Here’s a topic that might seem simpler than it actually is, proper rangefinder technique. What am I talking about? I’m referring to the actual technique you use with your rangefinder to determine the distance to a target you plan to engage. Sounds simple, right? It typically is, but there is the potential to make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are accidental on part of the user that result in the wrong rangefinder result. Some of those mistakes are the deliberate result of a match director who’s looking to make the task of ranging targets more challenging. So let’s discuss the way to do it properly so you hit what you’re shooting at!
Rangefinder Technique: What is it?
When we talk about the rangefinder technique you use to determine your range to target, I’m referring specifically to the method you use to locate, range, and then engage your target. We’re going to discuss each of those elements separately as part of the broader overall topic of proper rangefinder technique. Obviously you have to locate a target before you can range it. We will start with locating targets. Then we will discuss how to properly range them to ensure a high level of accuracy and minimize your chances of a shot coming up short or sailing long over the target. If you haven’t though about this before, it’s actually pretty common!
This may sound simple, but depending on how the match is set up, or the type of animal you may be hunting, it can be very challenging. For the Hunter this task comes down to fairly primal instinct. You need to scan your area of operation for your prey and try to pick them out from the landscape. Movement will likely be the thing to catch your eye here. So keep in mind continually sweeping around the area with binoculars or spotting scope may hinder your efforts. Set up and watch a part of the area for a bit, then switch and watch another part of the area. When you catch movement, chances are that is what you are looking for! The same is largely true for the tactical shooter in a Military or Law Enforcement role.
For the precision shooter competing in a match, there is a saying that goes like this: “There are no straight lines in nature.” Straight lines, and symmetry, are man made creations. If something is straight, or can be divided precisely in half with both halves being equal in size and shape, chances are excellent those are man made objects. If part of a match requires you to locate targets prior to ranging them, that is what you will want to look for. You can’t use the rangefinder until you have something to use it on. So look for straight lines and symmetry at relatively low magnification, or even the naked eye, first. Then if something catches your eye, check it under higher magnification.
So you have managed to locate a target or series of targets, now how do you go about using the rangefinder? It might sound simple, point the rangefinder at the target, press the button, write down the number the rangefinder gives you! Piece of cake, right? Sometimes. How confident are you that the number the rangefinder is displaying was a return from the target? Remember rule number four of firearms safety? Always be certain of your target and what lies beyond! Well, take a look at where your target is positioned. If it is a significant distance away, and in front of something else, even other landscape…there’s potential for error there.
The problem is two fold. The first thing you have to consider is beam divergence. Basically, a laser gets bigger and wider the farther it’s fired at a distant target. Which means if you are trying to range a house like in this photo, and there are other objects nearby, you will probably get a result from your rangefinder. However, it won’t be correct. You will likely be getting the range to the trees or another house close by. If the laser’s beam has widened it will likely give a return on the largest and most reflective target that falls within the scope of that beam at that distance. So what do you do?
What you want to do is bracket your target. Fire the laser right at the target and make note of the result. Now, try ranging the ground that the target is sitting on. Next try ranging to the left and right of the target’s position. Finally, range above and behind the target. You want to give yourself a good three dimensional representation of what’s going on out there as you use the rangefinder. Don’t just assume that when you tried to range the target, that was what you hit. If you get repeated returns from the hill behind the target when you try to range the target itself, you have to switch things up. Try ranging the hill in front of the target. Match directors will often do things like this to fool the competitors.
Be the guy who realizes the target is on the crest of a hill and the better range to use is that of the hill below the target, and not the return you get when you fire the rangefinder and hit the hill behind it. I’ve seen even seasoned competitors fall for this little trick. The best way to avoid it is to take a couple shots with the rangefinder all around the target. Especially if its sitting at the top of any sort of terrain feature! Bracket the target and then decide which range seems appropriate!
Rangefinders are awesome tools and there are some really nice, and expensive, models available to the precision marksman. However, it is still a tool and as such if used improperly, it will give the incorrect answer to the question. Make sure that once you find your targets that you have considered terrain features in the area of the target that may give the rangefinder a confusing result. Bracket your target so you get a good idea of the distances of the terrain and target and their relationships to each other. This is the reason fast cartridges are used in competition guys! If you have the wrong range but a cartridge that has a flat trajectory you can sometimes get a hit even with the wrong range!