I have a couple of friends who believe that there’s no such thing as too far when it comes to shooting at game. Both are very fine shots, and both hunt in country where shots in excess of 400 yards are quite likely. One man shoots a .300 Weatherby Magnum with a fairly stiff barrel and 6-24X scope. He regularly practices out to 500 yards. The other man is a 1,000-yard benchrest competitor. His deer rifle is a 6.5mm wildcat based on a .300 Weatherby necked down. It has a 28-inch bull barrel and a big scope. My first friend regularly takes game between 400 and 550 yards. My second friend doesn’t even get particularly interested until a buck is on the far side of 500 yards.
I tell you about these guys not because I agree with their methods or desire to emulate them; their kind of hunting certainly isn’t mine. However, they make long range work—both know what their effective ranges are, and their effective ranges far exceed mine and probably yours. Neither, by the way, achieved his skill level through smoke and mirrors. Both invest, on a continuing basis, countless hours and thousands of cartridges to practice. They make 500-yard shots work. Can you?
A little while back I was hunting whitetails in Alberta. I never got a shot, which isn’t unusual in that country. The big bucks are there, but there aren’t a lot of deer. It’s feast or famine, and I had the famine. Another fellow in camp had the feast. The big bucks followed him around, and he had three opportunities at genuine Boone and Crockett whitetails. He missed all three times. Before you think, “I wouldn’t have missed,” let me tell you about his shots. The first was the easiest. The buck came out into an open meadow and stood for about three seconds. The distance was somewhere between 350 and 400 yards. He probably shot high. The second was at a buck moving across a cutline—less than five seconds to judge the antlers, find a rest and shoot. We paced that distance at 450. The last opportunity was on the same cutline, but just as fast-moving and 100 steps farther.
The hunter was using a flat-shooting .340 Weatherby Magnum—not all that bad a choice for big northern deer that can reach 400 pounds live weight. He had practiced with it long and hard, and I have absolutely no doubt he could shoot it well. I also have no doubt that he knows a whole lot about shooting deer. He comes from a southeastern state with long seasons and liberal bag limits, and he’s shot more whitetail deer than I ever will. He had, however, never shot a deer much beyond 100 yards. He had the equipment and almost certainly the skill—but the distance intimidated him. The first shot was, of course, his best opportunity. He could probably make that shot three or four out of five times—and maybe I could, too. But not every time. The other two shots—well, I won’t give you a hit percentage. I think it’s a miracle he even got the shots off both times! I doubt, too, that either of my long-range friends could have done better.
The farther the target, the steadier the rest you must have and the more certain you must be of the exact range. Whether my hunting partner should have attempted the last two shots or not is a good question. He thought he could do it, he had plenty of gun and he got the shots off. I don’t know what I would have done in his shoes, so let’s leave that alone.
Instead, let’s agree that any distance requiring accurate judgment of range in order to estimate proper holdover is long range. There are ways to make long-range shooting a bit easier. You start with a flat-shooting cartridge; by anyone’s definition, long range starts with the .30-30 long before it begins with a .270. Then we cheat a little bit on the trajectory, zeroing the rifle so that instead of being dead-on at 100 yards (like we would probably zero a .30-30), it’s a bit high at 100 yards, dead-on at a bit more than 200 yards and just a bit low at 300 yards. Most factory ballistic tables will give you a 200-yard zero for flat-shooting cartridges, and you’ll see that by sighting something like 11⁄2 to two inches high at 100 yards, you’ll be dead-on somewhere around 200 yards. Go to as much as three inches high at 100 yards and you’ll be dead-on at around 250, and not much more than three inches low at 300 yards. This, of course, can be carried to an extreme.
A popular method of maximizing trajectory is generally called sighting in for “maximum point-blank range” (MPBR). The theory—and practice—is that you accept a certain amount of bullet rise above line of sight at mid-range trajectories and a certain amount of bullet drop beyond your zero range. However, from the muzzle to the MPBR you do not alter your sight picture for range; you simply aim at the center of the animal’s vital zone. That, of course, assumes that you subscribe to the maximum PBR sight-in. With apologies to my many esteemed colleagues who believe in this method, I generally don’t use it. It is handy to simply hold center of mass out to 300 yards. However, I keep a little notebook of big game at which I’ve shot—nothing fancy, just a record of the date, species, place, cartridge, bullet and estimated shooting distance. It goes back to 1964. I’d just as soon not comment on exactly how many shots I’ve missed in those nearly 30 years, but an overwhelming trend is clear: I’ve missed much more often by slipping just a bit over at medium range than I have by shooting under at longer range.
There are good reasons for this. First, the most common error in judging distance is to overestimate. It’s always difficult to judge range, especially unfamiliar game in unfamiliar country—but rarely are things quite as far away as they seem. The best rule of thumb I know is to “always aim at hair, not at air.”