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Starting Long Range Shooting: 'I have the rifle, but now what?'

Embarking on the journey of long-range shooting goes beyond just owning an accurate rifle. Success at extended distances requires a thoughtful selection of accessories along with intentional training. In this multi-part series, we will dive into the gear that can make a substantial difference in your long-range marksmanship along with the training drills to help you on your road to success. So, you have the rifle - let's explore what comes next.

The Cornerstone of Accuracy - Optics:

Unless you fancy yourself as a Quigley Down Under type, you’ll most likely require the use of an optic to execute your long-range shots. Long-range shooting demands precision, and the right optics lay the foundation for that accuracy. When selecting a scope you’ll need to consider factors such as variable or fixed magnification, acceptable glass quality, and a reticle tailored for precision shooting. Understanding terms like MOA (Minute of Angle) and MRAD (Milliradian) is essential for informed optic choices that align with your shooting style as well.

  • Fixed or Variable Magnification – While most shooters will say that you must go with a variable optic, and you very well may end up there, this is not necessarily true for every shooter. Factors such as: target size, varying distances, and even the caliber can be a determining factor here. A long-range shooter that is focusing on shooting at only a couple of different distances may be well served by a fixed power scope – think 1000 yard benchrest style shooting. Target sizes which are torso sized will not need as much magnification as smaller 2-3” round plates at longer ranges and our military snipers did very impressive work with only fixed 10x power scopes. However, a rifle that recoils a decent amount that can more the target out of the field of view during recoil can make spotting your impacts, or more importantly your misses, almost impossible. A fixed 10-12x power scope at 500 yards on a 300 win mag can hinder the shooter’s ability to reengage the target quickly and without the necessary feedback to make an accurate follow-up shot. In this case variable magnification can be a big benefit and the difference between a hit or a miss on subsequent shots. The drawback to variable magnification is almost always going to be the cost of the scope. As a general rule, variable power scopes will be 150-200% more expensive than their fixed power counterparts.

  • Glass Quality – I’m going to be brief here as glass quality is almost like discussing Ford vs Chevy or how Dale Earnhart was not as good of a driver as Jeff Gordon (now that I’ve made everyone mad…). To keep it simple when it comes to glass, remember you will get what you pay for 9 times out of 10 (with a couple of fixed power scopes being more of the exception due to where the manufacturer decides to invest their QC). Glass needs to be able to provide a clear image at distance with enough light gathering to be able to discern what your target is and to see what wind you can possibly make out. Read that again – Clear, Light Gathering and can see vegetation moving in the wind (magnification helps here as well). Everyone’s eyes are different so look through as many scopes as you can and see what checks these boxes for you.

  • Reticle choice – Reticles follow the rule of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. While some shooters would never think of using anything other than a Horus Christmas tree style reticle there are others who can’t stand that style and prefer a less “cluttered” view through their scope. You shooting discipline and adjustment “style” will factor in here. If you are shooting a long-range benchrest style at a fixed distance then you may only need a center aiming point as you will be mainly dialing for wind and not using the reticle to “hold” you wind adjustment. However, if you are shooting at various distances under a time limit you may be opting to hold for wind, and depending on a shooter’s “style”, you may also be holding over for drop as well – this is where the Horus style reticles really shine. The shooter may use MILs if they are in a more dynamic environment where the score is tabulated as either a hit or miss (binary) or they may choose to opt for the slightly finer adjustments of an MOA style scope where group size at distance is more important (1 click at 1,000 yards being 3.6” in a MIL scope vs 1.31” in a 1/8” MOA style scope). You can also use the reticle to range the distance to your target if the reticle is designed with known subtensions (distances between the lines) with a few formulas and practice although a laser rangefinder is the best way to gather this information with less user error.

Stability in Every Shot – Bipod or by other means:

Achieving stability is paramount for making accurate long-range shots, and a high-quality bipod is certainly the answer if maximum stability is the goal. You’ll want to look for a bipod with notched adjustable legs that also swivels, allowing you to adapt to different terrains. Some disciplines take this to the extreme with large truss-like bipods that can run several hundred dollars with seemingly infinite adjustments available. The downside to this level of stability is that they tend to be quite heavy and can take a considerable amount of time to dial in – obviously not something you’d want for a shot on a larger target of opportunity or on a rifle that will be carried for any distance (such as a Mammoth sniper style match or long-range hunting rig).

Another lighter option is a Harris-style bipod. This style has been around for decades and has proven to be quite reliable and allows for a large adjustment range without too much investment. But what if you want to keep the weight down even more and don’t want something on the front of the rifle that can snag on items or allow for the rifle to be carried easily in a scabbard? Most of the time where you’ll want a rifle like this, you’ll also be carrying a pack or backpack for your other gear (snivel or cold gear or rain gear, food, water, etc.). A pack, with some practice, can be used to make a very stable shooting platform in quick order. This also has the benefit of being used on uneven ground for a solid prone position or to elevate an awkward position to a sitting or kneeling position.

