How to Determine Your Effective Range for a Hunting Shot

By Cameron Cool

With the growing interest in and popularity of long range shooting, both for targets and hunting purposes, there has also been an increase in the disapproval of such shots. This disapproval is not only coming from the anti-hunting crowd but also from our fellow hunters, and rightfully so. We have all heard horror stories about hunters taking unethical shots and wounding game. As responsible hunters and stewards of the land it is our duty to do our best to make ethical, clean kills. All hunters know that things don’t always go according to plan, but to help minimize the chance of wounding game we must ask ourselves a very important question: “How far is too far?”


Above are two different rifles with very different effective ranges. The Winchester model 70 chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum (on top) has a much greater effective range than that of the Remington 700 chambered for the .300 Savage (below).

Anyone can look at a few ballistic tables and get an idea of how effective their load will be on game at different ranges. Although it is a good idea to study these tables and understand the numbers, these ranges should not necessarily be what you use as your maximum effective range for a hunting shot. For example, an individual who is new to hunting and who has little experience target shooting should probably not take a 500 yard shot at a big game animal even if he is equipped with a hard hitting, flat shooting magnum. However, someone with more experience hunting and more time on the range may be more than capable of taking such a shot, even with a less powerful round.

So how do you determine your effective range for a hunting shot? There are countless variables to consider when answering this question, so I will break them into three main categories: equipment, conditions, and experience.

First off, let’s talk about equipment. This includes all of the fun and exciting stuff that we drool over at our local gun stores. First comes the rifle. There are more rifle and cartridge combinations in this world than one could ever fathom, and deciding on which combination is best could easily be the topic of a dictionary sized book. The important thing to keep in mind when it comes to the rifle itself is that you personally know its capabilities.

To determine your maximum range for a hunting shot you must know how accurate your rifle is. The accuracy of your rifle should only be determined by you. There are countless rifles in this world that are capable of outstanding accuracy. However, just because a rifle is capable of quarter minute groups out to 1000 yards doesn’t mean the individual behind the gun is capable of shooting said groups. This is why it is important that you are the one who determines how accurate you are with your own rifle.

Another important factor that you must understand about your rifle is the capabilities of the cartridge it is chambered for. Some rounds are simply more capable of harvesting game at longer ranges. This doesn’t mean that you need the latest and greatest super jumbo mega magnum but rather that you should be familiar with what you have. Looking over ballistics tables and charts can give you a good idea of impact velocity as well as impact energy. This information is easily found on the web if you are using factory ammunition. Most ammunition manufacturers have ballistics tables for their loaded rounds that can either be viewed or downloaded for free. Some manufacturers even print this information on their boxes of ammunition. Handloaders can also use this information, as well as information found in the various reloading manuals, to get a rough idea of the performance of their rounds.

If you are equipped with a chronograph you can use your velocity readings at different ranges to get an even better idea of how well your round will perform. These numbers will give you a good starting point, but you should also be sure to physically shoot at the ranges you intend to hunt at to get exact information on how far your bullet will drop.

Minimum impact energy is commonly debated and there are various theories floating around about the ideas of knockdown power. I’ll leave this can of worms unopened and let the reader decide their own thoughts about these ideas. However, kinetic energy is another factor that you can use to help determine your effective range.

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How to Determine Your Effective Range for a Hunting Shot

Bullet selection goes hand in hand with ballistics when determining your effective range for a hunting shot, and is arguably more important than numbers on a chart. Different bullets will greatly affect your maximum effective range. For example, someone shooting a magnum class cartridge loaded with a bullet designed for long range shooting will have a much longer maximum effective range then if they were to use the exact same rifle loaded with a round nose bullet. This is why it is important that you spend time at the range determining exactly how far your bullet will drop at the ranges you intend to take hunting shots at.

Bullet choice will not only affect maximum effective range by how far the bullet drops but also by the bullets terminal performance. Be sure that the bullet you are using is designed to expand properly at the impact velocities and distances you intend to shoot. This information can usually be found in reloading manuals or on bullet manufacturer’s websites. The hunter who is serious about load development and performance may even want to complete their own tests on bullets to see if they expand adequately at the intended ranges. There are many ways to do this but one cheap and simple method is to shoot into stacks of wet newspaper. The newspaper will simulate the animal you are hunting and can give you an idea of how well the bullet will penetrate as well as how well the bullet will expand.

