Everyone loves to watch snipers in movies and TV shows make ultra-long shots undetected, then slip away. Anyone who’s seen the movie “Shooter” with Marky-Mark remembers the cold bore shot at a can of stew a mile away. First round hit? Yeah, right. That’s maybe a 2% shot, never mind his now-deaf dog. Just like most everything else in Hollywood, what you see is a very simplified version of what’s necessary to successfully hit a target farther away than most track and field events.
Long range rifle shooting has a lot of moving parts that must come together perfectly, or you’re going to miss. In this article, I’ll be covering the absolute basics of lingo, gear, and what’s necessary to make hits at distance.
My background: I’ve been shooting LR precision rifle matches for about 3 years. I was lucky to be employed by a precision rifle ammunition company and surrounded by some of the best in the industry, which jumpstarted my foray into the competitive LR world.
In LR competitions, typically called precision rifle matches, we typically shoot 1 to 3 MOA steel targets at 300-1200 yards from a mix of prone and alternate positions. Matches are broken down into 5-10 stages, with about 10 rounds shot in ~90 seconds. Top shooters usually have a hit ratio of around 80%. There are a ton of local and national level matches, loosely governed by the PRS. It’s unbelievably fun, and I highly recommend it.
For those who don’t speak the LR lingo yet, I’ll define my terms.
Long Range: any shot taken that if the trajectory of the bullet is not accounted for, will result in missing the target. Long range is different for every rifle system and zero distance. What’s long range for .22LR could be a chip shot for .338 Lapua Mag.
Minute of Angle (MOA): an angular unit of measurement equal to 1/60th of one degree. It scales linearly with distance. For simplicity, we can define one MOA as 1 inch at 100 yards, 5” at 500y, 10” at 1000y, etc.
Ballistic Coefficient (BC): the ballistic coefficient of a projectile is a measure of its ability to overcome air resistance in flight. Longer, pointier bullets lose velocity more slowly than round, blunt bullets, resulting in less bullet drop and wind drift at the same distance. Less drop and drift leads to less trajectory calculation error and higher hit percentages.
Transonic Range: the range of speed between about Mach 1.2 and Mach 0.8 (typically 1275 fps – 850 fps) where a bullet’s shockwave transitions from completely behind the bullet to completely in front of it. Because this happens over several hundred yards, each bullet design has a unique transition through this range, leading to trajectories that may not line up with predictions. Typically, longer, higher BC bullets are worse through transonic. This is why a weapon’s “effective range” is listed to what yardage the bullet reaches transonic. I.E. a 308 shooting a 175 SMK @ 2650 fps at sea level hits transonic at about 900 yards, which is where the “308 can’t shoot 1k yards” and “308s drop out of the sky at 900y” nonsense comes from.
Accurate, repeatable, precision equipment, like the gear required to make first round hits at 800 yards is not cheap. I’ll list gear in descending order of importance.
Ammunition – High quality, consistent ammunition loaded with the highest BC bullet available and temperature insensitive powder is the most important ingredient to successful long range shooting. Great ammo in an ok rifle can get you acceptable results. Bulk ammo in a top of the line rifle will have you all over the place at distance.
Optic – A good optic is essential. If you’re on a tight budget, I’d spend most of my money here. A $900 optic on a $300 rifle is a much better system than a $300 optic on a $900 rifle. You need precise, repeatable elevation turrets, a good reticle, magnification range suitable to your application, and clear glass. The fixed power SWFA mil quad scopes are a good budget option in the $300 range. I wouldn’t want anything less than a scope in the $8-1200 range, like a Vortex PST or a Bushnell DMR. Once you go above $1500, you get really good stuff. Zoom ranges I’d recommend are in the 3-15x to 5-25x range. Almost everyone in the competition world runs 5-25x, does most of their shooting on 15x, and their zeroing on 25x.
