Long-Range Reality: Why You’re Not as Accurate as You Think

Sooner or later, you’ll be faced with a long shot. Are you truly ready for it?

Rifle shots beyond 250 yards and bow shots beyond 30 yards usually turn into fiascoes.
"I’ve seen hundreds of shots at big game with arrows and bullets, most from very good hunters. So I say this with conviction: Rifle shots beyond 250 yards and bow shots beyond 30 yards usually turn into fiascoes. Plenty of them end with filled tags, but few of them do it with one clean shot."SIG Academy

The first thing the outfitter asked after meeting me was what kind of rifle I’d brought and how far could I shoot. “A .30/06,” I said. “I’ve killed some deer at 300 with it, so I’d feel comfortable to 350 yards or so on an elk.” My answer seemed reasonable to me. But I recognized the change in the outfitter’s tone the instant he responded. It was the same disappointed, authoritative voice I take with my toddler when he doesn’t pick up his toys before bath time. “It’ll be tough for you to get an elk out here, then,” he said. “Pretty much all of them we kill are at least 500 yards away.” Long shots were the conversation theme of the week. This was a post-rut combo hunt for elk and mule deer, and so we spent a lot of our time glassing distant meadows, waiting for something to step out. As we waited, the guides regaled me with tales of bulls killed at 600 and 700 yards. I wondered how every successful client they had was so practiced at long-range shooting when I didn’t even know where the nearest 500-yard range was back home. But those stories had another theme: lots of bullets in the air. On the third morning of the hunt, I was sitting by myself and glassing a meadow when a stud of a mule deer buck stood from his bed. With no easy way to move closer, I ranged him at 480 yards. I dialed the scope up to 16X, picked the appropriate ballistic reticle for the distance, and began to settle in for the shot. Going Long Western Kentucky, where I grew up and still live, is critter-rich farm country with a mix of wide open cropfields and thick cover. I’ve been hunting here since I was 7 years old. My career has also allowed me to travel and hunt all over this country (and a few others) for a myriad of species. I’ve filled a lot of tags in that time. I’ve also watched other outdoor writers, hunting television personalities, industry representatives, guides, and countless friends and family members shoot in the field. All told, I’ve seen hundreds of shots at big game with arrows and bullets, most from very good hunters. So I say this with conviction: Rifle shots beyond 250 yards and bow shots beyond 30 yards usually turn into fiascoes. Plenty of them end with filled tags, but few of them do it with one clean shot.

To be fair, there are a handful of hunters who are capable of consistently making long shots. Jump into a discussion (or debate) on the topic, and it’s especially common for a western hunter to chime in and say, “We take long shots out here all the time.”

Western hunters generally seem more comfortable with long shots than eastern hunters. They get more practice on average, but a lot of western terrain is more conducive to long-range success, too. You can see farther in the wide open spaces, but less often mentioned is the fact that you’re probably going to get a follow-up shot—and maybe several—if you miss the first one. If you make a bad hit, you can often watch the animal through binoculars and devise a plan for a coup de grâce. As I said, the tag gets filled. But it’s not always pretty.

In the East, a long shot will be across a beanfield bordering a hellish thicket. A buck that shows himself can vanish in three steps. One crack is probably all you’ll get—and if you hit him poorly, you’ll have to find and follow blood. Climbing out of a stand and walking 300 yards to precisely where a deer was standing and then locating eraser-size drops of blood in a thicket with a flashlight is just as easy as it sounds. And if the buck’s not dead, don’t count on a follow-up shot.

Regardless of whether you live in Colorado or the Carolinas, you may be one of the few who are truly lethal at long range. But if you’re like most of us, you’re better off getting closer or waiting.

Back to the Hunt

I had every bit of confidence in the gun, the load, and the scope. I’d been told all week that 500 yards should be easy. But as my finger settled on the trigger, the gun moved, imperceptibly on my end, but 480 yards away, it caused the reticle to jump from the buck’s lungs to the backstrap to the guts and back again. I hesitated and thought to myself, This is too damn far. Seconds later, the buck vanished.

I came home without killing a deer or an elk, and I was disappointed. But there’s a real difference between disappointment and regret.

GEAR TIP: Loading for (Any) Distance

pronghorn antelope
Western View: A big pronghorn buck provides a slightly quartering shot on the open prairie.Donald M. Jones
winchester expedition big game long range ammo
Expedition Big Game Long Range ammo.Winchester

Winchester's new Expedition Big Game Long Range ammo sports heavy-for-caliber (the .30s are all 190 grains) Nosler AccuBond bullets. The polymer-tipped boattails are made to buck the wind, penetrate deeply, and expand reliably from afar. Last fall, I killed a moose with the .300 WSM at 180 yards. That didn't put the load's long-range potential on full display, but it did drop the bull in its tracks and greatly impress me. It's nice to know that long-range ammo works very well at more manageable distances, too.