More Whitetail Reach
by Ron Spomer
Extreme range shooting is today’s hot topic, but one questions whether it should be any day’s hot whitetail hunting technique. There is a point at which long becomes too long. That said, if ever there were a place for needing a bit more reach on a whitetail hunt, the West is it. Here in the great wide open (long may it remain!) we are regularly offered clear, long shots at quality bucks. But can we make them? Should we try them?
What’s missing from a lot of long range shooting hype is the practicality of field shooting. It’s one thing to sprawl on a shooting mat, set up a sandbag or bipod, measure wind speed and velocity, dial scope turrets and hit an 18-inch steel plate at 833 yards. It’s quite another to make a clean, first shot on a deer in the wind, mud, snow, sandburs, brush and broken ground of the West—and under the pressure and excitement of the hunt. Then there are unpredictable, fast changing environmental conditions. These have as much to do with defining long range as do rifles, scopes, rangefinders and anemometers.
While I always advocate and prefer stalking closer over shooting farther, I’m also pragmatic enough to practice and recommend long range study and training “just in case.” Many a wounded deer has been finished off at 500 yards or more by pragmatic hunters who’ve taken the time to train for this. And, when you can reliably hit a 16-inch circle every shot at 600 yards, you’re probably not going to miss any deer at 300 yards.
If you want to develop long range proficiency, here are some practical considerations:
- You don’t need a super magnum. With the right bullet a 270 Winchester, 7mm Rem. Mag., 6.5-284 Norma and even the little 6.5mm Creedmoor can reach a 700-yard target with less drop, less drift and less recoil than a 180-grain .308 fired from a magnum. Study ballistic charts and you’ll uncover this delightful reality. Yes, a 140-grain, .264, high BC bullet launched at 2,900 fps will outperform a typical, lower BC 180-grain .308 sent flying at 3,000 fps. In many cases the lighter bullet even retains more energy than the 180-grain beyond about 600 yards.
- You do want a high BC bullet. Ballistic efficiency isn’t everything, but it’s way, way more important than we’ve been led to believe these past 200 years. Bullet construction remains essential to good terminal performance, but a sleek shape will insure it gets there with minimum drop, drift and loss of energy. Your job is to uncover such bullets and build loads that maximize their potential. But as you do, remember that accuracy must match terminal performance. The world’s deadliest bullet is just so much noise if you can’t hit anything with it.
- A smaller, more efficient cartridge usually fits a smaller, lighter, more maneuverable rifle, one that is a delight rather than chore to carry thither and yon. And there’s a lot of thither and yon on your typical western whitetail hunt. You may hike ten miles and climb 4,000 feet on a day’s hunt. You’ll do it a lot better with a 6-pound rather than 10-pound rifle. But it must be balanced and properly bedded to be an accurate shooter. Slightly muzzle heavy balance is preferred.
- You don’t need an astronomical telescope. Yes, 25X scopes are handy at the range, but it isn’t often you find atmospheric conditions conducive to so much power. Heat shimmer, rain, snow, dust and low light conspire against magnification much over 15X. Worse, you lose Exit Pupil diameter, thus brightness. At 20X you’d need a 100mm objective lens to get the 5mm EP you get with a 10x50mm. With a more typical 50mm objective, 20X EP drops to 2.5mm, as low as you want to go for bright daylight viewing. You want twice that for low-light performance. Nothing wrong with having a high top end on a variable, but you don’t need it to clearly target the 18-inch chest of a whitetail. Better to invest in a rugged, durable 4-12X42mm or 3.5-18X44mm than a cheaper 5-20X50mm.
- Choose between dialing turrets or ballistic reticles. Multiple reticles can get confusing fast and work only at one power setting, usually the highest, when built in the second-focal plane, as most are. Turrets make you take your eye off the target to adjust the turret, and you might forget to turn back to zero. Things go wrong as you add complexity to your gear.
- You do need a high-end rangefinder. Laser measurement is what makes long range precision possible. Misjudge distance by 20 yards at 500 yards and you turn a hit into a miss or worse, a crippled deer.
- Weather changes many things. So does altitude, angle, temperature and much more. The longer your shot, the more impact (pun intended) these variables have on trajectory. If you don’t fully understand them… stalk closer.
- One misstep and… It takes a good, high BC bullet about one second to reach 700 yards. Time enough for a deer to turn or step, making a heart shot a gut shot. Ditto a shift in wind direction or speed. Just 5mph can make a crippling difference.
- Too far for do-overs? Wound at 600 yards and how far can a deer get before you “rush over” to finish it off? Can you even find where he was standing? Hunters have lost dead deer in tall grass and brush.
- Be realistic about stalking and the thrill of the hunt. Most folks get more fun for their buck when sneaking close and being close. It’s more exciting and more satisfying than killing from afar. Besides, there aren’t many situations in which a reasonably cautious hunter can’t stalk within 400 yards of a whitetail, and usually half that, even in the “open.”
We haven’t touched on impact change with temperature shifts, the Coriolis effect, spin drift, the need to recalibrate zero from home to your new destination and much more, but it all has an impact on long range shooting. Obviously, there’s plenty of room for screwing up beyond 300 yards, which is why study, practice and training — as well as the right gear — are essential to this enterprise. Don’t take this lightly. Buying long range tools is just the start. Training to use them effectively is the biggest part of success.
Meantime, if you really want to succeed at longer shots, practice under field conditions out to 400 yards. That’ll cover at least 90 percent of your shooting opportunities, and it’s fairly easy with ordinary gear. A 30-06, 7mm-08 Rem. or 270 Win. that groups “only” 2 MOA (all shots inside 2 inch circle at 100 yards) will put every bullet (if you do your part) within 4 inches of where you aim at 400 yards. That’ll score a deadly chest hit every time. But first you have to make the shot. And here’s how:
- Select the highest BC bullet that shoots accurately and delivers adequate terminal performance in your rifle.
- Load it for maximum safe velocity.
- Zero 2.5 to 3 inches high at 100 yards. That should but you dead on at 250 to 280 yards, depending on the bullet/load, and 3 to 8 inches low at 300 yards, 15 to 20 inches low at 400 yards.
- Shoot from a steady rest at a 12-inch square box at 180 yards, 250 yards, 300 yards, 350 yards and 400 yards, watching and cataloging all bullet impacts so you begin to understand where your rifle prints at these distances. Your confidence will soar.
- Ounce you know positively your drops, you should understand you can now aim dead center on the chest of a broadside whitetail out to 300 yards or so and land in the vital zone. At 350 yards you may have to hold high on the shoulder, just under the backline. At 400 yards you may have to hold a few inches over the back to drop a shot into the heart.
With this experience and knowledge, you will be ready to take and make any shot out to 300 yards, without even consulting a rangefinder, just by holding dead on. If you know the range is 400 yards, hold about “half a deer” high and drop it in there. Or sneak closer. You’ll simplify everything, shoot faster and better.
Ron Spomer shot his first whitetail in South Dakota in 1968 and has since pursued them in 10 western states, three western Canadian provinces, and in Mexico. Since 1976 Spomer’s photography and writings have appeared in more than 125 magazine titles and many books including The Rut, The Hunter’s Book of The Whitetail, and Advanced Whitetail Hunting. Spomer currently hosts Winchester World of Whitetail on the Outdoor Channel. His hunting and instructional videos can be seen on YouTube, and he can be reached at ronspomeroutdoors.com.