As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see them with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees.
There are so many variables that it’s easy to get lost, and most of us end up doing our best to spread our finite energy and resources in every direction. Is there a data-driven approach to help guide us toward the most important factors to increased hits at long-range?
Over the past few posts, we’ve used Applied Ballistic’s WEZ (Weapon Employment Zone) analysis tool to gain insight into how much different aspects affect the probability of hitting long-range targets, and how errors and uncertainty cause a bullet to miss a target.
The WEZ tool performs a Monte Carlo simulation, which is a good way to model scenarios that have a certain level of uncertainty in the inputs. This is a great model for long-range shooting, because inputs like muzzle velocity or extreme spread of your group can’t be quantified with 100% certainty. Your muzzle velocity might average 3000 fps, but Shot #1 may be 3005, Shot #2 may be 2985, and Shot #3 may be 3010. That averages 3000 fps, but there is still shot-to-shot variation. Monte Carlo simulations essentially play out hundreds or thousands of possible outcomes based on your inputs. The variables in each scenario are randomly populated within the ranges you set and according to a probability distribution. For example, if you gave some input that said your rifle was capable of holding a 0.5 MOA extreme spread, then it might play out one scenario where it drilled the exact point of aim, another where it hit 0.2 MOA high, another where it hit 0.25 MOA low, another that hit 0.12 MOA to the right, etc. Those shots would all still be within a 0.5 MOA group. It does that same thing for each of the variables in every scenario (muzzle velocity, wind call, range estimation, etc.), then it plays out each scenario, and plots where the shot would land. After it’s ran 1,000 different scenarios, it looks at the results of all of those and calculates your probability of hitting the target based on the variables you entered. Here is a screenshot of this part of the program, and I highlighted some of the key variables you can tweak.
Playing with WEZ tool has been very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”
How Much Does It Matter?
So we’ve looked at lot of different aspects that play into getting rounds on target at long-range, like group size, muzzle velocity SD, cartridge selection, and wind reading ability. Some of us may tend to fixate on one of those, while someone else might pour all their energy into a different one. We may not realize it, but we may be overdeveloping one muscle, and could end up looking a little funny.
It’s easy to get caught up on a super-precise rifle, or maybe you’re like me and spend weeks or even months researching cartridge choices to find the perfect one … all the while, we may be completely oblivious to other factors that play a bigger role in whether our bullet connects with its intended target. A nice ride like this one pops in my head:
Never mind the large dents, fading 30-year-old paint, missing trim, ripped upholstery … those wheels make that nice!!! 😉
My goal is to become a well-rounded shooter, without any glaring blind-spots like that Crown Vic. That is why I want to take an objective, data-driven approach to see how much time is appropriate to spend on various aspects.
Now that we’ve looked at each aspect in isolation, it’s time to put all of those things in perspective. I tried to pick a practical degree of improvement for each factor, and graphed the related increase in hit probability:
Keep in mind, these were ran for specific ballistics and scenarios, and assume centered groups. If you’d like to see more specifics behind each number, you can check out the full post for each of them (links at bottom of this post).
So, back to the question we started with: If we have a limited amount of time and money, where would we get the biggest return on investment? There are lots of things I could focus on (more precise rifle, more consistent handloads, more practice/training, etc.), but where should I spend my time and money to get the biggest improvement in the probability of getting a hit at long range?
The answer could vary for each of us, based on where we’re at. If your rifle can’t hold 2 MOA groups … you might start there. If you don’t have a laser rangefinder and are trying to mil targets to estimate range … you might start there.
But for long-range targets, the answer for me (and perhaps most of us) is clear: more practice and training on calling the wind. Bryan Litz tells us:
“There are few things that will improve hit percentage more than reducing wind uncertainty.”
