These days, we talk about 1,000 yards like it was nothing, but I can clearly remember the first time I hit a water-filled Coke can past 300 yards. It was more than a decade ago, and after that shot, I thought my brand-spanking-new Model 700 Varmint Synthetic was a death ray and my shooting skills were on par with Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock. Most riflemen today would hardly bat an eye. Snipers, benchrest, and F-Class shooters not only hit targets at three times that range, but they stack shot after shot into groups I would be proud of at a paltry 500 yards.
Long-range shooting requires long glass, and many scope makers have responded by producing all kinds of high-powered optics. Sorting through them all left me scratching my head, so I called Bob Hart, a friend who has competed in a wide variety of long-range competitions, to help figure out what was important and what was not. Hart is a fourth generation gunsmith who has won national and international titles in benchrest competitions. His shop, Robert W. Hart & Son, builds all kinds of rifles, but long-range and benchrest rifles are his passion.
Hart said the first consideration is choosing between variable and fixed power. Always searching for ways to eliminate variables, benchrest shooters usually stick with a fixed-power scope with the degree of magnification depending on the match. Weaver’s fixed-power T Series scopes can be had in 36X, 24X, 10X, or even 6X. Tactical and F-Class shooters should keep their options open.
“Matches are held in all kinds of weather, and on hot days, the mirage can be so bad that it obscures the target,” Hart said. “You can’t hit what you can’t see, so you want the option of less magnification.”
Long-glass power ranges are generally much wider and reach much higher than those found on sporting scopes. Nikon’s latest entry into long glass, the Monarch 8-32X 50mm SF, starts at 8X and winds all the way up to 32X. Leupold’s Mark 4 LR/T series is extremely popular with target shooters and starts at a sporting-like 3.5-10X range. That range is great for snipers and marksmen who might shoot out to 700 or 800 yards away but are more likely to see shots well inside 200 yards. Field of view is more important than magnification. The 6.5-20X LR/T model is more appropriate for long-range competition since it allows a more precise placement of the crosshair.
While wide power ranges offer some big benefits, there is a catch. The eye relief often changes from one end of the power range to the other, and it is pretty obvious that shifting one’s head back and forth on the riflestock is a little less than consistent and not good shooting form. Hart said buying a quality scope will help eliminate some of the eye relief change, but a competitor has to factor in point-of-impact shifts when changing power in a match.
Reticle choices abound, and it seems everyone has their own proprietary, long-range system. Known-distance shooters should keep it simple, while tactical-match shooters might have a real need for mil-dots or ranging reticles when shooting unknown distances against the clock.
“I have two favorites for 1,000-yard competitions, the 1/8 minute-of-angle dot or fine crosshair,” Hart said. “Of those two, the dot is my pick. It allows you to put a circle inside a circle at 1,000 yards and gives you a 360-degree reference point while the crosshair gives you four quadrants.”
Parallax adjustment, in the form of a side-focus knob or adjustable objective, is another great feature for long-range competition. It allows a shooter to fine-tune his setup for optimal accuracy. Hart prefers the side knob since the adjustment is closer, quicker, and does not require wiggling out of firing position.
Target turrets are must have, since wind and elevation corrections are a big part of the long-range game. Clicks should be positive, and turret markings should make it easy to track how far the reticle has been moved away from zero. While sporting scopes usually have 1/4-minute adjustments, a competition scope should be equipped with 1/8-minute clicks.
“It takes a 5- or 6-inch, 10-shot group to win a 1,000-yard benchrest competition, so precise adjustments are critical,” Hart said. “A 1/4-minute-of-angle click will move the bullet 2.5 inches at 1,000 yards. A 1/8-minute-of-angle click will only move the point of impact 1.25 inches. You must have that ability for precise adjustment built into your scope to win.”
Before heading out to any competition, Hart tests a scope by “shooting the square” at 100 yards, no matter how much the scope costs. While a $1,000-plus price tag guarantees a certain level of quality, occasionally bad scopes slip out of the best factories. Because return to zero and moving the point of impact precisely are as critical as bullet and barrel consistency, it makes sense to double-check a scope before paying an entry fee. Since erector springs can wear out, old scopes are occasionally tested for function as well.
Just like a house built on sand or stone, quality bases and rings are important. Target rifles are heavy, as are target-scope tubes. Under recoil, inertia wants the scope to sit still as the rifle recoils rearward. This puts a lot of stress on the optic, especially those with long scope bodies.
“On a competition rifle, I use the best rings and bases money can buy,” Hart said. “I take my time and make sure the scope is properly mounted. The rings must be aligned and lapped so there is no stress on the tube. Putting a witness mark on the scope body just ahead of the front ring will let you know if the scope creeps through the rings under recoil. The change can be tiny, but that’s all it takes to miss at 1,000 yards.”
Tapered bases are a good investment for known-distance shooters or guys who know they are going long with their rifle. A scope works best in the middle of its adjustment range, but shooting at most 1,000-yard competitions would have standard base/ring/scope combinations bottomed out. Hart uses a rear base that is .002 inch taller–around 25 MOA–than the front base to get most 6.5mm and fast .30-caliber rounds relatively close to the adjustment center at 1,000 yards.
The almighty dollar usually is the number one factor when purchasing any optic, and long-range competitors have to scrape and save just like the rest of us. But a penny saved can mean a match lost since long-range scopes essentially drive a rifle and shooter to the winner’s circle. Small touches, like extra-low dispersion glass in the aforementioned Nikon Monarch, will provide an extra layer of optical quality to give a competitor the slight edge he needs to shoot .001 inch better than the next guy on the firing line. Save the pennies and buy the best, especially in the long-range game.