more plumber than hydraulic engineer. I know that water flows downhill and seams have to be sealed tight, so I can keep the household plumbing functioning. Similarly, with a bit of cautious experimenting and tinkering I can fine-tune a hunting rifle to perform to the limits of its capability.

No one is going to recruit me as the gunsmith who will take them to the upper levels of the sport of benchrest shooting. I must seem a drab fellow indeed to those true rifle aficionados who memorize the voluminous data and statistics of rifle ballistics and employ all the intricate tweaks of the game from molybdenum coatings for bullets to cryogenic treatments for barrels. Installing a custom trigger, glass-bedding an action, or replacing a poorly performing barrel are the limits of my smithing.

So as I offer advice on the science and art of shooting a hunting rifle, I caution that I am a practical rifleman, not a ballistician. My insights are based on experience in the field more than experimentation in the laboratory. While I have great respect for those who pursue the accuracy game to the point of perfection, to shoot a whitetail deer at a distance of two hundred yards one does not need to be an acolyte of the religion but only a practiced technician of the craft.

That being said, I advise that you engage in the science: shoot your hunting rifle from the bench frequently. A disciplined sighting-in session just before the hunting season is a necessity, and you will gain great benefit from taking your rifle out for at least two or three other bench shooting sessions during the course of the year.

You many expend a couple dozen rounds of ammunition on the initial trip to the bench to sight-in the rifle’s scope, but once it is adjusted correctly you do not need to shoot many rounds at subsequent bench sessions. Five rounds fired at targets at 200, 150, 100, and 50 yards is sufficient. More will not necessarily help you achieve the primary purpose of shooting from the bench, which is:

Absolute confidence in your rifle’s accuracy.

To shoot well in the field, you must have complete confidence in your rifle’s ability to put the bullet at exactly the point of aim. Lack of this confidence will undermine your shooting ability more than any other factor.

Almost every hunting trip I hear someone say, “I’m not sure where my gun will shoot with this ammo I bought yesterday.” Well, if he doesn’t know where the rifle will shoot with that ammunition, he has absolutely no idea where to point it, does he? And without that knowledge, he will decide to aim a little high, a little low, a little farther upwind… and he will miss. Or worse, his bullet will hit but not quickly kill the game animal, and it will escape to die a gruesome death over the next day or two.

Shooting from the bench will also help solve the second greatest problem encountered in hunting: judging distance. Although the path of light (sight) from your rifle’s scope to the target is perfectly flat and level, the flight path of the bullet must be a shallow arc to compensate for the noisome effect of gravity. Therefore the bullet is, at various times during its flight, above or below the line of sight.

That means if you have sighted-in your .30-06 rifle so the bullet’s point of impact is right in the center of the bullseye at 100 yards distance, it could be as much as five inches low at 200 yards, enough to make a difference between a dead-in-its-tracks deer and a dead-after-a-mile-run deer. Trust me, you want the dead-in-its-tracks result.

Now, this “bullet drop” phenomenon would not be an issue in the field if we were all excellent judges of distance, which we are not, or if we had plenty of time to use a range-finder, which we will not, and if we memorize bullet drop statistics for our specific rifle and ammunition load, which we have not. But shooting from the bench will solve this problem by allowing us to sight in our rifle based on its

Maximum point blank range

For the deer hunter, maximum point blank range for rifle and load is that length of bullet flight during which the bullet does not rise more than three inches above the scope’s line of sight nor drop more than three inches below the scope’s line of sight.

For example, the maximum point blank range for my .30-06 rifle shooting its most accurate load (150 grain boattail spire point bullet at 2,900 feet per second muzzle velocity) is about 275 yards. At no point along the bullet’s flight path of 275 yards does it rise more than three inches above the scope’s line of sight nor drop more than three inches below line of sight.

The point of impact at 100 yards is 2.7 inches above aim point, and that is where I set it each time I shoot from the bench.

The huge benefit of sighting in your rifle based on MBPR is that in the field you never have to “guess-timate” the distance to the target. You simply hold the scope’s crosshairs behind the deer’s shoulder and make the shot. The point of impact will be well within the sure-kill part of the deer’s anatomy.

A couple of caveats:

  1. If you shoot at deer farther away than your rifle’s maximum point blank range you will have to adjust your aim point for additional bullet drop. I cannot imagine I would take a shot at a deer at a distance greater than 275 yards. I’m simply not a good enough rifle shooter to be confident of killing it.
  2. MPBR does not compensate for wind drift. Shooting at a deer at 200 yards distance on an open pasture in Nebraska with a 20 mile-per-hour cross wind will cause the flight of the bullet to “bend” downwind a significant number of inches. Again, unless I am confident of my ability to compensate for wind drift, I do not shoot.

As a starting point for determining MPBR for your rifle and ammunition, you can go online to find an application that allows you to compute it. However, I advise shooting from the bench at targets at long ranges – 200 to 300 yards – to determine true MPBR for your rifle. There are a hundred variables in the ballistic calculations, and you want to have absolute confidence in your rifle’s accuracy based on its actual performance, not its theoretical performance.

So much for shooting from the bench – the science. My next essay will address shooting at the range – the art. I promise that essay will be much more opinionated and controversial. That’s how we curmudgeons are.


More stories about hunting adventures and hunting rifles are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Hunting, Hunting Rifles, Rifle Shooting, Rifles, Shooting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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