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Long Range Shooting Article Index

This section is based on a series of articles that appeared in PRECISION SHOOTING magazine in the late 1980's and early 1990's. They were later combined into a chapter for a book published by PRECISION SHOOTING.

Long Range Shooting & Hunting - Page 1

By Daniel Lilja

When we first published this article section on our web site I didn't include this article on long-range shooting. Long-range hunting has been a controversial subject in some circles. And I didn't want to be responsible for contributing to what some might consider as an unfair or unethical sport. But after thinking about this for a year or so, I decided to include this article. There is a caveat in addition to this introduction at the end of the article too. So read the following for what it is: my attempt to explain methods and detail equipment that other shooters and I have used to successfully shoot at extended ranges, in a somewhat scientific way. This latest revision was edited in July of 1998 and a few new pictures were added at that time. Note: a few additional pictures have been added since the 1998 revision including the 1100 yard antelope picture.

The small band of antelope looked a long way off when we spotted them from the ranch road. They were, as the rangefinder later proved, right at 1100 yards. They were far enough away and it was early enough in the hunting season that the antelope were not alarmed by our pickup truck as it rolled to a stop and Bill and I put our binoculars on them.

We were hunting antelope in northeastern Montana during the first week of the 1988 season. There was one small buck in the band and I decided I would try for him with my last tag. We were allowed up to three antelope each in the area we were hunting but only one could be a buck. Quickly I pulled my portable bench from the back of the pickup and set it down. As I got out the rangefinder and determined the distance to the antelope buck, my hunting partner, Bill, was getting the sandbags set up on the bench and getting out my rifle. I looked up the distance on my computer generated drop chart and cranked the appropriate scope adjustment into the 24x Leupold target scope.

About five minutes after deciding to shoot the antelope buck I was setup and had him centered in the scope. Bill had also set up our spotting scope and was waiting for me to tell him I was ready to shoot. I placed the quarter minute dot just behind the shoulder and centered vertically. "Ready" I told Bill and squeezed the trigger. "You hit him!" Bill yelled. Indeed I had, as I pushed the rifle forward from recoil I could see through the scope that I had hit the buck in the center of the body and that he was down and about dead. The 30 caliber 220 grain Sierra boattail had hit him in the center of the body and within a couple of minutes he was dead. He never got up after first being hit.

Antelope like wide open country so that they can rely on their excellent eyes to detect danger. This picture was 'found' in 2003 and written on the back of the print is "Just after shooting 1100 yd. antelope buck, 1988."

Luck you might say. Well luck has a lot to do with most game shots whether they be long ones or close in the black timber. In the following article we will take an in-depth look at the type of equipment and knowledge it takes to consistently hit targets from 500 yards on out to over a mile away.

We will take a look at the rifles used in this type of shooting and the various cartridges used by serious long-range riflemen. Also, we'll learn how to make a drop chart based on the cartridge and load we are using and also take into consideration atmospheric conditions that can affect bullet trajectory.

The drop chart is a key element in the shooter's poke. With it he knows how many clicks to dial into his scope for a dead center hit. Another very important area is the optics used by the long-range shooter. These include rifle scopes, optical rangefinders, and other support optics such as binoculars and spotting scopes. Lastly we will look at what can go wrong in long-range shooting. We'll find that there are some common problems and pitfalls that can cause misses and poor grouping at long-ranges.



Antelope country of eastern Montana. The rifle is a 338/416 Rigby and the rangefinder is a dependable Barr & Stroud. This 'goat' was shot at over 800 yards. The bench is an Armor Metal Products unit.

To start with we must have a solid shooting platform. The portable bench I mentioned at the beginning is one made by Armor Metal Products of Helena, Montana. As their advertising states these benches really are "rock solid". I have the four leg model and have been very satisfied with it. The designer of the bench, Lee Andrews, is a veteran long range shooter himself and designed the bench for his own needs. The bench is a very high quality portable and leaves nothing to be desired. Along with a solid bench the shooter will need a stool to sit on.

The sturdiest bench available is of little use if the rifle is not also properly supported on a set of sand bags designed for the job. I use a Wichita front pedestal with a flat bag on top and a rabbit ear type rear bag. The Wichita is easily adjustable for elevation changes but there are others that will work as well.

