Interest in long-range tactical precision rifle shooting now stands at an all-time high. Yet, the vast majority of prospective aficionados with whom I speak all say the same thing: They’d love to get involved in it but haven’t any idea how to go about it.
“It’s too hard; I’m not a good enough shot, and I don’t know how to get started,” is perhaps the most common response. But is it that difficult? Is long-range precision shooting so tough that only a few expert marksmen can handle it?
DONE PROPERLY, ANYONE CAN DO IT
The answer is simple: No, it isn’t too tough for the average shooter. With proper equipment selection, setup, load development and practice, long-range precision riflery isn’t nearly as difficult as most believe. The problem is that they don’t know very many fundamental things that critically influence performance, thus fostering the idea that it’s too tough for the average shooter.
For the last 20 years, I’ve been involved in this kind of shooting almost full time. Along the way, I’ve discovered how to achieve the kind of results we all dream of, and I think I’ve broken some new ground, as well. Like any other kind of shooting endeavor, long-range work first involves a careful analysis—that is, defining the questions before seeking answers, if you will.
DEFINE YOUR NEEDS
Often, this isn’t as easy or simple as you might think. For example, what is “long range”? Four hundred meters, 500 meters? 750 meters? A thousand, perhaps? As inane as this might at first seem, the question must be answered before you can proceed efficiently.
The question means different things to different shooters. Thus, a better way of phrasing it might be, “What is long-range precision shooting to you ?”
If your needs dictate a maximum engagement range of no more than 500 meters, you can include some of the smaller cartridges in your list of possibilities. For this kind of work, the .223 (5.56x45mm NATO), .22-250 Remington, .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .257 Roberts are capable of excellent performance.
ON MY FIRST HUNT IN AFRICA BACK IN THE 1970S, MY PROFESSIONAL HUNTER REMARKED THAT HE COULD EASILY SPOT AN AMERICAN HUNTER, BECAUSE HE CARRIED A THOUSAND-DOLLAR RIFLE WITH A HUNDRED-DOLLAR TELESCOPIC SIGHT ON IT.
If you require longer-range capability—say, out to 700 meters— the .308 Winchester (7.62x51mm NATO) and 7mm-08 are good choices. Both are capable of excellent accuracy and possess satisfactory terminal ballistic capability out to this distance.
Ranges past 700 meters require a flatter trajectory than most cartridges can produce, so cartridges such as the .257 Weatherby, .270 Winchester, .270 Weatherby, 7mm STW, .30-06, .30-338, .300 Winchester and .300 Weatherby are better options.
Yes, I know that some great shots at these distances have occasionally been made with lesser cartridges. Nevertheless, from my perspective, accuracy by itself isn’t enough, especially against living (either animal or human) targets.
This is a simple matter, if properly defined, but this is where most would-be long-range precision riflemen get into trouble: They don’t define their needs before seeking solutions.
I’ve found that once this is accomplished, efficient long-range shooting is easier to understand and pursue. In fact, it then becomes surprisingly simple, as long as you follow this simple formula: Select the proper rifle type, caliber, sights and ancillary equipment. Set it up properly. Train with it, both on the range and in the field, to ascertain that it is, in fact, set up properly. Continue to train under real-world conditions.
On my first hunt in Africa back in the 1970s, my professional hunter remarked that he could easily spot an American hunter, because he carried a thousand-dollar rifle with a hundred-dollar telescopic sight on it. Because he was an expatriate Brit, at first, I thought the comment was just part of his dry wit, but subsequent observations of other hunters in the field showed that there was substantial basis for his claim. Such is also often the case with precision long-range shooters.
Although many would-be long-range precision shooters don’t realize it, scope selection is fully as critical as rifle selection. The scope must provide the right magnification for the user’s needs, possess good light-gathering and amplification capability, and be as clear as possible—yet not be too heavy or bulky. It must also have finite, yet positive, elevation and windage-adjustment capability.
Scope bases should be one piece for best rigidity and zero retention, with the Picatinny rail becoming ever more popular. Thus, the Leupold Mark 4 base is quite prolific, and for those needing more elevation, Precision Reflex, Inc. produces a base that’s higher in the rear, providing an additional 15 MOA.
I’ve also had excellent results with Leupold’s STD one-piece base, even though some opine that their two large windage screws “shoot loose” and cause zero loss after a while. Because I use LocTite on all screws in my guns when setting them up, I’ve had no problems whatsoever with them. As a result, I see little validity to this claim.
Rings, too, are important. And again, Leupold leads the way with its STD series. With five different heights available, they satisfy nearly any telescope configuration. For the Picatinny rail-type base, Mark 4 rings are also offered.
Fortunately for those who opt for a precision AR15, a Picatinny rail is integral to any so-called “fl at-top” upper receiver, thus eliminating any need for a base. One needs only to clamp the appropriate rings on it and mount the scope.
Some type of matte finish is also appropriate for either tactical or hunting use, because both people and animals can easily spot “shine” at ranges past 1,000 meters on a sunny day.
The weight and bulk of the finished rifle must be balanced. A rifle that’s too heavy will shoot quite well but cannot realistically be carried in the field. On the other hand, if it’s too light— especially if chambered for one of the more potent cartridges— it will be highly portable but incapable of the required accuracy. It will also recoil excessively, thus preventing you from shooting it sufficiently well to reach its full potential.
