Long Range Hunting Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

Today there is great interest in long-range rifles. Since the advent of smokeless powder, the trend has been toward higher velocity, flatter shooting rifles. In North America, this trend started in 1895 with the .30-30 Win., which probably provided the biggest single jump in velocity (from a muzzle velocity of around 1,200 fps. to about 2,000 fps., an increase of roughly 66%), got a big boost early in the 20th Century with the advent of the 8x57JS and the .30-06 Springfield., reached fruition in 1920's with the advent of the .270 Win. and .25-06, and plateaued out in the 1950's with the advent of the Weatherby and Winchester series of belted magnum calibers. This trend recently peaked (for now) with the advent of the "bean field" rifles chambered for huge magnum cartridges like the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag.

High velocity cartridges
The development of this trend did not escape the notice of the ammunition manufacturers. Since World War II, a succession of high velocity cartridges has been introduced, along with improved rifles to handle them. Here is a partial list of new post WW II high velocity cartridges that have been factory loaded: .17 Rem., .222 Rem., .222 Rem. Mag., .223 Rem., .225 Win., .243 Win., .244 H&H, 6mm Rem., 6.5mm Rem. Mag., .260 Rem., 6.5x68S, .264 Win. Mag., .270 WSM, .280 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem., .284 Win., 7mm WSM, 7mm Rem. SAUM, 7x61 S&H, 7mm Rem. Mag., 7mm STW, .308 Win., .300 WSM, .300 Rem. SAUM, .308 Norma Mag., .300 Win. Mag., .300 Rem. Ultra Mag., 8x68S, 8mm Rem. Mag., .338 Win. Mag., .338 A-Square, .358 Norma Mag., and the complete line of Weatherby magnum calibers (a dozen calibers in 1999). That is over three dozen new high velocity cartridges that I can think of at this moment, all of which fire a hunting weight bullet (for their caliber) at a muzzle velocity over 2,800 fps.!

Nor is the caliber selection limited to those developed since WW II. Several fine long-range calibers were developed prior to 1945. In fact, it was the interest in these cartridges which served to spur the development of later cartridges, and practical, reasonably priced, telescopic sights with which to aim them. These classic high velocity calibers include the .22 Hornet, .219 Zipper, .22-250 Varminter (later Remington), .220 Swift, .250-3000 Sav., .257 Roberts, .25-06, 6.5x55, 6.5x57, .270 Win., .275 H&H Mag., 7x64, 7x65R, .30-06 Spfd., .300 H&H Mag., and 8x57JS Mauser.

In addition, some cartridges have been "souped-up" with +P or "Light Magnum" factory loads. The popular .257 Roberts, 7x57 Mauser, 7mm-08 Rem, .308 Win., and .30-06 Spfd., among others, have received this treatment. The "Big 3" ammunition companies have even increased the velocity of the old .45-70 Govt., by offering a 300 grain bullet at up to 1,800 fps., an increase of 470 fps. over the traditional 405 grain bullet at 1,330 fps.

Velocity comparison
How much improvement in velocity has there been? A couple of examples should be illuminating. At the turn of the century the .30-40 Krag was a high velocity cartridge, and in 7mm caliber, the 7x57 Mauser was even faster. These cartridges are the ones used to fight the Spanish-American War, and both are still with us, so it is easy to compare their muzzle velocity with post war cartridges that have similar size and capacity cases, such as the .308 Win., and 7mm-08 Rem.:

.30-40 Krag (U.S. military load in 1898) = 220 gr. round-nose bullet at 1,900 fps.
.308 Win. (Hornady Light Magnum in 1999) = 150 gr. Spire Point at 3,000 fps.

7x57 Mau. (Sp. military load in 1898) = 175 grain round-nose bullet at 2,300 fps.
7mm-08 Rem. (Hornady Light Magnum in 1999) = 139 gr. Spire Point at 3,000 fps.

