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Learning from Snipers

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In the mid 1970’s my first appointment as a young ranger was on a reserve situated in the Western Transvaal. The area was characterised by wide open grass plains and was inhabited by species typical of this type of habitat – eland, black wildebeest, springbok, red hartebeest, blesbok and gemsbok.

I had arrived at the time of year when surplus game was being culled and no sooner had I unpacked my one small suitcase and sorted out my furniture which consisted of a camp stretcher and an empty box for a table than I was issued with a Sako .243 and a BRNO .222 and roped in to assist with the harvesting operation.

I might add that neither of my two issue rifles were equipped with scopes. My ranger colleagues – the old hands – all had rifles equipped with variable power scopes. They were all excellent shots and were keen reloaders and passionate about firearms. One older gentleman "oom ("uncle") Fanie" possessed in excess of 100 rifles – I kid not – and spent every spare moment testing loads for his latest pet project. Just behind our offices was a shooting range of about 400 yards range (remember this was in the "old days" before the metric system had made an appearance in South Africa) where the shooting testing took place.

"Oom" Fanie also had an array of reloading presses of the latest type which made me cringe in embarrassment when I compared his state of the art equipment to my small Lee loader which required a plastic mallet to drive cases into the resizing die. Because of our mutual interest in firearms the rather "crusty" and generally unapproachable oom Fanie and I soon became friends and he became my mentor, sharing with me his incredible knowledge on all things ballistic.

I was also the proud owner of a Winchester Model 670 bolt action 30-06 which I had taken two years to save up for and had just recently acquired. I was itching to use this rifle for culling but, - as my net salary amounted to the princely sum of R125, more than half of which was earmarked to pay a monthly instalment on my Mazda bakkie – the R50 rand or so that I had left to live on for the month left very little over to buy ammo for my 30-06. The ammo for the .243 and the .222 was official and for free and, although I did get to use the 30-06, reloading and resizing the 20 rounds that I had bought when I bought the rifle up to the point when I realized that reloading them one more time was inviting disaster, most of my initial shooting tasks were conducted with the two lighter calibres.

To be honest I was quite intimidated by the shooting prowess of the more senior and experienced rangers. Shooting animals as small as springbok at ranges of 250 yards was pretty much par for the course with accurate shooting up to 300 yards not something greatly out of the ordinary. Some of the better of the good shots were not averse to taking shots at 350 and even 400 yards at species of blesbok size and up – not only taking shots but hitting what they were aiming for.

Yes their rifles had scopes, but accurate and consistent shooting at these ranges under the prevailing field conditions of crosswinds and heat mirage, was a skill which I still had to acquire. I realised I was somewhere near the bottom of a steep learning curve despite my previous military training with firearms in the infantry.

Shooting at these long ranges was necessary because of two main reasons:

  • Because of the open habitat, animals would see the approach of a vehicle or humans on foot from a long way off and would keep a safe distance between themselves and what they perceived as a threat by running off once a certain threshold had been crossed. This "flight threshold" is more manifest in open areas as opposed to areas that offer more bush and cover for animals who feel threatened. In habitat with more bush you may, for example, be able to approach to within 80 meters of a certain species before it takes flight whereas in an open habitat the same species will run off when you are within 200 meters of it.

  • As the culling operation proceeded the animals would soon associate an approaching vehicle with danger and would run off before the vehicle approached to within three or four hundred meters. At this point our strategy would change but more on that at another time. And before there is anyone out there on the point of getting their "knickers in a knot" about shooting from vehicles remember these were culling operations, not hunts, and when a couple of hundred of animals have to be harvested then vehicles are generally used to shoot from.

Fortunately my colleagues took pity on the "youngster" and did not expect me to attempt long shots without a scope. I was loaded off with enough ammo and water for the day at a point where there was quite a bit of game movement and would hide (usually in an empty aardvark burrow) and wait for any animals to approach to within 150 yards or less from my ambush point. And so I contributed by share to the daily harvest – my contribution I might add always being less than the more experienced rangers.

