Lets get this straight out there.. I have read and heard a lot of BS regarding extended long range shooting. I think movies and video games probably have a lot to do with it. Because someone has become a pro at sniping from 1000yds+ in Call Of Duty they feel this may somehow extrapolate to the real world. Worse still they then give advice to others online or boast that “long shots are easy”.. In the real world CONSISTENT hits at ranges over 1000yds take a lot of preparation and effort. Indeed finding a range to shoot at 1000yds+ is often a task in itself!
Your online persona might be a badass but that does not transfer to real world ability!
I have been a regular 1200yd shooter for a few years but more recently I have been fascinated with longer ranges (1500yds+) and bigger calibers. That is mainly due to finances. Make no mistake shooting at extended range is expensive. I have been working as a ballistic technician for a defence contractor which has allowed me to shoot with calibers I just could not afford to feed as a hobby shooter. .50BMG and .338Lapua are pricey. Even if I were reloading I would be looking at around £5/$5 per round for match grade ammunition. You could run some milsurp belt fed stuff but it is not going to give you consistent hits at extended range (unless your target is the side of a tank!). I am looking to hit MOA sized targets.
Caliber and Ammunition.
The big boy of extended range – .50BMG
Many shooters believe that their chosen caliber will be just fine for any distance. You just point the barrel a little higher in the air and you can hit targets at extended range. There are reasons why this just isn’t the case. Projectiles have to push through the air which may not seem like a big deal.. Think about the times you put your hand out of a car window when moving at speed. Flatten the hand out and the air pushes your hand back. Then make an aerodynamic shape with your fingers and the push is much less. Small differences in shape make a big difference in how air effects and slows objects in flight. The ballistic coefficient, often referred to as the BC gives a numerical indication on how effective the projectile will be at moving though air. When a bullet slows it will go from supersonic speed (above the speed of sound) to the transonic zone and finally subsonic. The transonic zone tends to cause instability for reasons beyond the scope of this article – instability equates to changes in point of impact. Although there are some bullets which cope with the transonic zone quite well the easiest solution is to select a caliber/bullet which stays supersonic all the way to your target. Staying supersonic out to 1500yds limits your caliber choice. Even the highest BC bullets for the .308 will only remain supersonic out to around 1100yds. While I have used the .308 to hit steel out to 1400yds the results were inconsistent – 2 hits out of 5 shots on 20″ steels. It is great fun for sure but there are better options..
The calibers I choose for extended range are thus..
I have found to be consistent out to 1400yds and offer a cheaper long range option. The budget precision rifle build detailed in earlier articles is one such example of a inexpensive option. Around £1500 bought a rifle which has 1200+yds capability but begins to become inconsistent around 1400yds. Handloads cost me no more than .308 so I would say that is a bargain. Other 6.5mm based calibers offer similar performance – 6.5CM, 6.5X55 ect..
Good for around 1400yds. Has a fair kick to it but a good brake or sound moderator will bring it down to a very satisfactory level. Ballistics wise you can push some heavy, high BC .30cal projectiles due to increased powder capacity. The ammunition can be easily acquired and handloaders can produce their own at reasonable cost.
The 338 projectiles have excellent drag profiles (high BC) and the cases are plenty big enough to get them moving. Good for 1500-1800yds with many claiming longer distances. Be wary of such claims as when researched they are often one off hits on the back of several misses. 5 shot consecutive groups are a much better gauge of weapon accuracy rather than single hits. The 338Lap is a very capable and accurate round but it is expensive. Research the price in your country before making the leap. Even reloaders find that feeding the 338lap can be costly.
The long range accuracy champ.. The .375 Cheytac offers superior ballistic performance above all others. It holds the current record for long range hits with a rifle at something over 4000yds. In terms of consistent hits I have heard of guys doing it at 2000yds which is pretty amazing. More than capable of sub MOA performance at ELR ranges and the best option for those looking to do that. Recoil is reasonable. The availability and cost will be deciding factors. Depending on the country you live in this option may not be available. In the UK Desert Tactical Arms sell their fantastic DTA HTI rifle but ammunition and components can be tough to source. Like the 338lap these items are not cheap.
