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The Indian and the Arrow

Chris Upchurch

There is a tendency for some new students of the rifle to get caught up in the vast variety of hardware available today. Rather than getting out and shooting they end up in discussions of MOA, this scope or that, one accessory or another. When they do get out to the range, they often find that what they thought was the ultimate rifle is long, heavy, and unreliable.

In trying to guide these students to the right path, instructors often say, “It’s the indian, not the arrow.” This is particularly true for beginners. If you don’t have the fundamentals, even a very basic rifle won’t hold you back and the most expensive rifle won’t make you shoot better. It’s also true at any range where we’re likely to use a rifle for self-defense. Even the most skilled shooter isn’t going to benefit in any practical sense from an exceedingly accurate rifle when they’re shooting man-sized target (or even a head-sized target) inside 100 yards.

However, this article isn’t about shooting for self-defense. It’s about shooting at long range, and at long range, equipment can be a limiting factor. For the purposes of this article, I’m defining long range as the distance where bullet drop becomes a factor. Depending on the caliber and how the rifle is set up, this could start between 200 and 400 yards.

At long range a skilled shooter can overcome equipment limitations, but only to a point. For a new shooter, struggling with hardware can be very frustrating.

My experience with long range shooting provides a couple of examples. My first real experience shooting beyond 200 yards was in Eric Pfleger’s Guerrilla Sniper class. I took this class with a basic Savage .308 bolt-action rifle and a simple Bushnell scope with a “one size fits all” BDC reticle. My fundamentals coming into this class were good enough that shooting supported prone out to 500 yards was pretty easy. However, I really struggled at 600 yards. I really wanted to make hits at 600, since this was the minimum standard for torso shots in the Guerrilla Sniper class. After a lot of work, I did get there, but I never attempted any shooting beyond 600. My equipment limited me to 5-600 yards. Based on my performance out to that range, my skill level might have been sufficient to shoot further, but the hardware was the limiting factor.

About eight months later, I attended the Guerrilla Sniper class again, this time with Scott Vandiver. I had upgraded my optics to a Leupold Mark 4. This made a world of difference. Out to 900 yards both my skills and equipment worked very well. At 1000, however, I really struggled. I eventually got a couple of hits, but I had to expend a couple of dozen rounds to get them. Once again I had run into the limitations of my equipment. As if to drive this lesson home, Scott offered me the chance to shoot his .50 at 1000 yards. I not only hit the target on the first try, I drilled the 5" swinging plate in the middle of the target’s torso. My skills were clearly up to shooting at this distance (especially aided by a wind call from Scott) but my rifle and ammo were not.

About two years later, I attended the Guerrilla Sniper class once more, taught by Gabe Suarez. In the interim I had gotten quite a bit more long range shooting experience, including Guerrilla Sniper II and a weeklong DMR class. I had also upgraded my ammo, switching to a slightly heavier and higher velocity round in an attempt to eek out a bit more range. In contrast to my struggles in Scott’s class, this time I got a first round hit at 1000 and was able to hit 75% of the time at that distance. My hardware and finally caught up to the shots I was trying to take.

The Hardware/Software relationship

In reality, there are all sorts of variations in skill and hardware that interact to make a shot easy or difficult. However, if we simplify things a bit and say that either your skill level is sufficient for the shot or it is not, and that the hardware you are using is sufficient for the shot or it is not, there are four possible outcomes:

  • When both the hardware and your skill level are sufficient for the shot, it’s simple.
  • When your skill is sufficient but the hardware is not, your accuracy will be degraded (perhaps substantially, depending on how good you are and how much the hardware falls short).
  • When the hardware is sufficient but your skill level is not, it’s a learning opportunity.
  • When both the hardware and the software are insufficient, it’s an opportunity for frustration.

While the skilled shooter will be able to take full advantage of capable, high quality equipment, in a way having sufficiently capable hardware is more important for a shooter that just learning. An experienced shooter may be able to make the shot work despite equipment that’s less than ideal. On the flip side, a less experienced shooter may have trouble distinguishing when a miss is due to his own limitations, and when it’s due to the limitations of his equipment. It’s difficult to learn from your mistakes if you can’t be certain that they are your mistakes.

Long Range Accuracy Limitations

There are several factors that can limit a rifle’s ability to hit at long range. I’m going to present them roughly in order of importance. At this point it’s important to note the context that I'm talking about. This is based on my experience shooting primarily at man-sized steel targets. If you’re shooting paper where group size or scoring rings are paramount, or if you’re shooting at substantially smaller (0r larger) targets, your mileage may vary.

