By Dave Anderson, GUNS Magazine
Interest and participation in long-range shooting continues to grow. As rifle trends go, I think this one is going to last. The reason is it is primarily driven by technology. The purpose of a rifle, after all, is to hit a target at a distance. Historically, innovations which allow us to extend the distance have proven air.
Back before the turn of the 20th century, smokeless powder and flat-shooting small bore cartridges such as the 7mm Mauser and .30-30 WCF virtually wiped out big-bore black powder cartridges. A few years later, sharp-pointed, ballistically efficient bullets extended ranges further. The single biggest innovation of all came in the post WWII era when the riflescope went from being an exotic accessory to standard equipment.
The current innovations, in order of importance (in my opinion of course) are:
Laser rangefinders The single most important factor is to know how far away the target is. Modern laser rangefinders are compact, light, reasonably priced, and accurate.
Today we can buy scopes with accurate, repeatable, and durable adjustments allowing us to dial in elevation and windage. Scopes today are the better than they have ever been.
In theory, as long as you know the ballistic coefficient a ballistic calculator will give you the windage correction for any range and wind. Spend some time trying to outguess the wind and the term “high ballistic coefficient” will become your mantra. Modern computer-designed, streamlined bullets help give you at least a fighting chance in the battle with wind.
If what you want in a rifle is stable, no-fuss accuracy, durability, and reliability, these are the best of times. Maybe only those of us who lived in the era of wooden stocks and blued carbon steel appreciate it. A synthetic stock is better than a wooden stock, which shifts point of impact whenever temperature and humidity change—or sometimes from day to day. Rust-resistant metal and finishes are better than metal rusted from a few drops of rain, or maybe just from fingerprints.
Maybe you’re interested in longer range shooting but haven’t quite taken the first step. Let’s look first at things you don’t need.
You don’t need a powerful, magnum cartridge. Certainly the 7mm and .300 magnum cartridges excel at resisting wind drift and delivering power at longer range. The .338 Lapua is a terrific long-range cartridge. It has a sterling reputation and deserves it. Someday you should have one.
But right now you need to shoot, and shoot a lot. The big magnum cartridges are very expensive, even to reload. Compared to standard cartridges they burn a lot of powder, recoil is stout, and cause shorter barrel life. I know, recoil doesn’t bother you, you shot a buddy’s .458 once and it didn’t hurt a bit. There’s a big difference between a shot or two, and 90 or 100 shots in an afternoon while trying for a perfect trigger break on every shot. Trust me, at this stage the big cartridges not only won’t help, they’ll hold you back.
All of these rifles would give you a leg up in extending your shooting to longer ranges because they’ve proven accurate right from the box. They are (from left to right) the Ruger 77 All-Weather Hawkeye, .223 Rem, with Leupold Mark 4 LA/T 3.5-10×40, Kimber 84M Montana .223 Rem, Redfield Battle Zone 3-9×42, Tikka T3 Lite .223 Rem, Bushnell Elite Tactical LRS 5-15×40, Remington 700 SPS Stainless .243 Win, Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×32, Weatherby Vanguard, 6.5 Creedmoor, Bushnell Elite Tactical LRS 4.5-30×50, Tikka T3 Stainless HB Varmint, .308 Win, Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×42. A big advantage in shooting 600 yards and beyond is a scope base angled to 20 MOA to give you more elevation in your scope.
At the 600 yard line. Dave is shooting at target frame “6” (far right). His rifle is a Weatherby Vanguard 6.5 Creedmoor 20-MOA. Although it looks far, this distance has been known as “Mid Range” in target shooting circles since the 1870’s.
You don’t need an expensive heavy target rifle or even a heavy-barrel varmint rifle. At the same time, if you have one, or want one, it won’t hurt your shooting and it may help. A heavier rifle holds steadier on a bench or bipod, moves less in recoil and is more forgiving of minor errors in hold. I’d never discourage anyone from getting a new rifle, only saying you can learn a lot if you already own an accurate hunting-weight rifle.
Finally, you don’t need to listen to those who disparage your gear, or scoff at your concept of long range. “Six hundred yards is child’s play! For the experts (like me) long range starts at a grand and we mostly shoot at 1,500 or 2,000 yards!”
