I’ve learned I simply can’t watch most TV shows involving rifles. Ignorant commentary and reckless misinformation grinds my soul, and usually culminates in someone yelling at the TV. My wife can attest. It can get ugly.
Long Range Pursuit, a TV show on the Sportsman Channel, is one of the few outdoor shows that make it to my DVR. It’s hosted by Aaron Davidson and the crew from his company, Gunwerks, which specializes in custom long-range rifles and gear for hunters. Those guys seem to know what they’re talking about. They’re able to take ethical long range shots on trophy animals on demand. Yes, with education and practice … you can pair “ethical” and “long range” in the same sentence! 😉 (Trivia Bonus: The only other outdoor show on my DVR is MeatEater with Steven Rinella, which you should check out if you’re a hunter.)
Some episodes of Long Range Pursuit feature short, educational segments they call Long Range University Shooting Tips. They caught my attention, because the tips were sound and the guy presenting them seemed like a pro. During one episode I whipped out my phone and googled “Long Range University” … and it turns out Gunwerks offers a comprehensive shooting school at a world-class facility. Gunwerks has offered in-person long range training for a few years. Aaron’s passion is helping guys and gals put rounds on target at distance. He knows selling someone a very capable rifle is only part of that equation. That’s why he extended his offerings to include quality, handloaded ammo, capable scopes with easy-to-use, custom ballistic turrets, and one of the first rangefinders featuring built-in environmental sensors and a trustworthy ballistic solver. But Aaron didn’t stop there, because he didn’t want to overlook the biggest variable: the shooter. So he started offering in-person long range training, and over a few years they’ve refined their curriculum into a very comprehensive format, which they call Long Range University (LRU). LRU is comprised of 3 levels of two-day courses, which systematically build on one another.
As I’ve mentioned, my goal in 2016 was to invest in training, and Gunwerk’s Long Range University seemed like one of the best places in the world to do that. So I found a time when my buddy, Bob Bellows, and I could go up to Wyoming for several days and attend LRU. They chuckled when I told them I wanted to take all of their courses in one trip. Most of the time shooters will take Level 1 and possibly Level 2 together, but then they go home, practice and get some experience. They might return the following year ready for their Level 3 course, which is more of a graduate level course in real-world scenarios. But we assured them we were committed to take all 3, and booked our plane tickets.
Meet Instructor James Eagleman
I mentioned earlier the guy presenting the “Shooting Tips” on the TV show seemed like a pro. It turns out his name is James Eagleman, and he is Gunwerk’s Director of Shooting Instructions. He recently retired First Sergeant, Army Recon Scout Sniper with 26 years of exceptional service worldwide. James has real-world experience as an operator, but also has a ridiculously impressive training resume which includes writing curriculum for US Army Sniper School and instruction for SOTIC (Special Operations Target Interdiction Course). James has valuable first-hand knowledge and experience relating to weapons, ammunition, ballistics, shooting techniques, training exercises and operations. But after hanging around James for several days, what I was most impressed with was his passion for mentoring students at every level. He is extremely patient, and can tailor his instruction based on a student’s experience level. That means he won’t talk over the head of a beginner who’s shooting past 100 yards for the first time, but he can also change gears and go into “advanced mode” when coaching more experienced shooters. I guarantee even the best shooters in the world could learn something from James Eagleman! It seems rare for a civilian to have a chance to be coached by a guy this caliber.
When you pair up a really sharp engineer and natural teacher like Aaron Davidson with a guy with the credentials and experience of James Eagleman, you can rest assured the curriculum is well thought out and valuable. Not to mention, Gunwerks has several others on staff that are more than qualified to teach these courses, and already have experience teaching hundreds of students. The program Gunwerks has developed over the past few years is nothing short of world-class.
Wyoming Training Facility
Level 1 and 2 courses are taught at a brand new, training facility in Burlington, Wyoming, which is about an hour east of Yellowstone National Park. The facility has the most convenient and comfortable setup I could imagine. They have an indoor classroom with all the luxuries of home (i.e. indoor bathrooms, air conditioning, media projector, whiteboard, catered lunches). Take one step out the door of the classroom, and you’re on a live range with targets out to 1400 yards! You literally can move from your chair in the classroom to behind a rifle on the range in 30 seconds.
This unique facility allows the Gunwerks classes to follow this basic format:
- Discuss a topic in the classroom with the help of good visuals and multimedia
- Go try it on the range
- Repeat …
This tight loop from theory to application really helps students make the connection.
