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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2001
Volume 33, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 194
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The stainless steel Marlin Model 336M is shown with a Leupold LPS 1.5-6x 42mm scope in Leupold rings and mounts. Photo by Stan Trzoniec. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Evolution in hunting tools has always moved toward longer range, from the thrown rock to today’s unending lineup of .300 magnums, but tools and skill remain two different things. These days many shooters believe the purchase of a .300 Remington Ultra Mag and the appropriate monster scope automatically endangers any elk within half a mile. Just place the crosshairs and pull the trigger. Presto! You’re a long-range wapiti artiste.

Anti-hunters use this very argument against us, saying modern rifles make hunting too easy. Let’s see if it’s true. I’ve been hunting big game for 35 years and have seen dozens of hunters miss lots of big game at long range, almost always by overshooting.

This is most common among new pronghorn hunters. If the hunter hasn’t purchased a brand-new zapper for the hunt, he’s sighted his old .30-06 3 inches high at 100 yards - which puts his 150-grain handload about 4 inches high at 200. The first dawn in Wyoming he crawls up a ridge with his guide, who says 200 yards. But the pronghorn looks tiny, and the hunter decides to hold just above its back, as he read about in Bill Wondershot’s article “Whanging Away!” in the September issue of High-Scorin’ Horns magazine. Dust erupts beyond “his” buck, the pronghorn departs, and the guide asks, “Where the hail did you hold?”

This scene is caused by pessimism, dreams of glory and brainwashing. First, the hunter assumes the guide’s a range-judging idiot, even though our hero has never seen a buck pronghorn before. The glory comes from wanting to tell the boys in Minneapolis how he expertly slipped a 150-grain Hornady through the buck’s heart at 350 yards. The brainwashing claims a modern magnum is essential at long range.

Long Range, that distant, winking devil! Some claim “long” begins at 300 yards, while a few others put it past 400 or even 500. I say long range varies more with the shooter than the cartridge, though if pressed would place it at about 175 yards, because that’s where the average hunter starts “holding a little high” - and missing animals.

Do you want to hit big game consistently beyond 175? I will not discuss shots beyond 500, because after seeing hundreds of big game animals taken, I’ve yet to see a first-shot kill on any big game past that range.

Only about 1.5 percent of the big game I’ve seen taken fell to a well-placed bullet beyond 400 yards. Here are three steps necessary to making clean “quarter-mile” shots:

1)    Sight in properly with an accurate rifle, using ammunition with enough muzzle velocity for the bullets to expand at maximum range.

2)    Know the range. Not guess, KNOW.

3)    Practice, especially in the wind.

First, we need a rifle that groups three shots, consistently, into 2 inches at 200 yards. Most big game scopes are set to be parallax-free at around 200, one reason rifles often show better relative accuracy at 200 yards than 100. If your rifle won’t consistently group three shots into 2 inches at 200 yards, then it isn’t capable of consistently hitting an 8-inch paper plate at 400. And we’re looking for the capability to hit the center of a deer’s chest, not somewhere around the edges. Most modern factory bolt actions will attain 2 inches at 200 yards with a little fiddling, usually through epoxy-bedding the action and free floating the barrel.

If you handload, some combination should do the job if you do yours, but when using factory stuff, I obtain at least three boxes of the load desired, then run them through my RCBS Case Master, checking how straight the bullets are seated, separating the 20 worst rounds. I use those for sighting in and practice, the others for serious hunting. If you don’t have a cartridge-spinning tool, roll the rounds across a piece of glass. Separate any that show tip-wobble.

My custom 7x57 from Rifles, Inc. will group my best handloads into one inch at 200 yards, but sometimes I don’t have the time to load a couple boxes. One of the best factory 7x57 loads for pronghorn and average deer is Hornady’s Light Magnum using its 139-grain boat-tail InterLock. From this rifle’s 24-inch Lilja barrel, this load chronographs 2,925 fps. But is it accurate enough?