I’ve never seen a shooting sport, from clay shooting to practical pistol, in which there weren’t a few characters, usually rich and/or insecure, who made a point of sneering at the newcomer who shows up with an old pump shotgun or a secondhand revolver. Believe me, real enthusiasts will welcome you, help you get the most out of the gear you have, and make you feel like one of the group.
Now the flip side: What do you need? First, you need a place to shoot. This is no small matter. I think a lot more shooters would give long range a try if they only had a place to do it. Most handgunners can find a range, even an indoor range. There aren’t any 1,000-yard indoor ranges and darn few outdoor ones.
You need an accurate rifle. A rifle capable of MOA groups will get you started—and such rifles don’t have to cost a fortune. These days most any bolt-action sporter from a reputable company will do it. Some, Weatherby and Tikka for example, guarantee it.
You need a scope with adjustment turrets and durable, repeatable adjustments. With scopes as in most things in life you get what you pay for. The difference is primarily in strength and durability. An inexpensive scope may have accurate adjustments and decent optics. It will provide adequate service on a rifle of moderate recoil and usage, say a couple of hundred shots a year. For heavy usage and/or hard-recoiling rifles the best money can buy is none too good. You can go with less to begin, you’ll just learn why you need better within a few years.
You need a good trigger. On a hunting rifle I like a 3-pound trigger break. For range and competitive use I consider 2 pounds about maximum and actually prefer lighter. Heck, even my IPSC competition .38 Super pistol has a 1-1/2-pound pull.
You need high ballistic coefficient bullets, and ideally a cartridge of medium capacity (for longer barrel life and reduced recoil). It helps if the cartridge is widely distributed, readily available and not too expensive. Currently the broadest range of choices in high BC bullets is found in calibers .224, 6mm (.243), 6.5mm (.264), 7mm (.284), .308 and .338.
My cartridge choices don’t have to be yours, but I like the .223 Rem, .243 Win, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Rem and .308 Win. When I do want magnum performance I like the 7mm Rem Mag, .300 Win Mag, and .338 Lapua.
A .223 Rem with 1:8-inch twist shooting 75- or 80-grain bullets offers long barrel life, minimal recoil, and widely available and inexpensive brass (or at least it used to be). For learning at 600 to maybe 800 yards it is superb, though a .223 at 1,000 yards will separate the sheep from the goats.
The medium case 6.5’s such as 6.5×47 Lapua, 6.5 Creedmoor, and .260 Rem are currently popular as they give very high BC bullets adequate velocity with moderate recoil and long barrel life. I really like the Creedmoor and think it is only going to increase in popularity. With its compact size and 30-degree shoulder it is very well designed. For non-reloaders, Hornady match ammo is absolutely superb, and not too expensive.
The .308 Win is excellent as well. Most ammo companies make superb .308 match ammo. And the .308 is one of two cartridges (along with .223 Rem) allowed in F/TR competition.
You need access to a chronograph, and some sort of ballistic calculator for elevation come-ups and wind drift. Personally I use the JBM app on my iPad and recommend it highly.
The Tikka T3 Varmint Stainless .308 Win is a good choice to begin target shooting. It is accurate, and in .308, factory ammunition is superb. This one is topped with a scope costing much more than the rifle. It is a Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×42 on a Nightforce 20 MOA base, and in Nightforce rings. Gear Dave uses (and some variety of which you should also have or plan to get) include Stoney Point muffs, Black Hills ammo, Leica 1600 rangefinder, Kestrel 4000 and Alpen spotting scope.
An accurate longer-range rifle doesn’t have to cost a fortune. This is an off-the-rack Weatherby Vanguard in 6.5 Creedmoor with a Bushnell Elite Tactical LRS 4.5-30×50 scope, Warne 20-MOA base, Warne 30mm rings, Butler Creek lens caps, Harris bipod. Reloads in Frankford Arsenal cartridge box are loaded with 139-grain Scenar bullets, Hornady brass, W-W primers, and Alliant RL-17 powder.
2 Guns, 2 Scopes
Rifle 1: Weatherby Vanguard synthetic, 6.5 Creedmoor. Bushnell Elite Tactical LRS 4.5-30x50mm scope, Warne 20 MOA base, Warne 30mm rings. Ammunition: Handloads with 130-grain Berger VLD bullets at 2,800 fps, and 139-grain Scenar bullets at 2,700 fps. Hornady brass, W-W primers, Alliant Reloder 17 powder complete the loads.
