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LONG-RANGE PRECISION SHOOTING

Interest in long-range precision rifle shooting now stands at an all-time high. Yet, the vast majority of prospective aficionados with whom I speak all say the same thing – they'd love to get involved in it, but haven't any idea how to go about it. "It's too hard – I'm not a good enough shot and I don't know how to get started," is perhaps the most common response. But is it that difficult? Is long-range precision shooting so tough that only a few expert marksmen can handle it?

The answer is simple – no, it isn't. With proper equipment selection, set-up, load development and practice, long-range precision riflery isn't nearly as difficult as most believe. The problem is that they don't know too many fundamental things that critically influence performance, thus fostering the idea that it's too tough for the average guy.

For the last seven years, I've been involved in this kind of shooting almost full-time. And, along the way, I've discovered not only how to achieve the kind of results we all dream of, but, I think, broken some new ground as well. Like any other kind of shooting endeavor, long-range work first involves a careful analysis – defining the questions before seeking answers, if you will.

Often, this isn't as easy or simple as you might think. For example, what is long-range? 400-meters, 500-meters? 750-meters? A thousand, perhaps? As inane as this might at first appear, the question must be answered before you can proceed efficiently. The question means different things to different shooters. Thus, a better way of phrasing it might be, "What is long-range precision shooting to you?"

If your needs dictate a maximum engagement range of no more than 500-meters, you can include some of the smaller cartridges in your list of possibilities. For this kind of work, the .223 (5.56x45mm NATO), .22-250 Remington, .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .257 Roberts are capable of excellent performance.

If you require longer-range capability, say out to 600-meters, the .257 Ackley, .308 Winchester (7.62x51mm NATO) and .30-06 are good choices. Both are capable of excellent accuracy and possess satisfactory terminal ballistic capability out to this distance.

Ranges past 600-meters require a flatter trajectory than most cartridges can produce, so cartridges like the .257 Weatherby, .270 Winchester, .270 Weatherby, 7mm STW, .30-338, .300 Winchester and .300 Weatherby are a better choice.

Yes, I know that some great shots at these distances have occasionally been made with lesser cartridges, but from my perspective, accuracy alone isn't enough, especially against living targets. As far as I'm concerned, terminal ballistics – the cartridge's inherent wound-producing capability – are just as important. Almost any well-conceived load is capable of sufficient accuracy to hit targets at distances well beyond its terminal ballistic capability.

The problem is that for either tactical or hunting functions, this simply isn't enough – you've got to put that target down quickly – incapacitate it – which means that you need more than lethality alone. See? Right off the bat, you've got to determine your needs before you can proceed effectively. A simple matter if properly defined, but this is where most would-be long-range precision riflemen get into trouble – they don't define their needs before seeking solutions. I've found that once this is accomplished, efficient long-range shooting is easier to understand and pursue. In fact, it then becomes surprisingly simple, as long as you follow this simple formula:

Select the proper rifle type, caliber, sights and ancillary equipment.

Set it up properly.

Train with it both on the range and in the field to ascertain that it is, in fact, set up properly.

Continue to train under real-world conditions.

Most shooters believe that only bolt-action rifles are capable of the 1-MOA accuracy generally considered to be appropriate for precision long-range work, but this isn't entirely true. I've found that the AR15, for example, is capable of nearly benchrest accuracy, provided it's set up properly. Then, it's just a matter of understanding the limitations of the .223 Remington (5.56x45mm NATO) cartridge it utilizes and developing the best load combination for your purposes.

Proper set-up includes:

Insuring that the upper and lower receivers are tight.

Installation of a free-floated, heavy barrel and handguard.

3. A "trigger job," a clean, crisp release of the appropriate poundage for your preferences.

You can easily have an AR "done over" by any competent gunsmith or even purchase a rifle already configured with these features. Of those who build such guns, DPMS (13983 Industry Avenue, Becker NM 55308; 1-800- 578-3767; website http://www.dpmsinc.com email dpmsinc@aol.com is my favorite, having provided me with no less than five various precision AR15s, all of which consistently shoot under ½-MOA. Under The banner of Panther Arms, They offer no less than a dozen such rifles, my personal favorites being the:

"Sweet Sixteen" -- with a stainless, free-floated heavy barrel, vented aluminum handguard and adjustable trigger.