Optics

In my opinion, a good scope is the most important hardware element of long range shooting. If you’re using a simple hunting scope, you’re going to run into scope limitations long before you run into issues with your ammunition or angular accuracy. Oddly enough for not being a gun culture, the Europeans seem to understand this much better than the Americans. The old joke is that an American will show up for a rifle match with a $3000 rifle and a $300 scope, while the European will show up with a $300 rifle and a $3000 scope. The European probably has the better odds.

When I defined long-range shooting earlier, I said it was, the “the distance where bullet drop becomes a factor”. I could also have phased it as the distance where wind drift becomes a factor (the main reason I didn’t is that bullet drop is constant while wind drift varies with the conditions). The ability to compensate for bullet drop and wind drift aren the most important capabilities of a scope for long range shooting.

There are basically two ways to do this: a specially designed reticle and the ability to adjust scope’s point of aim. In a long range scope, you probably want both.

Reticles that allow you to account for bullet drop come in two flavors. The simple version is a ballistic drop compensator (BDC) reticle. A BDC reticle has a series hash marks extending down below the crosshair, each of which is an aiming point for successively longer ranges (usually in 100 yard increments). These marks need to be calibrated for a specific caliber, and even then they probably won’t match a particular load precisely. Some also have marks to the left and right of each hash mark for wind holds. A BDC reticle can extend your range quite a ways beyond a simple crosshair, but as a practical matter it’s most effective out to around 6-800 yards.

Rather than having marks meant for a specific round at specific ranges, a graduate reticle has regular tick marks representing a certain amount of drop (usually in either angular mils or minutes of angle). These require more work on the shooter’s part to figure out how much drop and wind drift their rifle and round have at a given distance, but they offer the potential for greater precision and are usable to a longer range than a BDC reticle.

Even with a graduated reticle you eventually either run out of crosshair or the need to hold both vertically for drop and horizontally for wind will make things difficult. The ability to adjust a scope’s point of aim to compensate for bullet drop simplifies things considerably. Note that the adjustments on many scopes are intended for zeroing. They may not be reliable or consistent enough for long range shooting. A good long range scope will give you exactly the desired adjustment every time.

The scope needs to have sufficient optical quality and magnification to see a distant target. This is particularly important with targets that blend into the background, and when shooting in low light. The general rule of thumb is that you want at least one power per hundred yards of range. So for 1000 yard shot you theoretically want a 10x scope. As Tom Sotis says, ”rules and thumbs are made to be broken”. I’ve used 3x scopes at 600 yards and 6x at 800 yards without any trouble. On the flip side I’ve used a 25x scope at 1240 yards and had some difficulty seeing the target. It depends on the lighting conditions and how distinct the target is. Keep in mind that while more magnification can be helpful at longer ranges, too much magnification can make things difficult at closer ranges, particularly for quick shots. Variable power scopes help with this, obviously, but even then more power on the high end often means a higher magnification on the low end as well.

I wrote an article about high end optics that goes into some of these issues in more detail.

Caliber and Ammunition

As I found when I tried to get my .308 bolt gun to 1000 yards, caliber and ammunition selection can make a big difference in long range shooting.

There are several ways that they can affect long range shooting. Perhaps the most significant is supersonic range. As a rifle round slows down, it will eventually decelerate into the transonic zone. As it drops below 1300 feet per second the additional aerodynamic stress of passing through the sound barrier can cause it to wobble, which throws off it’s point of impact. This is particularly evident in longer (heavier) bullets, which are desirable for other reasons (see below). While hitting targets beyond a round‘s supersonic range is possible, it is much more difficult (as I demonstrated at Scott Vandiver’s class). A round that remains cleanly supersonic out beyond the distance we are trying to shoot is highly desirable.

A long supersonic range does not necessarily require a high muzzle velocity. Lighter bullets tend to have a lower ballistic coefficient, so they decelerate quicker. A small, high velocity caliber like the .220 Swift may have a lower supersonic range than a larger, slower caliber like .308 Winchester. Even within the same caliber, a heavier bullet with a higher BC that starts out slower will often have a longer supersonic range than a lighter bullet starting faster. The longest supersonic ranges generally come from larger calibers that pack enough power to get off to a fairly brisk start, such as the .300 Win Mag or .338 Lapua.

Supersonic range is largely pass-fail, either the bullet remains supersonic all the way to the target or it doesn’t. Wind drift, on the other hand, is much more gradual. A bit more wind drift will make a shot a bit more difficult, rather than going from easy to extremely difficult the way exceeding a round’s supersonic range will. That said, wind drift is still exceedingly important. There’s a reason I specifically mentioned when I was aided by a more experienced shooter’s wind call when I was talking about my own experience earlier. Wind is the one factor that we cannot completely measure or account for. Heavier, longer bullets generally perform better in the wind and make shooting at long range much easier.

