There is much interest these days in long range shooting. What was once purely braggadocio now seems a tempting reality and in many ways long range shooting has become more realistic in the last decade. Better equipment in the form of optics, rifles and bullets have come onto the market and, while none of this stuff is cheap, it is widely available. It should be known up front that spending $5000 dollars on a rifle, scope and gear in no way qualifies you to take shots at game at extreme ranges. Long range shooting is part skill, part art and part Zen exercise. It takes many years of time and practice to master. Most of the real practitioners of long range hunting have received military training specific to long range shooting and been members of either sniper units or shooting teams You know, the guys you see on the line at Camp Perry. Occasionally, you’ll find a long range shooter of purely civilian upbringing, but these people have chosen to invest their own time and money into the thousands of rounds of ammo that are required to master this sport. In short, if you’re interested in long range shooting, it is great fun, but you may want to spend a few years killing paper before you start aiming at fur.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s take a look at the kind of rifle we will need, in order to work past the 400-yard mark. Naturally, we want this rifle to be both accurate and consistent, meaning that it not only shoots small groups but it also shoots these groups at the same location, over and over again. This rifle also has to be light enough to carry all day without a hired gun bearer. It should also be chambered for a cartridge that retains enough energy at the target ranges to cleanly kill the game we’re after. A combination like this isn’t easy to come up with. It is only recently that is has become more than a pipe dream.
The stock is the foundation of the rifle, so it must be very solid,made out of sturdy material and capable of locking the barreled action down so that there is little or no movement. The barrel and action give a rifle accuracy, but the stock keeps the point of aim from wandering. Synthetic materials such as plastics, carbon fiber, Kevlar and other space-age materials are usually chosen for the long range stock. These materials create a very rigid mount for the receiver and are usually coupled with bedding blocks which are made of light metals such as aluminum or titanium. Done correctly, this makes for a mount as solid as a bench vise, yet light enough to be carried around.
While the only connection we want is between the receiver and stock, it should be very solid.The barrel channel should be routed out so that there is considerable clearance between the barrel and stock. The use of good, hard synthetics allows the shooter to be certain that their forearm will not flex and touch the barrel, regardless of the shooter’s position or rest. You can also trust the modern synthetic stock not to warp and create potential contact points. However, you should consider environmental issues, such as temperature and moisture. Although, good synthetics are generally waterproof and have a very low coefficient of linear expansion. It is possible to use wood or laminated wood for the long range rifle stock, but synthetics are much less hassle.
Nothing generates more debate than the question of the level of accuracy that can be expected from a certain action. Push feed versus controlled feed, extractor types, location and design of ejectors all get thrown around and either lauded or disparaged with regards to their effect on accuracy. While such arguments are often great fun, the truth of the matter is that any of the very popular commercial actions on the market today are readily adaptable to a long range hunting rig and none of them are really any more “inherently accurate” than others. In fact, most of the companies that produce these actions offer rifles specifically for long range hunting and do very little to change its actions to fit this purpose. Some would argue that actions with longer shanks (where the barrel screws onto the receiver) and finer threads increase accuracy. This is logical, but still debatable in actual practice. The choice of cartridge and personal preference in regards to the ergonomics of an action usually help make this choice. Not all companies offer an action that is long enough for certain cartridges, so if a long action is required this will whittle down your choices. Naturally, as with anything else, some people do not like the feel of certain actions and this will move along your choice as well.
When shooting at long ranges any movement is amplified. So a greater range equates to greater amplification. A smooth, crisp, light trigger pull will result in less movement. An adjustable trigger is the best way to obtain this ideal when it comes to long range shooting. Most of the adjustable triggers on the market today are very good, well-designed, consistent units that allow the shooter to tune various aspects of the trigger, such as creep, overtravel and pull weight. A couple words of caution are to set the pull weight only as light as you require for your application. If it is set too light, it can be dangerous for the uninitiated or careless shooter. Another word of caution is there is a tendency to mess with adjustable triggers too much. It is best to find a setting that works well and stick with it to ensure consistency instead of constantly tweaking in search of greener pastures.
The long range rifle requires a fairly large barrel both in diameter and length. While benchrest or target rifles make use of heavy barrels to help dissipate heat and minimize group diameter, that is not really the purpose of the large barrels on long range hunting guns. Groups don’t matter much with hunting rifles because there is usually a long pause between shots which will allow any barrel to cool sufficiently. What long range shooters are attempting to avoid with a heavy tube is “barrel whip”. Forcing a bullet down a barrel (bullets are slightly too big for the hole) creates a miniature version of what can be observed when a fire hose is turned on. The hose whips around and if the fireman doesn’t hold onto it, the whipping continues. To mitigate this effect, long range barrels are usually made from large diameter stock,which stiffens them and reduces whip. Flutes can be cut in the barrels to shave off a bit of weight and add more rigidity, as with the “blood grooves” cut into sword blades. To lose even more weight, a light barrel can be wrapped in carbon fiber until it is the same diameter as heavier barrels. Carbon fiber is very light, which makes for a nicer rifle to carry. It also can, in theory, add as much rigidity as the additional steel would have. With all the possible benefits it might seem silly not to make use of carbon wrapped barrels, but a quick price check will reveal that they are rather expensive. Unless the price goes down considerably, plain old steel tubes will remain the standard for a long time.