The upward trend over the last 100 years is unmistakable. Comparing the average velocities of these two pairs of cartridges shows an average gain of 900 fps. by the modern pair! This is achieved by a combination of modern powders, lighter bullets, higher operating pressures, and stronger rifles. Yes, these changes reflect 100 years of technological improvement, but they also reflect the desires of gun buying shooters, who created a market for these improvements. These modern cartridges sell because they offer the performance for which shooters are willing to pay. This same trend is also reflected in the fact that the .30-40 and 7x57 are themselves available today with lighter bullets loaded to higher velocity.

Trajectory comparison
I think that the reason these high velocity numbers are so popular is simply that shooters have found that it is easier to hit with them. Their relatively flat trajectory reduces or eliminates the need to "hold over" on long-range targets. Shots on running game are easier to make because the flight time of the bullet (and therefore the lead required to connect) is reduced.

Let's examine the advantage in trajectory conferred by that 900 fps. Suppose we are using a scoped rifle sighted to hit dead on at 200 yards, shooting a spitzer bullet with a ballistic coefficient of .48 (a 180 grain .30 caliber or 150 grain 7mm bullet, for example). Increasing the MV from 2,000 fps. to 2,900 fps. translates to 9.4 inches less drop at 300 yards. The actual figures show 16.5 inches low at 300 yards for the bullet at 2,000 fps., compared to only 7.1 inches low for the same bullet at 2,900 fps. Say a deer, that measures 16 inches from top of shoulder to brisket, is standing broadside to the shooter at 300 yards. A hold with the horizontal cross hair on the deer's back, and the vertical cross hair just behind the foreleg, will result in a perfect lung shot with the faster bullet. The same hold with the slower bullet will result in a complete miss. No wonder shooters prefer the higher velocity cartridges!

Bolt action rifles
The rifle of choice for the long-range shooter today is the simple and rugged bolt action. Modern bolt action rifles are stronger and generally improved compared to those designed at the end of the 19th century or the early years of the 20th, which made the action's reputation in North America and the world.

The bolt action has always been regarded as a very accurate type of rifle. Improvements in metallurgy and design allow the use of higher pressure to achieve higher velocity. Modern bolt action rifles feature much faster lock times than the old actions. This makes accurate shooting easier, especially at extended ranges. Advances in the quality and consistency of rifle barrels allows shooters to reliably hit targets at longer ranges. Stocks have been dramatically improved, especially in the way they handle heavy recoil, and to align the eye with a low mounted scope. Almost all currently loaded long-range calibers are available in factory made bolt action rifles, and many wildcat calibers are routinely chambered by the small specialty makers, giving shooters a very wide choice of cartridges.

Top flight bolt action rifles are made by numerous small manufacturers and gun shops all across North America, as well as overseas in the UK, Japan, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and other places. Some very fine bolt action rifles are produced by and for the major American arms companies. Rifles like the Browning A-Bolt II, Remington 700, Ruger 77 Mk II, Savage 116, Weatherby Mark V, and Winchester Model 70 are the equal of any factory made rifles anywhere, and those from the small North American specialty shops are the best in the world.

Falling block single shot rifles
The other type of action that is generally recognized as suitable for a fine long-range rifle is the falling block single shot. Again, some are produced in custom shops, or by smaller manufacturers like Dakota Arms, but the best known models from major manufacturers are Browning's 1885 High Wall and Low Wall models, and the Ruger No. 1 series.

Bill Ruger is responsible, more than anyone else, for rekindling interest in the classic falling block rifle. His No. 1 action is sort of a modernized British Farquharson, a classic and very elegant hammerless action. John Browning's classic High Wall was generally regarded as the finest of the American single shot rifles.

These are both superbly made, elegant rifles. Their actions operate smoothly and precisely, unlike most bolt actions, which rattle when the bolt is open. They are just as strong as a bolt action. Because their actions are extremely compact, they can have a barrel about four inches longer than a bolt action rifle of the same overall length. This allows maximum velocity from modern high intensity and magnum calibers. Naturally, single shot rifles incorporate all the advances in metallurgy, design, and construction enjoyed by bolt action rifles, as do all rifles today. Because there is no limit to the length of cartridge that can be accommodated, single shot rifles are available in a wide variety of calibers, some of which are not available in repeating rifles.

