So you are set up behind your rifle, parallax is set, winds are calm, you break the shot and miss! You're confident your fundamentals were sound. You had your DOPE set, so you send another round to confirm, and this time you hit your target. You chalk the first round up to shooter error and send the third bullet. MISS! Well, now what? Regarding precision rifle shooting, not all skill sets are centered around pulling the trigger. Before throwing more rounds down range and seeing what happens, let's take a step back and think it through.
CONSISTENCY IS KING
We can do a few things before getting behind the gun to ensure success. First and foremost is consistency. When I speak of consistency, I am referring to doing the same thing, the same way EVERY TIME. This was a methodology I adopted early on in my flying career. When I would preflight my helicopter, I did it exactly the same way every time. I checked every item in the same order each time and manipulated every latch or flight surface the same number of times. It got to the point I could do it blindfolded.
Consistency helped in two significant ways, and it can translate directly to shooting/troubleshooting your rifle. First, having a consistent process and following each step in order meant I didn't forget to check something. Even if I got distracted, I knew exactly where I was in the process. Take, for instance, if every time I get ready to shoot, I build my position, check my dope, manipulate my turrets, run my bolt, and pull the trigger.
Second, it helped me better recognize if something was wrong or out of place. If you take that same analogy, check DOPE, run bolt, shoot. If I did that 100 times, and on the 101st time, I ran the bolt and THEN checked my DOPE, it would not feel right; there would be a visceral indicator that something was "wrong."
Not all gear is created equal. Try to buy the best gear you can afford, especially a riflescope.
Next is having a "deductive method of reasoning ." Sounds super fancy, I know. It means to look at the big picture first and then work your way down to specifics. Deductive reasons will save time, ammo/money, and frustration. At this stage, a solid base in shooting fundamentals and a clear understanding of how your equipment functions will come in handy. Your rifle is a tool. In good working order and without any outside influences, it is incredibly consistent in this task completion. So, when it does not perform as expected, our first step is to determine if it is the rifle or something else.
SELF ANALYSIS AND EXTERNAL FACTORS
It is always easier to point the blame elsewhere than to admit fault in ourselves. We have to be honest with our self-assessment when troubleshooting. If you know your shot was good, your sights were on target when the shot broke. Your breathing was stable, etc., then we can confidently begin to eliminate external factors and start looking at the rifle.
For the sake of this article, we won't factor in wind calls and weather but will lump that in with our "external" factors. If you are unsure, or can't call your shot good, then it is worth taking at least 1-2 more shots and focusing on your fundamentals. Make a deliberate effort to take the best shot regarding your positioning and trigger press, etc., to ensure you can eliminate the external factors from the equation.
One of my precision rifles. MDT LSS XL Gen 2, Proof Barrel. This rifle is capable of extreme levels of accuracy.
Lastly, in terms of external factors, let's address ammunition. For most any reputable manufacturer, match-grade box ammunition will be very consistent. There MAY be one or two rounds here or there that are outliers. Still, as long as you are working with factory ammo and not hand loads, we can, for the most part, eliminate ammo as our issue. Also, ensure you are not switching back and forth from 130 grain to 147 grain, back down to 140 grain, and then over to 143 grain ammo. Remember, consistency is key.
TROUBLESHOOTING RIFLE HARDWARE
Now that we are reasonably sure it is the rifle and not us, a quick visual inspection is our next step. Are there any apparent discrepancies? Does anything look blatantly out of place? Check for loose or missing screws from your scope mount, loose bipod, or any new dings/dents or scratches you have not seen before. These can all be indicators of potential factors. Again, let's use a consistent approach here as well. Start at the muzzle and work your way back to the buttstock or vice versa.
WIGGLE TEST AND LOOSE SCREWS
Once we have made a visual inspection and have not found anything to be wrong, next is what I call the "wiggle test." It should go without saying, you should ensure your rifle is safe and clear before performing any maintenance, but we will say it anyway. Again, starting from one end and working your way to the other, twist, shake, push, pull, and wiggle everything on your rifle. This will give you a better idea than a quick visual inspection if anything is loose.
If your can't figure out what is wrong, don't waste ammo.
You may ask, how can I "see" if a screw is loose? A simple trick called a "witness mark" is the best way to visually confirm if a screw has come loose. Using a paint pen or nail polish, you can put a dab of color that crosses the screw and the surface of the object the screw is holding in place. If the screw begins to back out, the dab of paint will move, and you can easily see that it no longer lines up with its other half on the object being held in place.
We will take a moment to pause and address what to do if we find something wrong at any step in this process. There are a few considerations depending on what you see is wrong. A good question to ask yourself is, "does this thing that is wrong impact or interact with anything else"? For example, if we find a loose bipod, we can quickly tighten it up and go about our day. However, if we found a loose scope ring, that could potentially require some more steps and maybe more tools than we have with us at the range. This leads to the next question, "is this something I can fix here at the range"?
I put witness marks on my scope rings
I typically have a multi-driver with a bit for every fastener on my rifle, a change of batteries for each electronic device, and a scope level in my bag. Depending on what I am doing that day, I may or may not have a torque wrench.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR GEAR
If we have not found anything wrong thus far, we can take this same approach on a smaller scale. The visual inspection and wiggle check can be applied to each component of the rifle system—the rifle, the scope, the magazine, etc. Depending if you are running a bolt gun or gas gun, you may have a few more things to inspect in this step. From here, your understanding of how the rifle operates will significantly affect how quickly you can diagnose your issues. The essential factor here is understanding how all the parts and pieces of our rifles interact.
An example would be if you have determined your rifle is not feeding correctly. Is it the magazine that isn't pushing the round up so that the bolt can get a good purchase on the next round to push it into the chamber? Is there an obstruction in your chamber, or is the feed ramp damaged? Is the ammo you have getting hung up on the magazine lip because the overall cartridge length is too long? Just for this particular issue, we have identified three different items which could potentially be causing the malfunction.
ASK FOR HELP
This process will likely expose 90% of any issues you may have. You can do one more thing, but it will require some extra equipment and people to do it. If you feel that you have identified the known bad part on your rifle, be it the scope, the magazine, or your bolt carrier group. We can do a "known good" check. If you suspect your scope may be the culprit, you can take a scope off of another rifle that you KNOW is good. And swap it out for the one that you suspect is bad. If this corrects your issue, you have confirmed your suspicions. There are some limitations here; if you don't have an extra scope, you can put your scope on a different rifle and see if the problem persists.
Another good thing is to have someone else shoot your gun. Suppose you are not confident in your fundamentals and cannot eliminate the outside factors of your shooting ability. In that case, it can be helpful to have another shooter get behind your rifle to confirm or dispel your suspicions.
More: Note to Self
In summary, your grasp of the fundamentals of marksmanship and a solid understanding of how your rifle functions will be your best tools for troubleshooting your rifle. Taking a consistent and deliberate approach is going to pay dividends immediately and mitigate future issues. Thank you.
ABOUT MICAH NOE
Micah Noe, COTA/L (@jolly914), spent 11 years in the United States Air Force working in Combat Rescue and deployed to Afghanistan 5 times. Micah splits his time between the Healthcare and the Firearms industry. He teaches for Ghost Ring Tactical in San Antonio, NM, and is the CEO and Founder of High Desert Training Partners. He is also the COO for Berserker Creative, a Utah-based media production company specializing in the outdoor/firearms communities.