Guns & Ammo: 1,000 Yard Accuracy

By Gun Rack Editor Ed Hall


gun range set up

I shot an elk at 440 yards, and back in 1974, that long shot was the talk of camp. The bullet took out the arteries above the heart, and the young 6x6 (actually a 7x7 with “devil points”) put one foot forward before falling on his nose.

It was my first elk hunt, and the outfitter told me to come prepared for a 200-yard shot. Considering what I had read and heard about the wide-open West, I practiced shots out to 500 yards and then hunted woodchucks all summer long with the same .300 Winchester Magnum.

The other hunters must have listened to the outfitter. Five of them missed shots the first day, and no one connected. I would advise anyone heading West for elk to practice shooting out to a minimum of 400 yards unless you are willing to limit yourself to closer shots.

With the right rifle, scope, load, and plenty of practice, twice that range might not be out of the question. Today’s better production rifles and precise trajectory-compensation scopes are capable of superb long-range accuracy. I started handloading ammo in 1961 mainly because the store-bought stuff just wasn’t good enough. Not true today. Serious hunters and competition shooters alike load premium factory cartridges in their high-end rifles.

Two factors still favor persnickety accuracy handloading: being able to fit the case to center in a particular chamber, and seating the bullet just off the rifling to minimize bullet jump. Yet for a target the size of a big-game animal’s vitals, you can almost certainly find a more-than-adequate factory cartridge. After confirming accuracy at 100 yards, keep shooting out to the longest range you plan to take a shot during a hunt.

If you want to stretch shots to extreme range, know that more than accuracy, bullet drop and wind drift come into play. Say you pick out a woodchuck at 1,000 yards with a spotting scope. The laser range finder is on the money, and you adjust an excellent high-power scope for that distance. The shot is across level ground, it’s a dead calm day, and your aim is true. Yet you still miss because you didn’t take into account the turning of the earth.

I’m not kidding. By the time a bullet flies 1,000 yards, the earth has turned enough to move the target a little closer (most pronounced when shooting due east) or farther away (shooting due west). A gravitational phenomenon also caused by the earth’s spinning, known as the Coriolis Effect, may nudge the bullet 2 or 3 inches off line. Something called spin drift can cause the bullet to drift to one side or the other depending on whether the rifling in the bore twists right or left.

If you doubt any of this, ask a military sniper or long-range rifle competitor. At 100 yards none of this matters. But at 1,000 yards, all of it can.

Another factor that comes into play at extreme range is bullet mushrooming, or more precisely, a lack thereof when bullet velocity drops too low. Back when shots at game did not exceed 500 yards, enough velocity to assure bullet expansion was a given with long-range cartridges. Impact energy was the measure used to decide whether a long shot should be taken with a given load. But as range stretches beyond 500 yards, even with high-speed cartridges bullet velocity eventually dips below what is needed to assure proper expansion. If the bullet fails to mushroom it may penetrate better, but except for a brain or spine hit likely will not cause enough tissue damage to assure a quick, clean kill or to leave a profuse blood trail for tracking. Most big-game bullet makers peg minimum recommended velocity for adequate mushrooming in the neighborhood of 1,800 to 2,000 feet a second.

A .30-06 may drop below 2,000 ft/s at 400 yards and the more relaxed limit of 1,800 ft/s at 525 yards. Stepping up to a .300 Winchester Magnum pushes the 2,000 ft/s threshold out to 600 yards and the 1,800 limit to 725 yards.

A .300 Ultra Magnum leaving the muzzle at 3,300 ft/s may retain 2,000 ft/s at 675 yards and 1,800 at 825 yards. The shoulder-thumper delivers 968 foot-pounds of impact at 1,000 yards. But by then bullet velocity has fallen to a little over 1,500 ft/s, well below the recommended velocity for assured mushrooming. If the bullet hits in the vitals, it will likely penetrate and inflict a mortal wound. But not necessarily a quick, clean kill.

Ballistic gel is best for checking bullet expansion, but wet newspaper can also tell you a lot. Handloaders may check for adequate bullet mushrooming without taking such lengthy shots by downloading to reduce the load’s velocity. As long as a bullet hits the target at the same speed, it should mushroom the same whether it flew 100 yards or 1,000 yards to get there.

The Speer reloading manual suggests that a 180- or 200-grain 30-caliber bullet in a .308 can be slowed all the way down to 1,514 ft/s at the muzzle with a reduced load of IMR 4198.

Ammo makers are well aware of the long-range mushrooming problem. Federal recently brought out the Edge TLR bullet, which they claim mushrooms effectively at velocities as low as 1,200 ft/s.