These classy single shot rifles can really shoot: my Browning High Wall in .45-70 is the most accurate centerfire rifle I have ever owned! In any of the high velocity calibers, a modern single shot rifle would make a fine long-range hunting rifle.

Lever action rifles
There are relatively few lever action rifles chambered for the high intensity cartridges associated with long-range shooting, but there are some. The now discontinued Sako Finnwolf and Winchester 88 were chambered for modern short action, high intensity cartridges. I think of them together because they looked similar--like a bolt action rifle bred to a lever action--and had similar features. Among these were one piece stocks, like a bolt action. They were produced in the 1960's and 1970's. Both used front locking rotating bolts and were very strong. M-88 calibers were .243, .284, .308, and .358 Win.; Finnwolf calibers were .243 and .308.

The relatively new Browning Lightning BLR is made in both long and short action models. The barrel is a semi floating type, which attaches to the forearm at only one point, and the bolt is front locking with a rotary head. The BLR is strong, well made, handles recoil well, and comes standard with Browning's usual outstanding fit and finish. It is the only lever action which handles the 7mm Rem. and .300 Win. belted magnums. Other available calibers include the .223, .22-250, .243, .270, 7mm-08, .308, and .30-06. Browning claims that the BLR is as accurate as the company's bolt action rifles, and it is probably the best choice in a lever action rifle for long range shooting.

Autoloading rifles
For the autoloading fan, the two premier autoloading rifles chambered for long-range big game cartridges today are the Remington Model 7400 and the Browning BAR Mark II. Both are gas operated designs with a good reputation for reliability and accuracy. They are both modern, good looking rifles. Their gas operation definitely makes hard kicking high intensity cartridges more pleasant to shoot.

The Remington 7400 standard model comes in .243, .270, .280, .30-06, and .308. The carbine model is available in .30-06 only.

The Browning BAR Mark II autoloader comes in two basic models. The Safari model has a steel receiver and 22 inch (for standard calibers) or 24 inch (for magnum calibers) barrel. The Lightweight model has an alloy receiver and 20 inch barrel. The BOSS (ballistic optimizing shooting system) is an accuracy enhancing and recoil reducing option available on the Safari model only. The Safari model is chambered for standard calibers .22-250 Rem., .243, .25-06 Rem., .270, .308, and .30-06, plus belted magnum calibers 7mm Rem. Mag., .300 Win. Mag., and .338 Win. Mag.

I know a little bit about the BAR Mark II, since I own a Safari grade (with BOSS) in .338 Mag. This is one autoloader that literally shoots as well as a bolt action. My average group size with my BAR is equal to my average with any of my bolt action rifles. At 100 yards my 3 shot groups with the BAR run from under an inch to 1.5 inches, and this is with standard Remington 225 grain Core-Lokt factory loads, not reloads developed specifically for this rifle. Most of the error is probably mine, as I feel the rifle shoots about as accurately as I can hold. I find this astonishing for a medium bore rifle. Reliability, at least in the moderate temperatures we have in Western Oregon, has been 100%. Its principle drawbacks are its creepy trigger (one of these days I'm going to spring for a trigger job), and its relatively heavy weight of 8 lbs. 6 oz. without a scope. Of course, the heavy weight, gas operation, and BOSS combine to make it very pleasant to shoot. Subjectively, it feels as if it kicks less than a bolt action .308. It is one medium bore magnum that is actually fun to shoot.

Pump action rifles
Pump action rifles have not usually been thought of as long range rifles due to doubts about their accuracy. There are two recent pump action rifles from major U.S. manufacturers that may qualify as potential long-range rifles. These are the recently discontinued Browning BPR and the Remington 7600, which has been produced for many years and continues to be available. Both use a front locking, rotating bolt. Both are very similar to their respective firms' autoloading rifles, both mechanically and visually. The difference is basically that the shooter's arm provides the energy to cycle the action, instead of expanding gas as in the autoloader.

