Most of the articles on this site deal with the rifle and associated equipment targeting accuracy improvements. This article is my first attempt to bring in the human elements that drive solid long range shooting. This is where the rubber begins to meet the road. The perfect rifle will miss without the practices discussed below being executed correctly.
Start with a rifle that is capable of being accurate at long range
One myth in long range shooting is that you must have a super expensive rifle and scope to be effective. This is simply not true. Now the rifle must be sound and capable of holding around an inch group at 50 yards but most factory made rifles come right out of the box with this level of accuracy or better.
With a rimfire, hitting within a 6 to 8 inch circle at 400 yards is pretty darn good in my book. That is way over 1 MOA. With a little tuning you can bring this way down. The process of tuning and making your rifle more accurate as you can is a part of the fun of long range shooting.
So don’t think you have to spend $2000 or more to be effective at rimfire long range shooting.
A great starter rifle that is more than capable of shooting with the big boys is the Savage Mark 2 FXP. This rifle comes out of the box with very good accuracy. Savage is known for it’s ability to make a highly accurate rifle for less money. This one will sell for around $270.
Top this with a good scope like an Athlon 6-24×50 for around $350 and you are ready to go to the range. I always suggest buying scopes that are of very good quality because they are harder to sell than a rifle.
Spend more on a scope you will keep, and less on the rifle that you will probably sell as you progress through the sport. With this combination, you have a highly capable set up for less than $600.
Start with a perfect zero
Trying to make accurate / precision shots on small targets, even up close, is a time waster without a good zero. To get a good zero you must have a good rest. Period. Make sure your shooting table is stable. Shooting tables are evil and can make accurate shooting frustrating. No matter how good your rest is, if the table is not solid, you can’t zero properly.
There should be no wobble even when you put your body weight on it to make the shot. If you are zeroing at close range, don’t settle for close. If you are off zero a quarter inch at 25 yards, the miss will be big at 200. Zero as perfectly as possible at 25 yards, then move out to 100 or 200 to fine tune.
Don’t clean too much
The holy grail of long range shooting is consistency in everything. Cleaning your barrel starts the whole process of fouling over again. The barrel must return to it’s original condition before shots start to act the same as they were before the cleaning. Now, I am not saying never clean .
You certainly don’t won’t failure due to a dirty rifle, but pick the times to clean. Before an important match or hunt is not the right time. Usually every 300-400 rounds will work just fine. When cleaning, stay away from the crown of the muzzle with any tools.
The muzzle crown is like the finger tips of a baseball pitcher. It has a lot to do with accuracy. Although most cleaning tools are made of softer metal than the barrel crown and shouldn’t have much effect, it is always a good idea to treat the crown area with care. A cleaning rod like the one from Amazon pictured above is a good choice.
Find the correct ammo for your rifle
There is no reason to attempt long range shooting until you know the cartridge that shoot’s best from your rifle. If the best you can do at 50 yards is 1.5 inch groups, this will equate to a minimum spread of 6 inches at 200 yards before wind or other elements are considered.
If this result is good enough for you then great, but it is possible to do much better. When everything is right, you should be able to break a 4 inch clay target on every shot. Most competition shooters use standard velocity ammo because that is what shoots best from most 22 caliber rifles. Check out this article to learn more about ammo velocity vs accuracy.
If you can’t shoot a small group at 50 yards, you surely can’t do it at 400.
Know your bullet’s trajectory and how the environment effects it
Knowing your bullet drop and consistency at different yardages allows you to extrapolate in between known distances faster and therefore puts you in a position to hit more targets sooner. Unless you are very experienced at long range shooting you will need help in this area.
For the best kind of help I suggest a really good range finder in combination with good data for your ammo and rifle. You can develop this over time while shooting but will need some drop charts to get you started. You should be able to find charts on line for this purpose.
One of the first things you will discover is that when possible, the prone shooting position is preferred when shooting for precision or long range. This position is not always possible due to brush height and other things, but when it is, use it. It is the most stable position you can use.
The second thing you wil discover is lying on the ground for a long period of time on your stomach really sucks. Spend a little money on a good shooting mat. You will find many uses for it as a shooting prop for all kinds of positions plus it will allow you to be comfortable in the prone position which leads to better shots on target.
