Learning this method can be advantageous for big game hunters – especially if there is no time to calculate all of the variables needed to adjust the scope
Story and Photos by Jason Brooks
As I lay prone on the ground, squinting at the target only 100 meters away, the training instructor began shouting orders. I was a young airman basic in the United States Air Force and, unlike other branches of the US military, we only got to spend one day at the firing range. Using an M-16 shooting 5.56 NATO ball ammo, we were told to aim for “center mass.” The target was a miniature silhouette of a person that resembled the average height and size of a soldier at 200 meters. The idea was that if you presented a smaller target at 100 meters, it would replicate the size of the target at the further distance. This I understood, but I was a bit perplexed at the aiming point. Why center mass and not try to hit the target where it would kill the enemy? Soon we found out how aiming at center mass would lead to aiming for “point-blank range.” This means that if you aim for the center of the target and misjudge the distance, then the ballistics should compensate for any errors made and still hit the target.
Then there is the “Kentucky windage” solution where you sight-in your rifle for 100 or 200 yards and if the animal is further than that, you raise the sights and hope you hit the target. Judging a 12-inch drop at 400 yards is hard to do, as that drop is at 400 yards, not at the rifle itself. This means you need to pick out a spot that is 12 inches above where you are intending to hit the animal. And if it is 450 yards, it is now 13 or 14 or even more inches, depending on your rifle.
SIGHTING-IN FOR POINT-BLANK range, or more precisely “maximum point-blank range,” is where you can use the ballistics of your rifle and make a humane kill shot by simply putting the crosshairs where you want the bullet to go, knowing you will hit somewhere in the kill zone. This is a simple explanation of maximum point-blank range, but there are a lot of factors to make this work. The term maximum point-blank range means the farthest shot that can hit a certain size target without raising the sights. For the hunter, it all depends on the game you are chasing. The deer hunter has about a 6-inch circle to hit in the heart-lung broadside shot. Of course there is room for error even here, such as hitting too far back and still taking out the liver, which will cause fatal bleeding, or hitting too high and striking the backbone, causing incapacitation or death.
But for the hunter, the target is that 6-inch circle that will take out the heart or the lungs. For the elk hunter, this is an 8-inch circle, and for the antelope hunter, it can be as small as a 5- or even 4-inch circle. Coyote hunters have a 4-inch circle, but also often use smaller and faster calibers. If you aim at the center of the circle, you can be off, high or low, and still be successful. For the elk hunter with an 8-inch kill zone, you can be off by 4 inches, maybe even a little bit more, depending on the size of the elk. More importantly, this is an 8-inch path of travel; 4 high and 4 low, and still hit the vitals.
KNOWING HOW BIG of a target you have is the starting point for the hunter, but the rifle ballistics is what establishes the maximum point-blank range. To maximize the distance, the faster- and flatter-shooting the rifle is, the further you can shoot it without moving the sights. But a fast and light bullet often means a smaller caliber, which might not be ideal for the game being pursued. Elk, for example, would need a heavier and harder-hitting bullet than an antelope or coyote. This means a larger caliber, but with today’s improvements on calibers, powders and bullet designs, hunters can find a cartridge that will hit hard while flying fast and flat. But of course it comes at the price of felt recoil. Knowing how to calculate ballistics is the key to learning how to shoot maximum point-blank range. The ballistic coefficient, or bullet “drag,” is how easily the bullet cuts through the air, and overcomes the pull of gravity. Well, it’s a little bit more complex than that, but it is the basic principle of ballistic coefficient. Add in the speed and weight of the bullet and you get a trajectory or bullet flight path. This is how high the bullet crosses above the line of sight and then drops below the line of sight until it hits the ground. Since some barrels are set with a slight rise, or with the scope being offset or raised above the barrel, this causes the shooter to tilt the rifle upward, and the bullet climbs after leaving the barrel. It will climb or rise until it hits the apex, which is where the speed slows enough that it cannot compensate for the pull of gravity and the bullet starts to fall or “drop.” Luckily for the hunter who doesn’t reload and needs a quick way to figure out the trajectory of their commercial round, there are several ballistic calculators found on the internet with a simple search. Be sure to check with the ammunition manufacturer first to see if they offer such a calculator, as this will be the most accurate. For those who reload, they will need a chronograph to get the muzzle velocity of the bullet since different powders have different burn rates and create different pressures when the round is fired.
