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Long Range Shooting: Precision Marksmanship Fundamentals

Before we begin with Long Range Shooting, I want to state that you want a 100- yard zero with all ri¬fles with tactical, raised, or what we call target turrets. A 100-yard zero is the best option out there, even for hunting rifles. I will expand after a few other topics.


Prior to firing our first rounds, we want to bore-sight the rifle on a target at distance. Sure, there are a host of ways to skin this cat, I get it, everyone has their own idea of zeroing. It can definitely depend on the type of rifle you are shooting whether you can “look” down the barrel in order to line up the sights. Some rifles make this process easier than others.

You can certainly shoot the rifle inside 100 yards, like at 25 yards, but you should familiarize yourself with the mechanical offset associated to your system. The mechanical offset is the height of the scope over the bore. We look through the scope and the bore is 2 inches or so below this, so we have to account for the mechanical offset. At 25 yards, you will have a significant amount of dope dialed on the scope to make up the difference. That means your 25-yard initial zero has to be as high as your scope is mounted.

AR-15 shooters understand their mechanical offset because they shoot inside 100 yards all the time. If you want to hit a target inside a room, you have to aim over it to account for the sight-above-bore offset.

Long Range Shooting Changes in Gear

Back in the day, everyone wanted their scopes as low as possible. This was to help with hunting, using a point-blank-range zero. The lower your hunting optic is mounted, the easier it is to hold over and hit an animal at a particular range. That range was usually pretty close.

Today, we have monolithic rails, we have adjustable cheek pieces, and we have software to translate the offset. You need to know about mechanical offsets in order to hit targets inside 100 yards, but from a 100-yard zero everything is up. What I mean is, you will always add elevation to shoot these targets, and you will not have to hold under.

I like to have a smallish, round, brightly colored target at 100 yards I can point the barrel at it and see it from the action. Then, I can glance up and align the reticle to the center of this target. Doing this gives me a good solid bore-sight. This is dependent on being able to remove the bolt and look through the action; at times this means moving the cheek-piece out of the way. For this action, the rifle on a bench with a front and rear rest is easiest to manage. It’s one of the few times I would recommend a Lead Sled to hold the rifle in place.

100 Yard Zero for Long Range Shooting

With the rifle bore-sighted on target, it’s time to address the 100-yard zero.

Our first reaction is to chase the zero. By chasing the zero, I mean we forgo the groups for adjusting individual shots. At a bare minimum, we want to move the center of the group to the center of the target. It’s all about point of aim matching up to our point of impact. It’s during the zeroing process I am focusing on my fundamentals of marksmanship. I mimic Tom Cruise during this stage when he spoke about No Mind in The Last Samurai. No mind: We want to be completely blank behind the rifle and let our body act.

When the rifle is brand new, we want to knock out a few groups in order to settle in and get comfortable with the recoil pattern. It’s not about barrel break-in as much as it is about us getting our positive repetitions in. Years ago, I tried to mandate only five-shot groups on my Sniper’s Hide website. That proved to be a futile request to my members. So rather than harp on he benefit of a five-shot group, I will allow three-shot groups. It’s been said, three shots test the equipment, five shots test the shooter. I want to push myself to the next level. So, shooting a nice five-shot group and then moving that group to the center of the target is important to me.

I can race to complete this process, but I usually take my time. I want to look at the group size, the recoil pulse, the view through my scope. As I noted earlier, I want to become intimate with the rifle, and zeroing is the most delicate of processes. I shoot my group, then measure the distance from center, or my point of aim, using the reticle. The reticle is a calibrated ruler 3 inches in front of my nose. The reticle, especially in modern optics when the system of adjustment using the turrets matches the system used by the reticle, is completely straightforward. What you see is what you get. If the reticle reads 1.2 Mils left and .7 Mil high, the adjustment is easy, exactly what you see. I don’t need to walk downrange; I don’t need to use a grid. I can stick a single dot on a plain white piece of paper and simply measure the group distance from center.

I do have a thought on cheating the 100-yard zero. When absent of any other reasoning, I always zero just slightly left of center. One click, regardless of the scope used, to the left helps me in a variety of ways:

1. It gives me the edge as a fine aiming point should I need to fine-tune the 100-yard shot.
2. I counteract any right-hand drifts some might talk about.
3. It keeps my ultra-fine, quarter-inch aiming point intact. It’s the same concept as the benchrest target, when you aim low and hit high.

We use a 100-yard zero because it’s consistent. It has a very short time of flight, so as the conditions change, the zero is not affected like if we zeroed at farther distances.

