Long Range Hunting. How’s that for an interesting topic of discussion? This seems to be a bit of a controversial topic and I’m going to try and explain it and address the ethics behind the debate. I’m not planning to take sides in the argument but I do plan to bring light to both sides of the debate. I’m calling it a debate because I’ve watched people ask questions about long range hunting a number of times. I’ve seen people post video of shots on animals at extended ranges. It almost always devolves into a pretty heated flame war with the debate split into two camps. Those that are for it, and those that are against it.
Long Range Hunting Defined
To discuss long range hunting we need to define what long range hunting actually is. I’m going to make this clear from the onset of the article, I don’t hunt, but it’s something I’m thinking seriously about getting into with friends of mine that are hunters. Just because I don’t hunt doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to the conversation, particularly as we discuss the marksmanship, ballistics, and equipment required for long range hunting. Quite honestly, I know many guys that are avid hunters, but less than great marksman, I think we can all help each other. You guys can show me the finer points of choosing locations and hide positions and I can talk to you about enhancing your shots.
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to define long range hunting as a shot at an animal at a distance beyond the 400 yard mark. Why the 400 yard mark? I chose it for a couple reasons, and if there’s a better definition out there, let me know in the comments. Basically out to around 350-400 yards depending on the caliber and optics it’s possible to point and shoot at a target. The ballistics don’t matter in real significance in terms of drop or windage till beyond 400 yards. When you start reaching past 400 yards the ballistics begin to matter. That means either dialing adjustments or using calibrated reticles to adjust for the effects of wind and gravity.
Long Range Hunting Debate
The debate begins over at what distance you can honestly say that the shot is ‘ethical’ though I’m going to throw you a curve ball on that in a minute. Essentially most of the hunting crowd I know and have run into think of themselves as ethical hunters. They have a level of respect for the animals they stalk and they believe the animal should be given a chance to get away, and that the animal should succumb to its injuries quickly and without undue suffering. I honestly don’t have an issue with any of that.
Now for the curve balls. With regard to the animal being given a ‘chance to elude’ its hunter, where exactly do we draw a line on that? With regard to the long range hunting debate opponents of long range hunting say the distance makes it unfair. In other words taking a shot from beyond the visual and sensory perception range of the animal cheats it of the ability to get away. Well, I think you could say using firearms in general gives us quite an advantage because we’ve taken the animals speed and stamina away from it. We don’t have to physically run the animal down if we use firearms, right?
I think the opponents of long range hunting want hunters to shoot from close enough that the animal has a chance to detect their presence and elude them. That’s the basic point of their argument. I would argue that at those kind of ranges, the animal stands almost zero chance of eluding anything if the hunter takes a shot at it. The distance is close enough that even a less than competent marksman can score a hit that disables and kills the animal. Longer range may not give the animal as great a chance of detecting the hunter, but it affords a better chance of escape after a miss.
Missing a shot while Long Range Hunting
This is the one that get’s people emotional and frenzied. What if the hunter misses while taking a shot at long range hunting distances? What if the shot removes the animals jaw, or hits a non vital area? The argument becomes that the animal suffers, perhaps for hours, perhaps for days, until eventually succumbing to the wound. I think that is true. We know animals experience pain, and fear. We don’t want animals to experience any more of those than are necessary for killing the animal so that the hunter might claim the meat, rack, whatever. No problem with the rationale behind that.
I may have questions about how often it happens in reality. My experience with shooting long range at targets large and small in a variety of conditions is that wind is really the great equalizer. I’ve only seen people miss small on smaller targets where the miss was a result of bad shot execution or poor fundamentals. Typically at longer distances using larger targets you either hit it, or you miss by quite a bit. The reason being the wind call. You either get it right on a larger target at distance and hit it, or you don’t and you miss. I don’t see many misses of big targets at distance by small margins. I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that it isn’t as common as we might like to believe.
Here’s another way to look at it. If I were the animal being hunted and you told me I had my choice of scenarios. Either trying to detect and elude a hunter with a rifle who could only fire under 300 yards, and another hunter that had to take a shot at me at 800 yards, it would be a simple choice. I’ll take the scenario where the guy has to take a longer shot every time. Even if I had the sense of smell that an animal does my odds of escape once detected by the Hunter are slim. At greater distance, the hunter may miss altogether, and when he does, I’ve got hundreds of yards worth of head start between us.
Here’s another curve ball. Are all animals created equal? I understand everybody’s outrage at the thought of winging Bambi’s mom and making her hobble around while she bleeds to death in pain full of fear. What about predators though? Do you afford coyotes that will attack and kill defenseless livestock or newborn calves the same courtesy? It’s a lot like saying torturing terrorists for information is wrong. If I show you people killed in a bomb blast do you still feel the same outrage at their less than hospitable treatment? I don’t have a dog in the fight, you guys decide, but I want to present both sides of the argument.
Accuracy Requirements of Long Range Hunting
The next part of this discussion is going to center around what kind of accuracy requirements we need to take an ethical shot at an animal over extended ranges. People new to this sight might not be familiar with the concept of Minute of Angle (MOA) shooting. Quickly defined that means you are capable of putting repeated shots onto a target at one hundred yards that measure 1 inch or less in group size. The same MOA capable shooter can hit 2 inch targets at 200 yards, 5 inch targets at 500 yards, and so on. That is the gold standard of long range shooting. Let’s apply it to long range hunting.
