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What Distance Do I Sight-In For Deer?

The debate about distance, when it comes to sighting-in a deer rifle, will likely never be agreed upon. The good news: You don't need to worry about it.

Dead-on at 100 yards or an inch-and-a-half high at 100? While the where-to-set-zero distance argument will likely never be settled, you don’t have to fret. Heed the to-come advice and shoot your rifle/scope combo better than ever.

I was born and reared in Colorado’s southeast corner. Trees are sparse and the sage-dappled plains stretch to the horizon. Naturally, my early rifle pursuits were for mule deer and pronghorn, and it didn’t take a NASA-pedigree to realize the further I could accurately place a round from my .270 Winchester, the more game I could put in the freezer.

My scope came with the rifle — a 3x9 Bushnell variable that held a solid zero and offered descent clarity. Being shots at game were often between 200 and 400 yards, I always sighted-in an inch-and-a-half high at 100 yards. With my 130-grain Federal Nosler AccuBond, I could hold dead-on at any distance between 100 and 200 yards. At 300 yards, time on the bench taught me to hold 7.5-inches high, or just at the top of a pronghorn’s back. I’m not sure what the drop was at 400 — a lot — but I shot more ammunition each year than my minimum-wage college job could keep up and I learned to make distant shots. Thank God for credit cards and irresponsible banks. When I was 19, I dropped a solid plains mule deer with the weapon at 404 yards.

Time spent on the bench is one of the best ways to experience spot-on accuracy and build shooting confidence. You’ll quickly learn what your rifle/scope/ammo combo is capable of.

As my love of hunting grew and my budget jumped out of the red, I started expanding my adventures. I became addicted to the white-tailed-deer, and when a Texas hunt invite happened, I didn’t hesitate.

I’ll never forget his look or tone. He was an elderly gentleman and had been guiding Texas whitetail hunters for longer than I’d been alive. He was watching through a spotting scope when I put a round an inch-and-a-half high on paper. “High,” he barked.

I looked through the scope. The hole was right where I wanted it. I shot again. “Too high,” was the immediate report.

I turned from my position on the bench and politely asked, “I’m just a tad high at 100 yards, right?” His face grew red and he shook his head in disgust. I spent the next hour learning about how shots over 100 yards on the ranch are extremely rare, and the reasons a shooter should always be sighted-in dead-on at the exact distance they expect to harvest game at.

This scenario has played out a lot over the years. It’s a common topic of discussion, and both camps have their reason for sighting-in dead-on at 100 yards or an inch-and-a-half high at 100. Of course, there are the odd balls — the same crowd that dial in their bows in meters rather than yards — that go dead-on at 150 or two-inches high at 125 yards.

So, what’s the right answer? What should you do? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’ve experimented with throngs of different variable scopes that don’t feature customized dial systems. Where you set your zero is secondary to time spent shooting the rifle.

Avoid the arguments and do what’s comfortable. The key is knowing your rifle/scope combo and shooting quality ammunition the rifle likes. Whether you reload or buy factory ammo, time spent finding the right load is well worth it. Plus, each round you send downrange provides extra practice and helps you become more familiar with your rifle and scope.

A good buddy of mine saved his pennies and purchased a 28 Nosler. He spent three months experimenting with ammo. Some were factory loads and others were hand loads. He eventually found what he was looking for, but it took a bit of time.

Dead-on at 100 yards or an inch-and-a-half high at 100? You decide. Get comfortable with your choice and stick with it.

When you shoulder a rifle that feels right, the optics are clear and you know a smooth trigger pull will put your round where you want it, confidence grows. As for those that preach from the “get a custom dial podium”, that’s always an option. Again, it all goes back to what you’re most comfortable with. I know lots of bowhunters who tinker with dial-to-the-yard sights but always go back to a five- or seven-pin fixed model. Why? They’ve learned to shoot the sight and shoot it well. They know where to hold their 50-yard pin when the rangefinder reads 56 yards. The key to shooting confidence is doing what you’re most comfortable with. For me, that means an inch-and-a-half high at a distance of 200 yards.


I tried tinkering — making the switch a few times — and it cost me a deer. The aforementioned old timer from Texas had gotten in my head. The next time I went to the Lone Star state, I was dialed dead-on at 100 yards. This hunt was different. It was the pre-rut and I found myself slinking through vast pastures in search of a wandering buck. I found one. The shot was 252 yards. Muscle memory told me to hold dead-on. The buck went unscathed, but I did demolish a piece of shale rock just below his chest.

Remember, do you. The key to becoming a consistent shooter with your standard dial scope and rifle is consistent practice. It doesn’t matter if that practice is with a system dialed dead-on at 100 yards, an inch-and-a-half high at 100 or two-inches high at 100.

One Week Routine

Ready to develop a routine with your standard-dial scope/rifle system? Good. In my rifle hay day, I did this routine once a month come hell or high water.

  • Day One: Shoot three, three-round groups from your dead-on distance. Take your time. Be sure you’re on a bench with bags or a sled. Pause between each group to examine the group size and let the rifle barrel cool down a bit.
  • Day Two: Shoot three, three-round groups from longer-range oddball distances. You decide, but be sure and stretch the legs of your shooter.
  • Day Three: Take away the bench, sled and bags and shoot off a set of shooting sticks as well as prone. Shoot three, three-round groups at your dead-on distance. Compare these results to your off-the-bench day one results.
  • Day Four: Shoot three, three-round groups from longer-range oddball distances off the shooting sticks and from a prone position. Shoot the same distances as day two and compare results.
  • Day Five: Set a steel gong — homemade or from the sporting goods store — at 500 yards. Use the knowledge you’ve gained about your rifle from the previous four days of shooting and see what you can do. This is just flat fun. Shoot as much as you want, and be sure to shoot off the bench, from sticks, and prone.
  • Day Six: Finish the week off with one shot from the following distances: 100, 150, 200, 250, 300, 350, 400, 450 and 500. You can repeat the process as many times as your shoulder/budget will allow, but remember perfection is the goal. This doesn’t mean putting your round perfectly on target. While this is important, nothing trumps making each shot you fire the best shot you can possibly make in that moment.
  • Don’t worry about your dead-on distance. Become comfortable with your rifle/scope combo. Shoot lots of rounds from various ranges and different positions. Do this and your taxidermy bill is sure to grow.

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