What is Long Range Shooting?

A really good question came up shortly after publishing the Beware of Advertised Velocities post and that question was “what is long range?” It’s a really good question because there are many different opinions and I’ve yet to find a definitive answer.

For example, I read in an online forum somewhere that the NRA defines short range as anything out to 200 yards, medium range out to 600 yards, and long range out to 1000 yards when it comes to competitive shooting. I have no idea if what I read was factual or not. Even if it was, there was absolutely no shortage of opinions regarding those definitions.

Another example can be found in the Wikipedia entry for long range shooting that includes an entire section on defining “long range”. That section brings up the existence of the plethora of opinions I’ve already mentioned.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to provide a definitive answer either. All I can offer is yet another opinion among the myriad of others. So here goes.

Long range shooting is the practice of sending projectiles down range which require the shooter to think and make adjustments in order to confidently make an acceptable hit.

That’s it. Except, that definition has a lot of layers and implications about the entire weapon system, how it’s configured, the environmental conditions, and the target being engaged.

Let’s look at an example, consider an AR-15 with a 20″ barrel chambered for 5.56 NATO. Let’s also assume the scope is sighted in at 100 yards and has a height of 2.6″. Finally, let’s assume we are using 55 grain M193 cartridges and engaging an 8″ target. In this scenario, a shooter can engage the 8″ target without giving any thought to adjustments out to just under 225 yards. At 225 yards, the projectile will have dropped a tad more than 3″ and even with a 10 MPH crosswind it will have drifted less than 3″. Hence, by aiming at the center of the target the projectile will impact the 8″ target without any adjustments assuming a good shot is fired. By my definition and this configuration, long range would be defined as engaging this target with the defined weapon system configuration at any distance beyond 225 yards.

By changing the zero distance to 50 yards of the weapon system (see this other post for a deeper discussion on zero distances), we can extend the distance of engagement without making any other adjustments to a little over 275 yards. At that distance the projectile would drop a little more than 2″ and drift a little more than 3″ with a 10 MPH crosswind. This effectively changes the definition to be engaging this target at any distance beyond 275 yards.

I mentioned my definition has an implication about the environment conditions and I’ve mentioned a 10 MPH cross wind. I’ve also neglected to give the details of other environmental variables mostly because they don’t really have a significant impact until longer ranges are considered. However, let’s consider a 20 MPH crosswind. With a 20 MPH crosswind, the projectile will drift more than 4″ (half of the target size) at just north of 175 yards. Hence, the definition of long range with the same AR-15 weapon configuration (regardless of zero) changes to anything beyond 175 yards.

Continuing that train of thought, consider engaging a 4″ target with the same weapon system example and a 20 MPH crosswind. The projectile will drift more than 2″ (again half the size of the target) at less than 100 yards. So again, the definition of long range has now changed to engaging the 4″ target at distances of 100 yards or more.

I expect many folks to disagree with me, especially if they have some experience shooting rifles or hunting, because those distances aren’t usually considered to be difficult and can be made by using a little “Kentucky Windage”. If you’ve never heard the term, Kentucky Windage is a term used to describe the application of an educated hold over. Even a small holdover, however, does require a bit of thought (or at least the unconscious application of experience). More specifically, I expect folks to point out that I may have more accurately defined the point at which “medium range” begins. I’m not going to argue with that, because in my opinion that’s not incorrect.

Now it may seem like I’ve just offered a bad opinion. In my defense, I never said I was offering a good opinion. I simply offered my current opinion. I’ll also add that I don’t make a distinction between medium range and long range. This very well could be due to my limited experience with long distance shooting. However, the distinction between medium range and long range is much more difficult to make (at least for me). The way I see it is simple (perhaps even naive). Either, I have to make corrections or I don’t. When I do have to make corrections I’m going to take into atmospheric conditions into consideration because the distance at which they do matter is much harder for me to determine with my current level of experience.

I’ll attempt to illustrate this with an example using the same weapon system with a 50 yard zero. The drop at 300 yards when the temperature is 134ºF (hottest temperature recorded in Death Valley, California) is about 3.5″ and the drift from a 10 MPH crosswind is about 9.5″. When the temperature is -80ºF (coldest temperature recorded in Prospect Creek, Alaska), the drop at 300 yards is 7.5″ and the drift from the same 10 MPH crosswind is over 18.”. That’s an elevation difference of 4″ and a drift difference of 8.5″. Ignoring that when engaging a 8″ target at 300 yards could result in a miss. At 600 yards, the difference in drop between those temperatures is more than 65″ and the difference in drift is over 52″. That’s more than 5 feet of drop and 4 feet of drift . I understand I’m considering extreme temperatures, but I think it helps illustrate the point. I think it’s fair to say that shooting 5.56 ammo at targets 600 yards away is considered long range shooting (by perhaps every definition I’ve heard). However, attempting to pinpoint the distance between 300 and 600 yards where medium range ends and long range begins based on the ambient temperature is a different story. It’s even more difficult to pinpoint the distance at which adjustments are required based on environmental conditions when we consider there are three other atmospheric condition variables (altitude, barometric pressure, and relative humidity) that can alter the trajectory of the projectile.

So there you have it. That’s my layman’s definition of long range shooting.

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