(Since I originally wrote this article I've made a modified shooting bench that can be seen in the photograph below. It allows more vertical adjustment than a conventional pedestal. And the radiused contour of the bench enables shots of to the either side to be made easily.)

Sally and Adam getting ready to shoot. Note the long screw to adjust the front sandbag vertically and the belt drive to the wheel to turn it up or down.

In short, the long-range shooter requires a solid bench and sandbag setup. One that does not move or tip when he is about to shoot. A lot of game has been shot over the hood of a pickup or jeep but when it comes to serious long-range shooting we must do better.

Looking down-range over one of the sturdy concrete benches at the Missoula, Montana 1000 yard range.

I mentioned at the beginning the use of a rangefinder. This piece of equipment is invaluable to long-range shooting. It is also the hardest piece of equipment to obtain that we will mention. We will discuss these rangefinders in more detail later in the optics section.

(Since this was first written in 1988 there are a number of excellent laser range finders on the market. The optical range finders still work very well but haven't been made since the early 1960's. They are also slower to use and much heavier and bulkier.)

Combined with the use of the rangefinder, a drop chart detailing the bullet trajectory is essential. Many shooters today have either a personal computer or have a friend that does. With an exterior ballistics program a very accurate drop chart can be generated quite easily. There are many good ballistics programs on the market but our personal preference is for the simple to use Tioga Engineering program.

What is needed is a table that indicates the bullets path every 25 yards or less, on out as far as we care to shoot. The program usually is run so the calculations are based on a 100 yard zero and from this the number of minutes of scope adjustment can be determined for any given range. In my opinion dialing the adjustment for minute of angle change into the scope is the only method to use for long-range shooting. Holding over the correct amount is impossible. The midrange height of the bullet for the shot I described at the beginning of this article was over 20 feet.

Referring to my drop chart, to hit the antelope at 1100 yards, I needed to put into the vertical adjustment on my scope 25 1/4 minutes of adjustment, which at 1100 yards is 277 3/4 inches. Had my range determination been off 25 yards one way or another the bullet would have been high or low 14 inches or so. Without any doubt the scope used must be very reliable and have accurate adjustments.

Two developments available to shooters in the last 10-20 years have been a real boon to long-range shooting. They are the proliferation of high quality and relatively inexpensive chronographs and as mentioned above, ballistics programs designed for use in personal computers.

Cartridges and Bullets

One of the keys to successful long-range shooting is in shooting a quality bullet of high ballistic coefficient at high velocity. As the weight of a bullet goes up for any given caliber and if the shape stays the same, the ballistic coefficient goes up, as does the sectional density. Another way of increasing the ballistic coefficient is through stream-lining of the bullet's shape. This is the reason for boattails and long pointed hollow points.

For extended range shooting we are interested only in bullets of the highest ballistic coefficient. For example the 30 caliber 220 grain Sierra has a ballistic coefficient of .655. Compared to the 150 grain Sierra spitzer with a ballistic coefficient of .409 the heavier bullet is the clear choice for long range work. Using the figures in the Sierra manual, firing these bullets out of a 300 Winchester magnum the top load listed will give us a velocity of 3300 fps with the 150 grain spitzer. The top load with the 220 grain Match King yields 2700 fps. At 1000 yards however the 150 are travelling along at 1254 fps and have 524 ft-lbs. of energy. The 220 however is moving at 1491 fps and has 1086 ft-lbs. of energy. Bullets of higher ballistic coefficient are also as a result less affected by changes in the wind.

Bullets should be selected on the following grounds. They must be accurate at long-range and of high ballistic coefficient. Therefore in making the decision to select a match type bullet over a soft point spitzer or the other way around, I would select the bullet that proved to be the most accurate in my rifle. You must hit them first.

Most of the animals I have seen killed at long-range have died very quickly. I have also seen evidence that some of the match bullets have opened up way out there. My friend and experienced long-range hunter Darryl Cassel and I have discussed this and he reports excellent killing characteristics from the 200 grain Sierra Match King fired from a 30-378 Weatherby. I remember looking at a picture of a big black bear he shot, at about 700 yards with that combination, that showed a tremendous wound cavity. Darryl said he dropped like a sack of potatoes too. I recall a mule deer buck I shot with the 270 Weatherby and 130 grain Ballistic Tip at a muzzle velocity of over 3500 fps. That buck died as quickly as any game animal I've seen hit at any range - immediately.