Sixty recent rounds showed a maximum run-out of .006 inch, pretty darn good. I separated them into three boxes, one with run-out over .004 inch, one with run-out between .003 and .004 inch, and one with run-out under .003 inch. Then I shot three-shot groups with each at 100 yards, using a new Burris Fullfield II 3-9x scope, with these results:

run-out (inch) group (inches)
.005+ 1.59
.003 to .005 1.03
less than .003 .74

I cannot beat the .003-inch stuff much with my finest handloads. At 200 yards it averaged under 1.5 inches.

Modern propaganda suggests muzzle velocities under 3,200 fps are insufficient for long-range shooting. Instead, look at downrange velocity. Any big game bullet will expand reliably down to around 2,000 fps. Look for that number in the ballistics table, and your load will do fine out to that range. The 139-grain Hornady boat-tail in its Light Magnum 7x57 load is still traveling 1,980 fps at 500 yards.

Next, how to sight in. For years the standard advice was 3 inches high at 100 yards. This came directly from The Celestial Chorus of Gun Writing: Elmer Keith of Guns & Ammo, Jack O’Connor of Outdoor Life and Warren Page of Field & Stream. The bullet would peak 4 inches high at around 150 to 175 yards, then start dropping, hitting point of aim somewhere between 225 and 300 yards, depending on the cartridge. Even pronghorns measure around 15 inches through the chest, so a center hold would do the job out to around 250 or 300 yards.

This system worked very well with low-mounted scopes and the moderate-velocity cartridges Keith preferred, and even with the faster rounds O’Connor and Page liked. Being a gullible young hunter, I sighted in all my big game rifles 3 inches high for a long time, with fine success. But sighting in 3 inches high doesn’t work as well with many of today’s rifles. Here’s why.

Mount the scope higher than the standard 1 1/2 inches listed in most ballistics tables and the midrange trajectory can be too high, an effect exaggerated by extremely high velocity. Sight a 7mm STW 3 inches high at 100, using a 140-grain spitzer at 3,400 fps and a fat scope mounted as high as a camel saddle, and the center of impact will be at least 5 inches high at 200 yards. If the rifle isn’t capable of 1 1/2-inch accuracy at 200 yards, shots on the high side of the group may land a couple inches higher. Add 2 to 5 inches trajectory and it’s very easy to miss a 200-yard pronghorn if your aim wanders slightly high.

But shoot a lot with a more normal rifle and scope and the +3 inches sight-in, and you’ll automatically compensate for the added trajectory. When I guided pronghorn hunters, my backup rifle was my grandmother’s .257 Roberts. This Remington Model 722 was extremely accurate, often putting three 100-grain Nosler Partitions in an inch at 200 yards. The muzzle velocity of my handload was over 3,200 fps from the 24-inch barrel. The scope was a steel-tube Weaver 3-9x with about a 36mm objective, mounted as low as possible. At 200 yards the bullets landed 4 inches above point of aim, then hit dead on at 300 and 10 inches low at 400. At normal ranges I automatically held slightly low and cannot remember missing an animal with that combination.

But lately I’ve been sighting in most rifles a little lower at 100 yards. Why? Most big game animals are shot at ranges inside 250 yards.

Over the decades I’ve kept notes on all my big game animals and those taken by my wife, friends, guides and other companions. Many fell before the advent of laser rangefinders, so ranges were rounded off to the nearest 5 or 10 yards, but always paced when possible. If not possible, calculations were made from bullet drop. The results from hundreds of animals, all numbers in yards, are listed in the table on page 34.


The whitetails came from East and West, but there wasn’t much difference in ranges. Eastern deer were taken from hardwood forests to soybean fields, and western deer from prairie to rain forest. The mule deer came from both mountains and plains. The black bears were all taken by spot-and-stalk hunting, not over bait or with dogs. The elk were all killed in Montana, where most elk are taken in timber, though I understand longer shots can be common in the Southwest. The African game was taken everywhere but truly open country, ranging from river bottoms to open thornbush, the terrain that makes up the vast majority of safari country. Given those parameters, these probably do represent fair averages for each type of game. (Other game was omitted because too few made the list for a reliable average.)

