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There is no denying that hunting costs money. The cost of gas, ammo, tags, and other miscellaneous expenses can certainly add up. Book your hunt with an outfitter and your outlay increases even more. Time away from home and family can be an additional cost. Make sure that your experience is memorable for all the right reasons because you certainly have an invested interest. Here are a few of the right reasons- you can undoubtedly add to this list as well: 1) A safe expedition. 2) Improving your skills. 3) Camaraderie with your hunting buddies. 4) Most importantly, not going home empty handed.
There are several techniques and skills that are essential for long range hunting success. Your ultimate goal is to successfully and ethically drop your target with one shot. When you take into consideration any unfamiliarity with the hunting area, terrain variations, temperature, humidity, cross winds, your shooting stance, your skill, knowledge and comfort levels with the tools (rifle, optics, range finders, etc) available for your use, ammo lots, as well as the distance to the target, the odds can quickly stack against you. It is the challenge to overcome these variables, achieving the goal, and getting back to camp safely that makes for great campfire stories.
Planning and PreparationYour hunt should start well in advance of the actual hunting trip. Preparation and planning are essential. Safety in the wilderness is critical. Be comfortable with all the tools that you have at your disposal; know how to use them thoroughly so that you do not have to rely on an instruction manual in time of need. Be comfortable with your gun and shooting at longer distances than what you normally encounter. Spend some time at the range verifying the bullet drop for your preferred cartridge so that you can make correct adjustments in the field.
If you are serious about the sport and feel your time is worth anything then be sure that the optics that you are depending upon don’t let you down. You need the ability to connect at long range and unless you can drive tacks with iron sights your success depends to a large degree upon quality optics properly mounted and sighted. Quality optics are mission critical.
If the hunt is in an area that you are unfamiliar with, then get a topographical map of the area. It will help you to understand the terrain, as well as the location of features such as lakes, streams, and rivers. Most importantly, it shows elevation variations of the area. You might be tempted to skip the map thinking that a GPS unit would do the same thing but a map spread out on the kitchen table on a Saturday afternoon with your hunting buddies makes planning much more effective, builds excitement for the trip, and gives everyone a better sense of the area. Check out the USGS map store to obtain maps for your desired area. For more information on reading topographical maps, see the RCS Optics article, Reading a topographical map.
Scouting the AreaScouting methods vary widely, however there are a few basics that should be followed to insure your success. As much as possible, move slowly and keep the wind in your face. You do not want your quarry to see or smell you first. Your ears are your second line of offense and they serve you best when you are motionless. Cracking of branches or rustling of leaves when there is no wind or other distracting noises helps you to zero in on your quarry. “Glassing the area” is simply surveying the area with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. Glassing is accomplished at a preferred vantage point that allows you to use your binoculars or spotting scope to cover a larger area than what can possibly be covered by foot. When looking through binoculars it is common to look at the open areas, however your focus must not only be the animal that you are hunting but also for indicators that suggest the animals are indeed even in the area. It is during this time that the features depicted on the topographical map that you purchased and studied with your hunting buddies also start to come to life. Natural water sources such as lakes, streams, rivers are visible as well as land formations such as ridges, peaks, and valleys. While glassing it is important to look at everything in the line of sight, force yourself to look into the shadows. Look for and identify all the indicators such as bedding or feeding areas and for the trails that the animals take. Scrapes and rubs are additional indicators; however they may be only discernible with spotting scopes that have higher magnification. When looking for the animal, you need to look for parts- not the whole; perhaps his tail or his antlers or even something as subtle as breath steam. Look for any movement as you slowly and methodically scan left to right and then right to left as you work up the hillsides.
As we alluded to earlier, the use of quality optics cannot be overstated here. The heart of any sports optic whether riflescope, binoculars, or spotting scope, is the glass. Experiencing the view through quality glass, especially during the twilight times of dawn and dusk is when the value of high quality optics is apparent. High quality optics can effectively increase your shooting time as you do not lose the opportunities that present themselves in the first or last few minutes of the legal shooting window each day of the hunt. Quality glass will also help differentiate the animal’s natural camouflage from their surroundings.
Range Finding TechnologyVery simply explained, range finders determine the measured distance by measuring the time it takes for the laser pulse to reach the target and reflect back to the unit. The laser beam must return (reflect) back to the unit in order for the distance to be measured.
