Zeroing Your Rifle at Long Distances

zero your rifle long distances

Smoothbore muskets seldom even had a front sight, so the concept of zeroing used to be irrelevant.

Military guns of the 19th and 20th century had sights optimistically graduated, sometimes past a mile, but the only confirmed zero was usually armory-set point blank.

In most armies, guns were not individually adjusted to specific shooters until optical sights came into common use.

A History of Variables

With optics, several approaches exist. WW2 Japanese sniper scopes were pre-sighted at the factory and individually numbered to specific guns. How well did that work over time?

Not great, which is why typical engagement ranges were limited to 200 meters despite the relatively sophisticated bullet drop reticle indicating offsets out past a kilometer.

Most other scopes in use lacked bullet drop compensator (BDC) information but were individually adjustable. Some of the U.S. and German scopes used mounts permitting external range adjustment by tilting the entire tube.

With all those scopes, the default zero was 100 meters, with elevation changes made from that baseline. The same method was used with the more advanced post-WW2 BDC optics.

As the ranges of engagement rose for military snipers, longer zeroing distances became reasonable. Conversely, for police marksmen and hunters using scoped shotguns or pistol caliber carbines, shorter distances might make sense.

Let’s look at the determinants for the distance selection.

Determining Zero Distance

savage 6.5 benchrest
With BDC reticles, there’s usually no choice: 100 yards or meters main setting is required to make the other offsets correct. The way to pick the scope zero for the slower but more flexible reticles using MRAD or MOA subtensions is to figure out the point range first.

Point blank just means that a center hold would produce a hit on a target of a given size. Point blank on a torso of an enemy soldier maybe 275 yards, while on a prairie dog only 60 yards.

So the same rifle may be zeroed at 175 yards for a fight, but at 40 yards for a hunt. At the same time, this isn’t the only consideration for picking the zero distance.

If you have no expectation of encountering vary varmints up close, the zeroing distance should reflect the more realistic shooting environment.

So a 200-yard zero for the rodents just means your point-blank is 170 to 220, while shorter shots require holding under rather than over.

Similarly, if serious sniping is expected at 600 yards, it would make sense to zero that far and use a chart or a ballistic calculator to extrapolate shorter ranges. The error would be much smaller than with zeroing at a hundred and extrapolating to six.

The practical problem for most of us is the absence of ranges long enough to do that, and also the relative scarcity of actual long shots in either defense or hunting.

The Caliber Component

long range gear
Shorter range zero remains practical also due to the availability of time for adjustments at longer ranges.

A quarter-mile shot is necessarily more deliberate than a snapshot across a yard, so more time is available for figuring out hold-overs at long range than hold-unders up close.

In most instances, the zeroing distance becomes mostly a function of the caliber:

That simplifies the math of longer range adjustments, but we should keep in mind that elevation, humidity and temperature play a significant role in long-distance trajectories—verifying the calculated offsets on an actual target is the key to making accurate hits.

The simplest way to ascertain a hit would be to pick a piece of limestone (or some other reactive target) and try the exact ammunition in the hunting rifle at a location near the hunt.

If your 500-yard extrapolation is correct, you would get a hit, otherwise, your spotter would tell you if the shot went long or short, and by how much.

springfield 1903
Do you have any tips for zeroing your rifle at long distances? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author:

Oleg Volk

Oleg Volk is a creative director working mainly in firearms advertising. A great fan of America and the right to bear arms, he uses his photography to support the right of every individual to self-determination and independence. To that end, he is also a big fan of firearms.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. I would to know where does 223 Remington fall in the for the function caliber? I have my scope set on my mini-14 ranch model that i can hit the center of a water bottle set at three hundred yards, I would like to go farther?

  2. As a simple Hunter, I try to keep it simple. So I don’t have memorize ballistic tables for each rifle and particular ammo. I find the ammo the particular rifle is “happy” with. Years ago I came across a simple system that requires very little memory use. Important for quick shoes on deer meat or far. Check the ammo manufacturer designated for distance traveled in .3 seconds. That becomes “the zero”. For most ammo bullet impact at 100 yards will be approximately 3 inches high and at 300 yards impact will be approximately 3 inches low. Consistent aim point being on deer shoulder at any distance ( most of us common folk don’t shoot deer beyond 300 yards anyways) bullet will hit vital organs/ spine. Dead deer. I know this is a simple but it works for me with any of my rifle for deer. Thanks for letting me speak simply.

  3. I purchased a book several years ago by an shooter/author named Matthews. He developed a formula for almost every caliber where you had a point blank range to the center of an 8″ circle. As stated in your article that depends on the caliber but the system works like a champ. I have sighted in all of my hunting rifles using that idea, from .222 to .300 Weatherby, .338 Win. etc. It has worked perfectly for me over the years.

