Making ethical shots on deer and elk at long range takes special skills and the right gear. Here’s what you need to know.
When it comes to long-range shooting at big game animals like deer and elk, the best advice is don’t do it. Do your hunting before you pull the trigger and get as close as you can before you take the shot. That will eliminate a lot of potential problems.
That said, if you are going to try long-range big-game hunting, do it right. You owe that to the game you hunt and to the ethics of sport hunting we all support.
One big, often ignored, factor in making long-range shots on big game is terminal ballistics. Far too many hunters pick a cartridge and bullet that are designed for long-range target shooting. The problem is that the goal in target shooting is simply to hit the target. When hunting, you must also be able to also dispatch the animal humanely.
Long-range target bullets are designed for accuracy and a high ballistic coefficient, which is a measure of atmospheric drag on the bullet in flight. They are not designed for predictable expansion on animals the size of deer and elk. For that, you need a hunting bullet and most hunting bullets will have a minimum impact velocity required to guarantee expansion. Usually it’s somewhere around 2,000 ft/s (feet per second), although that can vary from bullet to bullet.
Some of my favorite bullet choices for long-range hunting include: The Barnes LRX, Nosler Accubond Long Range and the Hornady ELD-X. They are accurate, provide a high ballistic coefficient to retain energy and all will expand and penetrate at long range.
The cartridge must also have sufficient power. The long-accepted rule for hunting cartridges is that the bullet should deliver a minimum of 1,000 foot-pounds of energy to the target for deer-size game. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but none apply to long-range hunting.
Many of the popular long-range target cartridges drop below both of these thresholds at far shorter distances than you might expect—often at 500 yards or less. The solution is to either pick a more powerful cartridge that can deliver a well-designed bullet with sufficient energy to the target or limit the distance of your shots.
The cartridge you pick depends a lot on how far you will shoot. If the cartridge can deliver a hunting weight bullet of at least 100 grains to the target with 1,000 foot-pounds of energy, then it’s a fine cartridge for the job. Anything from the .25-06 Remington through the various .300 magnums will work for long-range deer hunting.
My all-time long-range hunting cartridge is the .300 Winchester Magnum because it provides a lot of options. It’s very accurate, shoots flat and hits hard at long range. With a 200-yard zero it impacts 6.5 inches low at 300 yards. It carries 1,000 foot-pounds of energy out to 925 yards, farther than I will ever shoot at an unwounded big-game animal.
If it matters, the longest shot I have ever made on a deer was with a .300 Remington Ultra Mag. It’s also the cartridge I used for my longest shot on elk and my longest shot on red stag.
My current favorite is the .280 Ackley Improved. This former wildcat is now mainstream with ammo from Hornady and Nosler easily available. My custom rifle pushes a Barnes 139-grain LRX at 3,150 ft/s with moderate recoil. With a 200-yard zero it’s only 5.78 inches low at 300 yards. It carries 1,000 foot-pounds of energy out to 800 yards.
Another huge factor is the hunter’s ability to hit the animal’s kill zone every single time. The dirty little secret that many who are promoting long-range hunting keep hidden is how difficult that can be under hunting conditions.
Rifles, optics and ammo have improved vastly over the years and that has extended the ethical distance for shooting at game. What has not changed, however, is the cold, hard truth that you can’t buy skill; you must earn it. Before considering long-range hunting you should burn a lot of powder to build the skills needed and to determine your MED (maximum ethical distance) to attempt a shot.
My method is biased to the animal being hunted and sets a tough standard for the shooter. The first step is to determine the distance at which you can hit an eight-inch target every single time you pull the trigger. That means under any weather conditions and from any field position. Not just on a good day, or most of the time, but every time. It also means that you can do it when you are cold, wet, miserable, tired, out of breath and stressed.
You find your MED number by shooting a lot and by pushing yourself. Go to the shooting range on those nasty days when you would rather stay home. Shoot from the positions you don’t like rather than just practicing what you do well.
Try running 50 yards to your rifle, then make the shot when you are breathing hard. It takes a lot of shooting to develop the required skills. The upside is that long-range shooting is a lot of fun.
There is a huge difference between a shooter’s ability to hit a target at the range and their ability to humanely dispatch a big-game animal at long range. Most experienced hunters have learned to control their emotions enough to make the shot, but it’s never 100%. Nobody is that stone cold. Once you find the distance you can make the shot every single time, subtract 20% to allow for the adrenalin and other stress factors when hunting.
It’s important that you be honest with yourself in the evaluation. Your MED will likely be much shorter than you probably expected and no doubt closer than the shots you see other hunters bragging about on the web and TV.
Remember, your obligation is to be ethical with the game you are hunting. You are taking a life and that means something. At least do it right. If you want to test your skill at longer ranges, do it on targets. There is far less heartbreak with a miss on a steel target than if you wound an animal. Besides, the extra practice might allow you to extend your MED as well.
Long-range shooting is both a physical and a mental game and requires a mastery of rifle shooting skills. Every error you make will be magnified as the distance increases. A wobble of one inch at 100 yards becomes 10 inches at 1,000 yards.
The equipment you choose is important as well. Your rifle must be accurate. The rule of thumb is that a hunting rifle is considered to be very accurate if it can put all the bullets fired into one minute of angle (MOA) which, for practical purposes, equals one inch at 100 yards.
For the record, I have tested a lot of factory rifles over 35 years as a professional gun writer. Few can achieve this accuracy mark. For serious long-range hunting, you most likely will need to hire a gunsmith to tune your rifle for accuracy.
MOA expands its width with distance. It roughly corresponds to adding an inch for each 100 yards of additional distance. So, at 1,000 yards, one MOA equals 10 inches. That means if your rifle is well tuned and you break the shot with perfect precision, you are only guaranteed to hit a five-inch target at 500 yards. That does not yet include any of the multitude of variables, which can open the group up even more when shooting in hunting conditions.
For example, if you factor in that one-inch wobble we mentioned, you are now only going to hit a 10-inch target at 500 yards. That’s larger than our eight-inch, deer-size, kill-zone standard and we have not yet talked about wind or other environmental factors that can affect the shot.
In this circumstance, with a one-MOA rifle and allowing for one inch of shooter error, the distance to keep all the shots on an eight-inch target is 400 yards. Already much closer than you expected, right?
Better skills and a more accurate rifle can extend that. But, it’s not easy. The alternative is to try the following.
If you shoot a rifle with a modern, high-velocity cartridge and pointed hunting bullets, set your zero for 200 yards and don’t worry about the math.
Depending on the cartridge, the bullet will impact one to two inches high at 100 yards and five to eight inches low at 300 yards.
For any shot from 100 to 300 yards, simply hold on the critter, perhaps a bit higher for the longer distance, but always on hair (not air), and you will hit the deer.
Past 300 yards, it becomes necessary to either hold over or dial up the elevation on your scope. Better yet, simply limit your shots at big game to 300 yards and you’ll be doing the right thing.
About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website.