Rifle 2: Tikka T3 Stainless HB Varmint, .308 Win, Nightforce NXS 2.5-10x42mm scope, Nightforce 20 MOA rail, Nightforce rings. Ammunition, Black Hills factory match loads with 168-grain bullets at 2,650 fps.
I disassembled and cleaned the rifles, adjusted trigger pulls to 2 pounds, and reassembled using a torque wrench to tighten action screws to factory specs.
Next I fitted the 20-MOA rails and positioned the scopes, again using the torque wrench on base and ring screws. I zeroed both dead on at 100 yards, then zeroed the turret caps.
Using the JBM ballistic app is just a matter of inputting all the data about the bullet’s BC and velocity, scope height above bore, click values, environmental conditions, and for spin drift, bullet length and barrel twist.
Savage builds some exceptional long-range rifles including specialized benchrest and F-Class models. If and when you decide you just must have a .338 Lapua, the Savage 110 BA should be on your short list. It is big, heavy, and not inexpensive, but does it shoot! Scope is Weaver 4-20×50.
Five shots at 600 yards (above) with Weatherby Vanguard 6.5 Creedmoor, Bushnell Elite with 130-grain Berger VLD bullets gave this group. It’s about 1 MOA for windage (a little more than 6 inches), which for a mediocre wind-doper is pretty darn good. The vertical in the group height amounts to about 1/3 MOA, which pleased Dave mightily. Five shots at 600 yards (below) with Tikka T3 HB Varmint .308, Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×42, and Black Hills match ammunition. Excellent accuracy, less than one-MOA wide and about 2/3-MOA high. Only problem is Dave was aiming at the target stapled next to it on the left. He’s happy with the equipment and his shooting, but not so happy with his wind-doping skills. The gun, load and shooting technique are science, reading wind is an art.
0-yard line, first up was the .308. The ballistic chart for the location and environmental conditions said 63 clicks elevation. I spun the Nightforce elevation turret one complete revolution plus three more clicks. With the wind quartering from the left I added 10 clicks left windage.
I won’t bore you with my wind tribulations, except to give an example of the kind of day it was. Over a time interval of about 10 minutes the wind went from around 15 mph to 5 mph, at the same time changing direction a full 90 degrees. When I arrived at the range the wind was 15-20 mph from the left, when I left a couple of hours later it was 20+ mph from the right.
Nonetheless the first five shots from the Tikka were in a sub-MOA group, dead center for elevation, and a nice round group. The only problem was the group was about 10 inches to the right of where I was aiming. It took another seven clicks to get centered. I “misunderestimated” the wind, not for the first time (or last).
With the 6.5 Creedmoor I had the advantage of having been schooled in wind drift. With the Bushnell Elite Tactical I had 30X magnification. I was using the largest target Mountain Plains makes, called the Range Master, which they recommend to a maximum of 500 meters. The extra X’s made aiming easier, though I won’t say more precise.
The first five shots were centered for windage and about 4 inches low. It may have been my data entry in the ballistic chart was wrong. Three more clicks elevation got groups centered.
What really impressed me was group size. For windage, it is just under 1 MOA, which for a mediocre wind-doper is pretty darn good. But the group height amounts to about 1/3 MOA and is simply splendid accuracy. When the wind started ripping the targets off the target frame I decided against moving back to the 1,000-yard line. Maybe next time.
The Vanguard and the T3 are terrific rifles and great values. I’ve owned or tested quite a few of each and have never gotten a bad one. I was pleased to see Weatherby adopt the 6.5 Creedmoor, and even more pleased to see it twisted and throated right. The Bushnell 4.5-30×50 offers a lot of power in a surprisingly compact package, with very nice optics and reliable adjustments.
The T3 stainless Varmint is listed as being available in 18 different cartridges. Although the Creedmoor isn’t currently offered, the list does include two other good 6.5’s, the .260 Rem and the 6.5×55. Mind you—actually finding one for those cartridges might take some looking.
As for the Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×42, it is an absolute gem. It is built like a tank, yet compact and light enough to be entirely practical on a hunting rifle. Quality and versatility appeal to me, and this Nightforce has both in spades.
As I packed away the gear I marveled again at the quality of the equipment we have today. And without any custom work! Just go to the store, buy the gear, put it together and head for the 600-yard line. You know what amazes me even more? The younger generation takes all this for granted.
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