All range finders are not created equal. You get what you pay for is very true in this product sector. The most prominent range finding format is a monocular style with low magnification options. Measuring distances can vary from 200 yards up to 1600 yards. Actual performance may be lower as the maximum ranging distance is based on a reflective surface. Since animal hide is not very reflective the manufacturer may typically have a disclaimer such as “1600 yards reflective, 500 yards deer”.
There are also riflescopes and binoculars that have a laser range finder integrated into them. Carl Zeiss Sports Optics Victory RF binoculars displays a true 1,300 yard range followed by a hold over value for your cartridge. Zeiss also makes the Diarange rifle scope that displays ranges up to 999 yards and includes the Rapid Z bullet drop compensating reticle for accurate placement and includes compensation marks for full value 5 and 10 mph cross winds. Another example is the Burris Eliminator. Its effective range is limited to about 600 yards however a small indicator lights up in the reticle (1/3 moa) representing the correct holdover point. Fujinon has binoculars with a mil-dot reticle and compass built into them. There are also many other range finding products out there. Many handheld rangefinders can be purchased for a couple hundred dollars however it is important to remember and understand their range limitations on targets of true interest- not something that just happens to be reflective.
Anytime you can combine functions means that you are packing and carrying less weight- something that you will be happy about while out hunting. It also means that you do not have to switch tools to gather the needed ranging information. There are many instances when your window of opportunity is five seconds or less. That can often be the difference between a successful encounter and one of disappointment.
Ranging reticlesLaser rangefinders have for the most part made the range finding reticle obsolete- that is until the range finders batteries have died. You are probably glad that you learned your multiplication tables in elementary school and you still depend upon them today as a calculator may not always be available. The point is learning how to use a range finding reticle is good back up insurance and you always want to be prepared for the unexpected. Every long range hunter should be proficient using a mildot reticle, and knowing the potential sources of error that can get introduced which could impact your ranging result is just as important. They include:
1) Not knowing the actual target size used as a reference.
2) Incorrectly reading the mil size in the reticle.
3) Calculation errors under the pressure of time constraints
If you are going to use a range finding reticle to establish distances, then you will need to do a little math and know the size of the target that you are ranging. The Mil-dot reticle is a very versatile reticle that provides ranging capabilities, bullet drop compensation, cross wind compensation as well as the capability to lead a moving target. The Mil-dot reticle is not cartridge dependant which means it works with any bullet weight, any velocity, at any elevation. It is also a good idea to establish a few target reference points in your field of view that you can determine the ranging distance to- a watering hole, a dirt road, or a fence post. Just be aware that sometimes an animal may seem to appear near a reference mark but could actually be some distance away.
To compute range distance in yards with a mil-dot reticle…
Take the known size of the target in inches times 27.78 and then divided by the number of mil dots the target covers. For example, let’s say a deer’s brisket to backbone measures 18 inches and it covers 1.5 mils in the reticle. Its distance away is 18 x 27.78 ÷ 1.5 = 333 yards. Once you validate the target height you can simplify this even more. Since the target size is going to be pretty much constant, for example, for whitetail deer you can simply use the value of 500 ÷ mils = distance in yards. Now in this case the 500 comes from 18 times 27.78. If the deer’s brisket to backbone measurement varies from 18 inches then use that value instead. For example, in a different part of the country it may measure 16 inches, then the formula would be 444 ÷ mils = distance in yards (since 16 times 27.78 = 444).
To compute range distance with an MOA reticle…
the equation is size of target in inches times 100 divided by the number of Minutes of Angle that the target is covering in the reticle. For example, let’s say an elk’s brisket to backbone is 24 inches and it covers 4 MOA in the reticle. Its distance away is 24 x 100 ÷ 4 = 600 yards.
For more information on Mil-Dot reticles, see the RCS Optics article, Using a Mil-Dot Reticle.
Shooting at AnglesTake note of any elevation differences between you and the target. If a correction to the ranging distance is not made on shots made at an incline or decline, you will end up shooting higher than intended. To calculate the adjusted range for a shot at angles simply multiply the ranged distance by the factor in the table below. You will need to measure or estimate the angle of the shot from horizontal.
There are some laser range finders that will compensate for angle shooting situations. Sniper Tools Design Co manufactures an angle cosine indicator (ACI) that mounts directly on your rifle and indicates the factor directly- no table needed, however you still need to do the math to adjust the range.
