By definition, long-range shooting is the act of sending bullets from a rifle to some very extreme distances. In this case, we are talking about a specialized form of marksmanship that involves a litany of events that tend to culminate in a successful bullet strike on a target well into the next ZIP code, or so it would seem at times. The rifles used for this type of shooting are at times unique to the sports shooting world, the ammunition digested by these specialized fire sticks also tends to have an identification all its own.
The long-range cartridge must retain several elements to be successful. The first is propellent capacity (large case volume). The second, a projectile with a high ballistic coefficient (BC) rating that also carries enough weight to stay balanced and stable in flight. Add all these requirements up and you have a unique and select number of cartridges that can fit this profile.
When I got into the long-range shooting game there were fewer options available to the riflemen. Not that some were not darn good, but selection came down to a .264 “Westerner” by Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, or possibly the ever-loving .300 Winchester Magnum. After that, the pickings got slim when the required range was extended much past 800 yards.
While it is true that some cartridges, such as the .30-06 by example and even the .308 Winchester, earned reputations among world-renowned snipers such as Carlos Hathcock (White Feather) or Sergeant York in WWI with his Springfield ’06. If you could hit a target at 500 yards, you were considered to be in a small minority among riflemen of the time.
At the time I wrote my first book on this subject, my thinking was centered around shots that were taken at about 600 to 1,000 yards — on the far edge of the long-range game. Today, that has all changed. Long-range shooters, myself included, have recorded hits on human-size targets out to one mile. Some shooters in this camp are now pushing successful shots to three miles down range. What is required in the way of cartridge selection to do this kind of work? Well, hang tight as we dig into this somewhat complicated subject.
Pushing the Limits
First, I will state unequivocally that in my mind, the best-of-the-best in long range are two cartridges — .408 CheyTac and the .375 CheyTac. The .408 broke the three-mile long-range record not long ago. However, I will move from these two cartridges, because the rifles that shoot them are off the charts in cost, the ammunition is very hard to get, and components to load these brutes are also just about a ghost to handloaders.
The CheyTac brand is advanced by a wide margin as compared to other contenders as long-range cartridges. Now, this being the case, what is the direction regarding ammunition the beginner or advanced shooter should follow in the game of long-range rifle marksmanship?
While not everyone will agree — every shooter has his or her pet rifle and paired cartridge — I have selected four primary cartridges being factory or handloaded that fit the requirements of a long-range round. I have shot all four during some 15 years of testing, gathering data, and reporting on my results.
The first is ‘over-the-counter’ availability. The second reason is the fact that all four selections will perform well to select, documented ranges. The final element is that shooting both cartridge and rifle will not require you to remortgage the house or starve the kids by making them eat porridge every day in the process. There is a fifth option, but it is not mainstream.
It is bigger than the .408, and without question carries a pedigree that is totally unquestionable as a long-range round. I am referring to the Ma Duce, being the .50 Caliber Browning Machine Gun (BMG) cartridge. Yes, in terms of ultimate range even beyond a three-mile distance that is my go-to rifle and cartridge.
The .50 caliber cartridge is 750 grains of pure 2,700 fps living hell against anything it contacts and outlawed on most ranges east of the Missouri river as just too dangerous. At some point, I will take up the big .50, as it is totally in a class unto itself.
In terms of reviewing the previous four cartridges, these stack up to be the following, and will be discussed in order of their maximum ranging ability.
Here we have a moderate-recoil cartridge that was developed by Hornady to take on 1,000-yard targets in shooting competition. However, when hunters and steel-target shooters got hold of it, the game quickly changed to a long-range round that was still effective beyond 1,000 yards. In effect, the 6.5 Creedmoor is workable to 1,200 yards at sea level and can be stretched another 300 yards with some altitude increase, as in mountain high-country shooting.
Built in 120 grains or a 140-grain G-1 540 BC A-Max bullet, 147-grain ELD bullet at a G-1 697 BC, this fast mover is a real over-the-counter winner. Designed with a long ogive that develops a needlepoint heat-treated tip in the ELD bullet, the package is a state-of-the-art system when it comes to fighting the wind and drop-reducing downrange performance. The next step up would be handmade lathe bullets cut from solid copper, which are available through custom bullet manufacturers.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the unavailing of this new bullet and tested loads for at the Hornady test facility out to 1,500 yards. Without question, this total cartridge package is nothing less than spectacular. For shooters who are going to keep targets inside 1,000 yards and shoot mostly on commercial shooting ranges, this bad boy is all you will ever need.
Keep in mind, the modern long-range bullet needs to retain velocity to fight off the elements that drain performance. In effect, the bullet has three parts to its life as it flies to the target. The first is healthy velocity and a flight path with good bullet rotation.
The second element is what we call transonic effects. This means a transition point as the bullet’s ballistic performance starts to fall apart downrange. The bullet is going to become unstable at some point during its flight causing it wobble or drift off the mark.
