Bettering the odds at long-range

Johan van Wyk goes to task on the diverse terrains of South Africa

I doubt if there’s a single hunter who hasn’t been entertained by someone who had an uncle or grandfather who was simply the best shot in history and apparently had no trouble shooting running deer or antelopes in the head at 300m with an open-sighted .303 and military ammunition. Unfortunately, I’ve had to endure my fair share of such tiring and meaningless conversations over the years.

I’ve enjoyed numerous hunts in regions such as the Kalahari and Karoo where long-range shooting is the norm rather than the exception. In many instances, I’ve shot animals at longer range than I care to remember, and even though I’m by no means an exceptional shot, I’ve always concluded these hunts successfully. Along the way, I’ve also done a bit of thinking on this whole business of long-range shooting and, for what it’s worth, would like to share some of my thoughts in the hope that they may be of assistance to others.

There are a few important preparations that anyone planning a hunt in open country needs to make in order to ensure success. The first consideration is an intimate understanding of the ballistics of the chosen load for the upcoming hunt. Many hunters study the ballistics charts published by ammunition manufacturers and although the charts can be a great help, it has been my experience that the actual ballistic performance of a chosen load may sometimes differ slightly from the published figures.

For example, US ammunition manufacturer Federal offers a load for the .30-06 firing a 180-grain Nosler Partition bullet at 2700fps. According to the charts, when sighted in to strike 2” high at 100m, point of impact will be just about dead-on at 200m and 8” low at 300m. With 180-grain .308 calibre Nosler Partition bullets and a certain handload, my .30-06 can shoot that bullet at just a touch over 2700fps. Therefore, with skilful reloading, I can duplicate the Federal factory load, which is what I did a few years ago prior to a hunt in the Karoo.

I sighted in at 100m according to the published ballistics chart, 2” high, and even though I was confident that I knew exactly where my rifle would be shooting at longer range, I checked the zero at 200m as well. Imagine my surprise when the point of impact was more than an inch lower at that distance than published.

Curious, I fired a three-shot group from the 300m mark as well. Point of impact wasn’t, as stated in the tables, 8” low but closer to 11”. It may appear to be trivial but on certain species this can mean the difference between a heart shot and a broken foreleg. I’ve since made a habit of checking my rifle’s zero at both 200m and 300m before taking aim at any animal. Thus, an intimate knowledge of your own rifle’s performance with the actual load to be used in the field is a crucial prerequisite for long-range success. Treat the ballistics tables implicitly as a mere guideline.

Knowing the distance to the quarry is, of course, critical to enable the hunter to place the bullet correctly and with the increased availability of good-quality rangefinders at reasonable prices, things have changed for the better. When I started hunting, rangefinders were still regarded as something from Star Wars, and nobody in my circle of hunting friends owned one.

These days, rangefinders are freely available and although the premier-quality ones are not cheap, a good, reliable rangefinder can be had for the price of a decent riflescope. I’ll admit that I was a bit sceptical at first, but after my initial hunt with the aid of a rangefinder I was convinced that it was a must-have piece of kit. Today, whenever a shot past the 150m mark is a possibility, my rangefinder is always close at hand and it has become a fundamental tool in my modest armoury of long-range shooting tools.

Another precondition for successful shooting at long range is accuracy. Under this heading I’m not necessarily referring to match-type ¼ MOA (minute-of-angle) accuracy, as precious few hunting rifles are capable of such a high standard in any event. But the chosen rifle should at least be capable of good, hunting-quality accuracy at the required distances.

In the US, a few gunmakers have made a speciality of building rifles especially for ultra long-range shooting. These rifles usually feature precision actions and barrels mated to fibreglass or wood-laminate stocks and high-magnification scopes, often fitted with custom reticles. In addition, they require the use of carefully assembled handloads to deliver the promised levels of accuracy.

I, for one, would love to own such a rifle but it is simply not worth it for the sake of a hunt every now and then, not to mention the cost involved in such a project. Therefore, most hunters make do with factory-made or custom rifles of a slightly less specialised nature.

When it comes to scopes for long-range shooting, I’ve become a firm believer in variable-power scopes. I’m aware that fixed-power scopes are supposedly more reliable, but I’ve been using variable-powered scopes for many years without a hitch and am so used to them that the idea of going back to fixed-power is simply unthinkable.

