“Where do I start?” I get this question often, so I thought addressing it here would be a good idea.
I’ll start with this–long-range shooting is a pretty expensive hobby, but I can shed some light on budget builds that are extremely capable.
Start with the Bullet
When getting into long-range shooting, a common mistake most people make is selecting a rifle before anything else.
The first question should be what’s the purpose of the build? Short-range hunting? Medium to long-range target practice? Extreme long range?
These questions are important because you want to start with the bullet. The bullet is what is going downrange, doing the work, and impacting the target.
If you choose a rifle before the bullet, you may run into constraints as you become more proficient at long-range shooting. For example, constraints like case overall length (the total length of the complete cartridge). With an AR-10 platform, the longest case overall length you’ll be able to use is 2.8 inches.
Typically, your high ballistic coefficient (BC) bullets are longer and heavier than low BC bullets. If you want to use a 220gr .308 caliber bullet it just simply wouldn’t fit in an AR-10 platform magazine (in a supersonic capacity).
With an AR-10 platform if you wanted to do some extended long-range shooting you may be better off selecting the 260 Remington or the 6.5 Creedmoor due to the higher BC than what you would be able to get out of a .308 win.
The goals you what to accomplish in your long-range engagements will dictate the type of rifle you need to buy, or build, to meet the bullets’ needs.
A lot of long-range shooters reload ammo for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, more accurate, or they can’t buy the type of ammo they need commercially.
Personally, I’d rather buy match ammo than reload, only because I don’t have time these days to sit and reload.
PRIME ammo is typically my go-to when I buy match ammo. They have great prices and produce quality ammunition. Not only do they use top bullet manufacturers like Sierra or Norma Diamond Line bullets, but they also use temperature-stable powders.
When selecting a bullet for your needs think about what you need within three categories: internal, external, and terminal ballistics. All of these categories matter when selecting the right bullet for what you want to do.
Internal ballistics deals with everything that happens before the bullet leaves the barrel. A lot regarding internal ballistics has to do with the rifle, but I mentioned temperature-stable powders. This refers to the powder propelling the bullet.
A lot of this has to do with the rifle, but I mentioned temperature-stable powders. This refers to the powder propelling the bullet.
Without a temperature-stable powder, you can have big shifts in muzzle velocity, which in turn will give you big shifts in elevation impacts at long range. (Don’t get that confused with air temperature or air density. We are talking about the temperature of the powder.)
External ballistics refers to everything that affects the bullet after it leaves the barrel until it hits the target. You want a bullet that combats drag (wind and air density).
Typical long-range bullets will be longer, have a “boat tail”, and will be hollow points. They are made that way to retain as much velocity and energy as they can until they impact the target.
Terminal ballistics refers to the effect a bullet has on a target and beyond.
Target or competition shooters do not typically care about terminal ballistics. They focus on everything else they need to get the bullet to make a mark on the target.
Hunters have to consider terminal ballistics, so they are not just putting holes in game. This is why you will see “ballistic tips” much like the Hornaday AMAX, or zombie bullets out there with polymer tips. These rounds have excellent terminal performance but lack some of the characteristics needed to perform like competition bullets.
This doesn’t mean they do not perform well for long-range shooting. You have to remember good, better, and best. They may be good, but I wouldn’t use them in a competition.
The Precision Long-Range Rifle
With all the options available it can be a little overwhelming to choose the right precision, long-range shooting rifle.
In the last few years, a lot of manufacturers have started making precision rifle packages, and to be honest, they are not too bad, but they can range in price from $800 to over $12,000 for just the rifle!
Every year I conduct a rifle raffle to bring in the new year and 50% of the profits go to non-profit organizations to help veterans.
The rifle I select for the raffle is the Ruger Precision Rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. In my opinion, it’s the best bang for your buck when you talk about capability.
For about $1,300 you can get a rifle that is capable of hitting targets out to 1 mile (1,760 yards or 1,610 meters), and it comes standard with many options you would have to buy aftermarket with a typical long-range precision rifle.
Some standard options right out of the box are:
- A threaded barrel with a muzzle break to help reduce recoil making it a rifle that’s comfortable to shoot all-day
- A 24” match barrel with 5R rifling aiding in shot-to-shot consistency
- A 15” handguard that features Magpul m-lock slots for adding accessories like night vision or lasers
- A 20 MOA base to help get a little more elevation adjustment out of your scope
- Detachable 10-round box magazines (The way the chassis was designed it will except ACIS or AR-10 mags, which I think is pretty innovative).
The rifle is designed to feel like an AR-style rifle with the pistol grip and the way the safety selector lever manipulates. Also, included is a folding stock with adjustable length of pull and height of comb, plus many other options you can find with a simple google search.