Believe me, this equipment, along with the capability of scope you choose will make the difference of your being successful or not at long range.
Learn to shoot the breeze
Having a good spotting scope gives you a good foundation to start with when dealing with wind. You must develop your skill at reading the wind as you progress. A good spotting scope will allow you to better see mirage or heat waves at or close to the target which is important i telling you how to modify your hold for a center hit.
Also, you won’t be able to see all of your hits or misses through the rifle scope. This is why a spotter and a spotting scope are used by all long range shooters. The spotter can quickly call you into a dead center hit. This is where rimfire rifles really become fun. Wind will play with small bullets.
Learning to shoot the wind at 200 yards with a 22 or 17 caliber weapon is like 600 yards with a 7mm. The first thing you will learn is that the wind velocity and direction in the last 3rd of the bullet travel distance is what effects the shot most. Also, one tip I live by when it comes to wind, dial in drop, hold on wind.
This is because usually wind changes so often that by the time you make a call and dial it in, it is probably different. If you have a steady consistent wind, consider yourself lucky. It doesn’t happen very often. Don’t pack up when the wind picks up, this is when you learn fastest.
Learn to shoot the wind with your specific cartridge. Understanding how your bullet reacts in different wind conditions separates the men from the boys in this sport. For more information on shooting the wind effectively with a rim fire, see this article.
Trigger control on the exhale
The most important part of trigger control is moving the trigger straight back along the center axis of the rifle. You might think that it is impossible to move your shot off target if you are shooting from a sled or bags but take my word for it, you can easily torque the trigger enough to miss substantially at long range.
Very tiny movements at the muzzle muliply themselves many times at 300 or 400 yards once elements are brought into the equation. You must develop a trigger squeeze method that moves the center of the trigger along the center line of the rifle.
The better you are at doing this, the more accurate your shot will be assuming you are holding in the right place. Trigger squeeze should occur during the second exhale when the body is at it’s calmest state. The squeeze should be so smooth the activation of the shot should be a surprise to the shooter. Smooth doesn’t translate directly into slow.
Speed of the pull doesn’t matter a long as it is smooth and along the center line. One method to insure the trigger squeeze is correct is to focus on following through to finish at the center of the trigger guard.
Build your dope book
All great shooter records important facts about their system performance. By studying this information later and referring back to it the next time in the field, the dope book is another step toward perfection. Record all pertinent data that may serve you in the future.
Scope rifle, ammo combinations. environmental conditions, wind speed, direction, shot result, etc. Our objective is to be so knowledgeable of our rifle and the rest of our long distance system that we hit the first or second shot dead center. Of course you must be really good to get to this point. You will never do it without recording and studying your data
Take your accuracy to the next level. By this I mean learn to stabilize your cross hairs, not somewhat, but completely, so the intersection is in the middle of the target before you begin the trigger squeeze. Most people hold the cross hairs as still as they feel is possible and pull or usually jerk the trigger in order to get relief from the stress of doing this.
Let’s face it testing your ability by holding perfectly still on a target while trying to execute the perfect trigger pull is stressful. Most people just want to get it over with. If you can get beyond the stress of missing and use the right equipment, your shooting accuracy will go to the next level.
Using a sled such as the one pictured above can truly help with this, at least until you are confident enough in your ability to longer need it .
Long range shooting, or missing, before you have developed the needed skills can be very frustrating and not enjoyable at all. Use a sled until you are ready to shoot without it. It will always be useful for testing loads and zeroing.
Let your rifle tell you what is wrong with your technique
On rifles with recoil, snipers are trained to observe the action of their rifle on the follow through right after the shot leaves the barrel. The desired action is for the rifle to push straight back and come back pretty much on target after recoil.
Any rifle pushing to one side or jumping in the air is an indication that technique is not correct which can definitely effect where the shot impacts. Although rim fire rifles don’t have a great deal of measurable recoil, there is still enough there to see a move in the wrong direction. Pay attention. You will surprised at what you will learn.
The best way to check your technique is to get into your shooting position and on target, whether shooting prone or from a bench, close your eyes, take a deep breath,relax a little, then open your eyes again. If you are not still on target, you have work to do with your shooting technique.
