By Mark V. Lonsdale, STTU
Back when IPSC shooting was in its infancy, a shooter asked current world champion, Ray Chapman, “What was the secret to good shooting?” His answer was brilliant in its simplicity – “Don’t move the gun when you pull the trigger.” To this day I still use that quote. I also like the comment, “Be brilliant at the basics.”
Shooting is one of those sports that requires a shooter to work continuously to first develop, and then maintain, solid foundational skills. For long range rifle shooting this becomes even more important since distance magnifies errors in both fundamentals and equipment. The first goal for a new long range shooter should be to hold 1 MOA, or 1 inch for each 100 yards, out passed 1,000 yards. This process begins with a solid, stable, repeatable, natural body position behind the rifle; consistent contact or pressure on the stock; a relaxed disposition; a smooth, clean trigger press; and a stable follow through. Successful shooters develop a pre-shot and shot ritual that encompasses all of these including breathing cycle and respiratory pause.
Think about it – if you change the angle of your body behind the rifle, change the cheek pressure, or change the shoulder pressure, this will change how the rifle reacts under recoil. This explains why top F-Class open division shooters have almost no contact with the recoil pad since they want the rifle to free recoil uniformly on the front rest and rear bag. But that’s F-Class – the benchrest of prone shooting.
For most other styles of long range shooting – recreational, professional, or hunting – it requires a more solid control of the rifle. So let’s look at some helpful entry level tips on equipment and training.
- Invest in good equipment. If you start with a high quality rifle and scope that consistently shoots sub-half minute, then you have eliminated many variables and excuses. You can no longer blame your tools and there is a level of confidence and mental well-being that comes from knowing you have top of the line equipment. The rifle caliber will depend on the type of shooting you want to do and the ranges you want to shoot. If you plan on shooting F-TR or PRS tactical division then you will invariably go with .308 Win, which is also a good caliber for a beginner to cut his or her long range teeth on. 6.5 Creedmoor is also popular because of the affordability of factory rifles and factory match ammunition; 300 WinMag and 7mm Mag remain popular with the long range hunting community; and .338 Lapua Magnum or .375 CheyTac are good starters for ELR shooting out passed 1,500 yards. In planning a budget for your long range rifle, don’t skimp on the optics. A high quality scope with proven reliability for long range shooting is an essential, with many shooters spending more on their scope than their rifle. Quality rails and rings are also an essential.
Remington 700 .308 Win built for PRS/NRL shooting with McMillan A3-5 adjustable stock, Badger Ordnance M5 trigger guard, detachable magazine, and 20 MOA rail, Timney Calvin Elite trigger, APA Little Bastard muzzle brake, TAB Gear sling, and Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 scope. Action work and NP3 by Robar Guns
2. Practice more than the other guys. There is a direct correlation between how many hours of structured training you do, how well you shoot, and how quickly you will improve. There is no substitute for disciplined trigger time, along with a little mentoring and coaching from an experienced shooter. As a side note, when I was coming up through the ranks of IPSC shooting and won a club level match, my fellow club members would accuse me of cheating because I practiced several times each week, while they only shot the matches one or two times a month. But the lesson here is that, while I progressed to the US top ten, they never evolved passed club level standards. Obviously the cost of practice ammunition is a concern for many shooters, but practicing positions, dry firing, and practice with a .22LR rifle can be low cost and beneficial.
Author, on left, with Col. Jeff Cooper, Bill Rogers and John Sayle at the 1984 IPSC European Championships in France
3. Practice until you can’t get it wrong. In any high performance sport, athletes train until they transcend the conscious thought process and arrive at a point where the neuro-muscle memory is deeply ingrained. In other words, if your brain is consciously focused on your cheek pressure, grip pressure, or body position, then you will not be handling all the other things such as sight picture, wind changes, and trigger release. The biomechanics of shooting must become second nature so that you can focus on the variables down range. When it comes to body position, the shooter should strive for the ideal position behind the rifle, but you will also see many top shooters with unorthodox prone positions. So the key lesson here is, while the body position may be unorthodox, the position must be the same every time you address the rifle. Accuracy is the product of uniformity.
4. Range the targets. Mid-range and long range matches are shot at 600 and 1,000 yards. There are also other disciplines where the target distance is a known constant. But for PRS and long range hunting, the targets could be anywhere from 200 to a 1,000 yards and not at even 100-yard increments. You could be looking at 360, 572, 640 and 820 all in the same stage, so you must accurately range the targets to eliminate that variable. For extreme long range shooting (ELR), target ranging becomes even more important since the bullet is not flying flat but plunging on a steep angle. Being 10 yards off could cause the bullet to dive into the dirt to the front or rear of the target. For the King of 2 Miles (Ko2M) the targets were at 1550 yards, 1715, 1890, 1990, 2670, 3026, and 2 miles
2017 Ko2M champion, Derek Rodgers (kneeling left) with Team Applied Ballistics. Rifle is a custom built .375 CheyTac in a McMillan Beast stock and topped with a Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 scope. Ammunition used was Cutting Edge 400 grain Lazers loaded into Peterson brass.