Level 1 (L1): The Fundamentals
L1 is focused on the fundamentals, but goes beyond the basics. It covers equipment, cartridges, and other tools you may want to be familiar with to engage long range targets. I was pleasantly surprised that the equipment part of this wasn’t just Gunwerks propaganda. They had a balanced approach. After you complete this course you should have a strong foundation on which you can build and progress.
- Equipment Selection & Setup
- Rifle Cleaning & Maintenance
- Intro to External Ballistics
- Using A Ballistics Engine & Trajectory Validation
- Benchrest Shooting Gear & Technique
- Rangefinder Basics
Level 2 (L2): The Wind Class
L2 topics are more advanced. You’ll spend 50% of the time in the classroom, and 50% on the range, and should leave with a high degree of technical competency. I heard a few guys refer to this as “the wind class,” because one primary focus is learning to read the wind. That’s something you simply can’t learn from a DVD, online videos, or even a really good blog! 😉 I’ve met a few shooters who could glance downrange through a spotting scope and quickly observe the angle of the mirage, movement of the vegetation, and other visual cues and instantly tell you the wind speed and direction with the same ease as reciting their home address. While I’m NOT one of those guys, luckily Instructor James Eagleman is.
The biggest value from the whole experience may have been sitting behind a spotting scope for a couple days beside a guy who not only could read the wind, but could explain exactly how he was doing that. James shared ton of practical tips, including things like what magnification setting your spotting scope should be on to make it easiest to read, where you should set the focus relative to your target, what you should look at to see mirage the best, how to rotate your view to find the exact wind direction, among other things. Most of these tips were subtle improvements, but when you put them together … it makes a huge difference.
They also helped us understand the wind by doing little experiments. For example, one of the teachers drove 600 yards downrange, and we all got behind spotting scopes and tried to guess the wind speed and direction at his location. He then pulled out a Kestrel Weather Station to measure what the wind was actually doing, and radioed the results back to us. This helped students calibrate what they were seeing with what the wind was actually doing. He also went to a few different places downrange with unique terrain features, and threw up some fine, white powder, so we could watch how the wind pushed it. At one open area, the wind carried the powder almost perpendicular to our position, but when he repeated the same steps at the base of a hill further out we saw the powder take a slightly different direction and also had a significant vertical component because of the terrain. These little experiments along with diagrams shown on slides in the classroom combined to help me visualize what the wind was doing as it rolled over the terrain, and understand how to apply that to other terrain features.
But, the most valuable thing was just the interactive conversation with James while we all sat behind spotting scopes looking down range. A student might say, “Hey, I’m seeing ____, does that mean …?” James might answer “Yeah, you see how it is …” or “No, if you’re seeing that you’re focus may be set beyond the target and you’re seeing an optical illusion. You should …” We were fortunate to have some strong, switching winds during our few days in Wyoming. Often the wind would pick up or change direction, and students would eventually say “See that?! It looks like the wind just picked up closer to 12 mph” or “It looks like the wind switched from 4 o’clock around to 7 o’clock.”
During all this we were in an enclosed shooting area with big garage doors flipped up, which forced us to make calls based on what we were seeing downrange and not what you felt at your location. Studies have shown when people lose one of their senses (e.g. sight, hearing) other senses often become heightened. For example, if you’re blind, you might hear things others may not notice. Because the facility setup didn’t allow us to fall back on feeling the wind change, it forced us to sharpen and calibrate our ability to sense what the wind was doing purely based on what we were seeing downrange. In the past, I was always quick to pull out my handy Kestrel and get a wind measurement at my location, and my wind call was primarily based off that reading. We all know the wind may be MUCH different downrange than it is at your location, but my wind meter had become a crutch I used to avoid honing my ability to visually estimate the wind downrange. This class forced me to isolate and develop a muscle I’d previously neglected. Now when I add back in the ability to measure a baseline wind measurement with my Kestrel and combine that with what I’m seeing downrange, I can make much more informed wind calls.
Towards the end of L2, we paired up and had one student behind a rifle and the other behind a spotting scope. The shooter dialed the elevation adjustment for a 1000 yard steel plate, and was instructed to simply hold whatever wind adjustment the spotter called for. Bob was my partner, and he’s an outstanding marksman. So I knew any left to right spread on the target would solely be a result of my wind calls. No pressure! 😉 While I was on the spotting scope, Bob fired a string of 10 shots and during that time I remember calling for corrections ranging from 3 MOA left to 1 MOA right (that’s about 0.8 mils left to 0.3 mils right for metric guys). The winds were shifty! At the end of 10 shots, ALL of our impacts were stacked within 2” of the bullseye on that 1000 yard target! After repainting the targets, we swapped positions, and Bob was able to replicate the results with me behind the rifle.