What is the best balance? Well, it depends on you: your physical build and capability, as well as your tolerance for recoil. In my case, somewhere between 10 and 13 pounds works best. I prefer 26-inch, target-crowned barrels between .85 to 1 inch in diameter for the highest velocity possible without causing the piece to become too unwieldy.
Next, load development should be accomplished. My criteria include not only accuracy, the flattest-possible trajectory and terminal ballistics, but penetration, as well. Regardless of whether you’re trying to reach the vitals of a trophy game animal from any angle or penetrate light cover (vegetation or glass, for instance) to reach a human adversary, penetration can occasionally become critical.
And, with cartridges producing truly high velocities, it gets even worse: Most conventional bullets often disintegrate upon impact and fail to penetrate. For varmint hunting, this presents no special problem, because destruction is, in fact, the whole point. But for tactical situations or big-game hunting, we need more —that bullet simply must make it to vital organs to be effective. If the cartridge/load produces more than 3,000 fps, things can get downright tacky if you’re not careful with your bullet selection.
Fortunately, Barnes now offers its solid-copper Tipped Triple Shock, which penetrates extremely well while demonstrating excellent expansion at the same time. And its solid-copper construction allows us to re-think the bullet weight/ penetration/terminal ballistics/trajectory/recoil equation.
We can select a lighter bullet than is possible with traditional construction, producing lower recoil, higher velocities and, therefore, a flatter trajectory and greater maximum effective range without sacrificing terminal ballistics in the process.
At velocities fewer than 3,000 fps, premature upset isn’t an issue, so traditional bullet construction remains a valid option. Thus, bullet choices remain quite flexible.
Once you’ve found the load that best satisfies your requirements, first bore-sight the rifle at 25 meters, and then zero it. For best use of the weapon’s inherent trajectory, it’s been my experience that a 200-meter zero is generally best with cartridges producing fewer than 3,000 fps and 250 meters for those producing more.
However, if your needs dictate (e.g., for use only in an urban area, where the range will never exceed 200 meters), 100-meter zero is also acceptable.
Once you’ve “zeroed out” the turrets (that is, loosening the lock screws and turning the graduated turret to zero, then retightening), calibrate the elevation click settings required to hold dead-on in 25-meter range increments out to what you consider to be “maximum effective range.”
Many have found that with lower scope rings and/or with lower-velocity cartridges such as the .308 Winchester, the scope often lacks sufficient elevation adjustment capability to reach “max effective.” This is where a scope base with an extra 15 or 20 MOA (mentioned earlier) comes in very handy.
As this is accomplished, record your elevation click settings at each range in your notebook for later transcription to a soft plastic-laminated range card.
Once this process is complete, return to “zero range” and calibrate inward in those same 25-meter range increments until you’ve reached the closest range at which you expect to use the weapon. Clicks will be “minus,” rather than “plus.” The zeroing/calibration process is now complete.
Now, go out and field-check your weapon and scope settings to make certain they coincide with those obtained on the range. You might well find that a click here or there is needed to tweak the settings to final perfection.
Once field-checking is complete, transcribe the final click data for each range via your computer or typewriter, reduce it appropriately in size and have it laminated in soft plastic. Then, place one copy of the resulting range card in a Ziploc bag you carry in your notebook; tape another to the side of the rifle’s buttstock held toward your body, allowing quick scope adjustment in the field.
ABOUT MIL-DOTS: A QUICK NOTE
Although they are useful backups for the system I’ve just described, reliable laser rangefinders have made the concept essentially obsolete. For range-finding, they’re not especially precise, because they depend on too many assumptions—for example, that a target is a given height.
Such is only rarely the case, making truly precise shots very, very difficult, because the shooter must use holdover shooting based on imprecise data. Moreover, the mathematics of making mil-dots sufficiently efficient is, in my opinion, more trouble than it’s worth, in comparison to newer methods.
Few police SWAT teams still use them, because from any perspective—tactical, criminal or civil—the laser concept makes more sense. The military continues to use them, because it has many rifles equipped with scopes with that type of reticle. Nevertheless, the military is also rapidly adapting its methods to the laser.
GIVE IT A TRY
So, there you have it: long-range precision shooting made simple. You’ll find that you’ve eliminated nearly all the problems that make people think long-range precision riflery is a mixture of voodoo and alchemy. You’ll also find you’ve entered a wonderfully rewarding and relevant kind of shooting—something that will give you many hours of not only satisfying, but relevant, shooting.
WITH PROPER EQUIPMENT SELECTION, SETUP, LOAD DEVELOPMENT AND PRACTICE, LONG-RANGE PRECISION RIFLERY ISN’T NEARLY AS DIFFICULT AS MOST BELIEVE.
In fact, it has only one drawback: You will have eliminated all your excuses for missing! If you miss, you, as a marksman, blew it.
To prevent this from happening, I use an improved version of the legendary U.S. Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock‘s precision shooting protocol:
- Comfortable body alignment
- Natural point of aim on target
- Firm handshake grip on weapon with firing hand
- Obtain proper eye relief—no shadows in scope
- Focus on crosshairs, not the target
- Normal respiratory pause
- Slow, steady pressure on trigger
- Follow through (press trigger all the way to the rear; do not release too quickly)
Try it. I think you’ll agree.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.