  4. Hello I have owned somewhere in the ballpark of 10 Ruger pistols and 10/22s. The problem is about 10 years ago I broke my 10/22 down to the last spring, I then fell asleep and was unable to reassemble the darn thing. I had to take it to a very respected gun smith to have it put back together. NOW the problem is the gun hangs
    Up on the 3rd or 4th round. It’s maddening. I have shot every brand of .22 cal and it still hangs up. Does anyone out there know of a solution. Any help would be a God send. Thanks Joe

  5. I take a slightly different approach, at least for big game hunting like deer:

    First; what is the bullet’s trajectory? I work up the most accurate load I can for the bullet being used. From that I can calculate, or even test for the trajectory.

    On big game two, or even three inches up or down won’t make any significant difference. So what zero will allow for this? Generally most modern loads will “zero” something near 200 yards. A couple of inches high at 100, a couple of inches low at say 300 or a bit less.

    So my “point blank range” is 0 to 300 or close to it.

    This works for my handgun load in my Contender as well, only the Point Blank upper limit is closer to 225 yards, The bullets upper limit for clean expansion in this case is 300; so well within a practical shot limit. Even at 300 the drop is only 5.4 inches, so an easy thing to compensate for.
    Also for consideration: How many shots are taken at really long ranges, especially for deer? Only one of mine has exceeded 100 yards. My first deer was about ten yards! – The point being, I can simply pull up, hold dead center on target, and squeeze…

    Having said all that, All my hunting guns but one shoot sub minute of angle (even the Contender!) so if I missed, it wasn’t something I blame on the gun, The only one that does not hold sub minute of angle is my 44 mag pistol; it groups about 3″ at 100, but its reasonable upper limit is maybe 150 yards due to a rainbow trajectory. I would not hesitate to take that 150 yard shot with it however.,

  6. A gun smith friend of mine who was a member of the 1 mile club explained this to me years ago.
    I hunt with a 7mm mag. It has a world class 6x24x50. Tasco. First free float the barrel. If it touches the stock accuracy can be all over the place. Pick the one round you hunt with. For me that’s 150 grain double core lock Remington box ammo. Site in 1 1/2” high center at 100 yards. That puts it about dead on at 300 yds. The scope has a range finder. Knowing the range is kind of important.
    It shoots about 18” low at 600 yards. We hunt mostly deer and elk here. The chest or barrel on a deer is 16”. On a Elk 24 too 36. So I never mess with height I just estimate the 18” for distance if it way out there. Allot quicker. Knowing your weapon and yourself is the main factor. I know for what ever reason I have a tendency to shoot about 4” to the right a 600 yards. So I compensate for that’.
    I always try to make chest shots. They can’t run without lungs. Anything close is just aim center `and squeeze. I use rimfire for small game or a 12 gauge for birds.

  7. first know the velocity of bullet you use. look at range ballistic charts. enter different bullseye distances. compare different zero points to distances from 50 to say 200 yards. use the average zero distance that bullet is within 2 inches of zero. most fast medium weight bullets will zero at 175 yards.
    with the zero point known, will will know where bullet is all the way from 25 yards to 200 yards.

  8. Thanks for the article and information. One tip many experienced shooters already know but may prove beneficial to a new one is to ALWAYS shoot with any rest on the fore stock and never on the barrel. Many modern rifles have floating barrels and you’ll never zero in or accurately hit your target if you’re resting on the barrel.

  9. For years, I have hunted in Eastern US wooded environments where few shots are beyond 100 yards or so. The method I learned early on was to use the ballistic trajectory data for the caliber being used and zero in close to the point where the projectile crosses the line-of-sight on the upward trajectory. This pits zero-point at the same position when the projectile crosses the line-of-sight on it’s way downward approaching the outward limits of its range. Depending on the cartridge, you will know that between the two points where the trajectory crosses the POA the maximum rise for the caliber and load in question will give you a good idea of hold-over based on the ballistics chart. Most modern center-fire rifle cartridges used for hunting seldom exceed 3″ rise above POA between 0 and 200 yards. This might not be precise enough for small varmint, but on a deer-sized target or larger, you are not going to miss a shot. At distances beyond the point where bullet drop goes lower than POA, depending on the caliber, additional hold-over would, of course, be necessary.

  10. I just got “hooked” on long distance shooting after a few trips to the CMP Talladega 600 yard range. I was using my POF 308 and a Nikon scope. Eventually I realized to get better accuracy I needed a more specialized rifle so got a Ruger Precision 6.5 creedmoore. I thought about a 300 wind mag but realistically I don’t know where I’d ever shoot to need the range that would give.

    The issue I have is other than the CMP range, I’m pretty much limited to 100 and 200 yard ranges, with a couple of times a year to the CMP Talladega range. (go there when I go to the NASCAR races at Talladega Superspeedway)

    So, the issue now is, deciding how much I want to spend to get a scope that will improve my accuracy. Currently I have a 4-12 Nikon BDC scope. Looking for something reasonably priced ($1500 range) to use.

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