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With any sort of sighting system, the shooter must accustom himself to the idea that he looks along a straight line, but the trajectory of his projectile is a curve, and he must therefore endeavor to bring the line of sight and the curve of the trajectory into such coincidence as is suitable for his needs. Generally speaking, the field shooter does not adjust his sights in the field, but rather sets them so that he need not consider the curve of the trajectory at practical ranges.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle

Most field shooting is not precision shooting.

You might think that marksmanship is all about that one precise hit on a small target at any range. To be fair, that is a great demonstration of marksmanship and precision, but you need to be aware of the limitations.

Most field shooters, from big game hunters to military members, do not have the luxury of time to check distance, adjust sights, and take a precisely aimed shot.

In the real world, targets don’t want to be hit and they won’t expose themselves long enough for you to go through all those steps. In the 1950s, the Army’s ORO researched how people get shot, and the number one factor was exposure time. So the challenge for the shooter is balancing accuracy requirements against available time.

The Point Blank Zero is one of the most important methods for doing this.

The Ballistic Arc

As Col Cooper said, bullets do not travel in straight lines. When you fire a projectile, it moves in a curve known as a ballistic arc.

A lot of people have the wrong impression that a bullet rises for some distance after leaving the muzzle before it begins to fall again. The reality is that rifle sights are not level with one another. When you aim at a target in front of you the barrel is actually tilted upwards a bit. That means the bullet launches at an angle.

When you zero a rifle, you are picking a point along the bullet’s ballistic arc that intersects with your line of sight.

Chart showing what people thing a bullet trajectory looks like versus what it actually looks like
This graphic illustrates the ballistic arc. In the top half, you can see that the sights are aligned in a way that makes you tilt the barrel upwards, launching the bullet higher. A precision zero means selecting a point on the curve where the line of sight and the ballistic arc intersect.

Point Blank Zero

Ballistic trajectories are predictable.

If you know the velocity, launch angle, and aerodynamic efficiency of the bullet, you can reasonably predict the flight path of the bullet.

This is another chart created by the internet ballistics guru, Molon. It shows the ballistic arc of the same projectile launched at different angles. Each angle corresponds to a different zero.

A ballistic chart comparing three different zero distances
Look at each of the three arcs, and pay attention to how much higher the bullet travels over the line of sight. The highest point over the line of sight is the Maximum Ordinate.

The important thing to notice is the height the bullet flies above the line of sight. The highest point is the Maximum Ordinate.

For a 100-meter zero, the maximum ordinate occurs right around 100 meters. This has some benefits, which I’ll get to later.

When you establish a point blank zero, you establish a line of sight at which the bullet stays within a certain distance above or below the point of aim. Velocity is a huge part of this as well since more velocity shrinks the group size.

For example, consider a vital zone of eight inches in some large game animals. The point blank zero would be the sight setting in which the bullet impacts no more than four inches above or below the center of the vital zone. The range from the front of the muzzle, point blank, to the maximum distance before the bullet falls below the threshold is the Point Blank Range.

A larger vital zone means a more generous point blank zero and a longer usable distance for the zero. A smaller vital zone means a more restricted range.

The size of the vital zone you choose will affect the usable point blank range. Sure, you can start aiming higher or lower on the target to compensate– but then you’re no longer using the point blank zero as designed.

Remember, the goal of the point blank zero is to remove the guesswork. Aim at center mass of the target and fire. If you’ve chosen your vital zone size and zero well, the rest will take care of itself.

Establishing Point Blank Zero

Your best tool for figuring out a point blank zero is a ballistic calculator. My favorite is JBM Ballistics since it takes a lot of the guesswork out of this.

All you need to do is feed it your data and the desired “vital zone” radius.

For this chart, I am using a Sierra 69gr SMK fired at 2750 fps. I established that velocity from a magnetic chronometer in front of my 20″ rifle. I’ll work with a desired vital zone radius of six inches. That means above or below the line of sight, so there is a 12-inch total vital zone.

When I put these values in, JBM tells me exactly what the calculated point blank zero should be for my desired 12″ zone: 291 yards.

It also tells me I can maintain my center mass hold all the way out to 341 yards.

As a bonus, JBM also predicts the maximum ordinate at 161 yards.

Output of a ballistic calculator showing the best guess for a point blank zero
This is a snippet of output from JBM ballistics showing what it thinks my best point blank zero would be for a 6-inch vital zone. PBR means point blank range.

If I go back into the calculator again using the same ballistic data and set my zero to 291 yards, you can follow the arc of the bullet.

Snippet from JBM ballistics showing the calculated drop values for a given bullet
This snippet shows the predicted drops for a bullet fired with a zero 291 yards

Practical Application

Zeroing at exactly 291 yards isn’t very practical, but you can use it as a guideline. Increasing my point blank zero to 300 yards gives me about the same result, with a drop of 6.2 inches at 350 yards.

