Long-range hunting

by Linda K. Miller & Keith A. Cunningham | October 17, 2017

What you need to know before you take that long-range shot

long range hunting - aiming

Photos by Ryan Vince

So, you’ve been watching the hunting shows on TV and you’d like to try a bit of long-range hunting? How about those 600-yard shots down a canyon slope? Or a one-shot instant-drop success on a beautiful 700-yard trophy? It sounds like you just need the right rifle, ammo, and scope and you’re a long-range hunter, right?

Well, partly right. You also need excellent marksmanship, wind-reading abilities, and a whole lot of planning and preparation.

Your typical Ontario bush gun is a short-barrelled lightweight lever-action rifle, often in .30-30. Will this do the trick? Probably not much past 200 yards. The short barrel means the heavy bullet won’t be moving fast enough for longer range accuracy. Terminal performance — the amount of energy the bullet has when it reaches the target — won’t be enough for longer range shots.

Oh, you might get lucky. But when it comes to the ethics of long-range hunting, luck isn’t enough. You need to do what it takes to deliver an ethical shot and a humane kill.

The right scope

What we look for in a scope:

  • Variable power and wide field of view: we want to use the scope to find our target at close range and see the target clearly at long range;
  • Duplex crosshair reticle (not mildots, not Horus); we us a range finder for judging distance and want a clear easy-to-see sight picture;
  • Second focal plane (not front focal): we like the crosshairs to stay at the same size at every magnification;
  • Target turrets in ¼ MOA (not a bullet-drop compensator): we want to adjust the scope accurately for any ammunition we use, and in any field conditions that might affect elevation;
  • Use a long-range tapered base: we want maximum elevation and lots of windage available when we set long range elevations;
  • Levelled to the receiver and with anti-cant spirit level: it must be level to ensure the barrel is pointed in the same direction for every shot — the effect of any small cant increases as range increases.

The right cartridge

So when it comes to hunting, what’s long range and what’s just wishful thinking? Well, there are several factors, but the fundamental question is can you guarantee an ethical hit, one that is both accurate and delivers appropriate terminal performance for the game you are hunting.

Start by identifying the game and the distance you intend to shoot, as that establishes both the size of your target (the ethical-kill zone) and the required penetration to make an ethical kill. You’ve likely heard that there’s a legal minimum calibre for hunting dangerous game in Africa (.375 H&H minimum, .416 Rigby preferred). This is a short way of saying you need enough terminal energy to put the animal down. You’ve probably watched the African hunting shows, and even with close range shots and big guns, follow-up shots are usually required.

The bullet must penetrate the skin and transfer energy to the vitals, ensuring death in seconds. We prefer the bullet to exit the other side so that we have clear, easy-to-follow blood drops, in case tracking is necessary.

The distance you intend to shoot is a key factor in assessing terminal energy. A couple of years ago, we decided we’d like to be able to shoot deer-size targets at about 700 metres (770 yards). We have the space on our property and decades of long-range competition experience, yet even at that, we spent over a year preparing for that shot.

First, we looked at the terminal energy we needed and then identified the cartridges that could produce it. There were several large calibres and magnums that were appropriate, but we wanted a short-action rifle that would be handier in the field, and we wanted minimum recoil. We chose the 7mm Winchester Short Magnum (WSM), shooting a 154 grain Hornady InterBond bullet at about 3,100 feet per second. As the ballistics chart shows, only the .300 Win Mag comes close to performing as well as the 7mm WSM.

If you’re thinking of varmint hunting at long range, you’re probably thinking 400 to 500 yards on a coyote-sized target. You need a fast, flat-shooting bullet that’s accurate because the kill zone is small, and it must expand properly for a small animal. There will be lots of good choices, but ours would probably be the .22-250 or any of the 6mm cartridges. The ballistics chart shows the .22-250 shoots very fast out to long range, but the relatively small bullet loses energy. That’s OK for coyotes, but not good enough for deer.

long shots - shootingThe Best of the West TV program uses the 6.5-284 and 7mm Remington Magnum cartridges for most of their long-range shots, the same calibres we’ve been using successfully for years in National Precision/Sniper matches. One of the key points here is that those shooters are using match-grade hunting ammunition that’s been loaded to provide appropriate accuracy.

Once you’ve chosen your cartridge, build your rifle around it. If it’s a field rifle, you’ll want it to be fairly lightweight and handy. If you’re going to shoot from a table, you can afford a little more weight. One important feature is barrel length. You need length to get velocity and you want as much velocity as you can for long range. It means less time in the wind (less drift) and more energy at the target.

Terminal performance

For all hunting, you want a bullet that’s designed to penetrate the target while expanding and retaining its mass, to produce an effective and deep-kill channel. For varmints, this has to be accomplished in very short order — almost instant transfer of energy, since penetration isn’t an issue. For bigger game, such as elk and moose, you want a controlled release of energy that provides penetration and develops an effective wound channel. When you’re hunting at long range, the bullet has to retain sufficient speed through its flight to arrive at the target with optimum terminal energy.