When shooting prone, your feet should be aligned with your head and the trajectory of the bullet. You see many shooter with their feet off to their weak side. This hurts your ability to remain stable.
Locate the scope position so when you close your eyes, bring the rifle up to your shoulder to a comfortable shooting position, then open your eyes, you should see the full picture through the scope without having to move your head forwards or backwards.
The same goes for your face position on the stock. If you have to raise your head to get a good sight picture through the scope, either your scope rings are too high or you need a cheek riser.
You don’t want to have push your head low or tilt your head awkardly in order to center your eye in the scope. This would indicate that the comb on your rifle is too high which normally requires a different / adjustable stock.
Your rifle must fit you so you can remain comfortable through the process of acquiring the target, holding steady, and squeezing off the shot. If you are uncomfortable your body starts to do evil things that you have to fight and causes fatigue.
Know how to use your scope’s reticle
The first step is to make sure your reticle is in focus. This has nothing to do with the target, that is parallax. You should focus on a single color wall. This adjustment will be toward or on the eye piece. The objective is to get the reticle completely in focus and clear to your eye.
Turn the adjustment until the crosshairs, dots, etc. are crystal clear for your eyes. Then lock it down with the lock ring. If you have a mil dot or moa reticle spend some time with the manual that came with your scope to understand what each graduation means and how it might be used to your advantage when shooting long range.
Knowing what graduations you have will be important when having to interpret data given by your ballistics calculator.
All scopes over 10x or so have a parallax adjustment, or should. This is basically the focus knob. The knob is marked by distance usually in yards. Parallax needs to be set on each shot that is at a different distance than the previous shot in order to get a clear picture of the target. Making long range shots without the parallax adjusted correctly can cause a miss by a fairly large amount. For more information on parallax, read this article. The adjustment knob can be on the left side of the scope – opposite the windage adjustment knob – or it can be a sleeve at the muzzle end of the scope.
I highly recommend the side focus variety. This allows you to make adjustments without losing your established shooting position.
Keep the scope level
In order to execute an accurate shot and hit your target, the cross hairs of your scope must be level with the horizon. Canting the scope can cause your shot to miss the target completely, especially at long ranges. Mounting a scope correctly is very important.
Doing this incorrectly can cause accuracy problems you will fight forever. There are a few ways to determine if scope is level. I will only discuss the one I use because it is the easiest for me. This is assuming that your scope base and rings are mounted correctly on the rifle and have been tightened to the correct torque and secured with a drop of locktite.
I suggest using a torque driver to make sure you don’t over tighten the mounting screws. These little things are easy to break and when they do, they are a bear to get back out without damage to the receiver of your rifle.
Once your scope is mounted, hang a bright colored string from a target or tree with a plumb bob or some king of weight attached to the end at about 25 or 30 yards. Put your rifle into the sled and lock it down so that it is level.
Any flat spot on the action like scope bases or mounting rings can be used with a small level to make sure the rifle is in the level position. Once you are sure the rifle is level, turn your scope so the vertical cross hair is in perfect alignment with the bright colored string.
Because of gravity, the string will show perfect level to the horizon. Take you time to make sure the scope is exactly where it needs to be. Lock down the screws on the scope rings. Use the criss cross method as if you were tightening the lug bolts on a tire.
Recheck to make sure the scope is still level as you tighten because the scope can turn while doing this. If it turns just start over and reduce the amount you tighten each screw at a time until you get it tight and level. Now is a good time to install a scope level indicator so you can maintain the proper rifle position when making shots.
There is nothing that destroys accuracy more than canting the scope during a shot. This little device attaches right to the scope barrel and is always visible from the shooting position. It will do wonders for your consistency.
Become proficient with your rangefinder
Good information on bullet trajectory with environmental elements considered is critical, and for this game you have to spend some money and buy one that can give you accurate readings at extreme distances. Lower-priced rangefinders are undependable at long ranges.
When taking readings, it’s best if you can rest the unit on something solid. Serious long-rangers have a spotter on the rangefinder who mounts it on a tripod.
If you haven’t figured it out already, making the shot is the easiest part. Preparation for the shot is the hard part. But all of it is enjoyable. Take all of the steps above before you make the shot and I will guarantee that you are probably going to like the results. Happy long range rimfire shooting.