Of course, there are hunters out there who prefer the simplicity of a fixed-power scope and are successful at shooting animals at long range, so I’m certainly not going to push variable-power scopes as the be-all-and-end-all of long-range marksmanship, but sometimes they sure make life easier.

My long-range rifles are fitted with high-magnification variables and even though I don’t always need all the magnification on offer, I have at times shot animals at long range with the magnification turned up as far as it would go. The pleasing thing about a variable-power cope is that it allows freedom of choice; with the 3-10x variable on my .30-06, for instance, I can shoot a kudu at close range with the scope turned to 3x on one day and a blesbuck standing at 250m on an open plain the next. A fixed 4-magnification scope may be fine for the kudu, but 250m is getting on a bit for such a scope.

The wind is an often overlooked but sometimes a telling external influence that can lead to disaster if ignored. I willingly admit that I’m a rather poor judge of the wind at the best of times, and I’ve spent many minutes looking at the waving grass between my ambush position and a grazing herd of springbucks in an attempt to make sense of it all. Obviously, the longer the shot and the higher the wind speed, the more influence the breeze will have on any given situation, especially with the lighter calibres and bullets.

I started off shooting springbucks with a .223 and a .243, and although the wind was less of a factor with the .243’s 100-grain bullets, it could be troublesome with the .223. At distances past 200m or so, its light 55-grain bullets sometimes were blown off-target by a stiff breeze. Although I fortunately never lost an animal, I eventually gave up on the smaller calibres completely and started using a .30-06 and 6.5×55, loaded with 165- and 140-grain bullets, respectively. The wind is still a factor, but I’ve worried less about it ever since.

Likewise, the issue of bullet choice. Boat-tailed bullets may not offer much advantage at distances under 250m but at long range, why not give yourself every possible advantage? Many rifles will not group accurately with boat-tail bullets, but my rifles will, and I use them when I can.

In spite of everything else, perhaps the most basic ingredient in successful long-range shooting is the person behind the rifle. Merely finding out about your rifle’s trajectory isn’t enough and practice is vital to hone the skills needed for successful long-range shooting. In this regard, I’ve found the shooting days held by the various hunting associations like the SSAA to be invaluable. Those I frequent in South Africa use life-size animal targets at distances up to 300m and provide realistic practice under circumstances where many of the same external factors which may plague a hunter (such as the wind, for instance) also come into play. I attend such a shooting day whenever I’m headed for the open plains and it’s a great confidence booster.

Years ago, we found ourselves hunting black wildebeest on a farm in the South African Highveld. Although the property held good numbers of wildebeest, all our efforts to move within reasonable shooting range of the wary animals proved to be fruitless. It was only after the hunt the landowner explained that a considerable number of wildebeest had been culled on the property the week before we arrived. However, at the time we found it puzzling to see the animals running flat-out the moment either vehicle or man approached to within 400m or so. They were wilder than snakes!

To make a long story short, and after considerable planning and an hour-long crawl, I found myself lying on my belly on a small hill with a good view of an open plain stretching in front of me. My hunting companion was lying next to me with his rangefinder mounted on a small tripod. It wasn’t long before two small black dots appeared from our right. Through the riflescope I made out the shape of two black wildebeest, but they were still much too far away to shoot, so we waited. Half an hour later the animals were closer and, with the big 7mm resting over my backpack, I chambered a cartridge and settled down.

With the riflescope at maximum magnification, I saw both animals clearly. The one in front was still a youngster but the second animal was a nice bull. The wary duo were already glancing in the direction of our little hill and it was only a matter of time before their survival instincts took over and they headed off. It seemed now or never, so with the crosshairs rock-steady just over the animal’s back as he stood broadside facing to my left, I pressed the trigger as softly as I could.

The unmistakable sound of the bullet striking home followed a second or so later and the bull’s legs buckled as he collapsed into the yellow grass, shot squarely through both lungs.

I felt good about that shot. Not only did the bullet strike within an inch or so of where I’d aimed, but it killed the animal cleanly and efficiently. I doubt if I would ever attempt such a long shot again but the conditions on that particular day were just about perfect.

I was using an accurate, flat-shooting rifle with a good, solid rest and had a rangefinder readily available to tell me exactly what the distance was. The rifle was sighted carefully before the hunt and I knew exactly where it was shooting at distances up to 300m, so that distance was doable. In the end, it was a matter of keeping calm and squeezing the trigger as gently as possible. With proper preparation, that’s how it can be for everyone.

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