In the world of weapons, distance has always beckoned. Spear throwers competed to see who could throw farthest. Merry Olde England's King's Archers allegedly had to qualify on 200-yard targets — with longbows and wooden shafts. Civil War marksmen made confirmed kills past 1,000 yards with black powder and greased lead Minie balls. Buffalo hunters laid flat groups of bison at previously unheard-of distances. Today, several top snipers have "eliminated threats" past 2,000 yards.
Trouble is, this is the information age, and in terms of long-range shooting, it's the Age of the Gadget. Precision shooting at extreme distance is arguably the biggest trend in the shooting sports, and all too many shooters seem to believe they can purchase their way into long-distance ability by acquiring the latest cutting-edge gadgets and gizmos.
Mind you, now, I'm a fan of gadgets and gizmos. Love 'em. However, no matter how sophisticated your gear, it's the man behind the rifle — the nut behind the bolt, some would say — that must make the shot.
So here's a discussion of a few skills vital to making critical long-range shots. In full disclosure, some gadgetry does creep into this confabulation, but in my defense, it's in order to enhance your skill in picking the right gadget.
Choose Your Weapon! (Wisely)
I have friends who shoot superbly with 15-pound precision rifles. If all you're doing is carrying the rifle from your truck to the shooting mat, or if you're built like Schwarzenegger, a heavy rifle is an asset because it's naturally stable and makes accurate shooting easier.
On the other end of the spectrum, I personally am afflicted with an affinity for super-light rifles. (I like climbing mountains to hunt, but I'm not 20 anymore.) Trouble with light rifles is, they offer little or no stability from any shooting position. Heartbeat, breathing, trembling, all those human things that affect us in the heat of the moment when a difficult shot is on the line make an uber-light rifle bounce around like dandelion fluff in the wind. You've got to build a good shooting position and execute your shot durned near perfectly to shoot a super-light rifle well at extreme distance.
Then there are the chaps that buy a $400 budget rifle, stack an $80 scope with "tactical features" on it and cheerfully expect the rifle to shoot sub-MOA and the scope's turrets to track consistently and predictably. Or there’s the guys that get so obsessive that they pay $3,000 for a set of scope rings (yes, they do exist).
If you really want to pursue long-range shooting without frustration and with a modicum of success, choose your rifle wisely. Let it be built with a good barrel on an action reputed for accuracy, of enough (but not too much) weight, and of reasonable cost (however you measure that).
Get A Scope with Long-Range Features
Choosing a good long-range scope can be mind-boggling. Obviously, you want good glass so you can see small, distant targets. You definitely want precise, consistent, predictable elevation adjustment, so you must have super-quality guts in the adjustment turrets and erector tube suspension. Your elevation turret should have a zero-stop type mechanism so you can dial back down to your zero distance after shooting long, and it should allow multiple upward rotations so you can dial up as far as you want.
Parallax adjustment is a must so you can eliminate crosshair/target distortion, and a good reticle with MOA or MIL hashmarks on the horizontal crosswire is critical to help you consistently compensate for wind. Plus, if you prefer to hold over rather than dial your turret up, you'll need hashmarks on the vertical stadia, too.
I hate to break it to you, but you just can't get all that for $80 bucks online. Nor can you pay $350 at the local shop and get a serviceable long-range scope. The elements listed above are expensive to produce, and capable long-range scopes start at about $800.
Pick MOA or mils
When it comes to picking an elevation-compensating measurement system, you've got to go with either Imperial (minutes of angle) or Metric (Milliradians). Many tactical types, especially those with military service in their past, will froth at the mouth and emphatically state that MOA should be abolished, and mils are the salvation of the long-range future. Balderdash. Both are good; both are capable, but both have weaknesses.
In reality, you'll get along best with whichever measurement system you use most in everyday life. If that's metric, mils are for you. If you're an American accustomed to the Imperial measurement system (seems ironic, doesn't it?) MOA is your poison.
