Sierra’s Infinity Five Exterior Ballistics software gives the necessary figures. At $39.95 from exteriorballistics.com, it just might be a great reference. In the field we still are faced with the necessity to apply some brain activity to our shooting. It is here that “Kentucky windage” has to take over. We all know that holding off is a matter of reality on the varmint fields. It is aided by whatever knowledge our research provides. Put it all together and we should get better.
Let’s take some time to deal with mirage. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with beautiful Arabian maidens basking around an oasis in the Sahara. Mirage is the visible indicator of heat waves moving across the surface of the earth. We see it most often as we drive down a highway on a hot summer day. Do not make the mistake of thinking mirage is a warm weather phenomenon. It can, and does, appear in the winter. Mirage is a way to recognize what the wind is doing. Panic is not necessary when it appears. Let’s take a look!
On a dead still day in August we can peek through our scope and see what looks like steam boiling straight up in front of us. We now know that there is no wind. We must recognize, however, that the mirage has the nasty ability to displace our target. It will not be where we think it is. If you watch mirage on the highway when it is bad you will observe that roadside signs often appear to be dancing, or floating, before our eyes. That is the bugaboo of mirage. If we shoot at the target where we see it we will miss it. That can be a challenge!
If there are prevailing winds they will be revealed by the movement of mirage across the ground in front of your target. Light mirage will have less effect than heavy mirage in the same wind condition. Remember that the hotter it gets the more mirage you will have. You must evaluate this and hold accordingly. I like to think of light mirage as a massive wind flag that tells me what is going on. As mirage becomes heavier it will bring the additional concern of image displacement that must be evaluated and compensated for. You must judge just how strong the mirage is and hold into it enough to keep your bullets all in the same place. If mirages starts after you shoot three shots you will have to make some serious adjustments to put the last two shots into the group.
On a hot August day on a range such as the lakeside ones at Camp Perry, Ohio, we often would see wind conditions that dictated six or seven minutes of windage. A careful study of the mirage would reveal that we might need another two to four minutes of windage to compensate for the mirage. Mirage is a good indicator of wind direction and intensity on any given day. Unfortunately, it brings with it a set of concerns relative to how much distortion the mirage itself introduces. We must apply what we know about a given wind velocity and direction. We must factor in something extra and hold into the mirage a bit to assure ourselves that we will hit the target where we want to. Remember that when the wind blows away the mirage, things are really bad. The wind will now be at, or above, the 20 mph level.
Many shooters develop a real hate relationship with mirage. When they see it appearing they grab hold of the nearest panic button they can find and push hard. What they fail to realize is that Mother Nature has just handed them another indicator for the evaluation of conditions between the rifle and the target. Failure to recognize this will lead to poor shooting and frustration that can kill enthusiasm. Often we hear certain competitors identified as “good mirage shooters.” That certainly is a compliment. It can be learned by anyone, however.
Examine mirage from the perspective that here is something that can help if used properly. If you look at mirage in that light it will become your friend. Embrace it, for we do not need any more enemies than we already have.
Now, let’s take what we have learned at the range and go shoot some varmints. After all, that is why we are doing all this book leaning. When I was teaching I could tell that my students enjoyed the lessons. What they were really looking forward to, however, were the days when we put what we learned to a practical application in the field. I was eagerly anticipating that as well.
Let’s go to the prairie.
We are sitting at our benches on a hot July day. The Montana winds are doing their daily exercise routine. The prairie dogs are on their perpetual snack break. We are as excited as a dog on Kitten Street. It is time to get started. We can start to bang away at the closer prairie dogs and have a ball for a while. We either will shoot them all up or they will get smart and run down their holes. As the morning draws on we find that we have to reach out farther in order to continue shooting without moving our equipment a few hundred yards. We accept the challenge. It is time to apply our range learning.
If you learned anything early on you will have some sort of wind flag near your bench. It is not practical to put one downrange but you sure can benefit from the one near you. Plan “B” is to purchase one of those snazzy little wind gauges that are sold by the advertisers in The VARMINT HUNTER Magazine®. They do a great job. Their only down side is that it takes time to stop to watch what they tell us. A quick glance at the flag will reveal the present conditions. Switches and letups are told instantly by the flag.
As we look downrange we may notice some grasses or weeds that have been left by the prairie dogs. On long shots there may be whole fields of grass in our line of sight. These are Mother Nature’s wind flags. The stalks bend with the wind. You can judge the velocity of the wind by watching the stalks. A little practice will quickly tell you just how well you are guessing wind velocity.
As you watch the stalks bend you will notice a distinct grain in the field as the wind shows a pattern that tells direction. Sometimes the pattern may look like the wavy hair on a dog’s back. On other occasions it will be a straight line pattern. The wavy pattern is a swirling wind. The straight line pattern is a steady wind. Make note of that. You now can make some intelligent evaluations and come up with what you think the wind is doing. Apply your knowledge of adjustment value properly and your shooting will improve.
