A Quick Guide To Improved Rifle Accuracy

“Only accurate rifles are interesting.” – Townsend Whelen 

Range time is precious for most people. We plan out our time on the firing line days or weeks in advance so we know what we’re going to shoot and what we hope to accomplish. Too often, however, we get to the range, take our first shots and we find out that our equipment has let us down. Rifles that used to be tack drivers now can’t put rounds on paper at point-black distances. Worse still, that new rifle you thought was going to give you laser-like accuracy can’t seem to shoot straight. We can (and should) train to become better marksmen and improve our aim. However, if your rifle isn’t up to the task of repeatable, accurate shots, all that training is in vain. 

Establish A Baseline For Accuracy 

First, let’s talk about baseline rifle accuracy. Rifle accuracy is measured in terms of Minute of Angle (MOA). What is considered to be an “accurate rifle” depends a lot on what you want to do with your rifle and what you are shooting at. Remember that 1 MOA means that a rifle can shoot 1 inch groups at 100 yards, 2 inch groups at 200 yards and 3 inch groups at 300 yards. In practice, this means that a 2 MOA rifle can easily place rounds into the center-chest region of a human-sized target out to 300 yards, and rounds into the inter-ocular cavity out to 100 yards. For me personally, this is sufficient for all my general-purpose rifle needs. However, I own guns that are meant for long range engagements, and 2 MOA accuracy means that I will have trouble. 

For instance, people wanting to shoot precision consider 1 MOA to be the absolute low-end for rifle accuracy, while a 1 MOA service rifle is considered to be quite a tack driver indeed. For me, I consider 2 MOA accuracy to be sufficient for all my general-purpose rifle needs. At longer ranges, though, 2 MOA means that I’ll be getting 12 inch groups at 600 yards. That is not accurate enough to guarantee hits on the types of targets I would engage at such distances. As such, I consider 1 MOA to be the bare minimum for anything meant for long distance engagements. 

Consistency Accuracy Is The Key

Secondly, an accurate rifle also needs to produce repeatable, dependable hits. If your rifle shoots ½ MOA, but shoots those groups all over the paper, you’re going to miss your target. Keeping the bullets hitting on the same point on the target, over and over again, is called holding zero. The process of finding that point on the target (or “zero”) is called zeroing your scope, which we talked about over here. An accurate rifle maintains the same Point Of Impact (POI) over and over again with the same ammunition, giving you confidence that you will make the shot on-demand when needed. 

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about the elephant in the room, namely, you and your shooting ability. No amount of rifle accuracy is going to make up for your bad habits or lack of skill. If we truly want to see how accurate our rifles can be, we need to make sure we are not getting in the way of what our rifles can do. For instance, I meet so many people on the range who tell me they “know how to shoot.”

However, what that really means is they know how to get behind the rifle and pull the trigger. They have little to no idea how to get consistent hits on-demand. They may have a lot of fun at the range turning money into noise but they don’t get the hits they need when they need them. An accurate rifle begins with an accurate shooter. If you have not taken an Appleseed class or similar training, I highly recommend them as a way to get your skills to match the performance of your rifle. 

Five Steps To Improve Rifle Accuracy

A rifle with an optic pointed down range as the author demonstrates rifle accuracy drills.

And range time helps, too. Lots and lots and lots of range time.

We are in a golden age of guns right now. Repeatable, consistent performance is the cornerstone of an accurate rifle, and thanks to computerized machining, today’s rifles are built to exacting standards and exact measurements. All this precision during the manufacturing process helps improve the accuracy of today’s rifles. However, there is always room for more. Let’s look at five ways you can improve your rifle’s accuracy:  

  1. Improve the trigger
  2. Setup the action and barrel correctly
  3. Check your muzzle and chamber for irregularities
  4. Better sights and optics
  5. Better ammo

One of the fastest and easiest ways to improve rifle accuracy is to improve the trigger. Pressing the trigger is the last thing you do before the cartridge ignites and sends the bullet downrange. Improving the trigger with one that requires less effort means less movement on your part, which in turn means less movement imparted to the gun right before it fires.

Secondly, make sure the action and barrel are correctly positioned inside the stock of your gun. If the stock of your rifle presses against the barrel, it can affect where your rounds are landing on the target. This is why free-floating barrels are quite common these days on both bolt-action and AR-pattern rifles. This setup allows for the barrel to “float” above the stock or inside the handguard and remain unaffected by how you are holding onto your gun. 

Better Rifle, Better Results

Thirdly, your barrel and action need to be up to standards. The muzzle crown at the end of your rifle barrel is the last thing to come in contact with a bullet before it leaves your gun. If there is a nick or a blemish in that area of your barrel, it can affect the path of your bullet, and that will throw off your accuracy. In addition to this, irregularities in the other end of your rifle, the action, can also affect your accuracy. A change of just a few thousands of an inch inside the chamber can have a profound effect on the accuracy of your gun. 

Good quality sights and optics are a big part of rifle accuracy. If your optic is improperly mounted, it will wander off-target when your gun recoils. This will have a dramatic effect on where your bullets are hitting the target (ask me how I know this). In addition to this, better-quality optics give you a better, clearer image of the target downrange, improving your ability to hit what you’re aiming at. 

Lastly, better-quality ammo delivers more consistent, more repeatable results. This in turn allows you to set up your rifle to take advantage of that consistency. Higher-performance cars work better with higher-octane fuel, and the same is true of the ammo you put inside your rifle. The time you invest to find out what rounds work best with your rifle will pay huge dividends when it is time to perform in the field or on the range. 

Accuracy Testing Measures Performance

An upgraded savage b-22 rifle designed to become a more accurate firearm with customizations.

Upgrading your rifle helps. Practice helps more, though.

So what effect does all this attention to detail have on your results downrange? To find out, I sent my stock Savage B22 LH F .22LR bolt action rifle to the wizards at SavageGunsmithing.com. They worked their magic on it, bedding the stock, installing a new heavier bull barrel and machining the action to exact tolerances. I shot four five round groups at 50 yards from a rest using three different kinds of .22 match ammo to establish a baseline for the stock rifle. I then shot the same kinds of ammo (from the same box) when it returned in order to see what effect the upgrades had on my rifle’s accuracy. 

Federal HV Match 40 Grain Tag Round Nose Lead .22LR

Stock Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 1.19 inches

Accurized Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 0.92 inches

Difference In Group Size: 0.26 inches
Percentage Improvement: 21.9%

Wolf 40 Grain Round Nose Lead .22LR

Stock Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 0.95 inches

Accurized Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 0.73 inches

Difference In Group Size: 0.23 inches
Percentage Improvement: 23.7%

Eley 40 Grain Round Nose Lead .22LR

A group of hits on target demonstrating 1-MOA accuracy.

1 MOA (or better) is really the baseline when it comes to an accurate rifle

Stock Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 1.08 Inches

Accurized Rifle Results
Average Group Size: 0.69 Inches

Difference In Group Size: 0.38 Inches
Percentage Improvement: 35.6%

Overall Group Size Improvement: 0.29 inches

Overall Percentage Improvement:  27%

The Bottom Line Is…

Is all of this worth the effort? Well, that depends on your skill level and what you want to do with your rifle. In my case, my plan is to use my upgraded rifle in .22 precision rifle matches, so it was definitely worth my time and effort. If you’re at the point where your results on paper or in the field need to be a bit better, then maybe it’s time to take a look at one of the many ways you can improve your rifle’s accuracy.