Ethical Hunting at Extended Ranges

by Mark Ripley

The subject of hunting is always one that will cause much debate, but throw in the concept of shooting any living thing at long range, and it’s sure to cause a stir, even within a group of hunters. Much of this is drawn from the traditional view that a creature must be stalked within a stones throw to be considered a ‘sporting’ shot with a rifle. Ironically, to shoot a bird on the wing with a shotgun at too close a range, and it would be considered ‘unsporting’. The shotgun is a close range tool and the rifle is of course intended to be used at range, yet it seems to be considered ‘unsporting’ to use either for its intended purpose!

It’s fair to say however, that perhaps 50 years ago, if a rifle could shoot a 4” group at 100 yards it was considered a pretty accurate gun. However, in this day and age this is not the case. The tolerances on modern factory rifles and ammunition has reached a much higher standard, with a sub-MOA guarantee becoming very much the benchmark for any factory rifle. Personally, I feel that if your rifle set up is up to it, and so is your ability to make the shot, then I see no issue with shooting an animal at whatever range you feel confident if it results in a clean kill. Hunting within the limits of our own ability is something we should all be conscious of, but knowing those limits can only come from experience, and experience can only come from practice.

The modern bolt-action rifle is capable of extreme
precision in the right hands.

Practice on steel before engaging live quarry.

One of the best ways to learn what your rifle will do at any given range, and in any given environmental conditions, is to practice on targets before engaging on live quarry. I’m lucky enough to shoot over some large open hill areas where I primarily control foxes, and often due to the lack of cover, shots can be at extended ranges. To keep my eye in I will often practice on random targets when out on the hill, such as a prominent stone on the hillside. This is good practice as it means you have a target at an unknown range and in unknown wind conditions. I will first range the target, then try to to read the wind, then make a first round hit. Before long you start to build a humbling picture of exactly what your limits are, and the mark of a true sportsman is remembering that limit when it comes to taking a shot on a live animal, and when to tip your cap to it in favour of a better chance on another day.

Steel reactive targets offer an excellent form of practice, giving both a visual indication of a hit as well as a satisfying ‘clang’ on impact a few seconds later! Another good tip is to have someone spot your shots for you, or if you are shooting alone, then a cheap video camera with a good zoom is ideal to give you instant feed back as to where your shots are landing. After all, if you can’t see where you missed the target, you won’t learn very much from shooting at it. All the practice in the world however, amounts to nothing if you or your rifle set up doesn’t shoot accurately and consistently.

About 15 years ago I bit the bullet (excuse the pun) and bought a custom built .260 Remington rifle - and I’ve never looked back; in fact every time I take that rifle out, I think what a good purchase it was. Buy once, cry once, then forever enjoy it, has become very much my philosophy when it comes to shooting equipment in recent years. Until a couple of years ago I was always a fan of Nightforce scopes - (and don’t get me wrong, they are good scopes!) until I tested one of the Element Optics scopes - the Nexus. I was instantly impressed with its reliability and glass quality, and have since become an avid user of the Element brand on all of my rifles. Having reliable equipment is one necessary aspect in long range shooting, another is good technique. This includes good body positioning behind the rifle, correct breathing control and smooth trigger control, yet by far the biggest skill to learn for successful shooting at distance is the ability to read the wind.

The Element Nexus 5-20x50 is the ideal
riflescope for precision longrange shooting.

This is an art form all of its own, and one none of us ever really master. Such things as the popular Kestrel windmeters are great for giving you ballistic information based on what the wind is doing at the firing point, but it can’t factor in what it’s doing down range, and here is where the skill really comes in to determine what effect it might have on the shot. Other than shooting up or down steep inclines, if you know the range to your target, and you know the ballistics of your rifle, then wind is the biggest variable in the equation. There are however things to look for down range that may well help you ascertain what the wind is doing. The movement of leaves, branches, grass and foliage will help give visual indicators as to the direction and strength of the wind. Sometimes less obvious signs maybe present such as smoke from a chimney or bonfire or ripples blowing across water.

Having the right tool for the job is only part
of the equation - You have to learn how to use it!

Those familiar with range shooting will be familiar with reading wind strength and direction from wind flags placed the length of the shooting range. Of course when hunting, these signs are unlikely to be present, causing you to rely on nature itself. If you regularly shoot over an area of ground then strips of ribbon tied to fences or trees can be placed out to help with these visual indications. The most skilled of shooters will also be able to use ‘mirage’ to accurately predict both wind speed and direction by focusing on the heat rising from the ground, and reading the strength and direction from the angle of these ‘waves’. The art of wind reading is something entire books have been written about and it’s well worth researching the subject, as it’s too much to try and cover in detail in a short blog!

I think it’s fair to say one of the most important aspects of any form of accurate shooting has to be consistency. If you’re not consistently missing in the same spot with each shot, it makes it difficult to know where your going wrong and to learn from it! Inconsistency is invariably due to one of two things, either poor shooting technique or inconsistent ammunition (assuming you have an accurate rifle and reliably tracking scope.) Many competitive shooters or serious enthusiasts will handload their own ammunition to ensure the best from their set up as well as the most consistency. This will also involve choosing the best bullet for your barrel twist and the type of shooting you wish to do. While a light bullet will drop less with the effects of gravity over a heavier one, it will also generally speaking, be more affected by the winds sidewards deflection over the more stable heavy bullet, making for a bit of a trade-off. For me, I favour a heavier bullet for long range hunting based on the concept that the drop of the bullet is easier to plot over the effects of the wind, so anything I can do to tip the odds in my favour against a stiff crosswind is a distinct advantage in my book! However, when night shooting foxes where the ranges are generally closer under the cover of darkness, then I favour a flatter shooting faster bullet. For this I use a 223 loaded with 53 grain bullets. Although these are more effected by the wind, they drop less than, say, an 80 grain bullet from the same rifle would. If I zero my 223 at 200 yards, then my rifle will also be on target at 50 yards, an inch high at 100 yards and will require no real consideration on a fox out to around 250 yards. At 300 yards I would only need to aim just over the back of a fox to drop the bullet into the kill zone, meaning the vast majority of shots at night are simply a case of ‘point and shoot.’ Again my 223 is a custom rifle, yet shoots very well with Hornady factory ammunition and at the ranges I’m likely to shoot to at night, more than adequate.

All these factors are fine when you have the time to compose a shot at long range, which, for deer, may well be the case, however, foxes are generally constantly on the move during the day and don’t often offer the chance for a static shot for very long! One of my usual techniques here is to try and decide where the fox is headed for, be it a gateway, familiar run or a bait site. Sometimes this maybe a point along a fence or hedge that the fox is following, giving you a point to range and set up on, then waiting for the animal to walk into the view of your scope. At which point it may be possible to stop it with a shout or wait for it to pause along the way.

Hunting at range requires practice, accuracy and the time to compose the shot, without this the chance of an accurate shot are greatly reduced and the risk of wounding the animal increases. With all aspects of hunting, respect for our quarry must be paramount, which again brings us back to knowing the limits of our own abilities…

Hunting Fox during the day often requires
long shots over open country.