This is the last post in a series highlighting the major challenges related to extreme long range (ELR) shooting. Along the way I’ve shared a few tips and products to help you overcome those challenges. I grouped topics into a few categories, and here is what we’ve covered so far:
- Optics & Mounts – Accounting for an extreme amount of bullet drop
- Spotting Shots & Ranging – Seeing your bullet impact and getting an accurate range
- Ballistics & Time of Flight – Advanced/unique things that happen when a bullet stays in the air for a long time
In this post, I’ll highlight a few other factors that didn’t fit neatly into those categories. Some of these are less technical, but could be just as limiting. These challenges can be barriers to entry or to getting the practice you need to consistently get rounds on target at extreme distances.
Before I dive into the list, let me start with some sound wisdom. I’ve asked Bryan Litz, one of the most respected ballisticians in the world, to help me with this series of posts, and was very gracious to agree. Here is one of the most valuable takeaways from our Q&A sessions, and it seems especially relevant to these topics:
PRB: What is the best piece of advice you’d give someone wanting to get into ELR shooting?
Bryan Litz: Don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. It’s very common for those getting into ELR to overlook the fundamentals of marksmanship. The costly and heavy equipment doesn’t make it out to the range for practice as frequently as a 308 Win or similar “normal” rifle. The result is shooters show up at matches lacking a comfort level with the big guns they’re shooting. Even if you have everything else right, a breakdown in fundamentals will prevent you from doing well in ELR events.
Okay, let’s dive into a few aspects that make ELR challenging:
Finding An Extreme Range
It’s tough enough to find a public range with targets out to 1,000 yards, but it can be near impossible to find a range where you can shoot 2,000+ yards! Getting good at ELR requires practice, so finding a place can be one of the toughest obstacles for some to overcome. In some parts of the country it may even be a non-starter.
ELR Central is trying to aggregate info about all the ranges across the world that allow you to shoot 1,500+ yards. You can search those locations here: https://elrcentral.com/elr-locations/. At the time this was written, there were only 17 facilities listed in the United States, and only 2 others in the world. God bless America! 😉 (If you know of any ELR shooting facilities that are not on this map, please contact ELR Central and tell us about the range to have the range added so others can find it.) ELR-Resources.com also has a range list you might scour through.
The best bet for many shooters might be hunting down some public land (where it’s legal to shoot), and finding a secluded area with vista views where you can set up your own target or shoot at distant rocks. Unfortunately, most places have trees/hills in the way, or might be cut up with roads making shots unsafe. Honestly, it can be tough to just find an area with the natural curvature to the land necessary to get a clear shot at 2 miles or more! Add the requirements of needing permission to shoot and the absence of hazards between you and the target or beyond the target, and you have to get pretty resourceful and/or be ready to travel. Ask me how I know!
One alternative gaining some momentum is Rimfire ELR. That’s right – extreme long range with the old 22 long rifle! Bryan Litz explains, “Rimfire ELR is an exciting development that will allow many more people to enjoy the challenges of ELR shooting on standard ranges (~600 yards).” I wrote about my experience shooting rimfire ELR with the Applied Ballistics Team a few months ago at the Whittington Center in Raton, NM, and you can read about that in this post.
Excessive Recoil & Concussion
A more obvious challenge when shooting ELR with big bore rifles is the excessive recoil. The guys shooting the farthest are using bullets weighing from 350 grains up to 750 grains from cartridges that hold a ton of powder. For example, the 416 Barrett has almost 4 times the case capacity and muzzle energy of a 6.5 Creedmoor! The comparison below shows how much larger the cases and bullets are for popular ELR cartridges.
Excessive recoil requires more disciplined fundamentals. Any inconsistencies in shooting technique will become magnified at extreme range. High recoil may also prevent you from practicing as much as you might with a less extreme sized cartridge. For example, with Creedmoor-sized cartridges it’s common to shoot 100+ rounds in a practice session, but that many rounds might be punishing with these cartridges. That’s why most guys build ELR rifles that weigh 30-40 pounds. By increasing the mass, you can decrease the perceived recoil. The chart below shows what the rifles used by the top 25 shooters at the 2018 King of 2 Miles weighed in at in their “ready to fire” configuration. (Note: King of 2 Miles doesn’t allow rifles over 45 lbs.)
And if the recoil doesn’t bother you, the massive concussion probably will. Virtually everyone uses Kia-sized muzzle brakes to tame the recoil. Burning 120+ grains of powder produces a ton of expanding gas, and the resulting concussion can make you want to quit even before the recoil does. There are a couple 375 suppressors, like those by Crux Suppressors, but they don’t appear to have widespread use in ELR competitions.
Every shooter is trying to balance all the competing design characteristics, including ballistic performance and recoil, to truly optimize the overall system. Excessive recoil can be incredibly unsettling and not conducive to accuracy or precision, so it’s worth considering that when deciding on a cartridge and rifle weight.