The Browning Pump Rifle (BPR) was a sleek and modern looking rifle. Like the BAR, its forearm fit flush to the receiver. There was a long action model, chambered for the .270 Win, 7mm Rem. Mag., .30-06 Spfd., and .300 Win. Mag. There was also a short action model, chambered for the .243 Win. and the .308 Win. In all calibers the barrel was fully free floating, with no forearm contact. The BPR was discontinued in 2000, but is still sometimes seen on the used market.

The Remington 7600 is very similar to the company's companion 7400 autoloader. Many of the internal parts are interchangeable. The 7600 is chambered in 5 calibers: .243 Win., .270 Win., .280 Rem., .308 Win., and .30-06 Spfd. The barrel is fully free floating. Standard 7600's come with two piece checkered walnut stocks and forearms; the buttstock has a Monte Carlo comb, which helps to align the eye with a scope.

From the descriptions above, it should be clear that the 7600 is a high quality rifle. Remington regards it as a suitable long-range rifle for the shooter who wants a pump gun.

Telescopic sights
The design and manufacture of telescopic sights and mounts has also made giant strides since World War II. Now shooters can see distant targets clearly, and aim at them precisely. Long-range precision rifles are useless without long-range precision sights. The two have developed together, and today we have a fine selection of both.

The optical quality, durability, and precision of scopes has improved dramatically since WW II. Adjustments are now almost always internal in hunting scopes, and reticules stay centered. "Duplex" type cross hairs have virtually replaced the old standard cross hair, as well as the floating dot, and post with cross hair, although these options can sometimes be ordered.

One of the biggest changes has been the emergence, and then the domination, of the variable power scope. Advanced, computer assisted optical design, and multi layer anti reflection coatings have made this possible. The traditional 2.5x , 2.75x, and 3x scopes have nearly disappeared. They have been supplanted by the 1-3x, 1-4x, and 1.5-5x variable scopes. The traditional "all-around" 4x is still available from most manufacturers, but the 2-7x variable is the same size, and more versatile. The traditional 6x scope is also still available from several manufacturers for long-range big game rifles, but the very popular 3-9x variable sells better. Even for varmint rifles, the traditional high power scopes are being supplanted by high power variables of 4-12x and up. There is still a place for the durable, bright, simple, fixed power scope, but the top sellers are the versatile variable power models.

Manufacturing and selling scopes is a very competitive business, especially since the Japanese makers entered the market. This has forced some of the traditional American sight manufacturers, like Lyman and (the original) Redfield Company (both of whom got their start making fine iron sights in the years before scopes were even a market factor), out of the scope business. However, the selection of scope sights has never been better.

I cannot name all of the scope brands on the market today, but I will mention some of them. As usual, the higher price brands are usually better products. There are economy and midrange models from manufacturers like Bushnell, Simmons, Tasco, Redfield, and Weaver; deluxe models from leaders like Bausch & Lomb, Burris, Leupold, Nikon, and Pentax; and ultra-deluxe models from the likes of Leica, Schmidt & Bender, Swarovski, and Zeiss. Because I get asked so often, I am going to admit that my personal favorites at the present time are probably Weaver and Leupold. But I should hasten to add that I have also used scopes from Bushnell, Simmons, Redfield, and Nikon with results ranging from satisfactory to excellent.

I hope that the information above serves as food for thought. Due to advances in metallurgy and manufacturing, most rifles today are more accurate than they were in past decades. As we have seen, long-range accuracy is no longer the sole province of bolt action and single shot rifles, particularly for big game hunting, although these traditional types are still the most popular choices. The fact that volume of fire is seldom important in long range hunting, but gilt-edged accuracy is, has probably worked against the popularity of lever, autoloading, and pump action rifles. It is not so much the action type that matters, but more the ability, training, and experience of the shooter. Of course, this has always been the case.

My advice is to buy whatever type of rifle you prefer, but equip it with the very best scope you can afford, in the sturdiest mount you can buy for your rifle. (Often this latter will prove to be a Leupold or Redfield one piece base with matching rings.) Then make every effort to avoid long-range shots at big game animals! Always try to stalk closer. Be patient. Never shoot at an animal if you are so far away you think you have to hold above his back to hit him. At that point he is out of range. Never shoot at any animal under any circumstances unless you KNOW you can kill him. If you just THINK you can kill him, you will probably miss, or worse, wound. Especially avoid long-range shots at moving animals--the lead required can be fantastic.

