Getting Started with Long Range Shooting 1: Fundamentals

Up until two years ago, I had not attempted taking a shot with a rifle further than 250 yards. Frankly, I hadn’t really done a whole lot of handling a rifle short of punching holes in paper at my local gun range with the AR-15 I picked up for home defense and that was mostly limited to 100 yards. While curiosity about shooting distances had already started to build, it was also around the same time that I got into deer hunting and realized that there was a real possibility of a hunting opportunity present itself at longer distances. Looking back I think that realization along with my curiosity was what prompted me to dip my toes into long distance shooting.

Over the past two years, I’ve learned a few things about long distance shooting. While I still consider myself very much a novice when it comes to this aspect of long guns, it’s become evident that the bits I do know are often sought after nuggets of knowledge that several friends and acquaintances have asked me about. As such, I’ve finally found the inspiration to capture what I know in the blog with the hope that it will steer folks who want to dabble in this practice in the right direction as they take their first plunges down this rabbit hole.

Before getting into the weeds, I’m going to suggest folks don’t go start racking up charges on their credit cards to get all the latest whiz bang gear and accessories, which are abundant in the long distance shooting market, like I did. At least, not yet and definitely not all at once. I’m going to try my hardest to lay out this guide (which will likely be a few posts) with the steps I would take to get into the game knowing what I know now. I will make some purchase suggestions along the way and I will also do my best to point out which of those suggestions I consider to be immediately necessary to make it to take the next step. Be warned, some of the gear will get pricey.

All right then, let’s get started.

Ironically, I’m going to suggest an immediate purchase right of the get go. Go pick up a copy of Ryan Cleckner’s Long Distance Shooting Handbook. I relied heavily on this book when I got started. It is filled with some great knowledge and is written by somebody who I consider to be a much better authority on this subject than I am by a huge margin. While I think this book is great and it makes a lot of great gear suggestions, I’m pretty confident that I picked up a lot of suggested items that weren’t quite necessary at first. Regardless, it is still a great resource that I have continued to reference ever since I got into long distance shooting. I don’t think this purchase is absolutely required, but strongly recommend it.

The first question I tend to field from folks when it comes to getting started with long distance shooting is a two part question. What rifle and scope should I buy? My most common reply is none, at least not yet. It won’t be long until you notice this answer becomes a recurring theme. I usually lead with this because I am well aware the folks who ask me this question already have a rifle with a scope that can be used to learn the fundamentals. A scope isn’t required at this point either.

I’m willing to wager that if you are reading this, then you probably already have a rifle. It might be that good ole deer hunting bolt action. Or perhaps, it’s that AR-platform semi-automatic rifle. Might even the prevalent 10/22 commonly found in. Any of those will work for developing the fundamentals which will be absolutely essential as a foundation for making 1000+ yard shots later. Yes, at some point the rifle and scope will matter. When I’m ready to cover that I’ll include some rifle and scope suggestions. But for now, we are going to start with the basics.

If you are here and you don’t own or have access to a rifle, then you are a rare exception. Making a suggestion for you is a very tall order as there are a broad spectrum of rifles, cartridges, and scopes to pick from. Not only is there a large variety to pick from, but they also come in at many different price points from relatively affordable to you might want to get another job to support your expensive hobby. At any rate, I’m going to hold off making suggestions until I cover rifle selection in a later post. There is simply way too much to cover right now. Rest assured, I’ll get to it soon enough.

It’s taken a bit to get to the topic I want to cover in this first post, but we are finally here. Let’s talk about fundamentals.

When it comes to shooting in general, there are seven fundamentals that apply across the board. They are:

  • Stance
  • Grip
  • Sight alignment
  • Sight picture
  • Trigger control
  • Breathing
  • Follow through

The fundamentals get talked about a lot more when it comes to pistol shooting, but in my opinion the same fundamentals apply to rifle shooting and are incredibly important to develop the precision shooting skills required to make shots at extended distances. The three fundamentals I regularly focus on when it comes to precision shooting are stance, breathing, and trigger control in that order. Some more experienced folks might point out this is incorrect and I’m not going to argue with experience. This is simply what I do based on my limited knowledge and what I’m sharing. I’ll also reiterate, all of the fundamentals are important.

