First of all, Merry Christmas to all of you from us at SHTFblog.com. Even if you’re amongst the cadre who doesn’t celebrate, be sure to take the day off and enjoy yourself, with family, friends, pets, or someone meaningful if you can. Have some eggnog too. It’s good for the soul. ;)
Onto the post!
I was in my favorite gun shop recently, and was hanging out chewing the fat with the counter guys and instructors. A man came in and announced that he wanted an AR-10 built for long-distance shooting. Sure, they’ll build one to order…what was he looking to do? “Oh, I’m looking to engage targets out to 800 yards with it.”
800 frickin’ yards? 2400 feet? As in just under a half mile?
That, my friends, is a long, LONG way to be sending bullets at targets. Add to the fact that chances are excellent (I know I was judging a book by its cover, but I’m betting you’d come to the same conclusion if you were there and hearing the guy) that this guy had never shot anywhere close to that distance before, and it all adds up to a bunch of ridiculousness, in my book. Of course, there are men and their weapons that can accurately place bullets at that distance, but they have spent a LOT of time behind a trigger, and I’m betting they have also invested substantial time researching ballistics, developing loads, and comparing notes with other long-distance shooters. That’s the kind of homework that’s necessary to be able to place 168 grains of lead and copper jacket in a bullseye 800 yards distant.
But, of course, everyone starts somewhere, right? And that fellow at the gun shop may just have been starting right off the bat with good gear to start learning, start training. So say you’ve gotten yourself to that point: you have a good rifle that’s capable of shooting 1 MOA (Minute Of Angle, which equals a 1-inch group at 100 yards, 2-inch group at 200 yards, 3-inch at 300, etc.), you have a good scope on quality, solid mounts, and a cartridge load that shoots consistently with a bullet that has excellent aerodynamics. What now?
How far is too far?
Being able to estimate range is crucial. If you can’t accurately tell how far away your target it, you’re going to have an awfully hard time placing a bullet with any kind of precision past 200-300 yards. Obviously, new laser rangefinders are purpose-made for the task, but training yourself with (somewhat) everyday commonly seen distances will help immeasurably. Common ones I use are:
-Telephone poles are spaced 75-100 feet apart, depending on terrain. I find a nice patch of flat road where they will be spaced further apart (100 feet between poles) so I can freshen up range estimating. 3 pole distances = 100 yards.
-Go to your local high school football field: The field is roughly 50 yards wide by 100 yards long (120 yards with the endzones)
-I’m a huge car nut, and spend a healthy amount of time at drag strips. A 1/4 mile track is 1320 feet, or 440 yards. A 1/8 mile track is 220 yards. Most rural drag strips will let you stand on the starting line before cars start running (tell them you need to check track conditions)…you’ll see that 1/4 mile is a HELL of a long way. Long enough so that you really should know what you’re doing before you start shooting at game that far away; it’s the responsible thing to do.
-Head to a local gun range, preferably one with a nice long rifle range. They will have range markers set out to make estimation much easier, and to set your rifle’s zero at known distances.
To start shooting at any distance past a couple hundred yards, you’re going to have to start looking into at least rudimentary ballistics. I wrote a post on ballistics you can freshen up with here. But the very basic things you will need to know about are the trajectory, velocity, wind drift, and energy of your particular load that you are shooting out of your rifle. If you are shooting factory-loaded ammunition, these specifications can be found via the manufacturer’s website. If you handload, there are many ballistics charts and calculators available online to compute these factors.
I’m going to use an example: I shoot Federal 180-grain Hi-Shok ammunition out of my Winchester M54 .30-06. Federal lists this load as 3006B. Their website lists this particular load here. The details are:
DISTANCE Velocity Energy Wind drift(10mph wind) Trajectory (drop)
Muzzle 2700fps 2913 ft-lbs 0″ 0″
100 yds 2470fps 2439 ft-lbs 0.9″ +2.1″
200 yds 2252fps 2026 ft-lbs 3.7″ 0″ (200-yard zero)
300 yds 2045fps 1671 ft-lbs 8.8″ -9.0″
400 yds 1848fps 1365 ft-lbs 16.2″ -26.2″
500 yds 1667 fps 1111 ft-lbs 27″ -54.2″
Why this info is important:
Velocity - As velocity decreases, trajectory drops, and the bullet offers less resistance to wind. Also, energy is cut dramatically, and the further away you are, the lower the speed of the bullet, the less likely the bullet is to expand and penetrate to vital organs of game. If you can hit the target, that’s great! But if the bullet can’t do its job when it gets there, you have a problem, namely wounded game.
