Long Range Tricks And Toys

By Ian McMurchy

Much emphasis is placed on high performance rifles, state-of-the-art scopes and the latest magnum cartridge design when the discussion of long range hunting comes up in gun-shops and hunting camps. That equipment is essential. But there is another level of gear - and some specialized techniques - that play a vital role in making long shots. I am talking about the little things that make a big difference, like rock-steady shooting rests and the knowledge of how to release each shot with uniform results.

Lets start off with gear, and then discuss long-range shooting techniques. First, the rifle must be steady. That is a given and there are several great shooting rests on the market. Probably the most widely used rifle rest is the Harris Bipod. Developed many years ago, the Harris is in constant use by the military, law-enforcement and countless hunters throughout the world. The Harris Bipod attaches to the front swivel stud and its spring-loaded legs swing foreword, out of the way when not in use. The Harris is available in several configurations, including various leg lengths, two leg adjustment designs, as well as models that swivel enabling the rifle to be squared-up when used on uneven ground. Another good bipod is the made by Rugged Gear. This model is lighter than the Harris and it has a completely different system for varying the leg-lengths. Depressing a button allows the leg to pull out, and spinning the leg enables fine-tuning height adjustment.

Another great rifle rest is the shooting stick. Serious hunters should check out these simple little rests. I have used the Underwood shooting sticks on dozens of hunts all over North America with complete satisfaction. They just plain work, and work well. Underwood shooting sticks come with a nylon carrying case that fits on your belt. Deploying the sticks is as easy as giving them a shake. Essentially pieces of arrow shafts that fit into each other, the sticks have a piece of shock-cord threaded through them. They snap together and stay that way when you want to use them. Stoney Point makes a similar design that also works great. Another interesting shooting rest is the Snipe Pod. This rest combines shooting sticks with swivel-stud mounting, and it provides excellent maneuverability. Small and light, the Snipe Pod deploys easily and is a great hunting tool

No doubt the Cadillac of hunting rests is the Nightforce Custom Tripod. I have used the Nightforce on many hunts, and although it is somewhat bigger and more to carry, I have never regretted having it in my pack. The three pound tripod is incredibly adaptable and it is built to handle heavy use. The legs are adjustable, extending out for sitting shots and the central stem that holds the rifle rest has the finest adjustment of any field hunting rest.

Although these shooting rests are great, they all have pros and cons. No doubt one of the finest shooting rest available to hunters is their back or fanny pack. Practice shooting prone over your pack and you will be amazed at the accuracy you can achieve. Whenever shooting from a rest that supports the forearm of your rifle, try to also support the butt so that your muscles are not involved. Use a balled-up pair of gloves, your binocs case or anything small enough to fit under the rear portion of the stock. Many hunters concern themselves with supporting the fore-stock and they don't realize how much better they would shoot if both ends of the stock were steadied.

There are usually three considerations when shooting long - range, wind and angle of fire. Range concerns have largely been addressed by modern technology as handheld laser rangefinders keep getting cheaper and better. Laser rangefinders are wonderful tools, but the user must recognize that they will rarely perform as rated on living, breathing critters. I count on 50 to 60 percent of the rated performance under field conditions. This can be extended greatly by ranging larger, more reflective objects that will give an idea of important distances such as rocks and trees.

I learned a great technique for using laser rangefinders during a long-range course taught at the Badlands Tactical Training center. When I get into a blind or hunting position I draw a simple sketch of the terrain, including key features such as trees, rocks, ridges, coulees and of course feeders or bait if that is applicable. Then I shoot laser distances off as many of these spots as possible, and note the ranges into the sketch. After doing that I can the rangefinder away and simply wait for a critter to show up. By referring to the sketch I will know quite accurately how far out it is, and can set my scope appropriately.

Lasers work great when they are getting readings, BUT there are many conditions that reduce or minimize their ability to range targets. Bright sun is one of the worst enemies of laser range-finding. Another would be battery dependency - batteries can go dead at the worst times during hunts. Therefore the long-range hunter should employ a variety of mental estimation procedures to determine distance.

Mental range estimation includes:

* using one-hundred yard increments (or football fields)
* consideration of the size of the object (takes experience and a good knowledge of the actual size)
* bracketing by estimating that the object is not less-than X yards nor more than Y yards and taking the average
* a combination of some or all of these techniques.

Unfortunately there are other factors that also must be considered when determining how far away an object is. Contrast with the background, how much of the critter you can see, terrain (as in over water or across valleys), and the effect of light are variables that may or may not enter the equation. All of these factors combine to make range estimation a challenge and besides owning a laser, there is only one way to learn to estimate distance and that is by practicing - a lot.

