Reaching Too Far
Long-range shooting equipment is better than ever, but some shots are still too far.
By Craig Boddington
A guide I hunted with recently told me a really horrible story. He was guiding an elk hunter, and they got onto a bull at 600 yards, which I hope most of us agree is a long shot at a game animal. The problem was the hunter and his buddies were outfitted for extreme-range shooting, and it was really important to this guy that he be able to claim the longest shot in camp. So, against the guide’s judgment and advice, and at the hunter’s insistence, they backed off a full 300 yards so the hunter could take the shot at--gulp!--900 yards. I guess there is justice: He missed.
These days we have available the most accurate rifles, the most consistent ammunition, and the best optics ever available to shooters. We also have extremely accurate laser rangefinders, so the huge variable of judging distance is out of the equation (provided it’s not raining, snowing, or foggy). When I was a kid, 400 yards was considered a very long shot. With the equipment we had then it was, but in most cases “400 yards” was really just a guesstimate, and in some cases probably a bit of an exaggeration.
What constitutes a sensible and ethical shot at game always depends on the conditions, the equipment, and the time to get steady and figure it all out. I still consider 400 yards a pretty long poke, but that’s a distance that is reasonably in reach for most of us, if the conditions are good, we have the equipment, and we have the time to get steady and figure it all out. Many shooters who know their equipment and put in the range time can go a hundred or even two hundred yards farther with confidence, and there are a very few who can go considerably farther when conditions are perfect.
A wind gauge can tell you exact wind speed and direction, but that’s not even half the battle. Wind can change dramatically along a bullet’s path, and that’s what makes reading wind the greatest challenge in long-range shooting.
It is not my place to tell anyone how far is too far. That depends, again, on conditions, equipment, and time--and the requisite skill. It’s a lot of fun to ring steel or punch paper at extreme range, and it’s actually amazing what a modern rifle will do. Just last week several of my colleagues and I had the new 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum on the range, and we had a ball. The course was metric, so the farthest target was 1,000 meters, or 1,100 yards. The rifles were set up with a Leupold VX6 3-18X scope with dial-up turret in minutes and the Windplex reticle. The turret only had one revolution (not enough!), but someone smarter than I figured dialing up 12 minutes, then holding where the vertical duplex wire thickened for another 10 minutes. That’s 22 MOA up from a 200-yard zero, 242 inches or, if you prefer, about 20 feet or 6.7 yards of holdover. The breeze was slight and quartering, not a “full value” wind, but it doesn’t take much wind at distance. For my first shot I held one minute left on the Windplex reticle and although I had the elevation, the strike was off the target to the right. I gave it another minute and was on steel. That’s 22 inches of drift from a very light breeze.
On a 1000-meter range with a Weatherby Mark V in the new 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum. Few cartridges shoot flatter or resist wind better than a fast 6.5mm, but ringing steel still required some 20 feet of holdover…and a couple of feet of windage even in a slight breeze.
With data established it wasn’t so difficult to ring steel shot after shot, and we all did. Even so, those are extreme corrections for a very flat-shooting cartridge, actually one of the flattest and, since it’s a 6.5mm, one of the most efficient for extreme-range work. But let’s get real: The target was big, a whole lot bigger than the vital zone of a game animal! I would never say that, under ideal conditions and with both perfect knowledge of equipment and the skill to use it, there aren’t shooters out there capable of taking game at such distances, but such shooters are rare, and the ideal conditions that might allow such shooting are, in my experience, rarer still.
Through most of the twentieth century our military snipers were sort of a dirty little secret. Therefore I think it’s wonderful that snipers from the Southwest Asia conflicts are now national heroes, and their actions are celebrated. I think this cultural shift has much to do with the current and unprecedented interest in long-range shooting: We as shooters want to emulate our heroes. That’s a natural tendency and a good thing. But let’s please understand that military sniping is not hunting, and military snipers are not average shooters.
In sniping, every hit counts. In many circumstances a wounding hit is actually preferable because it takes a couple more enemy soldiers to carry a wounded soldier off the battlefield. Also, standard primary missions for snipers are to demoralize the enemy and break up troop formations, make them seek cover. So in these contexts, near misses also count. It is also very difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to replicate the training regimen of the military sniper. These guys are paid to shoot. It’s a job, not a hobby, and they train at it for months and often years before employing their skills in combat. Civilian shooters can get very, very good, but it’s unusual to be able to compete with that kind of trigger time.
Now let’s turn to hunting. Near misses don’t count, and non-fatal hits are far worse than near-misses. Thanks to laser rangefinders we can know the range. And although data always has to be verified at actual ranges, computers and smartphone applications can give us the hold. Wind is the biggest variable remaining, and it’s a biggie. Dead calm conditions are uncommon, and both wind velocity and direction can vary tremendously along a bullet’s path. With practice one can get pretty good at reading wind, but no one is perfect, and at longer range even a slight puff of wind can change a fatal hit into a wounding shot.
These are not the only challenges. Bullet performance typically deteriorates at longer ranges, which means, among other things, that a visible reaction to a hit may not be obvious. In sniping a hit may be verified by a third party (shooter, spotter, plus third party) on binoculars. It isn’t necessary to go look. In hunting it is morally, ethically, and often legally mandatory to go look. So, how long does it take to trot out a half-mile and more, and then find the exact spot where the animal was standing? Obviously a spotter will help tremendously, so hunters serious about long-range shooting should borrow this page from the sniping community and work in teams. But if it gets dark you have a problem, so last-light shooting becomes even more challenging.
Again, I’m not going to suggest a cutoff. I do have my own cutoff, but even that depends on conditions and equipment. I don’t focus on extreme-range shooting, so some who do are certainly far better at it than I am, and can establish their own cutoff far beyond mine. If the practice-based skill sets are there, certainly we have equipment today that enables ethical shooting at greater distances than ever before. But I do suggest that there is much to learn before considering extreme-range shots in the field…and much to consider before actually attempting one. And for Pete’s sake, if you have an acceptable shot that you’re confident you can make, don’t back off to prove a point or massage your ego. That’s like kicking sand in Mother Nature’s face, and she will get even!