Long-range hunting is all the rage right now, and that has raised the question of how far is too far when taking a shot at game.
In truth, the maximum effective range — the distance at which a hunter can consistently place shots in the vital zone under field conditions to insure a clean harvest — varies greatly from one individual to the next even when the equipment they carry is exactly the same.
Despite what some people think you simply can't buy your way into making accurate 500, 600, or 700 yard shots on big game. Making clean kills at that range requires more than the latest and greatest rifle, scope, and caliber — it takes skill. Need proof?
Consider the wind drift on a standard 180 grain .30-06 bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,650 and a ballistic coefficient of .452. At 200 yards the wind drift on that bullet in a 10 mile per hour crosswind would be under three inches — likely not enough to take you out of the vital zone. But if you don't account for that wind drift a 600 yards the bullet will move almost thirty inches — well out of the kill zone and almost certain to wound the animal.
Calculations aside, a simple mistake can cause a major problem at those kind of ranges; a flinch can move a bullet ten inches, failure to account for parallax error can result in a wounded animal instead of a dead one, and something as simple as an angled trigger pull can cause what would still be a lethal shot at 300 yards to turn into an all-day tracking job at 600 yards.
Fortunately, rifles, optics, rangefinders, and ammo are all more sophisticated than they were just a few years ago, so the hardware is already available for accurate long range hunting. But as the shooter you must be sure to take every step to make the best shot you can.
Discover Courage, a non-profit that raises funds to help soldiers decompress after deployments, is now offering a long range shooting school that teaches techniques used by the world's best long-range military shooters (the resume of the Discover Courage Unknown Distance Course reads like a who's-who of elite military snipers; a former commander of SEAL Team 2, the founder of the SEAL Scout Sniper program as well as their lead instructor). The course helps shooters — and hunters — rewrite the limits of their shooting ability. And they can help you become a better hunter. Here's a list of some of the mistakes your making that will cost you game when shooting at long ranges.
There's a widely-held notion that being "surprised" by your trigger break is somehow a good thing, but don't tell thatto SEAL Scout Sniper Course Founder Jay Manty.
"If you're surprised when your bullet leaves the gun that's a negligent discharge," Manty says. If you're only going to punch holes in paper for the rest of your life then the surprise break is fine, but if you're a sniper — or a hunter — and a need to deliver a bullet when the opportunity presents itself you simply must be able to press the trigger and put the bullet where you want it when you want it there.
Sure, letting the trigger "surprise" you is a clever means of outfoxing the effects of recoil, but it's only effective when you have enough time to coax the sear into breaking. Sometimes you have to shoot and you have to shoot right now. That's why you need to learn to manage recoil and deliver shots on your terms.
What do you focus on when you look through your scope? Odds are if you're being honest with yourself you said the target or animal because that's what most shooters focus on. But that's a mistake. Pistol shooters know that you can only focus on one plane at a time and they chant the mantra of "front sight" over and over. Why? Because it works.
Rifle shooters need to share a similar adherence to focusing on the crosshairs, not the target. If you haven't practiced this try it sometime. The very first thing you'll notice is that the crosshair is actually moving on the target more than you'd imagine.
If you don't know that movement is occurring, you'll never be able to tame it and make accurate shots.
The Fast Rack
There's an idea among long range shooters that the fast follow-up starts with a quick cycling of the rifle's bolt, but that's a myth. The dramatic rearward jerk is great for aesthetic effects, and it launches the empty brass in a wide, beautiful arch, but that heroic yank on the bolt handle also causes two major problems — it moves the gun off target and it requires the shooter to totally reposition the face and upper body.
Instead, try a smooth, steady bolt stroke. What you'll find is that you're actually faster getting back on target and you can deliver follow-up shots more effectively.
Breath control is critical to good long-range shooting, but only if you know how to hold your breath the right way. Cutting off your breathing will help stabilize the rifle, but holding your breath for too long results in a state of hypoxia, causes fidgeting, and forces you to rush your shot.
The best routine is to inhale and exhale deeply and thoroughly, and to cease exhaling as you get centered for the shot. But if you can't deliver an accurate shot in five to ten seconds--the time until you begin shifting your focus, even subconsciously, to this alarming lack of oxygen — you need to break off the target, breath, regroup, and refocus.
The Scope Mount
If you are serious about long-range shooting you need to take a little extra time and pay a little more attention to your scope mount. In many cases scopes are simply dropped into the rings, cinched tight and forgotten, and for the average hunter taking 100 or 150 yard shots that may not be an issue. But when you're talking about shots at five times that range and sometimes more you need to be absolutely certain that your scope is leveled with the action.
This doesn't take much time and doesn't require fancy equipment. A simple plumb line with a weight will work, but companies like Wheeler offer inexpensive scope leveling devices that fit in your pocket.
There are a number of shooters — maybe you know one of them — that feel the answer to any problem is a better rifle, a better optic, a new barrel or a flatter-shooting cartridge. In reality the equipment you purchase is handicapped by the ability of the shooter.
Don't get me wrong — good equipment is important to accurate long-range shooting, but you need to be sure that your skill level allows you to get the most from that particular rifle/scope/load combo. For instance, at the Discover Courage course Rachel VandeVoort from Kimber was drilling quarter-minute groups at 700 yards with an off-the-shelf Kimber Super America .308 rifle and factory ammo.
The Super America is a sporter-type rifle and not a serious heavy-barreled long-range rig, and although it's a fine rifle some would say that a wood-stocked gun with a relatively light barrel wouldn't be capable of such accuracy. But that's largely dependent upon the skill of the shooter behind the scope, as Rachel so clearly displayed.
Incomplete Wind Data
I find it fascinating to try and gather wind data at long ranges. The Discover Courage course helped students learn the ins and outs of the art of wind reading (and, unlike many aspects of shooting, this is truly equal parts art and skill), the principle takeaway being that at a range of 400, 500, 600 or more yards, especially in rolling terrain, there are a number of changes in wind speed and direction between you and your target.
Thermals, geography, ambient temperature and pressure can all effect how wind behaves over relatively short ranges, so you need to develop a clear picture of what the wind is doing between you and the target. Learning to read mirage is important, but look for a mid-point and full-range readings. Use every resource available — twisting flags, rising waves, blowing dust, shuddering grass — to paint a clearer picture of the windscape.
Don't forget to look for mirage above the ground line as wind currents can change in just a few feet of elevation above the earth.