Now, I know that it sounds like I’m selling you a Ruger Precision Rifle, but it’s not the case.
When I started getting into long-range shooting I was an E-4 in the military and never had $1,300 to spend on a rifle. I bought a Remington 700 SPS Tactical chambered in .308 win. If I remember correctly, I paid about $450 at a pawn shop for it (new they’re about $600).
But I didn’t have any of the features standard on that rifle, so I would have to buy things piece by piece until the rifle was done. By the end of the build, I probably had added about $2,500 in modifications to this rifle.
I could have saved a good amount of money if I started with a Ruger Precision Rifle. Are there better, more expensive options? Yes. But this rifle is a great rifle to start with on your long-range shooting journey if you’re looking for a cost-effective precision rifle.
Just remember that whichever rifle you select you picked it because it is the best match for the bullet you decide to use and the purpose of the build.
The Optic: Invest in High-Quality Glass
If you talk to anyone who is a professional long-range shooter, they will agree that you should invest the most in your optic, rather than the rifle itself.
Optics are expensive, but you should spend your money on high-quality glass. You ought to buy the most expensive, high-quality optic you can afford.
When selecting an optic, first determine what your build is for and what ranges are you typically going to be using your rifle? Do you plan on rapidly engaging multiple targets like in a hog hunting scenario or maybe extreme long-range deer or elk hunting?
Here are the features I look for in a scope.
The first is ensuring that the adjustment measurements for an optic’s turrets and reticle are the same. For example, MIL/MIL (MIL referring to milliradian) or MOA/MOA (MOA referring to minute of angle). What we have seen in the past is manufacturers might make a scope with a MIL dot reticle and MOA turrets.
When starting out with long-range shooting, all of this can be confusing having a MIL reticle with a MOA dial then doing conversions on the fly in your head.
I prefer using a MIL reticle and MIL turrets. This makes everything simple and simple is good!
There’s nothing wrong with using an MOA/MOA setup. A lot of bullseye shooters and competition shooters do.
The MOA measurement is much finer or more precise adjustment than a MIL. There is about 3.5 MOA in 1 MIL. 1 MOA is equal to 1’’ at 100 yards; 2’’ at 200 yards; and 3’’ at 300 yards and so on.
Most precision rifles claim “sub MOA” meaning they will hold less than a 1’’ group at 100 yards. As you push out to distance that magnifies because now 1 MOA at 800 yards is 8”.’ So now, if you have ¼ MOA adjustments on your turret, one click is equal to 2’’ because that’s ¼ of 8”.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s why I prefer MIL/MIL over MOA/MOA or MOA/MIL.
It’s less for me to think about and the adjustments are gross adjustments. When shooting in a dynamic environment or shooting moving targets with an MOA reticle, it’s easy (for me) to get lost swapping back and forth 7 MOA on each side of the reticle versus adjusting for 2 MILs instead.
I try to keep all of this as simple as possible.
Next, I look at tube diameter. This refers to the diameter of the tube before and after the turrets, or after the magnification ring and before the bell on the objective lens.
Common sizes are 1’’, 30mm, 34mm, and 35mm. The bigger the diameter of that tube the more light transmission you’ll have overall, increasing the optical clarity.
When I switched from 30mm tubes to 34mm tubes it was like the first time I watched HD TV–there’s a marked difference.
First or Second Focal Plane
Then, I look to see if the optic is a first focal plane or second focal plane scope. As you adjust the magnification ring with a first focal plane scope the value of your MILs stay the same. The reticle will appear to shrink or grow as you manipulate the magnification ring.
With a second focal plane scope, the measurements in your reticle change every time you make a magnification adjustment; you’ll be able to tell if the reticle looks the same as you manipulate the magnification ring.
I prefer a first focal plane scope because I shoot mostly holdovers instead of dialing my data on the turret. Shooting holdovers is using the reticle to make the elevation adjustment and leaving your turret at the range you zeroed your rifle. A first focal plane scope also opens my field of view so I have better situational awareness.
With a second focal plane scope the reticle only has its true value at full magnification. For example, a 15 power second focal plan MIL dot scope would need to be at 15 power for one MIL to equal one MIL. Anytime you change the magnification lower than full power, then the value will change.
For example, a 15 power MIL dot scope zoomed out to 7.5x magnification (half of the full power) the value of one MIL dot just became two MIL dots because the reticle stays the same size but the magnification changes.
Next, I consider the magnification range. Scopes with a large magnification range will make it a little difficult to manage parallax. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of especially with cheaper optics.
Parallax is the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions. If your reticle focus and target focus aren’t on the same focal plane, you will have parallax.
I’ve never needed more than 25x power on a scope, and I would push out passed a mile.
