A few mornings ago, I was keeping watch in a tower stand when three does stepped into a cutover on a distant hillside. The rangefinder said it was over 500 yards and conditions couldn’t have been more perfect—the rising sun made the deer stand out, the angle eliminated any chance of saplings deflecting my bullet and it was perfectly calm. I was able to get a benchrest-like shooting position by sitting on the stand floor and bracing both the rifle’s stock and my elbow on a rail. The rising and falling crosshairs settled into a predictable rhythm.
The deer made their way across, I never touched the safety. Though I have made long shots and the conditions were perfect, I thought the enterprise ill advised. My Remington Model 700 Police, chambered in .308 Winchester, had delivered 4-inch groups with 175-grain match ammo at 500 yards. The rifle’s magazine held a different load, which I had only shot out to 400 yards. I didn’t know the drop at that distance.
We have all felt the urge to reach out and make a long shot, but there is a lot more to it than reading the chart on the ammo box and cranking up the scope. We owe it to the animal to precisely place our bullets and not guess or hope we make a good shot. Think twice before you take that long shot.
Ballistic charts are the first place most of us go wrong. They are generated with ballistic programs or the data gathered with long test barrels in perfect conditions. You have to spend some time on the bench and figure out what exactly your rifle does at extended ranges. I have found five and six inches of difference between what ballistic charts said and what my rifle delivered at 300 and 400 yards.
It is also imperative that you know the exact range to the target. With the development of inexpensive laser rangefinders, it’s fairly simple. Rangefinders are a required piece of equipment. My favorite .308 hunting load is a Federal Premium 165-grain boattail soft point. With a 200-yard zero, it is 25 inches low at 400 yards. At 500 yards, the bullet is 53 inches low, a drop of 28 inches. I’ve measured a dozen mature does this year and found them to be between 13 and 17 inches deep at the shoulders. Even if you could eliminate human error, missing the range by just 30 or 40 yards could lead to a miss or worse, a non-fatal hit.
Another essential piece of long-range equipment is a quality scope with target knobs or a reticle with multiple aiming points. You can’t hold off a target and expect to consistently hit that target. Keeping a fixed point in your scope on a distant target is difficult enough, let alone an imagined one. Most scope makers, including Swarovski, Leupold and Nikon, have developed clever “ballistic compensating” reticles to help make long shots. You have to read the directions, but with a little practice they are pretty quick and accurate.
The final and most important part of the long-range equation is practice. A couple of hundred rounds, fired from field positions, at long ranges will give you an idea of your effective range and help you learn to judge conditions like wind and their effects. Personally, my ability to keep shots within a 6-inch circle decides my effective range.