I've talked to quite a few hunters that have used the 300 grain Sierra .338 bullet at long-range on game like elk, deer and bears. They are reporting very good killing qualities from this bullet. The down-range energy level is tremendous.

The hot 22 caliber cartridges shooting the 69 grain Sierra or 68 grain Hornady make excellent long range varmint cartridges. Jimmy Knox of JLK Bullets makes an 80 grain very low drag boattail bullet. Sierra also has come out with a similar bullet also of 80 grains. In the 224 Clark these bullets can be pushed over 3500 fps. They are extremely accurate and make for an excellent long-range varmint bullet. Their use though should be limited to varmints.

The 105 grain custom Berger bullet makes an excellent long-range bullet when fired at high velocity in a big case. Sierra also now offers a 107 grain VLD type bullet, another excellent choice for long-range varminting. The 6mm's are on the light side for big game hunting but are suitable for antelope hunting and excellent for varminting. The key here again is shooting a high ballistic coefficient bullet at high velocity.

Some of my earliest long-range shooting came with the 25-06. I used it to shoot mule deer, antelope, and a couple of black bears from 400-500 yards or so. I used 100-120 grain bullets and they all seemed to work well for me. The 100's shot flatter but the 120's penetrated better. I also shot a bunch of prairie dogs and the occasional coyote with it using lighter weight bullets.

That 25-06 is now a 257 Weatherby and that cartridge is more of the same but better. I usually shoot the heavier bullets in it.

Firing 140 grain bullets in a magnum .264 is more of the same. The 6.5-300 Weatherby magnum used to be a popular long-range cartridge. It is still a very good cartridge with the right bullets but it has been somewhat over shadowed by some newer developments. Sierra makes some excellent heavier weight Match Kings for this caliber.

The .270 Weatherby is another good long-range cartridge and is one of my personal favorites. I use the 130 grain bullets in my 270 for the simple reason I can get over 3500 fps from my 30" barrel. For shots out to 600 yards or so the 130 shoots flatter than a 150 grain bullet and I use it for my moderately long-range shooting. I'm on my second barrel now in the 270 Weatherby and it continues to be a star performer especially with both the 130 and 150 grain Nosler Ballistic tips. It is not at all unusual to get sub half inch 5 shot groups at 100 yards with the 130 Ballistic Tip and with the velocity over 3500 fps. Besides being an excellent deer and antelope cartridge, I have also used this rifle for shooting rock chucks on out to 800 yards or so.

In Superior, Montana the local gun club once held several dynamite shoots every year. We shot at a half stick of dynamite placed in an orange painted pop can. The close cans were about 500 yards and the farthest one close to 1100 yards. The above mentioned 270 Weatherby has accounted for many dozens of these cans over the years.

When we step up to the 7mm's the heavier bullets in that caliber start to have enough weight that their down-range energy levels are high enough to be used for long-range big game hunting of larger animals. In the 7mm's all the magnums will work well with the 7mm-300 Weatherby, and it's more recent counterpart, the 7mm STW (which is the 8mm Remington magnum case necked down) giving the highest velocity.

I have also experimented with a 378 Weatherby case necked to 7mm and shortened to 2.540" with a 30 degree shoulder. With it, in a 30 inch barrel, I can get up to 3500 fps with a 168 grain Sierra. A true case of overbore but velocity is the name of the game in long range shooting. I later rechambered this barrel to a full length 7-378 Weatherby thinking I could get even more velocity. To say that this cartridge was a disappointment is an understatement. I was able to burn more powder all right in the bigger case, but I couldn't get anymore velocity. In fact with some bullet weights I even lost velocity. I had gone past the point of no return.

The big 30's are the most common long-range cartridges used. Again all of the magnums work well, as do many wildcats. The 30-8mm Remington Mag or an improved version of it and the 300 Weatherby are near the top in my opinion. The 300 Weatherby is another of my personal favorites. In the 1992 hunting season, I used it to shoot a sheep at 760 yards, one shot through the head, and a whitetail deer at 890 yards. The load was a 220 grain Sierra Match King at 2900 fps.

