Many hunters feel that the long-range shooters more often than not carelessly launch big high velocity projectiles cross country, in their pursuit of our treasured game animals, never caring about how many are only wounded to run off and die a slow painful death.
Long-range shooting at big game animals and the ethics involved has generated heated debate from both sides for many years now. Similarly, many archery hunters feel the same way about the hunter who repeatedly takes shots at distances great than 50 yards, only because they themselves are not able to consistently hit the kill zone with their archery skills at ranges beyond that.
As a young hunter growing up in Wisconsin, I remember all too well one particular opening morning of the November deer season, with many orange "pumpkins" high up in the trees positioned strategically along the local deer trails.
Suddenly, shooting erupted with 10-20 total shots being fired, all at less than 100 yards, at a little whitetail buck running through the trees. When the dust settled, the deer was still running, with hunters in hot pursuit looking for the tiniest specks of blood on the leaves and grass of the forest floor.
How is that type of shooting/hunting any more ethical than the hunter who practices and is able to consistently take game animals at the longer ranges?
Long- and close-range hunters are both going to miss once in a while and both will wound an animal occasionally that will get away.
But is one type of hunting/shooting more ethical than the other? I think not, as it really boils down to the individual hunter and their ability regardless of whether they take their animals at long range or short, archery, handgun, muzzleloader or centerfire rifle.
Long-range shooting at big game animals is a whole 'nother world compared to long-range shooting at targets.
Target shooting generally requires only that you put multiple shots into the tightest group possible through a piece of paper and it matters little how the bullet performs after it passes through the paper.
In contrast, shooting big game animals at long range requires that the impact velocity/energy of the projectile on the animal be sufficient to allow for proper bullet expansion and a good clean kill, with one shot.
In my more than 25 years of taking more than 80 big game animals at longer ranges, (200+ yards) I normally get good killing performance if the impact velocity, downrange on the animal, is at or above 2,500 fps while retaining at least 1,500 foot pounds of energy on deer/antelope sized animals and 2,300 foot pounds on the larger animals like elk, goat, caribou and moose.
In addition to killing power, high velocity at the longer ranges gives you a flatter trajectory, less of an arc if you will, so that there is a greater margin for error if your range calculations are not exact, which can happen when your rangefinder gets a hit on a tree or rock 50 yards in front of or behind the animal you are actually ranging.
High velocity at long range also cuts down on the margin of error when calculating the actual distance/holdover for an animal that may be at a steep angle, greater than 20o up or down from straight away.
Now that you have chosen your caliber to meet these criteria, you need to choose a rifle chambered in that caliber, that will shoot a premium hunting bullet with supreme long range accuracy, as 100 yard group sizes mean very little at 500 yards.
My personal accuracy standard in the field is the ability to shoot three shots from a clean cold barrel into a 5-inch group or less at 550 yards. These standards are not easy to meet and if your rifle won't do that, you need to limit your shots to the ranges that you or your rifle will shoot a 5-inch three shot group, that simple. And not only must your rifle be up to these standards, so must you be.
If you have chosen one of the new super magnums, recoil is going to be a factor that you must deal with and you may need to adjust the way you hold the rifle to consistently perform at the longer ranges. Do it any way you need to, but these personal standards that I have for rifle and projectile performance have served me well for many years.
The scope you choose for your long range hunting rifle should be at least 12X on its top magnification setting and in my opinion 16X is better.
24X will also work, but with the 6-24X variable scopes it is sometimes tough to pick up an animal in the scope at very close range on the lowest 6X setting, especially if it is moving.
With the larger magnifications, you need to choose a scope with supreme optics, for it does no good to have the 16X setting available if the optics are so poor that you cannot make out your intended target under low light conditions.
You need to mount the scope with the greatest amount of integrity possible, as any movement or slippage of the tube or breaking/loosening of mounting screws in the field will end your hunt pronto.
You need to choose a scope with some type of ranging reticle, whether it be a mil-dot or other type of ranging/holdover configuration, as I have had bad experiences with using dial-up drop or windage turrets on a scope to adjust for range or wind in the field.
Dial up turrets are not always repeatable from one adjustment to the next and back, and in the moment of excitement, you might forget to adjust them altogether or they may still be set for the last shot you took, which may have been at a totally different distance.
It is for this reason I choose a scope with the standard mil-dot reticle in the front focal plane, so that once I establish the correct sight-in distance for each of the mil dots down from center, this calculation will not change whether the scope is set to 8X, 12X, or 16X, my first mil-dot down is at a specific distance regardless.
Same goes for windage calculations with the mil-dot reticle in the front focal plane, so that if you need to hold ½ mil into the wind, ½ mil is the same whether at the 10X or 16X position on your variable scope.
In addition, the scope you choose needs to be able to hold up to the recoil of the caliber you have chosen, which really begins to narrow the choices available I am sad to say, but this is but one of the components it takes to consistently get the job done in the field.
Bottom line is that the shooter needs to develop a system that works for them so that at the moment of truth, the fewer calculation mistakes that you make, the higher your chances of a successful outcome.
How you sight in your rifle is probably the most important factor of all for proper shot placement at long range.
For many years I would sight-in my rifles so that the crosshair was dead-on at 300 yards and that would put the first mil-dot down dead-on at approximately 500 yards and this was pretty much the same for all of the long-mag Lazzeroni .257, .284, .308 and .338 calibers I was shooting.
Then one year on a Dalls sheep hunt in northern Alaska, I had my trophy sheep standing at a distance of 290 yards, but at a steep uphill angle and when I pulled the trigger the bullet sailed right over it's back, exploding into the rocks behind it.