You probably know this, but it's worth mentioning: by a stroke of Imperial luck, MOA basically lines up with inches at 100 yards. In other words, although one MOA is in fact 1.047 inches at 100 yards we can- for practical purposes — discard the 0.047 and just think of MOA as 1 inch at 100 yards, 2 inches at 200 yards, 7 inches at 700 yards, and so forth. Sure, there will be slight discrepancies at extreme range, but you're going to validate your trajectory with either system and tweak drop charts anyway, so what's the worry?
Mils, on the other hand, measure 10 centimeters at 100 meters, 20 at 200 meters, and so forth. I run mil-based scopes a lot because it's part of my job, but I'll admit that I still relate to MOA better. It's just easier for me to envision an MOA at, say, 700 yards (about 7 inches) than it is to envision a mil at 700 meters (exactly how big is 70 centimeters, anyway?)
Whichever system you choose, make sure that your turret and the reticle inside both work on the same system. For years, many so-called tactical scopes were built with MOA turrets and mil-dot reticles. It's much easier if both are the same.
Also, be sure that you like the reticle inside the scope. I'm a hunter and a practical shooter, so I don't particularly care for complex reticles that appear to be some sort of screen door when you look through the scope. I like an MOA or mil scale that isn't too coarse and that has numbers to help you find your place. Let me tell you; it's a pain to have to count down 27 MOA on a scale without numbers.
Level Your Scope
I don't care if it looks crooked, if your reticle is properly leveled up to the vertical axis of your rifle, that's how it needs to stay. As humans, we tend to hold rifles tilted, and, well, that makes reticles appear to not be straight. Trouble is, if you turn the scope to make it look straight, your point of impact will be off to one side or the other at long range.
There are several ways to level a scope. The best way is to take it to an OCD gunsmith with a sophisticated leveling device. He'll get it perfect or he won't sleep that night. Since I do my own, I've found that matching a level attached to the barrel with a level laid across the top of the scope base gives me a close-to-perfect reference; I then install the rings and scope and simply lay a level across the top of the elevation turret and rotate the scope body until it matches the level attached to the barrel.
Be aware that scope rings usually pull a scope out of level as they are tightened, especially cheap rings that haven't been lapped. Exercise great care as you slowly work the ring screws tight.
Even if your scope is perfectly level to the axis of your rifle, your eyes can't level it up in the field without a little help. Gradual slopes in the downrange terrain typically cause shooters to bias their reticle in the same direction as the landscape. Mount a quality level bubble to the body of your scope, and level it up to the crosshairs. You can level it at the same time as you mount your optic, or you can lay prone with your vertical crosswire held on a perfectly plumb line drawn on a tall wall and tighten down the level.
Pay Attention to Parallax
What is parallax? Point your finger at a distant object. Now close your non-dominant eye. You'll note that your finger appears to jump off to the side. In basic terms, parallax is like that. It's an optical distortion that — unless adjusted to the specific distance you're shooting — introduces miss-inducing inconsistencies into your aim.
Most traditional hunting scopes do not have adjustable parallax. Rather, the fixed parallax is set at 100 yards, and inside of typical hunting distances to 300 yards or so, it's close enough. However, you'll want to be sure that your long-distance scope has adjustable parallax.
Here's how to make the most of it. First, if your scope's parallax dial (often called a "side focus knob" or "adjustable objective") is marked with numbers allegedly tuned to yards. Ignore them. Set your rifle on double sandbags or a bipod and rear bag, get the crosshairs on the target, and back away from the rifle. Now, without contact, lean over and peer through the scope. Move your head around while still looking through, and slowly turn the parallax adjustment back and forth until the crosshairs stop moving around on the face of the target. Once determined, I like to put my own personal yardage marks on the adjustment knob with a permanent silver paint marker.
Understand Station Pressure Vs. Adjusted Pressure
When calculating ballistics on a computer program or an app, you'll have to input some atmospheric data such as temperature, elevation and so forth, or you can just enter the actual station pressure at your location, as measured by a Kestrel or similar device.