The undisputed heavyweight champion. If you want to hit something hard then this is the cartridge for you. The Thors hammer of the rifle world. The .50cal has more terminal energy than any other widely available civillian long range rifle. It was really designed for hard targets such as vehicles and much of the available ammunition is therefore not capable of 1moa type accuracy. There are a couple of specialist manufacturers that do make superb ammunition as do handloaders. Components are not cheap and the sheer ammount of material required to make ammunition can prove costly. Personally I have experienced sub 1moa out to 1200m and around 1.2moa out to 1500m. I have on two occasions achieved .7moa at 1500m (5 shot groups) when condition have been ideal.
There are of course many other choices which I have not mentioned. It doesn’t mean to say they are not good but only that I have little or no experience with them as yet.
Shoot prep for ELR.
The first thing you will need is a range that offers the distance you require and allows the use of your caliber. Very few ranges in the UK will allow .375CT, 338LM or .50BMG and my American friends report a lack of long ranges available to them. It will probably involve some travel..
If you have a range and rifle sorted then their are a few bits of kit your going to need. You will require a spotter using a quality scope. Forget your £250 optics at these ranges, you will not see the fall of shot. My preference is the Vortex Razor which retails at around £1200 in the UK. The same can be said of rifle scope. Your going to need enough elevation in the scope for your chosen range/caliber so check your Dope before you journey to the range to avoid disappointment. Scopes with a lot of elevation tend to cost a lot of money. You may find you can make it work using a picatinny rail with some elevation built in (20 or 30moa being the most common). Just be aware that this may cut down on your short range capability – you might not be able to dial down to 100yds for example.. My preferences are the high end models from Vortex, Nightforce, IOR and Kahles.
The rest of the kit you will need is going to be no different to your usual range gear – shooting mat, rear bag or monopod, bipod. Some people like to take a wind reading with a handheld anenometer such as the Kestrel. The last thing that I can think of would be a laser range finder. They are useful for ranging distant targets but accurate long range models are pricey. You can save money by learning to use your reticle for ranging targets of known size.
Weather is your Nemesis!
One thing we have no control over is the weather. Shooting at ELR distances require you be able to see the target which sounds obvious but is sometimes not possible. Mist, low light, mirage, snow, dust storms are just some factors which could put an immediate end to your day of ELR shooting. Even with the weather in your favour the wind is going to be your primary variable. Predicting wind effects when shooting at 1500+ yds becomes incredibly challenging. You may have a flight time of around 3 seconds which is enough time for wind to gust or drop off. At these ranges a 2/3mph change might be enough to miss the target entirely. Wind reading comes with experience. Kestrels and wind meters are very handy to check your predictions but bear in mind they only read the wind at the firing point. The Wind will probably be doing different things down range based on the changing geography (hills, valleys, tree cover and so on). The best groups I have shot at ELR ranges were done rapidly. This gives you a chance to shoot multiple rounds while the wind is in a phase. If you lay down and watch the wind you can get a feel for phases and use these to your advantage. If it is a gusty day then this approach will not be possible and you will just have to use experience to time your shots between gusts when the strength is consistent with previous shots.. Easier said than done!
ELR magnifies variables.
Some variables are completely unexpected!
There are a few variables that you may have heard of or experienced in minutiae at closer ranges which are magnified at extended range. Variables which cause shots to stray a couple of inches at 600yds can cause a complete miss at 1200yds+. This is where the Zen philosophy starts to come into play. Spending hours putting shots downrange allows you to start examining these small variables and putting strategies in place to mitigate them.
Spin drift and Coriolis effect are both well known to most shooters but are widely ignored at shorter range. When working out your dope you will need to include these to stand any chance of first round hits.