Most long range rifles have barrels a bit longer than the 24-inch tubes found on sporters. Lengths from 26-inch up to and past 30-inch are not uncommon. This is due to the fact that most long range rifles are chambered for cartridges that are over bore capacity, meaning that it is hard to burn all the powder they contain in the space provided by the bore. To get around this issue, more bore is added as well as more barrel. You can increase muzzle velocity considerably, by combining slow burning powders with longer barrels. Additionally, increased muzzle velocity is of particular interest to the long range shooter.
As stated above, if you want to take game animals at long ranges, a cartridge that retains enough energy at long range is required. Obviously, as the range increases so does the required size of the cartridge. Just about any cartridge suited to long range hunting will have the word “magnum” in its name. If it does not, it will certainly look a lot like a magnum in spite of its moniker. A cartridge in a fairly boring caliber is also a good idea. Bullet selection in 7mm, .308 or .338 is much better and the bullets will be more affordable and available than those with more rarefied diameters.
When it comes to selecting a design of bullet for the long range rifle, the modern shooter has a few choices. Traditional bullets with lead cores and copper jackets, bullets of homogenous design made out of a single material or the new breed of Very Low Drag (VLD) bullets can all be used for long range work. Regardless of preference, the shooter will have to test individual brands to see how accurate they are out of their rifle. If traditional bullets shoot well, and can be counted on to give good terminal ballistics, they are the most affordable choice. Often times a company will produce two bullets. One a bit cheaper than the other, that tends to perform the same and shoot to the same point of aim. These differ only in terminal ballistics, with the more expensive of the two likely to perform better in terms of consistent expansion and weight retention. The Nosler Ballistic Tip and the Nosler Accubond are two such bullets. The Ballistic Tip costs less and can be used for practice or lighter game, while the Accubond is more expensive but performs better on large game.
Bullets of homogenous design, which more or less had their start with the Barnes X-bullet, perform wonderfully in terms of terminal ballistics on game, but can occasionally be troubling when it comes to matching them with extremely high velocities and long range accuracy. If your rifle will shoot these bullets well, they are a beautiful thing, but accuracy may be sacrificed.
VLD bullets are an old idea that have only recently become an available reality. Essentially, VLD bullets optimize aerodynamics to allow the bullet to cut through the air better, reducing drag and allowing for higher velocities to be sustained at longer ranges. The VLDs ability to conserve momentum means that the normal range of hunting cartridges can be extended a bit, as more energy is retained farther from the muzzle. Most VLD designs started out closely resembling Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) designs, which are not suitable for game. A few changes have been made to the original design and, while VLDs still look a lot like FMJs, most companies now offer VLDs that are very effective for hunting; some would say too effective. VLD bullets don’t peel back and “mushroom” to create a traditional wound channel; most of them upset inside the animal and, due to their light construction, break apart or “grenade”. This effect creates a very effective wound channel and can even offer a little wiggle room when it comes to shot placement, but it is a definite detriment to meat conservation. Terms like “gooey”, “nasty” and “bloody” are often used in reference to animals taken with VLD’s that make contact with meat. The grenade effect of VLD’s tends to spread lead around inside the animal, which means you’re liable to ingest some of it, which is a concern for many these days. You also have the hazard of biting down on a chunk of lead and break a tooth, which should be a concern for everybody. VLDs shoot well when coupled with proper twist rates, but the downsides, mentioned above should be considered.
When it comes to optics, high magnification and high clarity reticles with mil-dots and built-in range doping devices are usually on the menu for long range shooting. Most shooters also opt for turret attachments which you can use to adjust point of aim without fiddling with scope caps. Beyond the 400-yard mark, old standbys like “Kentucky windage” or “hold over” become a little cumbersome. Many standard hunting scopes do not offer enough field of view or adjustment for long range shooting, so a scope should be picked accordingly.
For the best scope, check out our Scope Buyering Guide and get ready to find your wallet. Some of the best long range scopes, scopes that really aid in hitting distant targets, cost more than many of the rifles they are mounted on.
Once you have a basic package put together, meaning an accurate rifle coupled with a powerful cartridge and a good scope, it’s time to head out to the range and start finding out what long range shooting is all about. Reams of paper should be shot before an animal finds its way into your crosshairs. Fortunately, many shooting ranges have begun to offer shooting lanes that stretch 1000-yards or more, in order to serve the interests of the long range crowd. Once you find your way to the longer shooting lanes you’ll probably discover quite a few people with interests similar to your own.
If you wish to speed up your learning curve, a there is an ever-growing number of long range shooting classes offered these days. Many of these classes offer a lot of value to shooters and are just as much fun. Most of these classes last a week or so and are taught by former shooting team members or others who are well-trained in long range shooting. These classes are usually on the expensive side, but there are not a lot of people qualified to teach them. Long range shooting isn’t the sort of thing you want to learn from an amateur.
Some shooters put together a long range rig and never take it hunting. They discover that long range target shooting is fun and challenging enough. However they do not want to leave behind the fine sport offered by hunting with more traditional equipment. Whether you choose to someday take it hunting or to just spend time punching neat little holes at the range, a long range rifle is an incredibly entertaining piece of equipment and everybody should try one out at least once.