The third element is the bullet going subsonic. When that happens, accuracy will fail. As the bullet goes subsonic, the effects from wind, air temperature, barometric pressure, elevation, and even the earth’s rotation (Coriolis effect) affect the round in a major way. As an example, the U.S. military found this to be indeed a fact regarding the 7.62×51 (.308 Winchester) at about 800 yards, when fighting the long 20-year war in the sandbox. As a result, it started re-barreling the M24 bolt-action sniper rifles to .300 Win Mag by the end of the war.
In this case more powder, larger case capacity, and a heavier bullet were the cure to a major problem for long-range shooting solutions. The formula here is simple. Want more range? Shoot more rifle and cartridge. In this case, bigger is always better as you stretch the distance to the target.
300 Win. Mag
If you are moving into the never-never land of ultra-long-range shooting and leaving that 1,000-yard target far behind, the 6.5 Creedmoor becomes a distant memory. Sure, some shooters have hit a target one mile away with the 6.5mm, but this is not common, and at times some luck is always better than skill. To stretch out, you need to up your long-range package, and the .300 Winchester Magnum can fill a spot in that performance requirement.
There is a shooter in this country who goes by the name Charles Melton. Charley Mike, his trade name, is a retired Navy Seal sniper who held the 2.84-mile-long range record for some time. Charlie stated to me several times that his go-to cartridge has always been the .300 Win Mag. To my way of thinking, Charlie has seen what I will never experience in my lifetime.
I have a lot of respect for this man, and his opinions cemented my thinking as well. Primarily, the idea that the .300 Win. Mag. is the king of the all-around long-range cartridge. Bullet options are many and varied, the cartridge is a solid performer to 1,500 yards at sea level, and much further when you get into high altitude.
In my case, when used as a hunting rifle cartridge, it has recorded a long string of clean one-shot kills on big game well beyond 400 yards downrange. With a muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps, it will push a Hornady 225-grain BTHP bullet with a G-1 BC of .670 to 1,500 yards with deadly accuracy.
Hornady 300 PRC
With a move into the longer-range, high-performance cartridges, I elect to offer the Hornady 300 PRC. This round is newer than most, but it is making progress within the long-range shooting community due to the obvious performance characteristics associated with the new cartridge. Where the .300 Win Mag leaves off, the 300 PRC picks up the slack.
This cartridge is based on the .375 Ruger case as designed by Hornady. The bullets loaded expressly for the cartridge are the 212-grain ELD-X hunting bullet, and the 225-grain ELD-MATCH. With a muzzle velocity of 2,860 and a BC figure of .663, the flight of the bullet makes very good use of energy retention by staying above the speed of sound out to over one mile. (Dependent on weather conditions and altitude.) At one mile downrange, this bullet is still moving at 1,181 fps, which is above the transonic entry-level into bullet destabilization.
Time and space get in the way at this point, because taking a close look at the 300 PRC is an adventure in ballistics reporting all unto itself. What I will say at this point is that I have shot the cartridge from the Ruger Precision rifle to 1,100 yards on a target convoy of three vehicles with cardboard man-sized targets. From an overwatch position with 9 rounds, the engine was wiped out cardboard bodies were well perforated. For now, it is safe to say the Hornady 300 PRC fills a nice gap in performance when pushing bullets into the next ZIP code.
The final entry in my shortlist of go-to long-range cartridges is the .338 Lapua. Here we have a cartridge that was designed from the case head up to work for the warfighter first and the sport shooter much later. The .338 Lapua is an ultra-long-range workhorse and the cartridge that I have used when making my successful one-mile hits. This monster will burn 103 grains of Big Boy behind a 225-grain Barns solid and still be moving above the speed of sound at 1,760 yards downrange (one mile).
Special hand-turned bullets, built with super-long ogive frontal sections can best this performance pattern. Like the 300 PRC, the .338 Lapua has made quite a reputation among both military and civilians alike. I went with this round in both a chassis design and conventional stocked system, because it was military, retained some darn good downrange numbers, and was available in both loaded and component parts regarding ammunition.
When setting up an adversary gun position using cardboard cutout bad guys, and pushing the contact range to at least 1,400 yards, the .338 Lapua is an area weapon that makes short work of a trench mortar position being real or a training dummy.
During the research covering my third book on long-range shooting, I interviewed Australian snipers in real-time via SAT phone from Australia into undisclosed areas of the sandbox war. The only thing they had to say about the .338 Lapua was that every new batch of ammo was different and required re-zeroing, and the wind never stopped blowing. Learning wind is one of the most difficult things about long-range shooting.
Aside from the previously mentioned elements, the Aussie snipers loved the .338 Lapua in combat, but the bad guys on the receiving end without question did not.
With both guns and ammo selected for this kind of sport shooting, believe me, the whole process is just in its infancy. The hard parts are still well ahead. Keeping your own head on your shoulders, and always thinking clearly, becomes the next element to consider in the grand sport of gunning into the next ZIP code.
Do you enjoy gunning into the next ZIP code? What is you longest shot? Which round do you prefer for long-range shooting? Share your answers in the comment section.