It was valuable experience and taught me much about range estimation, the vagaries of wind and the confusing effects of mirages dancing across the sun heated plains. A new scope was budgeted for me and the following year with some experience behind me I was able to participate in the annual cull peering down the crosshairs of a Weaver scope. Soon I could with reasonable confidence and consistent accuracy also shoot at distances of up to 250 yards.

A couple of years later I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the veterinary section of the National Parks Board based in the Kruger National park.

One of my first tasks was to participate in a research project in which a sample of animal species (kudu, blue wildebeest, zebra, impala and warthog) were shot each month to obtain morphological, biological, physiological, parasitological and pathological information. Only neck shots were allowed. Full post mortems were carried out on each animal to see what parasites they carried, what diseases they had and how this correlated to environmental conditions.

I soon discovered that the type of shooting involved in the more closed bushveld habitat of the Eastern Transvaal Lowveld was very different to that which I had become accustomed to on the wide grassland plains of the Western Transvaal.

It was, by comparison, relatively easy as most shots were taken at ranges of 80 yards or less. The shorter range and the possibility of bullets impacting with twigs, leaves or small branches on their way to the target will play a role in deciding on calibres and bullet design for this type of shooting.

The long ranges of open plains hunting also dictate a peculiar set of parameters which influence the calibres, rifle and bullet design particularly suited to this type of shooting and it this type of shooting on which we will concentrate in this article.

What guidelines can we follow which will help us decide on the optimum equipment to use? Probably the best setups we could arrive at are those used by professionals who specialize in long range shooting – military and law enforcement snipers. Before looking into what they use and why lets look at the conditions that prevail upon a bullet on its flight path to a target in long range plains shooting.

Professional snipers are long range experts – hunters who shoot plains game in wide open spaces can learn a lot from them.

When a bullet leaves the muzzle of a rifle two things happen. It starts slowing down because it is no longer being pushed from behind by the expanding gasses of the burning propellant and it begins to drop due to the effects of gravity following a curved trajectory to its target.

On its way to the target the resistance caused by air friction causes drag which results in the bullet slowing down still further. The drag is a function of air density which itself is influenced by altitude, air pressure, air temperature and humidity.

The amount of drag is also determined by muzzle velocity and ballistic coefficient. Another external effect which can affect the flight path is wind and the closer it is at right angles to the bullets line of flight the greater its effect will be.

Mirages caused by heat waves rising and moving laterally further compounds the difficulty of long shots. The further the shot the greater the influence will be on the flight path of the bullet.

For the hunter to shoot accurately at long range the rifle, calibre, bullet design combination should be optimized to have the flattest trajectory, be least affected by quartering and cross winds, and retain sufficient velocity and energy to effectively dispatch a quarry with a well placed shot.

Now listen to how the purpose of a sniper rifle is defined: "The purpose of a sniper rifle is to destroy a target at extended range with aimed fire with as few rounds as possible". The long range plains hunter and the professional hunter appear to be speaking the same language so perhaps the former can learn some valuable insights from the expertise of the latter.

Military and law enforcement agencies have big budgets and huge resources at their disposal and it is of interest to note what calibres and bullet design have been narrowed down for professional snipers the world over.

Military snipers especially operate at long range. The furthest successful shots recorded by a sniper in Iraq was when he killed two mortar personnel with two shots at a staggering range of 1050 yards using a .308 (7.62x61mm) calibre sniper rifle!

What works for snipers should work for long range plains game hunters. Table 1 summarizes the most popular calibre used the world over.

What is interesting to note are the calibres: .223 Remington, .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum, and .338 Lapua Magnum. What is also significant is the choice of boat tailed spitzer bullets with a high ballistic coefficient (see Figure 3).

The boat tailed spitzer bullet design gives less drag resulting in flatter trajectories and greater sustained velocity and energy.

