By Art Merrill
There was a time when a long range shot at big game was maybe 300 yards. In that time many hunting rifles had lever actions and blunt-nosed bullets of low ballistic coefficient that lost velocity like a VW bus going uphill. Iron sights set for 100 yards would distend much of an entire game animal when utilizing a “hold over” for 300 yards. And even with a scope-mounted bolt gun, bullet placement precision was generally no better than the size of a deer’s vitals zone at 300 yards, making shots at any longer range a matter of luck. In recently perusing some American Rifleman magazines from the 1950’s, I noted that the expectation for good big game rifle accuracy even then was about 2-MOA.
Welcome to the technical vastness of the future, where rifle and ammo makers have halved our expected MOAs and doubled our meaning of “long range.” They have significantly increased our opportunity for bagging our game if we develop the marksmanship skills to match.
Not just speed
While it may seem a no-brainer that the key to longer range hunting is higher bullet velocities, the reality is that speed is only one factor among several. To illustrate, if you started a muzzleloader round ball at 3000fps, it still wouldn’t have the precision to reliably hit a deer’s vital zone – or likely even a barn, after stripping past the rifling – at long range.
Equally important as aerodynamic shape and protective jacket, the technology in most premium bullets intended for long range hunting, assure expansion across a wide range of velocities. Since velocity up close might be 3500fps and at 600 yards only half that, this aspect alone adds yardage to both ends of our hunt opportunity.
But no matter how good the bullet, you’ve got to have a rifle capable of accurately placing it at long range. Though many factory rifles today are capable of precision unheard-of in the 1950s, making them into long range hunting rifles is a game of tradeoffs and some stand out as superior choices. Let’s look at some rifles and talk about those compromises.
Browning X-Bolt Long Range Hunter
Here’s a rifle chambered only for long-legged cartridges: 6.5 Creedmoor and 26 Nosler, 270 and 300 WSMs and traditional 7mm and 300 Win Mags, all with 26” barrels to take advantage of heavier bullets and slower powders to reach way out there.
Browning’s accurizing treatments to the X-Bolt Long Range Hunter include bedding the front and rear of the action to the stock and free floating the barrel. Fluted heavy sporter barrels help keep rifle weights to 7 ½ pounds or less (sans scope) while providing rigidity to reduce barrel vibration. You can’t shoot accurately without a great trigger; Browning’s Feather Trigger is screw adjustable for 3-5 pounds pull weight (factory preset at 3 ½ pounds) with crisp let-off and minimum over-travel.
The X-Bolt combines accurizing with hunting features. The 60° bolt lift clears the largest scopes and accelerates follow-up shots. The rotary polymer magazine detaches, making it easy to quietly carry backup ammo in a pocket. The lightweight composite stock has a tough carbon fiber outer layer; combined with its stainless steel, Browning built the X-Bolt for wet weather and steep terrain. The X-Bolt accepts Browning’s own X-Lock scope mounts, which utilize four mounting bolts rather than only two for more assured security. A muzzle brake helps tame magnum recoil, as does the Inflex Technology recoil pad that directs recoil, not just back into your shoulder, but also down and away from your cheek.
Ruger Precision Rifle
Ruger’s Precision Rifle is a departure from standard ideas about bolt guns, with the DNA of Long Range competition “tube guns” and a silhouette easily mistaken for an AR-15. To quote Ruger CEO Mike Fifer on the rifle’s accuracy, “1600 yards. Enough said.”
While that’s beyond the ken of most hunters, 1600 yards is also asking a lot of bullet terminal performance on many big game animals when you consider the cartridges in which Ruger chambers the rifle, .243 Win, 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Win. But the Precision Rifle gives the long range hunter the confidence that comes with knowing his equipment is capable of exceeding his own abilities.
Ruger’s accurizing includes bore and groove minimum dimensions, as well as minimum headspacing. A trigger adjustable down to 2 ¼ pounds helps, too. So does its comparatively hefty weight, one of our tradeoffs.
We must carefully consider the Ruger’s other tradeoffs when choosing the optimum long range rifle for our specific hunt. The Precision Rifle’s skeletonized, adjustable buttstock has plenty of projections and angles for tangling in brush, clothing, straps and gear; the handguard, pierced with scores of ventilation/lightening holes, is another opportunity to pick up grass, leaves, dirt and brush. And at 11 pounds (in .243 Win) empty, the Ruger outweighs Grandpa’s venerable and beefy M1 Garand by a pound and a half.
The Ruger’s place to excel is in a stand, blind or prairie dog town, where mobility isn’t a factor. Picatinney railing allows a wide choice of sights and easy addition of a bipod or other accessories. The rifle is also an excellent choice for big optics. It’s a simple matter to clamp a tall riser between the Picatinney rail and scope rings, taking advantage of that adjustable cheek rest to mount a very large objective lensed scope for twilight shooting.
Savage 111 Long Range Hunter
Like Henry Ford’s Model T, you can have the Savage 111 Long Range Hunter in any color you want, so long as it’s black. Except for polished bolts, these rifles are completely anti-glare matte black for serious no-spook-‘em hunting.