"Panther Bull" – featuring a 20-inch fluted, free-floated heavy barrel, several different upper receiver configurations and an adjustable trigger.

"Panther Bull 24-Special" – a "full-house" 24-inch, free-floated heavy barreled piece with a vented aluminum handguard, adjustable trigger, specially configured pistol grip and buttstock and multiple upper receiver variations.

"Arctic Panther" – A "winterized" version of the Panther Bull, with its upper and lower receivers and handguards finished in white for use in the snow.

"Low-Pro Classic" – an economical version of the Sweet Sixteen, with a 1-inch non-free floated, target-crowned, heavy barrel, an investment cast lower receiver and beefed up upper receiver to aid in barrel-receiver rigidity.

I know what you're thinking -- they'll cost you an arm and a leg, right?
Nope. All of them retail for between $655 and $1200, far less than comparable rifles from most other makers which, in my experience, don't shoot nearly as well even if some of them cost nearly twice as much.

There are also a number of self-loading rifles chambered for the .308 Winchester (7.62x51mm NATO) capable of 1-MOA accuracy if properly set up. I have several FN-FAL and Springfield Armory M-1As (the civilian version of the US M14) that shoot very, very well. Multiple barrel contact points, sliding op rods and such make better accuracy elusive, but 1-MOA is in fact enough, especially in the field where conditions are far less than ideal. Again, as long as the upper and lower receivers are tight (FN-FAL) or the action in the stock (M-1A) and the weapon has a decent trigger, they'll produce surprisingly accurate results.

Though I have a number of precision bolt-action rigs built on the Winchester M70 or Mauser M98, Remington's M700 series has proven to be by far the best. With nearly any good heavy barrel (I use target-crowned Douglas Supremes and McGowan stainless barrels with excellent results), a free-float job, synthetic stock (I've found H&S Precision and MacMillan to be the best) and a 1¾-lb. trigger, my M700s consistently produce 3-shot Ransom Rest 100-meter groups of from ¼ to no more than ¾-MOA, depending upon the cartridge for which the rifle is chambered.

If you don't want to bother with custom work or find its cost prohibitive, then I suggest you obtain a Remington M700 Sendero (long action) or M700 VS (short action). These are already equipped with a black or gray synthetic stock designed by H&S Precision, a 24 or 26-inch heavy barrel, adjustable trigger and are matte finished.

Calibers for the M700 VS include the .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and .243 Winchester, while the M700 Sendero is available in .25-06, 7mm Remington mag and .300 Winchester. If you prefer a cartridge other than these, simply have the rifle re-barreled to your own specifications, thus considerably reducing expenses.

If your rifle is new, a barrel break-in process is important. First, do not get it too hot – heat causes quick chamber throat erosion and accuracy loss. Second, although some go so far as to clean the rifle after each shot for the first hundred rounds, I've had great results by cleaning it after each 25-rds.

My first time in Africa back in the 1970s, my professional hunter remarked to me that he could easily spot an American hunter because he carried a thousand-dollar rifle with a hundred dollar telescopic sight on it. Being an expatriate Brit, I at first thought the comment was just part of his dry wit, but subsequent observations of other hunters in the field showed that there was substantial basis for his claim. Such is also often the case with precision long-range shooters as well.

Though many would-be long-range precision shooters don't realize it, scope selection is fully as critical as rifle selection. The scope must provide the right magnification for the user's needs, possess good light-gathering and amplification capability and be as clear as possible, yet not be too heavy or bulky. It must also have finite, yet positive, elevation and windage adjustment capability.