What has been clearly established is that the boat tailed spitzer design results in less drag which translates into a flatter trajectory, higher retained velocity and higher residual energy at any given distance so this makes good sense. When air flows over a bullet, the spitzer boat tail design results in more laminar airflow with less air flow separation and vortices being formed which retard the projectiles forward motion.

Flat-tailed projectiles have less laminar airflow and more vortices formed in the wake of the bullet which all add up to increased drag with quicker drop offs in both bullet velocity and retained energy at any given distance.

If we take Table 1 and work out the percentage of retained velocity at different ranges we also discover that heavier bullets retain more velocity and energy (See Table 2).

Table 1 also reveals that at what would be considered fairly long range shots for plains game hunters (300 yards / meters) the calibres .223 Remington through .338 Lapua Magnum have enough residual energy to effectively take down anything from steenbok to eland.

The snipers calibres would therefore be suitable for small game species (.223 Remington), medium game species (.308 Winchester) and larger game species (.300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum). See Table 1.

And what of the weapons used by snipers? What sets these weapons apart from standard sporting rifles?

A snipers' rifle is designed to be accurate at long range. What design features make these weapons accurate and what can the hunter who shoots at long range learn from them? Sniper rifles are engineered to deliver 1/4 moa (minute of angle) accuracy at a range of 100m. Most tactical long range rifles weigh between 12 to 18 pounds (5.4 – 8.2 kg).

While this is far too heavy for a sporting rifle the lesson is that heavier is better and more accurate as it provides a more stable shooting platform, resists movement caused by wind and reduces some of the inaccuracy caused by a shooter jerking the trigger or not holding the rifle firmly.

For long range shooting you will be handicapped by the poorer ballistics of a shorter barrel. Ideal barrel length for the .308 Winchester and .300 Winchester Magnum is 26 inches. A 1in12 inch twist is preferred for the 168 grain and 175 grain Hollow Point Boattail (HPBT) ammunition for the .308 and a 1in10 inch for the .300 Winchester Magnum.

CALIBRE

*BC

RANGE (yards)

0

100

200

300

400

500

600

.223 Remington

 69 gr BT HP

0.390

MUZZLE VELOCITY (fps)

3000

2720

2460

2210

1980

1760

1560

 

 

ENERGY (ft lb)

1380

1135

925

750

600

475

375

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.6

Zero

-7.4

-21.9

-45.3

-79.8

.308 Winchester

168 gr BT HP

0.462

MUZZLE VELOCITY (fps)

2600

2420

2240

2070

1910

1760

1610

 

 

ENERGY (ft lb)

2520

2180

1870

1600

1355

1150

970

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+2.2

Zero

-9.15

-26.5

-53.3

-91.5

.300 Win Mag

190 gr BT HP

0.533

MUZZLE VELOCITY (fps)

2900

2725

2557

2395

2239

2089

1944

 

 

ENERGY (ft lb)

3547

3133

2758

2420

2115

1840

1595

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.5

Zero

-6.8

-20.0

-40.0

-67.5

.338 Lapua Mag

250 gr Lock Base

0.660

MUZZLE VELOCITY (fps)

2953

2810

2671

2537

2406

2280

2157

 

 

ENERGY (ft lb)

4842

4384

3962

3573

3215

2886

2583

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.4

Zero

-6.3

-18.1

-35.8

-60.2

 

Heavier barrels (up to 1.5 pounds – 0.7kg) are preferred increases a rifle’s mass to allow a steadier hold on target and reduce barrel vibration, barrel whip and felt recoil.

Is controlled feed of the round preferable to push feed? Winchester M70’s, original Mauser actions and Ruger 77’s, have a claw type extractor that holds the cartridge after it releases from the magazine for chambering. Is this necessary for a long range rifle? Not really (unless you are going to shoot the rifle upside down) as most modern military rifles push cartridges into the chamber without controlling the live rounds and have few feed problems. So either push or controlled feed are an option.

