August 26, 2020
Over the last 40 years I have no idea how many words I’ve written on figuring the correct hold when shooting uphill or downhill. The concept is simple, and I’m sure we all know it: Uphill or down, the effect is the same, and as distance and angle increase, the strike will be higher in relation to your level-ground zero.
Today, most serious rifle shooters now carry a laser rangefinder, and modern units figure the angle from horizontal and give you the “hold range.” But there are times when atmospherics, such as fog or precipitation, render a laser rangefinder useless. In those situations, it’s wise to understand the basics and know what to do—but not to the point of obsession. Truth is, with modern, flat-shooting cartridges, significant adjustment isn’t necessary until you have serious distance and significant uphill/downhill angles.
Before rangefinders we estimated distance by eye. Nobody got it right all the time, but by making guesses and then pacing the actual distance, we got pretty good. This is still a valuable skill, and the laser rangefinder is the best teacher. To this day, when setting up to glass, I pick out various landmarks, estimate the distance, then check with the rangefinder. Do this a few thousand times and the accuracy of your estimates improve.
By the same token, in uneven terrain you can estimate angles off horizontal to landmarks. Modern rangefinders will yield the actual angle, and most often the angles aren’t as acute as you think.
There is something else you need to consider as well, and it may be more important. Finding a steady position for uphill/downhill shots is much harder than on level ground.
Just because the scope’s field of view is perfectly clear doesn’t mean the path of the bullet is equally unobstructed. Most of us who have hunted a lot in broken ground have a story about exploding a rock or sending up a geyser of dirt just a few feet ahead of the muzzle. Fortunately, most of us do this just once. I don’t think the likelihood of this happening is necessarily greater when shooting uphill or down; it’s just a function of uneven ground and that 1.5–to two-inch difference between line of sight through your scope and line of bore.
Obviously, the goal is to achieve the same degree of stability on uphill/downhill shots that you can obtain on a flat rifle range, but the same positions may not work. When shooting uphill you must elevate the muzzle and depress the buttstock; for downhill it’s just the opposite: lower the muzzle and elevate the butt.
Prone off a bipod is almost as steady as shooting off a benchrest, but the short, low bipods many hunters use aren’t as good in uneven terrain as they are on flat ground. I don’t always carry one, but in big, open country I frequently do, preferring telescoping legs to give a greater range of height and thus expanding possible positions. As I’ve often written, shooting over a backpack is my comfort zone, but even a low bipod can be raised by setting it atop a backpack or any natural solid object.
A while back, I learned about the Javelin bipod from Spartan Precision Equipment (JavelinBipod.com), designed by English mountaineer and shooter Rob Gearing.
Made of carbon fiber, the Javelin is light but also strong. Unlike most bipods that attach to the forward sling swivel stud, the Javelin attaches via a small magnetized fixture that replaces the stud. It can thus be carried on the belt but snapped into place in seconds.
Its bigger brother, the Sentinel, is also carbon fiber and light, but with heavier and longer telescoping removable legs—offering the ability to go from kneeling to sitting to standing.
I try to keep my gear simple, but I’m also willing to try anything that works, especially if it doesn’t add to my load. Gearing asked me to join him at Branded Rock Canyon Ranch so he could convince me.
Branded Rock Canyon is a new shooting facility about an hour from Grand Junction, Colorado. The ranch has invested heavily in targets, with lots of steel plates and life-size steel animal silhouettes at all ranges. The canyon is bounded by steep ridges, and the abrupt terrain offers unlimited opportunity to address targets at angles that, sooner or later, mountain hunters may face.
My toughest uphill shot occurred in Sonora in 2003. We’d bedded a ram on a little bench just below the crest of a steep ridge. We came in underneath him and set up on a little outcropping rising from the desert floor. The ram was bedded in thick ocotillo, and all we could see was the tantalizingly perfect circle of his left horn.
The only option was to wait for him to get up, so I set up over my pack and waited. How long I haven’t a clue, but with rifle barrel uphill and cheek ground into the stock, my neck muscles were quickly on fire. Every few minutes I had to relax—and then glue my eyes back to the scope. Eventually, the ram stood, took a few steps forward and offered a quartering-to shot.
