Shooting accurately beyond about 500 meters is tough, and doing so beyond 1,000 meters is extremely difficult — perhaps the most difficult kind of shooting there is. Excellent long-range marksmanship requires both high-end equipment and many hours of practice.
This guide will take a broad approach to long range shooting by introducing many different skills and considerations at a fundamental level. You'll need to practice and study all of them in-depth to become a true sniper.
Back to Basics
By far, the most important tools in your long-range toolbox are your basic shooting fundamentals. The longer the shot, the less margin for error, and the more precisely you'll need to execute all of these basic skills.
You'll find it very difficult to hit anything beyond about 300 meters unless you're prone or seated at a bench. An excellent shooting position is the first and most basic fundamental to hone. When prone, flex your strong-side leg such that most of your weight on that side is resting on your thigh. Keep your weak-side leg straight, and spread both feet outward so that their inside edges are flat on the ground. Use a bipod or shooting rest to firmly support the barrel of your rifle.
Ensure that your rifle's stock is seated firmly in the pocket of your shoulder and that your cheek is planted firmly on the stock, with your eye about one to two inches from the optic. A common mistake among novice rifle shooters is to leave too much space between your eye and the optic. Having your eye too far from the scope makes it more difficult to view your target straight-on and thus reduces accuracy. Although having your eye too close to your scope can cause injury, if your rifle's stock is properly seated, rearward recoil should be minimal, even with large-caliber rifles. Experiment carefully to learn how much recoil to expect with your particular weapon, then work on figuring out the optimal distance between your eye and scope.
If your long-range shots are generally consistent on the horizontal axis but widely variable on the vertical axis, it's likely that you aren't regulating your breathing properly. As you inhale and exhale, your weapon rises and falls slightly. At short range, these variations can be negligible, but such errors are magnified at long range. At 300 meters, one inch of barrel movement results in missing the target by more than a foot — and at 500 or 1,000 meters, you'll miss by five feet, ten feet or more.
Before you fire, inhale fully, empty your lungs about halfway, then hold your breath. Take your shot, then resume breathing. As you become more familiar with the rhythmic relationship between breathing and firing, you can take multiple shots on the same held breath or fire at different points during your respiratory cycle.
Exactly where on the target should you place your reticle? This is an enormously complicated question. Many factors affect your point of aim, including range, elevation, wind and the precise ballistic properties of your weapon and ammunition, among dozens of others. With so many variables to consider, we'll cover the answer to this question in a very general sense.
The farther your target, the higher you need to aim — provided the terrain in between is perfectly flat. Conversely, if the target is significantly higher or lower than you are, you'll need to lower your point of aim in both cases. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reason — the "rifleman's rule" — is simple.
To start, picture someone with a rifle aiming hundreds of meters downrange at a target about fifteen feet above their current elevation. In this instance, it's possible to construct an invisible triangle. The first leg of the triangle is a line straight from the rifle muzzle to the target, called the line-of-sight distance. The second leg of the triangle extends straight from the muzzle toward the target, but runs parallel to the ground; this line passes below the target and is called the horizontal distance. The final leg of the triangle is a vertical line connecting the first two legs, running from the target to the ground. The length of this line is the height of the target relative to the muzzle (fifteen feet in this case).
Thanks to Pythagoras, we know that the line-of-sight distance to a higher or lower target (the hypotenuse of the triangle) is always greater than the horizontal distance to the target (the longer of the two non-hypotenuse legs, in most cases). Gravity pulls bullets toward the ground at a constant rate as they travel, and this rate is affected only by the horizontal distance to the target, not the vertical distance between the target and the muzzle (fifteen feet in the instance above). Therefore, bullet drop is not as significant if the target is higher or lower than if it were at the same elevation. This is why a shooter needs to aim their reticle lower, both when their target is higher and lower than the muzzle.
There are many more variables to consider when it comes to sight picture, some of which we'll cover later. Only significant research and practice will enable you to master this difficult concept.
If your shot groups are on-target with respect to the vertical axis but inaccurate on the horizontal axis, the culprit is likely either your grip or trigger squeeze. Horizontal drift most often occurs as a result of jerking the trigger unevenly just before it breaks, which pulls the rifle slightly to the left or right.
A perfect trigger pull is one that produces a shot that surprises you to some extent. The best way to practice this is to squeeze the trigger very slowly and smoothly, at a constant rate. Keep all of your muscles relaxed and don't anticipate the shot. This technique helps to ensure that your rifle will move as little as possible throughout the trigger pull.
In the context of long-range shooting, "follow-through" refers to maintaining the same shooting position, grip, breathing pattern, sight picture and trigger squeeze after each shot. Any time you change any of those variables, even slightly, your next shot's point of impact will be different.
Resist the temptation to move your head and look downrange to see where your shot went. Maintain the same sight picture until you're done firing at the target. Pay close and conscious attention to your posture and grip in between shots, and do your best to keep them consistent. Strive to make each trigger pull identical to the previous one.
When you're first learning the basic fundamentals of shooting, almost any gear will do. To master long-range rifle shooting, though, you'll eventually need to invest in high-end gear that's up to the task.
Key considerations when purchasing a rifle include its weight, barrel length and the general quality of its craftsmanship. Heavier rifles absorb more recoil and therefore move less between shots, and longer barrels fire projectiles more accurately. All of these factors (and several others) contribute to precision and accuracy, which are distinct but closely related things.
Precision refers to your rifle's (and your) ability to consistently hit the same area of a target, whereas accuracy describes how close the point of impact is to your intended point of impact. It's possible to have high precision and low accuracy, or vice versa. You'll need both to master this difficult skill.
