We all have the image of the quintessential image of a sniper depicted by the Tom Beringer movie Sniper who only needs his rifle and some camouflage to make the impossible billion yard shot. The reality is whether you are sniper or Joe distance shooter, the fundamentals of shooting apply and that does not mean going to the 500 yard range and blasting 1000 rounds downrange like a madman. In fact our range does not allow it for obvious safety reasons, because you have no idea where each of those bullets are going when doing something like that.
A military sniper I met once told me that I would be stunned how few rounds were shot on an average day at sniper training. He indicated it was more like hunting where there is a lot of waiting and maneuvering and calculating but with a heck of a lot more analytical classroom work. We all have the image of these guys waking up in the morning and spending the day driving a thousand rounds down range however when it comes to shooting vs concealment the emphasis is more on prep for the shot, the shot and then a whole bunch of analysis about the shot, where it went and why. Distance shooting has always been a complex puzzle to solve with variables 99.99% of shooters never have to consider at ranges under 150 yards.
Since most modern cartridges shoot flat enough for hunting out to 100-150 yards including the 22LR most of us never really have to think about any significant holdovers. When is the last time you thought about barometric pressure, ambient temperature, ranging, scope adjustment, wind estimation, spindrift, and flight time. Additionally most target bench rest distance shooters are used to shooting nice and comfy on a level stable bench and picking "nice days for shooting" that are less temperate and less windy ... which inherently restrict the influence of the really crazy variables affecting the bullet path. After all if you only shoot on nice days with little wind off of a stable shooting bench, sub-MOA (minute of angle) groups are not that tough. Try it while it's raining at dusk, shooting under a log while laying sideways in a muddy ditch with 30 MPH cross winds at a 400 yard target that is trying to kill you and your buddies and you may not be able to hold the accuracy you thought you were capable of. Most folks that hunt know that you rarely if ever get the perfect shot, you are too hot or too cold, at a weird angle, your heart is pounding from chasing that damn buck around the forest for an hour and you the only decent place you can find a shot is a kneeling position. You look through the scope and your heart beat is moving the cross hairs with every heartthrob while black flies and mosquitoes from hell are feasting on you. Not the same hell as war, but still an odd way to spend our weekends.
I first started doing 200+ yards distance shooting with a .22 caliber Crossman air rifle across our small rural farm as a kid. The targets were usually junk birds or the mail box post at the end of entry to our lane. The obvious first lesson I learned was holdover and Kentucky wind-age, which all mean how high do I need to aim for the distance and how far left or right because of the wind. It was cool hitting that steel mailbox post, because it seemed to take a couple seconds after I pulled the trigger to hear that rejoicing "ting". After years of "tings" I could get regular hits on that thick pole because I knew exactly the holdovers and only had to worry about the wind. Those lessons were very hard earned over years and years of shooting and probably enough lead pellets to sink a ship. How great would it have been to do the calculations up front and make the shot with pellet #1. Inexpensive and free Iphone apps can now put you on target with the first shot.
The first step to shooting accurately at long distances is to figure out where the bullet will go. There are a couple Iphone aps I really like at after some use. One being military's now standard Knight's Armament Corporation KAC BulletFlight series of apps in three versions from basic $3.99 to Military $39.99. If you want a comprehensive feature rich app that gives you cutting edge ballistics calculation including really complex spin drift calculations with most commercial and military caliber data loaded on board, this is the app to download.
The other iPhone ballistics bullet drop calculation ap I like and probably use more is iStrelok a free app that provides a complete range of ballistics calculation, but lack the extra data inputs and sophistication of Bulletflight.... but hey it's free and has worked great for me breaking clay targets out to 400 yards. This is more of a fast calculation app designed around Kentucky windage holdovers, however it does calculate scope clicks also. The app which shows you where to aim on your reticle design, for instance it has MilDot, NP-R2 & R1 Nightforce, TMR Leupold, Ballistic Mildot & XTR Ballistic Mildot, BR, SPR, and host of other reticles loaded. Set up your rifle and cartridge data, enter conditional information distance, wind, temp, slope, and boom it shows you where to aim when your look through the scope. Seems to work very well on everything from the .22LR, .357, 9mm to .308 I have tried with it.