Branded Rock Canyon offers the chance to experience shots like this. We spent some time in the classroom under the tutelage of Mark Dambrosio, former Marine sniper and mountain warfare instructor. Gearing showed us how his Sentinel system works—first on level ground, then ways to get the barrel up and butt down, and vice versa. On the valley floor we verified zero and practiced positions, and then we went to the canyon ranges.
Shooting over a pack is my long-stated comfort zone, and I can usually find a way to make it work. In the field, I’m always on the lookout for a convenient rock or tree to throw my pack on. However, on live game I am not an extreme-range shooter. In the canyons, shooting steel silhouette animals, I quickly appreciated that my good old “shoot off the pack” comfort zone was inadequate. There are better ways.
We started off up a side canyon shooting uphill, with silhouettes on three sides at various angles from modest distance to beyond 1,000 yards. Barrel up, butt down, all angles too steep for prone over a low bipod. At milder angles I used the Sentinel bipod with the legs forward, creating isometric pressure against the ground for more stability. For additional height, I reversed the legs to bring the feet toward me.
I discovered that at a 45-degree uphill angle you can’t ground the rifle butt and get your body low enough to lie prone and see through the scope. So while the buttstock must be depressed in relation to the barrel, you probably need to get your barrel higher so you can sit or kneel behind the rifle.
There are many tricks. Sitting with your back against a solid object aids stability. A convenient rock or tree, or your buddy’s back sitting opposite and leaning against you, can work. A pack upended under the toe of the stock can provide awesome stability.
A second bipod, set lower, can create almost a benchrest effect. Realistically, however, there’s only so much you can carry up a mountain. Fortunately, the Sentinel has a removable third leg. That or a buddy’s hiking pole can be grounded vertically under the rifle and secured against your buttstock and shoulder.
Ringing steel at distance is fun, and it’s a great way to learn what works for you on field shots. On one canyon range they had a “mule deer” way up high. The “hold range” was 435 yards, according to the rangefinder. I got steady over the Sentinel, added an extra leg alongside the rifle butt, dialed the range, made a wind call and got a solid hit.
That’s a shot I might take in the field, provided I could read the wind. Twice as far up the same ridge, steeper angle and beyond 800 yards, there was a ram silhouette. Folks, this is not a shot I’d take in the field, but there’s no risk with steel targets. More elevation on the barrel, more stability under the butt, including that extra leg alongside. I dialed up for 825.
Incidentally, I was shooting a .300 Win. Mag. with Hornady’s 200-grain ELD-X, and the Leupold CDS was calibrated for the load and approximate elevation. This scope has the Windplex reticle, with one-minute hashmarks on the horizontal wire. We estimated a 1.5 minute right-to-left, up-canyon wind, and that was really close. I hit the ram in the butt. Hey, that’s the difference between field shooting and steel shooting. But what a boost for both skill and confidence to practice field positions—under real field conditions.
One of my toughest downhill shots came in September 2018 on top of a ridge in Mongolia’s Altai range. The ram we’d picked carried exceptionally massive horns. A strong crosswind blew across the face of the ridge. Even though the distance wasn’t extreme, the downhill angle was. The wind was strong but the “hold range” was only about 325 yards. I made the shot, and the hard part was getting steady enough—and keeping my depressed barrel clear of some rocks just in front of me.
I think getting steady for a downhill shot is worse than uphill. Again, the rule is simple: Depress the muzzle, elevate the butt. And therein lies the problem. Lowering the muzzle is easy. Just use lower fore-end support.
However, the higher your body must be off the ground the less stable you are. And the more difficult it becomes to build up stability under the butt of the stock. The same tricks apply, but you may need to be more creative. Your buddy’s pack may help, and that little trick of a stick or pole snugged against the rifle’s butt can work wonders.
As with all positions out of the norm—away from the benchrest and beyond prone with a low bipod—finding places to practice may not be easy. Branded Rock Canyon is a unique situation. To reverse from uphill to downhill, they take a switchback track up the ridge and uphill shots become downhill shots.
The range I use at a friend’s ranch on the Central Coast has a steep, bare ridge on one side, so we can practice shooting at angles in preparation for mountain hunts.
Not everyone has the luxury, but we all have imaginations. There are no positions that can’t be practiced by getting into them with a safe and empty firearm—and this is where all position practice can start. So imagine that ram you’ve dreamed of is in the corner of your ceiling or at the bottom of the basement stairs. How are you going to get steady enough?