Big Bore Quirkiness & Maintenance
When I attended the Applied Ballistics Seminar, Mitch Fitzpatrick gave a very informative talk on ELR rifles and cartridges. One of the things Mitch said was “Large calibers (.40 caliber and over) all have their quirkiness that you have to deal with.” Beyond technical/mechanical nuances of the rifle and gunsmithing, big bore rifles can be “harder to manage” or “higher maintenance” than traditional long range cartridges. For example, multiple shooters at King of 2 Miles told me they struggle to get more than 1 loading out of their 416 Barrett brass – but other aspects are related to just spending less time behind the gun.
Most shooters reading this probably have some experience with traditional long range shooting with mid-size cartridges like the 6.5 Creedmoor or 308 Win. With those rifles, you load and shoot by the hundreds and all of that shooting gives you a thorough understanding of how the rifle behaves in different conditions, how your muzzle velocity is affected by temperature, round count, etc. If you run into an issue, you just go to the range with 50-60 rounds and can usually work it out. On the contrary, most guys never shoot long strings of fire with large-caliber ELR rifles because of expense, discomfort from recoil/concussion, or barrel heating problems. Those factors naturally limit the number of shots you can manage in a given session, and ultimately leads to a less complete understanding of how the rifle system behaves than conventional long range rifles that you can put more rounds through. In other words, large-caliber rifle systems tend to be less predictable (or more quirky) than normal rounds that we can get to know better.
Considering that challenge, it’s great if you can find a large-caliber cartridge that is both high performance AND stable in its behavior. That is why some shooters go with the .375 CheyTac rather than larger cases like one of the screaming .375 wildcats, .416 Barrett, or other cartridges. At the 2018 King of 2 Miles, I had a conversation with Bryan about cartridges, and we specifically talked about comparisons between the .375 CheyTac and .416 Barrett. First, Bryan thought both were very capable, and the optimal choice depends on your priorities and specific application. He said in his experience the .375 CheyTac might be a better option for guys who only shoot the rifle occasionally, because in his experience its performance tends to be more stable over time. While larger cartridges might provide an edge in ballistic performance, you may need to manage them a little more closely to get that last bit of performance. One cartridge he’d used in the past would speed up 1 fps on each shot, which isn’t much – but over an ELR competition with 25 total shots that is enough that you’ll have to adjust your firing solution as you go. That’s just one more layer of complexity in a game that is already complex, so this is one of many trade-off to consider when selecting an ELR cartridge.
Bryan also points out that barrel length is another trade-off in the ballistic performance vs. consistency spectrum:
Many shooters want to maximize barrel length to get as much muzzle velocity as possible which is good reasoning. However don’t forget the other effects of a long barrel. Guns with barrels which are too long and heavy can be difficult to shoot well for various mechanical reasons. In my experience, long-barreled rifles (longer than 30”) are typically harder to maintain reliable precision with, as well as being more difficult to hold a zero. The precision problems stem from the long barrel time with a heavy bullet; the system has too much time and impulse to move while the bullet is in the barrel. Also, any harmonics or other similar effects that may be present are only amplified by the longer barrel. In my experience, shorter barrels are better able to shoot small groups and maintain zero. Maintaining zero is of the utmost importance for any rifle shooting discipline (apart from Benchrest), and is especially important in ELR where matches and records highly value a first round (cold bore) impact. You can do everything right to put a shot right on the money at 2000 yards, but if you have a zero that wonders by ½ MOA randomly, cold bore shots are a straight up gamble.
If you thought traditional long range was expensive … brace yourself. The ELR game can be very expensive! Some of that is due to the fact that it is still a small niche of guys doing this, and the costs may come down as ELR gains more widespread popularity.
The cost of the initial rifle system can be high, especially if you go with a full custom rifle build. There aren’t many “entry-level” rifles for this game. In 2017, Ronnie Wright did get 2nd place at King of 2 Miles with a stock Barrett M99 chambered in 416 Barrett, which you can buy for $3,850. Another option for a complete ELR rifle is the Noreen ULR .416 Barrett for $2,550.
But the expense is more than just the rifle; the optics and accessories can also add up pretty quickly. Some guys not only have a $3,500 scope, but also may have a $1,700 Charlie TARAC on the end of it! (Read this post for more info on the Charlie TARAC.) I also noticed at the King of 2 Miles 2018 that around 90% of the shooters were using a Phoenix Precision Bipod, which costs $499! Some gear is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have … and in this game it can add up quickly! To help sort out what is truly essential, I asked Bryan what he thought was the most critical gear:
PRB: What are the most critical pieces of gear (outside of the rifle) to getting rounds on target at extreme long range?
Litz: Given a good rifle and high performance/consistent load, the 3 things needed to get hits on known distance targets at ELR ranges are: A good chronograph (we use LabRadar), a good scope with extensive and reliable adjustments (we use Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56’s), and an Applied Ballistics device (we use all of them) to calculate a fire solution. With these 3 things, we can measure muzzle velocity, calculate a fire solution, and apply it with the high degree of accuracy that’s required to hit targets at ELR distances.
