January 11, 2023
By Alfredo Rico
Getting into long range shooting should be a fun endeavor. The secret to it relies on basics like good gear, good ammo, excellent shooting fundamentals, a properly zeroed scope, and wind-reading skills. Too often new shooters complicate the matter by focusing on minutia that may not help them at all for the level they are at. They are running before they can walk. The following are common myths I encounter when helping new shooters with their shooting problems.
What is Accuracy?
Before getting into some myths, it’s important to define what is meant by accuracy, because it is often used as a catchall. It’s common to refer to a rifle that shoots small groups as accurate. There are actually two components here, accuracy and precision.
Accuracy refers to the position of the group of shots relative to the point of aim. If the group lands at your point of aim, the shots are accurate. If the group lands on the corner of the target but your aim was dead center, the rifle is not accurate. Precision refers to how a shot group clusters. A group measuring 1-inch and centered on the point of aim is precise and accurate. Shots that are all over the target show the rifle is neither accurate nor precise.
This may seem nuanced, but when you shoot long range, you want your rifle to be accurate and precise at your zeroing distance. If it’s not, the farther you shoot, the more it will contribute to errors in elevation and wind adjustment values. You’ll then blame your ballistic app for being off and not have reliable data.
I Need a Custom Rifle
Factory rifles get a bad rap because they are mass produced. The thinking is that corners are cut in production that robs them of precision. The reality is that many manufacturers build excellent barreled actions, and they’ve produced them for a long time and know how to make them. The weak link is usually the stock and trigger. I have several stock rifles that give my custom rifles a run for the money with precision. The custom rifles are more precise, but we’re talking about quarter-inch difference, not a 1/2-inch difference. Either one is plenty precise for a majority of shooting applications.
I recently spoke to an engineer who makes affordable rifles from $350 to $1,000. I was perplexed that no matter which of their rifles I shot, I am able to shoot sub-MOA groups and get at least one clover leaf group out of each rifle. He said that the qualities and tolerances in a barreled action that make a precise shooting rifle are not a secret and have been known for over a century. He emphasized that due to having to meet a production budget, they can’t put in the extra time in their barreled actions as a custom shop does, but they adhere to the design and production tolerances that make for an accurate and precise rifle. He also added that the key to the company’s success is having a stable workforce. If an employee feels they have stable job, they will produce a very good product.
Handloading for Precision
Handloading has a reputation of being a black art where you concoct a magic recipe that makes your rifle shoot quarter-MOA groups consistently. The problem is that unless you are a competitive shooter who shoots for points and Xs, you won’t need that level precision. To boot, the increase in hit percentage is not as great as many think. According to ballistician Bryan Litz, when shooting a 10-inch round target at 1,000 yards, “going from a 1/2 MOA rifle to a 1/4 MOA rifle improves your hit percentage from 40 percent to 42 percent on the same target.” That’s a two percent improvement.
We live in an age where modern cartridges and their chambers are designed to offer match grade performance no matter the price of the rifle. If you’re new to long range, you are probably shooting a newer cartridge that falls into that category. There are quite a few ammo companies that offer factory match-grade ammunition that use bullets designed to buck the wind, making them excellent for long range. Their extreme spreads (ES) range from 25 to 45 fps, which is small enough dispersion to reliably hit targets 700 yards. If you’re shooting 700 to 1,000 yards regularly, handloading makes sense, because you can finetune the ammo to produce lower SDs and ESs. The result is more center hits if you do everything else right.
Neck Turning for Smaller Groups
I see this myth pop up often. Shooters want to take short cuts and implement what competition shooters do without understanding why they do it. Neck turning equalizes the neck thickness of a case, which enables a consistent neck tension. A consistent neck tension reduces dispersion and improves precision and long ranges. Top competition shooters are known to neck turn because they seek every advantage, even if it offers a five percent improvement over their competition. They may win or lose a competition by a single shot. If you don’t know why you are doing it, you most likely are not doing it correctly. Don’t complicate your reloading unnecessarily.
Hot Loads Shoot Best
High velocities are appealing because we think that the faster the bullet, the flatter the trajectory. The less time it’s exposed to the environmental forces translates to more accurate and precise groups.
When I began reloading, I saw small groups can be found in low and high ends of the velocity spectrum. This is common for other reloaders, too. It showed me that the precision is not dependent on high velocity. I later learned that competitive shooters like King of 2 Mile and champion PRS shooter Robert Brantley favor slower loads because of the lower recoil. This allows them to stay on target and spot his hits and misses, which is critical in competition shooting or hunting. The extra wind deflection of the slower bullet can easily be compensated for.
Hunters who reload like it hot because higher velocities enhance the lethality of a bullet. The problem is they use powder weights at or beyond maximum recommended loads. With higher velocities come higher pressures, which can cause injury, rifle damage or both. Roy Weatherby, who was known for developing his juiced-up cartridges, understood this and had brass and rifles that were designed to handle his high-pressure loads. If you want to increase lethality, step up to another cartridge.
Speed junkies will say that manufacturers are erring on the side of caution with those pressure warnings, and it’s ok to go a little beyond the max. The problem is there is no practical way for a shooter to know how much pressure a handload is producing without specialized equipment. Checking the brass for bolt head wipes or flattened primers is a crude method, especially considering every brass manufacturer has a different brass recipe. Premium brass manufacturer, Alpha Munitions, warns reloaders against pushing the max because their OCD brass may not show signs of over-pressure. Why risk injury or rifle damage for speed?
As a new shooter, the greatest boon to accuracy and precision will always be to master the fundamentals of shooting, set your gear up properly, create a stable position, and sharpen your wind-calling skills. Build experience with what you have, and when you are ready to explore more, you will be able to tell whether it’s helpful or not.