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Understanding the Increasingly Popular Sport of Long-Range Shooting

By: Randy Tucker

It’s a saying that comes down from the ridges and out of the valleys of rural Arkansas: “It barks here, but it bites way out there.”

No, they’re not referring to a dog, but to something much more lethal: a rifle. As technology has increased, so has the range of sporting rifles, ammunition, and optics, thus making long-range shooting one of America’s fastest-growing outdoor sports.

Long-Range Beginnings
“Long guns” earned their name because in their infancy, the only way to increase a firearms’ accuracy was to lengthen its barrel. “Old Betsy,” Davy Crockett’s gun, was five feet long, but the famous frontiersman’s favorite weapon was still almost two feet shorter than the longest smoothbore muskets of the day.

It took the refinement of rifling (spiral grooves in a barrel) in the 1840s to reduce rifles to modern-day dimensions. Rifling emerged in Augsburg, Germany in 1498 and became available to wealthy gun owners half-a-century later, but was not commonplace until the days just before the Civil War.

Truth, fiction, and mythology surround the image of long-range military shooting. The term “sniper” comes to us from early 19th-century India, where bored English soldiers competed at shooting snipe. The snipe is a small, quick bird that presents a small, highly mobile target.The men who were able to hit the birds became known as “snipers.” Prior to that, and to a wide extent today, these long-range specialists were known simply as “sharpshooters.”

The Civil War was filled with sharpshooters in both the Union and Confederate Armies, and confirmed kills in excess of 800 yards fill battle field stories. Perhaps the most famous of these war stories is that of Union General John Sedgwick, who attempted to rally his cowering men by standing openly in front of distant Confederate lines and declaring, “Get up men, they couldn’t hit an elephant from that distance.” Sedgwick was then immediately struck down by a rebel marksman.

Military Legends
True, long-range shooting, with specialized rifles (as we think of it today) didn’t really begin until the Boer War in South Africa, and then in earnest on the front lines in the horrid conditions of the trenches during WWI.

A scene in Saving Private Ryan (about World War II) shows the left-handed, zealot Private Jackson taking aim and shooting a Nazi sniper through the tube of his enemy’s own rifle scope at several hundred yards, killing the German instantly. There are no known instances of this actually happening in World War II, but abundant historical resources reference an English marksman who killed a German sharpshooter at almost a half-mile distance across No Man’s Land in World War I by shooting through the enemy scope.

Legendary Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock has 93 confirmed enemy kills in combat and is credited with taking out a Vietcong guerilla at 2,500 yards with a Browning 50 cal. machine gun with a special scope attached.

U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle had a confirmed shot of 2,100 yards that took out an Iraqi sniper in Sadr City with his McMillan Tac-338.

Long-Range Hunting and Competition
All this history and the challenge of safely, accurately, and humanely taking big game at long distances has made long-range shooting the widely popular sport it has become.

The essence of the sport is to hit steel targets set at specific distances, beginning as close as 200 meters and extending out to a mile or more.

The shooter must consider calibers, powder loads, bullet composition, and intricately tuned optics long before he or she heads out the range.

Choosing Calibers
While larger calibers are the norm, if you’re shooting targets at less than a quarter-mile, the .204 is a lot of fun. A blazing muzzle velocity in excess of 4,000 feet-per-second and a flat trajectory make it a joy to shoot.

Some of the more popular calibers are also the most popular for big game sportsmen. The 7.62x39mm and its close cousin the 7.62x51mm (.308) are good choices for target shooting up to 600 meters, as is the venerable 5.56x45 mm or .223 round.

Longer distances move shooters into the most popular American sporting calibers of all time: the 30-06 and the 7mm. Springfield manufactures an excellent 30-06, and Remington’s 7mm is considered one of the finest off-the-shelf guns available. Both of these firearms are good up to 1,000 meters.

Long-distance shooting begins with the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .338 Winchester Magnum, both good up to 1,200 meters, with the .338 able to reach out another 300 meters.

Distances over a mile require a much more powerful weapon for consistency, and that comes with calibers like the Browning .50 cal, the 12.7x99mm NATO, and the 12.7x108mm (Russian .50 cal).

The caliber, body style, and manufacturer are largely a matter of personal preference, as is the all-important choice of optics that accompany your rifle.

Competition Rules
Rules for competitions vary from venue to venue, but the National Rifle Association has a set standard for long-range shooting matches that many choose to follow.

In an NRA match, shooters fire from a prone position (lying on their stomachs) beginning at a distance of 600 yards. The competition moves to longer distances with each successive round, with silhouette targets at 800, 900, and up to 1,000 yards.

Some competitions are for open sites or fixed power scopes, and others are open to any and all optics.

Basic Items for Getting Started
To get started shooting long-range, you need just a few basic items. A gun and ammunition are a given, but a place to shoot is essential as well. Steel targets, attached with chains on solid steel holders, make shooting easy, since the targets swing with impact and send back a solid, reinforcing sound as bullet strikes steel. These types of targets don’t need to be reset between shots, either.

A range finder, spotting scope, and for open-range settings, a wind gauge, are all part of the required equipment, as are sandbags, lead sleds, and shooting tables. Many marksmen have bipods attached to their rifle or shoot from a bipod in the prone, kneeling, and standing positions.

Whether you’re after an elk across a mountain valley, a trophy pronghorn buck across a half-mile of sagebrush, or just like to shoot targets and enjoy the challenge of distance shooting, long-range competition might be the sport for you.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.