On another hunt I shot a mule deer at just over 1400 yards with an improved 300 Weatherby and 220 grain Sierra Match Kings. The muzzle velocity from this combination was just under 2900 fps out of a 30" long barrel.

Another popular wildcat is the 378 Weatherby case necked down to 30. There are several versions, from full length down to 30-06 length. Depending on the barrel length and powders used, the full length version is capable of driving the 220 grain Sierra up to 3300-3400 fps.

Another excellent 30 caliber cartridge is based on the 416 Rigby case. I have one that has been improved slightly and has a 35 degree shoulder. It basically is the same as the 30-378 Weatherby. Its advantage however, from my view point, is that it has no belt. This fact eliminates some of the sticky case problems associated with the 378 Weatherby based wildcats. Because there is no belt to expand, as on the 378 case, I can boost pressures a bit over the 30-378. In my opinion this just might be the best 30 caliber long-range cartridge.

Another caliber worth looking at is the .338. Starting with the 338 Winchester magnum and working up to the 340 Weatherby and several wildcats of similar case capacity or the big .378 Weatherby case or 416 Rigby necked down, all are potent numbers. There are 250 grain bullets available from Sierra and Nosler that really pack a lot of punch down range. I remember watching a friend shoot a big 6 point bull elk with his 338-378 at about 600 yards. He dropped instantly when the 250 grain Sierra hit him. This Sierra has a ballistic coefficient of .598, which is quite high. We now have the excellent 300 grain Sierra Match Kings for this caliber too. The ballistic coefficient of this bullet is close to .800, the highest of any bullet available for any caliber not including the big 50's. This big Sierra is a true match quality bullet capable of outstanding accuracy at long-range. And from my experience and that of other long-range hunting friends, it works well on game too.

There is a group of shooters that fire the 50 caliber Browning machine gun cartridge from rifles for extreme long-range shooting. The 50's are truly big, slinging 650-800 grain bullets at roughly 30-06 velocities, no other small arm can compare with them. Some would argue that the 50 is not a small arm but technically speaking they are classified that way.

I shot a 50 BMG with some friends at a shot out tank hull at 2000 meters. With it we could easily spot our hits. With some of the smaller cartridges we have mentioned, shooting something at that range would be out of the question.

Historically the 50 caliber (actually .510") has suffered from a lack of match quality bullets. In the last several years experimenters have been playing with various lathe turned solids. They have used materials such as brass, bronze and even steel for these bullets. Their results have been worthwhile, as accuracy has reached new levels in the fifty. Hornady has made a match type bullet for this caliber called the A-Max. This Hornady offering and the custom lead core bullets made by Lynn McMurdo of Wyoming are the best hunting bullets for the big fifty.

A few years ago a friend told me about shooting a cow elk at about a mile with his fifty and the McMurdo bullet. He got zeroed in on the elk and hit her in the lungs. She died instantly.

I've used my fifty to shoot rock chucks out to a mile or so. Truly a lot of fun when you can hit a target that small at distances like that.

Cartridge Loads

Large case capacities and heavy bullets require the use of the slowest burning powders for maximum velocities. Starting with 4831 on the fast side, some powders that have worked well are H870, WC872, Reloader 22, H1000, H570, H5010, T5020, IMR7828 and various lots of 5010 distributed by several other sources. Not being a canister grade powder, 5010 varies quite a bit in burning rate. When working with a new lot of 5010 start low on the charge weight.

Another good powder source is the slow burning offerings from VihtaVuori. These are clean burning and consistent extruded powders.

I have probably used more 5010 than the others and have found it to be clean burning and predictable as one approaches maximum loads. I have also used H1000 quite a bit and like it very well. In the 300 Weatherby with heavy bullets it has given me excellent accuracy and top velocities.

I have used the Federal 215 magnum primer almost exclusively and have found it to be a very good primer for this application. It was developed for use in the 378 and 460 Weatherby magnums and it does its job well. In the 50's the CCI and RWS primers are good choices with the CCI being a little hotter.

For a serious long-range rifle I would recommend a tight neck chamber and turning the case necks for maximum loaded round concentricity. I even have a tight neck in my big 50 BMG.

My 270 Weatherby does not have a tight neck, in fact it even has the long Weatherby freebore and it still shoots very well. The point being that turning necks is not absolutely necessary but a good idea.