My preferred optic has a magnification range of 4-16x, a 34mm tube, and a MIL based reticle with .1 MIL adjustments on the turret.
Having used most of the quality glass on the market, I can give some feedback on a few brands and make some recommendations.
First, I want to mention Leupold’s MK4 series. If you can still find them, they aren’t bad scopes to start out with your long-range journey. I learned on the 4.5-14×50 with the TMR reticle, one of my favorites in the beginning of my career.
I currently own a MK6 3-18×44 with a TREMOR 2 reticle. The scope has some serious parallax issues, and I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner. I’m unsure if the parallax issues exists overall for the MK6, or if the one I purchased has issues.
I used the MK5 for the first time at the 2018 International Sniper Competition. It wasn’t a bad scope, but I was chasing a .4 mil zero shift all week.
That scope was an army-issued scope for sniper school students, so it was pretty beat up–this may be the reason behind the shift in my zero.
The best scope I’ve ever used on a rifle, and in my opinion the best scope on the market, is the Nightforce ATACR.
I used the Nightforce’s 4-16×42 with the TREMOR 3 reticle operationally for a few years and in the 2017 international sniper competition.
One word I could use to describe it is reliable. I never had a zero-shift, parallax is very easy to manage, and the glass quality is better than most high-end spotting scopes.
If I had to recommend one scope for someone getting into long-range shooting that would be it. The ATACR line also offers a 1-8, 4-16, 5-25 and a 7-35.
The 7-35 was just a little too much for me. I don’t need a 35-power optic. The 5-25 power is a really nice scope for extended range (passed 1000m) and the 1-8 is excellent on a carbine or SPR.
Bushnell has come out with a very nice and affordable optic–the Bushnell Tactical Elite.
I used this at a shooting school I went to in Texas and I was honestly impressed. The glass quality was good.
I had a little bit of zero shift through the week but it was maybe .2mil. It could have also been a few parallax issues, but we shot them out to a mile in that course, and they worked fine.
I think they retail for somewhere around $1,400 and in the world of capable optics, that’s not bad. The Leupold and Nightforce scopes I mentioned above are both in the $2,500+ range.
Vortex has a pretty good line of scopes out now as well.
I won the Razor HD Gen2 4.5-27×56 in a competition. That scope is a tank weighing around 5lbs, but if you don’t mind lugging it around, it’s a very good optic. It’s reliable, the parallax is easily manageable, and the glass quality is exceptional. You can pick that one up for about $1,800 and it comes with a lifetime warranty.
Long Range Shooting Gear
Once you have your rifle, optic, and bullet selected, you’ve definitely spent some money!
What else could you need?
The bipod will help you with your consistency while zeroing and stabilize the front of the rifle.
Rear Bag (Pinch Bag)
The next thing I would get is a rear bag or sometimes referred to as a pinch bag. The rear bag is placed under the buttstock of the rifle so you’re not using muscle tension to stabilize the rifle. Pinching the bag will help make fine elevation adjustments on your target at long range keeping shot-to-shot consistency.
If you plan on doing anything other than bench rest shooting. maybe competitions or hunting, I’d suggest investing in a good tripod. You’ll hardly ever get the chance to shoot from the prone position in a dynamic competition or hunting. A tripod will give you the most stability when shooting from a kneeling or standing position.
Some of the tripods on the market now are as much as the scopes, but I will say they are worth the money.
I own a Really Right Stuff (RRS) and Crux Ordnance (CRUXORD) tripod. They are similar in design with a carbon fiber construction. The Crux Ordnance will save you a couple of hundred dollars, and it’s just as good if not better than the RRS.
Ballistic Engines & Chronographs
When someone mentions a ballistic engine and chronograph, you’ll probably think, “Nah, not for me.”
But, I will say they can save you a lot of time and money!
Starting with a ballistic engine, this is just a computer that takes in a lot of variables and predicts the bullet’s flight path. Prior to ballistic engines, as a sniper, we would zero our rifles at 100m. Then, we would move back every hundred meters and shoot again. We did this up to 1000m noting our impacts on the target.
It normally took about two training days for our team to do this! Think about how much ammo we had to use. Technology has finally caught up to long-range shooting, and after entering a few items into the ballistic engine you can zero and collect data in less than an hour using a fraction of the ammo, saving you time and money!
This is also why I believe you need the chronograph. Tracking your muzzle velocity isn’t only for the ballistic engine, it’s also good practice to track barrel wear and velocity changes with different lot numbers of the same ammunition.
There are multiple schools in the US that offer training on the ballistic engine. I recommend investing in long-range training if you want to make it your hobby.
Hopefully, this article answers some questions you may have about getting into long-range shooting. It can be intimidating from the outside looking in, and I’m warning you it’s addictive!