Another possibility is a bullet designed to be explosive on impact with whitetail deer. The Winchester Deer Season XP bullet is akin to a thin-jacketed varmint pill with a gaping hollow point under an aerodynamic plastic tip. Literally exploding at 100 yards, it may mushroom just right at 500 yards or more. But you have to check this at the appropriate bullet speed.

Precision Rifle Series, a new sport that is growing in popularity, requires hitting steel gongs at ranges out to 1,200 yards. Target locations and shooting positions are contrived to come as close as possible to hunting, typically shooting prone with a bipod. Most competitors bring custom rifles. But with gun makers now offering off-the-shelf rifles of comparable precision, the sport is becoming more accessible.

The same can be said of taking longer shots when hunting.

Catering to this growing market, Savage brought out a new version of their bolt rifle called the Stealth Evolution.

At $1,999 suggested retail, this is a serious gun for serious shooters.

It weighs just over 11 pounds, enough to rest steady as a rock on a bipod and also soak up .300 Win. Mag. recoil. A lightweight aluminum “chassis” let them put more of that weight in the barrel where it would do the most good for accuracy.

The forend, which doesn’t touch the barrel at any point, is one piece with the chassis, as is a full-length rail. The 24-inch barrel sports a whopping muzzle brake. AR fans may recognize the top-of-the-line PRS Gen 3 Magpul adjustable buttstock.

The Savage AccuTrigger is perfect for this rifle, set by the shooter to break like glass with as little as 2-pounds of pressure. Other rifle makers’ premium triggers only adjust down to 3 pounds for safety reasons. Set a trigger too light, and a jolt may cause it to release and fire the gun. Savage’s dandy original idea here is that the trigger has its own thin, barely perceptible safety bar. And it disappears within the trigger as said trigger is engaged with an ounce or so of finger touch. This prevents the gun accidentally firing should it be jolted yet does not interfere with normal trigger fire. Even the lawyers are satisfied, and most Savage rifles, including .22 rimfires, now come with an AccuTrigger.

The Stealth Evolution comes in four models, including one with a more conventional stock. Within the various models (including left-hand bolts), you’ll find a .223, .308, 6.5 and 6mm Creedmoor, .300 Win. Mag., and .338 Lapua.

Smaller caliber bullets made extra-heavy and extra-long to better buck the wind have stolen the show from the .300 Win Mag., the long-time “king” of long-range shooting. We no longer need to burn up barrels with 70 to 80 grains of powder. Nor must we put up with punishing recoil.

The ground breaker here was the 6.5 Creedmoor, and the neck has been squeezed down even more to accept an extra-heavy .243 bullet, dubbed the 6mm Creedmoor.

Federal’s 224 Valkyrie is this year’s entry in the derby. The case is smaller than a .22-250 with just enough powder capacity to carry the 90-grain bullet out past 1,000 yards still above the speed of sound. Breaking the sound barrier disrupts bullet stability, and that can hurt accuracy enough to matter in competitive shooting.

Thousand-yarders may enjoy less recoil and longer barrel life with this load. But hunters who need killing punch way out there may find the 6.5 Creedmoor better for deer and perhaps adequate for elk at reasonable distances. But the .300 magnums still rules the roost when it comes to elk and other big game at longer range, which is why we ordered our Savage Stealth Evolution in .300 Win. Mag.

I mounted a Bushnell 8-32X scope and invited my friend Sean O’Donovan over for a full day of shooting on the home gun range. Sean is younger and an excellent rifle shot. I figured he would be a good hedge against my 74-year-old eyes.

The rifle’s accuracy with tuned hand-loads was amazing, a .300 magnum that rivaled my bench rest .22-250. Neck-sized cases, bullets .010 off the rifling, Federal Match Primers, and an almost-top load of H4831 turned the trick. We shot quite a bit to “break in” the bore and saw a couple of early flyers. But, after that, three bullet holes touching at 100 yards was the rule not the exception.

Accuracy with Federal Premium factory ammo was equally impressive. Their Sierra bullet match load consistently printed three-shot groups with all holes touching (known as a Ballentine).

Every group with the monolithic Trophy Copper held at 5/8 MOA or better. Groups with the Nosler AccuBonds opened up to 3/4 MOA. If you shoot factory ammunition in any rifle, you should try a variety of loads to see which it handles best.

Bullet drop with any load will be considerable at 1,000 yards, and even with accurate ranging and correct calculation for that drop, wind drift must be “doped” the old-fashioned way.

At 1,000 yards, that requires a fairly precise appraisal of not just the breeze on your cheek but also the wind ruffling a distant elk’s hair. The waving grass along the bullet’s lengthy path must also be considered. Even the rotation of the earth comes into play when taking such a shot.

Assured bullet mushrooming way out there? The ammunition people are working on that one.