Of course, if you’re using a 308 Win, and don’t need the down-range energy (i.e. you’re shooting steel or paper targets, not animals or militants) … you also might think about changing to a cartridge that offers improved ballistics. There aren’t many guys using 308’s competitively anymore (if the match doesn’t explicitly require it), so most of us aren’t in a position to realize a 27% increase in hits by switching to a different cartridge. Just to be clear, there typically isn’t a measurable improvement when changing from a 260 to the flashy new 6mm Creedmoor, or from the good ole’ 243 Win to a 6XC or 6×47 Lapua. If you’re using one of those popular 6mm or 6.5mm cartridges (like what the pro’s use), you’re unlikely to find a cartridge that offers much improvement over what you already have. That is unless you’re willing compromise significant barrel life and increased recoil with something like the 26 Nosler, 7mm RUM, etc. I just mention that so that we don’t over-correct on the importance of cartridge selection and give it more priority than it should have. Going from the 308 Win to 6.5 Creedmoor is a major change in ballistics, but choosing between similar cartridges hits the point of diminishing returns quickly.
Accurate ranging can easily be overlooked, or at least it’s easy to rush the process in the field as we engage long-range targets. It’s easy to accidentally range a rock 10 yards in front of the target, or the tree line that is 25 yards behind the target. It’s important to have a solid rest and good “trigger control” when ranging. You are trying to pinpoint a spot, just like when you are sending a bullet downrange. If you have time, try to range the target a few times to make sure you get the same number each time. Sometimes it’s easier to range something near the target, and then apply an offset for the difference. These are all things that can only be learned by spending time with your rangefinder. It can be helpful to train and calibrate your ranging ability on known distance targets or alongside a super-accurate set of rangefinders (like those made by Vectronix).
Not all rangefinders are created equal! Some models make it easier to pinpoint your target through tighter beam divergence. Some rangefinders are much better at interpreting the results and deciding what you are most likely trying to range. The software making those decisions inside a rangefinder is as important as the hardware. In fact, I know one company upgraded their popular “1000 model” rangefinder to a “1600 model” … and there was no difference in hardware between the two models. The 60% increase in ranging ability (from 1000 yards to 1600 yards) was purely based on improvements to the software that interprets the energy reflected off the target. One benefit of the Vectronix models is they can display more than one distance that it got a reading for, and the shooter can decide which distance represents the intended target. For more info on this, see my post on how rangefinders work or my in-depth rangefinder field test.
The other aspects (group size, muzzle velocity SD, incremental increases in muzzle velocity) are clearly secondary to those other factors for long-range targets. In ballistics, drop and wind drift are the primary factors that affect the trajectory of your bullet. Until I have a good understanding of those, it is probably premature to start worrying about Coriolis Effect and spin drift. Those are secondary factors, which only have a minor effect on bullet flight. I’m not saying you should ignore those secondary elements, but a new shooter shouldn’t be thinking about those things the first week. And I’ve heard some shooters tell me they were holding for spin drift at 300 yards. So for some of us, those factors can be blown out of proportion and possibly more distracting than helpful. Bryan Litz tells us “The well informed shooter needs to know about these effects if for no other reason, so he can know when they can be ignored, and in what applications they need to be considered.” It seems to be a similar situation with these secondary factors affecting hit probability.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t get the most precise rifle you can afford, or that you’re wasting time meticulously perfecting your loads. To each his own. I still plan to handload for some of my rifles. The key is to look at where your biggest room for improvement lies. Which uncertainty is the leading cause to your misses? Once you identify that, strategically focus and put your energy towards improving that area. Eventually, that aspect will transform from a weakness to a strength, and then you can shift your attention to the next leading factor that is causing your bullet to be off target. Todd Hodnett probably doesn’t need to spend more time perfecting his wind calling ability. He seems to have those primary factors buttoned up pretty tight, and therefore the precision of the rifle/ammo or the consistency of the muzzle velocity may be what he needs to focus on. It all depends on where you’re at on this journey. I’m certainly not there!
Hopefully this series gives us a more objective perspective on how all that stuff contributes to the probability of getting a hit at long-range, and where the point of diminishing returns lies for a few of the items we tend to fixate on the most.
A Tale of 2 Shooters
Here is what this all boils down to for me personally. What if I conducted 2 experiments for how to best use my time?
