How Far is Too Far?
By Tom Bulloch
By Tom Bulloch
This is a subject that is debated in many hunting camps and forums. Since Nightforce has been on the forefront of this technology, we asked Tom to give us his unique perspective on long-range hunting. He gives some very good advice, and some of it may surprise you.
We gulped the last of our coffee, the only warmth to be had in the pre-dawn blackness, the time when the mountain chill comes with a knife’s edge. Soon, Jerry and I would each head to our chosen spots, brimming with the anticipation and confidence opening morning brings. “So,” Jerry asked, the concern on his face revealed by the dying campfire, “just how far is too far?” It was a profound question, laden with implication. Jerry is a good and conscientious hunter but had not had a lot of experience shooting at the distances we might encounter in the vast, open country where we would spend the next several days.
Jerry knew that I had spent several years exploring the technology and techniques of shooting at longer distances, and I respected him for asking the question. Too many hunters seem to believe that all men are born with the shooting skills of a Special Forces sniper and to admit a lack of prowess in that area somehow equates with questionable manhood.
I had made that admission a number of years ago, regarding my shooting ability, and it was a painful but essential first step to becoming a better hunter. Out to 250 yards or so, I was a pretty good shot. Beyond that, I had to confess I was guessing. For me, “too far” was “not as far as I’d like it to be.” At that time, hunting at extended ranges was a new and exciting subject, one that I knew held a number of technical challenges. What I didn’t know was how many personal challenges it held as well.
Few topics in the shooting industry have raised more interest and more hackles than long-range hunting. Turn on the television and you’ll see skilled shooters taking big game efficiently at 800, 900, and even 1,000 yards and beyond. For every advocate of extreme-range hunting, you’ll find another who decries the practice as unethical. So who is right? I turned to some acknowledged experts in long-range shooting for input based on fact, not opinion.
“So, how far is too far?” I asked Kyle Brown, director of sales and marketing for Nightforce Optics, Inc. “If someone doesn’t know their rifle and doesn’t shoot much, any distance can be too far.” said Brown. “At the other extreme, highly accomplished shooters are pushing the long-range envelope ever further. Today, 1,000 yards is old hat. Shooting with extreme precision well beyond a mile is not only feasible, but it is being done every day.” Brown is a former world-record holder himself, so this is not marketing fluff.
Nightforce riflescopes are regarded as some of the finest in the world, and the company made its reputation based on the extended-range capability and superb quality of its products. Indeed, more long-range world records have been set with Nightforce riflescopes than any other brand. One might think that a company like Nightforce would be a highly vocal advocate of long-range hunting, but they are remarkably reserved on the subject.
“If you watch some of the long-range hunters we’re involved with, like Bob Beck and Aaron Davidson,” Brown said, “you’ll see what makes an accomplished shooter. Obviously good optics are essential, but they fire thousands of rounds a year, constantly experimenting with the best bullets and optimum loads for their rifles. They understand what happens downrange, both through the use of sophisticated software and years of applied experience. Above all, it is practice, practice, and more practice. They shoot more rounds in a few months than the average hunter will shoot in a lifetime.”
“But what about that emotionally charged word, ‘ethics’?” I asked Brown.
“Hunters have been trying to extend their range ever since firearms were invented.” Brown explained. “It is, for better or worse, human nature. Most of us who hunt have witnessed the sad spectacle of one or more ‘shooters’, I won’t call them ‘hunters’, lobbing round after round at a game animal hundreds of yards away with no idea of the actual distance or their rifle’s ballistics, hoping to hit the creature somewhere, anywhere. Unethical? It’s worse than that. It’s inhumane.”
“The tools and technology exist to allow today’s hunter to shoot with more precision and confidence at greater distances than ever before.” Brown continued. “That’s what we make at Nightforce. But, just as buying a pair of Air Jordans will not instantly make you an NBA star, merely purchasing the equipment or falling for the latest ‘longrange’ marketing gimmick will not make you a World Class shooter. It takes many days at the range, learning your rifle’s capabilities as well as your own, and a whole lot of shooting in every conceivable environment. When you pull the trigger on a game animal, you want to know where that bullet will hit, not hope. Ethics you either have or you don’t. Skill is something you can acquire.”
So what are some of the tools and technology Brown mentioned? Surprisingly, the rifle itself is well down the list of concerns. Many hunters don’t hesitate to spend a small fortune on a custom or semi-custom rifle, believing that is the key to improved marksmanship. The fact is, most of today’s off-the-shelf, moderately priced rifles are capable of excellent accuracy. A little fine-tuning with quality bullets and loads will result in even tighter groups.
Any rifle, though, will only shoot as well as the optics mounted upon it allow. Once a hunter starts working toward consistent shot placement at 400, 500, 600 yards, or beyond, the riflescope and its mounts are of paramount importance. In truth, a serious hunter is well advised to spend more on those items than on the rifle. Flaws in inexpensive riflescopes that may not be noticeable at 100 yards can make an accurate shot at 600+ yards impossible, when mirage, lack of contrast and resolution, and poor low-light performance can defeat the most talented shooter. Repeated pounding from magnum calibers can loosen reticles, windage and elevation adjustments, and poorly made scope mounts. A 3" variable at 100 yards will not matter much on a deer-sized animal. At 800 yards, 3" become roughly 24", which matters a lot.
New, highly sophisticated reticles are a major contributor to increased long-range accuracy. Take the time to learn a detailed minute-of-angle-based reticle, or employ a ballistics-based design like Nightforce’s Velocity™ reticles and you will eliminate any guessing at holdovers, regardless of distance.
It goes without saying that a reliable rangefinder is essential equipment. Some of the new smartphone apps (“Ballistic” by Jonathan Zdziarski is my favorite) put a wealth of information literally in your hand, even allowing in-thefield calculations for variables in elevation, humidity, wind direction, and more.
Even so, charts, graphs, and tables are suggestions, not gospel. There is no technology that replaces actual shooting practice, and a lot of it. And, at least in my case, technology cannot provide talent. A famous shooter known as Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Not everyone has the ability and discipline to shoot accurately at 1,000 yards; I certainly don’t. I’ve set a personal confidence limit of about 600 yards. With more work and practice maybe I can extend that; for now, it is still a lot better than the “old days.”
Engraved on the walls of Delphi where ancient Greek military leaders went to beg a glimpse into the future from the all-knowing Oracle is “Know Thyself.” Almost three millennia later, this is excellent advice for shooters. A comfortable shot for one hunter might be 850 yards, for another, 150. If we put in the time and effort to become better shooters and are honest about our individual abilities, it makes any debate over the ethics of long-range hunting irrelevant.
The eastern sky was lightening. It was time for us to move. Jerry and I had talked about holdover, bullet placement, downhill and uphill shots, range estimation, wind drift, and retained energy, the entire gamut of complicated topics that can flash through one’s mind after easing off the safety, but I knew I still hadn’t answered his question and I had done nothing for his confidence. Then I realized how simple the answer was for him, for me, for all of us, “If you think it’s too far, then it is.”