This narrows the field considerably, for me, to the point where there are only two kinds American scope to consider – the Leupold (PO Box 688, Beaverton, OR 97075-0688; 1-503-526-5195; www.leupold.com 3-9x40mm VX-II and 3.5-10x40 or 50mm or 4.5-14x40 or 50mm Vari-X III Tactical series. Matte-finished and as light and compact as possible, they offer not only bright, clear optics and ruggedness, but exhibit the best "user friendliness" obtainable. Their ¼-MOA click adjustable turrets are also well protected and clearly marked for quick, easy field use and allow precise zeroing and efficient subsequent calibration out to the shooter's "max effective" range.

The VX-II is ideal for use on rifles chambered for cartridges used inside 600-meters, whereas the larger Vari-X III is nearly perfect for guns intended for longer range. With a price tag of around $400, the VX-II is probably the best deal in tactical scopes now available. The larger, brighter Vari-X III retails for around $650, and is probably the best all-around choice for rifles intended to be used at truly long range.

The Schmidt & Bender (PO Box 134, Meriden, NH 03770; 1-800-468-3450; www.scope@cyberportal.net Police Marksman-II 3-12x50mm and 4-16x50mm are even brighter, have 1/3-MOA adjustable windage and elevation turrets, but are somewhat larger, heavier and more expensive. Nonetheless, in my opinion at least, they represent the best European "tactical" scopes available.

Scope bases should be one-piece for best rigidity and zero retention, with the military-type (Weaver) rail becoming ever more popular. The Leupold Mark 4 base is thus quite prolific, and for those needing more elevation, Precision Reflex, Inc. produces a base that's higher in the rear, providing an additional 15-MOA. I've also had excellent results with Leupold's STD 1-piece base, though some opine that their two large windage screws "shoot loose" and cause zero loss after a while. Since I use LocTite on all screws in my guns when setting them up, I've had no problems whatsoever with them and thus see little validity to this claim.

Rings, too, are important. And again, Leupold leads the way with their STD series. With five different heights available, they satisfy nearly any telescope configuration. For the rail-type Weaver base, Mark 4 rings are also offered. And though only just becoming available, Mounting Solutions, Inc. (PO Box 97-1202, Miami, FL 33197; 1-800-428-9394; website: www.mountsplus.com ; email: ned@mountsplus.com is marketing what I feel is a superb set of rings intended for this same base. New England Custom Gun Service (438 Willow Brook Road, Plainfield, NH 03781; 1-603-469-3450; email: bestguns@cyberportal.net also offers some nice steel rings by Badger Ordnance.

Fortunately for those who opt for a precision AR15, the Weaver-type rail is integral to any so-called "flattop" upper receiver, thus eliminating any need for a base at all. One needs only to clamp the appropriate rings on it and mount the scope.

Additional accessories worth having include:

Butler Creek flip-up lens caps for both objective and ocular lenses.

A sunshade to prevent glare inside the scope and reflection back downrange when looking towards the sun.

A bubble-type anti-cant device (available from Mounting Solutions, Inc.) mounted on your scope to allow precise zeroing, calibrating and field shooting. A cant of only a few degrees exerts tremendously negative influence, even on a small target at relatively close ranges. A two degree cant on a ten-inch target at 500-meters will result in a complete miss! In the real world, cant is difficult to prevent, particularly in rugged terrain because the true horizon is nearly impossible to ascertain.

A good laser range-finder. In the lower-priced range, the best results I've seen have been obtained with the Nikon BuckMaster, whereas if you wish to spend more for a more versatile unit, the Leica Geovid or HCI Teleranger are great choices. I've found the TeleRanger to be especially spectacular, though expensive, having used it to make my best shots ever.

A good spotting scope or high-powered binoculars. At least 20X, but less than 30X is the best balance of clarity, field of view and target visibility. I prefer the binocular option, since it creates less eyestrain than a conventional spotting scope, with Steiner (Pioneer Optics, 97 Foster Road, Suite 5, Moorestown, NJ 08057; 1-856-866-9191) 20x80 Senators being my own choice. I simply mount them in a camera tripod (which I already had anyway, being a writer, too), focus spotting is made easy.

A good pair of field binoculars. Again, I opted for Steiners, this time their 8x56mm Night Hunter. Tremendously light and clear since they're intended for low-light use, they have proven to be extremely effective in the initial spotting of targets.