All the Long Range Hunter rifles have 26-inch barrels, even the non-magnum calibers and come with adjustable cheek rests that aid in properly aligning the eye to the scope center to reduce the likelihood of parallax when mounting large-objective scopes in high mounts. Except for the .338 Lapua Magnum chambering, all sport hinged floorplates and adjustable muzzle brakes; the Lapua version has a fixed brake and a detachable box magazine that necessarily extends as low as the pistol grip to accommodate the big Lapua cartridges.
Long Range Hunters come in three .30 caliber choices (.308 Win, .300 Win Mag, .300 WSM), two .338s (.338 Federal, .338 Lapua Mag), 7mm Rem Mag and three 6.5 millimeters (.260 Rem, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5×284 Norma Mag).
Of course, the Long Range Hunters feature the fine AccuTrigger. Another of Savage’s keys to building accurate rifles is to chamber the proper headspace gauge before mating barrel to receiver, resulting in an absolute minimum headspace. I’ve found Savage rifle chambers so tight that the Savage bolt would hardly close on cases fired in other rifles.
Nosler Liberty 48
In a “you get what you pay for” world, Nosler offered top quality brass and bullets for many years before plunging into making loaded ammo and their own bolt action rifles. They brought their reputation for quality with them and putting Nosler’s ammo and rifles together means hunters get factory guaranteed out-of-the-box sub-MOA accuracy.
Nosler’s new-for-2016 Liberty 48 bolt gun isn’t a revolutionary new design; rather, Nosler cherry-picked features of proven rifles and incorporated them into an entirely new hunting machine. Two obvious features that make the Liberty 48 a serious hunter are the tough, lightweight synthetic stock with no-slip texturing and the weatherproof Cerrakote metal finish. Others that make it a long range serious hunter are invisible. Nosler holds all machining and action-to-bore alignment to very close tolerances and they blueprint and true actions after heat treatment. An integral, heavy duty recoil lug on the action has a mate imbedded in the stock for consistent distribution of recoil energy. Actions bed to an aluminum chassis for a solid, hand-in-glove fit. Barrels are match grade and parts get a final hand fitting by factory gunsmiths. And depending upon caliber and barrel length, carry-all-day weights start below seven pounds.
Of practical importance, the action takes common Remington 700 scope mounts and sports a 700-style side mounted safety selector. The bolt field strips with a twist of the wrist for rapid inspection in the field. The bolt body’s very large safety gas vents protect the shooter’s face in the event of a case rupture and they also permit ease of cleaning. Large flutes on the bolt body and a groove in the right locking lug mating with a rib on the receiver prevents bolt binding for rapid cycling. The barrel is free floated and an 11 degree “target” crown protects the recessed muzzle.
Available in calibers beginning with .22-250, for deer-sized game consider the 26 Nosler instead, with 120gr or 130gr bullets that hustle out the bore at more than 3400fps or the 30 Nosler with heavier bullets suitable for elk-size game. Nosler guarantees sub-MOA three-shot groups at 100 yards with their ammo in their bolt guns.
Fierce Edge and Fury
Lesser known is the Edge rifle from Fierce Firearms of Gunnison, UT. Combining desirable hunting and accuracy features with very tight machining tolerances results in a long range hunting rifle offering a remarkable ½ MOA accuracy for three shots at 100 yards.
Fierce designed and produces its own Triad action that sits tight in a carbon fiber stock via aluminum pillars and a composite bed. The one-piece bolt has three locking lugs that provide a short 70 degree bolt throw and is hands down the slickest, fastest, easiest factory bolt I’ve ever manipulated. It has controlled round feed, a three-position safety, a rapid-change detachable metal box magazine and a trigger that adjusts from 2-4 pounds. The free floated barrels get match chambers, hand lapping, threads for muzzle brakes (Fierce makes their own of titanium) and twists suitable for heavy bullets. The 29 chamberings run from .22-250 to .375 H&H Magnum and include a few esoterics like the 7mm LRM. Rifles break the magical “light rifle” seven pound barrier at 6.9 pounds.
The Edge has a fluted barrel, Fierce’s Last Guard weatherproofing (a matte gray finish akin to Parkerizing) on barrel and action and their DLC (Diamond-Like Coating) on the bolt. Oh – and your Edge comes with a certified ½ MOA test target fired at the factory. Fierce’s less-expensive Fury rifle is similar, but the Fury’s barrel is unfluted, wears Cerrakote on barrel and action and has a polished bolt. Fury chamberings are 6.5 Creedmoor, .28 Nosler, 7mm Rem Mag, .300 WSM, .300 Win Mag and .300 RUM.
A weighting game
Too often the qualities a rifle needs for great accuracy and those that make it best for hunting are mutually exclusive. No one is going to carry a 17-pound, 30-inch barreled competition rifle on a near-vertical sheep hunt, even if it shoots minute-of-bighorn groups at 1,000 yards. A long range hunting rifle is therefore an engineering exercise in compromises, intended to deliver more than enough precision for bagging game at long range.