There may be other subtle indicators. If there is little grass to read you might find success by watching the puffs of dust on a dry field. Is there any loose straw lying on the ground? How does that move when pushed by the wind? Is there some cattle hair caught in the barbed wire fence at the edge of the field? What does it tell you when the wind blows? How fast are the tumbleweeds rolling along? What does the wind do to the hair on the prairie dog in your scope? The observant shooter will find a multitude of wind indicators out there. By applying common sense and experience it is always possible to figure out how much to adjust for each shot. When that evaluation is made you can either click or hold off for the shot. By staying alert you can shoot through most conditions with good success.
If the conditions worsen so that tumbleweeds start to bounce as they roll along, the grasses in the field lie down flat, the canopy covering your bench blows away, or the prairie dogs are driven down by an impending storm, it might be time to call it a day and go for a nice shower and a good meal. At least take a nap in the shade and hope that things calm down. There will be times when your best guess will have almost no meaning. You need to recognize when conditions have deteriorated to the point of impracticality. Just slinging lead can become a frustrating and costly endeavor.
A major assist would be to use a spotter for your shooting. A second set of eyes is invaluable to see what you are doing. My wife and I spent several days with Bill Brown at Chase Hill Outfitters in Big Sandy, Montana. Bill is one of the best spotters I have ever shot with. His ability to call shots, suggest windage adjustments, and keep us on target equaled anything I have ever seen on a target range. If he said: “You were 1/8 of a prairie dog to the right,” I could bet that I was indeed just 1/8 of a dog away. The longer the anticipated shooting distances the more value a spotter will take on. At long range the essentials dictate a spotter to read the wind and someone on a rangefinder to guide you for distance. Teamwork can be a good thing on a varmint hunt.
Let’s take a few moments and pursue a 1,000 prairie dog. You would just love to get into the 1000 Yard Club but have been afraid to take the big step. You have a 7mm Remington Magnum that you think is accurate enough to do the job. We meet at breakfast and plan our day. I will spot for you and serve as wind doper for the trip. Your friend Bob will operate the rangefinder so that we can make accurate estimates of distance. You have a good 1,000-yard zero from back home. Put that dope on your scope. If you plan on doing much long-range shooting you should print out a ballistics chart and either tape it on your stock or put it in your ammunition box. I would suggest both, because most likely you will leave one at home. We get set up overlooking a field where we can achieve at least the 1,000-yard shot. It is time to put things into motion.
We will seek a rock, post, or mound that ranges 1,000 yards. You will take a few shots while Bob helps me watch for the impact. We discover that atmospheric conditions differ from back home and your shots strike about 18 inches low. Take six clicks of elevation and try again. Now you are very close. A few clicks of left windage and we are happy. At this point the uncertainty is gone. You have a zero for the conditions before you. The fact that you are ready should calm you as we wait for the prairie dog to show up. It does not take long.
Bob announces a target at 1,050 yards. A quick check on your chart tells you to come up nine clicks. You do that. I study the wind and tell you to take six clicks of left windage to compensate for a slight wind from 8 o’clock. It is time! At the shot the dirt flies just to the right of the dog. Take one click left and go again. This time you are just a whisker to the left. We are very close. You may be missing simply because the 1,000-yard groups that your rifle is capable of are circling the varmint. It is apparent that your elevation is excellent. We just have to get on that wind. Your next shot just misses the head of the varmint. If he were a smart digger he would go home right now. He is smart!
We have to find another dog. Bob announces one at 1,035 yards about 30 feet to the right of the one that vanished. Take off three clicks and give it a try. Shot number one dusts the varmint and he runs off his mound. You wait for him to calm down. I notice an increase in wind velocity. I tell you to add four clicks of left windage and go for it. At the shot we all let out a: “You got him!” as we congratulate you on entering the 1000 Yard Club. After just five coordinated shots you have achieved a dream that you thought to be out of reach. We sign your verification for the 1000 Yard Club and take a much-deserved celebration break before putting Bob on the rifle.
If you were to try that by yourself you might spend a whole morning and gain only empty brass and some experience. Unless you are quite careful you most likely will lose your zero and become disoriented. Not knowing what you are doing wrong can quickly confuse even the best shooter. You will be eager but ill equipped to make it all happen. You could team up with a guy on the scope and perhaps get lucky. Many long-range varmints fall to a pair of shooters. Adding the third set of eyes and the knowledge of distance to the problem will add that certain element that makes the shot happen. I have witnessed this in the Pennsylvania deer woods and I have seen it out on the prairie. Long-range shooting requires teamwork. We can do it alone but it is difficult. The second assistant helps. The third person puts the finishing touch on the whole process.
It is my hope that you will gain enough from this to take a studied approach to the why and how of wind. It can be figured out. You can adjust for it. It does require practice, however. With experience you will have fun shooting in the wind. There is no reason to quit just because a little wind gets in your way. Accept the challenge.
I hope I have provided enough information so that improvement will be evident. Eliminating frustration and unhappiness is really what it is all about. All of us seek whatever we can find to make our trips more successful. By having fun we encourage ourselves to do better and go more often. Enjoy your days at the range and in the field!The VARMINT HUNTER Magazine®, a 208-page publication put together for shooters by shooters. Varmint Hunters Association, Inc. hosts several 600-yard IBS matches, a coyote calling contest, and an annual Jamboree in Fort Pierre, SD. The Jamboree is a week-long shooting event known as ‘a summer camp for shooters’.Join the discussion of this article with the author HERE at the Article Discussion Forum.