Although there are lots of opinions and arguments about the details, there are recommended amounts of terminal energy for the ethical dispatch of various varmint and game animals. Ontario hunting regulations don’t specify energy requirements, though many jurisdictions do. A sampling from the Internet recommended 900 ft./lb. for deer, 1,500 ft./lb. for elk and small bear, and 2,100 ft./lb. for large bear and moose.

Most ballistics software programs will provide a calculation of the terminal energy. When we were choosing our long-range rifles, we first went to ballistics charts to figure out what calibres would produce the terminal energy we were looking for.

Testing, testing

You need to test your system in preparation for shooting long range. Ideally, you’ll have a chronograph to measure muzzle velocity, as it and your bullet characteristics are key information for your ballistics software (available free or nearly so on the Internet). The software calculates your elevation tables (bullet drops) and shows you what terminal energy you’re going to get at each distance.

Elevation tables are a good starting point, but they’re no substitute for live firing. Take your rifle out to the field and test not only the elevation settings, but also the grouping capability at the distance you intend to hunt. We create tables in 25-metre (or 25 yard) increments and test them at 100-metre (or yard) increments until we’ve field-tested settings for the entire array of distances. We then “true” the elevation settings on the computer-generated tables by feeding in the real data.

It’s important to test group size at all the distances you intend to hunt. Certainly, you test it at 100 yards — that’s your base zero. You use that to slip the scales of your scope turrets to zero. It’s also your first good indicator that you’ve got a gun and ammunition that will succeed in the field. In general, you need to be able to get a 1 MOA (minute of angle), or smaller, group at 100 metres. For close-range deer hunting rifles, we’re happy with a 2-inch group at 100 metres, but for long-range shooting, we need a smaller group if we expect to have an ethical group size past 300 yards.

long shots - table 1

Wind

The other factor of great importance for terminal accuracy is the time in flight. The more time the bullet is in the air, the more time the wind has to act on it. Wind reading is a critical part of long-range shooting. At 300 yards, wind starts to matter. At that distance, a medium cross-wind (10 mph/16 kph) and a coyote-sized target (even with a relatively fast bullet) can require you to hold off 2 MOA (6 inches) in order to get an ethical shot. Learning to read the wind accurately is a skill that takes practice.

You may think this is extreme, but if you want to be a long-range hunter, you need to be involved in long-range target shooting.

Without false modesty, we are considered among the best wind readers in Canada, and our book on wind reading (yes, a whole book) is regarded around the world as “the wind bible.” We built this skill over many years and we know that we beat the wind more often than it beats us, but even we don’t always get it exactly right.

One tool that can help you get better at reading the wind is a wind meter, a little hand-held anemometer that you can practise with anywhere. Whenever you’re outdoors, observe the feel on your face, the rustle of the leaves, the Canadian flag on the government building and make your best guess of the full value of that wind, then turn your wind meter into the wind and read it. Over time, your guesses will become accurate.

long shots - table 2

Elevation tables

Why do we create elevation tables in 25-metre increments? Here’s an example. You’re planning a 700-metre shot. Your elevation setting for 700 metres is 22 ¼ MOA. The deer arrives and your laser range finder shows he’s 642 metres away. The nearest sight settings on your elevation chart are 625 metres and 650 metres, 18 ¼ and 19 ½. MOA respectively. That’s a 1 ¼ MOA difference, about 9 inches at this range — the difference between a miss and a gut shot. Knowing these elevations, you can interpolate the correct one. So you set 19 MOA elevation and you’ll be within a ¼ MOA, which is as good as you can set on a ¼-minute dial.

Getting rested

Whether you’re using a prone position, sitting, kneeling, or standing, train with the rests and supports you plan to use in the field. For example, we are currently planning a trip to Africa to hunt plains game. The professional hunters (guides) provide a particular type of tripod. We bought one and all winter long we left it set up. Several times a day, we would imagine that our quarry is within range and we would pick up our hunting rifle, get quickly onto the sticks and dry-fire a shot onto a spot on a tree. Then while watching through the riflescope, we cycle the bolt and dry-fire a follow-up shot on the same spot. When the weather improved, we took the sticks and the rifles out on our trails and learned to quickly set up the sticks, take a shot, and recycle for the followup. By the time we get to Africa, we’ll have been using the sticks for months.

long shot - hands

Markmanship first, last, and always

Like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Shot placement trumps all other requirements. For long-range shots, we’re looking for a relaxed animal, standing, and stationary. We want a broadside double-lung shot. It takes patience to ensure we improve our odds of getting a clean, quick kill.

If you’re starting to think that long-range shooting is pretty complicated, you’d be right. There are many factors to consider. A good place to start is long-range target practice. Before he took that 700-metre shot at a deer, Keith was already an accomplished marksman with years of experience in long-range target competition. He had a purpose-built rifle and he spent over a year training in that location at that distance. And even with all that experience, the wind switched while he was in the aim and Keith’s shot was a little shy on windage. It was effective, it was ethical, but it wasn’t as pretty as he would have liked.

If you’re not willing to put this type of effort into your long-range hunt, put your effort into learning how to get closer to the game animal. Practise enough to know your limitations. If you can get closer to your quarry, do it. Know when you should shoot and when you should wait. If you have any doubts, wait.

As the old song says, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away.”

Click here for the ballistics table of common hunting calibres.

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