When selecting a long-range rifle system for that next hunt, the features and information to evaluate can be overwhelming. Sifting through the science and technology is important, but sometimes it’s not very helpful. This article will look at the practical features of what it takes to hunt big game at extended ranges.
There is no substitute for skill and experience, but the rifle you select should always enhance what you already have. Spend plenty of time at the range to become familiar with how the rifle handles and its capabilities as well as your capabilities. Always seek to improve your precision, or repeatability, and get your groups as tight as possible. It always helps to practice in real-world scenarios.
The key to precision is a consistent load. Once you’ve determined the big game species you’re hunting, choose the appropriate bullet to deliver the necessary knockdown energy at your farthest ethical range. For the most consistent ammo, it’s best to handload your own, but there are some very good factory loads available to choose from.
A centerfire bolt-action is the core of any hunting rifle and will be the only component that has the longest life. Everything else is a peripheral and can be replaced, even the stock and barrel. It should go without saying that investing in a good action is the best possible starting point.
Most bolt-actions used for hunting will use a symmetrical two lug bolt with a recessed face that fully encloses the base of the cartridge. The bolt construction is a head, body, and handle usually brazed together and the firing pin/cocking assembly. Remington 700 style actions will cock the firing pin when the bolt handle is rotated upward, releasing the locking lugs.
In hunting conditions, the push feed bolt, as in a Remington 700, is considered more feasible in case the three-round magazine is expended and a round can be dropped in and chambered quickly. The extractor will clip the edge of the case, and the spring-loaded plunger will eject a spent casing as soon as it clears the ejection port. Feeding is different when using a controlled-round feed, as in a Mauser, but there are circumstances where this is a better choice.
The modern gun barrel is constructed of stainless steel and must withstand the high pressure of the cartridge propellant. A carbon fiber barrel is stainless steel with much of the mass removed from the length over the bore and reinforced with wrapped and bonded carbon fiber, making a lightweight match-grade product.
The breech of the barrel is cut to length and threaded. The barrel is then indexed and centered to 0.010 of an inch. It is then reamed (chambered) according to the selected cartridge which consists of the body, shoulder, and neck. Head spacing is then measured with precision dial calipers. The chamber is polished with a fine emery cloth to properly grip the cartridge brass. The muzzle is then crowned or threaded for a suppressor or brake.
The finished barrel is fitted and trued with the action according to the index marks. No barrel is perfectly straight, and the slight curve that exists by mere thousandths of an inch is mounted in a manner that the curve points straight up. Some actions have an integral recoil lug, but if not, one is positioned between the barrel and action.
The vibrations of a barrel during a gunshot are described as barrel harmonics. The barrel will move up and down, side to side, and even in a circular pattern. Without getting too technical, this vibration can shift with the slightest variations of a cartridge’s charge and seating depth of a bullet. It’s vital to find a load with the most advantageous “vibrations” to achieve the tightest possible group.
The barreled action is now ready to be fitted in a gunstock, or the structural support of the firearm. There are basically two sections of a stock – fore-end and butt. Most hunting rifles use a one-piece wooden or composite stock which require the action to be fitted and the barrel to free float, letting it vibrate naturally.
The fitting of the action, known as bedding, is a critical step due to the pressure and vibrations transferring to the shooter. The bedding compound is a two-part epoxy that is spread on the stock beneath the action as a mirror image while keeping the barrel from touching any part of the fore-end that will disrupt barrel harmonics. After each shot, the rifle should return to the exact same position.
The shape of the stock should fit comfortably to the shooter. The cheek rest, hand grip, and correct length of pull should comfortably fit the measurements of the shooter. The fit should allow smooth trigger control and quick reacquisition of the target for a follow-up shot, if needed. The fore-end should be rigid on a support or have a picatinny rail for bipod to reduce unwanted movement and cant.
By far, the most important part of a long- range shooting system is the optics. Without the ability to see the target and accurately aim the firearm, all is lost. Using a variable magnification riflescope to match the firearm’s capabilities with 20x to 30x on the upper range is most appropriate. It’s much easier to acquire the target at low magnification and then zoom in until a shot can be accurately placed.
The lenses of the optics are directly proportional to the price of the scope. Good glass will add to the price but is always worth the cost. Lenses are usually multicoated to protect from scratches and improve light transmission. Larger objective lenses on the front of the scope will provide a wide field of view at the highest magnification. However, large objective lenses will add weight and will require higher mounts.
Most reticles for hunting rifles are second focal plane, which means the size will not change with magnification but will create some challenges for calculations. A simple reticle design helps reduce distractions while acquiring your target but should have reference marks for a quick adjustment. Many scopes have illuminated reticles with adjustable brightness settings for low light conditions.
One of the most useful components of a riflescope is a Bullet Drop Compensating (BDC) turret. A laser rangefinder is required to make this feature applicable because it allows the shooter to quickly dial the turret for bullet drop compensation. Custom turrets can be created specific to a particular load and environmental conditions and provide huge benefits to long-range accuracy.
Adjusting for wind deflection is the most difficult to adjust for, but some turret and/or reticle systems have designs based on a bullet’s ballistic information to hold for wind. The difficult challenge is knowing what the wind is doing between the shooter and target, and the longer the range, the more difficult. There are techniques for observing winds at various ranges, but most of the guesswork has been eliminated.
ACCURACY AND PRECISION
Everything listed above is a component of a long-range system with the ultimate goal of being accurate and precise. Accuracy is the ability to hit what you’re aiming for while precision is the ability to replicate that shot, outside of the shooter’s ability. Having confidence in a rifle system takes time at the range, and this fact can’t be overstated enough. Range time! Range time! It’s a tool that must be understood.
Good shooting technique is the foundation for accuracy and precision – solid rests, breathing, trigger pull, follow through, etc. Gaining confidence in the rifle system comes after accurate shots and precise groups. Knowing the way it handles and its capabilities as well as your capabilities will pay off in the field with the crosshairs on your trophy.
A final word that’s worth mentioning is customer service. There are many fine gun builders that roll out quality products, but if their customer service falters, it tarnishes the whole experience. The items noted above along with many other pertinent topics can be discussed with customer service prior to a purchase. There is value in them taking the time to patiently answer all your questions, and how they handle a problem after a purchase is even more important.
What’s more, if customer service staff are actual customers, they can speak directly to any issue brought up since they’ve probably dealt with it themselves. Nothing speaks stronger than employees who are users of their own product because believers will share from personal experiences. They will probably enjoy a good story involving the product because they share the same traditions and beliefs as their customers.