Perhaps an example is in order here. The best long-range shot I ever (almost) made occurred years ago out in the Mojave Desert, back when it was still a trackless wasteland instead of a wasteland of tract houses.

I took a poke at a jack rabbit running full out (he had already been shot at and missed a couple of times) that later proved to be 600 paces from where I stood. That day I was shooting a very accurate, scoped, Winchester Centennial 1966 rifle with a 26 inch heavy barrel, using a 150 grain Speer .30-30 bullet handloaded to about 2,400 fps. I could not tell you exactly how much I led that speeding jack, or how many feet I held over him. But I can tell you that he was running from my right to my left, and I held the intersection of the cross hairs so far above and in front of him that he was somewhere in the lower right hand corner of my Leupold scope when I touched off the shot. The bullet took so long to get there that my rifle had come back down from the recoil of firing the shot, and I had reacquired him in my field of view.

Anyway, the bullet landed right between his front feet and threw sand into his face, startling him so badly that he tripped and rolled head over heels about three times before he regained his footing and continued on out of sight. For a moment, when he rolled, I thought I had hit him. Although it was a miss, it was the best long shot I ever (almost) made. Even my buddies were impressed, and they were a pretty tough crowd. At that time we were going out into the desert and shooting jacks at least once a week with our .30-30, .308, and .30-06 deer rifles, and I could usually keep my bullets within an (imaginary) 3 foot diameter circle around a running jack out to around 200-300 yards. But at 600 paces . . . that was way beyond my ability and experience.

The point of the foregoing tale is the enormous lead and holdover required to put a bullet close to that jack rabbit at that range. Most shooters simply have no idea that the holdover required at 600 yards is so extreme. I think that if they did, there would be fewer stories about long range shooting in the gun magazines. Even with a superior long range rifle like a 7mm Magnum zeroed at 300 yards and shooting a 139 grain Hornady spire point bullet at a MV of 3,200 fps, the bullet drop is 51.9 inches at 600 yards. That means you would have to hold over 4 feet above where you wished the bullet to impact. With my .30-30 that day out in the desert, judging from a trajectory table, I was probably holding over about 14 feet!

None of the foregoing, of course, makes any allowance for the intrinsic accuracy of the rifle, or the shooting ability of the hunter. But a hunting rifle that will shoot into one minute of angle--which is very accurate indeed--can do no better than 4 inches at 400 yards, and 6 inches at 600 yards. That is the intrinsic accuracy built into that rifle. A good shot who can use that very accurate rifle to shoot 2 inch groups from a sitting or prone position at 100 yards (like he or she would have to use in the field), can do no better than 8 inch groups at 400 yards, or 12 inch groups at 600 yards. And this is not allowing for the increasing difficulty of aiming at such ranges. Clearly, shots at 600 yards are not justified, and shots at 400 yards require everything to go perfectly to get a vital hit at that range. This makes no allowance for wind, mirage, target movement, misestimation of the range, or any other variables. Clearly, Jack O'Connor was right when he wrote that (to paraphrase) not once in a blue moon was a hunter justified in shooting at a big game animal over 300 yards away.

There are always exceptions, of course. Jack O'Connor himself killed big game animals at over 300 yards, and other masters like Bob Hagel, Warren Page, Elmer Keith, Pete Brown, Francis Sell, and Townsend Whelen did likewise. But these men had the skill and the experience to justify such shooting. They lived at a time when game was much more plentiful than it is today, and when bag limits were generous or nonexistent. As full-time professional gun writers, they had the opportunity to shoot an enormous amount of ammunition through a very wide variety of rifles, and to spend a great deal of their time hunting. Such opportunities were rare then, and are almost nonexistent now. The times have indeed changed, and not always for the better.

I would like to conclude by pointing out that long range shots are less common than might be inferred from reading the sporting magazines. Most big game animals in North America are killed at under 200 yards; in fact, most are killed at less than 100 yards.

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Copyright 1999, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.