Bullets and brass can also cost a mint. Most shooters use lathe-turned solid bullets, like Cutting Edge Bullets, which can cost over $2 each. Match-grade brass can run over $2 per piece as well. There may be other expenses too, like the fact that CheyTac-sized cases typically require a larger reloading press. Loaded match-grade ammo costs around $7/round, although it can vary depending on what cartridge you are talking about. All this is another reason that practice sessions tend to be more limited with big bore calibers. You are basically shooting a few dollar bills out of the barrel every time you pull the trigger!
Barrels can be also more expensive for big bores, because the caliber, length, and contour are special order from most manufacturers. Barrel blanks are around $450-600, depending on company and what you spec. However, I’ve asked several shooters what kind of accurate barrel life you can expect, and I’ve yet to meet someone who gave a straight answer with much confidence. It seems like very few people have actually shot out a barrel in a big bore rifle, at least at this point. The truth is most people just don’t shoot high round counts on these monster rifles like they might with smaller calibers. When it comes to barrels, one more point worth mentioning is that if you choose a wildcat and have to fire-form your brass, you might use 20% of your barrel life doing that. With expensive barrels, the proposition of fire-forming brass gets more expensive too.
Extreme Wait Time for Components
You may already be used to the long wait times for stocks and barrels, but wait times for ELR components can be even longer. Most of this is “special order” or made in very limited runs, because this is still a very niche area and there aren’t a lot of orders for this stuff yet. Almost nobody keeps inventory on the shelf ready to ship.
I noticed on Bartlein Barrels website it said “Due to the demand of other calibers, we are not accepting orders for these calibers at this time,” which included 375 and 416 calibers. I checked with Krieger and they said their lead time would be 6 months on a 375 caliber 36” barrel.
The fastest way to get your hands on equipment would likely be to buy a complete factory Barrett rifle or a Noreen rifle, which might be able to ship out to you today. But if you’re going the full custom rifle route, you might be waiting a while.
There are a few companies hoping to help cut down the wait time. EuroOptic.com is a stocking dealer for JJ Rock actions, which is one of the most popular big bore actions for precision rifle rigs, and they also stock the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56. ELRHQ.com is another place that is trying to stock popular ELR specialty products, like the McMillan ELR Beast 2 stock, Charlie TARAC, Phoenix Precision Bipods, Peterson brass, Cutting Edge Bullets, Edgewood rear bags, Piercision muzzle brakes, etc.
Another start-up hoping to change that is Applied Ballistics Weapons Division. This is a new venture for Bryan Litz and Mitch Fitzpatrick and their goal is to dramatically shrink the wait time for a top-shelf, custom ELR rifle system from months into weeks. I’ve noticed a few ridiculously small groups (below) posted on social media from ELR rifles built by Applied Ballistics Weapons Division.
Still Emerging & Disruptive Innovation
Finally, a less obvious but notable challenge when it comes to ELR is that it is still emerging. Proven paths to success have yet to be established. One of the things that is so exciting about ELR how quickly it is evolving, but with that comes the risk of investing in the wrong equipment. Exponentially more research and development is being put into this area than 5 years ago, and new innovative products like the Charlie TARAC can be disruptive (read more about it in this post).
One thing I’ve learned over the past several years is that cartridge popularity follows bullet design. When someone releases a new high-performance bullet design, you will often see shooters migrate to a different cartridge that is more optimized for launching that new bullet. It may take a couple of years, but it often results in either old or wildcat cartridges getting a surge of attention. I’d suspect with ELR gaining so much popularity we’ll see more manufacturers enter the scene and release new bullets that are even higher-performance, which could shift which cartridges are here to stay.
Don’t let fear of making the wrong decision paralyze you, because ultimately a good ELR rifle can usually be re-barreled for whatever bullet/cartridge combination you might desire in the future. My advice: invest in a good action. The action is the heart of the rifle, and it’s what will be with you the longest. You may change barrels, optics, stocks, and triggers, but those are all peripheral to the action. While there are several good actions, I’d suggest checking out the JJ Rock SuperXL action. It is a new design that seems to have all the features ELR shooters are looking for in a well-thought-out and robust package.
The Overall Take-Away
The truth is we’re still learning so much about ELR. It’s one of the most rapidly changing and growing areas in the firearms industry. That makes it really exciting to be a part of! If you’re like me and enjoy ringing steel a long way off, what better time in history to live than this?! While it’s easy to get caught-up in the equipment and it might be tempting to wait to see where things settle, I’d encourage you to jump in and try it out! I recently invested in my first big bore rifle setup, and I’d invite you to come learn alongside us.
This marks the end of this multi-part series of articles around ELR shooting, and I’d like to leave you with one last nugget of wisdom from my interview with Bryan:
“Most questions we get about ELR shooting focus around the equipment. At the ranges we’re shooting, performance is a big concern but you shouldn’t let the gear overwhelm you to the point where it compromises your readiness in other areas. All shooting disciplines and most endeavors in life require a balanced approach for success. Get your equipment working, and then practice with it, as frequently as you can. Even shooting 3-5 shots at 600 yards can teach you a lot about your ELR equipment. Cold bore and first round impacts are a big deal in ELR competitions, so it pays to know if your first shot is slow/fast, and out of the group. This doesn’t take a lot of shooting, and will teach you something vitally important that can lead to max points in a match.” – Bryan Litz