Caliber and bullet choice will also effect your bullet drop. While many people spend a lot of time talking up flat shooting calibers, bullet drop is a much less important factor than supersonic range or wind drift, especially in the age of laser rangefinders. There are some contexts where having a very flat shooting rifle is important, such as shooting very small targets at unknown or poorly known distances (prairie dogs, for example). Versus a man-sized target, it is less of a factor.

You can make a much larger impact on supersonic range and wind drift by stepping up to a larger caliber (going from .308 to .300 Win Mag or .338 Lapua, for instance) than you can though bullet choice within a single caliber. You might be able to squeeze out another hundred yards or so of supersonic range through ammunition selection, but switching to a different caliber might buy you 500 yards or more.

Angular Accuracy

When people want to brag about their rifle, especially on the internet, they often trot out MOA (Minutes of Angle). How small of a group can it shoot? (usually at 100 yards, and usually from a bench). Despite all the hot air dedicated to angular accuracy, it’s not the most important factor when it comes to long range shooting. At 1000 yards I’d take a 1 MOA rifle with good optics, sufficient supersonic range, and a lower wind drift over a 0.5 MOA rifle that lacks these things any day of the week.

Part of the reason angular accuracy isn’t as important as a lot of people think is that accurate rifles are a lot more common in this day and age. Many years ago Townsend Whelen said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” These days, they’re not as interesting as they used to be. Thanks to better, more consistent metallurgy and CNC machining, off the shelf rifles are more accurate than ever. A bolt-action rifle you can buy today at Wal-Mart probably has angular accuracy that would have required a high-end custom rifle in Whelen’s day and many commercially available ARs exceed any semi-auto available during his lifetime (accurate shooters, however, have probably not gotten any more common).

Ammunition also has an important role to play in angular accuracy, and if anything, the improvement in commercially available ammunition is even more profound. Thanks to better manufacturing, decent commercial ammo that you can buy today would have met the standards for match grade half a century ago. Fifty years ago it would have required handloading to match the performance of today’s match grade ammo.

All that said, in a long range rifle you want enough angular accuracy so that the group size is significantly smaller than the target at that distance. Consider an 20" wide target at 1000 yards. In theory, if the group is centered on the target even a 2 MOA rifle will hit every time. In reality, flaws in our wind estimation and our ability to physically shoot the rifle mean the group probably isn’t going to be perfectly centered. If we were shooting that 2 MOA rifle at 1000 yards and the group was off center by even an inch, we would start dropping shots. A more accurate rifle can give us some margin for error. 1 MOA rifle gives us a 10" group at 1000 yards, allowing us to be off by up to 5 inches and still hit the target. More accurate rifles give even more wiggle room. A half MOA rifle would give 7.5 inches of leeway. This allows us to have some some imperfections in our shooting or our wind call and still make hits. In long range shooting sub-MOA rifle isn’t really a tool of laserlike perfection. It’s a tool that acknowledges our own imperfections.

Bringing it All Together

How these different factors come together to affect the shot depends on the range. Broadly speaking, longer shots are exponentially more difficult, requiring much more both in terms of both skill and equipment.

At 600 yards most rifles and calibers will be sufficient. Most common rifle cartridges will easily remain supersonic at this distance, though smaller calibers will benefit from a heavier bullet. The accuracy of most off the rack bolt guns and many good semi-autos will be sufficient. The area that may require some special attention will be the optic. As I found out in Pfleger’s class, a good adjustable scope or high quality BDC or graduated reticle is hugely helpful in dealing with bullet drop at these distances.

At 1000 yards most non-mangum rifle rounds will be running on the ragged edge of their supersonic range, if not beyond it. You may be able to nurse a .308 out to 1000, but it will require very carful ammunition selection. Most magnums will cover this distance with ease. A good optic with precise, repeatable adjustments is a must. Less accurate rifles will leave little margin for error.

At 1400 yards, even many magnum rifle rounds will be at or beyond their supersonic range. In addition, minimizing wind drift over the long flight time is critical. This is the domain of specialized long range calibers like .338 Lapua and ballistic monsters like the .50 BMG. Only the most accurate rifles need apply, any tiny errors or deficiencies will be magnified by the long distance. Optics need high magnification and exceptional optical clarity to pick out targets at this distance, as well as massive amounts of adjustment to handle bullet drop at these distance.

The takeaway here is that the equipment is not really graded against the shooter’s skill level, it’s graded against the shot the shooter is taking. If the shots are relatively simple (hitting a clearly visible man-sized target at 300 yards, for instance), then even the most capable shooter isn’t going to benefit much from a super-accurate magnum rifle with a high-dollar scope on it. Conversely, even a novice trying to make a 1000 yards shot is going to benefit from glass with proper adjustments and a round with enough supersonic range to reach the target. They may miss, but if they do at least they’ll know it was because of something they did, not because they didn’t have any indication of where to hold or the round went transonic and wobbled off target.