Rifle – A rifle capable of 1″ 5 shot groups at 100 yards is a good minimum standard. I’m not happy with a load for a match unless it’s shooting 0.5″ or less. I’ll go in depth on cartridge selection later. Rifles meeting the 1″ criteria can be had for as little as $300. I’ve seen Savage Axis rifles shoot very well. The Ruger Precision Rifle is a great deal if you’re looking for a more feature rich rifle in the ~$1200 range. Most competition precision rigs are custom everything and will run you in the $3-5k range.
Ballistic Solver – You absolutely, positively need to know your bullet’s trajectory to make first round hits. Thankfully, the app store has tons of solvers, most of which are very accurate with the correct inputs out to transonic. No more needing to verify dope every 100y (even though you still can to confirm). All you need is your bullet’s BC, your ammo/rifle specific muzzle velocity, and current atmospherics and you’re off to the races. I’m partial to the Applied Ballistics solver for $30, but there are other good options like Shooter for $10, etc. You can even get a small weather station with an anemometer (measures wind speed) called a Kestrel with ballistics solvers built in to give you current atmospheric corrected elevation AND estimated wind corrections.
Laser Rangefinder – Once your target is out past a few hundred yards, your bullet’s trajectory starts dropping rapidly. If you think your target is at 770y but it’s really 700y, you’ve just missed a half a foot high. You absolutely need to know the range to your target to make first round hits. Thankfully, a Sig Kilo 2000 will range to 1000-1400 depending on light conditions, and do it for ~$400. You can buy better rangefinders, but less expensive units might not get you out to the magic 1k yard mark, which is within the capability of most rifles. It doesn’t help to have a rifle that can outshoot your rangefinder. Ranging with a reticle is very slow and error prone, especially out past 500y.
Chronograph – Knowing precisely how fast your bullet is going is imperative to a good trajectory solution from your ballistic solver. The old school optical chronos are no match for either a magnetospeed or a lab radar. The former uses magnets to measure velocity, the latter uses radar. Both are sufficiently accurate and don’t run into the lighting condition induced errors that optical chronos suffer.
Bubble Level – Even a few degrees of cant in your optic’s reticle can have a significant effect on your bullet’s trajectory. A miss that’s initially assumed to be a bad wind call can often be the effect of a few degrees of cant in a shooter’s reticle.
There’s a ton more gear that I’d recommend buying, but as long as you have quality offerings of the above, you’ll have a solid foundation for LR accuracy.
Taking the shot
Seeing as though the equipment list above is a mile long, the process of making first round hits at distance is involved and surprisingly time-consuming. Here’s the procedure, assuming you’ve zeroed your rifle at 100y and have chronographed the lot of ammo you’re using:
1. Range the distance to your target
2. Use environmental indicators and/or a kestrel to estimate wind speed and direction
3. Enter range, wind speed, atmospherics, and direction of fire into your ballistic calculator (muzzle velocity and BC are already entered)
4. Either adjust your optic’s turrets to the solution provided or use the optic’s reticle to hold for the solution
5. Double-check environmental wind indicators for any changes and that your bubble level indicates a level reticle
6. Use solid marksmanship fundamentals and break the shot.
Once you’ve broken the shot, its imperative that you mitigate recoil as much as possible, using both proper fundamentals, and, ideally, a muzzle device that aids in recoil reduction, such as a muzzle brake or a suppressor. In the event of a miss, being able to see your bullet splash is all the information you’ll have available to make a correction. If you fail to spot your miss, your correction will be a guess, and likely an incorrect one.
This is where an experienced spotter on high-quality optics comes in very handy. He can be watching your bullet trace and impacts to call out immediate corrections for you to adjust and reengage.
An incorrect wind hold is the most common reason for a miss. Wind is very hard to read correctly, and at 800y, a typical 308 can have around 20” worth of wind deflection in just a 5 mph wind. Seeing as though an average man is ~18” from shoulder to shoulder, aiming center and missing that 5 mph wind call would put your bullet nearly a foot off his shoulder.
With a bit of practice and homework, you’ll start becoming a proficient LR shooter. I have to admit, watching your trace smack a piece of steel you can’t see with your naked eye is some seriously satisfying stuff.