I told James my experience in L2 felt similar to The Matrix when Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) was finally able to look at all the 1’s and 0’s and make sense out of it! It was like my eyes had been opened to a whole new world of information! Am I now a wind expert? Nope. But, I’ve come a long way, and feel like I now have a foundation on which I can build on with experience. I’m not sure there is a more effective way to learn to read the wind than what we experienced at the Gunwerks training center.
But, L2 covers more topics than just wind. It also covers practical shooting positions you might encounter in the field (prone, seated, kneeling), and how to effectively use packs, tripods, and other supports to extend your range. They also cover more advanced aspects of external and terminal ballistics.
- Advanced Wind Reading
- Advanced External Ballistics & Drag Models
- Terminal Performance
- Field Shooting Positions
Level 3 (L3): Putting It All Together In The Field
L3 is the capstone of Long Range University, and it ditches the classroom all-together. L3 is designed to test your knowledge and equipment in real-world field conditions. The L3 class we attended was hosted at the Ensign Ranch in northeast Utah, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in the U.S. The ranch is massive, spanning over 80,000 acres and features 3,000+ feet of elevation change. L3 is built around several situational training scenarios that force you to apply what you learned in L1 and L2. You’ll shoot across canyons, take steep angle shots, and shoot in crosswinds, headwinds, tailwinds, and vertical winds … maybe all of them on the same shot! They have a ton of targets setup, with shots out to 1 mile and beyond!
Gunwerks arranges the class in small groups of 2-3 students. Instructors are right by your side, but what I appreciated was in L3 they allow you to make mistakes and learn from them. After you’ve engaged the targets the staff provides personalized coaching tips. Aaron is a natural teacher, and even though L3 is all done in the field, he and his team are still teaching and reinforcing concepts at each position. They’ll do in-field debriefings at each position to reinforce what you did well. If you didn’t have first round hits on all the targets, they’ll ask questions to help you uncover what you may have overlooked.
Here’s examples of just a few of the stages they had setup for us to run through:
To help students understand the Coriolis Effect and how it affects bullet flight, they set up a stage with two identical targets at exactly 1100, but one was due south and the other was due east. You start by engaging the southern target, and spotters help you find the perfect elevation adjustment to center your shot on the bullseye. Then you’ll immediately turn and shoot a group on an identical target at the same distance due east. Your impact will likely be high on the east target (4-5” high with the cartridges we were using). This variance in trajectory is due to the fact that you’re shooting from one point to another on a rotating sphere (the Earth). While 4-5 inches at 1100 yards is relatively minor, you can see the difference. So this exercise helps students understand that Coriolis Effect is a real thing and can be predicted and accounted for, but it also teaches them the relative magnitude so if they hear a buddy tell a story about a bullet sailing over a trophy elk at 700 yards because he forgot to think about Coriolis … you likely shouldn’t take advice from that person. This stage drove the point home that when trying to make first shot hits on small targets at extended ranges, you may want to consider the Coriolis Effect. I’m not sure how many places on earth have a setup that allow you to see this phenomenon so clearly.
For L3, Bob and I borrowed some Gunwerks rifles chambered in 6.5×284, and also used the Gunwerks ammo. Both of our rifles were lightweight hunting rifles, weighing 9.9 pounds with scope. On this stage I printed a 3” group at 1100 yards with that Gunwerks rifle and ammo! I have to admit, I was shocked. My friend Bob achieved similar precision with his rifle. The targets were large orange rectangles, with a little white dot in the center the size of the bottom of a can of spray paint (2.5” diameter). Bob dropped a shot right on top of the white dot, and Aaron told us he’d never seen someone hit dead center on the bullseye on that target. He told Bob, “I bet you can’t do it again” … and within about 10 seconds Bob stacked a second shot right on top of it!
I have to say: this challenged my view of precision rifles. I don’t say that lightly. All of the custom rifles I own weigh 14-18 pounds with optics, because they all have heavy contour barrels. Even my 7mm Rem Mag hunting rifle weighs almost 50% more than the Gunwerks rifles we used. I never thought a rifle with what I had always referred to as a “pencil thin” lightweight barrel could shoot like that. These rifles shot as well as I am able to hold, and we didn’t notice any significant impact shift over 10+ shot strings. Now, I haven’t converted my rifles over to sporter contours, but I will say this challenged my long-held assumptions on barrel contours and what you need for real precision. I wish I could go back and include a few of these lighter contours in my barrel test!
