September 23, 2010
By John Haviland
Determining your accuracy extent and improving upon it.
By John Haviland
No matter what gun you shoot or what game you are shooting at, the savvy rifleman will know the limitations of both his gear and himself. Practice and experimentation are the only ways to gather such information.
Far across the ridge, a mule deer buck followed the scent from a wandering doe, moving through the trees, stopping at the edge of the openings for only a moment to sniff the wind. As I sat against a Douglas fir tree and snuggled into the base of the trunk like it was an easy chair, through a curtain of falling snow I judged the distance to be an honest 350 yards. With my .25-06 braced on my knees, I waited for the buck to walk back into the open and present a shot. When it did, I fired. The buck ran into a patch of trees and never came out. I climbed down the hill to the creek bottom and up the ridge, and found it laying under the trees in the snow. Its antlers stuck out well past its ears.
The shot I took at that particular buck was at the outside edge of my shooting ability under such conditions. But my accuracy margin changes, depending on certain factors, such as the conditions in which I hunt and depending on which cartridge, rifle or sight system I'm using. And so will yours, increase or decrease, depending on these variables. Still, over the years I've found the most limiting factor in the extent of my hunting accuracy to be me. With that in mind, let's consider these accuracy factors, and at the same time take a look at how to improve one's accuracy in the field.
One major reason I collected that mule deer buck with one shot was the .25-06 Remington I was shooting. Its 100-grain bullet had a muzzle velocity of 3,300 fps. Sighted three inches high at 100 yards, a dead-on hold was all that was required to hit a deer in the lungs out to 340 yards. A hold at the top of a buck's back would have made a telling hit out at 425 yards. Its flat trajectory removes the complications of bullet drop, which allows a hunter to concentrate on the shot.
Shooting tiny groups from the bench is one thing, duplicating it in the field is yet
another. You must be able to handle the recoil of your rifle well, and you must understand and know the trajectory of the load you are shooting.
The energy of the 100-grain bullet fired from the .25-06 drops to about 1,000 ft-lbs. by the time it has reached 400 yards. That's enough oomph to kill a deer or antelope at that range. But not much farther.
In order to shoot deer and game larger than deer farther than 425 yards requires a cartridge shooting heavier bullets, and at high speeds. Sporting goods store gun racks are full of them. Cartridges like the 7mm STW, shooting a 160-grain bullet at 3,200 fps, and the .300 Remington Ultra Mag, shooting a 180-grain bullet also at 3,200 fps, shoot a couple inches flatter than the .25-06 over 400 yards. They also pack twice the striking energy way out there. In theory, at nearly 500 yards a hunter could use one of these magnum cartridges and aim at the back of an elk and kill it with no worry about bullet drop.
However, a problem arises with these magnum cartridges. They kick too much for many hunters to practice and become proficient with the rifles. They also kick considerably while using the prone position to take advantage of the cartridges' long range potential. I can tolerate the recoil of the 7mm Rem. Mag. from the prone position. But that's my limit. My point is, you need to know how much gun you can handle or the added velocity of a magnum cartridge does you no good.
As an example, I was recently shooting the .338 Win. Mag. with 250-grain Sierra bullets loaded right up to the maximum pressure for a muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps. I sighted the rifle in while placing a sandbag between my shoulder and the butt of the gun, and could handle the recoil just fine. While shooting from a standing position, however, the recoil was daunting, which made concentrating on the sight nearly impossible. The thought of that impending, sharp whack always lurked at the back of my mind.
Still, many hunters shoot magnums well. My older brother, David, is small in stature, yet he nestles in behind his .300 Win. Mag. and shoots the rifle very accurately. My younger brother, Allan, likes to shoot his .338 Winchester at rockchucks while he lays on the lava beds in southern Idaho.
Several friends have muzzle brakes that reduce recoil on their magnum rifles, and claim it is the only way to go. They wear hearing and eye protection while practicing and sighting in their rifle. They say they don't even notice the increased muzzle blast during the excitement of shooting at game.
All I know is, the less a rifle kicks and bellows, the better I shoot, near or far. Too much magnum is too much magnum.
Along with being able to handle a given amount of recoil, whatever rifle is selected, a hunter must know the trajectory of its bullets and how accurately it shoots at various distances. The .30-06 listed in the accompanying sidebar was sighted exactly two inches high at 100 yards. According to ballistic tables, the Nosler 165-grain Ballistic Tip bullets with this sight setting should have dropped seven inches at 300 yards. Instead they dropped 3.5 inches. Also, when sighting in at 100 yards, the rifle shot to the right of the aiming square. At 200 yards, though, the rifle shot four inches to the right. That would have been enough to miss a coyote or wound a deer. So it pays to check bullet impact at the distances you're likely to shoot.
