Going Long On Game
September 23, 2010
Few topics stir up as much controversy among hunters as shooting big-game animals at "long range."
An accurate, flat-shooting rifle and a good optical sight are essential for making long shots. With the aid of an accurate .300 WSM, 180-grain AccuBond and a good ranging reticle, Greg dropped this fine B.C. billy with a single shot from 602 yards.
Few topics stir up as much controversy among hunters as shooting big-game animals at "long range." What constitutes "long" varies widely. Some consider anything over 200 yards to be way out there, while others may not bat an eye at anything shy of 400 yards. In my opinion, the variables are too many to reduce the subject to a few absolutes.
Before I go any further, let me digress for a paragraph to say this: You should never shoot farther than you feel absolutely comfortable and confident shooting. Whether it's 100 or 500 yards, if you aren't confident of where that bullet is going to go when you squeeze the trigger, don't squeeze it. A bad hit on a target is one thing, but a wounded and lost animal is inexcusable. Along those lines, refrain from taking long shots, no matter how skilled you are, if you can possibly get closer.
Accurate, long-range shooting requires a good skill-set and the right equipment. For the best results, mix a skilled shooter with an accurate, flat-shooting rifle; quality ammunition; and a quality optic, preferably one with a ranging reticle or target turrets.
Most hunters have different definitions of accuracy. For some, 1.5 inches is plenty good, whereas others are happy with a gun that keeps 'em in a pie plate at 100. But those who plan to hunt where shots are long should not consider a gun that doesn't shoot well-under 1 inch at 100 yards. My own requirement is 1/2 MOA or better for a true long-range rig.
A good trigger and a comfortable, stable stock that fits are "musts" on any long-range rig. A bolt-action repeater with a medium-weight barrel of 23 to 26 inches is ideal. Shorter barrels handle great but give up too much in the velocity department with the magnum cartridges I prefer; more than 26 inches is too much of a good thing. One reason I like the WSM cartridges so much is that I can get pretty close to maximum velocity with an easy-handling 23-inch tube.
A long-range hunting rig should be chambered for a cartridge that retains enough energy--1200 ft-lbs is the generally accepted minimum--to do the job at the shooter's self-imposed maximum range and have a flat enough trajectory to help take some of the guess work out of figuring elevation holds. Though I am a huge fan of the .257 Weatherby for deer and pronghorns at long range, the increased energy and wind-bucking abilities of the .30-caliber magnums make them great choices.
A quality bullet that will perform as designed at a wide range of impact velocities is also essential. Match your bullet to the game and cartridge. It should be tough enough to withstand a close-range impact with a meaty shoulder at magnum velocities but still open up way out there. Hornady's InterBond, Nosler's AccuBond, Swift's Scirocco II, Barnes's Triple-Shock, Winchester's XP3, and Federal's new tipped Trophy Bonded are all excellent choices for big game.
Heavy-for-caliber bullets, regardless of the game you're hunting, are also a must. They buck the wind better, retain more energy, and actually shoot flatter at extreme range than lighter pills of the same design.
For example, Federal's 165-grain Barnes TSX load leaves the muzzle at 3130 fps and generates 3589 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. The 180-grain TSX load has a muzzle velocity of 2989 fps and 3549 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. At 500 yards, the 180-grain bullet has a significant advantage in muzzle energy--1638 ft-lbs for the 180-grain bullet versus 1425 ft-lbs for the 165-grainer--and it has 2.9 inches less of wind drift than the 165-grain bullet. The 180-grain TSX will drop 1.3 inches more, but drop is a lot easier to dope than wind, so the 180-grain TSX gets my vote every day.
The difference in drop and wind drift is much more compelling if we drop down to 150-grain bullets of similar construction, but the advantages of heavy bullets are plain to see, even with a slight, 15-grain difference in bullet weight.
The optic is the final piece of the long-range rifle puzzle. Bright, clear glass and a rugged design that won't lose its zero are absolutely essential. An adjustable objective is also necessary for eliminating parallax, which can mean the difference between a clean kill and a missed or wounded animal at long range.
A quality ranging reticle or target turrets take a lot of the guesswork out of shooting beyond 300 yards. Long-range reticles from makers like Burris, Leupold, Nightforce, Nikon, Shepherd, Swarovski, and Zeiss have aiming points designed to hit within a circle of a given size at a given range. What each of those reticles' lines or circles means varies according to caliber and the power setting of the scope. On the other hand, custom reticles like those from Premier Reticles and Leupold's Custom Shop are designed to be spot-on at specific ranges with a given rifle and load.
Target turrets are excellent for long-range shooting, provided you use a quality scope with adjustments that track properly and return to zero. You can zero out the factory turrets after sighting-in and figure out your own clicks, or you can go with a custom BDC turret from Leupold. I've used both with great success, but I am a fan of Leupold's custom BDC turret for hunting.
I have several dedicated long-range rigs. For pronghorns, I rely on my .257 Weatherby. Though it's a fairly lightweight rifle, it has a 26-inch barrel and shoots well under a half-inch at 100 yards with 115-grain Barnes X-Bullets. Its Leupold scope has a custom dot reticle calibrated for dead-on holds from 200 to 600 yards. Last year, I used it to smoke a fine Dall ram at 488 yards.
For the majority of my hunting in wide-open spaces, I rely on a trio of .300 Magnums. The first, a custom number in .300 WSM, has a 23-inch barrel and a Swarovski scope with the TDS reticle, which is, sadly, no longer in production. With 180-grain AccuBonds and a 200-yard zero, its progressively wider bars offer a dead-on hold and 10-mile-per-hour crosswind hold-offs from 200 to 600 yards.
I also use a 24-inch-barreled .300 Winchester Magnum and a .300 Weatherby with a 26-inch tube. One wears a Nikon Monarch scope with Nikon's BDC reticle, and the .300 Weathe
rby has a target turret-equipped Leupold scope. With my favorite 180-grain loads, I can easily ring a 10-inch gong at 600 yards with either rifle. Like my .300 WSM, they are capable of cleanly taking everything from whitetails to wildebeest as far as I feel comfortable shooting.
Going long on game should not be undertaken lightly. But in the hands of a skilled shooter, the right gear can help minimize mistakes, which is the key to every hunter's goal--a clean, humane kill.