Another useful app is a distance estimation app for use with Mildot reticle equipped scopes is Sniper Mildot which allows you to set the size of the target with a slider and use the other slider to match the height of the target as seen through your Mildot scope. Most deer chests are 18" tall so you can make pretty accurate yardage calculations with this, but not as accurate as a laser range finder and requires a Mildot scope on the noted calibrated power setting. It took me a little bit to figure out, but in the end, it's a handy tool for any sniper, target, and hunting shooting.
Theodolite is another great Iphone app tool for shooting, surveying, outdoor enthusiast, and handyman use which allows for extremely precise angle calculation to a target, distance & height calculations, GPS, Azimuth bearing, altitude, time, precision compass, and a host of other information critical for positioning and measurement. This is just a stunning display of what the embedded iPhone sensors can do and handy when shooting.
Aside from a few GPS programs like RunKeepr and GPSLite that keep me from getting lost another useful Iphone app is Record and Learn which allows you to record commands for dry fire drills and play them in order or randomize them. This app is especially useful for training for drawing, charging, pointing, re-pointing, moving, gun clearing and loading/unloading drills/maneuvers.
I cannot possibly convey how much I have learned from dry firing vs shooting. If you want to tighten your groups with rifle and pistol, dry fire, dry fire, dry fire. This will improve your grip, will make you PAINFULLY aware of flinching, thumb squeezing, trigger yanks, and the lot of issue that make you miss the target. As a test the next time you are watching TV, assure your gun is completely unloaded point it at the TV and pull the trigger... did your sight picture move when you pulled the trigger, did you flinch like a newbie, was there any movement. By dry firing the hell out of my pistols and have significantly tightened my groups and now I am working through the same drills with my rifles.
A Good Rest
A great portable rest is your backpack, Harris bipods, and I have even used bean or rice bags which are really light and still provide the same utility as the lead bags... plus you can eat them if you have to go all nature boy survival. I also encourage practicing all the various standard and some un-comfortable shooting positions while you are at the range. The reality is you can practice all you want on a bench, but when you start crouching or laying down, things change.
We all know the guy who considers hunting buying a new 300 Magnum each year, puts three rounds through it and heads to a guided hunt where he attempts 300-400 yards shots. He then brags that it took two shots, but he brought the beast down at 400 yards. In my mind this is totally irresponsible and inhumane. We have a responsibility for a clean kill. I pulled off a 150 yard squirrel shot one year only to find that I shot its leg off and had dispatch it upon retrieval. That haunts me to this day and if it would have been a deer I probably would have never hunted again, but it did teach me to to only take humane shots inside my field shooting capabilities. If you can't cleanly take the game, don't take the shot.
Also you need to ask yourself can I safely even make the shot from here, am I shooting into a good backstop? All questions you need to answer before setting up to take the shot.
Sniping and hunting have a lot of similarities starting with the hunt which means more glassing and looking with binoculars and less shooting. You probably have spent well over $2500 for a rifle and scope combination, but the most critical hunting gear is an excellent set of binoculars in 8-10X magnification. I can guarantee you will find more game. The other piece of equipment that is getting cheap is a range-finder. A really good one will only set you back about $300 and will provide not only distance, but shot angle and/or adjusted shot distances affected by the angle to the target. Without good range estimation, that $2000 trip and hunt may leave you empty handed from and incorrect holdover.
The Obvious Questions
Have you sighted in and do you know what the rifle will do at the 10, 25, 50, 74, 100, 150, and 200+ yards ranges with the ammo you are hunting and shooting with? A lot of guys figure that if they are good on the 100 yard range, that they are good and that is not the case, experience validating ballistic calculator data is critical. Have you shot off the bench, prone, knelled, and from seated and odd uncomfortable positions? How did that affect your accuracy?
Are you using the same ammo you sighted in with, is it good ammo or cheap stuff that is inconsistent. Have you dry fired enough to assure good grip, trigger and breath control?
Are you keeping a shot log providing distances, sight in distance, wind, clean/cold/warm bore information, and ammunition variances? Most guns will shot differently with first round from a dirty and/or clean bore and when the barrel is cold and sometimes the accuracy loss can be significant. Sometimes you only have the one shot and you better know where the round will go.
All this boils down to know thy rifle and how it shoots. You are better off having only one rifle and knowing how it shoots than to have 50 and no idea how any really shoot. The mechanics of a great shot is not about how expensive your rifle is, it is about how well you know your rifle and how it and you shoot in various conditions and with different ammo. Ballistics calculators take some of the guess work out of where the bullet will go, however a great shot takes lots of on and off range practice and is as the saying goes if it was easy everyone would do it.