By Brain Strickland
Western hunting has changed significantly over the years, and one area that has seen this impact is the method, equipment, and ethics of long-range shooting. Whether you agree or disagree with this type of hunting, you can’t deny its precision and effectiveness today’s equipment delivers. From determining the right caliber, calculating bullet drop, proper windage and ballistic coefficient, to adopting a stable platform, target acquisition, breathing, trigger control and follow-through, there really is a process to be mastered. Frankly, if you’re planning a bear hunt in the open vistas out west, having the ability to squeeze the trigger at long distances will certainly impact the success of your hunt.
That said, I’m far from an expert when it comes to settling the crosshairs at any distance, let alone multiple football fields stacked together. But lucky for us, I know a guy! As a host on the outdoor television series The Best of the West (www.thebestofthewest.net), which focuses on long-range big game hunting, Jim Sessions is no slouch behind the crosshairs. In fact, he’s also a co-owner of the Best of the West Custom Shooting Systems and Huskemaw Optics (www.huskemaw.com). His precision behind the scope is as equal to the custom turrets and optics he builds. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two on the subject. “Everything we do is about ethics and precision, whatever the distance,” explained Jim. By putting the equipment and science behind it, hunters more successful.
Nothing embodies the marriage of precision firearms technology and marksmanship than the ability to effectively shoot long distances. As someone who hunts little with a rifle, I would consider 300 yards a long-range poke. However, today 500 yards is the new 300, says Jim, and there are a lot of elements that must work in harmony to achieve accuracy at those and greater distances. The old adage of “hold high and hope” can be thrown into a strong Wyoming wind once you learn to effectively put these principles into practice.
To start with, Jim says you must have an accurate shooting platform, and this means the rifle itself. You shouldn’t always believe that your production, off-the-shelf rifle has a one minute of angle (MOA) as the owner’s manual suggests. You can only truly determine this by taking it to the range and seeing firsthand what the gun is capable of producing. In a nutshell, a 1 minute of angle is telling you that the gun can shoot a 1” group at 100 yards, a 2” group at 200 yards, a 5” group at 500 yards, and a 10” group at 1000 yards. At its core, ethically shooting longer distances requires a rifle that can do so, and you owe it to the animal and our reputation as hunters to ensure it can accomplish this.
Secondly, to increase your accuracy Jim insists you have to simulate as close to a bench rest position as possible and laying prone comfortably is the most stable position that achieves this in the field. To start with, use a good stable platform for the end of your rifle like a tripod or bipod with a leather head that allows the rifle to naturally move with the recoil. He also recommends a second point of support at the butt of the rifle. This could be with a shooting bag if you choose to carry the extra weight in the field, or as simple as your fist. It really doesn’t matter if it is relatively stable.
Trigger control is also critical, and for Jim this means that the shooter has the rifle in a good stable position with the crosshairs on the vitals when the trigger is squeezed. Crosshairs are never completely stationary on the target and there is always a “wobble zone” shooters must contend with when making the shot. For some, that wobble zone may be a 6” circle and for others it may be more of a rectangle. Regardless, if the wobble zone is still on the vital area of the target, the shooter is ready to break the trigger.
One of the best methods Jim likes to use to get the shooter settled down to create a lethal wobble zone is dry firing a rifle. Not only does this help the shooter develop control and feel of the trigger, but it also builds confidence and helps reduce tension. “When you go into the shot with confidence, the end result is usually night and day,” insists Jim. Dry firing also helps the shooter not anticipate the recoil, which often leads to slight movement which is significantly enhanced at longer distances.
Also, finishing the shot process with a solid follow-through also enhances accuracy, says Jim. Ideally, you want to maintain a good sight picture through the scope. According to Jim, “If the shooter is actually watching the impact of the bullet through the scope, then they are doing everything right.”
The ability to acquire the target through the scope, and acquire it relatively quick in hunting situations, is also important. According to Jim, most guys struggle with this. “This is not a natural ability,” explains Jim; “it’s a skill set that has to be learned with practice.” Whether you practice this in your basement with the scope’s power turned down, or outside at longer distances, there is no wrong way to learn this skill. Jim says, “the shooter just needs to develop a process that works for them.”
Lastly, and perhaps the most important element of long-range shooting is practice. “Most hunters truly don’t know what their gun is capable of doing in the field,” explains Jim, “and the only way to find out is spending time at the range.” Simply put, it’s more than just sighting in your rifle a few weeks before the season. When practicing, utilize every element of the shot process to improve your marksmanship. Not only will this enhance your long-range accuracy, but it will also make you a better and more ethical hunter. And this is something we should all strive for!