I started my long-range shooting career by knocking over tin cans with a pump air gun when I was a kid. The more I pumped the gun, the farther the BB would go. I didn’t know at the time that I was learning about trajectory as I lobbed in those BBs. Later, when I was using a .22 to hunt woodchucks in a big field owned by a grateful dairy farmer, I learned more about bullet trajectory. It was the same principle, but with more noise. When I started hunting whitetails, all those tins cans, woodchucks and bricks of .22 ammo had taught me many of the skills I needed to hunt them successfully.
But in the northeast deer woods, a 100-yard shot is the exception, not the norm. Travel out West to big sky country and you soon realize those woodlots and cornfields back home were tiny. There is some big country you need to cover in order to connect, and while you may have the ability to hit at 100 yards consistently or maybe 200 yards with good probability, you need to learn a few skills to make a 300- or 400-yard shot.
But what about shooting at 1000 yards? What do you need to know to hit targets at that distance?
I found out when I attended the NRA Outdoors Long Range School in Utah. The four-day Level 1 course teaches you everything from long-range ballistics and the effect of weather on bullets to range estimation and trigger control. We started with range work at known, fixed-distance targets, then progressed to real-world, unknown distances where we put theory into practice. Here’s what I learned.
Know Your Rifle, Scope, and Load
It is important to know your equipment is capable of the task. You do not need to go out and but a $4,000 custom rifle for long-range shooting. At the Level 1 course I used an off-the-shelf Smith & Wesson M&P10 rifle chambered in .308, with a Huskemaw scope and Hornady ammunition. We started shooting at targets set at 400 yards. It took about four boxes of ammo to learn how my new-to-me rifle shot at that distance.
You must understand how your rifle, scope and ammo work together. Study factory load data to know the trajectory of your bullet, then shoot that bullet through your rifle to see how it behaves. Know what your bullet will do if you turn the scope turret left or right one click or two. You should know off the top of your head how much one click changes the windage or elevation of the reticle, and where your bullet will hit because of the change. Also understand the values of the tick marks and hash marks in your reticle. Some tactical reticles look like a complicated geometry problem, and it is until you understand how it works.
I keep trajectory and wind data for my particular cartridge taped to the stock of my rifle. At the course I took notes, so I knew the amount of elevations clicks required to hit at a specific distance, and I knew how many clicks of the turret to counteract the wind pushing my bullets off target. I also knew how many tick marks on the horizontal strata on my reticle I needed to compensate for the wind or elevation.
Trigger press is, of course, nothing more than manipulating the trigger and making the rifle fire. But you need to press the trigger without moving the rifle, and press the trigger consistently from shot to shot. That’s not easy, because blood is pumping through your body and your arteries are pulsating, which can cause the reticle to tremble. Gripping the rifle too hard will also cause the reticle to move. One trick is to not lay your trigger-hand thumb over the stock grip, but to place alongside the stock instead, so that your hand only presses back on the trigger.
You may have heard this a few times, but the shot and recoil should always come as a surprise. Try dry-firing exercises to practice trigger press in a stable position.
Follow-through after pressing the trigger is key. Don’t be in a hurry to see where your shot hit—after your shot, your reticle should come back down and rest on the target.
It also helps to have a buddy along. At the Level I course I was paired up with a partner so we could act as a shooter/spotter team, taking turns at each. We learned to read bullet vapor, determine wind speed, and calls hits so we could relay the info to each other, allowing the shooter to correct his shot if necessary.
A Stable Position
The closer you are to the ground, the more stable you will be. This means the prone position is the most stable position since you are creating a low center of gravity. The stability of your position decreases as you sit, kneel, or stand.
In all practicality, however, the prone position cannot always be assumed. The next best thing is to use shooting sticks, which are adjustable-length rods that support the forend of the rifle. Any rest will help lessen your body tremor, which is amplified in the reticle. At the Level I course we learned how to master the shooting stockings so the sticks actually supported the weight of the rifle while allowing you to find your natural point of aim. Once you have assumed your natural point of aim, your muscles are not tensed or flexed against the weight of the rifle. Let the sticks do that so you can concentrate on trigger press and follow-through.
Wind and Range Estimation
The third skill is to master wind speed and direction and distance to target. The old-school way of determining wind speed is simple: If the wind is blowing 0-3 mph, you feel it slightly on your face; 5-6 mph if it is moving grass; 7-10 mph when small bushes or tress are swaying. A wind meter is an excellent addition to your gear since it can provide more precise measurements.
Practice learning to read the wind by asking yourself if the wind perpendicular, parallel or is coming at an angle to the target. Remember that the wind in your position—say, high up a ridge—may be different at the bottom of the ridge, where your target is. Once you determine wind speed and direction, you will need to pull or shoot into the wind to compensate for its effect.
One piece of equipment that helps you develop your long-distance shooting skills is a range finder. You can use it when shooting, of course, but it also helps you improve your range estimation. I make a game of it when walking outside by guessing the distance from me to, say, a distant tree, then use the rangefinder to see how accurate my estimation was.
At the Level I course we progressed out to 1,000-yard targets, shooting at steel plates that measured 20 x 20 inches. There is quite a bit of satisfaction in getting into a solid position and building a shooting rest, calling the wind, sending a round, and seeing it hit steel. Once you go long, a 100-, 200-, 300-, even a 400-yard distance is a chip shot.