The Science of Shooting Deer: Wayne Van Zwoll on Long Range Shots

Mostly, whitetails are killed at 100 yards or less and mule deer at 200 and under, but every once in a while, you will want to take a shot at truly long range--300 and 400 yards. Any competent rifleman should be able to hit just about every shot at 200 yards or under, but at 300 it really gets tough, and at 400 yards the odds are pretty grim. We all knew that going in to this event, and it was confirmed--in spades.

We each fired three bullets at paper deer targets at 100, 200, 300, and 400 yards, scoring first shots as well as follow-ups, because if you don't hit at the first chance, you're unlikely to get a second. We could shoot from any position we would use in hunting but were not allowed to use Kenny Jarrett's benchrests because there are very few of the things in the fields and forests.

Simpson fired prone, using a Harris bipod, and supported the butt of his rifle with a rubber-armored binocular. Petzal used a sling from prone at 100 and 200, then rested his rifle over a pack, prone, from 300 and 400. Boddington shot from sitting and prone with a hasty sling, then prone with a pack. I shot prone with a sling at all distances. The wind that day swung from four to eight o'clock, at 5 to 10 mph.

The rifles and scopes we used were typical of what you might find in deer camps: Simpson shot a Weatherby Vanguard in .257 Weatherby Magnum with 100-grain factory-loaded softpoints and a 2.5X-10X Bushnell Elite 4200 scope. Boddington used a custom-barreled Remington M700 in .300 H&H, 150-grain bullets loaded by Superior Ammunition, and a Leupold Vari-X III 4.5X-14X scope. Petzal chose a Lazzeroni L2000SA Lightweight Mountain Rifle in 7.21 Tomahawk, handloaded 160-grain Nosler Partition bullets, and a Leupold VXIII 2.5X-10X scope with Leupold's new Boone and Crockett range-compensating reticle. And I had a 1940s Winchester M70 in .270, Jarrett ammo with 140-grain Nosler AccuBond bullets, and an old 2.5X Lyman scope.

At 100, 200, and 300 yards, all shooters hit the vital zone with their first shots. Of the remaining rounds (two per person at each distance), one bullet missed at 200 yards, two at 300. Aggregate score: 33 of 36. The 400-yard target was a lot different--just five hits out of 12 attempts. To me, the wind appeared to have little effect.

WHAT WE LEARNED Up to 300 yards, we were a real threat to deer. But our best at 400 yards was more misses than hits. Any mistake you make at this distance will be hugely magnified--the slightest tremor in your rifle, a misjudgment of the distance, the inability to spot a puff of wind. Your bullet is plummeting, and not only is it losing speed rapidly, but the lower velocity makes it more and more susceptible to drift.

Two hundred yards is the limit for an average shot and 300 for a very good shot. Four hundred is a chancy proposition even for the best riflemen, and we would all do a lot better if we got a lot closer.

RECOMMENDED GUNS Rifles for long shooting don't need to be ponderous. With practice, you can hit well at a distance with a gun that's nimble enough for short shots and light enough for all-day carrying. My picks of the current crop are Winchester's M70 Classic Featherweight, the Remington M700 Titanium, and Weatherby's Ultra Lightweight in .270 Winchester. The .270's 130- and 140-grain spitzers at around 3000 fps are all you need for deer. They fly as flat as 7mm and .30 magnum bullets and beat you up a lot less, so you shoot better. Also good are the .280 and .25/06. For short actions, the .308, 7mm/08, and .260 excel.

The 2.5X Lyman on my old M70 is hardly ideal for long shooting, but it scored the only first-round hit on the 400-yard target, and all its shots at that range were in or very near the marked vitals. More magnification would have helped, but a fixed-power Leupold 4X or a 6X is all I want on a deer rifle. Pressed to use a variable, I'd pick Leupold's VX-III 2.5X-8X or Swarovski's AV 3X-9X.

A FIELD MARKSMAN'S MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY

BODDINGTON "Familiarity with your rifle, and with yourself. Know what you can do and what you can't do."

PETZAL "Cold blood. If you can't control your nerves when the time comes to shoot, you haven't got a prayer."

SIMPSON "Confidence. I miss a deer once in a while, but I'm absolutely certain I'll kill every one I shoot at."

VAN ZWOLL "Knowing your effective range and staying within it."