So you set up a refrigerator-size target in your buddy’s pasture, and after eight or 10 shots you ding it at 800 yards. Great. But that doesn’t mean you’re ready to shoot at big game from anywhere near that stupid distance. Not even close. With an animal’s life on the line, what you should do first and foremost is get closer. Then if you still feel tempted to shoot from 400 yards or more, you owe it to that critter to take a second and ask yourself the five critical questions below. If you can’t answer yes to all, don’t shoot.
1. Do You Know Your Cold-Bore Zero?
What separates great riflemen from weekend warriors is their ability to make clean kills on their first shot, time and again. To do that, you need to know your cold-bore zero—the point of impact of your first shot through a cold barrel. Because bullets heat barrels instantly, most rifles shoot to a slightly different POI on the first shot compared with subsequent ones. At normal hunting ranges the difference is negligible, but at 400-plus yards, it can mean the difference between a great shot and a gut shot.
To learn your rifle’s cold-bore zero, wait for a cool day with no wind. Shoot one shot, and then wait for the barrel to cool completely before firing the next. Shoot a few groups this way, zeroing your scope as necessary.
2. Do You Have All the Data?
Precision long-range shooting requires that you enter all the relevant data into your ballistic calculator (or longhand equation), and that data must be as precise as possible. For example, do you know that most ballistics programs assume a default sight-above-bore height of 11⁄2 inches? If the center of your scope is 13⁄4 inches above the center of your rifle’s bore, your calculations will be off. So measure it. Likewise, you need precise temperature, altitude, and pressure readings in the field. While these values have little effect on a bullet at 200 yards, getting them even slightly wrong at 600 can mean missing an elk.
3. Do You Know Your Optic Intimately?
You should know, for example, exactly how much one click of your exposed windage and elevation knobs moves the bullet downrange. These values are not always as advertised, so you need to either verify them at the range, or figure out your scope’s real-world adjustments by shooting—a lot. Don’t assume anything.
If you’re using a ballistic reticle, know that most American-style scopes place those dots or hashes in the second focal plane, which means that any change in magnification will alter their subtension values (the amount of bullet drop represented by the marks). The easy way to deal with this is to zero these scopes at their maximum magnification, and then use the ballistic reticle only at the highest power. The superior method is to keep an intricate chart of your scope’s subtension values at all magnifications and distances.
4. Do You Really Know What the Wind is Doing?
The wind is a fickle thing. In mountainous terrain, especially, it is not uncommon to feel a 5-mph left-to-right wind on your face while a 10-mph right-to-left wind blows near the target. Of course you should take a wind reading at the muzzle, preferably with a wind meter. That’s the easy part, and sufficient at normal ranges. But when you’re going long, you should also take one midway and one near the target. This is more of an art than a science. All you have to go by are a few visual clues, like undulating leaves, grass, and mirage. Knowing how to apply these “measurements” to your hold comes only through long hours of practice—practice of the sort most shooters will never do. And yet for ultra-long range, it’s a must.
5. Can You Get Into a Good Position with a Solid Rest?
Rifles react differently to different points of contact. A slightly different cheek weld or a finger placed alongside the barrel, for example, can change the POI. Therefore, you need to be able to get into a position that’s consistent with your practice, which isn’t always possible in the field. Don’t use your sling if you didn’t use it to zero your rifle. And if your field position prevents you from resting your cheek in the exact same place you always do—so that your eye aligns with the scope consistently—adjust the comb as needed or use an aftermarket cheekpiece.
By the same token, don’t use a rock for a rest if you zeroed off sandbags. A good rifle rest means at least two points of contact with an inanimate object, so rest the fore-end solidly on your pack or a bipod, for example, and then also use a rear rest. A sock filled with sand or soil is ideal, or a rolled-up outer garment can work. If, after you finally settle in, you see the crosshairs moving due to a shaky rest or a shaky you—or if you feel the slightest uncertainty regarding any one of the questions above—don’t shoot.