A Beginner's Guide to Precision Shooting

Make your shots count. Here's how
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Basic tools include a ballistic chart, a weather station and a laser rangefinder.
If you don’t have a portable computer/iPad, print the table from your desk computer.

There’s a saying in automobile racing, “Speed costs money, how fast do you want to go?” The same concept applies to long-range shooting. When you get to ranges like 1,200 to 1,500 yards and farther, the process becomes more critical, demands on equipment higher and everything gets more expensive. Heavier bullets at higher velocities result in more recoil. Scopes must be heavily built in order to stand up to the recoil. Rings and bases must be strong to hold the heavier scope.

On the other hand, most of the basic skills can be learned at intermediate-ranges. For discussion purposes, we’ll say from 400 to 800 yards. Often the limiting factor is range access. If you have access to 500-yard shooting you’re likely better off than most. And if you are limited to 200 yards or less? Well, you can learn a lot with an accurate .22 rifle and a decent scope, but that’s another story. By starting out here, you can develop the building blocks for even longer-range shooting skills.

When ranges stretch to the 1,000-yard mark and farther, cartridges such as the .338 Lapua come into their own.
This rifle is a Savage 110 BA with Weaver Tactical 4-20×50 scope.

Accuracy Counts

Equipment for intermediate-range shooting doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There’s a good chance you already own one or more suitable rifles. You want an accurate rifle. More accurate is always better, of course, but one MOA will do, provided it is consistent. These days the odds of getting MOA or better accuracy in off-the-shelf rifles are pretty good.

You’ll also need a scope with accurate, repeatable, and durable adjustments. Heavy recoil is tough on scopes. Makers can provide scopes capable of holding up to hundreds or thousands of rounds of .300 Win Mag or .338 Lapua recoil. But they aren’t cheap.

This is where the “speed/cost” tradeoff can work in your favor. At intermediate ranges, we can use lighter bullets and smaller powder charges. Less recoil means we may be able to get a decent service life from a moderately priced scope.

You’ll need a ballistics calculator to develop drop and windage tables for your shooting equipment. An Internet search will turn up several free examples. Personally, I use the JBM ballistics calculator app for iPad. There’s a one-time fee, around $20 at the time I bought it. I like it because it provides all the data I need, it is updated regularly (to include new bullets, for example), and it works even when the iPad is not connected to the Internet.

This Warne rail is made of steel and has 20-MOA of elevation built-in, making
more of the scope’s elevation adjustment available for longer range.

Whatever program used, the first step is to input data.

(1) Sight height: Measure from the centerline of the bore to the center of the scope tube. Measuring to an accuracy of one decimal place is adequate. If you do measure to two decimal places (e.g. 1.67 inches) the program will likely round off to 1.7 inches anyway.

(2) Ballistic coefficient: The bullet manufacturer will have it listed online. The JBM program I use has BC’s for virtually every bullet currently available. Just be sure the BC and drag model used by your program match. You don’t want to use a G7 BC with a G1 program.

(3) Bullet length: This is only necessary if your program is able to calculate spindrift and bullet stability, as the JBM does. Either measure a bullet, or JBM has an online chart listing lengths of most currently available bullets.

(4) Barrel twist: Again, only necessary if your program has the capability to calculate spindrift. At intermediate ranges from 500 to 800 yards, spindrift is only about 1/4 to 1/2 MOA, fairly minor compared to the effect of wind drift.

(5) Muzzle velocity: If using factory loads, listed factory velocity will likely do, especially if using the same barrel length. Manufacturers are pretty good these days about realistic velocity claims. Nonetheless, I’m always happier to chronograph factory loads through my rifle. For handloads I consider chronographing essential.

(6) Assuming you’re allowed to set up a chronograph at the range, you can sight in at the same time. I like to establish the initial zero at 100 yards. Click the turrets to get sighted in, then if the turrets allow it, reset them to zero.

(7) Determine the environmental conditions at the time and location you sight in: altitude, barometric pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. I like the Kestrel pocket weather station, otherwise get the data from maps and weather reports.

(8) Enter the data in your ballistic program. The program will likely also ask you to enter your scope’s units of measure (0.2 mils, 1/8 MOA, 1/4 MOA, for example). Also enter the minimum and maximum ranges desired, and the range increments.

(9) Determine the distance to your target. If the range says the target stand in question is 600 yards away you can probably believe it. Otherwise, measure with a laser rangefinder.

After sighting in at 100 yards, the adjustment turrets of the Bushnell Elite Tactical
scope can be removed and reinstalled to align the “zero” mark with the index line.

(10) Determine if the target is higher or lower than the shooting point. At intermediate range a few degrees above or below will make little difference but it is always best to check. Some laser rangefinders have the capability to measure the angle. With the JBM program I can aim the rifle at the target, place the iPad on the (cool!) barrel and it will show line of sight (LOS) angle. Tap to enter the angle into the ballistic program. Pretty neat!

(11) Estimate wind speed and direction. I like to use the Kestrel 4000 to measure wind speed at the firing point. Wind flags near the firing point and 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of the distance to the target, show wind direction and give a sense of whether the wind is consistent. Judging wind is a book in itself and can only be learned by experience.

(12) Enter all the data in the ballistic program and read how many clicks to add for elevation and windage. Actually, if the wind is moderate, I’ll sometimes just “lean into it” a bit on target, or use mil or MOA marks on the reticle if present.

(13) Rotate the turrets the correct number of clicks, making sure you’re not rotating them the wrong way. Don’t laugh, it happens.

(14) Chamber a cartridge, align the reticle on target, and press the trigger as though you’re firing the 5th shot into a 1-hole group at 100 yards.

(15) If you’re fortunate you’ll have the most useful accessory of all: A shooting buddy with a good binocular or spotting scope to call the shot. You may recover from recoil in time to see the bullet strike, but a buddy is better, especially when he says, “Dead center!”

Dave honked the low/right shot on his 600-yard target with the 6.5mm Creedmoor. Irritated,
he went back to the firing point and fired another shot. Even counting all six shots this is still
roughly a 1-MOA group at 600 yards. It won’t impress many competitors, but Dave felt it wasn’t too shabby.

Where It Counts

Many shooters like to use steel targets for longer range shooting, so as to save the time of constantly going downrange to replace paper targets. Be warned! With the naked eye the steel target looks awfully small and far away.

The first time you shoot, see the target swing on impact, and a couple of seconds later the “Clang!” of a solid hit comes floating back—well, you are hooked, my friend. It’s like a novice golfer the first time he connects with the driver right on the sweet spot and launches one straight down the fairway.

Soon you’ll be debating with other long-range enthusiasts the merits of various bullets and cartridges, mils vs. MOA, first focal plane vs. second plane reticles, the merits of various rifles, scopes, scope bases and rings. You may even want to try really long-range shooting. But remember, speed costs money. So develop your skills, save your money and then dive right in!

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 in a four-part "4-Shot Favorites" series on precision shooting with a rifle.