A pair of solid shooting sticks – that's right, shooting sticks. In the field, you can't always shoot from a more conventional rest or go prone. Shooting sticks are perfect for shooting from sloped ridges (the only kind I know!) so commonly encountered in the real world.

A bipod IF… It's been my experience that even high-quality bipods produce lousy accuracy if used on a hard surface or with a rifle exhibiting serious recoil.

A small sandbag rest. I fill it with non-treated crushed walnut hull media to provide bulk without the heavy weight of sand or lead shot. This can be carried in a rucksack or daypack with ease and provides an excellent rest for use in normal conditions.

A detailed notebook, within which a wind-gauge/thermometer, laminated range cards, wrenches for scope mounts, et al and other small ancillary equipment can be stored.

A good military-type military claw sling, adjusted to supporting arm length.

Some kind of matte finish is also appropriate for either tactical or hunting use, since both people and animals can easily spot "shine" at ranges past 1000-meters on a sunny day.

The weight and bulk of the finished rifle must be balanced. A rifle that's too heavy will shoot quite well, but cannot realistically be carried in the field. On the other hand, if it's too light, especially if chambered for one of the more potent cartridges, it will be highly portable but incapable of the required accuracy. It'll also recoil excessively, thus preventing you from shooting it sufficiently well to reach its full potential.

What is the best balance? Well, it depends on you – your physical build and capability, as well as your tolerance for recoil. In my case, somewhere between 10-13 lbs. works best. I prefer unfluted 26-inch target-crowned barrels of from .85 to 1-inch in diameter for the most velocity possible without causing the piece to become too unwieldy.

Next, load development should be accomplished. My criteria includes not only accuracy, the flattest-possible trajectory and terminal ballistics, but penetration as well. Regardless of whether you're trying to reach the vitals of a trophy game animal from any angle or penetrate light cover (vegetation, glass, et al) to reach a human adversary, penetration can occasionally become critical.

And, with cartridges producing truly high velocities, it gets even worse – most conventional bullets will simply disintegrate upon impact. For varmint hunting, this presents no special problem, since destruction is in fact the whole point, but for tactical situations or big game hunting, we need more. That bullet simply must make it to vital organs to be effective. If the cartridge/load produces more than 3000 fps, things can get downright tacky indeed.

Fortunately, Barnes now offers their solid copper X-bullet, which will penetrate extremely well, while demonstrating excellent expansion at the same time. And their solid copper construction allows us to re-think the bullet weight/ penetration/terminal ballistics/trajectory/recoil equation. We can select a lighter bullet than possible with traditional construction, producing lower recoil, higher velocities and thus a flatter trajectory and greater maximum effective range without sacrificing terminal ballistics in the process.

At velocities over 3200 fps, I've found the Barnes-X to be somewhat prone to copper fouling, but the recent advent of their new XLC coated bullet to eliminate the problem entirely. Not only do they provide the best balance of all the elements we need for best overall performance, but they make annoying copper-fouling a thing of the past.

At velocities under 3000 fps, traditional bullet construction remains a valid option, since copper fouling is virtually unheard of at lower velocities. Too, the tendency of traditional bullet designs to disintegrate upon impact at higher velocities doesn't apply below 3000 fps, so bullet choices remain quite flexible.

If you opt for the Barnes-XLC bullet, coating the bore with some kind of molybdenum disulfide lets you simply fire a dozen or so rounds to polish out the excess coating, then "go to town" with serious accuracy testing and load development. Otherwise, it's been my experience that nearly fifty bullets must be fired before the bullet coating itself impregnates the bore sufficiently to obtain the same effect.

There are a number of manufacturers of moly-coating for bores, but my best results have been obtained with Ms. Moly (PO Box 275, Burlington, WI 53105-0275; 1-800-264-4140) an aerosol you can simply spray on a clean loose patch and swab the bore until it coats to your wishes.