Energy: I’ve always been told that a good indicator a cartridge will be a good, reliable white-tailed deer load is if it makes 1000+ foot-lbs of energy at a given distance. As seen above, the chosen .30-06 load will be an adequate performer out to 500 yards as it meets that energy guideline, but the bullet is moving so slowly that it’s doubtful it will expand much to do tissue damage. Energy and velocity go hand-in-hand for the bullet once it hits your target, even at long range.
Wind Drift: Wind, even gentle breezes, affects bullet placement in a huge way. In the chart above, you can see that even a gentle 10-mph breeze will move a 180-grain 30-caliber bullet almost 9 inches laterally at 300 yards. And a 180-grain bullet, being heavy and retaining inertia well, resists wind drift quite well. A standard .223/5.56mm 55-grain bullet, for example, will drift around 11 inches at the same distance, due to its lighter weight. This is why snipers and long-distance shooters gravitate towards long, heavy bullets out of heavier calibers. They retain energy for a further distance, and drift and drop less. Serious long-range shooters watch anythingaround the target for indications of wind movement: leaves, blades of grass, the breath of an animal on a cold day. These will all give indications of wind speed at long range. However, a sudden gust BETWEEN you and the target, which can easily happen if you’re shooting across a valley, say, will screw you up with no way to tell what the hell is going on.
Trajectory: As the bullet sheds velocity due to drag, it drops as gravity pulls downward on it. The slower the bullet goes, the more pronounced the drop is. With the chosen .30-06 load above, we can see that with a 200-yard zero, I should be able to reliably hit a deer-sized animal in the vitals (roughly an 8″ diameter area) out to 275 yards or so, providing little wind, with no hold-over or serious adjustment to the sight picture. Beyond 300 yards, though, I will have to start adjusting where I hold my crosshairs with an appropriate mount of hold-over so that the bullet will drop into the desired impact point. This is why being able to gauge distance accurately makes all the difference. If you think it’s 400 yards when it’s actually 500, your bullet will impact below your target, and there goes your meal.
A word on caution and responsibility: If you are shooting at game this far away (defense against 2-legged critters or punching holes in paper is another thing altogether), you owe it to your quarry to say “no” to pulling the trigger if you can’t make a clean kill. If an animal is 500 yards away in a steady wind, stalk closer for a sure kill or let it go for another day. In those conditions, the bullet placement is less than predictable, and an animal deserves a quick, humane kill….not an ineffectual bullet in a place that will make the animal suffer if it can’t be recovered. As a bonus, a cleanly-shot animal will be easier to find and brought home to feed your family.
Realities of long-distance shooting
Marines in the era of WW1 were expected to be able to hit man-sized targets at 500 yards and beyond – reliably – with their 1903 Springfield rifles. And they could, with loads of proper training with a known load and experienced instructors, plus extravagant amounts of range time. (if you’ve ever held a 1903 of any vintage and looked down the sights, you will find this pretty damned remarkable!) Just because we live in the modern era of high-powered scopes with bullet drop compensaters, laser rangefinders, and GPS markers with VLD (very low drag) bullets and high-speed cartridges, it doesn’t mean and oaf can buy all the right stuff and instantly become an 800-yard sniper. As with the Marines of yore, it takes hours and hours and hours of range time with experienced people guiding you on how to utilize your chosen rifle and load before you can even think about “engaging targets at 800 yards”. I’ll admit, I’ve never shot at anything that far away, and have no reason to other than for the sheer hell of it. However, I have taken a West Virginia whitetailed deer off his hooves with a clean spine shot from a .300 H&H at over 600 yards, with a proper rest, a well-known rifle with a proven, calculated load, a 12-power scope, and no wind. It’s not terribly hard once you get there, but it takes lots of practice. And when you CAN pull off shots like that, well, you get some pretty killer bragging rights. Especially when you have witnesses. :)
Just remember, practice, practice, practice. Baby steps, too…get good at 100 yards, then step it to 200. Then 300. If you start at 500 yards, you’re going to be a discouraged mess. Start close, get lots of trigger time, do research, practice findamentals of breathing and trigger control, don’t rush. Your confidence levels will soar and you’ll be confidently making long-range shots before you know it.
What’s the longest shot you’ve made? Do you practice at longer ranges?
Stay safe, and merry Christmas!