By Mark V. Lonsdale
“Prior Preparation and Planning is Everything”
For the novice, becoming a proficient precision long range rifle shooter is a process that takes considerable time and commitment. It is not learned or mastered in one day or one week. It takes time to assemble and tune a precision rifle system, including rifle, scope, mounts, bipod, rear bag, etc. It takes time to find an ammunition or load that provides optimal results in that particular rifle, caliber, and barrel twist. It takes time to master the fundamentals of prone precision shooting. It takes time to understand long range environmentals, particularly wind, and to become comfortable with ballistics solvers such as Applied Ballistics and the Kestrel 5700 Elite.
So, to this end, as a trainer, I prefer to schedule at least a couple of weeks between each range session to give the students time to upgrade rifles, scopes, mounts, ammunition, and accessories. If the class was run in a contiguous 3-4 day block of instruction, a student turning up with an inferior rifle or scope and cheap ammunition is going to be frustrated for the entire course. For example, I recently had an inexperienced student, who had a factory .338 Lapua Magnum that he had not fired since buying it, and turned up with the least expensive hunting grade ammo. As a result, his groups averaged 3”-5” at 100 yards – definitely not in the realm of precision shooting.
My standard format for a basic precision rifle class, if time and location allow, is as follows:
- Classroom Session #1: 3-hour orientation with 2 to 4 weeks before the first range session
- Range Session #1: 1 day range session with the goal of reviewing rifle set-up, zeroing rifles at 100 yards, logging rifle and ammo data, working on prone shooting fundamentals, becoming familiar with scope functions, working on communication between spotter and shooter, then hitting steel at 200 and 300 yards.
- Classroom Session #2: A one hour classroom session to review lessons learned from the range session and suggested equipment and ammo changes.
- Range Session #2: (2 weeks later) 1 day range session to review equipment changes, re-confirm zero at 100 yards, work on communication between spotter and shooter, run a box drill and tall target test to evaluate scopes and mounting, confirm muzzle velocities with a chronograph, hit steel at 200 and 300 yards, shoot for groups on paper at 300 yards.
- Range Session #3: (2 weeks later) 1 day range session working from 100 to 600 yards
- Range Session #4: 1 day range session working from 300 to 1,000 yards
However I recently ran a precision rifle class where not one shooter came prepared for the range session, even though the joining instructions were quite clear. The student requirements in the joining instruction and flier stated the following.
Each shooter requires:
- A rifle capable of sub-MOA accuracy (sub 1 inch groups at 100 yards)
- A quality scope with positive repeatable click adjustments and target turrets
- Match-grade ammunition or similar quality reloads (capable of sub-MOA accuracy)
- Bipod and rear bag
- Data log book or note book and pen/pencil
.308 Win rifle suitable for precision rifle shooting. Robar blueprinted Rem 700 action, Bartlein Heavy Palma barrel with muzzle brake, McMillan A3-5 adjustable stock, Badger bottom metal, Leupold Mark 4 M5 6.5-20x scope, Kestrel 5700 Elite with AB ballistics
A month before the first range session we had run a 3-hour classroom session on the basics of precision rifle shooting where we covered the importance and features of an accurate rifle, quality scope, and match-grade ammunition. I distributed a list of recommended items such as a shooting mat, spotting scope, rangefinder, ballistics solver (Kestrel), and also recommended that the class familiarize themselves with a ballistics app such as Applied Ballistics. But these were not mandatory for the first range session. The key items were an accurate rifle and match-grade ammunition.
With all this information, we had the following issues at the first range session:
- Brand new stock rifles and scopes that had never been fired or zeroed
- Factory rifles with lightweight hunting grade barrels, not match barrels
- Factory hunting ammunition shooting 3” at 100 yards, instead of match ammo
- Reloads of unknown age and quality given to the shooter by a friend
- Unfamiliarity with scopes or scope adjustments
- No tools or Allen wenches to zero scope turrets
- Old scopes that had been in storage for decades with minimal elevation range
- Cheap bipods with no tilt capability
- Tall bipods too tall for prone shooting
- Half the class bought large Caldwell shooting bags and no bipods
- Rear bags that did not worked well with their front rest or bipod
- Cheap flat scope bases instead of quality 20 MOA bases
- No one had generated a ballistics chart or dope card for their rifle
- Most did not know the BC of their bullet or MV of their rifles
All this points to a lack of commitment and attention to detail, and be assured, precision shooting is all about sweating the details.