Imagine zeroing your rifle in Florida at a distance beyond 100 yards, then having the shooter travel to Colorado where the air is thinner. You can easily see a change in that zero, which will only grow the farther you shoot. When we used to consider 400 to 800 yards to be long range, these offsets were not really noticed. Especially when people took this concept into the terms of hunting. Hunters, back in the day, were trying to get as close as possible. You will not see the issues inside 400 yards by any stretch of the imagination. But, today, with people shooting beyond a mile and taking game beyond 500 yards, we absolutely see it.

We have epic debates with all sorts of reasoning when it comes to zeroing a rifle. Every week the members of the Sniper’s Hide forum are discussing the pros and cons of zeroing at distance. One of the most common misconceptions is zeroing at distance adds more to your elevation. It doesn’t work that way. If you can zero at 100 yards, and you don’t, you gain nothing. The only time this is necessary is when guys are shooting extended ranges where they have so much cant in their base, they cannot dial down to 100 yards. Place a 60MOA base on a rifle and your 100-yard zero goes out the door. This is a specialty thing and should not be looked at as the rule, but the exception to the rule.

We put in our repetitions and we fine-tune our zero, so it is point of aim. Now, we have to reset our turrets on the scope. Nothing drives me crazier than people coming to class with a zero scattered on the turrets. Ask the student: “Why are the turrets on 3.1 Mils with your windage at .8 right?”

Your turrets are designed to be reset so they read zero-zero.

This gives us a valid starting point and positive return location. We can dial anything on the scope and always come back to zero. Reset your turrets, and if you do not have a zero stop, take a picture of the location as referenced by the markings a manufacturer will include on the scope.

There was a time that as soon as I was done zeroing, I would set up a chronograph to measure my muzzle velocity.

Muzzle Velocity

We need to know our muzzle velocity in order to determine the range we can shoot. We use the bullet’s ballistic coefficient to describe drag. The ballistic coefficient translates the bullet’s shape, area, and mass into a number we can use. Combine that information with the air density and muzzle velocity, and we can then predict a range.

I have changed my thinking, mainly because of software, so I don’t necessarily chronograph anymore. I use drop, but chronographing a rifle is an important component to data collection.

If you are a reloader, you absolutely need a chronograph. And today our choices in chronographs are excellent. The issue in the past was the sunlight and using the sky screens. Variations in sunlight caused problems with consistency, as well as the spacing between the screens limited the accuracy of the systems. With devices like the LabRadar and the MagnetoSpeed, we have first-class options.

I will admit more information is better, so if you can chronograph and get a solid set of data, absolutely, I am all for it. Also, consider firing at least 200 rounds before the barrel may or may not settle into a specific speed.

Different calibers have different routines, so I hesitate to make a general claim here. The best reason to use a chronograph today is to figure out when your barrel needs to be replaced. Variations in your muzzle velocity are a pretty good sign your barrel is going south. Changes in standard deviation can be noted using a chronograph.

It’s at this point, before doping the rifle at distance, I engage in collecting muzzle velocity numbers. You need a starting point with software, so if you have access to it, chronograph data is necessary to get the ball rolling. Personally, I have enough experience I can swag a value that will be within 50 fps, and software will do the rest.

[Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the new Gun Digest Book, Precision Rifle Marksmanship: The Fundamentals — A Marine Sniper’s Guide to Long Range Shooting by Frank Galli. Some content has been edited for clarity to fit this format. Get your own copy HERE at the Gun Digest Store.]

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2 responses to “Long Range Shooting: Precision Marksmanship Fundamentals”

  1. Geoff says:

    All my ARs have a 50/200 Zero at 10X.

  2. Art Northrup, Jr. says:

    I have my long-range rifle zeroed @ 200 yards because the bullet drop between 100 & 200 is negligible. Another rifle with less than 1/2 the range I have set @ the standard 100 yards.

    Of course the type of ammo used is crucial & different loads will yield different results. But IMO, if your rifle/ammo setup yields a trajectory that’s basically “flat” to 200 yds. & you normally shoot @ targets much farther away, then 200 yds. is where zero should be set.

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  • I have my long-range rifle zeroed @ 200 yards because the bullet drop between 100 & 200 is negligible. Another rifle with less than 1/2 the range I have set @ the standard 100 yards.

    Of course the type of ammo used is crucial & different loads will yield different results. But IMO, if your rifle/ammo setup yields a trajectory that's basically "flat" to 200 yds. & you normally shoot @ targets much farther away, then 200 yds. is where zero should be set.

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