I immediately realized what had happened, jacked another shell in the chamber, held this time at the bottom of his chest, pulled the trigger and the sheep came rolling down the hill.
What that shot illustrated was the fact that even though my rifle was zeroed at 300 yards, it was almost 4 inches high at 200 yards, and with the steep angle of the shot on the sheep, the path of the bullet was actually 4 inches above the point of aim, even though the sheep was at 290 yards.
Since that day, I have zeroed my rifles at 100 yards, with the first mil-dot down dead-on at approx 400 and the second mil-dot down dead-on at approximately 550 yards, so that the path of the bullet would never again be above my point of aim.
There will be variances from this exact sight-in method depending upon which caliber and bullet weight that you choose, but with most of the super-magnum calibers shooting the mid-weight bullet weight for the particular caliber, this basic trajectory and sight-in will apply.
When shooting your rifle at long range, the bullet has not only a vertical up-down arc to its path, but has a slight left to right arc as well (for right hand twist rifled barrels), so if you zero your windage at 100 yards, it can be as much as 7 inches to the right at 550 yards and that of course is not acceptable.
It is for this reason I zero the windage adjustment on my scope at a distance of 550 yards on a dead calm day, so that even though the bullet may be as much as 1½ inches left of the point of aim when shooting at 100-400 yards, it will be right on at 550.
When practicing at long range don't just shoot from a bench rest, get down prone on the ground with a good bi-pod and rear bag and make sure you can shoot well from this type of field position.
I have found no way to shortcut these types of sight-in procedures and again each shooter needs to work out a system that works for them, but doing all your sight-in work at 100 or 200 yards and then using computer calculated ballistics tables to make the long shots, is a sure way to disaster in the field and disappointment with your actual long range shooting ability.
Before I take any shot beyond 200 yards in the field, I use a little system to remind myself of the calculations I need to make prior to the shot.
I call it going to "WAR," in this order: WIND, ANGLE and RANGE. For my Lazzeroni rifle in caliber 7.82 (.308) Warbird, shooting 168-grain bullets, I kind of memorized the wind deflection calculations into a simple formula that I can quickly use in the field and you can do this same type of calculation for your particular caliber and bullet weight using a computer ballistics software program.
The basic calculations for my own rifle are as follows; if the wind is blowing at a right angle to my shot, bullet wind deflection in inches will be equal to ½ the speed of the wind at 300 yards, it will be equal to wind speed at 400 yards, 1½ times the speed of the wind in inches at 500 yards and 2 times the speed of the wind in inches at 600 yards.
Now, wind is never constant all the way to the target, especially across big canyons, nor is it always at a perfect right angle to your shot, so some interpolation and good ol' doping comes into play here, along with a simple hand-held wind speed indicator.
Abgle is the next thing I need to look at, so let's say that straight down is zero and straight out level is 90o.
If your target is at approx 65o (you can use your arm to kind of eye-ball this) your angle/range multiplier would be 0.8.
If your target is at approx 45o in this arc, your angle/range multiplier would be 0.7.
I your target is at a really steep angle of 30o in this arc, then your angle/range multiplier would be 0.5.
And the last calculation I make is the range with a good handheld rangefinder.
Let's say I have just spotted a beautiful Wyoming trophy mule deer feeding on the other side of a steep canyon, it is time for the shot and I get into a good steady prone position using my bi-pod and a rock for a steady rear support.
The wind is blowing at just about a perfect right angle to the shot at a speed where I am shooting from of approximately 10 mph, but probably a little faster in the middle of the canyon, which is much higher above the ground.
The angle of the shot is down approximately 25o from straight across and the range is 475 yards.
I will calculate 1½ times the speed of the wind in inches at approx 500 yards and with a 10 mph wind, that means I want to hold 15 inches into the wind and I am going to add another 3 inches to cover what I think is a higher windspeed mid-canyon, so the total I want to hold into the wind is 18 inches.
The mil-dots on my horizontal reticle are spaced 3.6 inches apart for every 100 yards, at 500 yards each mil-dot is spaced 18 inches apart, so I want to hold 1 mil-dot into the wind, from the center point of aim.
The actual range is 475 yards, but my angle/range multiplier is 0.8, so to keep it simple in my head, I take 500 times 0.8 and subtract 25, so I am going to hold on the animal as if my range were actually 375 yards.
OK, it is the moment of truth now, the deer has just cleared a bush it was feeding behind, and is standing almost perfectly broadside.
I motion to my spotter that I am preparing to shoot so that he can give me the details on where this first shot has hit.
I position my first mil-dot down from center (my 400-yard dot) at the bottom of his heart, then pull into the wind 1 full mil-dot from his heart and squeeze the trigger, not wiggling from this sight-picture position until the rifle fires.
With a little luck, the bullet finds its mark and the animal is then lying on the ground waiting for us to make our way across the canyon.
If your spotter tells you that you have made a marginal hit like in the paunch or backside, chamber another round, make the hold adjustment for more/less wind or elevation based upon the information from your spotter and hit him again and keep hitting him till he either falls dead or it is obvious that he will.
If your spotter tells you that you have missed completely but the animal is still standing there not knowing what is going on, then take the information from your spotter, make the necessary aiming adjustments and try again.
If your spotter tells you that you missed the deer completely, but he is running or walking away, don't shoot again as your chances of hitting a moving animal at that distance are far less than when he was standing still and of course you just missed the good standing shot.
In summary, with the right rifle/caliber combination and a great amount of practice on your part, long range killing shots at game animals in the field can be made on a consistent and ethical basis.