So what should have been a precision long range rifle class became “rifle shooting 101” with several students becoming frustrated with the poor performance of their rifles, scopes, and ammunition. In addition, any of the data or dope collected with that rifle/scope/ammunition combination was of little to no value since they will need to upgrade their gear before the next class. The only benefit for the hunter using his hunting rifle and ammunition, is he or she will better learn the limitations of that rig – probably 300 yards. Keep in mind that a 5” group at 100 yards will open up to over 15” at 300 yards. But this was not a hunter rifle class – it was precision rifle.
6.5 Creedmoor PRS rifle with Atlas Tactical action, Bartlein Medium Palma barrel, McMillan A6 adjustable stock, topped with a Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25x scope.
One thing that I have learned over the decades is that shooters who shoot well enjoy the classes, but shooters who shoot poorly do not enjoy the experience. In most cases poor shooting can be traced back to poor equipment, substandard ammo, and lack of preparation. This makes shooter evaluation difficult. When the rookie shooter shoots a 3”-4” group at 100 yards with a factory rifle and factory hunting ammunition, it is hard to tell if the rifle or ammo is inaccurate or if the student is just a poor shooter. When the same student is shooting a match-grade rifle with match-grade ammunition, then any errors can be attributed to the shooter. This is why the foundation of precision rifle training is a precision rifle and ammo.
One of the contributing problems is gun shop salesmen who know nothing about precision rifle shooting, apart from what they have read in magazines, but keen to sell the unsuspecting buyer whatever they have in stock, as opposed to what is best suited to precision shooting. For the hunter, a lightweight rifle that shoots a 3”-5” group at 100 yards may be acceptable since this is still within the vital area of a deer. But it won’t work for long range small varmint shooting or precision shooting. The same is true for ammunition and bipods.
If a gun shop doesn’t cater to precision shooters, evidenced by stocking precision rifles, high end scopes and mounts, match-grade ammunition, and a range of quality accessories, then the buyer should not depend on that salesman for advice on precision rifle shooting. This requires that the novice precision shooter do some research and talk to experienced precision shooters before investing in a new rig.
Another issue is the comparative cost of an accurate precision rifle versus a stock hunting rifle. There are several factory rifles in the $1,000 to $1,500 range that may work for the rookie, but most serious precision shooters invest around $2,500+ in their rifles and another $2,000+ in the scope. Now this may seem a lot to a shooter new to precision shooting, but compare it to other activities such as motorcycling, snowmobiling, jet-skiing, off-roading, and it is a lot less than you would spend on a $14K Harley that you only ride one day a week in summer.
Keep in mind that the rifle is not the most expensive part of precision shooting. It is the time commitment to reloading and training and the cost of ammunition and travel to out-of-state matches. And if you get into ELR shooting, then the costs increase considerably with .338 LM at $5 per round, .375 CT at $7, and .416 Barrett at $10 (less when you begin reloading the brass).
.416 Barrett ELR rifle built on a BAT EXS action, Bartlein custom barrel, in a McMillan Beast 2 stock, topped with a NightForce ATACR 7-35x56mm scope
To really benefit from a precision rifle course, and to enjoy the process, invest in a precision rifle, a high end scope, and quality ammunition. On the latter, handloading for your particular rifle is the preferred option. Also attend some classroom lectures or observe at precision shooting matches before investing heavily in a new rifle and scope. You will find that other precision shooters – FTR, PRS, or ELR – are friendly and welcoming of new shooters.
See you on the range.
.375 CheyTac built by Hill Country Rifles on a Stiller’s TAC408 action, McMillan A5 SuperMagnum stock, topped with a NightForce ATACR 7-35x56mm scope