How to Zero a Rifle On a Short Shooting Range

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Last Updated on March 31, 2021.
How to Zero a Rifle On a Short Shooting Range

When you get a new rifle, you must make sure that it shoots accurately and that your optic or sights are aligned with the barrel. 

However, not every shooter has the luxury of living near a 300-yard rifle range. Even a 100-yard range can be a significant drive. But 25-yard and 50-yard ranges are more common.

Fortunately, it is possible to zero your rifle accurately, even at shorter distances. Learn how to zero your rifle at 25 or 50 yards.


Differences Between Zeroing and Sighting-In

Although many shooters use both terms interchangeably, it is critical to understand the difference between zeroing and sighting-in.

Sighting your rifle in is the process of intersecting your point of aim and your point of impact. Sighting in your scope for 100 yards means you’re setting the center of your sights or crosshairs to intersect perfectly with the bullet’s point of impact at 100 yards.

Zeroing is the process of adjusting your scope so that your windage setting and elevation setting are both set to their center positions (zero, zero) at the desired point of aim.

In other words, on a zeroed scope, the center of your crosshairs are perfectly aligned with the point of aim, serving as a reference point for the shooter.

Zeroing a rifle is relatively straightforward if your target is at the desired distance; shoot, check where the bullet impacted, adjust rifle, shoot, repeat until the impacts are on the center of the crosshairs.

Most shooters set their zero between 100 and 300 yards, depending on the rifle, the caliber, and the intended application. But if you do not have access to a rifle range, the process may be challenging.


Zeroing At Close Sighting Distances

If all you have access to is a 25-yard indoor range, you can still zero your rifle with acceptable accuracy. All you need is the right method and the ammunition you intend to use for the rifle’s desired application.

For example, if you’re zeroing a hunting rifle, use the hunting ammunition you want to bring on the field.

The 25-yard 3-Shot Zero Method

Set up a paper target with easily-visible points of reference at 25 yards, pick a spot on your target to use as your point of aim, then place your rifle on a relatively stable shooting platform, such as a bench rest or a shooting bag.

Load the first round, then aim down the sights, placing the crosshairs on the target’s center. Press the trigger slowly and carefully, without applying too much pressure (“jerking” the trigger) to ensure the rifle is as stable as possible.

Load the rifle again to fire a second “verification” shot. In theory, that second shot should print a hole very close to the first, if not directly into it.

Assuming the first two shots are very close to each other, measure the distance between the shot holes and the point of aim. Then, adjust your scope to bring the crosshairs in the opposite direction.

If your first two shots printed holes high and to the right of your point of aim, you want to adjust your crosshairs an equal distance down and left.

After making the necessary adjustments, place the crosshairs on the point of aim, and fire the third shot. If you’ve adjusted your scope correctly, you should theoretically have printed a hole into the point of aim.

If you did, you have successfully zeroed at 25 yards.

More Than 3 Shots?

Although this zeroing method theoretically calls for only 3 shots, you may want to shoot additional rounds in certain situations.

If you haven’t adjusted your crosshairs correctly, your third shot may not be on the point of aim. If this happens, adjust your scope again and repeat until you print a hole on target. 

During the “verification” shot phase, the second shot should be very close to the first. However, a 2-shot group is a very field-expedient way to gauge your rifle’s accuracy, and you may want to print more holes to form a measurable group, which should give you a better idea of your rifle’s accuracy.

To measure your rifle’s group size, fire 3, 5, or 10 shots without adjusting your scope, depending on how much ammunition you’re willing to fire for testing.

Use a caliper to measure the distance between the outside edges of the two furthest shot holes, then subtract your bullet diameter from the result.

For example, if you’re shooting a .308 Winchester hunting rifle, your bullet diameter is 0.308”. If you’ve measured a distance of 0.793” between your two furthest shots, your group size is as follows: 0.793 - 0.308 = 0.485”.

At 25 yards, a 0.485” group is approximately 1.85 MOA, which is accurate enough for a hunting rifle. Don’t hesitate to use an MOA calculator to determine your group size.

A standard 5.56mm carbine should shoot between 2 and 3 MOA with average FMJ ammunition, and a typical deer hunting rifle loaded with quality hunting ammo should print at least 2 MOA or better.

If you get more than 3 MOA, your rifle’s accuracy is too low for any kind of serious application, such as hunting or self-defense. Try using ammunition from another maker to see if your groups improve; some rifles “prefer” specific brands over others.

If your rifle has consistently low accuracy, no matter which brand of ammunition you try, your rifle may be the problem. You may have to consider replacing your barrel or getting a new firearm altogether.


​Using and Fine-Tuning Your Rifle

If you’ve followed the 3-shot method, your rifle should now be zeroed for 25 yards, which should intersect with other, more practical distances on the field. 

With most rifle platforms, a 25-yard zero will let you hit targets accurately at roughly 300 yards. Between 100 and 150 yards, expect your rifle to shoot about 1 to 2 inches low, depending on the caliber.

If you apply the same method at 50 yards to form a 50-yard zero, you should be on target at 250 yards as well. A 100-yard shot with a rifle zeroed for 50 yards should shoot approximately 1 inch low.


Parting Shots

Although zeroing your rifle at 25 yards will not give you precision shooting accuracy, if you’ve followed the 3-shot zero method correctly, you should still end up with a firearm with enough precision for casual plinking and target shooting, and getting on paper for zeroing at longer ranges.

Of course, just because your rifle is accurate doesn’t mean the shooter is!

Don’t neglect training. Practice your shooting as often as possible; this is the only way to be accurate on the field.