This chart shows a 300 meter zero for three different barrel lengths. You can definitely see how the extreme spread between the two farthest impacts decreases as velocity increases. For reference, the highest impact on the 20″ barrel is 4″ over the zero.

Using this data, it’s easy to see why the Army and Marines were drawn to the 300-meter zero.

One challenging aspect of this point blank zero is accounting for the maximum ordinate.

With this zero, the bullet will be about 6 inches above the line of sight at 161 yards. If you want to hit a small target, such as a small gong or a headshot, then aiming center mass means your shot might go over the target entirely.

If your target is smaller, then you need to adjust your radius and zero to compensate.

This is the reason for the common 50/200 zero. A lot of military trainers noticed that soldiers tended to miss high during engagements with the 300- meter zero. The 50/200 keeps the bullet trajectory within +/- 2 inches of the line of sight until about 250 yards.

Note that the 50/200 is notional and based on military load data. Your actual zero may vary. Always confirm your zero.

I ran the numbers through JBM for my 20″ rifle and a 2″ radius vital zone. The result is a point blank zero of 194 yards and a maximum point blank range of 226 yards. I highlighted that in yellow.

The red highlight shows the numbers for a 200-yard zero.

This table highlights a point blank zero for a 2″ vital radius in yellow, and the calculated drops for a 200-yard zero.

Applying Point Blank Zero to Your Reticle

This works well for red dot sights or magnified scopes with standard duplex crosshairs. But what about other reticle designs? You can combine point blank zero with different reticle shapes to determine more aiming points as well.

For instance, my Trijicon TR24G has a glowing triangle sitting atop a post. However, the heavy post prevents me from using holdovers beyond the bottom edge of the triangle.

According to Trijicon, this triangle is 4.2 MOA tall at 4x magnification. Since it is second focal plane, it is 12.8 MOA at 1x, and 8.4 MOA at 2x magnification.

The triangle reticle of the Trijicon TR24G

JBM does not produce a point blank zero based on minutes of angle. But it does still produce MOA drop values.

You’ll need to play with the distances until you arrive at an acceptable solution.

If I wanted to keep my impacts to 4.2 MOA above or below the tip of the triangle, then a 275-yard zero works best. Rounding up to a 300-yard zero with the tip of the triangle means that the bottom of the triangle is at about 410 yards.

If I zoom down to 2x, the bottom of the triangle is now 8.4 MOA from the tip, which correlates to a 500-yard aim point. At 1x, that same point now gives about a 600-yard aim point.

That is, of course, assuming you can even see the target.

This method works reasonably well for any optic. If you happen to have a BDC or any reticle that provides solid holdover points, then you might use that method instead.

Multiple Aiming Points

There is another technique related to the point blank zero but isn’t quite the same thing. The Swiss developed a method of aiming at the belt line or the neck depending on the estimated range to the target.

They use a 300-meter zero. If the target is “close,” then the shooters aims for the belt. With that aiming point, any missed shots will hit higher, and hit center mass.

If the target is “far,” then the shooter aims at the neck. Shots will fall low and also into center mass.

This technique is Sniping 4th Generation, and it’s used to teach recruits in a single day how to reach an 80% effective hit rate out to 600 meters. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read my write up on the technique.

The Zen of the 100-Meter Zero

A 25-yard zero keeps me +/- 3 inches out to 250 yards. That’s a good and usable point blank range.

But let’s get away from the numbers and talk about the simple 100-meter zero. If you recall from the ballistic chart earlier, a 100-meter zero correlates to the maximum ordinate. Put another way, if you zero for 100 meters, then the bullet will never cross above your line of sight.

With a point blank zero set at 200 or 300 meters, there are situations where you have to remember to aim lower, or your bullet will sail over the target. Under stress, you might forget to do that. Missing high gives you no reference for where you should have aimed.

If you zero for 100 meters, then the bullet will only fall below the point of aim and hit the dirt in front. You can use the impact of missed shots to walk your next shots in.

Wrapping Up

In the end, you have to imagine two opposing ends of a line. On one end is speed, and on the other is precision.

Which is more important to you for the most likely shot you are going to take?

Point blank zeroes work great for hunting or self-defense inside 200 yards on fairly large target zones. If you need to hit small targets at longer ranges, then you might need to shift more towards precision-oriented zeroing methods and optics.

I hope you found this article useful, please let me know if you have any questions or comments down below.

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Sunshine Shooter
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“… and it’s used to teach recruits in a single day how to reach an 80% effective hit rate out to 600 meters.” This sentence fragment, by itself, wraps up the entire point-blank-zero philosophy in a nutshell.

Colorado Pete
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Colorado Pete

Well done sir!

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