The Dakota prairies afford long-range shooting opportunities you rarely get at whitetails in other regions of the country. Here, a tack-driving rifle is a necessity.
South Dakota hunting guide Randy Odenbach has seen his share of distant shots. He's been guiding whitetail and mule deer hunters for 14 years at the Majestic Ranch in the Missouri River Breaks. The ranch encompasses 13,000 acres of vast prairies and rugged, wooded draws of cedar and oak.
It would be possible to spot and stalk whitetails here, but Odenbach prefers to set his clients in blinds and shooting houses. When whitetails leave the draws to feed in the prairies -- or in the ranch's many food plots -- his clients often see bucks at distances of 200 yards or more.
Odenbach limits most of his hunters to 250- to 300-yard shots, and he works hard to get them within 150-yards of trophy whitetails. He allows only 12 to 14 rifle hunters per season to ensure that the Majestic Ranch always has plenty of big, mature bucks. Long shots increase the odds of bad hits and wasted deer.
So, why did Odenbach let a Pennsylvania hunter take a 700-yard shot at a whitetail two years ago?
"This guy was a skilled bench shooter who really knew what he was doing," Odenbach said. "He had a tricked out rifle and a wind gauge set up next to him in the shooting house."
Odenbach was with the hunter when they glassed a massive 8-point buck that would score in the high 160s. The hunter's range finder said the distance was 700 yards, and his wind gauge allowed him to figure the correct windage compensation. Then he dialed in the windage and elevation on his long, high-powered scope. This let him set the cross hairs dead on the whitetail's kill zone. It took the veteran rifleman only about 20 seconds to prepare for the shot.
"The rifle boomed and the deer just stood there for maybe two seconds," Odenbach said. "Then the buck fell over, and we heard the delayed whomp of the bullet."
Although remarkable shots like this are possible with light winds and the right equipment, most whitetail hunters would be wise to limit their shots to 350 yards. And this is only if you know your gun is accurate enough for that distance and you have the skill to make a sure shot. There's a huge difference between being capable of making a clean, long-distance kill and taking an unethical hit-or-miss pot shot.
LONG DISTANCE ACCURACY
How accurate must a rifle be to hit the mark out to 350 yards? A superbly accurate rifle will punch a three-shot group at 100 yards that is no larger than one inch when measured from the center of the bullet holes. Accuracy is usually stated in terms of Minute of Angle (MOA). However, inches are easier to grasp and work fine for our purposes.
Any rifle that shoots one-inch groups consistently can take deer out to 350 yards or more. By consistently, I mean one-inch groups time after time, not one one-inch group in five or 10 tries. The minimum accuracy needed for a 350-yard shot would be groups that consistently measure no larger than 1.5 inches. This will put your bullet in a six-inch circle at 400 yards.
Some rifles shoot groups smaller than half an inch. That is breathtaking accuracy.
If your rifle doesn't shoot one-inch groups, don't be discouraged by "internet accuracy." It seems that every gun test and every hunter that logs on boasts of rifles that shoot sub-one-inch groups. Sure they do.
LONG RANGE RIFLES
Many rifles shoot accurately enough to drill a whitetail's boiler room at 350 yards. These include single shot rifles and semi-autos, but most long-range shooters opt for the bolt action. Standard 22- to 24-inch sporting barrels should do the trick. However, it is possible to get a barrel that's a lemon from any manufacturer.
I've found suitable bolt-action rifles at Internet outlets in the $500 to $600 price range. These include most of the major brands, such as Remington, Savage, Smith & Wesson, Tikka, even Weatherby. Then again, you can easily spend well over $1,000 for a high-grade rifle.
Remington's Model 700 action is the heart of the U.S. Army M24 sniper rifle. They tweak this weapon to the point where it has an effective range of 875 yards. Savage rifles have a reputation for accuracy and economy. Their AccuTrigger gets rave reviews. It is crisp and can be adjusted down to 2.5 pounds. Light triggers improve long-range accuracy.
One of the least expensive options is the Stevens Model 200. This is essentially a Savage rifle with a synthetic stock and a nonadjustable trigger. I've seen the Stevens 200 on the Internet for as little as $300. For under $100, you can buy a trigger for this rifle that adjusts from three pounds to 10 ounces (sharpshootersupply.com).
You can buy a bolt action, Weatherby Vanguard rifle very inexpensively. The rifle comes with a synthetic stock, a factory set trigger pull between 2.5 and 3.8 pounds, and a guarantee that the rifle will shoot 1.5-inch or smaller three-shot groups at 100 yards.
Thompson Center guarantees that their Venture bolt-action rifle will shoot one-inch groups or less at 100 yards. It comes with an adjustable trigger.
Light bullets have killed many whitetails. However, they don't deliver sufficient energy for long-range shots. Also, heavy bullets maintain better down range velocity. Charlie Harris has been a whitetail guide at South Texas Trophy Hunting since 1966, and he has strong opinions regarding rifle bullets.