You will need to know a few factors when using one of these calculators, including the bullet’s weight and coefficient. The cartridge speed or muzzle velocity will also need to be known. Other factors such as average temperature, elevation, wind and barometric pressure are needed for precision, but since these are only known at the exact time and location of the shot, they can be averaged out. For example, if you know the area you are planning on hunting and the elevation, then you can input that variable. For temperature, you can find the average for the time of year and location where you are hunting, and for wind, it is best to sight-in for zero wind and keep in mind when you are hunting that it might need to be compensated for.
Once you know the ballistic coefficient, bullet weight and muzzle velocity, you can input this into the calculator. Most will give you a “sight-in” distance, which is where the bullet path is equal to the barrel height, or “zero.” If your target has an 8-inch kill zone, then you can adjust the calculator until you have a 4-inch rise and a 4-inch drop, which should then tell you the zero, or the distance you need to sight-in your rifle for.
A FEW YEARS ago, I decided to set up an “elk rifle,” which was a firearm that I would dedicate to hunting elk. I chose the .280 Ackley Improved as a compromise of fast and light and still hard-hitting with enough “gun” to take down an elk. This cartridge shoots a 150-grain Nosler Accubond Long Range bullet at 2,930 feet per second. The ballistic coefficient for this bullet is 0.546; by plugging that data into a ballistic calculator, it turns out that I can sight the rifle in for a zero at 300 yards. This means hitting the bull’s-eye dead-center at 300 yards, which will give me a maximum point-blank range of 360 yards without needing to worry about holding over or missing too low.
The calculator puts the maximum rise at 4.77 inches at 175 yards; this is a little high, but for an elk it is still in the kill zone. At 375 yards, the bullet drops 7.17 inches, which is a little low but more than likely will still get the job done. To hit somewhere in the 8-inch kill zone, the elk would need to be no farther than 360 yards, and all I have to do is put the crosshairs in the middle of the chest and the bullet will do its job.
This technique does take some time to get used to, only because most hunters are so used to sighting-in at 100 or 200 yards and then using holdover. Several years ago I was hunting mule deer in Idaho and came upon a nice buck. It ranged at 305 yards and my 7mm-08 only had a 3-inch drop at that range, so I held 3 inches over and shot right over the deer. Being so used to holdover, my brain froze in the heat of the moment and I forgot that 3 inches of margin is negligible when it comes to hunting. This is why practicing is so important, not only on things like trigger control, holding steady and shooting from different positions, but also training our brain into having confidence in our rifle and aimpoint. Just put the crosshairs on the kill zone of the animal and pull the trigger. Sounds easy but unless you practice this, it can be hard to remember when shooting beyond where your rifle is sighted-in for.
Last winter, my son and I were hunting elk on a late cow hunt in southern Idaho. He was carrying my .280 Ackley Improved, sighted-in for 300 yards. Finding a group of elk in a small depression out of the wind, he crawled into position. A quick blow into the cow call and all of the elk stood up, providing a broadside shot. I was halfway down the ridge, watching through binoculars, when I saw the cow fall and then heard the report of the shot. He hit high but killed her with that one shot.
When I finally got up to my son and his elk, I asked him how far the shot was and his reply was simply, “Not sure, but I knew she was within range.” He didn’t need all of the gadgets and gizmos to figure out how many clicks he needed or if the angle of the shot would cause the bullet to rise, but instead put the crosshairs in the kill zone and pulled the trigger. For the hunter, learning how to sight-in and shoot maximum point-blank range can be advantageous – especially if there is no time to calculate all of the variables needed to adjust the scope – and is a skill that hunters should utilize.