The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Demystifying Long Range Shooting

Long range shooting seems intimidating at first blush. There’s a lot to consider when shooting a rifle at the limit of its performance envelope. Long-range precision shooting trades the frenetic athletics of the carbine for the more refined and calculated challenges that demand the shooter look beyond up-drills and speedy reloads to understand the basics of ballistic science and marksmanship. It’s a zen-ish pursuit that rewards patience and meticulousness.

While the array of gear and math used by long-range shooters appears daunting, you’ll be surprised at just how accessible the pursuit has become. There might be a few things to buy or borrow, but the bulk of the investment comes down to learning the application of marksmanship fundamentals, understanding the basic principles of ballistics, and taking the time to properly configure the gear you already have.

“Long range shooting” is a subjective term largely based on the gun and cartridge at hand. Shooting a rimfire at long range might mean 300 yards, while shooting a magnum centerfire cartridge at long range means reaching out well beyond 1,200 yards. The distinction “long range” applies when running the system to hit small targets at the further reaches of its intended range. Despite the difference in distance, the underlying mechanics of precision and accuracy are the same. 

Long Range shooting

We’ll also throw the terms “precision” and “accuracy” around, and we should let you know they’re different. Accuracy means hitting what you’re aiming at, and precision means putting a group of holes close together. Ideally, you want to be accurate and precise. But, without precision, achieving accuracy is tough.

The first thing people wonder about when contemplating shooting long range is why bolt guns are considered more accurate than gas guns.

WHY BOLT GUNS

Consistency is the basis of precision, and precision is the basis of accuracy. Speaking theoretically, manually operated bolt guns are the most consistent firearm operating systems because they don’t divert any of the pressure from the cartridge to cycle the bolt, as happens in a gas-driven repeater. Tiny variations in the amount of gas that’s siphoned off to run the bolt in a semi-auto results in small variations in the driving force behind a bullet in the barrel. This inconsistency, as small as it might be, leads to a variation in impact elevation … and that deviation is magnified over distance.

That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically accurate gas guns, but all things being equal, they’ll be relatively expensive and finicky … and they’ll always leave a tiny bit of accuracy on the table compared to a bolt gun. Basically, a cheap bolt gun is more precise than a cheap gas gun. Run what you brung, but just know that if we were choosing between a bolty and an AR in the closet, we’d go with the bolt gun.

SETTING UP THE GUN

Ideally, you have a sturdy bipod on the front of the gun or a stiff shooting bag that’s supporting the forend without touching the barrel. Any pressure on the barrel will alter the point of impact from shot to shot. Out back, you should have a shooting bag under the stock that’s dense enough to solidly support the gun but pliable enough that you can squeeze it to adjust the gun’s elevation from the rear.

Long Range Shooting Leupold Scope Loose Scope screws
A common source of error is loose scope-mounting hardware. Get a paint pen and make witness marks on the screws and mount so you can see at a glance if anything has loosened.

Before you get to the range, ground your gun and make sure it’s set up for ergonomic success. 99 percent of accuracy issues come down to the interface between the scope, gun, and shooter. We could (and should) write an entire article on this topic, but suffice it to say that with a solid cheekweld and relaxed grip, your eye should be centered in the scope so that there’s no scope shadow or vignetting when it’s at its maximum magnification setting. This helps reduce parallax, which is aiming error induced by looking through the optic off-axis.

To get there, you need to mess with the comb height, the stock length, and the scope mount position. 

STABILITY

Once you have your scope and rifle working together, the next thing to consider is your shooting position. There are a million positions to shoot from, but there’s nothing more stable and confidence-inspiring than the basic prone position. In the prone, flat on your belly with your trunk and legs squared up behind the gun, all of the recoil forces drive the gun straight back. Not back and to the left or right, but purely rearward. 

Aside from reducing accuracy-robbing wobble, this is important because as the gun moves back under recoil, you want the scope to stay on target so you can track your bullet impacts. This is also called follow-through. If you can’t see where your bullet hit because the scope went high and right under recoil, you have no hope of making a worthwhile adjustment for your next shot.

Put the gun on the bipod and adjust the elevation at the rear of the gun by squeezing the rear bag that’s under the buttstock with your off hand. A gentle squeeze of the trigger, straight to the rear, and you’ve sent a round downrange. Ideally, the gun moves straight back, and you can track your shot. If not, adjust your body position to put the most body mass absorbing the stock’s recoil impulse in a straight line behind the gun.

Long Range shooting squeeze Bag rear bag
Position your rear bag under the buttstock and grip it like a beer can. Put a little downward pressure on the bag with your cheek. To adjust the rifle’s elevation, squeeze the bag.

You can lean into the gun with your shoulder to control recoil, which is called loading, or you can use a very light touch and let the gun slide back on its own, which is a technique called free recoil. Some combinations of gun and shooting positions favor either loading or free recoil, so it’s worth it to practice both techniques.

