Choosing the Right Rifle and Scope that Fits your Needs
In previous articles I have discussed the importance of being able to hit a target at long range, either for a meal or in support of your team members on a supply run. In an episode of The Walking Dead, a character was on a wall of the fortified town of Woodbury with a scoped suppressed rifle, and was unable to hit a walker at 100 feet. In this four-part Hellsgate Tactical Precision Rifle Clinic series, I will discuss the skills and tools you need to make that shot at 1000 yards.
While I’ve been shooting for some time I’m not an expert shot by any means. So to get a better understanding of what it takes to shoot long distance, I attended a course given by Nathan Charlton of Hellsgate Tactical. Under Nathan’s tutelage, I was able to make hits on an 18” x 18” target at 995 yards, nearly twice the distance as my longest shot previous to taking the class.
Nathan grew up in Alaska and Montana where shooting is a way of life. About 8 years ago he started long range shooting after reading a book on the history of Delta Force. This turned into a study of the science behind ballistics and long range shooting. Since then Nathan has competed in high power rifle meets and participated in the Project Appleseed. I’ve taken quite a few firearms classes and the instructor can make or break the class.
Nathan’s style of teaching is not that of instructor rigidly training a student, but more like a bunch of guys sitting around talking about guns and shooting with a guy who knows a hell of alot. Personally I get a lot more out of this style of teaching then I do the more regimented training class.
In long range shooting or any type of shooting for that matter, there is accurate fire and precise fire. Accurate is hitting your target and precise is hitting the same spot on the target. The goal of course is to be both accurate and precise, and to do that you need the right equipment.
For most of us when choosing equipment cost is a factor, when equipping yourself for long range shooting it’s very easy to spend a lot of money very quickly. While the temptation for a new shooter is to buy the biggest gun you can get and the most powerful riffle scope on the market but the reality is that is not the best way to go.
When choosing a rifle the first question to ask is how far to you want to shoot and what will you be shooting at. If you are going to shoot steel plates or zombies at 1000 yards, then a .308 caliber will work just fine. But if that zombie is at 2000 yards or more, then something like a .338 Lapua or .416 Barrett is the way to go. The downside to that is they are a very expensive round and will be very hard to find during the zombie apocalypse. Finally, unless you intend to shoot a zombie that’s inside a ballistic protected vehicle, like a tank, you really don’t need a rifle in .50 BMG.
In reality most shots you will need to make are in the 100 – 500 yard range. To put that in perspective, 500 yards is 1500 feet; the Empire State Building is 1250 feet and a ¼ mile drag strip is 1320 feet. Your rifle needs to be reliable, accurate and precise, and a caliber that is in common use today. For me that is .308 Remington (7.62 x 51). I chose this caliber for a number of reasons. The most important being that it is in use by the armed forces around the world and is extremely common in the civilian world as well. My weapon of choice in .308 is a , this is a semi-auto rifle based on the AR-15/M-16 platform. I’ve discussed this weapon in another article so I won’t go into to many details here, but this is the rifle I used in Nathan’s class to make that shot at 995 yards.
Keep in mind that this is not an inexpensive weapon, current MSRP is $1200 and the used market running 3 times that. There are quite a few rifles that come in an easy to find caliber at a reasonable price so choose wisely.
Now that you have picked a weapon the next item is a scope. There are a lot of options out there ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. In the past I’ve picked the scope with the largest objective lens and the most zoom and of course the cheapest I could find. So I was pretty surprised when Nathan recommended a fixed 10 power scope with a 40 mm objective lens. I was pretty skeptical that I could even see a target a 1000 yards with 10x scope much less hit it.
The scope that I purchased was a Bushnell 3200 Elite tactical at $199. It has a 1” tube s with turret adjustments for windage and elevation and features a Mil-Dot reticle. This scope is built like a tank and can easily handle the recoil shock of the .308 round.
But why a Mil-Dot instead of a Minute of Angle (MOA) or Bullet Drop Compensator (BDC), or anyone of a dozen other reticle styles? The Mil-Dot reticle is primarily used for range finding, by using the known grid of the reticle at an unknown distance to estimate the distance to a target. The Mil-Dots on the reticle can be set up as aiming points to compensate for holdover and wind drift. Most Mil-Dot scopes are set up to range find at 10x magnification, as is the Bushnell scope. However, some scopes can be used for range finding at whatever particular magnification the manufacturer has set the scope up for. But every Mil-Dot scope has to be set at a specific magnification when you are using the reticle to estimate range. It’s really pretty simple, but it will require some math or an app on your smart phone or PDA that does the math for you.
The Mil-Dot reticle seen here consists of a series of dots. The distance between the centers of 2 dots is fixed at a specific magnification and distance. That spacing known as a Mil is 3.6 inches at 100 yards. 1 Mil at 100 yards is 3.6 inches or 1/10th of what it is at 1,000 yards (1/10th of 36 inches). Or 36 inches at 1000 yards, at 200, 300, 400, etc… it is 2/10, 3/10, 4/10, etc. If you know the size in inches of a target, you can tell how far it is by the number of mil-dot increments it spans in your scope. Looking through the scope at a target 100 yards away, the distance between centers of two mil dots is 3.6 inches. If you figure the chest of a deer or antelope to be 18 inches high, at 100 yards the number of Mil dots it spans is 18 ÷ 3.6 = 5 Mil Dots. So, if you look at a deer through the scope and the chest spans 5 Mil Dots, that deer is 100 yards away. If the chest spans 2.5 Mil Dots, then the deer is 200 yards away. The formula for figuring this is Height of item in inches x 27.8 (25.4)/Mils read = Distance to target in yards (meters).
Here is an example; the average human head is about 9 inches in height, so when you place your Mil-Dot scope on that zombie out there and it spans 1 mil, or 9 x 27.8/1 = 250 yards.
Knowing the distance to a target is very important at long ranges, this form of distance measurement must be precise to the nearest ½ Mil or you will miss the target. For an example, if the zombie looks to be 1½ Mils, it is 1333 yards away. But if it is 2 Mils, then it’s 1000 yards away. So you can see an error could result in a miss of 333 yards. We will get into how to use this information in a later section.
Now you have your rifle and scope you’re ready to go shoot, well not quite. There are a number of other items that you need to make that shot at 1000 yards. First you need a stable shooting platform, which means a Bi-pod, sand bag or a pack that can be used as the front rest. You will also need a small bag to be used as a rear rest. This also means shooting from a prone position whenever possible. When in the field you will want some sort of mat or drag bag.
You are also going to need some sort of system that gives you the current weather conditions, such as a Kestrel. In addition to all of this gear you are going to want a ballistics calculator. There are plenty available for your smart phone. I downloaded Shooter, which seems to be pretty accurate.
In part two of this series, I’ll be discussing the importance of choosing the right long range ammo.