Hunting in Michigan, I rarely encounter shots outside of the 150-yard range. However, if you are planning an elk hunt or want to increase your range across long fields there are some things to consider.
Ballistic Factors to Consider
The specific cartridge your rifle is chambered for is going to make a big difference in the effective range of the gun. When comparing cartridges you will be looking at ballistic charts. There are a few specific things you will want to pay attention to.
- Trajectory – Also known as bullet drop or bullet path, this will tell you how much a bullet is going to drop at a specific distance from the muzzle. A round that can theoretically hit 500 yards will not do much good at that range when the bullet will have dropped 115 inches by then (looking at you 450 bushmaster). From most starting heights that bullet will be 9.5 feet below the muzzle of the gun at 500 yards. That is unless you want to use the “Kentucky Elevation” method and aim 10 feet above your target.
- Energy – This is a key indicator of performance which tells you the energy a bullet can put on a target at a certain distance from the muzzle. It is a function of the weight of the bullet, the velocity it is traveling, and gravity. A 22 LR bullet that is 40 grains and traveling at a velocity of 1200 fps (approximately) will have about 97 ft. pounds of energy at 100 yards. Conversely, a 223 Remington bullet that weighs 55 grains (almost the same size as the 22 LR) is traveling at 2800 feet per second and will have 766 ft. pounds of energy at the same 100 yards. That is a huge difference. The differences get even larger when you move to cartridges like the 270 Winchester or 308. A 140 grain 270 Winchester bullet has an energy of 2360 ft. pounds at 100 yards and 1300 ft. pounds at 500 yards! At 500 yards it has more energy than a 223 Remington does at 100 yards.
- Velocity – I put this ballistic attribute last intentionally. Ammo manufacturers love to tout the high velocity of their cartridges, but for hunting, it is not the first thing you want to look at. While bullet speed is important, a slower-moving 308 could have more energy than a faster moving 223. The velocity is only important when combined with the weight of the bullet. This is where we get to the bullets energy.
One other note: You will hear a lot about BC or ballistic coefficient. This number refers to the ability of a bullet to overcome environmental factors such as wind and gravity. Some more aerodynamic bullets will have a higher BC than flat-nosed bullets. The higher the BC, in general, the flatter the bullet’s trajectory. While this figure can be important for match or competition shooters, for a hunter I would focus more on bullet drop and energy.
If you are shooting at a deer 100 yards away most people can effectively put a bullet in the boilermaker when shooting offhand (without a rest or tripod). A mistake of 1 inch is only going to be 1 inch at the target. When our target gets in the 3-500 yard range, a 1-inch mistake in our aiming can translate to a 5-inch error on the target. That can be the difference between a clean kill and a day of tracking a wounded animal. As your target gets farther away, that error increases even more. I would say that 350 yards should be the maximum shot range for 99% of hunters. Most people will never have the skill or precision equipment to repeatedly put a bullet on target at ranges past 500 yards.
When shooting at longer ranges, it is imperative that you are stabilizing your rifle. Offhand will not cut it here. This can mean many different things. A self-standing tripod, a weapon-mounted bipod, or a monopod. It can also include using a makeshift rest such as a backpack, your hunting buddy’s back, a tree, or anything else that provides a stable surface. So many people have a perception that accurate long-range shooting is done offhand. While some people can shoot very accurately at long ranges offhand, most people cannot. Follow the examples set by professional snipers, competition shooters, and hunters: Use a rest.
But Which Cartridge Should I Choose?
The answer can vary greatly. It will depend on what animal you are hunting. The range at which you plan to shoot can also have a great impact on your decision. To decide you need to try shooting different long-range calibers and see what you are comfortable with. Try 223, 270 Winchester, 308, 30-06, 300 Win Mag, 6.5 Creedmoor. Find out what level of recoil feels manageable. A lot of people get caught up in wanting to shoot the largest and heaviest cartridge they can handle. This can lead to errors in shot placement because of flinching. It can also cost significantly more money. 300 Winchester Magnum costs, on average, about twice what a 308 cartridge does. 300 will also burn out a barrel after only 1000 rounds while 308 can go twice that.
I would rather see a hunter shoot a 308 or 6.5 Creedmoor that they are deadly accurate without to 300 yards than shoot 300 Win Mag unsuccessfully at 600 yards.
Do your research. There is a ton of misinformation out there about what caliber you need to hunt long-range game. The fact is that probably every animal in North America has been killed with a 270 or 30-06. If you’re hunting Grizzly Bear in Alaska, then sure you may want that 338 Lapua or 375 H&H. However, for elk or deer, you will be lethal well past the ethical shot limit of 3-500 yards. Do your research, look at the cost of rifles, the cost and availability of ammunition, and make an educated choice. It’s always better to start with a smaller lesser recoiling cartridge and learn proper technique and habits than to try and go too big too fast and lear the wrong way. It’s the reason so many people start shooting 22 LR.
Long-range shooting is a blast. So much of being effective comes down to the planning and mental side of things. Pick a good rifle chambered in a solid long-range cartridge, learn to shoot it well out to 300 yards, and plan an elk or mule deer hunt.