For example, let’s say that your target is 450 yards away in a valley below you and the angle between the target and horizontal is 30 degrees. If the range finder does not compensate for the decline then you will need to multiply the 450 yards by .87 =392 yards true horizontal distance away.
Angle from horizontal Factor
Crosswind EstimationA ten mph cross wind can affect your bullets intended point of impact particularly when shooting at distances beyond 200 yards. As your bullet is in flight, it loses velocity and the effect of cross winds
(and gravity) increases proportionately. Having an anemometer (wind meter) is a good tool to have to help develop your wind speed estimation skills. Look at nearby branches at elevations no higher than ten feet above grade for signs of wind or feel the wind on your face and guess the wind speed as you measure it- then read the meter to see how close you are. Do not look at tree top movements as the wind at that elevation will most likely be different than at ground level. Over time you skill at reading the wind will improve. Keep in mind that down range wind speeds can be significantly different from the wind speed at your location.
A second method to estimate wind speed down range is by reading mirage. See the RCS Optics rifle wisdom page (http://www.rcsoptics.com/rifle-wisdom) to view a video from the NSSF on estimating cross winds by reading mirage. Alternately, Ward Brien presents a good discussion on reading mirage in his book “Precision Shooting 1”.
Taking the ShotThis is the moment that you have prepared for- your trophy awaits; so be sure that your position does not compromise the opportunity before you. The position you hold during the shot is critical. Keep in mind that out in the field, there is always uneven ground, rocks, sticks that can cause uncomfort when holding a position. The best position is prone with the rifle supported by your backpack or a bipod. This is the best position that keeps your profile minimized with the need for little or no movement. The second best position is kneeling or sitting with some kind of support against a tree, rock, or hillside. Fatigue and wind can affect your stability so only use standing positions for short range shots. If you are forced to take a shot standing be sure that your magnification is set on the lower side of the range to ensure that you have a wide angle view.
Outfitters/GuidesOutfitters provide a vast array of services beyond the hunting ground that they own or lease. They may also provide additional amenities that provide value for your time so that you can focus on the hunt rather than the side tasks that need to be addressed, such as preparing meals, packing lunches, etc. Other amenities could include horseback guides, field dressing & processing your kill for you, as well as freezer storage during your party’s hunt.
A good guide is worth his salt. He should know the terrain, where the animals feed and bed, and when and where they move. Do not assume that a guide is a replacement for long range shooting skills because stalking your quarry closer than 300 yards can take a significant amount of time and energy depending upon the terrain you are hunting and whether you are on foot or horseback. You always increase the risk that you will be detected as you attempt to stalk closer. A good guide can lead you to the animals but your success still depends upon your skills.
Field DressingDepending upon the quarry, the terrain, and your hunting party will determine what extent you go beyond the basic field dress to protect the meat that you have just earned. Large animals such as elk will need to get quartered after field dressing, particularly if you are on foot. You will also need to protect the meat from other scavenging animals such as coyotes or in some areas, bears. Three rules cover proper meat protection- keep it clean, keep it dry, and keep it cool.
Be PreparedPart of being prepared means that you do not leave anything to chance. As we noted earlier in this article, safety in the wilderness is critical. Here is a checklist of items that should be considered as necessary equipment especially if you are hunting an unfamiliar territory.
SummaryThere is absolutely no substitute for skill and proficiency; however technology can reduce human error and also help accelerate learning. To be consistently successful you should heed the old axiom “practice, practice, practice. Spend time at the range improving your skills and challenge yourself by joining a local gun club that has competitions throughout the summer. It is a time to network with other hunters and sportsmen (male and female alike). Also each hunt will present new variables that will test your skills and knowledge.
For additional information, check out the Rifle Wisdom page at RCS Optics for additional resources to improve your knowledge and skills. There are embedded videos from the NSSF on topics such as wind estimation, shooting at angles, understanding MOA, understanding milliradians (mil-dot reticles) for more information. Alternately you can read other articles by RCS Optics on Binocular Selection or Mil-Dot Reticles, or Reading Topographical Maps.
Now get out there!
ReferencesPrecision Shooting 1- Sniper Tools Design http://www.snipertools.com
Carl Zeiss Outdoor Passion
User Guide for Mil-Dot Equipped Optics, Remington Military Products Division
The Outward Bound Map & Compass Handbook
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