Outdoors

Going long: Learning the science of long-range shooting

I consider myself a competent and proficient shooter. I can take a rifle, work up a decent handload and usually punch a tight cluster of holes in a bullseye at 100 yards.

I figure in the walk, jog, run categories, I can jog alongside most of my fellow shooters. But when I recently took a course in long-range shooting taught by Precision Rifle Shooters of Idaho, I felt like I’d entered a room of sprinters, and barely knew how to crawl.

The instructor, smart-guy-in-chief Travis Woodbury, was explaining the mathematics behind long-range shooting. Math instruction and I parted ways early in high school, and I never found a good reason to get reacquainted.

I prefer debatable subject matters over absolutes because you can bluff your way through a discussion about the merits of modern vs. classic literature, but you can’t bluff a mathematical equation.

To my surprise, when the equation is focused on launching a bullet eight and a half football fields and making it land in the right spot, math gets kind of sexy.

My mathematical illiteracy also found an unlikely ally — my iPhone. Woodbury explained how to program information into the “Shooter” app. The smart guys who designed the app did all the mathematical heavy lifting for me. All I had to do was tell my iPhone what bullet I was shooting and its velocity, along with distance to the target and wind speed.

But all this fancy-pants math doesn’t amount to much if you can’t back it up in the field, which was the second half of the course.

HOME ON THE RANGE

After putting a few shots into a paper bullseye at 100 yards to ensure our rifles were on target, our next task was hitting a steel plate at 745 yards.

My shooting was back to a wobbly walk considering 600 yards was the farthest known distance I’d ever hit a target. I would be lying if I said I had the utmost confidence in my shooting ability beyond that distance, but fortunately, long-range shooting is a team sport consisting of a shooter and spotter.

My range partner, Kevin Colby of Weiser, was in the fast jog category in the shooting world, and this course probably turned him into a runner. He shot first, and my fragile ego was safely behind the spotting scope.

After his second shot, the distant steel target vibrated like an airplane breaking the sound barrier. I called a hit, and a couple seconds later, the faint sound of a bullet striking steel reached our ears.

It was an impressive feat, and I learned from him. He trusted his shooting, adjusted his scope after he missed and connected on the second shot. Then he connected again on the third shot to confirm his adjustment.

Then it was my turn. I settled behind the gun and felt my nerves calm. Looking at a target through the scope felt normal, even if the distance was abnormal. I told myself, “trust the smart guys.”

I missed, then missed again. But instead of lobbing more bullets and hoping one eventually connected, I trusted the smart guys — Woodbury’s lessons, the computer app on my iPhone and Colby coaching me on how to adjust the scope to account for the wind.

I squeezed the trigger again, felt the rifle recoil and saw the target vibrating in the distance.

Wow, this stuff works, thanks to all the smart guys.

KENTUCKY AND LADY LUCK

To step back, although this was my first formal training in long-range shooting, it wasn’t my introduction to it.

My family spent a lot of time at a gun range, and as a teenager, I watched my dad use his hunting rifle to hit a steel gong the size of an extra-large pizza pan at 500 yards.

I also watched my uncle, Joe McCurry, knock over five steel squirrel silhouettes in a row at 300 meters with a .220 Swift varmint rifle. He let me try it, and while it took several tries, I knocked one over, too. My dad and uncle showed me what’s possible when you practice and know your rifle.

I eventually managed to hit the 500-meter gong with my hunting rifle, but the science behind it was “Kentucky windage,” where you watch the clouds of dust from your misses and hold your crosshairs in the opposite direction to adjust. It took many shots to finally hit it, which was more a combination of Kentucky windage and lady luck than skill and math.

I’ve since attempted more long-range shooting, but typically within 500 yards and guesstimating the bullet drop and wind deflection with mixed results. When I hit, I was happy, but when I missed, I didn’t know why. I just kept shooting and hoped to eventually hit it again.

About a year ago, I bought a used Remington 700 in .308 caliber along with a Vortex Viper scope with long-range shooting in mind. The scope varies from four-power to 16-power and has numerous hashmarks on the vertical and horizontal crosshairs, as well as external knobs so you can quickly and easily adjust the crosshairs.

I spent a lot of time practicing with it off a bench rest at the gun range. I could routinely put three shots into a bullseye the size of a quarter at 100 yards, which gave me confidence in the rifle and my shooting.

GOING LONG

After “sighting in” at 745 yards, Colby and I took turns shooting at various-sized targets placed between 370 yards and 845 yards.

