From here to eternity: responsible long-range shooting--as in 400 yards and beyond--is within anyone's grasp.
We made the cover of some shady oaks without spooking the deer, and we could see just the head and antlers of the second-largest buck, bedded behind a thick screen of dark oak. The best buck would be there somewhere, but it was the end of the liner for us. Our ridge dropped away steeply below us, then rose even more steeply to where the deer were bedded. Both hillsides were extremely thick, with no other vantage point in sight.
The deer were almost exactly 400 yards away, straight across. If you are one of many hunters who believe a 400-yard shot is unnecessary and unethical, then you would have had two choices: You could pass on the buck or try to get closer, almost certainly setting up a shot at a bouncing, bounding, running target--if you ever saw the deer again at all.
I lay behind the rifle for a long time, making sure the shooting positions was absolutely steady as I studied the wind. I dry-fired the gun several times at one of the bucks we could see, making sure the trigger broke nice and clean. Then I got off the rifle and got comfortable.
We waited at least three hours, and eventually the deer got up. The big one stepped into view, and I had long since been ready. Zeroed for 300 yards, I knew I needed to put the horizontal crosswire right above his backline. There was about a 10 mph crosswind where we lay. I held a bit back on him to account for drift, about at the diaphragm, and that was where the bullet hit, just behind the heart.
He ran a few yards downhill and stopped, and I could see the red spot. The wind must have diminished just forward of our position. I kept the same elevation but moved the vertical wire to his shoulder and fired again. This bullet bit four inches forward of the first, flattening the buck.
Was that shot unethical? I don't think so. In that situation, it beat the heck out of any shot I was likely--or unlikely--to get at closer range.
Possible, Practical, Ethical
We all have our limits, and no one should attempt a shot he or she is the least bit uncomfortable with. But if conditions are right--and if the shooter is right--it can be possible, practical and perfectly ethical to take game at 400 yards and beyond.
No two situations are alike, so it's really a matter of meeting some key criteria. With practice you can extend your comfortable shooting distance; whether you wish to is up to you. Here are some things to think about.
At any range it is essential to get as steady as you possibly can, but as the range increases, the requirement for absolute steadiness increases exponentially. At genuine long range, which I reckon starts somewhere around 400 yards, even the best prone position really isn't good enough. A bipod from a prone or sitting position may do it. A natural rest such as a rock or log padded with a rolled-up jacket is even better. I like to shoot over a backpack, whether sitting behind a boulder or lying prone.
Remember that you're taking the shot because you have gotten as close as you can without disturbing the game--or you're in the last position from which you can set up a careful, steady, well-rested shot. Take your time and, if necessary, experiment with various options and positions.
We're going to look briefly at calibers and scopes, but don't misread this. Equipment helps, but you simply cannot purchase long-range shooting ability.
No matter what you're shooting, you will have to compensate for range by the time you get to 400 yards. It's just a matter of degree. For long-range shooting I like fast, flat-shooting cartridges: .270s, fast 7mms and .30 caliber magnums. Their flat trajectories make life simple out to maybe 350 yards, and you get dividends from fast cartridges in terms of energy; the more velocity the bullet retains, the more energy it will deliver to the target.
For example, at 500 yards a 180-grain spitzer boattail from a .308 (2,650 fps at the muzzle) retains 1,361 ft.-lbs.--okay for deer but not enough for larger game A .300 Wby. Mag. with the same bullet retains well over 2,000 ft.-lbs. at 500. Plus, the more velocity you have, the more likely you are to get good bullet performance at longer ranges. Higher velocity also means less flight time, which means less wind drift.
So high initial velocity is good for long-range shooting because it provides so many advantages, including trajectory. What many hunters rail to realize, though, is that having a flat trajectory is not the most important thing--knowing your trajectory is. And in order to know how your gun/load combo performs at various distances, you have to actually shoot it. Ballistics charts and computer pro grams are great, but these are only a starting point.
Just the other day I was shooting with some fellow writers, and we tried our hand at a life-size deer target at 400 yards. I was shooting my .300 H@H with 150-grain Sierras pushed really fast. Certain I was gonna show these boys something, I dug in my pocket and pulled out a chart. With my 300-yard zero, I needed to hold just 8 1/2 inches high. I held right on the backline, watched the wind carefully, and squeezed off three shots between gusts.
Yep, I showed 'em--I showed 'em what an idiot I am. I shot a 17 1/2-inch group, plenty fancy for a hunting rifle at 400 yards. But my group printed neatly where the foreleg joins the body, about four inches below where it should have been. I hadn't shot this new batch of ammo, and it was obviously slower than I had expected. On the range it was a good lesson; in the field, I would have wounded a buck.
I have read a number of times that a fixed 4X scope offers all the magnification you really need for big game hunting. Maybe in the purest sense. I have made some long shots with 4X and 5X scopes. But if you really think you might need to take a long-range poke one of these days, I can't tell you how much easier it is with more magnification.
How much more magnification you really need depends on you. I am not in favor of the 6.5-20X and even 6-24X scopes that many of my long-range shooting friends have gone to. The low range is a bit too high for close work when needed, and in the field there's often too much mirage to use the higher magnifications.