Incline. Very small changes in inclination can effect point of impact at extended range. I used a sighting target at 1500m (a clay pigeon) which sat around 2 meters higher than my actual target (a 6ftx6ft board). Moving from the higher target to the lower caused a significant change in POI – around 2ft.
Shooting at extreme inclines at closer range is good training for ELR shooting.
Powder temp/Barrel temp can both have notable effects. Leaving ammunition out in the sun caused a 2moa shift in impact at 1500m using a .50cal rifle and match grade monolithic ammunition. The same experiment at 100m resulted in a ragged .5moa group. I tend to store all ammunition in an M2A1 container out of direct sunlight. Beware leaving loaded mags in direct sunlight. The top round gets cooked while those below stay cooler producing a variance. Barrel temp is often blamed for fliers at short range. At long range a hot barrel can have major effect on POI and begins to be unpredictable: shots falling around the target, cone of fire enlarging. The only way around that is to take your time (difficult if your trying to rattle off 5 or 10 rounds during a wind phase) or to somehow keep the barrel cool. I currently use battery powered fans which are better than nothing at all. I have heard of more extreme cooling methods but I have concerns over their effects on the metal (extreme heat/cold could make steel more brittle). This is an area that I am still giving thought to.
Position changes would normally be no problem. In many disciplines shooters break position and suffer no change in impact. At 1500yds+ a small change in position can lead to a miss. It is very common for me to miss the target with my 6th shot in a 10 shot string. Why? Because I change magazine after 5 rounds which disturbs my position. My cheek comes off as I have to tilt the rifle a little to engage a new mag. Even with perfectly adjusted parralax in the most expensive scope I still get a change in POI at ELR distances.
The first five shots at were taken quickly and grouped nicely. After mag change the POI moved to the top right and 1 shot missed the target completely.
Harmonics. Shooting from a bipod on different surfaces can change the harmonic of your system. When you shoot harmonic waves travel through your weapon system and into anything touching it. These waves can effect group size which is the reason many home loaders tune their loads to the harmonics of their barrel/weapon. At long ranges moving from grass to shale or concrete can shift POI. In heavy recoiling weapon systems it becomes impossible to keep the bipod feet in one place. I often end up several inches further back after a string of 10 shots on a .50cal. I have found a couple of things that help. If the ground is shale or rocky I tend to put the bipod feet on the front of my shooting mat. The front part of the mat tends to be padded and provides a consistent harmonic. I use a rear bag and avoid monopods contacting the ground through the thin part of the shooting mat. You could negate the bipod entirely shooting off a front bag but I find this does not suit shooting mixed targetry at varied inclines because you have no height adjustment.
Quality ammunition. This should go without saying. Ammunition needs to have a low extreme velocity spread and be consistent. Avoid mixing lot numbers of components – you may get away with mixed lots at 300yds but you will notice at 1200yds+ big time. Choose temp stable propellants which give the highest velocity without any pressure risks for your chosen caliber. To demonstrate the difference I have taken both Milsurp 7.62×51 and my own handloads out to 1000yds and beyond. The Milsurp began to be completely inconsistent at 1100yds while my handloads kept hitting steels out to 1400yds. You are really looking for ammunition that is capable of consistent sub moa performance otherwise you will struggle.
As you can probably tell from this article ELR shooting definitely falls into the “nerd” category of shooting disciplines. It may look Badass in films or games but the reality is the successful ELR shooter will have tinkered and trained for many hours to get good results. By good I mean consistent. Any fool can go to the range and keep shooting and twiddling the scope until they finally hit something. That approach is dangerous and it cannot be replicated in following trips. Keep an extensive notebook and fill it with info from your shoots. Note what was good and bad and strategies employed to combat any problems encountered. These notes will help you form a checklist which in turn will ensure consistent and repeatable ELR shooting.