How to Shoot a Rifle with A Scope: Eye Relief, Positioning, Routines

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By Dennis Howard •  11 min read

You have your new rifle with a new scope all mounted. You are ready to go hunting, right?  Not quite. Before you go to the field with that new rifle, you need to understand and practice a few things. Shooting a rifle with a scope is a bit different than using iron sights. You need to understand how to shoot your new scoped rifle.

In many ways shooting a rifle with a scope is more about consistency than it is about setup and consistency than anything else. Mounting the scope properly is a big part of being successful at shooting with a scope. Consistency in your execution of each shot is the other major part. You do the mounting correctly, almost everything else is up to you.

Correctly mounting your scope is half the battle. The other half is finding the right routine to maximize the accuracy of you and the rifle. I have some tips and tricks that can help you find your routine and some step-by-step instructions for making a shot with your scoped rifle.

Before a Single Shot Goes Down the Barrel

Before anything else can happen, you must mount your scope correctly for the most accurate shots. There are lots of good articles on the internet about mounting rifle scopes. In fact, one that I wrote is available at this link. As you mount your rifle scope, pay particular attention to a couple of things.

Reticle Alignment – Get It Straight and True

Most guides to mounting a rifle scope mention reticle alignment in passing. I guess the assumption is that you will get the scope aligned with the bore of the gun and the crosshairs vertical with the gun. If you fail this part of the setup, your shots will go astray when you adjust for elevation and windage.

Buy a set of scope alignment bubble levels and learn how to use them. In the long run, your accuracy will improve.

Eye Relief – Where to Put the Scope

Two critical factors pertain to eye relief when mounting a scope on your rifle. The first is your head position on the stock. In part, this depends on several factors.

The length of pull of the stock determines to a large extent where you naturally put your cheek on the stock as you get ready to shoot. Cheek weld is part of the consistency factor of successfully shooting a scoped rifle. You must place your eye in the same place every time you bring the rifle to your shoulder.

Cheek Weld and Eye Relief

Cheek weld and eye relief may not sound like a huge problem but consider your different shooting positions. Do you put the rifle in the same place, and does your eye return to the same position relative to the scope if you are shooting from a bench or lying prone?  How about sitting in a deer stand or sitting with your elbows on your knees. You must learn to place your eye at the same place relative to the scope in each instance.

How Do I Measure Eye Relief?

Judging correct eye relief is not as hard as it may sound. With your scope mounted, take your normal shooting position with your usual cheek weld, and look through your scope. In general, you want to see an image that fills the entire scope without any black edges around the image.

If you see a black ring around your scope image or the edges of the image look blurry, your scope is too far or too close to your eye. Don’t move your head or eye to correct this problem. You want your cheek to fall naturally in the same position each time you bring the rifle to your shoulder.

Adjust the Scope, not Your Head

Loosen the scope rings enough to allow you to slide the scope backward or forward. With your head in the position it normally takes, slide the scope in and out of the rings until the image fills the scope lens without any black rings or blurry edges. Make sure that your scope stays aligned with your gun before you retighten the ring screws.

On to the Basics of Shooting with a Scope

Now that you and your rifle mounted scope are working as a single unit, it is time to address techniques for shooting to gain the most accuracy. Again, consistency is the key to the way you approach and make your shots. These tips apply as much to hunting in the field as they do competition shooting at the range.

I assume at this point that you have been to the range and have zeroed your rifle and scope. If not, backup and grab some of your favorite ammunition and head to the range. Before you start thinking about that trophy deer or bull elk, make sure that you zero your rifle and scope at the proper distance

Position, Position, Position

In real estate, the three watchwords are location, location, and location. In precision shooting, this translates to position, position, and position. Your body position is the foundation for accurate shooting. In essence, you want to assume a shooting position that uses your bones to support your rifle and not your muscles. There are good reasons for this.

Lay Down on the Job

If possible, go prone. The prone position is by far the most stable position you can assume. With most of the weight of your rifle supported on something like a backpack, bipod or log, your body is much more stable. Every shooter should master the prone position, especially hunters who may face long shots without a bench rest.

Sitting in Style – Use What You Have

Many times, hunters don’t have the luxury of a flat spot large enough to establish a good prone position. The side of a steep slope and making a shot across a mountain valley doesn’t lend itself well to a prone position. In this case, the next best alternative is to sit and use your knees and elbows to support the rifle.

Putting your elbows on your knees makes the best use of bone support. You use little muscle strength in this position, making it quite stable when done properly. Shooting from a sitting position takes practice. You need to try different arrangements with your legs, knees, and elbows to find the position that gives you the best support with the most comfort.

