By Mark V. Lonsdale
ELR shooting can be both addictive and expensive, even though hit probabilities are often low. With a match like Ko2M in Raton, New Mexico, a competitor could drive a thousand miles to shoot just six shots and be eliminated. If a shooter does not hit the first target, he or she does not advance. In other forms of competition a competitor gets to shoot 80 to 250 rounds before the day is done.
So what’s the attraction when the rifles and ammo are so expensive? ELR is like hitting that one golf ball 300 yards on a driving range, shooters choose to remember that one impact on steel at a mile (1,760 yards), while failing to attach a percentage or hit probability factor. In ELR competitions, it is not unusual to see the hit count drop to below 10% at longer distances.
One of the reasons rookie shooters enjoy ELR shooting is that, unlike other shooting disciplines, everyone misses long range targets – even national and international champions. So when the rookie goes zero for five shots at 2,500 yards, he or she does not feel so bad, because a former champion probably also went zero for five.
If that same rookie shooter was to enter an F Class F-TR competition, where all the top shooters are shooting near perfect scores (200 out of 200 at 1,000 yards), his or her lowly score would be a little disheartening. However, the serious rookie shooter will take a low score as motivation to improve next time, and by having a quantifiable score to aim for, it is easier to track progress.
1,000 yard F Class range complete with wind flags
But with ELR shooting, it is almost impossible to have a quantifiable score to build on since chance plays such a big part of ELR shooting. Why is this? Simple answer – Wind. On a calm day, most top ELR shooters can go 5 for 5 at 2,500 yards, but on a windy day the scores drop dramatically. Unlike formal long range shooting disciplines, that are shot on a flat range with range flags to assist in reading wind, ELR matches have no down-range wind flags. ELR matches are also shot over irregular terrain replete with canyons, valleys, ridge-lines, draws and spurs. All of which contribute to unpredictable and often unseen wind changes in both velocity and direction.
As an example, at the 2019 FCSA ELR Record Challenge at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, not one shooter was able to hit the 2,300 yard target because of tough weather and wind conditions, and an inability to spot misses. This harkened back to the first Applied Ballistics ELR Central World Record attempt in Pahrump, NV, January 2018. Only one shooter, Nate Stallter with Team Tubb, was able to go 3 for 3 at 2,011 yards on a 36”x36” target, and no one hit 2,500 yards. Again, why? The single biggest reason was a strong, variable cross-wind and no wind indicators down-range.
This is what makes ELR shooting both exciting and frustrating. Just like watching a high-roller gambling on the roulette wheel, spectators all want to see him or her win, but the gambler has no control on where the wheel will stop. It is nerve racking, but it is still all chance. With ELR shooting, everyone wants to hit the extreme long range targets, but the wind becomes the element of chance. Thanks to Applied Ballistics and Kestrel Ballistics, many of the variables such as bullet drop, spin drift, and Coriolis have become predictable, but down-range wind is still an art, not a science.
While serious ELR competitors invest heavily in rifles, optics, ammunition, and accessories, they are still at the mercy of the elements. Even the best shooters in the world cannot guarantee hits at 2,500+ yards when the winds are strong and changeable.
At best, if the shooter or spotter can spot a miss impact in the dirt or on a rock face, he or she can adjust aim and shoot quickly before the wind changes. But when the bullet’s flight time is several seconds, there is a high probability that the wind will have changed again, leaving the shooter chasing the wind for an elusive impact on steel. As little as a 1 mile per hour wind change can put the bullet off the target, but reading the difference between an 8 mph wind and a 10 mph wind at 1.5 miles (2,640 yards) is all but impossible. As an example, a 1 mph 3 or 9 o’clock wind moves my .375 CheyTac 0.55 MOA laterally at 1,000 yards, but 2 MOA at 2,500 yards. That’s 53 inches and a complete miss with a flight time of 4.6 seconds.