First we need a list of vital zone areas of animals commonly hunted. I dug around a bit on the Internet and came up with these. If there was a range, say 12-14″ I went with 12″ to err on the side of caution and inject a little more morality into the requirements of the shots we will be talking about making. So let’s look at the list of animals:
- Mountain goat = 13″
- Small deer = 8″
- Medium size deer = 10″
- Large deer = 11″
- Pronghorn antelope = 8″
- Elk = 14″
- North American wild sheep = 12″
- Caribou = 14″
- Moose = 18″
So a Moose for example, with a massive vital zone of 18″ would provide an MOA shooter with a likely hit to almost 1800 yards, right? WRONG! Shooting MOA gets harder the farther out you shoot. While you might have no problem shooting MOA or even half MOA at 500 yards, show me the same grouping at 1000 yards. The effects of the wind compound as you get farther from your target. If you gauge the wind at 5mph and it’s really going 7mph that 2mph difference at 1000 yards can work out to a large ballistic difference. With a 308 Caliber rifle and 175gr projectiles you are looking at a 16″ difference in impact with just that 2mph difference in wind speed.
Stacking odds in favor of Long Range Hunting
So I probably sound like I’m making the argument for the anti long range hunting crowd by now right? Maybe I do. However, now I’m going to talk about ways to stack the odds in favor of anybody interested in long range hunting. By being realistic about the ballistics and accuracy requirements we can still stack the odds a bit in favor of the animal being given a quick end. For starters, lets lay out some rules for long range hunting and explain them as we go.
- Rules of Thumb
- Make every shot in Long Range Hunting a 1.5 MOA Attempt or better
- Using the Moose with the 18″ Vital Zone, don’t take a shot beyond 1200 Yards
- Divide the Animal’s Vital Zone size by 1.5 for a quick max range at 1.5 MOA
- 18″ Moose Vital Zone divided by 1.5 = 1200 Yards
- Measure the animal, and it’s approximate vital zone area with your reticle
- We want a 1.5 MOA, or Half MIL size vital zone at any range inside the max
- Use a cartridge that matches both the distance and energy requirements of the shot
- Moose again, something along the lines of a 6.5 SAUM, 300WM, 338LM,etc. that has both a high ballistic coefficient and delivers a significant amount of energy at 1200 yards
- Maximum of two shots fired, assuming the animal even allows a follow up
- At extended ranges a follow up shot is perfectly humane and logical, the odds are excellent at a second round hit if you observed the miss and corrected for the error.
- If you miss a second time, the conditions are changing too rapidly, abandon the shot
- Only fire at ranges you have confirmed DOPE for that range with that rifle and cartridge
- You shouldn’t be using live animals for ballistic confirmation, that should be done by this point
- Not only do you have to confirm drop at distance, but you need to confirm the conditions, I highly advocate the use of a data book here
- Do not fire on a moving target, period
- You can SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) a lead on an animal at close range, hundreds of yards out, forget it
- Try to wait and see if the animal turns and puts its back to the wind
- The idea here is if you miss, you typically miss in the direction of the wind flow, wait till the edge of the target is in the wind so if you botch the call, you miss completely instead of hitting the animal behind the vital zone
- KNOW YOUR LIMITS
- If you haven’t hit a paper or steel target the same size of your animal’s vital zone consistently in practice, don’t try a Hail Mary on game day.
- Be realistic about what you are capable of doing, if the shot is beyond you, wait for another or try to maneuver closer
Wrapping up the Long Range Hunting Topic
In summary, I don’t see any ethical or moral problems with the concept of long range hunting. However, I make that statement under the assumption that the person that plans to attempt Long Range Hunting adheres to some ethical considerations. The hunter must be honest with himself about his capabilities and follow some guide lines that stack the odds in favor of a good hit, and a quick death for the animal. If there’s a miss, chances are the animal is going to flee. Don’t get upset about that, you can always stick to shooting at animals closer to your firing position. This is definitely an advanced concept not to be attempted by first time hunters, or at least not first time shooters.
Making shots while long range hunting with the accuracy requirements we’ve discussed is going to take a solid understanding and flawless execution of the Fundamentals of Marksmanship. If that isn’t something you’ve spent much time on then I suggest doing some practice and maybe seeking some professional instruction. Like many things in life the knuckleheads ruin it for everyone. If the idea of long range hunting appeals to you then do it right and be realistic about the shots you want to undertake and the hits you hope to achieve. If you walk into the wilderness with your ego set on high you will likely either miss or wound an animal that may still evade you and die suffering. Let’s try to avoid that and keep both sides of the long range hunting debate happy, okay? If you have ideas or suggestions on how to make this article, and long range hunting, better and safer for everyone, post a comment!
Owner and Proprietor of AccuracyTech, LLC. Rich is a Firearms Enthusiast, Precision Rifle Competitor, and Writer. He is committed to bringing readers quality reviews and articles related to the Precision Shooting Sports. If you have any questions for him, please use the contact form on the site.