Long-range shooting isn’t as simple as TV makes it look

One of the most frustrating things to me is explaining to some-one that they can’t just go out and buy all of the latest and greatest equipment and shoot a deer, or other target, at 1,000 yards.

Sure, if you don’t have the right equipment you have little to no chance, but the rifle and scope don’t shoot themselves. I blame certain “hunting shows” on TV for this, mostly. The gun magazines generally are more realistic and reasonable about long-range shooting.

Some outdoor programs are on the verge of being infomercials selling the “gear” that they are us-ing on the show so it’s in their best interests to make it look easy and convince viewers that if they send their rifle to them and buy their brand of scope, they too can snipe elk at a mile. This is not hunting, it is shooting; it just so happens that the target is a living animal and not paper or steel.

I personally have no problem with it if you can consistently kill an animal that far away and you have the necessary tags and licenses to do it legally. The problem arises when hunters/shooters think they can do it and start launching bullets at great distances. In the best case scenario they miss cleanly; worst case, they wound an animal and it suffers and/or dies needlessly.

I’ve had many people tell me of their great long-range kills but when questioned about bullet drop and how much they held over their target, the answers lay to rest the question of how far away they were shooting. Their 800 yards usually turns out to be about 250 to 400 maximum, by just knowing how much the average hunting cartridge’s bullet drops compared to their hold-over amount.

I know a lot more about all of these factors than the average hunter, though many people are well-versed.

Here are a few things to think about before you jump into long-range “hunting.” A 150-grain bullet out of a 7 mm Remington Magnum (which is fairly flat-shooting), sighted in at 200 yards, drops 290 inches (over 24 feet) at 1,000 yards. Does the average hunter have even the slightest idea how much his specific cartridge and specific bullet, at a specific velocity, drops at 600, 650, 700, 825 yards respectively?

The new generation of laser range finders have helped immensely in helping hunters and shooters to judge range more accurately, since their estimations can be confirmed instantly, but that information is bordering on useless if you do not know the ballistics of your cartridge/bullet combination.

Now we have to consider a cross wind, which will foul the shot of even the best long-range shooter. It’s extremely hard to judge wind speed and, to make matters even worse, the wind speed at the target at extreme ranges can be much different than the wind value at the shooter. A 15 mph crosswind can easily push the most aerodynamic projectile tens of feet off course at extreme ranges.

Now what if the wind is com-ing directly from behind you? It adds to the speed of your bullet. Do you know how much higher your bullet will impact the target at 600 yards or 800 yards or 1,000 yards? You’d better, because that will cause an over-shot just by itself.

Do you even know how to judge the speed of the wind? It isn’t easy, but wind meters are cheap and can help you immensely in learning how to determine wind values by learning the movement of various plants and grasses as well as mirage in differing wind conditions.

What if your distant target is up a hill or down a steep slope? Let’s dispel an annoying myth right now: Your bullet does not impact higher if you shoot up or down hill! Gravity is the only constant we are dealing with here. Since gravity originates from the core of the Earth it only has a detrimental effect on the bullet’s trajectory of the amount of distance that bullet travels over the surface of the earth.

If you shoot from the ground to the top of a mountain and the bullet travels 600 yards but only 400 yards across the earth’s surface you need to compensate only for the 400 yards that gravity is affect-ing it. If you hold for 600 yards of drop, you will shoot high.

Probably the most over-looked aspect of extreme range shooting is atmospheric conditions, of which elevation makes a big contribution. I don’t have time to go into the spe-cifics of this, as it is very compli-cated, but as the air thins and be-comes less dense, bullets have an easier time passing through it. If you sight in at 700 feet in high humidity and then travel to 8,000 feet in dry air, there is quite a bit more difference in the bullet’s flight path than what you’d expect.

Most hunters are out on their own in the woods; rarely is another hunter right beside them when they shoot. Military snipers work in pairs, or teams, and there are many reasons for this.

One, which has nothing to do with our subject, is for security. Whichever member is the spotter at the time usually has a fast-firing carbine or rifle to handle any unexpected or close threats and also to pay more attention to the surroundings as the designated sniper will most likely have tunnel vision on the target.

The other reasons were acknowledged first, though. Two heads are always better than one, especially if both of those heads are of the same training and mind-set. The sniper and spotter are con-stantly bouncing information off of each other: distance, wind speed, mirage effects, bullet impacts, hits and misses etc. etc.

Chances are if they both think a condition is a certain way, it prob-ably is and that increases the hit ra-tio substantially. When you are out on your own, you have to make all of these decisions yourself with all of your prejudices and preconceptions.

Lastly, don’t choose a 308 Winchester /7.62 x51mm NATO as your cartridge of choice. I love this caliber, but it is a poor choice for long-range work.

“But then why do the police and military use it?”  you are surely asking yourself. The military uses it because it was an established, standard caliber when adopted for the M-40 and M-24 sniper rifles.

In experienced hands it is totally adequate for military purposes out to about 600 yards; any sniper who has used it effectively (or especially ineffectively) further than that will assuredly tell you they would have much preferred to have been armed with an accurate rifle chambered in 300 Winchester Magnum.

For this reason that caliber and the .338 Lapua Magnum are coming on strong and may even become more common in the hands of military snipers than the 7.62mm that is the current standard.

Additionally in most cases a simple “hit” is what the military sniper is looking for; in fact, a wounded enemy might even be more advantageous in many circumstances.

As hunters we have a responsibility to cleanly kill the animals we are hunting. Wounded prey should be avoided at all costs. For this reason we need a caliber capable of producing lethality at extended ranges. One thousand foot-pounds of energy should be considered a minimum power level for ethical killing at extreme ranges where the bullet might not be placed as precisely as it would be at 100 yards.

The popular 308/7.62 match load used by police and military snipers only produces about half of that at 1,000 yards. The previous example of the 7mm Magnum will do about 600 foot-pounds, and even the mighty 300 Ultra Mag. will barely get you 1,000.

Police agencies use the .308 Winchester because the military does, kind of a monkey-see, monkey-do scenario, but also because it is an inherently accurate cartridge.

The average law enforcement sniper shot is only around 50 yards, so flattened bullet trajectory is a non-issue but extreme accuracy is. If your interest is only in hitting targets, a 6.5-284, 260 Ackley etc. is all that is needed, as only a flat trajectory matters. But if you want to cleanly kill game, you will have to step up to the 30-caliber magnums and large-capacity 338s.

Before you try to emulate your favorite TV pronghorn sniper, there are a multitude of factors that must be taken into account and an immense amount of real-world shoot-ing to do and information to down-load into your grey matter – unless you just want to rely on luck.

I took an informal poll of very ballistically knowledgable hunters and, even with the best of long range hunting rounds, virtually every one would not take a shot on a game animal at 700 yards.

Personally I’d put my own limit at about 600.