July 08, 2021
Although long-range hunting seems to be a new trend, the truth is hunters have always searched for ways to extend their effective range with a rifle.
That’s how we went from the .30-30 Winchester to the .30-06 Springfield and then to the .300 Winchester Magnum. But are today’s hunters taking things too far? Is reaching out, way out, with a rifle leading to a decline in hunting skills?
The answers to these questions depend on the individual, but let’s look at some facts, because facts apply to everyone. First, consider this: If you shoot a big mule deer buck at 500 yards, you have not saved yourself any work. You still have to walk to the buck, field-dress the animal and drag it the same distance. The work does not change; all that’s really different is your state of mind and actions during that 500-yard walk.
That’s a practical fact, but let’s look at ballistic facts. In order to make an ethical kill on that mule deer buck at 500 yards, you must place the bullet correctly.
If you have a good-shooting rifle and can routinely use it to place all your shots within an inch at 100 yards, you can really only expect your bullets to land within a 5-inch circle at 500 yards. Given that a kill zone on a big-game animal is about 8 inches in diameter, this pushes your theoretical maximum practical range to 800 yards.
Little Room for Error
It’s important to note that your theoretical maximum practical range assumes you do everything right. You must range the buck accurately, judge the wind speed and direction correctly, and break the shot perfectly. If we zero a flat-shooting load for the .300 Win. Mag. at 200 yards, it will drop 150 inches at 800 yards. We can dial that correction with a ballistic turret, but if our range estimation is off by just 20 yards, the bullet will strike outside that 8-inch kill zone.
Similarly, if our wind call is off by only 5 mph, the bullet can miss the kill zone, too. It’s not uncommon to estimate the wind incorrectly due to mid-range gusts that cannot be seen at the height of the bullet path. Even a 20-mph gust is nearly impossible to detect at a bullet’s mid-range path since it happens well above the ground, especially if you’re shooting across a canyon. With a bad read for both range and wind, you can end up with a very bad hit.
One aspect of long-range shooting that is often overlooked, but nonetheless greatly influences bullet impact, is the amount of time the bullet is in flight. The longer a bullet is in flight, the longer gravity and wind will act upon it.
Ballistic calculators help overcome this, but they cannot predict the movement of the animal during the bullet’s flight. With the .300 Win. Mag. load we’ve been referencing, it takes the bullet a full second to travel 800 yards. In one second an animal can take a full step, moving more than a foot.
When to Get Closer
If you’re of the mind to use feet per second rather than your feet to secure your trophy, there are some things you can do to increase your success. For starters, carry a bullet-drop and wind chart that you can consult in the field and that has been vetted on the range. Get a wind meter and practice judging wind speed by watching grass and leaves.
Most importantly, spend time on the range to determine your actual—not your theoretical—maximum practical range. If you cannot not get five out of five hits on an 8-inch target at a particular distance—when shooting from a hunting position, not a bench—never attempt a shot at an animal at that distance or farther. Finally, do not take an excessively long shot on anything but a wounded animal unless it is calm and stationary.
That said, let’s assume you’re an excellent shot, deadly with your rifle in various wind conditions all the way to 1,000 yards. And let’s assume you have a cartridge that will push a bullet that far with enough velocity to make it expand when it hits the animal. You may have the necessary shooting skills and tools to go long, but what if you cannot get a clear shot at 1,000, 800 or even 500 yards? When that’s the case, you’re going to need hunting skills. It’s wonderful and worthwhile to learn to shoot at distance, but when you go hunting, nothing will ever be of more help than knowing how to hunt.