Long-Range Precision Rifle Shooting: A Beginner's Guide
July 13, 2018
Long-range precision shooting sports are popular; here's what you need to know to get started
Of the many long-range shooting disciplines, Precision Rifle Series (PRS) competitions currently rule the popularity roost. Distilled to its essence, PRS-type shooting is a demanding sport that pits shooters against challenging targets at varying distances that are engaged from multiple, often-awkward positions. Traditionally, 10 shots are called for per stage, and time is limited to two minutes. National-level matches usually present 20 stages split between two days; smaller matches might consist of six to 10 stages in a day.
To excel in this kind of shooting, a shooter must possess a properly equipped long-range precision rifle fed by a 10-round magazine, a cool head and time-polished skill in acquiring stable, improvised positions, making precise shots quickly and transitioning from one firing position to another with speed and efficiency.
Launched in 2011, the official PRS organization tracks shooter scores fired in registered matches across the country, provides aggregate shooter standings and hosts national invitational matches. It counts heavy hitters like Hornady, Leupold, Nightforce, Proof Research and others as sponsors. Its two series are Bolt Gun and Gas Gun, and both are broken down into Open, Tactical and Production divisions.
As is typical in a new, fast-growing sport, other organizations have sprung up, with the biggest of these being the National Rifle League (NRL). The NRL hosts national-level matches in various states across the West. Matches are run in similar format to those conducted by PRS.
Before delving into equipment, let's look at the skills pertinent to the sport. PRS-type matches throw all sorts of scenarios at shooters and require shooting from awkward barriers, platforms and terrain. Developing the ability to quickly achieve positions stable enough to make precise shots on small steel plates at long distance is critical- and key to getting all shots from each various position fired before the clock buzzes.
Spotting one's own hits and misses is of vital importance because shooters aren't allowed any feedback until after the stage timer buzzes. Choose a light-recoiling, high-performance cartridge (this type of shooting was the primary motivation for Hornady to introduce the 6mm Creedmoor), employ an aggressive muzzle brake and build a solid position that minimizes muzzle jump. If you do it all correctly, you'll see the impact through your scope- and possibly even see the projectile's vapor trail as it arcs toward the target.
Competitors are not allowed to walk through stages and positions prior to shooting. During those short 120 seconds, you will have to transition through two to five shooting positions. Learn to read the lay of the stage, plan ahead and then efficiently move between stations to complete the course of fire before time runs out.
You'll start with action open, loaded magazine inserted. Once the timer beeps, dive safely into your first position, acquire the first target in your scope, and then- and only then- close the bolt. Open the action and keep it open while transitioning to the next position. "Ghost loading," a term for closing the action before acquiring the next target, can be grounds for stage disqualification. Muzzle control is paramount as well.
Working the bolt (assuming you're shooting a bolt gun) quickly and smoothly between shots and target acquisition are keys to getting all shots sent in time. The fastest shooters are so practiced they appear almost leisurely as they progress through a stage.
Fast, precise scope adjustments are critical. Occasionally, a stage may forbid dialing. Know how to use your reticle for holding over and practice so you won't experience brain shutdown at the moment of truth. Don't get carried away with magnification: The best shooters use 6X to 10X most of the time.
Wind is the one element no technology can overcome. Learn to watch mirage and blowing leaves, grass and even insects in your scope to gauge how strong the wind is, then convert it into a full-value (90-degree) crosswind and use a calculator or chart to estimate drift. Spotting the impact of missed shots helps make accurate corrections.
Polish your skills via extensive dry-fire practice. PRS-suitable ammunition is expensive, making a 200-round weekend match hard on your wallet and your barrel. Dry-fire practice using improvised supports inside your home will pay rich rewards during later matches.
In terms of hardware, you want an accurate rifle; a clear, robust, predictable scope; and precise, high-BC ammunition. Accessories include an adaptable bipod, several different-size lightweight shooting bags, atmospheric pressure-reading device, tripod and so forth.
Whatever rifle you choose, it must fit you well and be perfectly reliable with 10-round magazines. Barrels should be able to hold their point of impact when they heat up, and they should be mated to a rigid, temperature-stable stock. You want a clean-breaking, light trigger. Ideally, your rifle will provide half-m.o.a. accuracy with a high-BC projectile.
Serious competitors eventually end up shooting a custom rifle like the switch-barrel West Texas Ordnance Claymore I've been shooting recently (it's fit with barrels in 6.5 Creedmoor and .223 Rem.), but the popularity of PRS-type shooting is such that several gun companies have recently introduced top-notch production rifles geared specifically for PRS shooting. Here are six I think are worth investigating.
If you want the most capable PRS-type production rifle on the market, get the Tikka T3x TAC A1 ($1,899) in 6.5 Creedmoor. Superbly accurate, ridiculously smooth and as trustworthy as they come, this Tikka is mated with a configurable, folding, machined-aluminum chassis and comes factory-mounted with a Picatinny optic base. The only downside is it uses expensive proprietary magazines, but said mags are of steel and are unfailingly reliable.
