Dialing vs. Holdover for Long Range Hunting

By James McClellan Jr.

In our world of long range hunting and shooting there is an ongoing debate: Should I dial or should I hold? The answer depends on the situation. Each method has advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstances. For very fast shot opportunities at close to medium range, holding is quick and may be accurate enough for big game. For very long shots, there is usually more time to set up, and dialing provides much greater precision in our firing solution.

Let us examine the closer shot situation first. I use a base zero of 200 yards for my 280AI, and my scope, a Vortex Viper HSLR FFP, has an MOA reticle with hashmarks spaced at 2moa intervals vertically. The load is 168 grain Berger at 3015 fps. The drop data that follows is based on 1000 feet above sea level and 55 degrees, generated on my Applied Ballistics phone app. For any shot from fistfight to 225 yards, the center of the reticle will land the bullet in a good spot. For 250 yards, I ought to hold halfway between center and the first mark. For 300 yards, the first mark is almost dead on. 350 yards is halfway between the second and third mark, 400 is almost exactly the third mark.

Absent a hard wind, these aiming points will give me decent hits on deer size targets IF I can remember where to aim in the heat of the moment. I don’t mind admitting that I am the weak link in this system. How well I can settle my eye on the correct point of the reticle is another variable, and looking at a nice sized buck isn’t going to help my concentration. Having a diagram of the reticle marked with the holdovers can help, but it is actually easier for me to remember a number to dial the moa than to memorize a whole pictorial representation- especially if the hold is supposed to fall between marks instead of on one.

As a practical matter, if we think of the kill zone of a deer as a circle of approximately 10 inches diameter, at 400 yards or less we can be a little imprecise with the hold and still get an ok hit. If the wind is up, 10mph is 2.1 moa full value, so shading into the wind to the first hash (the horizontals are at 1moa intervals) will keep the bullet on target. I have used reticle holds on steel at the local range out to 700 yards, but I am not comfortable with the holdover method past 400 if the target has hair.

440 yards, wind 10mph /5moa up/2moa wind, both holding

Same shot, dialed up, holding wind.

Same shot, all dialed.

Dialing Vs Holdover For Long Range Hunting

As the range increases and the drop data takes me farther from the center of the reticle, my ability to find and hold on the right spot becomes less certain. Holding for wind, however, is pretty effective if the drift is less than 4 to 5 moa. I like to dial for range and hold for wind as long as I don’t need to go too far to one side.

700 yards, wind 10mph /12.2moa up/3.6moa wind, both holding .

The variable nature of wind also makes holding a good technique, as you can increase or decrease very quickly as your spotter calls the latest dope. If wind drift is more than a few moa, I get uncomfortable straying too far from reticle center. For the same reason, I don’t like holding very high for range. Ward Brien’s excellent article on Milliradian measure and its use in rifle scopes goes into great detail on the technical reasons to stay near the center, and I encourage you to read it. For the following longer shot, let us agree to dial in the corrections for spin and Coriolis as needed, and now decide what to do about distance and wind: hold or dial?

1170 yards, wind 10mph /30moa up/7moa wind, both holding

I don’t like working that far down from center, and 7 moa wide is getting to be a bit much for my taste laterally as well. I’d prefer to dial the elevation to eliminate one of the two potential errors with my eye.

Same shot, dialed up, holding wind.

For a long shot like this with more interesting wind I can choose to hold both elevation and wind:

1170 yards, wind from 2 o’clock at 22 mph, holding for both.

I don’t like that very much. If the wind seems to be fairly constant let me dial for both.

Same shot, dialed up and over.

Dialing vs. Holdover For Long Range Hunting

But what if the wind is variable? Looking at an animal, I am going to want to try to get closer if at all possible. If it isn’t possible, I may have to pass on the shot. Meat is still available at the store. For target practice, the more wind the better. The more time I get to shoot in the wind the more confidence I’ll have to make the shot. Or call it off. If the windage is more than 5moa, because I don’t like to get too far to the side of the reticle I dial in for the average speed, then use the reticle to fine-tune for gusts or let-offs.

1170 yards, wind averaging 16.5mph, from 2 o’clock, gusting to 22 mph.

This method has been okay during practice when I am alone, but I have found some potential communication difficulty when someone is spotting for me or I for them, when we are not a regular team. It is easy to lose track of left/right or up-/down-wind if both shooter and spotter aren’t used to each other and have a stylized dialog method. When I spot for someone for the first time, I clearly explain that I will call the correction, not the impact. If, at 500 yards the shot is 7.5 inches low and 5 to the left, my call will be simply, “up 1.5moa, right 1.” Or mils or inches if the shooter is using that measure. I read somewhere that military snipers will always refer to left windage as “pushing” and right windage as “pulling”. As the spotter is doping the final wind call before the shot he might say something like “push 3 clicks”. To the shooter this can only have one meaning, so there is no confusion. I intend to experiment with dialing 2 to 4 moa less than the average speed, so the final adjustment stays on the same side of the reticle.

One situation where holding over beats dialing is multiple targets at moderate but different ranges, with a time limit. A fun game at my local range is to pick 3 or 4 different targets, and shoot them in a designated order, or have the spotter call the next target after each shot. Knowing how many moa to shift from one target to the next and using the reticle is very fast, as long as the shooter can keep all the data in mind. Consider the following shots: The wind is in your face, targets at 207, 441 and 693 yards.

Tactical match shooters will often plan out the dope shifts and write them on a wrist pad on the non-shooting arm instead of risking it to memory. Of course this is likely to work better if the distance is known for certain in advance. The more you run a game like this, the better idea you will have of the practical limits to using holdover. The details of your particular reticle will determine how far you can effectively shoot using holdover alone, and only repeated practice will bring proficiency. Put yourself and your rig to the test often and rigorously, and you will know which way to choose when that monster bull is standing way out there.
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