Firearms: Understanding the Performance of Your Rifle Through Trials and Tribulations

Many times, we get so caught up in buying our toys and getting them out of the package to play that we don’t pay attention to the fine details that really matter. It’s no surprise that prepping has generally been all about more, bigger, and better firearms and ammunition. Yet, there is so much to be learned about the proper use and care of your firearms that becomes lost on the average person. Many times we buy the gun, we get it out of the package, throw all of our tacti-cool stuff on it, maybe shoot it a few times, and then we lay it in a closet without another thought. We check off the box for “protection” and move on. Yet, this is the piece of the puzzle that we rely upon to save our lives and protect our families and belongings. When the time comes, whether it’s for protection or for providing, will you know how your rifle performs? Will you know how to care for it? Perhaps most importantly, have you ironed out all the potential problems that use in the field can throw at you? This is a complicated piece of equipment and the chances of you getting it all correct the first time through are very slim. Once you are in the field, trying to figure out why your rifle can’t hit something you are aiming at is too late. 

I am sure you have heard it said about your carry gun, usually some variation of: “Don’t rely on it until you try it.” What’s that mean? Take it out shooting. Know how it performs. Learn how to compensate for it. Know what ammo it likes. Yet in a TEOTWAWKI setting, the rifle is infinitely more useful and important, though much more complex to take care of and learn. The average person doesn’t have a place where they can practice with a rifle, especially not at distances greater than 50 yards or so, making it hard to fully understand the performance of their life-saving tool. Luckily, millions of American’s are hunters, so they have learned the ins and outs of setting up, maintaining, learning, and successfully operating their rifle. Even so, it has become obvious to me that using a rifle more than a few times a year is almost a necessity. There is only so much you can learn by shooting your rifle 5 times a year. Sometimes potential problems don’t show up with 1 shot a year. I want to talk to you about a problem I have faced this year.

I don’t remember if I addressed this a few weeks ago on my deer hunting post, but something had happened this year that had never happened before. On my first hunt of the year, I had a relatively long shot at a doe, who was walking across a field about 180 yards from me. I had a good rest and I took the shot, but nothing happened other than she scurried away. 

I was pretty upset about it, not having missed a shot since my very first hunt when I was 13 years old. But the shot was fairly long and the deer was moving, so I just assumed that it was my time. A few days later, I was sitting in the exact same shooting house and the exact same deer came out. She walked the same path as the one days before, so I took aim and shot. And I shot again. And again. No luck.

At that point I knew something was wrong. How could I miss that many shots by that wide of a margin? Of course, that caused me to start thinking analytically on how the performance of my rifle could be degraded or at least affected by a handful of variables. It was amazing how many different things I could come up with that were all plausible. Perhaps the crosswind was too much. Maybe the change in ammunition had a greater effect than I thought. Had my gun been dropped at some point or the scope somehow been knocked? Any and all of these things were possible. There was only one thing to do: check out the “zero” on the gun. 

Because my shoulder didn’t need repetitive knocks, my dad took the gun and sighted it in. He reported back that it was shooting 6 inches low at 60 yards, but it was fixed. Yet, the windage was excellent. I thought that was odd, but didn’t really think about it too much. We just assumed that either the scope was knocked off or the change from a 160 grain to a 180 grain bullet accounted for the massive ballistics change. Either way, the gun was back on and I could go back to hunting. 

I took it hunting the next day and had a fairly simple 75 yard shot, which resulted in a nice kill. 

Just a few days later, I took the gun back out. Very close to dark, I was presented a shot. It was a decently long shot, and it was near dark but I took it. The deer had nearly no reaction to the shot other than to scamper a few yards closer to me. I took a second shot. The deer came even closer to me, just under 50 yards. I tried for a 3rd shot and missed again. 

Frustrated as I have never been while hunting, I stormed home. When I got home, I took the gun inside and inspected it. That’s when I noticed this:

Do you see that scrape just above the rings? Well, that brought back some memories. So, let’s talk about them. Initially, I had a cheaper scope on this gun with a 30mm aperture, which limited my visibility in low light conditions. The scope also had cheaper rings on it, but they worked. After deer season last year, we swapped the old scope for a Nikon Monarch, but kept the old rings. After sighting it in, I did notice that the scope seemed to have slid “forward” in the rings. Actually, what happened was the momentum of the  gunshots had pushed the gun backwards and was unable to transfer the momentum to the scope, but slipped in the rings. But, the gun was sighted in so I tightened the ring bolts as tight as I could and went on about my life. The first time I fired it after sighting it in was the aforementioned miss you read about earlier. 