"I don't allow hunters to use anything lighter than a .270 on my ranch," he says. "I shoot a 7mm mag."
You might think that magnum bullets are necessary for long shots, but that's not true. The U.S. Army M24 sniper rifle mentioned earlier is chambered for the .308 Winchester, a non-magnum. The .308 has less recoil than the magnums and doesn't wear out barrels as quickly. Also, .308 ammo is generally less expensive than magnum bullets, and it's available in a wider range of bullets and loads.
However, there is nothing wrong with magnums if that is your bent. Magnums shoot flat and hit hard. Whatever caliber you choose, experiment with different brands and loads of ammo. Some of them will shoot more accurately from your rifle than others.
A quality scope is crucial to achieve the maximum accuracy any given rifle can deliver. You can easily invest more in the scope than the rifle, and it would be money well spent. A variable power is a wise choice, since you can use it for hunting deer in cover where close shots are common, and in open country. Kevin Howard, an avid hunter who promotes Bushnell scopes through his company Howard Communications, used to rely on a 3 x 9 power.
"Now that I'm 55 years old, my eyesight isn't as good as it used to be," he said. "I need more power for longer shots, say a 2.5 x 10 or a 4 x 16."
The type of reticle (cross hairs) is another consideration. Basic reticles have one aiming point where the crosshairs intersect. Some crosshairs are thicker than others, have a dot in the center or have some other feature or features that help you see when you're on target under hunting conditions. Such reticles work well for hunters who sight their rifles in to achieve the maximum dead-on aiming range.
For example, lets take a 150-grain Federal Premium Power Shock soft point bullet in .308 Winchester. When the rifle is sighted in at 200 yards, the bullet strikes 0.8 inches high at 50 yards, 2 inches high at 100 yards, right on at 200 yards, and about 3 inches low at 250 yards. So, you can hold dead on from 0 to 250 yards.
Beyond 250 yards, you must hold the cross hairs above the desired point of impact to compensate for the bullet's drop. At 300 yards, the bullet will be about 9 inches below the cross hairs. At 350 yards, it will hit approximately 16 inches low.
Many scopes have reticles with holdover points on the lower stem of the cross hairs. These are normally dots, horizontal lines or both. They go by different names. For example, Nikon calls theirs the BDC reticle, Leupold's is the Long-Range Duplex, Bushnell's is the DOA.
With holdover reticles, you sight in your rifle at 100 yards. The holdover points on the lower cross hair put you on target at 50- or 100-yard increments beyond 100 yards. The holdover points on some scopes stop at 250 yards, while others extend as far as 600 yards.
Holdover points correlate to the trajectories of common big game loads. They put you close, but are unlikely to be exact with any given caliber.
WINDAGE, RANGE & COMPENSATION
All the reticles discussed to this point lack horizontal aiming points for windage compensation. Windage is no small matter. With Federal's .308 Winchester load mentioned earlier, a 10 mph crosswind pushes the bullet 1.1 inches sideways at 100 yards, 4.4 inches at 200 yards, 10.4 inches at 300 yards and 15 inches at 350 yards.
In other words, you can miss the whole deer if you don't compensate for a 10 mph crosswind at 350 yards. And the wind is usually a factor when hunting prairie whitetails. In strong, blustery winds, long shots are out of the question with any rifle.
The most accurate way to determine windage compensation is by measuring the wind with a wind meter and then finding the correct compensation on a ballistic data card for the load you are shooting. Prices for hand-held wind meters start around $45. Once source for data cards is: demigodllc.com/datacards.php.
Scopes used by military snipers and those who compete in long-range shooting matches typically have mil-dots on the vertical and horizontal crosshairs. The vertical dots help you compensate for bullet drop; the horizontal dots help with windage.
A mil (milliradian) in the reticle equals 3.6-inches at 100 yards. You double that distance at 200 yards, triple it at 300 yards, and so on. Since you can compare the distances between mil-dots to the size of the deer in the scope, they can be used for distance estimation. However, you are far ahead to invest in a quality range finder to get a more exact measurement. As with the scope, buy the best you can afford. Prices for rangefinders start at about $200.
Military snipers and competitive shooters usually do not use mil-dots for range and windage compensation. Instead, they dial in the range with the scope's windage and elevation knobs so they can hold the cross hairs on target. Only top-level scopes have reliable, repeatable adjustments
You'll need sharp binoculars to help you see distant bucks and evaluate their antlers. An 8 x 42 would be a good choice. Also, a solid rest is an absolute necessity. Always carry shooting sticks when hunting where long shots are possible. Another helpful rest is a small canvas bag filled with crushed walnut hulls. A bag filled with lead would be better, but it's too heavy for walk-around hunting.
If you think all you need is an accurate rifle to make long-range kills, you are setting yourself up for missed shots and wounded whitetails. Long-range shooting is a skill that requires regular practice and an intimate knowledge of your rifle and its capabilities. If you're not willing to put forth the time and effort needed to acquire these necessities, limit your shots to 250 yards or less.