On Your Knees – Gaining a bit of Height

Sometimes a prone or sitting position doesn’t give you enough height to see over obstacles. If you need a bit more height, the kneeling position is the next best alternative. The trick to shooting from a kneeling position is making sure that you maximize the use of your bone frame and not muscles for support.

Tucking your foot under your rear end and your elbow on the other knee provides bone-to-bone support to eliminate muscle movement as you take your shot. To maximize the effect, adding a bipod or monopod to your rifle will help tremendously.

Standing or Offhand Shooting – The Position to Avoid if possible

Shooting offhand, holding your rifle unsupported except by your arm muscle strength, is the least steady and least accurate position you can use. Muscles tire quickly in this position. The natural rhythms of your body, such as your heartbeat and breathing, are translated to the rifle. It is almost impossible to maintain a steady rest and hold a proper sight position when shooting offhand.

If you must take an offhand shot, find a tree to lean against or a low branch for support. A monopod or crossed shooting sticks are invaluable for offhand shots. If you must take that offhand shot, be quick. The longer you hold that rifle up to your shoulder, the more unsteady you become.

How Still is Still?

Even with the best position, you will probably experience some movement that is visible in your scope. The higher the magnification you are using, the more noticeable and pronounced the movement may be. As you grip the rifle, your pulse will impart movement to the rifle even if it is on a rest. Learning to manage this movement is a skill every good shooter must learn.

Breathing imparts movement to the rifle as well. Wind can also cause reticle movement at times. All these things create a rhythmic movement of the reticle as you view your target. With practice, this movement becomes almost unnoticeable as you learn to compensate and manage your shooting.

There are some things to remember about dealing with normal reticle movement.

Once more, the importance of practice can’t be over-emphasized. Practice shooting from various positions. Taking all your practice shots from a steady bench at the range doesn’t prepare you for the field. Learn how your scope and rifle react from all the shooting positions and practice them.

Do a little exercise before you practice. See what effect your heart rate and breathing have on your rifle after you have climbed a set of stairs, taken a quick 100-yard walk or performed a few jumping jacks. Everyone on the range may smile, but when the time comes, you may get the last laugh.

Keep Calm and Persevere

Distractions can be a nuisance on the range and disasters in the field. You can become distracted by noises, weather, or even questions about your equipment and rifle. Blocking out distractions can make it easier to focus on the target and deal with scope movement, windage, elevation, and range.

I was sitting in a deer blind late one evening watching a nice buck wander in and out of a plum thicket about 100 yards away. As I watched, the unmistakable sound of several feral pigs just behind my deer blind gave me a start. I knew I was probably safe inside the blind, but the grunts and snorts of the pigs affected me enough that when I finally took a shot at the buck, I missed cleanly. I failed to block out the distractions.

Establish a Trigger Routine

Trigger control is one of the biggest issues in learning to shoot accurately with a high power scope. Jerking or fast pulling the trigger is a mistake many hunters routinely make. Excitement is the general cause. Seeing that trophy buck through the scope almost instantly causes your heart rate to increase, the adrenaline to surge, and snap on the trigger.

Establishing a set routine for each shot ensures consistency and accuracy. For me, this looks something like this.

I do my level best to follow this simple routine for every shot. It doesn’t matter if I am bench rest shooting on the range or stalking a trophy buck in the field. This consistent approach to taking a shot gives me confidence and has served me well.

Shooting A Scoped Rifle – No Magic, Just Good Habits

There is no magic in shooting a scoped rifle. I don’t care if you make 1,000-yard precision shots or 75-yard shots in heavy cover with a 30-30 lever-action rifle. If the rifle and scope are tuned in and zeroed, the telling difference will be how consistent you approach your shot-making.

I hope that this article gives you some insight into becoming a better shot with your scoped rifle. If you would like to respond to this article, please use the comment section below. Your experiences, knowledge and suggestions are always welcome. Stay safe and shoot straight.

Dennis Howard

A life long hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman, after surviving a devastating tornado in his home town, he saw the effects on people's lives as they struggled to cope. He built his first bugout bag a few weeks later and has been a dedicated prepper/survivalist since that time. After a career as a fireman, Dennis opened a retail store (FFL approved) catering to the military, law enforcement, and like-minded individuals. The store built their own AR platforms. Furthermore, Dennis was also an NRA instructor in both long gun and handgun as well as a certified range safety officer. Read his full interview here.