When it comes to rifle shooting, the stance fundamental refers to establishing a stable shooting position. There are different techniques to stabilize the rifle depending on whether we find ourselves shooting off hand (standing), seated, kneeling, or prone (laying on the ground). I’ll get into more into the techniques I know later, but suffice to say this is something that can be practiced at home. The main point here is that the more stable the rifle is, the less amount of reticle movement we will have to deal with. The less reticle movement will make precise shots more consistent.

Even with an extremely stable position, reticle movement will be present. One of the biggest contributors to reticle movement will be our own breathing. I’m sure many of you, especially those who have spent significant time behind a rifle, are aware of this. The reticle will float up as we breathe in and float down as we breathe out. Under pressure, the range and rate of up and down movement will be exaggerated due to the increased breathing rate that occurs with the natural physiological response to stress. Seriously, ask any hunter about the reticle movement they experienced the moment they made the decision to take the shot at their first harvest. The best way to combat the physiological response is to regularly expose ourselves to stressful situations when shooting a rifle. This can be done by introducing time pressure or competitive pressure. This leads to a purchase recommendation: get a shot timer that features a randomized start and par time like the PACT Club Timer III that I personally use. I also suggest finding and participating in a local precision rifle match once the fundamentals are sound (and the corresponding equipment has been acquired).

Last but not least, is making sure the sight picture isn’t disturbed when the trigger is pressed. Thankfully it’s much easier to develop good trigger control on a rifle than it is on a pistol. This comes down to basic physics. It’s much harder to move a 6 lbs rifle with a 2 lbs trigger pull than it is to move a 2 lbs pistol with a 6 lbs trigger pull. Nevertheless, any movement introduced by the trigger press will be very noticeable and greatly exaggerated at extended ranges. A technique that helps here is to avoid wrapping the thumb around the stock. Instead rest the thumb in a relaxed manner over the index (trigger) finger and use a pulling motion (rather than a squeezing motion) to press the trigger.

Developing a stable shooting platform (in various shooting positions), breathing technique, and trigger control can be accomplished with dry fire practice, which I highly recommend. The key here is to pay very close attention to the reticle movement when the trigger breaks. The feedback from the reticle should confirm whether or not these fundamentals are sound or require work. Once the fundamentals are confirmed as strong, introduce a shot timer to the dry fire practice. Seriously, I can’t emphasize this enough, do the dry practice.

The same fundamentals should be developed, maintained, and confirmed with live fire using a 100 yard range. Shot groups will get tighter (more precise) and more accurate (centered over the bullseye) as the fundamentals improve and the 100 yard zero gets dialed in. I should note that I use and recommend a 100 yard zero for long range shooting applications (I’ll cover my reasoning for this in future posts).

I also like using reduced size targets at 100 yards as the fundamentals get stronger. No need to go out and purchase these targets if you have access to a printer. I like to use a dot torture target (available for download and print from here). While it’s intended for developing pistol skills, it provides 10 2″ targets which can be challenging at 100 yards (depending on skill level and the rifle/ammo selection). Start by punching 2 to 4 holes in each target. When that becomes easy, start printing the target using a 75% scale which will make the targets 1.5″. Once that becomes trivial, reduce it to 50% scale. Need a tougher challenge, then reduce it again to 25% scale. The key here is two fold. The first, which should be obvious, is to improve fundamental precision and accuracy. The second is to become familiar with one’s capability with the selected rifle and ammo.

Shot groups will open up as range is increased. A 1″ shot group at 100 yards will result in a 2″ shot group at 200 yards, a 5″ shot group at 500 yards, a 10″ shot group at 1000 yards, and so on. This will be important to know in order to determine what size target one can effectively engage at a given distance with the selected equipment assuming the range is within the effective range of the cartridge. More on this at a later date.

I’m going to conclude this post here as I’ve painted a lot of broad strokes. In summary, don’t start “getting into long range shooting” by buying a bunch of gear. Instead, start by developing the fundamentals and pushing precision and accuracy limits on the hundred yard rifle range. This is an essential exercise and should be fun to do. Not finding this interesting or fun is a good indicator that long range shooting may not be for you. As one starts working with longer ranges, it’s not much more than a lot of this garnished with math and decorated with additional gear.

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