One fall I set out to shoot a whitetail deer with an old Winchester Model 94 chambered in .25-35. In the dark before morning, I took a seat 40 yards on the downwind side of a trail leading under a grove of tall cottonwoods. Fifteen minutes before sunrise a big five-point buck came walking down the path. The buck was plainly visible, but the light was too dim for me to align the open sights on the deer. For a frantic 15 seconds I squinted over the front blade, trying to bring it down into the dark of the rear notch. The buck kept walking, right on out of sight. In that case, the extent of my accuracy was a few yards past the end of my boots.
In full daylight the open sights provided a clear enough sight picture to shoot out to 150 yards. That is also about the outer reach of the 117-grain bullet fired in the .25-35 cartridge. My Model 94 .30-30, with a Lyman Model 20 aperture sight, provides a much clearer look at game. The large aperture allows plenty of light to reach the eye and requires only aligning the front blade. With the better sight picture through the aperture,
the .30-30 is usable out to 200 yards on deer.
Open-sighted rifles definitely limit one's accuracy potential; but that's fine,
provided you know that before a big old buck shows up.
Everyone knows a scope provides the best look up close and at a distance. The chance at that five-point buck would have been a cinch if my .25-35 had been fitted with even a 1X scope. The brighter sight picture that would have been provided would have helped me see the buck. More importantly, though, the view of a scope's crosshairs and the deer on the same focal plane would have eased finding the sticking spot on the buck. A scope's increased power over the human eye is a great aid in extending the accurate shooting range at big game over 150 yards, and small game over 50 yards. But if some magnification is helpful, shouldn't a lot be even better?
Last spring I went prairie dog shooting with a couple of fellows who had spared no expense. Their rifles, scopes and binoculars were top of the line. But by the end of the first morning, they questioned their choices of 6-18x and 8-32x scopes. With their scopes set toward the high end, they discovered that mirage, the scopes' narrow field of view and their exaggerated wobbles made hitting prairie dogs difficult. With their scopes set on about 12X they had a clearer sight picture and found their targets quicker. That doesn't seem like sufficient magnification to see a small target like a prairie dog at 350 yards. But it is. I watched a fellow one time shooting a .223 Improved with a 10X scope hit a prairie dog over 700 yards, with his first shot.
Many big-game hunters have taken the varmint hunter's view that more is better. I guided quite a few antelope hunters who packed rifles with variable-power scopes that topped out at 14X and 16X. They didn't shoot any better at long range than the fellows with 4X scopes on their rifles. I've always liked a straight 6X or a 2-7X variable for big game at a distance. Certainly, anything more than 9X is wasted on big game. Scopes of more than 9X magnify wobbles, which destroys concentration and confidence. As a result, shooters often grip the rifle harder in an attempt to hold it steady, which further increases shakes and ruins accuracy.
The Limiting Factor
Some days are better than others. One morning I missed a six-point bull elk three times as it walked through the trees at 60 yards. The rifle I used can put a magazine full of bullets in the same hole at that distance. Sadly, I was the accuracy-limiting factor on that hunt. The shooting results listed in the sidebars for the .30-06 and .338 Win. Mag. show my accuracy limitations for the day and the conditions in which they were shot. I used these two calibers because they encompass the rifles most big-game hunters shoot. The air was thick with smoke from forest fires that day, which reduced visibility. And the temperature was nearly 100 degrees. On the plus side, the calm air meant I didn't have to compensate for bullet drift; targets were placed at known distances which took the guess work out of how much the bullets would drop.
| Accuracy Extent With my .30-06 |
| Rifle featured a 24-inch barrel and 4X Weaver scope. Load consisted of a 165 gr. Nosler Ballistic Tip, 61 grains of R-19, CCI 200 primer, Winchester case, all combined for a velocity of 2,800 fps. Groups were measured in inches and include percentage of benchrest accuracy in parenthesis |
|Benchrest ||Standing ||Sitting ||Prone |
|100 (+2 in.) ||.89 ||1.75 (51%) ||2.50 (37%) ||2.25 (40%) |
|200 (+.5 in.) || ||2.6 ||8.0 (33%) ||8.50 (31%) |
|300 (-3.5 in.) || ||5.75 ||10.0 (57%) ||9.50 (61%) |
The targets were outlines of deer with a distance of 18 inches from top to bottom. That's about what a large mule deer buck measures from back to brisket. An antelope buck goes 15 inches, a small whitetail 14 inches, and bull elk up to 36 inches. The vital area of lungs and heart on these game animals, though, is much smaller. A mule deer buck has a vital area of a vertical, oblong circle with a diameter of about 10 inches. Vital area varies from species to species. For instance, a pronghorn antelope is half the size of a Rocky Mountain goat, but an antelope's lungs are twice the size.
