Getting Started in Long Range Shooting- Understand the Pitfalls
Long-range shooting is one of the hottest trends among today’s riflemen. In some ways this is really good because it has driven the manufacturers to create a bow wave of excellent new products. We have a whole bunch of fast new cartridges, so many that it’s downright confusing, but they’re all wonderful. Some of them, at least theoretically, offer more accuracy than the previous generation of belted magnums, and a few offer genuine increases in trajectory-flattening velocity.
We also have a lot of rifles that, right out of the box, offer significant improvements in accuracy. To me this is even better to play with than new cartridges. Hunting scopes and this new breed of “tactical scope” are more rugged than ever, plus–a big plus–they have genuinely repeatable adjustments and a variety of reticles to help judge range and allow a more precise hold at extended ranges.
This is all good, and the best part of it all is that it has given guys like me lots of things to write about. So we’ve written about long-range shooting, and many of you have done it. With or without the new equipment, you’ve honed your skills and increased your capabilities until you are genuinely dangerous at much farther ranges than you once thought possible. This is also good; riflery is about getting better, not standing still.
I do have a rub with this thirst to extend the range envelope, however, and that’s when it is taken hunting. Don’t get me wrong. There are circumstances where long shots are appropriate, and the very word “long” is very subjective. A great many hunters, perhaps the majority, have no business shooting at game much beyond 200 yards. There are others, a minority, who are perfectly competent out to 400 yards and beyond when the conditions are right. There are a very few who, on a calm day, in good light, with plenty of time to set up and think it through, can shoot considerably farther with confidence and reliability.
It is not my place to tell anyone how far he should or should not attempt to shoot at game, so I’m not going to put a figure on how far is too far. It depends a whole lot on the circumstances and the conditions at a given moment, as well as an individual’s skill. I can say that, with all the new equipment, I occasionally hear people telling about shooting game at 700, 800 or even 1,000 yards. This is sort of like pornography: It’s very difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. I can’t precisely define a range limit; it varies with every person, and no two situations are alike. But I can say that I am totally opposed to shooting at game at the ranges mentioned above.
Note that I am not suggesting that shooting at such ranges is impractical. Long-range shooting is fun, and long-range competitive shooting is fascinating. Thousand-yard shooters continue to raise the bar, now shooting groups that many of us would have trouble matching at 200 yards. And the stories are just now starting to trickle in about the shooting feats of some of our snipers in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. This is all great stuff, but to my mind it has nothing to do with hunting.
THIS ISN’T COMBAT
The variables that make long-range shooting difficult are the same whether we’re talking target shooting, hunting or tactical shooting (which I take to be a euphemism for police and military sniping or preparation for same). The list is long, but it includes knowledge of distance and knowledge of trajectory for the proper hold; adjusting the hold for wind; sheer accuracy, which includes the inherent accuracy of the rifle and load, the shooter’s skill and the degree of steadiness and stability that the current circumstances allow; and, finally, pesky little things like shooting angle, light and temperature. Long-range target shooting is a wonderful sport and the best way in the world to learn about these variables. One of the lessons to be learned is what you can do and what you cannot do.
Tactical shooting for real is the ultimate test. I have never been to sniper school, but I have commanded Marine scout/snipers on numerous occasions. The training is wonderful but no less wonderful than the great shooting these folks have done. Snipers have played an important role in American military tactics since our Revolution, although it has only been in recent years that we have had formal schooling and an official “Military Occupational Specialty” (MOS) for the trade. Some have passed into legend: Timothy Murphy, whose felling of a British general during the battle of Saratoga may well have changed the course of the American Revolution; Alvin York, not a designated sniper but one helluva rifleman; Carlos Hathcock, Marine Distinguished Marksman, whose incredible exploits in Vietnam led to several books.
As riflemen, we admire their skill, but I consider it an exceptionally bad idea to try to replicate their feats in game country. Hunting is not combat. The stakes are immeasurably higher in the latter, at least to the shooter and his teammates, but the two situations couldn’t be more different. As hunters, we have an obligation to take our game cleanly, efficiently and humanely. It is preferable to do this with one well-placed shot, but we all know sometimes this isn’t possible, so we are prepared to follow up with additional shots until the game is brought to bag. This is not the preferred situation, but it’s acceptable. What is not acceptable to any hunter worthy of the name is wounding and losing game.
In combat, the situation is much different. While the military sniper always seeks the best shot he can get, the real goal is almost always to take the target out of the fight. A nonfatal hit is perfectly acceptable under most conditions because most hits will take most men out of the fight, and near-misses will cause a lot of men to rethink their next move. Perhaps more important, in most armies a wounded soldier must be recovered and cared for, which expends resources, takes other enemy soldiers out of the fight and just may expose other targets during the recovery process.
Folks, this has nothing to do with hunting, where the only goal is to take your game cleanly so you can recover it. Let’s review some of the challenges in long-range shooting as they apply to hunting situations.
DISTANCE AND TRAJECTORY
Thanks to the laser rangefinder–a truly wonderful tool–near-perfect knowledge of distance is now within everyone’s grasp. Used correctly, the laser rangefinder does remove one of the critical variables in long-range shooting.