The 700-yard pronghorn came after a barrage of shots by a self-styled expert. Eventually a buck fell, though not the buck the expert wanted. He didn’t notice until the deed was done, even through his high-powered scope. The longest one-shot kill I’ve ever seen was 450 yards, a pronghorn buck my wife shot nine years ago using her trusted Browning A-Bolt in .270 WCF and a 4x Leupold scope. Eileen deliberated a long time as we lay above the Dry Creek flats, but when she pulled the trigger, the buck stood up on his hind legs, twirled twice, then fell, shot through both shoulders.

I’ve seen hunters armed with the latest rifles shoot at a lot of open-country game, mostly pronghorns and caribou. I’ve seen an awful lot of deer taken, in all sorts of terrain, and have yet to see one killed much past 300 yards. A couple were hit past that range, but none recovered. The two longest shots on deer I made myself - and I’ve never felt the need to shoot at a buck farther away. Deer rifles don’t need to be sighted in for 300 yards, or even 250. (I should also mention the fact that any long-range sight-in needs to be precise. Years ago a buddy and I went to the local range to sight our rifles for deer season. A couple of older guys were also sighting in their rifles. We all shot, then went to check our targets. The older fellows came over to look at our target. Tony’s shots were in a nice group about 5 1/2 inches high. “That’s perfect!” one of the older men said. “Three inches high at 100!” I wonder how many misses have been blamed on such “3 inches-high” sight-ins?)

But even long-range shooting doesn’t require long-range sight-in - as long as you KNOW the range and trajectory. The +3 inches sighting originated when most scope reticles were simple crosshairs, not the familiar “plex” of today. Plain crosshairs are useless as ranging tools, and the only accurate rangefinders were military models, longer and heavier than most rifles.

So hunters guessed. In my youth I read many essays on this art. Most suggested imagining football fields laid end to end across the landscape. This made some sense on a grassy pronghorn flat (though at really long range most people envisioned too many football fields) but very little while looking across an elk canyon.

Some suggested relying on your guide’s estimate, because guides are familiar with the country and game at hand. I never hunted with a guide until my late 30s, and in the dozen years since have come to strongly distrust the ranging ability of anybody without a laser rangefinder. Human eyes are simply too close together to reliably estimate any distance beyond rock-throwing range, one of the lessons the laser rangefinder has taught some, but not all.

Most recently an Alaskan guide told my hunting partner that a bull caribou stood 200 yards away, when the real range was over 300. I knew this by comparing the bull’s chest to the reticle in my scope, but the guide insisted so strongly that my friend went along with the wild-ass guess. My buddy’s first shot (from a .30-06 sighted in at 200 yards) broke the bull’s leg below the body. He held higher and got the job done. We paced the range at 325.

The only guide I’ve ever known worth a whoop at eyeballing range was me, but only when I guided pronghorn hunters intensively. I got good by first guessing the distance, then pacing it off. But I never claimed the same skill on any other game and have lost the ability, since I never guess anymore, instead using my scope’s reticle or a laser rangefinder.

Mostly I use a reticle, for two reasons. One, I don’t have to carry something else around. Two, few laser rangefinders are perfectly reliable in country where they’re really needed. Pronghorns and caribou are the only really open-country game animals in North America. Problem is, the “affordable” laser rangefinders of recent years feature a very wide beam. Consequently, at distances where shooting a pronghorn or caribou becomes problematic, the wide beam sometimes bounces off not the animal but the surrounding landscape. The reading can be quite wrong – I’ve had a laser rangefinder tell me the same placid pronghorn buck was 153 and 318 yards distant, in readings taken 10 seconds apart - or you get no reading at all.