For a hunter to determine his reach of accuracy, he must be able to place his bullets inside the vital area of the game he is hunting from various shooting positions and distances. As the sidebars show, my accuracy extent from the sitting and prone positions on deer-size game are best kept within 300 yards with the .30-06 and .338 Winchester. Longer shots require the steadying effect of a bipod, or supporting my rifle with a daypack, padded rock or log.
Notice that I was able to produce about half of the two rifles' benchrest accuracy from 100 to 300 yards from standing, sitting and prone positions. For example, from a benchrest my .30-06 shot a 5.75-inch group at 300 yards. From prone I was able to shoot a 9.5-inch group at the same distance.
Shooting the .30-06 was fun. The rifle kicked just enough to let me know it was a serious rifle, but not enough to ruin my concentration. The .30-06 shot better, except at 200 yards, than the .338. Some of that could be attributed to Ã‚'06's better accuracy. Mostly, it was because of its lighter recoil.
A talk with myself was in order before shooting the .338. The rifle's recoil will not cripple you. Just shift your mind to concentrate on the target and sights. That seemed to help. The 4X scopes on both rifles supplied wide views to quickly find the targets. Magnification was also sufficient to see the foreleg of the deer targets at 300 yardsÃ‚ — as a reference point to place the crosshairs. From past experience, 4X was enough power to plainly see coyotes at nearly 400 yards. The 4X scope also provided plenty of eye relief to keep my eye a safe distance from the ocular lens during recoil. In the standing position I thrust my upper le
ft arm through the rifle sling to steady the rifle, and fired three shots. That's how quick the shooting has to be when a nice buck appears in the forest and presents a shot for a few seconds. My standing position results were fairly good. That's because at least once a week all spring and summer I practiced it. However, I'm not going to fool myself into thinking I can shoot at game any farther than 100 yards offhand.
Accuracy Extent With my .338
Rifle featured a 24-inch barrel and 4X Leupold scope. Load consisted of a 200 gr. Nosler Ballistic Tip, 71 grains of W760, Remington 9 1/2 primer, Winchester case, all combined for a velocity of 2,900 fps.
|100 (+4 in.)||1.89||4.0 (47%)||4.25 (44%)||3.50 (54%)|
|200 (+5 in.)|| ||2.80||4.0 (70%)||5.25 (53%)|
|300 (0 in.)|| ||5.25||11.25 (47%)||10 (52%)|
In the sitting and prone positions I plopped down on the ground and shot. Sitting was as accurate as the somewhat steadier prone position under the conditions. While lying on the ground I had to raise myself up by arching my back to see over the top of the grass. Sitting seems to be the best position for most shooting at big game. It's the most comfortable position on a slope, easy to drop into and raises the line of sight above most brush. A tree to lean your back into further steadies the position.
The only way to become a better shot and extend your range is to practice. Shooting at paper targets is about as exciting as watching a tree grow. But paper records good shots and bad shots. A tight cluster of bullets on paper reinforces proper position and hold, trigger pull and the ability to call shots, or where the sights rested when the rifle fired. Every spring I start the season on targets. They show if the rust of winter has dulled my shooting ability. Four or five trips to the range and a stack of targets full of holes later, though, and I've come a long way toward becoming a better game shot.
From the range, a hunter should move into the field after small game to complete his practice. Coyotes, jack rabbits and ground squirrels offer the best practice for the big-game hunter. The targets are small and are shot at undetermined ranges, from 20 to 400 yards. In the field after small game the hunter has to improvise, just like he does hunting big game. He shoots quickly the moment the sights are on the game. His shooting positions aren't picture perfect, but he learns to improvise to make the shots. He finds using a tree branch or a padded rock for a rifle rest steadies aim and increases his range. My youngest son Thomas had a difficult time holding his .22 rifle steady when he first started shooting. He'd got the notion somewhere that the only manly way to shoot was off his hind legs. I finally convinced him to sit down and use a Harris bipod to support his rifle. He went from hitting a gopher at 25 yards every so often to knocking over one after another at 75 yards. My brother David is an excellent game shot. He always takes the steadiest position available. He leans his rifle over a tree branch, drops into the sitting position with his arm through his sling to further steady his aim, or rests his rifle over a log. One time we were walking along a trail when a big whitetail buck jumped out 50 yards ahead of us. Instead of throwing his rifle to his shoulder and shooting offhand, David calmly stepped over to a tree, leaned his shoulder and his rifle against the trunk and fired. The buck dropped dead. However, I have also seen David line up his rifle on game, and not pull the trigger. He knows his limitations and won't risk wounding game.
While working on this article, after walking back and forth to my deer targets way out to 300 yards, I decided 300 yards was a long way. It was a good distance to stay within for my accuracy extent.