April 05, 2022
By Joseph von Benedikt
Centuries ago, controversy raged about why rifled muzzleloaders were more accurate than smoothbore guns. Proponents claimed that because the ball fired downrange by the rifle was spinning rapidly, the devil couldn’t ride it and lead it astray. Opponents argued back that somehow the spiral grooves gave the devil control, enabling him to guide bullets to more deadly ends.
Yes, it really was a thing. Neither argument held water, as time would prove. Today, however, we still occasionally battle inaccurate rifles, sometimes to the point we’d willingly believe one is possessed.
Usually, the answer is simpler than scheduling an exorcism. Here are seven different modifications and methods that often bring new life (and benevolent accuracy) to a rifle.
1. Get an Aftermarket Trigger
Often, the demon within the rifle is activated by a horrendous trigger. While some modern rifles—even budget models—incorporate trigger advancements that make the go-switch behave tolerably, many rifles have triggers that are heavy, with lots of creep (movement before releasing), and worse yet, gritty creep. Overtravel (excessive rearward movement after the trigger releases) is also usually a problem.
If the trigger is adjustable (look up factory specs online), attempt to adjust it until it’s nice and crisp—and fairly light to boot (a 3-pound pull is about perfect for a hunting rifle).
If it’s not adjustable, or if it refuses to adjust nicely, it’s time to invest in an aftermarket trigger. Timney, Jewell, TriggerTech, and others make excellent match-grade triggers that will absolutely improve your ability to break the shot cleanly at the moment of truth.
2. Upgrade the Riflestock
When a cartridge detonates inside a rifle chamber, a violent explosion occurs. Between 55,000 and 65,000 psi of pressure with nowhere else to go thrusts the bullet down the barrel and out the muzzle. Vibration occurs—massive quantities of vibration.
That vibration causes a phenomenon called barrel oscillation, which is a multidimensional, rhythmic set of harmonic waves that run through the barrel, whipping it like ropes between weightlifters. Additionally, the vibration hums in the action like a tuning fork. All this occurs, of course, as recoil violently wrenches the action rearward and up, attempting to tear it from its seat in the riflestock.
If that seat in the stock isn’t well fit, each time the action settles after recoil, it settles in a microscopically different position, with different tensions and different pressures. As a result, the next shot will go in a slightly different location. Talk about demons possessing your rifle! For no apparent reason, bullets just go willy-nilly.
Sometimes an ill-fitting action bed is the fault of the stock. Modern, injection-molded plastic stocks are the worst culprits. They’re cheap, often poorly fitted, and become malleable in heat and brittle in cold.
Other times, your stock may be of decent or even great quality, but the action bed simply fits loosely.
In the first case, purchase a quality stock. Laminate wood is the best option for inexpensive, strong, and rigid. Fiberglass is ultra-tough but heavy. Carbon fiber is the darling of the modern precision hunting crowd, but it’s costly. Any of these will be rigid, strong, and impervious to moisture and temperature extremes.
Whether using a new, upgraded stock or working with an existing stock, have your action glass bedded by a quality gunsmith. This will tame vibration and oscillation and likely is the single most effective way to improve actual rifle accuracy.
3. Shoot Precision Handloads
Remember all that oscillation and vibration just discussed? Well, those rhythmic waves running down the barrel have nodes. Like a pendulum, the end of the barrel finds a pause, an equilibrium in the chaos every few nanoseconds. A load that pushes the bullet from the muzzle during one of those nodes will shoot exponentially better than one that exits mid-pulse. That’s why testing a half-dozen factory loads in your rifle often will turn up one that shoots much better than all the rest. It just happens to exit in a node.
Even better, by handloading ammo for your specific rifle, you can tune the bullet of your choice to exit during a node. That’s a technique too vast to cover here, but by finding just the right powder charge and just the right bulletseating depth, you can achieve gratifying accuracy.
4. Lap the Barrel
I’ve always said that a rifle’s heart is in its action, its stock is its skeleton, and its soul is in the barrel. If your rifle has a rough soul, it will struggle to shoot down the straight and narrow. Rough internal barrel surfaces are hard on bullet jackets and collect fouling fast.
A traditional method of smoothing a bore out is to insert a strong, one-piece rod with an aggressively threaded end and pour a molten lead plug around the threads. Done properly, when it cools you have a perfect-fitting 4- to 5-inch lead “lap.” Coat it with jeweler’s rouge and go to work scrubbing the inside of the barrel until your shoulder and elbow give up. The result should be a mirror-bright, smooth bore. (Usually, this is done with the barrel unscrewed from the action and falls within the realm of a good gunsmith.)
An easier option that’s readily available to everyday rifle nuts is to use David Tubb’s Final Finish bore-lapping bullets. They feature jackets impregnated with polishing compound, and you simply fire them through your barrel. By most accounts, they can make a big difference.
5. Use Good Scope Bases/Rings
Cheap scope bases and rings can work well and often give decades of admirable service. But on the flipside, often they don’t. Do you want to risk missing a critical shot on a big buck or bull by spending $11 on rings, rather than $40?
Cheap scope bases are usually made of aluminum and can easily distort. Avoid them. Instead, use steel bases, correctly installed with mild LocTite and torqued to manufacturer specs.
Cheap rings are even worse. Usually, they’re not concentric around the gripping surface that contacts your scope’s tube. A non-concentric ring applies uneven force to the scope’s aluminum body and distorts it. Moving parts inside are cramped and sometimes lock up.
When installing a good scope, give it a chance to do its best job for you by using quality bases and rings.
If you’re particular about perfection, invest in a ring-lapping kit. This allows you to polish the interior contact surfaces of your rings to a perfect circle. Lapped rings allow a scope to adjust predictably and consistently (we’re talking windage and elevation turrets here and magnification adjustments). Top gunsmiths often insist on lapped rings because they know their fine custom rifles can’t shoot up to par without them.
If you want inexpensive, simple rings of premium quality, purchase Talley lightweight one-piece ring/base combos. They’re beautifully made, concentric, and sledgehammer strong.
6. Get the Best Scope
Get the best scope you can afford. An old adage suggests that savvy riflemen spend as much on a new scope as they do on a new hunting rifle. Back in the day, that meant something like a $400 Remington Model 700 and a $400 Leupold Vari-X 3. At the time, that scope was top-shelf.
As rifles inflated, understanding shooters spent more and more on rifles. Nowadays, a good big-game rifle starts at about $800 and goes up to a couple grand. However, for whatever reason, many hunters still seem stuck on that $400 price range for a scope.
My friends, I’m here to tell you a $400 scope is now entry-level. Like good rifles, the quality scopes start at about $800 and run up to a couple grand.
Spend the money. If you can’t see your target, because you have cheap glass atop your rifle, you’ll never hit it. If your scope fails because the internals are cheap, you’ll fail.
Here’s a new adage for you: Buy once, cry once. Spend good money for a good optic and shoot and hunt happily thereafter.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
With your rifle, scope, and ammo whipped into shape (all the demons exorcised), there’s just one thing left. Regularly take it to rifle-church. That’s the range, my friends. Turn faith in your rifle to testimony by shooting—a lot. Practice consistently, using good techniques, and your reborn rifle will serve you well.