The only rangefinders I’ve tried that work all the time are the Leica Geovid and Swarovski’s RF-1 and LRS. All are expensive but use narrow beams capable of bouncing off a pronghorn at 500 yards. I own the RF-1, but mostly use it for prairie dog shooting, since both a binocular and rangefinder around my neck are just too much. The Geovid combines the rangefinder with a 7x42 binocular but costs $3,000 and weighs 3 pounds. Most of us cannot tolerate more than 2 pounds around our neck for any length of time, and less works better. (Early in 2000 Leica announced a $400, pocket-size rangefinder supposedly as accurate as the Geovid. I’ve yet to see a production model, though rumors are they’ll be here soon.) The Swarovski LRS combines a scope and rangefinder but is almost as heavy and expensive as the Geovid. So I use my reticle.

Lots of people have described how to do this. I keep it simple. First, I determine how much the reticle of my scope covers at 100 yards. Sometimes this can be found in a catalog; if not, a target marked in one-inch squares will do. My old .257 is a fine example. When set on 6x the scope’s reticle, from crosshairs to the tip of the bottom post, subtends 5 inches at 100 yards. Subtend is a fancy word meaning span or surround, and at 6x it increases arithmetically at longer ranges: 10 inches at 200, 15 inches at 300, 20 inches at 400.

This worked handily for pronghorn hunting, since a mature buck usually measures 15 inches from back to brisket. If a buck’s chest apparently “fit” the crosshairs-to-post distance, he stood about 300 yards away and I held right on. If his chest appeared bigger than the space, he was closer, so I held slightly low on the chest, compensating for the bullet’s height above point of aim. If his chest appeared 2/3 the size of the reticle gap, he was about 450 yards away, which is how one looked on an October morning in 1988, when I killed my biggest pronghorn. He fell to one 100-grain Partition at 430 of my paces, which measure just about 36 inches with my stride stretched slightly. (The bottom post also made a perfect aiming point at 500 yards, where the bullet dropped two feet. I once finished a buck a client wounded at a little over 500 yards, by holding the post’s tip on the buck’s spine.)

You can use the method with any duplex reticle, but these days many scopes feature specialized long-range reticles, usually mil-dots. Two late entries, perhaps more practical for most hunters, are Burris’s Ballistic Plex and Swarovski’s TDS Tri-factor. The Ballistic Plex is found only in Burris’s 3-9x Fullfield II (the model on my 7x57) and features four slashes across the bottom of the vertical crosshair. These correspond closely to the trajectory of many big game loads out to 500 yards. (Burris includes a chart.) Sighted dead-on at 100, the Hornady Light Magnum 7x57 load matches up well. I’ll be using this outfit on an upcoming Coues’ deer hunt and report afterward.

The Swarovski reticle is similar, except that the lower slashes grow progressively longer. Supposedly this “Christmas tree” reticle matches the drift of most modern hunting bullets in a 10-mph breeze. If there’s no wind, you aim with the intersection of the slash and the crosshair. If there’s a breeze, aim with the end of the appropriate slash. I’ll be trying the TDS on prairie dogs next spring and report on it too.

This brings us to the final step: practice. Any practice helps, but the best is varmint shooting. A single day spent shooting prairie dogs or woodchucks, especially in a breeze, teaches more about game shooting at varying distances than any amount of reading or benchresting. You cannot learn to compensate for wind drift through ballistics tables. The numbers in every table I’ve seen only list how much a bullet blows sideways in a wind 90 degrees to the shooter. They do not list how much a bullet drifts in a breeze quartering from the rear, varying between 12 and 17 mph, or how much a bullet rises when a stiff wind hits a hill near the target.

This can be considerable. I once shot and missed a distant rockchuck nine straight times with a .220 Swift that had, in my hands, killed a running (and extremely unlucky) coyote at over 300 yards with a shot right between the ears. This rockchuck sat on a rocky ridge top about 400 yards away. I lay in the calm air on the east side of the ridge, while a 30-mph wind blew against the west side. The wind hit the ridge and deflected almost straight up, along with my 55-grain Nosler. I finally noticed the grass on the ridge top lay bent almost flat by the wind and killed the chuck by holding a foot low.