Accurate rifles begin with precision machining and fitting of parts, but weight plays a big role, too, which is why competition rifles are universally the shooting sports’ version of fullbacks. Other factors aside, weight and barrel length are our major tradeoffs when choosing a long range hunting rifle. Wooden stocks tend to be heavier than synthetic, so we see most long range big game rifles wearing synthetics. Short barrels and light weight gain importance the farther afield we must carry a rifle and most of a rifle’s weight is in its barrel and stock.
Shorter barrels are lighter, but magnum calibers typically have barrels of 26 inches to maximize the potential in slower-burning powders to push heavy big game bullets to highest practical velocity. They also benefit from some beef, with thicker (heavier) barrels better handling the vibration of ignition and bullet travel down the bore than do light, slim barrels, resulting in better accuracy.
The Savage 111 Long Range Hunter in .338 Lapua Magnum weighs in at 9 ¼ pounds, naked and empty. Similarly, the lightest Ruger Precision Rifle (in .308 Win with a 20-inch barrel) right out of the box weighs a few ounces more than the Savage. Toting an 11-pound scoped and loaded, extended magazine rifle to a stand or blind is one thing; carrying it on a five-day mountain elk hunt is another.
Recoil is another big tradeoff here. Newton says that lighter rifles recoil more than heavier rifles, given the same cartridge. While physics is inarguable, subjective experience is not and only you know how much is too much for you. Though we seldom notice recoil when shooting game, it can be quite uncomfortable when sighting in at the bench and, unfortunately, “muscle memory” at the range can induce a game-missing flinch in the field. We can reduce recoil by adding a muzzle brake, going with a non-magnum caliber, adding weight or all three.
You’ll note that makers include several non-magnum calibers here, including those with 6.5mm bullets that Americans have traditionally considered too small for big game. That attitude is a bit of a head-scratcher among Scandinavians who have been bagging moose with the 6.5x55mm Swede for more than 100 years. Legendary hunter Karamojo Bell, who killed hundreds of elephants with the non-magnum 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schoenhauer, disagrees as well. Ballistics isn’t the subject of this article, but let’s point out that the 6.5’s sectional density with heavier 140gr and 160gr bullets promotes deep penetration – enough for non-magnums to routinely drop moose and elephant – while its ballistic coefficient provides excellent long range precision.
Also note that many of the above 6.5mm offerings wear magnum length barrels. In hand loading, the general rule is to use slower powders for heavier bullets; slower powders call for longer barrels. The 1:8 twists and long barrels of all the makers listed here will readily accommodate heavy 6.5mm bullets. Several makers offer 160gr bullets; Berger Bullets and Hornady offer 140gr 6.5mm hunting bullets featuring secant ogives that Berger originally developed for long range competition. Long-for-caliber heavy 6.5mm bullets better resist wind deflection and retain downrange energy for deep penetration when the shots are long and the stakes are your big game hunt.
Long Shot Tools
We now have the factory guns and ammo to reliably bag big game at longer ranges, but we still need a few more tools to confidently put a bullet in a six- or 10-inch vital zone on the first shot when that one chance comes at 500 or more yards.
Cheap scopes need not apply for this job. Long range shooting calls for scopes with excellent light transmission, adjustable parallax and reliable windage and elevation adjustments.
A rangefinder can make or break your long range shot. It’s easy to misjudge distance when an animal is way out there and misjudging 625 yards as 550 can result in a wounding or miss.
But the most important tool is your marksmanship. Bullet drops at long range can be surprising even with a 300 yard zero. Correcting for wind deflection (“doping the wind”) is the single greatest factor that differentiates long range from 300 yard shots – and long range shooters from the rest. When shooting at an up or down angle, we must hold as though the target were closer than it actually is; how much so depends on the angle and the – surprise, surprise – distance. Long range shooting requires a rock-steady hold and more emphasis on breath and trigger control.
You can’t buy marksmanship; the only way to develop or improve your marksmanship skills is to shoot. A lot. Participating in any kind of long range competitions with any kind of rifle (including your long range hunting rifle) is excellent practice – plus you’ll quickly learn a lot from the other shooters.
Know how far your bullet drifts downrange in winds of different speeds and from different angles is essential. Study your “hold unders” for vertically angled shots. Know your bullet drops. Tape the info to your buttstock, write it on a Hornady Ballistic Band or make pocket-size paper charts laminated for weatherproofing. Consider Leupold’s Custom Dial System (CDS) elevation knob engraved with your cartridge ballistics (for Leupold’s VX-2, VX-3i and VX-6 scopes).
Technology provides the tools. The rest is up to you.
About the author: Art Merrill lives and hunts in Arizona, where shots at game are often long. He has been shooting Highpower Rifle and Long Range competition at 600 and 1,000 yards – and hand loading for competition and hunting – since the 1980s. Arizona Game & Fish Commission named him Outdoor Writer of the Year in 1996.