Precision Calculations - Ballistics Calculator:

Long-range shooting is a game of precision, and a ballistic calculator is your ticket to accurate calculations. Whether in the form of a dedicated device or a smartphone app, this tool aids in making precise adjustments for factors like bullet drop and wind drift, ensuring your shots hit the mark consistently. However, like any calculator, the ballistics calculator is only as good as the input you provide it. You will need to know, at a minimum, the Ballistics Coefficient (BC) of your bullet, the velocity at the muzzle of your ammo out of your rifle, your elevation and air temperature. Many of these factors are now “baked into” the higher end Kestrel style units via the Applied Ballistics software.

While these units are certainly nice and take a lot of the guesswork out of long-range shooting they aren’t a piece of mandatory equipment for making longer range impacts. A simple ballistics app on your smart phone can be used to a very high degree of success providing you can source your elevation and the air temperature. Snipers have long gone without ballistic calculators and relied on their DOPE or Data On Previous Engagements and have been rather successful in their role but that take a high degree of training and skill to become proficient at. For this reason I’d highly recommend using a ballistic calculator to shorten the learning curve and build up your confidence.

Taming the Wind - Wind Meter:

One of the major advantages of the kestrel style units is their ability to measure the wind speed at the shooter’s location. Mastering the wind is a skill that sets expert long-range shooters apart. A reliable wind meter provides accurate wind speed readings, allowing you to make informed adjustments for wind drift. Keep in mind that a wind meter is not a magic wand and provides you with “some” of the necessary environmental effects between you and the target. When we read the wind we need to take into account 4 things:

  • Wind Direction from the shooter to the target

  • Wind Speed at the shooter

  • Wind at the bullet’s elevation

  • Wind’s reaction as it traverses the terrain

The wind meter can show us the direction and speed at the SHOOTER’S location. This can help to guide us to a starting point for our windage adjustment but we need to understand it’s limitations.

Another tactic that can be used is to bracket the wind into a minimum and maximum value at the shooter and determine its direction using one’s senses. If you use a few basic rules you can bracket the wind into useable values that will allow you to have a min and max wind hold where you can typically stay within the target itself. Rules such as “if you can see the grass moving you are likely between 3-5 MPH”, “if bushes are moving then you can assume 6-9 MPH”, and “if you can see tree branches with leaves swaying then your are likely above 10-12 MPH”. I have used this technique with good success out to 1200 yards and it can really teach you how to sense what the wind does to the environment around it. If you ever get the opportunity to shoot in the snow or rain I highly recommend it as you can literally see the wind moving the snowflakes or rain drops and it is an excellent teacher.

Minute Adjustments - Rear Bag:

For fine-tuning shot placement, a rear bag is invaluable. If you have never utilized a rear bag you will be amazed at the level of control it provides for making minute elevation adjustments and steadying the crosshairs. You should opt for a versatile design that allows you to adjust the rifle's elevation with the support hand without being too tall or bulky. You want the bipod or pack to be the main elevation adjustment while the rear bag is being used for the minute adjustments. Rear bags have been made out of many different materials over the years and something as simple as a sock with plastic beads can work very well for most people and takes up very little space in the pack or range bag. The bag should be capable of withstanding the environment you will be shooting in and for this reason I would stay away from building a bag out of rice or beans or anything else that will rot when it gets wet. Canvas and poly beads are one of the best DIY options at this time.  

Distance Precision - Range Finder:

While we discussed the range finder briefly during the discussion on reticle subtensions, their usefulness cannot be overstated. One of the things that has a direct impact on the ability to hit our target has always been to know just how far away the target is. Accurate distance estimation is at the core of successful long-range shooting. A quality laser range finder enables you to pinpoint the distance to your target which, in turn, allows you to provide accurate data for your ballistic calculator. With this being said, not all range finders are created equal and there is a good bit of marketing and hype surrounding many of them. There is nothing worse than being able to see the target but not having your range finder recognize it and fail to provide you with a distance to target. Most range finders will be advertised with a maximum distance they will range such as 1200 or 2000 yards. This is not flat-out false advertising but it is a maximum range the unit will detect under near-perfect conditions such as a highly reflective target. For this reason, you will want to research what the maximum distance the unit will detect on a non-reflective surface or even on actual game or vegetation such as trees. A good unit that will go for 800-2000 yards will cost several hundred dollars but will likely never be outgrown and will provide a lifetime of service.


As you step into the world of long-range shooting, remember that your rifle is just the beginning. The right accessories make your shooting experience more enjoyable and can help to decrease the learning curve.

Next we will dive a bit deeper into the weeds on our journey into long-range shooting. Until then, get out there and burn some powder!


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Feb 16
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent article! Explanation of MOA and Mrad spot on and very useful.

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