STARTING OFF AT ZERO

Take your time and get a good zero. Your zero is the basis from which all your ballistic data flows. We’ll get into basic ballistics in a sec, but we suggest the good ole 100-yard zero, because it’s the longest practical zeroing distance you can get without needing to track down a longer range. Plus, you can confirm a 100-yard zero on nearly every rifle range, which is important because you should confirm your zero with a three-shot group before starting a long-range shooting session. (See “No True Zero” in RECOIL Issue 35 for more on zeroing.)

Long Range Shooting
When adjusting your scope mounting position, make sure the scope is in line with your line of sight with a comfortable cheek weld

BASIC BALLISTICS

To get hits at distance, we need serious math. Luckily, all this math is done for you by mobile phone apps. There are many great ballistic apps; most of them are cheap and a few good ones are even free. Just search for “ballistic solver” in your app store and grab one. We like Applied Ballistics, GeoBallistic’s BallisticsARC, and the free Hornady Ballistics 4DOF application. No matter what you get, you’ll need to feed it some basic information about your gun, your ammunition, and the environment you’re shooting in. 

With these variables, the ballistic app will calculate the amount of bullet drop for a given range in the form of either a table or a discreet firing solution. All you do is tell it how much aerodynamic drag your bullet has (its B.C.), how heavy your bullet is (grain weight), how fast your bullet’s going when it leaves the barrel (muzzle velocity), how much the atmosphere is pushing down on your bullet while it’s in flight (pressure and temperature), what other forms of resistance it might be experiencing (humidity), and give it an indexing point to start with (rifle’s zero distance) and the computer spits out how many MOA or MILs of adjustment you’ll need to dial (or hold) to put the bullet in the bull at a given distance. Many of the apps will automatically load environmental data such as weather.

Long Range shooting on the stock
Looking through the scope off-axis will produce parallax error and make accurate, repeatable shots nearly impossible.

The GIGO effect reigns supreme here; that’s garbage-in, garbage-out. The more accurate the variables you feed the computer, the more accurate its firing solution. A common source of error is giving the ballistic calculator a bad muzzle velocity. You can use the MV provided by the ammunition manufacturer on the box, but if you have access to a chronograph, Magnetospeed, or LabRadar, these devices will give you a more accurate reading, leading to a more accurate ballistic solution. 

On the output end, the more accurate you are determining the target distance, the more likely you are to get a hit. This is why it’s nice to have access to a laser rangefinder.

USING YOUR OPTIC

We can’t tell you what magnification range you’ll need to hit targets at a given distance, as everyone’s visual acuity is different, but we can tell you to back off the magnification as much as possible when shooting. The reason is to gain an advantage in spotting your shot under recoil. A wider field of view gives you the most leeway to spot a miss when the gun moves after the shot breaks. Spot your miss, and you can make a correction. Didn’t see where that miss went? Well, your adjustment for the next shot is just a guess. Competitors in the Precision Rifle Series often have 5x-25x magnification scopes but run them in the 15x-18x power range at all but the furthest 1,200-yard shots for this reason.

Range Finder
Using a laser rangefinder is the best way to get an accurate distance reading to your target. The smaller and further your target, the harder it’ll be to get hits with range estimation techniques.

BUDDY UP

Starting out, you’ll likely have a hard time managing recoil and spotting your shots. So, bring a friend, preferably one with a spotting scope or magnified optic. Put them in line with your field of view; the more in line they are with the bore of your rifle, the better. Positioned properly, right over your shoulder, they can spot your shots and give you accurate adjustments.

TROUBLESHOOTING

When you’re not getting hits, there are a few things to check. If your fundamentals of breathing and trigger squeeze are good, the next most common problems are a bad zero, giving your ballistic computer inaccurate variables, and scope problems. If you’ve confirmed your zero and know the data you’re feeding your computer is good, a likely culprit is something to do with your scope.

The first thing to do is make sure your scope dials are zeroed when making your initial adjustment. Many a competitor curse the accuracy gods before realizing they’re running their scope on the second revolution of the elevation dial. Next, check the scope mount and make sure everything is locked down. A loose screw will let a scope slip around and make consistent hits impossible. Beg, borrow, or steal an inch-pound torque driver and install all scope mounting fasteners to the manufacturer’s specs using some thread lock on each screw. Then, mark each screw head with a witness mark that’ll tell you if the fastener loosened without having to check the screws with a driver. Checking a screw by turning it will break the thread lock compound, rendering it useless.

LOOSE ROUNDS

We’ve covered a lot of ground in broad strokes with the goal of showing you that getting hits at long range is not voodoo, and it’s not that hard. All you need is good fundamental marksmanship and the time to gather good ballistic data to plug into easily available ballistic computer applications, and you’ve got the building blocks for accurate long-range precision. 

Hornady 4DOF Ballistic Calculator: hornady.com/team-hornady/ballistic-calculators
GeoBallistics: geoballistics.com
Ballistic by Peak Studios: ballisticapp.com


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