5. Invest in quality ammunition. While there are some excellent factory match grade ammunition on the market, the top shooters invariable hand load for accuracy. So the investment is in both time and funds. Quality and consistency are critical when selecting or hand loading long range ammunition, with matches being won or lost on the loading bench. The conscientious reloader will hand weigh all the components into batches for consistency, particularly the projectiles. As with anything made by machines, tolerances can change. As an example, I was recently testing a rifle and chronographing ammunition using Federal GMM 168 grain SMKs. When I ran out of one lot number, then switched to another, there was a 60 fps jump in muzzle velocity. If I had mixed those two lot numbers the vertical error at 600 or 1,000 yards would be huge. So part of the skill in hand loading is to minimize the variation in muzzle velocity. This can be affected by not only the powder load but also neck tension as a result of the brass hardness or brass thickness. Bryan Litz’s book, Accuracy and Precision for Long Range Shooting, is strongly recommended to really understand the vertical hit or miss probabilities with various grades of ammunition, and the horizontal errors caused by variable winds at various distances. Also invest in a good chronograph – essential for load analysis and collecting MV data.
A winning combination: Cutting Edge bullets and Peterson brass
6. Learn to read wind. While bullet weight, design, and velocity all work to minimize the effect of wind at longer distances, the shooter must still come close when it comes to estimating wind or recognizing wind changes. Where the wind may move a conventional projectile 36” laterally at 1,000 yards, for example, a long range VLD may be moved only half of that. But even being 18” off will still put the shooter out of the medals or trophies. The Kestrel wind meters have become a standard for long range shooters, and are definitely a great shooting aid, but they are still an aid not a final solution. Keep in mind that the Kestrel is giving you the wind at your shooting position, not down valley, mid-range, or at the target. The only way to learn to read wind is to make your best estimate based on measurement and observation, then shooting and logging the results on target. Over time, the shooter will develop “wind sense” which is a combination of measuring the wind at the shooting position, observing the wind down range, and the hard earned experience of shooting in variable conditions.
Kestrel Elite 5700 with Applied Ballistics analytics is currently the best aid to reading and estimating wind and atmospherics. Once the shooters rifle data is inputted into the Kestrel, it will also provide wind adjustments.
7. Learn from successful long range shooters. With all the information on the internet and dozens of books on the market, there is no shortage of information out there. The challenge for the rookie is in separating the gems of real wisdom from the volumes of rumor or uninformed opinion from non-shooters and armchair experts. You are not interested in the opinion of the guy that shot one good group, one time, at 1,200 yards, under perfect conditions. You are looking for the hard data from the champions, with years of experience, and the dedicated individuals who are on the range every week testing and developing useful data. It is also a big mistake to post on a facebook page, “What’s the best rifle?” “What’s the best caliber?” “What’s the best scope” because you will get a hundred conflicting opinions from individuals who probably have experience with only one of those. The questions need to be very specific and detailed including your budget. “Hey guys, I am getting into long range shooting and thinking of shooting in PRS/NRL matches. Can you recommend a good set-up that will work from 100 to 1,000 yards? My budget is $4,000 for the rifle and scope.”
8. Work with a spotter. Under recoil, it is not unusual to lose sight of the target and the impact. This is where it helps to have a spotter on a spotting scope calling your impacts. That said, there is a lot that a shooter can do to stay on target throughout the shot cycle from discharge to impact. The first is body position. If you are in line with the rifle with a squared shoulder pressure, then the rifle should recoil in a straight line and not hop to the right or left. The next is a heavy barrel since heavy barreled rifles will jump less than a light sporting barrel. The third is a good muzzle brake. Muzzle brakes are not permitted in F-Class and F-TR but for PRS and ELR they have become almost standard. Lastly, if you can set your targets in front of dirt berms where a miss will kick up dirt to the right or left, high or low, then it will be easier to adjust for elevation and wind. If the target is set in front of scrub brush or open fields then it becomes more difficult to call the miss except for trace. The other option is to invest in steel targets that are so big you can almost guarantee getting on target.
US FTR Team member, Paul Phillips, spotting for Derek Rodgers at the Ko2M in Raton, NM
Once you are brilliant at the basics, it comes down to two things – the quality of your reloads and how you handle stress. Or to quote Derek Rodgers, “Matches can be won or lost on the reloading bench or between the ears”
Stay tuned for future articles on long range shooting, rifle builds, and training development.