The only way to become competent at hitting distant targets is by shooting. I do this every year, mostly with .22 or 6mm varmint cartridges with muzzle velocities of 3,500 to 3,900 fps. Relatively light bullets at these velocities drift much like heavier hunting bullets at 2,800 to 3,000 fps. Please feel free to confirm this with a few shots on the same day from your favorite big game rifle.

Now, let’s put it all together. I’m a caribou addict and hadn’t been after those innocent, beautiful animals in several years, so booked a hunt in Nunavut Territory with Canada North Outfitting, Inc. (PO Box 3100, Almonte, Ontario, Canada KOA 1A0), whom I’ve used for several adventures in the Far North. I took what may be my favorite big game rifle, an Ultra Light Arms .30-06 with a 10-year-old 1.5-6x Bausch & Lomb Balvar and 180-grain Federal ammunition using its new Deep-Shok “whitetail” bullet. Unlike many of today’s Wonder Bullets, the Deep-Shok is simple. The jacket encloses a bulb of lead core in the boat-tailed rear, thickens along the sides to hold the bulb in place, then thins near the tip. It holds together not just on 300-pound bucks but much larger game (Federal claims an average of 85 percent weight retention) and sells for little more than competing “deer” ammunition.

Because of their simplicity, Deep-Shoks are also accurate. Sorting three boxes resulted in 40 rounds with a maximum of .003 inch run-out, averaging 1 1/2 inches for three shots at 200 yards with a muzzle velocity just under 2,800 fps. This is pitiful compared to most modern magnums, but remaining velocity at 400 yards was over 2,000 fps. I sighted in 2 inches high at 100, for a drop below point of aim of 7 inches at 300 yards and 22 inches at 400.

When 10 assorted caribou hunters arrived in Arviat, the little Inuit village formerly known as Eskimo Point, we were informed that no caribou could be found near our planned fly-in camp. Instead we’d be camping just outside town, and Inuit guides on ATVs would take us to caribou. Some hunters were initially unhappy with this deal, but we filled all our tags with very good bulls. (I’d spent time in caribou camps with no caribou before and never once complained.) The Inuits went beyond the call of normal guiding to make us happy and successful, but the limited time would make every chance more important.

The first night my partner Len Murphy and I stayed in a tiny trapper’s cabin with guides Darryl Baker and Johnny Mamgak, the next morning sighting in our rifles on an empty Log Cabin syrup can at 50 yards. Here’s another tip: one inch high at 50 yards puts most scoped rifles 2 to 2 1/2 inches high at 100. I’ve used this trick in more than one camp lacking a formal range, since it’s much easier to shoot precisely from improvised rests at 50 yards than 100.

Len took his bull first, which confirmed these were the slightly smaller-bodied caribou common near the Arctic Circle, measuring about 21 inches from back to brisket. This worked out perfectly with my scope, with its reticle gap of 7 inches at 100 yards. If a bull’s chest fit the gap, he was 300 yards away. If 3/4 the size of the gap, he’d be about 400 yards out.

Two hours later we found another fine bull in a small herd. They were nervous, leading us over three low ridges before I crawled up the fourth to find the bull grazing at slightly over 400 yards. A fair breeze quartered from over my right shoulder, so from a prone rest over my day pack, I held 6 inches over the bull and a foot into the wind. At the shot the bull wobbled a few feet and stood angling toward me, head lowered. I held the same amount high and right, and on the second shot   he collapsed. The first had gone through both lungs; the second went just inside the left shoulder, ending up in the right ham, nicely expanded and weighing 167 grains. There were 430 of my steps to the bull, 420 of Len’s, but he’s 6 feet, 2 inches with very long legs.

Are super-magnums necessary for long-range shooting? They can make things easier, especially in the wind, but if you know the range and your rifle, even a factory-loaded 180-grain .30-06 will do. That mundane combination matched the longest shot of my life.

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