Today’s Riflemen Have The Tools To Deliver
Bullets To once Unheard-Of Distances.
Back around 1970 a “once-a-year” average hunter could reliably hit the vital zone of a deer to 100 to 150 yards. For good shots 300 yards was no problem, maybe 350 with the horizontal reticle along the backbone. A few enthusiasts with artillery rangefinders and custom rifles were shooting targets, and sometimes game, at 1,000 yards or more.
Today, the once-a-year hunter is likely not much better than in 1970. For good shooters 500- to 600-yard hits are almost routine, as are MOA groups at 1,000 yards. Enthusiasts are stretching ranges out to 1,500 to 2,000 yards and further.
Although we may like to think so, we are no better riflemen than those of previous generations. What we have is far superior equipment. It is interesting to look back and see how we got here.
In the beginning riflescopes had fixed reticles. Adjustments were external, using adjustable bases. As late as the 1960’s Bausch & Lomb made the Balvar series with adjustable bases, and undertook an expensive ad campaign to convince shooters of their virtues.
All in vain. We wanted the convenience of simply turning dials on the scope to sight in, and voted with our dollars. We didn’t appreciate how hard it was to make internal adjustments accurate, durable, and resistant to recoil, especially when tossing in the variable power feature we also wanted.
Internal adjustments weren’t particularly accurate, durable, or repeatable. Actually we were happy if the adjustments moved at all, and in the right direction. Just as long as we could get sighted in (“3 inches high at 100 yards”) we were happy. The adjustments wouldn’t be touched again—unless the wooden stock moved, or the scope got bumped, or scope gremlins mysteriously caused point-of-impact to shift.
In 1977 Weaver introduced their T-Series scopes with Micro-Trac adjustment turrets. They worked,
and kept on working, on the range and in the field. Clicking elevation and windage adjustments
and holding dead on was better than holding “two dogs high and half a dog into the wind.”
Adjustment turrets on scopes, such as this Leupold, are accurate and reliable, and have helped
change our approach to long-range shooting. No longer do we hold on an imaginary spot 1-1/2
body widths high.
Competition came to the rescue, not for the first or last time. Silhouette shooters competed for trophies and scope makers competed for the business of silhouette shooters. These riflemen demanded accurate, repeatable, durable adjustments and found most scopes didn’t measure up. Enter Weaver with their 1977 T-Series scopes, using hardened steel contacts in the adjustment turrets. A few adventurous varmint shooters felt if spinning turrets worked on the range it should work in the field as well.
This was considered radical at the time, not to mention a foolhardy tempting of fate. It took a while (nothing happens quickly in the rifle world) but adjusting the reticle to match the range is slowly becoming mainstream.
Wood stocks aren’t quite as bad as some would make out. Wood can be beautiful, pleasant to handle and admire, and with proper seasoning and sealing can resist moisture level changes and warping quite well. My favorite hunting rifles have wood stocks. They generally deliver around MOA accuracy, and with a little care and attention are durable enough.
But the reality is even the best wood stock isn’t as stable or strong as even an average synthetic. The best synthetic stocks such as Manners and MacMillan are so far superior to wood there is just no comparison.
In 1983 Weatherby became the first major company to offer a synthetic stock on production rifles, under the guidance of Ed Weatherby (and very much over the objections of Roy). Today, of course, synthetic stocks are everywhere.
I fired my first handloaded cartridge sometime in the 1960’s. Back then it was simply a fact handloads were more accurate than most factory hunting loads.
Naturally we gave ourselves credit for our craftsmanship in case preparation, powder selection and charge weight, bullet seating depth and so forth.
These things matter, certainly. But the main factor was bullets. We’d shoot groups with factory loads, reload the cases with Hornady, Sierra or Speer bullets, cut group size in half and congratulate ourselves on our brilliant reloading skills.
The Hornady 7mm 162-grain match BTHP had all the long-range shooters talking in the
early ’70’s, with its streamlined profile and amazing (and optimistic) 0.725 BC. Today
we have many high BC bullets. A couple of other favorites are the .224 75-grain A-Max
and the Berger 6mm 105-grain VLD. Dave considers an accurate laser rangefinder like the
Leica 1600 his most indispensable piece of long-range shooting equipment.
For decades it seemed quality factory trigger pulls were a thing of the past. Fortunately
Ron Coburn, CEO of Savage for 25 highly successful years, thought differently. This recently
purchased Savage with an AccuTrigger gave a crisp, quality trigger break at just over 3 pounds.
Technology is grand. Chronographs and laser rangefinders are basic tools. Weather stations
such as this Kestrel give accurate data on temperature, wind speed and elevation. Range
charts taped to the stock are still handy, though if circumstances permit, Dave would
rather use a ballistic program on iPad.
We like to think we’re so much smarter than factory “bean counters,” but in fact the big ammo companies were making what the market wanted. Hunters needed ammo that was safe, reliable, adequately accurate, provided adequate expansion and penetration on game, and—importantly—was affordable.
The big factories could easily have made more accurate bullets, for example by drawing bullet jackets more precisely, changing bullet forming dies more often, running the machines more slowly, more rigorous inspection, and passing on the added cost. But the typical hunter with his iron-sighted .30-30, or semi-auto or pump-action .308 with see-through scope mounts couldn’t tell the difference between 2-MOA and 1-MOA accuracy, and wouldn’t have cared in any event. But he did care if Brand A ammunition was $4.95 a box and Brand B was $5.49 a box.
Meanwhile the independent bullet makers were taking all those extra pains to produce more precise bullets. Since we were already saving a bundle by re-using cartridge cases we weren’t bothered much by the cost of bullets—especially when we had those bragging-size groups to show.
By the ’70’s shooters were getting much more accuracy conscious. The big ammo companies began taking more pains with bullet manufacture. They also began loading bullets from independent bullet makers, taking advantage of the good will and brand loyalty shooters had developed for names like Hornady, Nosler, Sierra and Speer. Today, few handoaders spend the time to equal the accuracy of the best factory ammo, much less exceed it. Oh well, we still save a lot of money.
Accuracy was just one element of bullet development. Another was more dependable game bullets, typified by the Nosler Partition. Yet another was great ballistic efficiency. In the early ’70’s I first became aware of a new Hornady bullet, the 7mm 162-grain BTHP. What had all my handloading buddies talking was the bullet’s imposing ballistic coefficient of 0.725. It seemed too good to be true, and in fact was a bit optimistic. I used these in my 7mm Rem Mag and 7×57 rifles, and in my 7mm TCU for handgun metallic silhouette.
Today we have an amazing array of high BC bullets, including choices from brand names like Berger and Scenar. A high BC bullet is as close to getting something for nothing as we can get in the rifle world. Here’s an extreme example: Hornady makes a 7mm 139-grain, FP bullet for the 7-30 Waters cartridge with a BC of 0.196. A Berger 7mm 140-grain VLD has a BC of 0.510.
Launch both at 2,800 feet per second muzzle velocity. At 600 yards, the flatpoint bullet drops over 175 inches from a 100-yard zero, and drifts over 24 inches in a 10 mph crosswind. The VLD bullet drops a bit under 86 inches at the same range and drifts only 6.4 inches. Powder charge, recoil and barrel wear are identical. The tremendous improvement in downrange performance comes entirely from bullet shape.
By Dave Anderson