- Perfecting Handloads Scenario: I spent a significant amount of time trying to perfect the ideal handloads, but that left me less time practicing at the range. However, I carefully selected the bullet with the highest BC, and best components for every part. In fact, I choose a wildcat like the 6mm Creedmoor, because I plan to handload all my rounds and don’t need a factory ammo option. I was able to meticulously tune the loads in my rifle to an incredible 0.20 MOA 10 shot group … every time. And after neck-turning, sorting brass and bullets, and weighing each charge with a $3,000 Prometheus Gen II scale … I was able to reduce the standard deviation of my muzzle velocities down to a stunning 5 fps over a 10 shot string … every time.
- Factory Ammo & Practice Scenario: I spent all my free time shooting and no time handloading … but that means I use factory match ammo that isn’t quite as consistent as good handloads. But I went with the Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor 140gr A-Max Factory Match Ammo, so it isn’t bad. It had less consistent muzzle velocities (15 fps SD), and may not group as well because it wasn’t tuned specifically to my rifle (0.4 MOA). It also has a small ballistic handicap because it used bullets that weren’t quite as aerodynamic (i.e. lower BC) compared to the Berger Hybrids, and the muzzle velocity was 50 fps slower than what some handloaders are running. But, now that I’m not handloading … I have a lot more time to practice.
Let’s say to start out, my wind calling ability is somewhere between novice and average shooter (maybe not too far from the truth!). The table below shows how Bryan Litz defines a shooter’s skill in estimating the wind. The red dot show where I’m starting today, so we’ll say I have the ability to call the wind within 3.5 mph 95% of the time. I can call it within 1/2 of that 68% of the time.
It stands to reason that if I spent all my free time practicing and training in the wind out at the range, I’d be more likely to improve my ability to call the wind. So we’ll assume that in Scenario #2, I was able to improve my wind calling ability so that I’m able to guess just 1 mph closer to what the wind is actually doing. That means I can now call the wind within 2.5 mph certainty 95% of the time (indicated by the green dot below). Once again, I could call it within 1/2 of that 68% of the time.
Now let’s compare the results of the two scenarios. Remember the scenarios:
- Perfecting Handloads Scenario: Using meticulously crafted 6mm Creedmoor handloads running hot, with a minuscule 5 fps standard deviation in muzzle velocity and tiny 0.20 MOA groups, but my wind calling ability is still just within 3.5 mph of what the wind is actually doing 95% of the time.
- Factory Ammo & Practice Scenario: Using Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor factory match ammo that has 15 fps standard deviation in muzzle velocity, and is only able to group 0.40 MOA … but because I had more time to practice I was able to improve my wind calling ability by just 1 mph. I can now call the wind within 2.5 mph of what the wind is actually doing 95% of the time.
Those are significant differences, even though we had stacked the deck against the 6.5 Creedmoor: less precision, worse SD, lower ballistic coefficient, slower muzzle velocity, etc. It just goes to show that improvements in wind calling ability can easily outweigh all those other factors we pour so much energy into. A relatively small improvement in wind calling ability clearly trumps incremental improvements to ballistics and precision.
Perfecting the ammo and rifle just can’t compare to improving the nut behind the gun! A friend told me about some cyclist he knows (some sport Europeans do) who has spent thousands of dollars to reduce the weight of his bike by just a couple ounces … but he never considered dropping a few pounds from his midsection.
Its human nature to focus our energy on controlling external elements, rather than focus on improvements that can yield bigger results, but require us to change.
And guess what, if you improve that same scenario by just 1/2 mph more (wind confidence reduced to +/-2 mph) your percentage jumps another 10% to 81%! Get it down to +/-1 mph, and you’re up to 97.3%!!! That point of diminishing returns doesn’t set in as quickly when it comes to improvements in wind calling ability. Virtually any time spent working to improve your wind calling ability seems to be time well spent.
So When Does It Matter?
We’ve been looking at very specific scenarios: 10″ circle at 700 yards and a 20″ circle at 1000 yards. I thought those represented the most common long-range targets I’ve seen at several different tactical competitions. That is a 1.36 MOA target at 700 yards, and a 1.91 MOA target at 1000 yards. While there may be one or two targets at a competition that are sub-MOA, I’d wager most are 1-2 MOA targets. Having designed long-range courses myself, I probably pay attention to stuff like that more than most.