Colby hit most them within one or two shots and rarely missed follow-up shots after hitting a target the first time. He almost made it look easy, which in a twisted way, it was because he had correct combination of skill and knowledge. It was a matter of dialing the range, adjusting for the wind by putting the scope’s correct horizontal hashmark on the target, then squeezing the trigger.

Colby had obviously spent a lot of time practicing with his rifle. He had confidence in it and his shooting, and he understood the process. When he fired a round, he expected the bullet to hit the target. There was no hoping for luck.

I was a jumble of nerves and excitement. It was a lot of information to take in, and I pressured myself to make the most of it. I was also shooting from the prone position, which I rarely do, so I had to adjust to that, not to mention shooting at targets well beyond my normal range.

I tried to focus on good shooting fundamentals while battling my bad habits. When I missed several times in a row, I fell into my old routine of aiming willy-nilly and hoping for the best, which is a waste of ammo, especially at those ranges.

When I reminded myself to “trust the smart guys,” I settled down and often hit the targets.

When I missed, I forced myself to start from scratch and find the problem. According my shooter app, a 3 mile-per hour change in crosswind could change my .308 bullet’s point of impact by about 19 inches at 800 yards. That subtle wind shift could mean the difference between a hit and a miss. Had I correctly accounted for it?

I learned to trust the math. The answers were in front of me, I just had to use the data and correctly estimate the wind speed and direction. Not that I got it right every time, but I was making an educated guess rather than relying on Kentucky windage and Lady Luck.

When I got frustrated, I came back to the closest target, a steel plate at 370 yards because wind is less a factor at shorter distances. I dubbed it the “miniature golf range,” which is ironic considering prior to that day, that distance was the outer limit of where I could repeatedly hit targets.

HALF-MILE SHOT

Colby shifted his aim to a set of targets at 845 yards, which were not only the farthest targets on the range, but were also twisting in a steady wind. I was on the spotting scope, and even at 40 power, the targets looked like mirages.

After a few shots, Colby hit one, and I happily reported it.

“Where did I hit it?” he asked.

I was taken aback. If my buddies and I had made a shot like that, we would have been high-fiveing —maybe even hugging — without a care in the world where we hit the target, just that we had.

“Uh, I’m not sure,” I said, which was a fib. I didn’t have a clue.

He shot again, and hit again. I focused on the target, but it’s hard to spot where a bullet hits a target at 845-yards, even through a spotting scope. It looked like the bottom half of the target, and I told him so.

He adjusted his scope, and hit it again. The target reacted different, I suspected it was hit center rather than at the bottom. Colby confirmed he had dialed up his scope a little, which made sense. Another lesson learned; you can improve on a hit.

It was my turn.

I shot at the 845-yard target, and Colby reported where I kicked up dust and suggested adjustments for wind. I lost track of how many shots I took, probably six to eight before the target vibrated as if shaken by a .308 bullet, which it just had been.

It was only after I was done shooting that it sunk in. Despite my many misses, I hit a target about the size of a newspaper folded open from nearly a half-mile away. My gauge of long-range shooting had been permanently recalibrated.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE

But a question remained: Could I duplicate what I had learned without Woodbury answering my questions and Colby coaching me from the behind the spotting scope?

I headed into the desert the following day with my .308, steel targets, a portable bench rest and my iPhone.

I also brought along my father-in-law, Terry Mahan, to serve as a spotter. He happened to have a new .22 rifle to shoot, so we made a day of it.

We wound up at 350 yards because that’s as far as the terrain and backstop would safely allow. For years, I have shot a 10-inch-diameter steel plate, and distances beyond 300 yards were always where my batting average started slipping.

The sun was out and a steady wind had died down. Shooting conditions were almost perfect.

I lined up the .308’s crosshairs on the target and squeezed the trigger. The target clanged. I hit it again, and again. After shooting at 745 and 845 yards, it felt like a chip shot.

I switched to an 8-inch diameter target and started consistently hitting it, then to a 5-inch target and hit it, too.

Then I aimed at a steel squirrel target similar to the one my uncle and I shot at the gun range. It’s 10-inches tall and 4.25-inches at its widest point. After a few tries, I added it to my tally.

Then I reloaded my gun, took careful aim and shot them in sequence, largest to smallest, and hit four for four. Thanks to the shooting clinic, my long-range skills took a quantum leap.

I still don’t consider myself an expert marksman. I know several, and I am not in their league. I have a lot to learn, but I also learned a lot, thanks to Woodbury and the rest of the guys who put on the clinic.

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