Of course, this is only half the battle. Once you know the range, you must also know where your bullet will hit at that range and adjust accordingly.
Do not think that this is just a matter of getting one of today’s fastest and flattest-shooting magnums. Flatness of trajectory helps but not as much as you might think. Thousand-yard competitive shooters generally sight their rifles inordinately high at short range to simplify holding on their known-distance targets. Hunters cannot do that. If you sight in more than three inches high at 100 yards, you must hold low at the midrange distances. This is very difficult to make yourself do, so misses at about 200 yards are almost a certainty. With a normal sight-in of perhaps three inches high at 100 yards, we have a lot of cartridges that will allow shooting without holdover to 400 yards and change. This is a very far poke and gives a great deal of flexibility, but push them much farther and it simply doesn’t matter what you’re shooting. You will have to adjust your hold, and in order to do this you must know your trajectory.
It isn’t impossible, not at all. At the Battle of Adobe Walls, scout Billy Dixon is credited with knocking a Cheyenne off his horse at nearly a mile. In Cuba and the Philippines, American troops using trapdoor Springfields silenced Spanish and insurgent positions at 1,100 yards. Today most of our military sniping is done with match 7.62mm NATO ammo. Downrange ballistics aren’t impressive, but these kids are deadly–and consistently deadly–at 1,000 yards and beyond.
So the issue isn’t really trajectory at all but how well you know your trajectory. It can be learned, but ballistics charts won’t tell you what you need to know. The only way to effectively shoot at distance is to actually shoot at distance–a lot– with the exact rifle and load you intend to use. Few of us actually shoot at 400, 500 and 600 yards, and if you don’t, you have absolutely no business shooting at game at these distances.
This is because ballistics charts are only a guide. Your barrel may be faster or slower because of internal dimensions. It may be longer or shorter. The height of your scope above the bore may be different from the standard used on the charts, and this throws off everything. At medium ranges these differences may not be enough to matter, but at long range everything matters. These things can be learned, but it takes hundreds of hours and thousands of rounds at genuine distances.
Another supposed shortcut is the scopes that allow you to dial-in the range. Some are useless and some work very well, but none is so good that it provides a textbook solution without actually shooting at real ranges to verify each increment of adjustment. Personally, I have found very few “dial-in your range” scopes to have adjustments consistent and accurate enough to make this possible. Because of this, I much prefer to leave the adjustments alone and use reticles with additional stadia lines or aiming points such as mil-dot reticles. These work, but again, you must shoot them at actual ranges under ideal conditions because the textbook solution is very unlikely to be a perfect match to your rifle and load.
Once you get past knowledge of distance and trajectory–and with practice you can get past them–you must deal with wind. There is nothing simple about this. Even on a formal rifle range with range flags blowing, it’s hard to figure. In the field it is almost impossible. There are great little wind gauges that will give you the wind speed and direction, but this only applies at the rifle. You also must judge the wind at the target and along the way between you and the target.
It’s a simple thing to learn that a 10-mph crosswind will blow a .30 caliber 180-grain spitzer bullet with a muzzle velocity of 3,200 fps somewhere between 14 and 20 inches (depending on the exact bullet) off course at 500 yards. But what does a 10-mph wind feel like? And how do you tell if the wind is the same at the animal?
There are clues as to what the wind is doing downrange, like waving leaves and moving grass. With experience, a few really great riflemen–like Carlos Hathcock–develop an innate feel for it that is almost like a sixth sense. But there’s no way to be sure. In sniping, given the vertical presentation of a human and the relatively narrow target, misreading the wind probably means a miss–or a perfectly acceptable wounding shot. In hunting, with the horizontal presentation of four-footed animals, misreading the wind is much more likely to mean a wounding shot. Sometimes, of course, it’s calm. Sometimes there’s a very mild breeze that seems consistent. If everything else is accounted for, then you can take the shot. But if there’s much more than a puff of breeze, you probably need to get closer. And guess what?
The hunting country where long shooting is most likely–plains, mountains, tundra–is usually windy country.
ACCURACY AND STABILITY
For serious long-range shooting there is no such thing as too much accuracy. The kind of group that we think of as perfectly adequate for hunting accuracy–say, 11?4 inches at 100 yards–is nowhere near good enough. With normal spread, that’s more than six inches at 500 yards, which is still well within a deer’s vital zone. Except very few rifles and riflemen can hold a group to that normal spread at extreme range.
Again, the only way to know how well you and your rifle can shoot at 500 yards is to actually shoot at 500 yards. Once in a great while you run into a rifle that groups better farther out than up close, but don’t count on it. I figure the standards for a serious long-range rifle are about the same as for a serious varmint rifle. I want consistent groups of 1/2 inch or less at 100 yards, and I feel a whole lot better if I can break the quarter-inch barrier.
The good news is that both rifles and ammunition are considerably more accurate than ever before. This is at least partly because American riflemen have demanded better accuracy, and the manufacturers have responded. Barrels are better, and factory ammo is a whole lot better. Today it isn’t unusual to get the kind of groups with factory ammo that were once the exclusive province of precision handloaders. So, while accuracy will always be somewhat mysterious and, in a given rifle with a given load, may prove elusive, you can get the raw accuracy you need.