Maintenance once the bore is moly-coated changes, however. Do not scrub the bore with a bristle brush because it will erode, then remove, the coating. Nor should you use solvents intended to remove copper since they, too, will remove the moly coat. Instead, just swab the bore repeatedly with patches, using only solvents designed to remove powder fouling, until the patches come out clean. Then, lightly oil the bore to prevent rusting.

Actually, moly-coated or not, to extend its useable service life and preserve accuracy, the bore of any precision rifle should be cleaned this way. Nonetheless, if it is moly-coated, depending upon the projectile velocities involved, this procedure will insure that the bore won't need re-coating for 750 to 1000 rounds.

Load development is simple. Once you've determined what you want from your rifle, take a half-dozen recommended loads and load up a dozen rounds of each to see which one produces the best balance of accuracy, extreme velocity spread, penetration and trajectory. I prefer the Oehler M35 Skyscreen chronograph, but there are certainly others available that work well, too.

I recommend against the use of any FMJ bullet for anything but punching paper, including the 168-grain boattail used for sniping by the military/police and for target-shooting. Bullets of this type produce virtually no terminal ballistic effect, thus making them unsuitable for general-purpose tactical or hunting use.

Why do the military and police use them? In the case of the military, international treaty (specifically the Hague Accords) requires it. The police simply use what the military uses on the correct premise that all the load development has already been completed. Moreover, police SWAT sharpshooters nearly always shoot for the cranio-ocular cavities of the head, making virtually any kind of bullet satisfactory. On the other hand, if a shot is directed at the thoracic (chest) cavity, the poor terminal ballistic capability of the FMJ becomes all too apparent.

In contrast, a frangible bullet limits or eliminates over-penetration in tactical situations, while producing devastating terminal ballistic effect. This translates to not only increased lethality, but far superior stopping power as well.

Once you've found the load that best satisfies your requirements, zero the rifle, after first bore-sighting it at 25-meters. For best use of the weapon's inherent trajectory, it's been my experience that a 200-meter zero is generally best with cartridges producing less than 3200 fps and 250-meters for those producing more. However, if your needs dictate it (such as for use only in an urban area, for example, where the range will never exceed 200-meters) 100-meter zero is also quite acceptable.

Once you've "zeroed out" the turrets (loosening the lock screws and turning the graduated turret to zero, then retightening), calibrate the elevation click settings required to hold dead-on in 25-meter range increments out to what you consider to be "maximum effective range." To a great extent, this will depend on the cartridge involved, but I also found that for my needs (remember, I prefer Leupold Tactical scopes, which have ¼-MOA clicks), "max effective" invariably ends up being the longest distance at which my elevation turret reads "one turn, plus seven clicks."

Yes, I could go more, but found out the hard way that after this point, it becomes too easy to lose control of the elevation adjustments. And coincidentally, I found that it pretty much coincides with the terminal ballistic capability of the cartridge as well. Many have found that with lower scope rings and/or with lower velocity cartridges like the .308 Winchester, they lack sufficient elevation adjustment capability to reach "max effective" (as far as I'm concerned, 600-meters). This is where a scope base with an extra 15-MOA (mentioned earlier) comes in very handy.

As this is accomplished, record your elevation click settings at each range in your notebook for later transcription to a soft-plastic laminated range card.

Once this process is complete, return to "zero range" and calibrate inward in those same 25-meter range increments until you've reached the closest range at which you expect to use the weapon. Clicks will be "minus" rather than "plus". The zeroing/calibration process is now complete.

Now go out and field-check your weapon and scope settings to make certain they coincide with those obtained on the range. You might well find that a click here or there to "tweak" the settings to final perfection. Even if a bag or bipod is used, we tend to hold rifles a bit differently in the field than on a benchrest, meaning that they recoil differently and thus print differently. This is especially true of rifles that recoil heavily and since ultimately the rifle is intended for use in the field, the "tweaked" settings should take final precedence.

Field-checking also includes your field-shooting shooting process:

Use the field binoculars to find a target.

Use your laser to determine its range.

Consult your notebook for the appropriate scope setting.

Set the scope.

