Four Factors of Long-Range
It’s interesting when you stop and think about all of the different methods and tools we use, and various places we go to hunt. It’s kind of like a puzzle with pieces that each person fits together to provide him or herself with a great reward. What constitutes “the reward” varies from person to person, depending on an individual’s objectives.
Some hunt thick country where a long shot may be 100 yards. Others hunt high alpine basins where shots can vary from two to six hundred yards, or more. The fact of the matter is, when hunting trophy animals in wide open spaces more likely to be found in the mid-west and western states, a person will probably not be able to pre-determine the distance at which their shot will occur. Therefore, some hunters set personal limits as to the maximum distance they will take a shot. Others practice and hone their skills to feel confident in their abilities and equipment at extended ranges.
The proper cartridge and rifle combination is important, and normally where most begin. The latest and greatest “Super Magnums” have their place and can most certainly extend the range to which we effectively engage game. With that said, we also must understand that the rifle is still just a vehicle to get the bullet to the target. The bullet is what ultimately delivers our intentions to the target. Whether that’s simply punching a hole through a piece of paper or bringing down a large bull elk, the bullet must be suited for its intended purpose.
When shooting longer distances a great deal of emphasis is placed on marksmanship—as well it should. However, an equal amount of emphasis must be placed on three vital pieces of equipment: a rifle that is capable of .5- .75 MOA or better, optics that allow the shooter to precisely place the shot, and a bullet that is built for the intended purpose. All three are important, but oftentimes greater attention is paid to the functions and abilities of the rifle and scope. The rifle and scope are the vehicles for delivery while the bullet is what delivers the end result. Once the bullet leaves the barrel, success or failure depends upon how well the bullet does its job. Knowledge produces informed decisions that bring about the greatest chance for success, and much can be learned about the bullet.
In days past, bullets wore very tangent o’gives and had flat bases. This design was considered good to go—and it was—when shots were kept in the moderate ranges that most game was taken. A whole new breed of projectiles is available today that have wider function windows, secant o’gives and long boattails that produce drag coefficients only dreamed about in years gone by. Commercial product manufacturers now incorporate sophisticated software into R&D programs to predict stability and drag coefficients. Machine shops utilize CNC equipment to manufacture precise tooling, which in turn produces a precision product. Ballistics laboratories invest heavily in state of the art equipment and facilities. So, what useful data does all of this high-tech instrumentation provide for choosing the right long-range hunting bullet? It boils down to four key items: drag coefficient (ballistic coefficient or BC), accuracy, velocity and terminal performance.
DRAG COEFFICIENT & ACCURACY
Drag coefficient feeds accuracy when shooting long distances. When the two are reversed, the same does not hold true. To dive deep into drag coefficients would require an entirely separate article; however, it is important to think not only about how the drag coefficient (BC) will affect vertical drop. It greatly affects horizontal dispersion (wind).
As a foundation for any useful shooting solution, an accurate BC (G1, G7, etc. or an actual drag coefficient measured with Doppler radar) is extremely important. Do not simply rely on a value because it is in a catalog or manufacturers marketing materials. Investigate by asking others what they have witnessed for drop with the bullet you choose and contact the manufacturer for the method, velocity and distance they use to measure values. The greater the distance over which values are measured, the accuracy of the measurement is increased due to a wider velocity range from muzzle to target. I believe that most companies work hard to provide their customers with accurate values, but there are still inaccurate values published today. Customers order BDCs and cut reticles based on a BC and velocity they find published in a reloading manual or printed on the ammo box label. In too many cases, money is wasted and rounds are no closer to being on target than when the process began.