Understanding the difference between station or "absolute" pressure and adjusted pressure — which is what you'll see on most weather apps and so forth — is like comprehending the difference in how your mother loves you and how your mother in law loves you. In a nutshell, station (absolute) pressure is actual air density, while adjusted pressure is tweaked to read about the same — in a given condition — as a barometer would at sea level.
For instance, if your pressure device reads in the neighborhood of 29.92, it's been adjusted to sea-level-like output. If that's the case, inputting a relatively accurate altitude and temperature into your ballistic program will produce a relatively accurate calculation. However, if your Kestrel reads something like 25.78, that's station pressure, and you'll input that and more or less ignore altitude.
Capable apps have a swipe-type switch that enables the user to choose between station (absolute) pressure and adjusted pressure. Candidly, I'm lazy, and I tend to just set the device to adjusted pressure, input the number 29.92 in the barometric pressure field, then enter the local temperature and altitude. My laziness will probably bite me in the hindquarter someday, but so far my simple approach has worked pretty well.
With some of the more advanced rangefinders on the market, you can use a Kestrel in tandem with the rangefinder for immediate, accurate, sophisticated calculations.
Run A Ballistic Calculator Correctly
Unless you grew up with touch-screen electronics in your hands, correctly inputting all the necessary data into a ballistic app or calculator can be confusing. A few things are critical. Measure your scope height above bore and enter that. Make sure you've got your sight-in distance entered. Double-check that you've correctly chosen between MOA and mils. Work your magic with whatever pressure system you've chosen (see above) and enter that info.
Double-check that you've chosen the correct projectile from the bullet library (or correctly entered the data for a custom projectile) and entered the correct velocity. Be sure you've chosen the correct ballistic coefficient profile — usually "G1" but sometimes "G7." If you want your calculation to be close right out of the gate, it's critical to chronograph your ammo from your gun and use the resulting velocity average.
Know Your Bullet's Speed
To reliably calculate ballistics and predict required adjustments for distant shots, you'll have to know the average velocity of your chosen projectile when fired from your particular rifle. Fire a series of shots — preferable at least five — through a reliable chronograph, toggle through the readout to the "average velocity" computation, then jot that number down in your notebook. You'll use it in your phone's ballistic app and when creating range cards at home.
Go Prone Like a Sniper
Traditionally, hunters and high-power competition shooters lay prone at a significant angle to their rifle. It's comfortable to do so, and if you draw up a knee, it lifts your abdomen off the ground and minimizes the effect of heartbeat on the stability of your position. However, if you're shooting a scoped rifle from a bipod, there's a better way. Lay straight behind the rifle with an imaginary line drawn down its barrel running rearward through your shoulder and hip. Use your toes to scooch forward and "load" the bipod, which aids consistent pressure between rifle and shoulder.
With your body positioned directly behind the rifle and the bipod loaded, your position will minimize muzzle jump during recoil. In fact, a correctly built position will enable you to spot your own impacts past a few hundred yards, even with heavy calibers. With a good muzzlebrake, you may even be able to watch your own vapor trace as it arcs downrange toward your target.
If you experience too much crosshair throb from your heartbeat, stuff a folded-up jacket or whatever is handy under your chest to lessen the contact of your abdomen with the ground.
Paper targets are all great at close range where you can walk down and check your groups, and they're wonderful on a proper high-power range with somebody pulling and marking targets in the pits downrange. But for most long-distance shooting, a healthy-sized steel target is an invaluable asset. Paint it white, and impacts will show clearly, enabling you to pinpoint exactly where you hit.
Small steel targets are fun and challenging, but when you're working out your rifle and really getting to know it, actually catching each bullet and seeing its exact point of impact is far more valuable than "you're somewhere off the top left edge." Get a big steel target and use it to become a better shooter.
Range It Right
Getting a correct range reading with your laser rangefinder is critical to making the appropriate adjustment to your elevation dial. All too many rangefinders promise far more than they deliver. Either the ranging engine is too weak and won't read off of your intended target, or the laser divergence is so wide that you can't get a pinpoint reading.
