5 Things to Know About Long Range Shooting
Tom McHale 11.09.15
Long range shooting is absolutely addictive. It’s a combination of math, science, and art. Mix all those things in the right proportion, and you’ll get the satisfaction of a first-shot hit at longer distances than most people walk in a day.
Here are a few things to know to get repeatable positive results when ranges are measured by fractions of miles.
1. Bullets don’t go “up”
There’s a myth that just won’t seem to die. Lots of folks talk about bullets going “up” as they exit the muzzle. Well, they sorta do, but only because the bore is aimed “up” just a little bit as the shot is fired. If your rifle bore is lined up exactly parallel to the earth, the bullet will start to fall the very microsecond it leaves the barrel and will continue to do so until it hits the ground. It will never rise under these conditions.
The “up” misunderstanding comes from the fact that the scope and bore are actually angled slightly towards each other. If the scope is pointed at a distant target and exactly level with the earth, the bore is actually aimed just a bit upwards. As the bullet is always falling, the shooter needs to aim “up” just a bit so that it will impact the target and not the ground in front of it. It’s just like throwing a football—the farther the receiver, the more you have to lob the ball to get there.
2. Mastering gravity is pretty easy
For really long shots, you have to account for a lot of bullet drop. As an extreme example, when I attended the NRA Outdoors Long Range Hunting course, we got inspired to shoot at a small bush in the middle of sandpit that was 1,400 yards downrange. For some rifles, that’s not really a big deal. However, we were using stock Smith & Wesson M&P10 rifles with standard 168-grain .308 Hornady A-MAX ammo. This combination really isn’t designed for shots past three-quarters of a mile, so it was adventurous to say the least. Using our Kestrel AE ballistic computer weather meters, we figured the shot required 65 minutes of angle of elevation adjustment. In English, that means we had to aim exactly 946.4 inches above the target to get a hit. Yes, just under 1,000 inches, or about 28 yards. That’s quite a lot of adjustment and sounds hard, but it’s actually not, provided you hold steady and focus on a smooth trigger press. That’s because gravity is really, really predictable. As long as you know the atmospheric conditions and the exact velocity of your round from your specific rifle, you can calculate the required hold over pretty easily.
The bottom line? Gravity always wins, but at least it’s predictable.
3. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than just gravity
While gravity doesn’t change unless Spock loses track of some anti-matter, environmental conditions do. If a bullet travels at a different velocity from shot to shot, the gravity exerted is the same, but it’s applied for different durations of time during the bullet’s flight. A faster bullet will be exposed to the effects of gravity for a shorter length of time for any given distance. Therefore, the bullet will drop less. A slower bullet has more time to get weighed down by gravity, and will drop more over the same distance. As a result, it’s important to know, and account for, atmospheric conditions at the time and place of your long range shot.
For example, if you zero our example .308 round on an 80-degree day but shoot on a 20-degree day, you’ll see about a 12-inch vertical difference in target impact. The bullet drops more on the colder day.
While humidity doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, air density, correlating with altitude, is another environmental factor that can result in big shifts in the point of impact. The same bullet fired at both sea level and 9,000 feet can have more than 30 inches of vertical impact shift at 1,000 yards.
While measuring and tracking these factors can be complex, they are measurable and predictable.
4. Trust, but verify
Optics have different ways to adjust for elevation or holdover to account for bullet drop. Some optics use a turret-only approach, in which you dial elevation up or down as needed. This approach allows you to center the crosshairs on the distant target as vertical compensation is handled by the scope turrets making an internal adjustment. Other optics have reticles with ballistic drop compensation features. Lines or circles on the reticle correspond to different ranges. For example, you might hold on the 600-yard mark on the reticle itself to hit a target at that range. Usually, the more you pay, the better those approximations will be. However, as good as your optic is, there’s no way for a scope manufacturer to know the specifics of your rifle, ammunition, and environmental conditions. As a result, those marks or turret adjustments will always be a little bit off.
The net result of all this is that if your scope or ballistic computer says you have to make a certain turret adjustment or hold on a certain reticle mark, you have to verify actual performance on the practice range. Most long range shooters will develop a log book that shows exactly how their rifle, ammunition and optic performs at each range for given weather conditions. For example, you might find that the 600-yard hashmark on your ballistic drop compensation reticle really lines up for a 550-yard shot. Or perhaps you have to turn the elevation dial an extra two clicks for an 800-yard shot. The only way to find out is to test your actual results and log that. When you’re in the field, you’ll know that, for example, you will hit that 550-yard target by holding on the 600-yard hashmark.
5. The wind is the master of the long-range universe
If you pay attention to atmospheric conditions and know your rifle and cartridge, the elevation adjustments are predictable and repeatable. The real trick is gauging and adjusting for the wind.
Let’s consider a really simple example. Suppose we’re shooting a target 1,000 yards away with the same .308 we talked about earlier. If there is a constant and steady wind of 2 mph moving exactly sideways and even throughout the entire distance of the shot, we can expect the bullet to drift about 11 inches sideways. However, if the wind is 5 mph, then that drift will be a whopping 41 inches! That means an incorrect estimation of the wind by just 3 mph can result in a 30-inch miss to the side. That’s a mild wind. If it’s blowing 20 mph, you can be looking at 120 inches of lateral bullet movement during flight.
That was the “easy” one. Now consider that wind is almost never constant. It gusts and fades. Worse yet, over a longer distance like 1,000 yards, it might be blowing at completely different directions at different ranges. It’s not uncommon to have a left-to-right crosswind at your position and an opposite right-to-left crosswind way out there by the target. It’s kind of like reading greens when putting a golf ball, except you can’t see the wind as easily as you can see the contours of a green.
Reading the wind is where the art part of “art and science” comes into play. Monitoring foliage, smoke, and mirage are all ways you can estimate wind direction and velocity at different ranges.
If you want to get involved in long range shooting, I highly recommend the NRA Outdoors Long Range Shooting course. Before this year, it was only offered in Utah. Starting this year, you can now take the course in Texas. You can find more information and class dates here.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.