High Angle Shot … Up & Down
The Ensign Ranch in Utah included some extreme terrain, with rare high angle long-range shots. There aren’t a lot of places in the world you can find those, because at most places by the time you finally get a target set out to 400+ yards … you end up so far from the base of the cliff that the angle of the shot is less than 10°, which is fairly inconsequential. Often times it feels much more dramatic, but if you actually measure it you’ll find it isn’t. Utah is one of the rare places in the U.S. where you can find real high-angle, long range shots. Many elite military snipers are also trained in Utah so they can learn how to take high angle shots like they might find in the steep mountains of Afghanistan.
Gunwerks had one stage setup where you took a shot at a 30° decline from the top of a huge cliff at a small target in the valley below. This not only required us to correct for the angle, but also forced us to account for a big updraft the bullet would experience as it cleared the cliff. Because those vertical winds deflect the bullet early in the flight, the bullet will spend the rest of the flight on a deviated path that you’ll need to correct for if you want a first shot hit. If you didn’t account for the angle of the shot or the vertical wind, your bullet would sail over the target.
After we shot off the cliff, we immediately drove our UTV’s down into the valley to take the same shot in the opposite direction, from the valley up onto the cliff. This scenario forced us to account for the angle, and get creative in finding a stable shooting position. It was hard to feel the wind at our location, so we had to visualize how it might be flowing over the terrain and estimate the net effect it would have on bullet flight. I’m proud to say we both had first round hits in both scenarios.
1 Mile Shot … In The Rain
Another stage required us to shoot across a valley with multiple winds, with targets out to 1 mile! We got out the spotting scopes and first tried to observe the mirage, but there wasn’t much to be seen. You could make out some if you looked at the horizon, but it was faint. So we looked at how the vegetation was moving on the terrain, and that’s when we noticed at some places the wind was left to right, and others places it was right to left! Not only were there winds in different directions, but some of the winds were a full crosswind, and some were tailing at various angles. So this setup really required us to do a little math before we fired the first shot.
Clouds rolled in as the first shooter in our group was firing, and it started to sprinkle as I laid down to take my turn. The mist gave us another visual cue for wind direction. But as I engaged targets at further distances, the rain started to pick up. I remember in L2, James had taught us the rain actually doesn’t affect your bullet flight like you might think. Often times when it starts raining, the temperature will drop several degrees, and that temperature change is what affects your trajectory … not the bullet colliding with rain drops. I thought this was a perfect time to put that theory to test! I updated my firing solution with the current temperature, and dialed the adjustment on the scope … and was able to connect with the 1 mile target in the rain! What a great way to test a theory and apply all the stuff we’d learned!
We live in a fun time, where there seems to be new rifle training courses popping up everywhere. I’m sure there are a lot of great ones, and I bet we could learn something at any of them. This type of training can be a great investment.
Most of us spend a lot of money on rifles and gear, but if we’re honest … the weakest link in the chain is probably the nut behind the gun. However, we rarely think about investing in that part of the equation. You can have all the right gear, but without knowledge and training you will struggle to use it effectively.
One of my closest friends recently got a Jaguar F-Type R Coupe. With the purchase, Jaguar included a course at the Jaguar Performance Driving Academy where professional racecar drivers take you on a private track and show you what the F-Type R is really capable of. But these pro drivers, many of which had won major international races, were also instructors. So my friend spent a couple days in the driver’s seat with them right by his side teaching him how to get the most out of the car. He learned A TON! Do you think he’ll enjoy the car more or less after that experience? Could that same lesson apply to your long-range rifle? Would you enjoy it more and be more effective if you had a chance to spend a few days side-by-side with a pro who wanted to teach you how to get the most out of it?
I have to believe the Gunwerks Long Range University has to be one of the best schools out there. It has:
- Experienced & passionate instructors
- Comprehensive curriculum
- World-class training facility & real-world test environment
As an engineer at heart, my natural bent is to be critical and focus on problems and what needs to be improved. But, as I wrote this I asked myself “If I were in charge of LRU, what would I change about it?” I’m not sure. Maybe put bubble levels on all the class rifles! 😉 There may be something, but nothing is immediately obvious. It’s very well thought-out and executed. I’d have no reservation recommending it to any of my shooting buddies. We learned a ton, and it was one of the most fun shooting experiences I’ve ever had.
Gunwerks recently published the 2017 dates for their Long Range University courses. We attended in Wyoming and Utah, but they also offer courses in Texas and New Mexico. If you’re interested, you can check out the dates and learn more here: Gunwerks LRU 2017 Dates & Training Details