Hit and Miss

Typical shooting at long-range targets in formal tactical competition. Fun for what it is, it does not translate to practice for hunting, nor does it pretend to be. The targets are 500-700 yards and barely visible to the naked eye.

by Terry Wieland

Last week was educational in a number of ways. I was at a gathering in Wyoming to try out a bunch of new products from Vista Outdoors, the industrial Hydra that owns Bushnell and RCBS, among others.

The venue was the Silver Spur Ranch (Spur Outfitters), which has a sophisticated facility for long-range shooting with targets from 100 yards to a mile, shooting across an expanse of Wyoming sagebrush.

Our main purpose was to try out three Bushnell tactical scopes — two current models and one soon to be introduced — as well as load some ammunition using new RCBS products. We would then shoot it to compare performance with high-quality factory stuff. The cartridge was the current-darling 6.5 Creedmoor, without which, its admirers would have it, nothing can be hit or killed beyond 200 yards.

There you have the nuts and bolts of it all. But my point here is not to review the products but to report on what we did, how we did it, and how it all relates to the highly questionable current fad for shooting at game animals at inordinate distances.

There were ten of us in the group, and we all did pretty well. A couple dinged the plate at a mile. I hit my 12-inch target at 1010 yards and called it a day. Our shooting was all done from benches or sandbags over makeshift rests of the type used in long-range competition. We each had as instructor/coach a competition shooter from the Vista Outdoors “pro” staff who calculated the range and called hits and misses through spotting scopes.

We used a Kestrel to gauge atmospheric conditions, calculate ballistic performance, and figure out where to set the scopes (from a base zero of 100 yards) at different distances. Downrange flags indicated wind strength and direction.

As you can see, these were highly controlled conditions, with distances measured to the inch and motionless targets clearly visible — mirage off heated barrels and blowing dust notwithstanding.

At various times, as conditions changed, one of our instructors — both accomplished competitors in long-range matches — would take a shot to ensure everything was properly set and adjusted.  Sometimes they hit their target first shot, other times not, which shows just what a crap shoot it can be, trying to hit anything at ranges beyond what the naked eye can see.

At dinner one evening, the subject of appropriate hunting distances came up and we took an informal poll around the table. We were asked what we thought an ethical maximum would be, shooting at an elk. One answered that no one should shoot beyond a range where bullet drop and wind drift became factors to be calculated. Fair enough. Another said a flat 350 yards, and the next guy suggested 250. My suggestion was what we used to call “maximum point-blank range (PBR),” which in the case of a .257 Weatherby, for example, would be about 357 yards. Those figures are graven on my memory because it’s what I came up with many years ago when I got my first custom rifle and was developing a load for it.

For those not familiar with the concept, you don’t zero your rifle at 100 or 200 yards. Instead, you figure the kill zone on your animal. Let’s say it’s ten inches.  Imagine a ten-inch diameter pipe extending from your muzzle to infinity. What is the maximum distance you can zero your rifle, and have the bullet rise no more than five inches? For my Weatherby, it was about 290 yards. You then figure at what point beyond it drops five inches below, and out of your imaginary ten-inch pipe, and that distance becomes your maximum point blank range. All the way out to that distance, you can aim dead on and be sure your bullet will land in the killing zone.

At that point, all I need to know is what 357 yards looks like. Of course, if you’re shooting steeply uphill or down, or if there is a stiff cross wind, you have to make allowances, but the PBR system eliminates a lot of estimation and calculation.

The .257 Weatherby will certainly kill an animal beyond 357 yards, but that seems to me to be a good practical limit.

What I found particularly interesting is that not one person at dinner suggested that anything now considered long range is ethical for big-game hunting. No one said 1,000 yards, or 800, or even 500.

The shooting we were doing did not prove that targets could be hit at long ranges; instead it proved that even with the best training, equipment, known distances, and stationary targets, hits were far from assured. And “far from assured” is the antithesis of ethical hunting.

Thirty years ago, Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland killed a waterbuck in South Africa at a measured 375 yards, and that remains the longest distance he has ever shot at big game. Would he try it again?  Absolutely not. He may not be wiser, but he’s certainly older.