The last major piece of equipment that will play a big role in determining your maximum effective range is your scope. Remember that you can’t hit what you can’t see. A low power scope has the potential to limit your maximum effective range due to this simple fact. Advances in reticle and turret designs have helped to increase the ranges at which shooters can accurately hit their targets. If your scope is equipped with these features, familiarizing yourself with how they work can help to increase the range at which you can effectively take game.

The next major variable when trying to determine your maximum effective range for a hunting shot is the conditions that you will be taking the shot under. Keep in mind that taking shots at game usually happens under much different conditions than when we practice at the target range. It is very likely that someone who is familiar with their equipment and comfortable taking shots at targets at 800 yards may struggle to keep the reticle on the vitals of an animal at 500 yards after a long hard day of hunting in rough terrain under adverse weather conditions.

The weather is always changing in the field and has a major influence on how far one can effectively take game. Wind is just as good at pushing a bullet out of the vital area on an animal as it is at pushing the bullet out of the 10 ring on a target. Oftentimes in a hunting situation it will be more difficult to read the wind than it is while on the target range. If you plan on taking shots at longer ranges you should practice reading the wind and shooting in unfavorable conditions.

Weather can also limit your sight distance, which in turn will limit how far you can effectively shoot. Rain, snow, and fog will all decrease visibility and will distort your sight picture. Time of day can also reduce visibility. Oftentimes hunters find themselves shooting game within the first or last half hour of hunting light. Even using a high quality scope may not be enough to clearly see your target at long distances under low light conditions.

Although it is unlikely you will know the exact weather conditions you’ll be hunting under, you usually can familiarize yourself with the terrain you will be hunting in. Is the land steep and mountainous or flat and open? Is there thick vegetation and heavy underbrush or will you be hunting along the edge of a field? All of these factors will influence how far you can effectively shoot at game.

How to Determine Your Effective Range for a Hunting Shot

Along with learning about the terrain, doing some research on the animal you are hunting will aid in determining your maximum effective range. This is something that we often take for granted but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Reading up on the actual size of the vitals of the animal you are hunting, as well as the actual location of them, will help you to determine the distance the animal can be at and still allow you to hit a target of that size. You should also know how far your bullet needs to penetrate to cause traumatic damage to the internal organs of the animal. Although the vital area of a cape buffalo is much larger than that of a whitetail, offering a larger target, cape buffalo are also much tougher and require more penetration than a whitetail, potentially limiting maximum effective range.

Shooting position is another factor to keep in mind. Shooting prone with a bipod will greatly increase your maximum range when compared to shooting offhand. Just as you probably won’t know the weather, it is unlikely that you will know the exact shooting position you will be in when you take your shot. Therefore, you should practice different shooting positions at various ranges to determine how far you can accurately place shots in each position.

The final major variable to consider when determining your maximum range for a hunting shot is experience. Experience, both hunting and target shooting, will help you to decide how far is too far. A more experienced hunter will usually be able to make a better judgement call of when and when not to shoot. Though all hunters enjoy bagging game, there is never a good reason to take a shot at an animal that is beyond your maximum range.

Experience can only be gained by engaging in the activity. For this reason you should hunt and practice shooting often if you want to take game at extended ranges. Experience is arguably one of the most important factors when determining your effective range for a hunting shot. For example, if I were to play a round of golf with Tiger Woods and we would switch clubs, so that he would be using a cheap set of no name clubs and I would be using some of the best clubs in the world, he would still win. No matter how good your equipment is if you are unable to accurately shoot your rifle your range will be limited.

Determining your effective range for a hunting shot may seem quite complicated and in some ways it is. However, when you tie everything together, it all comes down to one simple question. How accurate are you under the conditions you will be hunting in, with the equipment you will be using? It doesn’t matter if this means your effective range is 100 yards or 1000 yards. All of these variables apply. As previously stated, the only way to determine this is to get out to the range and do some shooting.

In the end the only person who can determine your effective range is you. Keep all of the factors mentioned above in mind when determining this range and remember that if something doesn’t seem right there is nothing wrong with passing up the shot.