When shooting targets at extreme distances (like 2000+ yards), you’ll quickly uncover some new obstacles. A few factors that could be safely ignored inside of 1000 yards become critical to getting rounds on target. You’ll also be faced with new equipment challenges that may not be obvious. As your bullet’s time of flight extends up 3 seconds, and possibly even up to 6+ seconds, priorities shift. You could say everything is important, but to differing degrees.
In the last post, I focused on two big issues related to optics, and highlighted several new products designed to help you overcome those obstacles. In this post, I will summarize significant challenges related to spotting and ranging you may have to address when shooting targets at extreme ranges.
1) Very Difficult To Spot Impacts
It’s very difficult to spot hits or misses at extreme long range. If you don’t see the bullet splash, you don’t know how to correct to center subsequent shots. But, if you spot a miss and see it was 0.5 mils left, and 0.2 mils high of center … apply those corrections and send the next shot. Believe it or not, this is one of the biggest reasons guys use big calibers, like 375 or 416. There are a few 30 and 338 caliber bullets with super-high BC’s that can be launched at blistering speeds, but one reason you don’t see those much at ELR competitions is because it is hard to spot impacts. In fact, I asked a few veteran shooters at King of 2 Miles why they switched from a 375 caliber to a 416 Barret, and they all said it was to make it easier to spot impacts and make corrections with confidence.
Because it can be so difficult to spot your own impacts, some competitions are based in a team format with a dedicated spotter behind a large spotting scope calling corrections for the shooter. If there is bare dirt or sand around a target, it’s easier to spot. But if the target is surrounded by foliage or large boulders, it can be much harder! That’s why a few spotters may even use high-end thermal imaging cameras to watch bullet trace!
To help identify and score hits, it’s common to see target hit indicators, like the MagnetoSpeed T1000. I picked up one of those off the prize table at the HeatStroke PRS match recently, and was surprised to see the batteries in that product will last up to a year! I was thinking you might have to drive out to the target and turn it on/off for every shooting session, but that definitely changed my view of how convenient those can be.
Some competitions use wireless camera systems to spot impacts down range. At the King of 2 Miles they had wireless cameras on every target that allowed you to watch impacts down range in full HD with virtually no latency. There was no doubt whether someone connected with the target or not. They even had a spectator tent setup with a big screen TV where you could watch the same live feed the scorers were. It had to be the most advanced camera setup I’ve ever seen. The Ko2M wireless camera system was built by Alexander Cordesman, and you can find him on Facebook if you’d like more details.
2) Getting An Accurate Target Range
“When using a well performing rifle and ammunition, the uncertainty in the range measurement is the single largest contributing factor to the vertical uncertainty in a given shot and drives the overall probability of hitting the target,” explains laser expert, Nick Vitalbo. While that is true for all long range shooting, it is even more important in ELR. As distance increases, having an accurate range becomes more and more critical, but it also becomes harder and harder to obtain at the same time!
Very few consumer-grade laser rangefinders can reliably range 2,000+ yards in typical, bright daylight conditions. And even if one gives you a reading, how accurate is it? Most rangefinders only claim to be accurate to within 0.5% beyond 500 yards, which means even if they get a range at 3,000 yards it could be off by +/- 15 yards. That could result in a shot being off-center by 7’, even if everything else is perfect! I conducted a massive rangefinder field test a few years ago, which is the only published study I’m aware of that analyzed the accuracy of the readings that each rangefinder produced. That study made it clear that there can be a big difference in the accuracy depending on the rangefinder you pick. A summary of the results are provided below, but you can view the results for the rangefinder field test here.
You can see in the chart above that a few of the rangefinders might give you a reading for the distance, but it might be wrong by more than 1% a lot of the time! Remember ealier I mentioned +/- 0.5% could make you be 7′ off-center, but the red bars on the chart indicate the range was off by more than 1% … so your shot could be off by more than double that! Obviously, not all rangefinders are created equal.
When it comes to high-end rangefinders, Vectronix is the gold standard that everyone else is compared to. Of course, the Wilcox RAPTAR is another rangefinder capable of extreme range. But don’t take my word for it! The chart below shows results from the most in-depth rangefinder test ever conducted, which was published by Nick Vitalbo in Modern Advancements in Long Range Shooting Volume II. Nick the one of the foremost laser experts in the world, and if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’d highly recommend reading his study. It is a wealth of information!
Of the 22 rangefinders Nick tested, only 4 of those were capable of consistently ranging to 2,000 meters or more, which were various models of the Vectronix PLRF and Wilcox RAPTAR. Nick only tested ranges out to 2,000 meters, but he did say “a number of the laser rangefinders greatly exceed that value, especially the PLRF devices from Vectronix.” For reference, my Vectronix PLRF 15 can range to 4,000+ yards.
Bryan Litz sums it up for us:
“Bottom line: unless you have access to a high-end military laser rangefinder, determining the exact range to target will be a significant problem for ELR shooters.” – Bryan Litz, Applied Ballistics for Long Range Shooting, 3rd Edition
So what makes military-grade rangefinders so much better? There can be a few things, but the biggest difference comes down to the power of the laser. The key to getting an accurate range is to get enough energy on the target, so that it will be reflected back to the rangefinder and the device can separate the signal from the noise. A massive, instantaneous pulse of energy is ideal. A military rangefinder might produce a pulse with 100,000 watts of peak power, compared to 10-25 watts of peak power in consumer-grade rangefinders. That’s a massive difference! The duration of the pulse is also different, with military rangefinders being just 4-5 nanoseconds and consumer-grade being close to 100 nanoseconds (i.e., the duration of the consumer-grade pulse is 20 times longer).