But, lots of readers have asked what happens when the target shrinks. … Well, first the overall hit probability goes down. Sub-MOA targets at distance are TOUGH! Everything has to be perfect to hit those targets. Wind continues to be the primary source of uncertainty, but the other factors start to cause you to be off target as well. You can’t ignore any of them without consequences.
Shot distributions for an 8″ target at 1000 yards are illustrated below, which is a 0.76 MOA target. The horizontal dispersion is wider on both targets, hinting that the wind is still the primary source of misses … but on the target on the left, you have a considerable amount of misses due to vertical dispersion as well. So improving cartridge, group spread, and SD can all increase your odds on those small targets.
Note that even with extreme tolerances of the handload scenario, like 5 fps standard deviation of muzzle velocity, elite wind calling ability, outstanding range confidence, and 0.25 MOA precision … you’re still more likely to miss the target than you are to hit it. A sub-MOA target at distance is just a low percentage shot, especially if you’re talking about a first round hit.
These factors can also matter if you are shooting F-Class or other competitions where your scores are based on how centered your shot is on the paper target. In the simulation below, I tried to provide some context for what the odds were for hits in the different rings. The X-ring on the 1000 yard F-Class target has a diameter of 5 inches … that is tiny! So this is similar to the tiny targets above. When you’re shooting sub-MOA targets that are far away, you want every advantage you can get. But … wind is still your biggest source of misses, so it pays to improve your wind calling ability in all of these scenarios.
Both of those scenarios were calculated with a +/- 2 mph wind confidence. That means you call the wind within 1 mph of what it is actually doing 68% of the time, and within 2 mph 95% of the time. So, both scenarios assume you already have elite wind calling ability. If you weren’t able to call the wind that well, your odds drop quickly.
If you are a hunter, tactical competitor, or in the military, usually your goal is to simply hit within a defined area on the first shot. As a tactical competitor, if I ring an 8″ steel target at 600 yards … it’s a point, whether that was an edge hit or I center punched it. As a hunter, I know the typical whitetail buck has a vital zone that is around 10″, and if I place my bullet in that area, it results in a clean kill … regardless of whether I hit the exact hair I was aiming for. But if you’re one of the guys who are really pushing the envelope and shooting sub-MOA targets, you probably already know … you need any advantage you can get, because that is already such a low percentage shot at distance. There is virtually no room for error, and all the uncertainties must be minimized to the extent possible. However, a wise shooter would still have a strategic approach to improvement by systematically focusing on the aspect that is the primary cause of their misses.
These are a couple scenarios I thought of that may be “special” … but if you have another special scenario you think might produce different results, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package, and run these kinds of analysis yourself to see what kind of difference it makes. I’ve found it to be a helpful tool that I’ll continue to use over time. (Note: Just in case it sounds like I’m a fan boy, I did pay full retail price out-of-pocket for my copy of the AB software. I also don’t get any kind of kick-back or anything from Applied Ballistics. It’s an honest, unbiased recommendation.)
I can’t sum this up any better than Bryan did in his Accuracy and Precision book:
“This is a general principle that is true for all dispersion components and target sizes: in order to improve hit percentage, you have to address those components of dispersion which are actually causing the shots to miss the target. Seems like common sense, but without careful analysis, you might not know what dispersion elements are primarily causing you to miss.”
I hope this brought some clarity to a topic that has been fuzzy for so long. The Applied Ballistics WEZ tool really brings an objective priority to the factors that play into getting hits at long-range. While this may seem like a lot of theory, science, and math … it has real-world application, and can help us become better shooters, make informed decisions, and get more rounds on target.
If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. There is nothing like changing the inputs ad-hoc, and instantly seeing what the result would be at long-range. This is also what Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision book is all about, so if you found this series helpful, I can guarantee you’d love that book. It dives deeper into each topic, provides a ton of charts and tables for all kinds of scenarios and target sizes, and gives insight into other aspects of long-range shooting as well.
Other Posts In This Series
This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:
- How Much Does Group Size Matter?
- How Much Does SD Matter?
- How Much Does Cartridge Matter?
- How Much Does Muzzle Velocity Matter?
- How Much Does Accurate Ranging Matter?
- How Much Does Wind Reading Matter?
- How Much Does It Matter? Overall Summary