Select the appropriate shooting position.

Engage the target, preferably with a partner spotting for you to ascertain the results ("calling the shot)".

Once field-checking is complete, transcribe the final click data for each range via your computer or typewriter, have it reduced appropriately in size and have it laminated in soft plastic. I then place one copy of the resulting range card in a Ziploc bag carried in my notebook and tape another to the side of the rifle's buttstock held towards my body, allowing quick scope adjustment in the field. Additional copies are also kept stored for future use in case of loss or wear.

A quick word about the use of Mil-Dots. Though a useful backup for the system I've just described, the coming of reliable laser rangefinders have made the concept essentially obsolete. For range-finding, they're not especially precise because they depend on too many inescapable assumptions, for example that a target is a given height. Such is only rarely the case, making truly precise shots very, very difficult because the shooter must use holdover shooting based on imprecise data. Moreover, the mathematics of making Mil-Dots sufficiently efficient is, in my opinion, more trouble than it's worth, in comparison to newer methods.

No police SWAT team now uses them, because from any perspective –tactical, criminal or civil – the laser concept makes more sense. The military continues to use them because they have many rifles equipped with scopes with that type of reticle, but is rapidly adapting their methods to the laser also.

There you have it – long-range precision shooting made simple. In quick review, all that's required is that you do your homework:

Decide upon your requirements, based upon a careful
appraisal of your needs.

Obtain the proper combination of rifle type, caliber,
telescopic sight and ancillary equipment for those needs.

Set up the weapon correctly.

Field check the results and modify them as necessary
for field use.

Practice your shooting protocol under field conditions
until the desired results are quickly obtained. This
includes low light, uphill/downhill angles and poor weather.

You'll find that you've eliminated nearly all of the problems that make people think long-range precision riflery is a mixture of voodoo and alchemy. You'll also find you've entered a wonderfully rewarding and relevant kind of shooting, something that will give you many hours of not only satisfying, but relevant shooting.

In fact, it has only one bad side -- you will have eliminated all of your excuses for missing! If you miss, you, as a marksman, blew it! So, to prevent this from happening, I offer the following shooting protocol from the legendary US Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock:

Get a comfortable body alignment.

Natural point of aim on target.

Firm handshake grip on weapon with firing hand.

Obtain proper eye relief – no shadows in scope.

Focus on crosshairs; do not look at target.

Normal respiratory pause.

Exert slow, steady pressure on trigger.

Follow through (press trigger all the way to rear; do not
release too quickly.

Even though as a professional weapon & tactics writer/trainer/consultant Chuck Taylor's American Small Arms Academy, PO Box 12111, Prescott, AZ 86304; 928-778-5623; www.chucktaylorasaa.com ; email: chuck@northlink.com , I've spent a lifetime building expertise with all types of small arms – handgun, submachine gun, shotgun and tactical rifle – I find long-range precision shooting to be by far the most satisfying. During the Vietnam War (1960-73), it was found that the one-shot, one-hit concept was the most effective – costing a mere twenty-five cents per enemy soldier neutralized, in comparison with $14,250 (57,000 rds. @ .25 per rd.) utilizing conventional methods (not counting air support and artillery).

This doesn't mean that conventional methods were invalid – they were in fact necessary due to terrain, vegetation and the inherent dynamics of each enemy encounter. However, the tremendous success of American long-range precision riflemen during that conflict made them their enemy's most feared adversary – that much is irrefutable and speaks for itself.

For trophy hunting or tactical situations, it therefore follows that the same concepts apply. In both they've worked extremely well for me, that much I can say without hesitation. I think you'll also find that if you go about it properly, it'll work as well for you, too. Even if you're not a trophy big-game hunter or tactical shooter, hearing the whop of that bullet on a target "oh, so far away" is one of the most gratifying sounds you'll ever hear.

Try it – I think you'll agree.

 

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Additional information about ASAA is available. Please email me directly at:
chuck@chucktayloramericansmallarmsacademy.com

American Small Arms Academy
PO Box 12111
Prescott, AZ 86304

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