It is always without question the first shot that counts. No matter how well your rifle groups on the range, if it does not reliably place that first shot from a cold barrel, the outcome is always uncertain. This dilemma has plagued shooters for centuries and is the most common cause for a miss in a hunting situation. Because we all become obsessive about owning a rifle that will produce superbly small groups, one often forgets to test that same rifle in a one-shot scenario.

Now this might seem a straightforward problem to remedy but, owing to the infinitesimal variations in rifle manufacture, every rifle has its own signature at where a first shot will print. This is further complicated by the condition in which the rifle has been left prior to the shot being taken. Was the gun cleaned the night before? Is there still residual oil in the barrel? Is the barrel still fouled? Are the climatic conditions the same as when you last shot the rifle?

Clever cleaning

To keep a rifle shooting accurately it needs to have a spotless bore, and to store a rifle this bore needs a film of rust-preventing oil. Great, but if that rifle is taken out the next morning and you forget to clean out the protective oil layer you have instantly changed the internal conditions in which the bullet travels up that barrel. Not only is it dangerous to shoot a rifle with oil in the bore ? the internal pressures can rise dramatically ? but the first shot will almost always shoot wild and away from your aiming point. The same can be true if you clean a rifle the night before and, knowing you are out stalking tomorrow, at first light negate to oil the barrel.

That?s fine, one night?s lack of lubricant will not do any damage if the rifle is kept dry, but often you will find that overnight, even if that bore was spotless and patched out dry, a small residual trace of cleaning solvent has crept into the bore?s microscopic surface and can ooze slowly out and reintroduce solvent and small traces of fouling back in to the bore. This also can cause the first shot to veer from its intended target. Similarly, if the rifle is not cleaned at all, any fouling or moisture it attracts is likely to cause an erratic first shot.

Keeping condition

Strangely enough, however, the diversion from an uncleaned bore is often much less than that of a cleaned and oiled bore. Why is that? Target shooters have known about this for years as the barrel is already ?conditioned? with shot residue and is already ?shot? ready. However, target shooters will always clean their guns, and to achieve that ready situation from a conditioned bore you will often see shooters shooting one or two shots into the dirt prior to a scoring round. That is all well and good, but in a hunting situation you do not always have the luxury of shooting off a couple of shots before you head into the woods.

Testing times

So, what can you do to minimise this problem? You need to see if your rifle exhibits any of the above traits. I tested a variety of rifles in varying calibres to see how real sporting rifles actually behave. First, I tested the rifles with perfectly cleaned bores and a protective layer of oil in the bore, as if the rifle was ready to be stored. I shot each rifle from cold to produce a group

of shots at 100 yards, and noted where each shot lay in the group. I also recorded each shot over the chronograph to check shot-to-shot consistency or lack thereof. As expected, the first shot from each barrel exhibited a deviation ? in some cases markedly so.

The targets (on the previous page) show in each case the initial shot sometimes shot a good 1in to 2in away from the main body of the group. This is obviously undesirable and could result in a miss on small game or a poorly placed shot on large game. All the rifles exhibited an increase in velocity of the first shot, causing it to go high and either right or left.

Next I needed to test the same rifles and loads under the same conditions, but with clean barrels and no oil in the bore. I shot immediately after cleaning as well as after leaving the rifle overnight to check for solvent ingress.

The results were very interesting. In most cases the first shot from a dry bore after cleaning was much closer to the main body of the group, with little vertical dispersion, indicating little velocity change but possessing lateral deviation. I repeated this exercise, leaving the cleaned rifle overnight. There was indeed a change in impact for the primary shot. The barrel had sweated out some solvent into the bore and though not as bad as leaving oil in the bore, the first shot went high and away from the main group.

Practical solutions

I now wanted to test a few remedies for counteracting the oil layer after cleaning and prior to shooting. The simplest of these, and one I often use, is to always have a Bore Snake of the right calibre with me. A Bore Snake is a simple pull-through cleaning system containing an integral bore brush and cleaning swab/patch.

The Bore Snake takes up hardly any room in a pocket and a dry and oil-free bore can be obtained by simply pulling it through the barrel a few times. Having used the Bore Snake, the first shot behaved as though the rifle had been cleaned the night before and left un-oiled. Some of the shots were within the group. With each rifle the ideal number of times for pulling the Bore Snake through differed, so I would recommend testing your rifle for the best results. Another alternative is Inhibitor rifle plugs. These can be inserted in the rifle as a cartridge substitute and their vapour penetrates the bore and protects against rust. This method leaves less oil in the bore and goes some way to keeping that first shot where you aim.

Results with the plugs showed good groups with larger calibre rifles such as .243, 6.5mm and .308, however, the smaller .22 and .17 centrefires were less consistent. From time to time, I use a few primed rifle cartridges of the same calibre to the rifle I am using and shooting. If you have forgotten to remove the oil, firing a couple of these cartridges prior to the stalk can partially ?condition? the rifle. When tested, the results showed that the first shot was more accurate.

The report isn?t loud and can be muffled as necessary in vegetation, or if you are using a sound moderator, there is no report at all. Similarly, a few subsonic rounds can be fired. These have the same beneficial results without spooking any game, while preconditioning the rifle so that the all-important initial shot hits home accurately.

That?s the spirit

Finally, a method used by many professionals is to completely dry the bore with methylated spirit before shooting. If you were to use this method every time you would have a bench mark of your bore?s condition and the first shot should consistently shoot to the point of aim. However, you have to remember always to shoot with a cleaned methylated barrel. I tried it and found that this method works consistently and accurately. However, after the first shot, the following shots can slightly shift from the point of aim as the barrel becomes fouled or ?conditioned?. As it is usually the first shot that counts on a stalk, however, this offers a consistent and accurate method of determining where that first bullet will fall on the target.

It is important to remember that each rifle differs when using the above solutions. Most of these methods are cheap and will only cost you time and ammunition. When you have discovered what works best for your rifle and the conditions and situations in which you are using it, you can have confidence in administering that precise and humane first-shot kill. Even if you do not clean

or remove the oil from your barrel prior to your next sortie, you should at least learn by how much your first shot deviates from your pre-checked zero. Spend a little time discovering the solutions for each rifle that you own and you will feel far more confident in your abilities on your next hunting trip.

Bore Snakes are available from F. A. Anderson?s at £17.50 for 12-bore, tel (01342) 325604. Inhibitor plugs are available at £5.50 from Garlands, tel

(01827) 383300.