Zeroing your rifle is a must, everyone pretty well knows it. Properly zeroing your rifle at a given range is critical, a range that matches the design, purpose, and use of your particular rifle, aiming device and ammunition. Every class you attend shows you how, based on what you brought to the class. There are about a billion ways to zero firearms, and experts abound as to how. Truth is, it really doesn’t matter so long as you know how its zeroed and where it impacts using your chosen ammunition and sighting method. If you are the only person using that rifle how is far less critical than your proficiency. A team environment where your partner may pick your rifle up changes things, and some agencies mandate how it’s done. That’s all fantastic, problem being, for most that’s the end of it, zero your rifle, throw it in the bag and “presto chango” you are done! If only it were true, it would make things really easy. If all you ever do is plink at the range maybe, but if your rifle is used for self-defense, law enforcement, home defense, or hunting it is nothing more than the first step. Maintaining that zero coupled with making sure it operates properly is the most critical thing you will do with a working rifle.
Check your rifle at every Practical Range
Zeroing your rifle provides nothing more than a fixed starting point to determine where your impacts will be at various ranges. Assuming your rifle and ammunition, combined with your shooting will follow some chart on the Internet is nonsense, especially with iron sights or red dots. Impacts occur based on where “you” point the rifle. Scoped rifles are a bit different depending on the scope, reticle, and ammunition. Assuming you properly confirm that trajectory and your zero has not shifted it may be accurate. But you still need to confirm it, you cannot just assume its correct.
When it comes to your carbine, rifle caliber pistol, or pistol caliber carbine you must shoot at different distances to confirm impacts at every practical range, not just where you zeroed it. Call it a cold check, you are cold, the firearm, ammunition, they are all cold. No warm ups, zero checks, just grab your rifle and shoot. You get one shot to save a life, make it small and the range practical. If you have a magnifier this needs to be done with and without its use. That is real life, there are no warmups in a gunfight. It applies at 100 yards, 300 yards, every distance in between, and across the room. The last place you want to figure out your zero shifted is when that shot is a life saver.
The world is not static, and stuff breaks!
Assuming any mechanical sighting system is failure proof is fantasy. Buying the best helps, but it’s no guarantee. Can you hit what you are shooting at if your red dot is blank or you cannot see the dot? Do you have iron sights and are they zeroed? I have seen excellent shooters miss repeatedly at 100 yards when their RDS failed and the irons were never checked for zero. Professionals miss targets from across the room, under stress, when their RDS fails and they thought iron sights were “too heavy and not needed”. Having never practiced with a dead red dot and no sights it turned their OODA loop sideways. Grabbing one of my “go to” rifles for a class a few years back my light fell off moving between barricades. Seems I did not check it, hard to hit even large targets at 75 yards in the dark even with an RDS and no light. If you rely on a device for aiming, know how to aim when it fails.
Zeros can and do shift for several reasons. Zeroing your rifle in Utah in September it can be 90 degrees, check it three weeks later and it may be 20 degrees. Even if you rifle shoots the same, you may not with the addition of more clothing, gloves, maybe even a hat. Shooting in sub-zero weather brings fogged up glass and RDS screens. Practice on a bench, what happens when you are using a tire, or wall, or side of a wall as support, it may shift. Turn your rifle 45 degrees, does it impact in the same place? Sometimes the world dictates your position, not you. You live in a world that is anything but consistent or static, train in that one, not the one with a square range, a bench, and pristine conditions. It is your responsibility to hit what you aim at, not the rifles.
It’s a Process, develop one and follow it.
Even if you change the batteries in your red dot check them frequently for operation. Once a week is my norm, it was before and after every shift when I was still on duty. Nothing more than pulling it out of the bag and turning on the sight (if you turn it off). At the same time make sure it is secured and tight, and if you have a light check that. You should know exactly where your back up iron sights show up in your RDS, make sure that has not changed, and check to see they are tight on the rail. My magazines were checked for any issues and to make certain they were loaded and the rifle was carefully placed back in its bag, or rack. It means I start that week with a certain level of confidence knowing the rifle is ready.
When you head to the range set up a cold shot at a different range each time. If you can vary positions do that, make sure your rifle has your self-defense ammunition. Come out of the bag, find your target and place one carefully aimed shot into a small target. Any target outside 6 inches at 50 yards is too big, maybe even at 100 yards. Aim small, hit small, and it better confirms the zero. Stop, identify your impact. Is it where you aimed, if not why. Is it your position, the ammunition, what. Go back and take well aimed shots from a supported position and confirm. If you put them all in the same hole, leave your zero alone, it was you, and you just learned something. Only change your zero if you find it will not work for your area of operation. Adjust it only If its way off but try and figure out why, fix it if there is an issue and confirm. Have iron sights, do it again with those, same process. Repeat this from different positions, ranges, and in varying weather conditions. Change your clothes, shorts, long pants, long sleeves, glasses, hats, anything you wear every day. Leave the fancy camo at home unless you wear it in real life. Practice with what you will have available, and only that.
If you change ammunition it’s time to start all over again. Never assume the same bullet weight ammunition, even the same bullet will have the same impact from different manufacturers or even different lots from the same manufacturer. Your zero applies to you shooting that rifle with that ammunition, using that sighting system, nothing else. If it is a precision rifle this needs to be done even with lot changes of the same ammunition. Having seen 100 fps difference from lot to lot it can make a huge difference at range.
Use your cold shot / zero confirmation practice as a means to work through any equipment issues. How do you like your stock, does it work in the snow, cold, heat, rain, you name it. Does your optic or magnifier fog up? Maybe you need caps, maybe they make it worse, make certain. This is the time you check for any possible condition and leave the range certain you can hit exactly what you aim.
After decades teaching officers, professionals, and enthusiasts alike confidence in your system is invaluable. When one shot is all you have it must be accurate, and the confidence that comes from making sure you rifle is zeroed is huge. Knowing, not guessing where you need to hold at various ranges and under different conditions is a game changer. You can concentrate on the fight, not the gear. Missing is something that happens, but should never be acceptable, it’s your job to hit what you aim at. Making sure you equipment is ready, and you are capable may save your life either during or after the fight. Is it easy, nope, but no one with a clue ever said it was, welcome to the real world.