Rifles

What kind of rifle does it take to handle these cases and hit targets out to over a mile away? The answer for the most part is a big heavy benchrest type rifle; usually a single shot version with a high quality, high magnification target scope on top.

Single shot actions offer stiffness over a repeater and the lack of a quick second shot is no handicap for this type of shooting. What is needed is a benchrest type action built to handle magnum type cartridges and the stiffness to support a long, heavy barrel. Hall Manufacturing of Clanton, Alabama offers its Express action for this type of shooting and it is a good one. Allan Hall recently introduced another action for the big 378 and 416 Rigby type cartridges. This action is designated as the `G' for giant and is basically a bigger version of the proven Express.

A friend of mine, Gerry Geske of Superior, Montana has recently designed and built some big actions for these big cases. His action features a three lug bolt and two cocking pieces that make for a very smooth operating bolt.

Another recent entry into the big cartridge - big action game is the very nice BAT action made by Bruce Thom of Rathdrum, Idaho.

There are just a few actions that will work with the large diameter 378 and 416 Rigby cases with the big custom types being the best.

Most of the commercial actions that come with a standard magnum type bolt will work for the standard magnums such as the 300 Winchester and 300 Weatherby. Almost all of these actions however are repeaters and as a result not as stiff as the big single shot actions. Remington 700 actions can be fitted with a large aluminum sleeve, which increases stiffness as well as increasing bedding area, both of which help accuracy. Alvin Davidson makes a good one. An alternative to sleeving a Remington 700 is to use the barrel block bedding method. With the barrel block the action floats so no bedding problems associated with smaller repeater actions crop up.

Without a doubt one of the most critical components of the rifle is the barrel. Suffice it to say that only a barrel from one of the makers of high quality benchrest barrels is up to the task of precise long-range shooting shot after shot. Barrel length is an important consideration when looking for top velocities, especially when burning the slow powders. A minimum length should probably be about 26 inches. I prefer about 30 - 36 inches but some shooters like even more. I know some shooters that are using barrels as long as 40 inches and getting very high velocities. With barrels over 32", or so, a barrel block becomes something to think about when building a new rifle. There are always trade-offs, longer length means increased velocities but also increased powder and jacket fouling and more barrel whip.

Large diameter barrels are stiff and that is what we are looking for. The barrel on the rifle I used to shoot the antelope mentioned at the beginning is 30 inches long and 1 1/2 inches in diameter its full length. The entire rifle weighs 33 pounds with the barreled action weighing 20 pounds alone.

The long-range shooter is usually shooting the heavier bullets for a given caliber and often these are boattail bullets too. This means that faster twists are required to stabilize the long bullets. In the 22 and 243 caliber the current VLD type bullets are best with an 8" twist.

In 25 caliber all of the bullets available that I am familiar with will work well in a 10" twist. We may see some newer developments in this caliber that will require a faster twist though.

In the 264 caliber everything now on the market will work in an 8" twist and most bullets including the 140 grain boattails will work in a 9" twist although the 8" is required for the 155 grain Sierra Match King.

Until Nosler came out with their Ballistic Tip bullets in 270 caliber, there was not much available in match quality bullets. The 150 grain bullets will work very well in a 10" twist. And Sierra now offers a 140 grain Match King in .270 caliber.

The 168 grain Sierra Match King in 7mm is stabilized quite well in a 9" twist and any bullets that are lighter in this caliber will also work in a 9" or a 10" pitch.

With both the 308 and 338 caliber the 10" twist will be appropriate for any of the heavier bullets including the 240 grain 30 caliber and the 300 grain 338, both are Sierra Match Kings.

In 50 caliber the 15" twist has been standard and it will handle most of the bullets out there.

As we mentioned earlier, the scope is an extremely important part of the long-range rifle and we will take a close look at it later.

In stocks, a wide flat fore end for minimum tipping on the sand bags is preferred. Either wood or fiberglass stocks are entirely suitable although most new rifles being built today are fitted with a fiberglass stock. Lee Six of Six Enterprises makes two good unlimited style benchrest stocks in fiberglass.

Another excellent long-range type fiberglass stock is the Tooley version made by McMillan. This stock was developed by gunsmith Dave Tooley of North Carolina. McMillan stocks also make several excellent stocks for the 50's.

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