Using velocity information out of a reloading manual or off of a box of ammo does not provide accurate data for specific platforms. This is not because manufacturers are lying; it is simply due to adherence to industry standards. Most manufacturers shoot their pressure and velocity data from a SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) spec barrel. Velocity and pressure are normally fired from a 24-inch barrel; however, when fired from a 26-inch barrel, which many commercially available magnum rifles are fitted with, a substantial increase in velocity occurs. Case in point: the Barnes Ballistics Lab conducted tests with a 300 Winchester Mag match round using both a SAAMI spec pressure barrel and a Remington 700 Tactical with a 26-inch barrel. There was 126 ft/s increase in velocity from the test barrel (2727 ft/s) to the actual rifle (2853ft/s). What does this translate to down range? The bullet in this particular load had a G1 of .620. Therefore, using a 300 yard zero and Standard Metro parameters to calculate down range drop and drift at 700 yards there is a 9.1-inch difference in drop and a 2.1-inch difference in drift with a 10 mph full value wind. This may not sound earth shattering. But, putting the bullet in an 8-inch kill zone at 700 yards away with human error involved, every inch counts. In this case, if an individual had dialed using the 24-inch barrel’s velocity it would have resulted in a miss, or worse yet, a wounded animal.
Another important factor to consider is the consistency of the load. If the baseline average of 2853 ft/s had an extreme spread of 50 ft/s the difference in drop would be 3.44-inches and 0.78-inch in drift at the extremes. It is critical that the extreme spread is maintained to within the 25 ft/s range and standard deviation is in the single digits. This not only aides in vertical dispersion but as illustrated it plays an important part in the horizontal component as well.
Bullet function should rate as high on a hunter’s list as aerodynamics. If you are hunting with a bullet that has a great BC value and a load that shoots half MOA, but it lacks in the function department, what exactly have you accomplished? Maybe a great load for Camp Perry? For long-range hunting, choose a bullet that will function not just at the extended ranges, but up close as well. You can’t always pick your shot. You may be well prepared to shoot long distances, but if a 400-inch bull appears 80 yards in front of you, will you have the time to sprint backwards and away from the animal to take the shot that ensures proper bullet performance?
It is a good idea to visualize where the bullet will impact the animal, and how the bullet will perform at different angles. Will it fragment just after entering the skin, failing to penetrate to the vitals? Will it connect with bone and fragment, causing a flesh wound? Will it simply not open and pencil through without causing much damage to tissue or vitals? These are things that should be considered, especially when shooting at long range. Poor shot placement or bullet performance at an extended distance limits exactly what one can do for a follow-up shot.
Terminal performance is something that should be taken very seriously. Different bullet styles and construction will obviously give different results. A bullet that opens rapidly (within the first half-inch of penetration) and continues its path through the animal while wreaking havoc on bones, arteries, lungs, heart and possibly an off-side shoulder prior to exiting, is NOT wasting the bullet’s energy. In fact, it’s maximizing a bullet’s performance potential. When a bullet exits an animal, there is virtually no energy left to expend. However, a bullet that comes apart in the first few inches and then fragments in many different directions is not maximizing energy at all. This is illustrated in the differences between a permanent cavity and a temporary cavity. I realize the temporary cavity looks impressive, but it’s important to understand that with temporary cavities the energy is only deposited next to the vitals. Tissue is simply disrupted, not necessarily destroyed. For example, lungs, muscle, and arteries can all expand and contract a tremendous amount. The temporary cavity has no reliable wounding and/or permanently damaging effect on elastic tissue. A bullet simply depositing its energy next to vital tissue and organs is not something that can be relied on to dispatch game every time. Energy alone does not kill.
There are a number of companies optimizing bullets these days with the long range hunter in mind. Different approaches are taken, but all are working to take things to the next level. Barnes is one manufacturer working to provide a good combination of accuracy, BC and terminal performance to the end user. Building on a proven track record of developing high performance products, Barnes has advanced the X Bullet technology to a current offering that is optimized for long hunting: the LRX (Long-Range X).
In answer to the question: What constitutes the perfect long range hunting bullet for you? Obviously the size and constitution of the animal are factors. However, drag coefficient, accuracy, velocity and terminal performance should be balanced. Prior to firing the round from the rifle and checking accuracy, evaluate the BC. Confirm that drag and wind drift are acceptable to the distance you have set as your limit. Velocity standard deviation and extreme spread should be acceptable for your maximum distance. There should also be enough retained velocity to ensure proper bullet function. The bullet must function at any given distance (close or extended.) When making decisions about the right long range hunting bullet, consider the four factors above and balance them to suit your needs. A little of one may need to be sacrificed to achieve an acceptable amount of another, but the overall performance should fit your individual criteria.