Obviously, there was something that needed to be changed. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew I couldn’t simply tighten down the screws on the rings anymore. In fact, not only was I worried that squeezing the tube could cause some sort of refraction or misalignment of the glass inside of the scope, but I was doubtful that I could even get the screws out without stripping them. 

Indeed, that was the case. The more force I applied to the allen wrench to get the screws out, the more it looked like I would have to take drastic measures else the screws would just strip. So, I got creative. I used a C-clamp and compressed the edges of the rings in order to take the pressure off of the screws. They came out fairly easily.

When I inspected the inside of the rings and the outer diameter of the scope tube, it seemed that there was remnants of some sort of fluid. I figure it was either oil left over on the scope’s packaging or perhaps some loctite from the installations of the screws. Additionally, I started thinking about why this scope was having problems but I never had any problems with the other scope. I thought about the installation of the scope itself.

I recalled that it was a cold day and I was in a hurry to get it installed and sighted in. I also recall that I didn’t level the scope out entirely, which caused the crosshairs to not be quit flat. Is it possible that in my rush I had made a fundamental error? Perhaps I didn’t sequence the tightening of the bolts properly? While the bolts would appear to be tight, the ring itself may not have had the proper contact patch from the uneven tightening. Perhaps it was simply because the rings themselves had form-fitted to a different scope that had, at best, the same dimensions but different tolerances. It could be that the scopes were entirely different sizes or shapes.

Regardless of the why and how, the fact is, the rifle was useless in this condition. After every other shot, the zero was completely lost. Like I stated above, it could be my own fault from a lack of attention to detail or it could have been bad luck. But, I was determined to crunch the variables this time around and ensure that this gun would become reliable. So, I bought new (and better) rings. I really wanted to go with a complete set of Leupold bases and rings, but unfortunately, they don’t make a set that fits my Marlin and the Nikon scope. So, I had to use the bases that were on it plus adjustable Leupold rings.

I started out by wiping down the mating services with alcohol, removing any debris or fluids.  

I then leveled up the rifle itself.

Then, after cleaning the scope and rings thoroughly, I placed the scope in the rings and leveled the scope in both directions. 

Lastly, I placed the ring caps on the scope and tightened them down. First, I tightened them until they were snug, then I alternated tightening in 90 degree turns on each screw until they were tight. 

Now, understand that there is a lot more that I could do to install this scope to even better standards. With a quick search, you can find all kinds of ways to properly install and sight in a scope. However, I don’t have the setup to do that, so this is the best I can do. Furthermore, this post isn’t about teaching how to do what I have done so much as it is for you to learn that you can’t learn much about a gun by throwing it in your Bug Out Bag. I am just as guilty as the next person. I built my budget AR and have yet to fire it. I would go so far as to say that you don’t know your gun by firing it five times a year. However, if that’s what you are going to do, at least make sure that you sight it in each year before you take it hunting the first time. 

Hopefully your luck will be better than mine, but there are other things to consider. Have you practiced with your gun with different types of ammunition? Like I alluded to earlier, I didn’t think about the effects of going from 160 grain ammo to 180 grain ammo until it was too late. Ultimately, that wasn’t why I missed the deer, but the bullet drop from 100 to 300 yards between the two are substantial. While ballistics charts are readily available and great, it isn’t for your gun and for your situation. Plus, the experience stored in your mind will be a lot faster than digging out a ballistics chart. Additionally, there are the effects of windage, again, something that you can only understand by shooting your gun in that situation. Do you know the effect on your gun by taking repeated shots? Deer hunters rarely take more than 1 shot at a time, but in the event of taking consecutive shots, do you know how the warming of you gun will effect ballistics? What about problems during firing such as jamming? You may not know until you fire it in a rapid fire setting. Could you figure out how to solve it as we talked about in our Light Handgun Repair post?

So many variables to consider just with shooting. It’s better that you have all the other ones crunched before you get into that situation. The fact is, had I not shot this gun and missed 7 shots this year, the mark on the scope wouldn’t have shown up. Its perfectly plausible that, had I had shorter shots which would have been possible, I might not have made the connection for years. But, I pushed the gun to limits I hadn’t done before and it showed me what needed to be done. I’m just glad it was deer hunting and not a situation with life and death hanging in the balance. Whether it’s an AR-15 that you have laying in the closet for TEOTWAWKI or a deer rifle that gets shot once a year, make sure that you bring that gun out and do your due diligence whenever possible. Better to iron out your problems at the range than against a foe or starvation.