Ruger's Precision Rifle ($1,599) was the first of the really capable PRS-type rifles to hit the market and is still one of the best. It's certainly the most adaptable. It accepts Accuracy International Chassis System (AICS) type magazines, Magpul P-Mags and some M14 magazines. It allows easy barrel changes and is available in the Ã¼ber-cool 6mm Creedmoor. Many shoot half-m.o.a. or better. The mounting tube is directly behind the bore axis, aiding recoil control so as better to spot your shots. Several top barrel companies produce aftermarket drop-in barrels for the Precision.
Offering great ergonomics, sterling accuracy and all the PRS bells and whistles, the Bergara B-14 BMP ($1,699) in 6.5 Creedmoor is a dark horse that will win with the best. The two-lug action accepts Remington bases and features a better-than-good trigger. The rifle combines refreshing simplicity with capable features and is compatible with AICS-type magazines.
Savage's Model 10 GRS ($1,449) features a Model 10 short action mated with a Norwegian GRS target stock and AICS-compatible bottom metal. This rifle is the ticket for shooters who don't like chassis-type stocks but want the perfect fit that matters so much in precision shooting. As a bonus, it's available in 6mm Creedmoor.
The Howa HCR ($1,239 to $1,449) is offered with a 26-inch heavy barrel in 6.5 Creedmoor, enabling shooters to milk the most out of the cartridge. Even better, it's bedded into a superb Accurate Mag's chassis and comes with a steel AICS-type Accurate Mag 10-round magazine. Several color combinations are available, ranging from all black to Multicam and FDE. If you buy the threaded-muzzle version, you can add a suppressor or muzzle brake to tame recoil.
The Remington 700 Magpul ($1,175) is a match made in shooter heaven. It's mated to a Magpul Hunter stock and may be the best value on the market as a starter PRS rifle. A rigid aluminum bedding block provides an accurate foundation, and the stock is easily configured to shooter-fitting perfection. It uses AICS-type magazines and is finally available in 6.5 Creedmoor. Barrel length is only 22 inches, but the muzzle is threaded and ready for a brake or suppressor. All metal is finished in matte black Cerakote.
Good 10-round magazines are a major consideration. AICS-type single-column magazines are the most reliable, and most production rifles and aftermarket bottom metal are engineered to use this style. Originals are superb but pricey; aftermarket versions by Accurate Mag and Magpul offer lower-cost alternatives. Accuracy International's double-stack "AW" mags are shorter, lighter and easier to load, but many rifles are finicky with them.
Magpul's AICS-type magazines function wonderfully but limit overall cartridge length to 2.86 inches. This is better than magazines that limit length to 2.82 inches but still a bit shorter than most handloaders want. Arguably the best option on the market is Accurate Mag's new extended 7.62x51 box magazine. Designed without a binder plate inside the front seam, it accepts cartridges up to 3.05 inches in length and offers handloaders all the room they want.
An old adage suggests spending as much on your scope as you do on your hunting rifle. It holds true for PRS-type rifles. Really capable scopes start at about $1,500 and go up- way up. Many top competitors use U.S. Optics, Steiner, Schmidt & Bender, Nightforce or Tangent Theta scopes that cost $3,000 or more.
You don't need to spend that to be competitive, but you do need a clear optic with superb-quality turrets that provide predictable, precise adjustments. A zero-stop-type mechanism on the turret is a must, as is plenty of elevation adjustment and parallax adjustment. You'll want a good long-range reticle, preferably in the front focal plane so the reticle subtensions are accurate no matter what magnification you use.
Milliradians rule the PRS world. There are several reasons for this. One is their adjustments are faster to use. You can usually get well past 1,000 yards in one rotation, whereas most m.o.a. scopes require two rotations. And since everybody uses mils, it's easy to put feedback offered from your shooting squad members to work.
A spotting scope isn't paramount, but it does enable you to watch wind and get a feel for targets and conditions by spotting while shooters ahead of you in the squad lineup shoot. The best I've found is Leupold's Gold Ring 12-40x60mm HD, which combines super glass, relatively light weight and a capable, combined m.o.a./mil reticle.
When picking a cartridge, look to the efficient mid-bores. Any light-recoiling 6.5mm or 6mm pushing heavy-for-caliber, extremely aerodynamic projectiles works great for PRS-type shooting. The relatively new 6mm Creedmoor currently dominates among the top-ranked competitors, offering outstanding accuracy, great ballistics and recoil so light that- in a rifle fit with an aggressive muzzle brake- a good shooter can watch his bullet's vapor trail to the target.
Second most popular, and a better option for beginning PRS shooters, is the 6.5 Creedmoor. It recoils a bit more, but with practice a good shooter can still spot impacts. The advantage it holds is the big selection of extremely accurate factory loads on the market and the vast quantity of suitable component projectiles for the reloader.
If I had to choose three factory 6.5 Creedmoor loads that every shooter should test in a new rifle, they would be Hornady's 140- and 147-grain ELD Match loads and Federal's new Gold Medal 130-grain Berger OTM Hybrid load (Ed. note: Since this was written, Federal has introduced a 140-grain MatchKing in the Gold Medal line).