Caliber choice is a complex and highly individual matter. Large calibers such as .300 Magnum are popular among long-range shooters for several reasons, chiefly because large bullets travel faster and lose velocity more slowly, thus making it easier to account for bullet drop. Large-caliber rifles also tend to weigh more, which has a positive impact on recoil and stability. Read up on ammo 101 for more in-depth information on ammunition caliber, grain, load and more.
Any seasoned long-range marksman will tell you that even if you're on a limited budget, you should spend most of your money on your optics. A low-end or mid-range rifle with a top-tier optic will produce better results than a cheap scope on an expensive rifle. Most of the challenges related to long-range precision and accuracy stem from your ability to see the target clearly and to make minute adjustments.
The question of how to select an optic is a loaded one. For now, suffice to say that you should look for one that has precisely adjustable and solidly constructed "turrets," independently known as windage, elevation and parallax knobs. Also ensure that the scope is properly sealed against moisture and that its mounting hardware is made of durable, high-quality metal. The mount's moving parts should be obviously capable of fitting snugly to your rifle and holding the scope firmly in place, even if the weapon is dropped or jostled.
If you have extra room in your budget, you should also pick up a well-made rangefinder and/or spotting scope. Ask the resident optics expert at your local gun store for advice on all of these items so that you can make an informed decision. If your gun store doesn't have an optics expert, do careful and thorough research online before buying.
Ammunition and Other Tools
Selecting the ammunition you'll use to practice is, again, a very complicated process with many factors to weigh. At ranges under 300 meters or so, different loads generally make little difference in terms of accuracy and precision, but at 500 to 1,000 meters, you'll see a lot of variance in ballistic performance.
There are some smartphone apps that can perform complex ballistics calculations for you. However, smartphone apps are both difficult to use and limited in their usefulness. Once you conquer the steep learning curve and figure out exactly what you're doing, apps can get you reasonably close to the target, but you'll need to manually dial in your shots from there.
Once you've become an intermediate long-range shooter, consider investing in a standalone ballistics calculator. These devices are even harder to use, but they're much more accurate than smartphone apps. They can be a worthwhile investment for serious snipers.
Zeroing Your Weapon
Simply put, zeroing your weapon is the process of making careful, gradual adjustments to your rifle and optics until your shots land exactly where you want them to at a given distance. Two important concepts to bear in mind when zeroing your weapon are cold-bore shots and fouling shots. Be sure to read our in-depth guide on how to zero a rifle.
A cold-bore shot is one fired while the barrel is cold, generally taken to mean your first shot of the day or session. As you continuously fire your rifle, the barrel heats up, which causes miniscule changes in each bullet's trajectory as it exits the barrel. At short and medium distances, these changes are negligible, but along a flight path of 1,000 meters or longer, they can produce significant and unexpected changes in the point of impact. Generally, you'll want to fire very slowly when zeroing your weapon, with long breaks between each shot to allow the barrel to return to its baseline temperature. This will better enable you to achieve a "cold-bore zero," at which point you'll have a better understanding of how your rifle will perform under both "cold" and "hot" conditions.
Fouling shots are controversial among shooters; some don't believe the concept even exists. According to some experts, the oil, dirt, gunpowder and other grime that accumulates in a clean rifle barrel can change the bullet's trajectory and point of impact in significant ways. Other longtime shooters maintain that, at least in most cases, this debris has no real effect on your shooting. Whether and how fouling shots impact your precision and accuracy is up to you to decide through experimentation and careful observation. Either way, it's important to keep your weapon well cleaned and maintained.
Minute of Angle (MOA) calculations are important when it comes to zeroing your weapon and to estimating vertical and horizontal offsets on the fly. Most rifle scopes adjust in increments of 1/4 or 1/8 MOA per click of the associated knob, and an MOA describes a deviation of one inch per 100 yards (not meters). For instance, if you're attempting to zero your weapon at 100 yards and your shots are landing one inch below your point of aim, you would need to adjust your elevation (vertical) knob by a number of clicks equal to 1 MOA. High-quality optics often feature MOA indicators around the crosshair to help you estimate where to aim at ranges shorter or longer than your current zero.
Like most other aspects of long-range marksmanship, the environmental factors you'll have to contend with are myriad and complex. We'll briefly introduce a few of the most significant ones here.
Bullet drop describes the extent to which gravity pulls a bullet toward the earth as it travels. The farther the target, the higher you'll need to aim in order to compensate for lost altitude. You'll need to thoroughly study complex ballistics charts for your particular rifle and ammunition in order to learn how to predict bullet drop in real time.
Strong winds can push bullets off course, especially those in flight for one second or longer. Because wind direction and speed can change constantly and unpredictably, wind is one of the most challenging things for shooters to deal with.
The Coriolis Effect comes into play only for extremely long shots. In a nutshell, it describes the effect of the Earth's rotation on a bullet's point of impact. While a bullet is in flight, it's traveling in a generally straight line relative to a particular, three-dimensional point in space, but the planet is still rotating on its axis, which exerts many different forces on objects not physically attached to its surface. The Coriolis Effect is actually something of a catch-all term that describes and includes several different forces; a master marksman must know what they all are and how to account for them at any given distance.
Density altitude is a complex metric that factors in air temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity at a given location. All of these things can have an impact on a bullet's trajectory and point of impact at long range.
It should be evident by now that long-range shooting is an incredibly difficult skill that demands discipline, dexterity, mastery of complex math and much more. As with all complex skills, you must practice, practice, practice. Even with rock-solid fundamentals and high-end gear, you'll need to commit to many hours of practice in order to become a proficient long-range marksman. If you're not quite ready for long-range shooting, our guide on shooting drills for beginner marksmen offers a great starting point for newer shooters.
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