Experts will suggest getting your best reading on the target, then ranging just off of each side and over and under it. You should be able to narrow the results down to the truth. Also, it really helps to brace against something steady. I typically range from my shooting position and brace my right wrist against my riflescope.
Keep up With the Wind
Correctly reading and compensating for wind takes experience, luck, and a sizeable crystal ball. It's the only element of long-range shooting that can't be broken down into predictable science.
- Wind is called by the clock, with the shooter in the center aiming at 12 o'clock. A full crosswind is termed "full value," and a wind parallel with the shooter is termed "no value." The increase in effect on your bullet from no value to full value is exponential.
- Long, detailed articles have and will be written about compensating for wind, and we can't cover all the elements here. However, a few things are worth knowing:
- Wind at the muzzle has the most effect, since a small deviation near the muzzle translates to big divergence downrange.
- Grass, leaves, dust and floating insects are all good indicators of wind direction and strength.
- Clouds of dirt kicked up by missed shots are invaluable aids in determining wind direction and strength at the target.
- In heavy wind, recognize that your first shot is basically a measuring shot: work your bolt fast and be ready to follow it up with a corrected hold immediately, before wind conditions have time to change.
- Bullets with high ballistic coefficient numbers (BC) buck the wind far better than conventional-BC bullets, making distant hits in wind far easier.
Breath Out and Sque-E-E-Ze
Like many shooters, I was taught to take a few deep breaths and then hold the last one halfway out while squeezing the trigger. However, allowing your lungs to simply empty themselves of air and shooting during the resulting natural "respiratory pause" has proven to be more consistent.
Refine your aim as you pause just slightly between deep breaths, then slowly squeeze that trigger when your body is fully oxygenated but your lungs are empty and resting, your is heartbeat slow, and your eyesight sharp.
Watch the Vapor Trace
No shooter becomes adept at hitting distant targets without becoming an accomplished spotter. Practice sessions with a buddy are more effective than alone, because you get more definitive feedback on your misses and because spotting for each other allows each of you to learn more about what bullets do in different wind conditions.
Don't just watch the target for impacts. As they fly, bullets distort the air around them, resulting in a visible vapor trail, or trace as some call it. It will arch above the target, curve with the wind, and if a good shot has been made, lead directly to the target. If the shot misses, often watching where the vapor trail passes the target will enable the spotter to give more accurate feedback than just seeing a puff of dirt fly up.
Depending on cartridge velocity and bullet BC, the vapor trail can appear as a high, curved arch, or it can flick out to the target with little curve at all, or somewhere between. I've shot at 1,120 yards with my 20-inch .308, but the vapor trail arches so high that it literally leaves the field of view in my spotting scope and drops back into it as the bullet nears the target. Conversely, I've shot at 1,200 yards with my 26-inch 7mm Weatherby Magnum and a high-BC bullet at 3,200 feet per second (fps), and the arc of its vapor trail only curves halfway up from the center of the field of view.
Wind can sweep away a vapor trail and make it almost impossible to detect, as can heavy mirage. Best conditions are still, cool mornings with high humidity.
Dial or Hold Over?
Although every long-range scope should have quality, consistent elevation adjustment turrets, and although dialing for a distant shot is arguably the most precise way to aim, holding over via an MOA or mil reticle is faster.
Last spring, I was at a long-range shooting clinic, and the instructors put on several speed-shooting drills that turned into a competition with a rifle for the winner at the end. For three days we'd been dialing for every shot, and all the shooters participating continued to do so. After clearing it with the instructors, I switched to holding over — and my final time was less than half that of the other shooters.
In that case, I was shooting a simple duplex-type reticle, and it took some mental acrobatics on my part to calculate certain points on the duplex to MOA. A numbered reticle with hash marks every MOA or every half-mil makes it easy. Just consult your chart, and instead of dialing up 11.5 MOA, for instance, just use the reticle to hold over 11.5 MOA.