Perhaps most importantly, the majority of "big" scopes in this power range have fairly narrow fields of view and are finicky about eye relief. Still, image size is a great confidence booster at long range and simplifies a difficult shot. For serious long-range shooting I like something on the order of a 4.5-14X, 5-15X or 4-16X.
That said, on big game (especially on really big game like elk) the good ol' 3-9X of 3.5-10X probably offers as large an image size as anyone really needs--and these popular power ranges beat the pants off a good ol' fixed 4X or 6X.
And there is one other argument in favor of higher magnification. When judging wind you need all the clues you can get, and sometimes the more powerful scopes will allow you to see how the leaves and grass are moving.
Like most of us who have indulged in long shots, I have generally "guesstimated" the holdover. I knew the trajectory, yes, but with a standard reticle it is terribly difficult to judge whether the vertical wire is four, six or eight inches or more over the backline.
I'm convinced that additional aiming points on the reticle are the only way to go. There are other options, such as dialing in the range with the elevation knob, but my testing has convinced me that few scopes (including the best) have adjustments precise enough and consistent enough to make this work. I believe additional aiming points on the vertical crosswire are the best answer.
There are many systems out there today. Some are extremely complicated and some are simple. Some that I have used and liked are the Burns Ballistic Plex, Swarovski's T.D.S. (designed by shooting great T.D. Smith) and Leupold's new Boone and Crockett reticle. All of these incorporate additional stadia lines that translate to additional aiming points at longer ranges, all set for more or less "standard" trajectory curves.
Standard mil dot reticles also work well, and you can even get a custom reticle (from Premier and other firms) calibrated to the trajectory of your specific load.
Whatever system you choose, it's imperative to test it at the range with the load you're going to use. The instruction manual may say a certain aiming point should work at 400 yards, but in truth a bullet may strike that aiming point at 425 yards--or 375 yards--with your rifle and load
Once you know where these stadia lines or marks will put you, having a firm aiming point on the crosswire--as opposed to holding over the animal--makes life much simpler. Coues deer and antelope outfitter Kirk Kelso, who uses Premier reticles calibrated to his 168-grain .300 Wby. Mag. load, has made me a believer in this. I've seen him make terrific shots and also coach other shooters (me included) into making some very long shots.
None of this matters if you don't know--really know--the range to the animal. At longer ranges, an error of just 10 percent, which is a darned close "by eye" estimate, is really too much. I carry a laser rangefinder, which greatly simplifies this part of the equation, but there are other methods that work, such as the bracketing method with any variable scope employing a plex-type reticle.
I've covered most of the variables over which you have control. Here are a few that you must take into account, even if you can't do anything about them.
No matter how much training and experience you have, it is almost impossible to get a precise reading on the wind. You can memorize (or carry with you) all the charts you want, but how can you know the precise wind velocity? Okay, you could carry a wind gauge. Fine. But how can you be sure the wind over there at the animal is the same velocity and angle as the wind where you are?
On dead-flat terrain you can be fairly certain, but in broken ground it's almost impossible to tell. I misjudged the wind on that Coues deer I mentioned at the start, but it wasn't strong enough to make a significant difference. At long range the wind doesn't have to be all that strong before it starts to have tremendous impact. If you can't get a really good idea of what the wind is doing, you probably don't have a shot.
The other thing that's almost impossible to know for certain is the effect of any angle from the horizontal. Whether you're shooting up or down, the effect is the same, and it takes a very steep angle and/or long range before the effect is enough to worry about. At long range you'd better worry about it. If you aren't quite certain you know what to do, you probably don't have a shot.
Last year I was hunting with Kelso in New Mexico. We didn't really set out to try his long-range theories, but there was this really nice buck 590 yards up the ridge.
There simply was no cover for a closer approach but plenty of time to get set up. I was shooting a lovely .300 Wby. Mag. made by D'Arcy Echols; it's a quarter-inch rifle, and the Premier reticle was calibrated for this load.
I knew the rifle, cartridge and Sierra bullet would do their jobs; the issue was really the wind. It was steady and straight right to left, but it had to be approaching 20 mph. Figuring the slight elevation counted for a bit, I put the 500-yard stadia line right over his back. He was standing with his head to the left, so I put just a bit of daylight between the vertical wire and his rump. The bullet drifted about 22 inches and dropped about seven inches from point of aim, perfectly centering the buck's shoulder. He dropped so fast I had no idea where he had gone.
Some of you will judge that shot irresponsible. It happens to be the longest shot I have ever attempted, and I have no desire to make a career of it. But I understood the rifle, I knew the range, I knew the hold, I had plenty of time to get steady (and I was steady), I figured the wind correctly, and I had a good, broadside presentation on a standing animal.
Was it a fluke? I don't think so. With modern rifles, good ammo and good optics the capability is there. The rub is that there's a difference between capability and ability. It takes a lot of time and effort to understand exactly what your equipment is truly capable of, and then it takes even more time and effort to become proficient enough and confident enough to increase your shooting distance in the field.