The next question is whether you can apply that accuracy under field conditions. There are no shooting benches in hunting country, so the perfect conditions that produced your best groups no longer apply. Obviously, there are many ways to get steady, such as over a pack, with a bipod, even a good prone position. But however you do it, getting steady is an absolute requirement for taking a long-range shot.
This means that even if everything else is right, sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t take the shot. Things like vegetation and uneven ground may make it impossible to get into a steady, supported position. The bottom line is that, somehow, some way, you simply must get absolutely steady. If you can’t, then there isn’t a shot.
Again, it’s the same story: A miss is the really good news. At very long range, the average shooter who hasn’t spent a lot of time shooting at distance will probably miss. On the other hand, the shooter who has done the homework–knows the distance, knows the trajectory, understands wind drift and has the accuracy required–will probably not miss by much. Which means a wounded animal.
ANGLES AND THINGS
Hopefully, we all understand what happens when shooting at uphill or downhill angles. The effect is the same. Gravity acts upon the bullet only on the horizontal distance, which, whether it’s uphill or downhill, is a shorter distance between you and your target. This means your trajectory is stretched out. It doesn’t mean that your bullet rises when shooting at steep angles, but since you are sighted-in above your line of sight at shorter ranges, this is the effect.
This is not something to lose sleep over at short to medium ranges. It takes a fairly steep angle and considerable distance before the effect is worth worrying about, but way out there you’d better worry about it.
Shooting at angles is a bit like doping the wind. Some detailed ballistics charts and computer programs will tell you what the effect is for a given load at a given angle and distance. You could print out this data and carry it with you, just like a wind-drift chart. But in the field, can you accurately measure the angle? Can you really tell the difference between a 25- and a 40-degree slope?
As I’ve often written, I do not actively pursue long-range shooting in the field. But I do practice for it and know how to do it. If conditions are right and there is no way to get closer, I will take a shot at, say, 500 yards and change. I have never taken a shot at game at 600 yards or beyond and don’t intend to.
At 500 yards and change, most of my shots have been successful–with two notable exceptions. Both times, once on a downhill shot and once on an uphill shot, I failed to read the angle correctly, didn’t adjust for it properly and shot right over the top. The good news, of course, is that I missed cleanly both times.
It’s important to remember that temperature affects velocity, and as altitude increases, retained velocities are higher because of reduced air friction. Any shift in velocity will impact your carefully memorized and annotated ballistics data. If you do all your hunting close to home, this isn’t a big deal. But don’t think you can work up your data at sea level in Florida and use it in the Canadian Rockies. As with shooting angles, it takes both a lot of distance and a radical shift in outside temperature or altitude to make a difference, but we’re not talking about normal shooting ranges here. Out at the quarter-mile mark and beyond, you need to know if you’ve lost or gained a couple hundred feet per second.
BULLET PERFORMANCE AND ENERGY
This is one long-range variable that applies only to hunting. In target shooting, the criteria for long-range bullets are accuracy and aerodynamics; all the bullet has to do on arrival is punch a hole through paper. In combat you can argue endlessly about what might be best, but international treaties stipulate nonexpanding bullets. So match-grade spitzer boattail FMJs are almost universal.
This is not fine in hunting. Ideally, you want the same bullet performance at long range as you get at close range: enough penetration to reach the vitals coupled with enough expansion to create a large wound channel, disrupt vital organs and dispatch the animal quickly. This is not only a humane consideration. The faster the animal goes down, the quicker and easier it is to recover your game. No matter where the hit, the farther an animal is able to travel after receiving a bullet, the greater the chance of losing the animal.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to obtain the same expansion at long range that you can get routinely at close range. Velocity is always a key contributor to bullet performance. Way out there, your velocity has dropped off considerably, so bullet expansion will generally be less, and less rapid. It also becomes more erratic. Most of the guys who shoot game at long range tend to use bullets that are both very accurate and generally quite frangible. Many use Sierra MatchKing hollowpoints, which is not specifically a hunting bullet but is very accurate and generally quite effective, especially at longer range. Others use polymer-tipped bullets like Nosler Ballistic Tips.
In my experience it doesn’t much matter what you use. At extreme ranges, when velocity has dropped off dramatically, bullet performance is no longer consistent. I have seen even quick-expanding bullets like these act just like solids at longer ranges. Energy drops off right along with velocity, and as expansion is reduced, energy transfer is also diminished. What this means is that as range increases, shot placement needs to be even more precise because you can no longer count on bullet expansion and energy transfer as hedges against poor shot placement.
Personally, I don’t want anything to do with shooting at game at 600 yards, but when conditions are right, I have several friends who make this work on a routine basis. So my limits need not apply to you, but there are limits.
In terms of hunting ethics, our image as hunters and the future of our sport, the stakes are much higher in hunting than in the other venues. As range increases, a near miss is an increasingly likely result. And hunting is the one shooting venue where a near miss is absolutely unacceptable.