The next question might be, why don’t consumer-grade rangefinders use more power? A big reason is eye safety. Lasers with a wavelength in the 400-1400 nanometers (nm) range can travel through the eye and do direct damage to the retina, potentially causing permanent injury and blindness. Consumer-grade rangefinders are based on a 905 nm wavelength, which is invisible and falls right in the middle of that dangerous range. So for those rangefinders to be rated as “eye safe” manufacturers must limit the power they emit. On the contrary, military-grade rangefinders are based on lasers with a 1550 nm wavelength, so they don’t pose the same threat to eye safety because wavelengths longer than 1400 nm are absorbed by the cornea and don’t make it to the retina. That means 1550 nm rangefinders can use higher powered pulses and still be considered eye safe. (Learn more: Source 1, Source 2)
While consumer-grade 905 nm rangefinders use low-powered pulses, they try to make up for that by sending out multiple pulses, perhaps up to 100,000 pulses per second. Although the rangefinder receives a lower amount of light back on a pulse, it collects and analyzes a large set of data to help it separate the signal from the noise. That is a clever statistical trick, which explains why consumer-grade rangefinders are able to perform as well as they do. However, this approach still doesn’t get close to the performance capability of military-grade rangefinders that can send a concentrated pulse with much more energy in a very short amount of time, and still be eye safe. Nick says, “There is no substitute for raw laser power when it comes to designing a laser rangefinder.”
Why aren’t all rangefinders based on high-powered 1550 nm lasers? Simple: cost. To be able to produce that quick, high-powered pulse, many military rangefinders use diode-pumped solid-state lasers (DPSSL), which are more expensive than the common 905 nm diode lasers used in consumer-grade rangefinders. But it’s not just the laser that is more expensive, the material and amplifier circuitry needed to detect the reflected light in the 1550 nm wavelength also adds significant complexity and cost. That’s why military-grade 1550 nm rangefinders are all priced over $5,000.
The truth is, there hasn’t been a big civilian market for extreme long range rangefinders up to this point, because 905 nm rangefinders are easy to manufacturer, a fraction of the cost, and accurate to distances beyond what 99% of people will ever shoot to. While the number of people shooting to 1 mile or more is growing rapidly, it is still a relatively small crowd. I realize if you’re reading this you’re interested in it … but apparently we’re not normal! 😉
Note: If you find this as interesting as I do, I’d highly encourage you to read Nick Vitalbo’s comprehensive explanation of how rangefinders work in Modern Advancements in Long Range Shooting Volume 1, and then read his epic rangefinder test and analysis in Modern Advancements in Long Range Shooting Volume 2. Both are very interesting, and cover many other factors that impact ranging performance that I didn’t mention (i.e. beam divergence, beam shape, how atmospherics and target surface affect performance, what happens if it gets multiple readings. You can buy both books in a bundle and save a little money.
I’ve personally been using a Vectronix PLRF 15 for a few years (replaced by the PLRF 25), and it is a ridiculously outstanding rangefinder. I’ve used it to get ranges out to 6,500 yards on distant hillsides, which is 3.7 miles! To make it even more unbelievable, that was done in bright, mid-day conditions. I’ve used it to range 1,000+ different targets, and can only remember two times when it wouldn’t give me a reading. Both of those were when I was trying to range a steel target that was sitting very low in a grass field. They were on the crest of a hill, which made it even harder (thanks Scott Satterlee!).
If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty critical guy – some might even claim I’m impossible to please. But, I’m not sure I could have more confidence in a rangefinder than what I have in my Vectronix PLRF. It is one of those tools you just love to reach for.
Vectronix recently released a new rangefinder called the Vectronix Terrapin X, which a company rep told me was their first official attempt at a product intended for the commercial market. All of their previous products were designed with military customers in mind, which often put the price out of reach for most people. The Terrapin X has a street price around $1,800, which is 80% less than the cost of the PLRF 25! Vectronix sent me a Terrapin X to test a couple months ago, and I’ve been using it A TON! I plan to write a full review in the near future, but my results so far are impressive. It is based on a 905 nm laser, so it’s not a PLRF. But ranging capability is very similar to the original Terrapin, which could mean it’s the most capable rangefinder under $5,000. So stay tuned for more details on the Terrapin X!
Most competitions like Ko2M publish the distances for all targets (i.e. targets are all “known distance”), so you don’t necessary need to own an expensive rangefinder. However, if you don’t have access to one it can make it harder to practice and true your ballistics at your own range. I also prefer to confirm the distances on all targets myself at a competition, even if the distances were provided, because I’ve found match directors may not be as detailed or have high-end rangefinders themselves.
Coming up in the next post, I’ll cover a few more things that make ELR shooting difficult, including the challenges of modeling a bullet’s flight and the different tactics top shooters are using to have reliable ballistics at extreme long range. I’ll share tips on how Robert Brantley, winner of the 2018 King of 2 Miles, calculated his ballistics to get hits out to 3,525 yards, and I’ll also share some of the new advanced methods shooters on the Applied Ballistics team are using to calculate their ballistics. Stay tuned!