Hill Country Rifles .375 CheyTac built on a Stiller’s TAC408 action and McMillan A5 SuperMagnum stock.
As an example of just how changeable winds can be in a mountain environment, at the 2019 FCSA 1.5 Mile Challenge, the 2,268-yard target was on a rock face up on the side of a ridgeline. My first shot was a hit so I reloaded and fired a second shot as quickly as possible. The second shot impacted about 20 feet to the right of the target, so obviously a strong left to right wind, from 9 o’clock, had picked up, even though wind at the shooting position was right to left (from 3 o’clock). My spotter called the miss, I made sight adjustments and fired again. The third shot was an impact, so again, I fired again quickly. The forth shot impacted the rock about 8-10 feet above the target, indicating a tail wind coming straight up the valley and then up the rock face.
Target locations for the 2019 FCSA ELR Match at Raton, NM
The lesson here is that none of these wind changes were visible or predictable because of the uneven mountainous terrain. I was just fortunate to get some hits. Another shooter could shoot ten minutes later and have no wind at all. This is the nature of long range shooting and the fact that some shooters may have little to no wind early in the morning, but those slotted to shoot later in the day may have hellacious winds. The only thing predictable about Raton is that the wind picks up later in the morning so everyone hopes for an early morning luck of the draw.
Struggling with Raton’s tough conditions at the 2019 FCSA ELR Record Attempts. Rifle is a .416 Barrett built on a BAT EXS action, Bartlein barrel, and McMillan Beast-2 stock, topped with a NightForce ATACR 7-35x56mm
Now don’t get me wrong – there is still a lot of skill required to be a successful ELR shooter, but even world-class wind coaches, who have proven themselves in 1,000-yard F-TR competition, nationally and internationally, struggle with the fickle winds of ELR mountain shooting. But the stats show that we are getting better. In earlier Ko2M competitions, 50% of the shooters were eliminated after the second target at only 1,556 yards. In 2018, only 21% of shooters hit Target #3 in the qualifying rounds, and only 9.7% hit Target #1 in the Finals. But this year, 2019, 82% of the shooters hit Target #1 at 1,692 yards, and 50% hit Target #2 at 1,891 yards. But in the finals, no one managed to hit the 2-mile target (3,525 yards).
Team McMillan at the 2018 King of 2 Miles match. Targets ranged from 1 to 2 miles.
As for fundamental marksmanship, one still needs to be a highly competent competitive shooter to be successful in ELR. The rookie shooter should keep in mind that the ELR Central targets are 36”x36” which is only 1 MOA at 3,500 yards. So if you can’t hold 1 MOA at 300, 400, and 500 yards, you will definitely not be doing it at 2,200, 3,200, or 3,500 yards. The Ko2M 2-mile target is 48”x60” which is still only 1.3×1.63 MOA. So even with no wind, a competitor needs to have good combination of rifle, optics, ammo, shooter, and spotter – with bullet BC, stability, and wind-bucking characteristics being extremely important.
To wrap this up, just like on the driving range in golf, everyone remembers that perfect 300 yard drive straight down the fairway, but chooses not to remember all the slices and hacks that went out-of-bounds. It is the same in ELR shooting. Everyone remembers the one hit they got at 2,000 yards, but don’t mention the ten or twelve shots it took to walk the bullets in. Similarly, hitting a 3,500 yard plate once, under ideal conditions, does not necessarily make one a Ko2M contender. It may fire up his or her enthusiasm for ELR shooting, but on match day, under less than ideal terrain and wind conditions, only a small percentage of shooters make it to the finals.
.416 Barrett ELR rifle
Final recommendation – take every opportunity to shoot in variable windy conditions over uneven terrain. And you don’t have to burn out the barrels on your ELR rifles. 1,000-yard shooting with a .308 Win or 6.5 Creedmoor is more economical and still excellent practice and experience.
Parting shot – ELR shooting is a low probability game requiring a lot of skill and more than a little luck.
A winning combination with Cutting Edge Bullets