Bipods are a distinct advantage as they provide a ready to use and stable shooting platform - especially in windy conditions.

When it comes to stocks, the synthetic variety - although not as aesthetically pleasing as a wooden stock - have proven to maintain better zero especially when used in areas of climatic extremes.

Adjustable cheek pieces are an option which can allow the shooter to get into a good position to see through the scope but should be easy to adjust and maintain adjustment with rough usage.

CALIBRE

*BC

RANGE (yards)

0

100

200

300

400

500

600

.223 Remington

 69 gr BT HP

0.390

% RETAINED MUZZLE VELOCITY

3000

90,6

82,0

73,7

66,0

58,7

52,0

 

 

% RETAINED MUZZLE ENERGY

1380

82,0

67,0

54,3

43,5

34,4

27,1

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.6

Zero

-7.4

-21.9

-45.3

-79.8

.308 Winchester

168 gr BT HP

0.462

% RETAINED MUZZLE VELOCITY

2600

93,1

86,2

79,6

73,5

67,7

61,9

 

 

% RETAINED MUZZLE ENERGY

2520

86,5

74,2

63,5

53,8

45,6

38,5

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+2.2

Zero

-9.15

-26.5

-53.3

-91.5

.300 Win Mag

190 gr BT HP

0.533

% RETAINED MUZZLE VELOCITY

2900

93,9

88,2

82,6

77,2

72,0

67,0

 

 

% RETAINED MUZZLE ENERGY

3547

88,3

77,8

68,2

59,6

51,9

45,0

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.5

Zero

-6.8

-20.0

-40.0

-67.5

.338 Lapua Mag

250 gr Lock Base

0.660

% RETAINED MUZZLE VELOCITY

2953

95,2

90,5

85,9

81,5

77,2

73,0

 

 

% RETAINED MUZZLE ENERGY

4842

90,5

81,8

73,8

66,4

59,6

53,3

 

 

**TRAJECTORY (inches)

 

+1.4

Zero

-6.3

-18.1

-35.8

-60.2

Muzzle brakes might be a recommendation for .300 Magnum and larger calibers as they help to reduce barrel whip and recoil. Holes should be drilled with a slight rearward rake to vent gasses backwards and if done by a competent gunsmith should not have any adverse effect on accuracy.

When it comes to a choice of scope use only high quality scopes and mounts. It is pointless spending a lot of money on building an accurate rifle and then topping it with an "el cheapo"! For long range shooting a variable 3.5X-10X magnification is a good choice. The scope should be equipped with a range finding system that is accurate, quick and easy to use.

The scope should be fully adjustable for the maximum Windage and elevation you expect to encounter and should have positive click stops that can preferably be felt and / or heard. Adjustment knobs should have 1/4 or ½ MOA adjustments that are clearly marked with direction of impact change indicated and should be easily adjustable by the shooter without having to shift from the natural point of aim.

If the scope has a focus or parallax adjustment it should be easily adjusted and within easy reach. The scope should have high quality internal construction and be rugged enough to withstand rough handling.

Cleve Cheney holds a bachelor of science degree in zoology and a master’s degree in animal physiology. He is a wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor and the author of many leading articles on the subjects of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
Click here to visit his site

We have looked at sniper’s weapons and calibres of choice. Of course there are other options available such as .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts, .270 Winchester, and others.

But you can be sure that if your choice for long range plains game shooting is one of the calibres in boat tailed design mentioned in Table 1 and the design of the rifle is similar to that used by snipers, you will be in good company – in fact you are in step with the world’s elite.


• Africa’s Cunning Killer •
• Track better-hunt better •
• Die Another Day •
• After the Shot •
• Reading Vultures •
• Learning from Snipers •
• Using a scouting camera •
• Blind to Blood •
• Training for the paw •
• A question of ethics •
• What your PH does not know •
• What is a trophy? •
• B'aka net hunting •
• The Razor's Edge •


•  •


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