When handloading the 6.5 Creedmoor, the most accurate bullet I've used is Sierra's 142-grain MatchKing. It's forgiving to load and offers tremendous extreme-range performance in wind and on steel. I routinely get quarter-minute groups in my rifle, and I recently pounded a 24-inch steel plate at 1,400 yards five times in a row with it. Its equivalent in the 6mm Creedmoor is Sierra's 110-grain MatchKing, but be aware it typically requires a 1:7.5 or faster rifling twist.
Berger's VLD Hybrid, Nosler's RDF and Hornady's ELD Match are outstanding as well but may require a bit more handload development to achieve the same level of precision.
PRS shooters love and employ all sorts of shooting aids. Most critically, add a quality anti-cant spirit level to your scope, a top-notch bipod (Modular Evolutions and Atlas are favorites) and a set of super-light shooting bags such as Wiebad's $215 Nameless Bag set.
Learn to attach the rear end of your adjustable rifle sling (Magpul's $52 Gen 4 Dual QD Sling works great) to your belt with a carabiner to add tension and stability when leaning forward and resting the rifle on a barricade or whatnot and get creative with the tripod carrying your spotting scope. For stages that allow it, add a $135 Pig Saddle to clamp your rifle in and shoot off of. My favorite source of Pig Saddles is McMillan's online store.
You've got to carry all your gear through the match, and most competitors pack a robust daypack and don't hesitate to use it for support. Attach a poofy Wiebad bag to the side of it and rotate it around to your front for rear stock support when required to rest your rifle through a tire swing or similar wobbly barricade.
You'll need a quickly revisable dope card (D.O.P.E. is a time-honored acronym for Data On Previous Engagements) that you can update for each new stage and reference quickly while shooting. Most popular are wrist cuffs with a plastic screen on which shooters note targets by number, distance and required come-ups for their scope dial as well as wind notes. They can be cleaned with alcohol wipes before calculating the next stage. Also popular is the $32 Sidewinder, a clear plastic dope-card sheath that attaches to the side of your rifle. I use the latter and note fresh dope for each new stage on the back of old business cards, which fit perfectly in the sheath.
To work up the dope for each stage, you'll need either a ballistic app on your phone, a range card printed at home or a Kestrel with an on-board ballistic calculator. I prefer the Kestrel because it reads current atmospheric conditions and adapts calculations accordingly. However, because I don't trust electronics I always carry a printed, laminated card calculated to 1,400 yards using JBMballistics.com's Trajectory uCards function.
You'll need a couple of basic maintenance tools. I carry a rather robust Leatherman with various screwdrivers and Torx bits. And from top-ranked shooter Andy Reinhardt I learned that the flexible barrel brush included with every new Glock makes an ideal chamber brush- and can save your match if you experience a case head separation in a cartridge case you've reloaded one too many times.
Finally, you need to do your long-range homework. Unless you've cash to spare and your rifle particularly likes one of the really suitable factory loads, you'll need to handload to support a PRS habit. Once you've worked up a handload that offers half-minute accuracy at useful velocities, do rigorous trajectory validation. Zero at 100 yards and make several trips to the range in various temperatures, each time confirming your zero is perfect and shooting a couple of big, freshly painted steel plates placed way out there- I use 600 and 1,000 yards- to ascertain whether your calculated dope is correct.
Because various barrels produce slightly different BCs with a given projectile, you'll likely trend high or low and will need to tweak the BC in your calculator to center-impact perfection.
Once trajectory validation is confirmed, print and laminate a 1,400-yard dope card set at your most common atmospheric conditions. Keep it with your rifle just in case your electronics go down.
With your rifle sorted, ammo loaded, trajectory validated and dry-fire practice ongoing, get yourself to as many small local matches as you can find. PRS shooters are a friendly bunch willing to share tips on gear and technique.
PRS-type shooting has none of the tradition of NRA Highpower, none of the OCD perfection of benchrest, and none of the history of blackpowder competition. What it does have is camaraderie, practical precision and fun.
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS
I Thou shalt not close thy action until on target, to avoid incurring the wrath of the range officer.
II Thou shalt not shoot the wrong target, for it will count for naught at the final judgment.
III Thou shalt dial down to zero after every stage, to save thyself from sorrow.
IV Thou shalt not forget to dial before engaging targets, nor defile thy fellow shooters with vulgarity if thou dost forget.
V Thou shalt discard dope from past stages, so as to avoid transgressing with it.
VI Thou shalt pre-think positional transitions, that thou may not become lost.
VII Thou shalt follow through until impact is spotted, then operate the bolt like the apocalypse threatens.
VIII Thou shalt not short-stroke and cause a double-feed malfunction, for time hath no mercy.
IX Thou shalt understand the course of fire and count thy shots, for procedural mistakes shalt not be forgiven.
X Thou shalt not dial for wind, then forget and hold for wind as well, for thy bullet shalt go far astray. - JvB