While this is nothing near an exhaustive article, a replacement of better sources, an indictment of any technique, process, or method devised by others, or industry- or application-specific one, I felt the need to share my thoughts on some of how a rifle can be manufactured or made to be more accurate. Take note that I am not discussing how you can make yourself more accurate, choose or make ammunition more accurate, or improve your shooting skills (in this article). If you’d like me to cover those topics, please reach out. This is all about the “system” you will be using.
Because there are so many possible rifle types, specialized military systems, and very complex mechanisms and suppression technologies available, this article will focus more on the things you can do to any bolt-action rifle used for sniping, hunting, or sport-shooting.
This is not a topic I write on regularly or a field in which I still practice daily, but I am sure that many might find value in the passionate ramblings of a South African Navy Marines Veteran, simplified for easy consumption.
For as long as we can remember, men – and even women – have gathered around fires, shared war stories – some taller than others – and flexed their “I know better than you” muscles as they partake in the ales of preference. While most discussions fade and die along with hangovers and embers, I have repeatedly found myself in the middle of – um, let’s say – “passionate debate” about just how accurate a shot someone was, or is alleged to be.
One such story I recall to this day – probably because I don’t partake in ale – is when someone told me that “his instructor in the (South African) Police College could strike an old One-Rand Coin from 300m, every single time, with an R1 Rifle, open-sight.”
Let me put that in context: The FAL R1 Rifle is a Belgian design from 1953. It is a gas-operated self-loading rifle, fitted with a tilting breech block mechanism that is capable of fully automatic fire, chambered in 7.62×51 NATO caliber (.280 British, originally). In short, it is a “loose design” that is highly reliable, capable, and powerful – but not the most accurate available.
An old South African One rand Coin was 29mm (just over an inch) in diameter (1977-1990) while 300m is about 985 feet. So the claim was that this instructor could fire a .308 Nato Round out of a gas-operated rifle of 1950’s design, over a distance of almost 1,000 feet, and achieve an accuracy of about one inch, without the use of a telescope.
My effort at explaining – as carefully as I can – all the elements that go into achieving that level of accuracy, was completely wasted and deteriorated into bets that involved a full month of his pay, around the skills of an instructor that was probably no longer even in the service, living his life some 1,000 miles away, and who wasn’t even available to confirm or deny the claims.
I will not bore you with the full details or the extent to which I tried to enlighten the dude, but I left sad and disappointed at how unwilling my “opponent” had been to understand the mechanics of rifle accuracy and why I believed his claim to be highly improbably, if not physically impossible.
This brings me to the following in the hopes that I will help you regard at least some of the factors that go into what makes a rifle (more) accurate. I’ve decided to address the issue as a series of “F’s” to help you remember them more easily. I also address them from the front (muzzle) to the rear (stock), in order to help you best structure your next fireplace debate:
A heavier barrel can withstand more heat, vibrates less, and adds weight to the shooting platform, which improves stability. While practical applications may vary – hunters might want lighter rifles, small people or women smaller rifles, and military personnel bigger calibers, heavier barrels are often more “stable” than lighter counterparts. So if you can retrofit a heavier barrel, it might certainly improve accuracy as well. While the extra weight might bother you, you don’t have to keep all of it, because you could also…
With rifles, like with so many other mechanical devices, heat is not your best friend. A barrel that can cool down quickly can remain within optimum working temperatures for longer. There are a number of ways to cool things down, but pouring water, adding ice, or installing fans are all excluded for obvious reasons.
By fluting the barrel (cutting a series of grooves along the length of it), you create a larger surface area, which improves cooling. By keeping the barrel within a narrower margin of temperatures, as you lay down fire, your accuracy will be improved as the barrel is protected from premature overheating. A very hot barrel can develop “barrel bulges,” which can not only destroy accuracy but also your rifle.
While we’re talking about the barrel and the effects of heat, you need to know that barrels obviously also vibrate as bullets are fired. This movement is referred to as barrel mnemonics and it can affect accuracy if it is not controlled. To control the barrel mnemonics, you can only normalize for consistency. This is achieved if you can…
If your barrel is in contact with parts of your rifle and that contact changes in any way from one shot to the next, your accuracy will be affected. While you may not be aware, your barrel “rings like a bell” every time you fire. This “sound” can change if you touch it anywhere. If it is touching your stock and you hold the stock, you are touching the barrel. If you hold it lightly on shot one, and harder on shot two, further forward on shot 3, and then “dead rest” it for shot 4, your accuracy will be compromised.
By “floating” your barrel (making sure it touches as little of the rifle as possible), you can isolate the barrel to make sure it “rings true” with every shot. By suspending your barrel only at or near the action and avoiding contact in other areas, you can reduce any stray shots or inconsistencies that can creep in due to your natural bodily changes.
But even the way that the barrel is fitted to the stock has an effect on consistency. If it can touch some parts with more parts than others, even at the action, the accuracy could be affected. For this reason, you could also…
The barrel is connected to the action. The action must obviously be fitted to the stock, to allow you to use it. But how it is fitted is often a function of choice made by each manufacturer. One way in which you can try to ensure that the action is mounted to the stock as securely as possible, with as little room for “play” as possible, is to have your action “glass bedded” to your stock.
Glass bedding is achieved by slightly enlarging the stock seat where the action fits, then filling it with a special resin that hardens. The action is forced into this resin, which forms a near-perfect contact face between the stock and the action to ensure minimal room for any vibration, movement, or interference. Next, you could also…
I use the word “force” very loosely here, but if your action is of a particularly “loose” design – such as is found on the R1 – it will mean that each bullet is not inserted into the chamber with exactly the same force. The bullets will not seat into the chamber as fully as possible on each reload cycle.
To ensure that your bullets seat as securely and consistently as possible, you might have your action adjusted to where the action is very tight on each loading cycle. Some might say that you should see evidence of a tight fit on the back of your cartridge.
A tight action will ensure that each bullet is seated as deeply, securely, and tightly as all those before or after, thereby eliminating any possible inconsistencies in the firing cycle.
The final piece of the puzzle, as far as the 6 F’s for rifle accuracy is concerned, is…
When I refer to “fix” I mean to you. By fitting a proper stock – perhaps an adjustable stock, of high quality – you can ensure that the rifle is comfortable when you hold it. The so-called “weld points” between your body and the rifle must be consistent if you are aspiring to achieve consistent accuracy.
If the stock fits your shoulder comfortably, your cheek can rest on the stock without you having to adopt a strange angle with your neck, your firing hand can find a “well” to rest in every time, and if your supporting hand can grasp the stock persistently, you will surely see the results in your accuracy.
But there is one more thing to consider. Let’s call it a “Bonus F” if you will:
Unless you make decisions around the use of your firearm, you cannot achieve accuracy under all conditions. Hunting varmin where you need a light rifle with a smaller but faster caliber over longer distances is not the same as hunting big game where you need a high-powered rifle you can move and point very quickly at short distances. Equally, you cannot use a heavy sniper rifle with a large caliber and go hunting with comfort in dense bush.
Think about your use, application, target, range, and comfort, then choose your rifle, before dealing with issues of accuracy.
I sincerely hope that this not-too-technical treatment around the issue of making rifles more accurate is as enlightening as it was fun to write.