I have also become comfortable using Mil-dot equipped scopes for determining how far out an animal might be. To speed this process I use a wonderful little slide-rule called a MIL-DOT MASTER. I simply take a Mil-reading, then move a sliding scale so that the Mil-reading is aligned with the size of the critter. Fast and very simple, and it works with amazing accuracy.

Once I have the range I also refer to small laminated cards that contain ALL of the info I might need in the field for each particular load. BALLISTICARDS are a great hunting aid. The company that creates them will take base info on your particular load and create custom cards that will work perfectly for your particular rifle and ammo. They will calculate wind drift, lead on various critters and even effects of shooting downhill.

Another great idea is to write your primary ballistic info onto a small label that is fixed to the off-side of your rifle. Scope settings out to your maximum range are listed, as are wind hold-off and even moving target leads. I find that I cannot always rely on my memory and the small labels are great for assuring I put the correct elevation on prior to a shot.

How does one keep track of Ballisticard, Mil-Dot Masters, notes, pens and other small items. I carry them in particular pockets of my hunting gear or simply slide the cards under the elastic ammo holder that I use on the butts of most of my rifles. Some hunters use larger units that have small zippered pouches that attach to the butt-stock. Eagle Industries sells a beautifully made butt-pack that is not too bulky for hunting.

I mentioned that wind and angle of shooting are also key concerns. Wind speed and direction are "must-know" elements of long range shooting. Wind direction
is classified by using an imaginary clock-face. Wind at 6 and 12 o'clock has virtually no effect except on extremely long shots. Right angle winds, either from 3 or 9 o'clock are termed "Full-Value Wind" and they have the most effect on bullets. Oblique winds, other than at right angles are called "Partial Value Wind". This would include angles such as 12:30 to 2:30 or midway between
12:00 o'clock and 3:00 o'clock etc. Partial value wind has one half the effect of full value wind.

We are sensitive to wind direction but determining wind velocity is another challenge. I always tie a 10 inch piece of wool to a twig when I am setting up so that I can get an idea of wind direction. Another neat way to determine wind direction is to use one of the indicators sold in archery shops, such as the API WindFloater or dust puffers.

Reading mirage is a favored method of experienced long-range shooters. Unfortunately it is a skill that takes much practice to obtain. I watch for "boiling" mirage as that indicates the wind is of no value as far as drift is concerned. Reading mirage is best learned by making observations and good notes during winds of varying velocities and directions. Most experts consider 12 mph the maximum speed for mirage wind readings.

I started carrying a Kestral 3000 wind gauge in my jacket pocket a few years back. The Kestral goes on all of my hunts now, it is sure nice to know exactly what the wind is doing and also what the temperature might be at any particular time. Since wind is the big bugaboo, I have also memorized the following wind chart. This info is excellent and always works.

* 0-3 MPH barely felt, smoke will drift.
* 3-5 MPH can barely be felt on face.
* 5-8 MPH tree leaves in constant motion.
* 8-12 MPH dust and loose paper moves.
* 12-15 MPH, small trees begin to sway.
* 15-20 MPH causes large trees to sway.

Another great wind speed determining trick is as follows. Stand at right angles to the wind and simply flip some light debris - dead grass or anything that the wind will carry - into the air. Point your hand at the location on the ground where the material fell. Then estimate the angle that your arm forms to your body and divide that angle by four. The answer is wind speed in miles per hour.

My friend Jeff Hoffman, owner of Black Hills Ammo has come up with a simple wind correction system that is extremely accurate and also easy to remember. Simply use one MOA less than the distance out to 1000 yards. The chart goes as follows using a ten mile an hour full-value wind and a .308 Winchester 175 grain bullet:

100(1), 200(1), 300(2), 400(3), 500(4), 600(5), 700(6), 800(7), 900(8), 1,000(9)

This chart will vary slightly according to the ballistics of your favorite cartridge.

Angled shooting is usually a big unknown to most hunters. You are up on a ridge and see a buck way down in the bottom of a draw. How does shooting downward effect the bullet? Bottom line is that unless you are way out there - not much. A .308 Winchester bullet hits within an inch or so at 300 yards when fired from fairly steep angles. If you must know a conversion factor there is a simple little tool called a SLOPE DOPER that will instantly give you a correction to apply to the range. Why do we need to hold off? Bottom line is that angled shots are NOT as far as they might appear, the bullet does not travel as far horizontally so it is not effected by gravity as long as it might seem.

Some of the above ideas require carrying a field note-book and pen, something that many hunters don't consider essential. Since I started carrying notebooks I have whiled-away hours writing neat reflections of my hunts, as well as used them for keeping track of weather, sunrise and sunset times, critters spotted and all sorts of neat info. I also have detailed ballistic info to use as a backup should I need it.

Long range hunting is very doable, but it requires knowledge, good equipment and lots of practice. Perhaps these tips will make your next long shot a little easier to accomplish.


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BALLISTICARDS, Electronic Wind Meters