After months of theory and preparation, you are finally out with your rifle, ready to take your first long range shot. The first thing you need to do, is to compensate for bullet drop, and to do that you need to know the distance from your target. If you are in the comfort of a shooting range with clear range markings, you’ll already know the distance from your target, so all you have to do is to check the drop compensation on your ballistic table for that distance. However, if you are one of those who prefer the freedom and dynamism of shooting in the great outdoors, rather than in a sterile and static range (guess what’s my personal preference), the distance from your target will probably be a big unknown.
Measuring, or estimating distances, is one of the key basic skills that a long-range shooter needs to develop. This is because bullet drop is the variable that affects bullet path the most. Especially when shooting near the maximum effective rage of our calibre, even a small error in distance measurement can lead to a miss. Consider, for example, that a .308Win round drops more than 8 feet from 900 to 1000yds. A simple estimation of the distance is not enough; we need a more precise way to measure it.
Laser rangefinders are the most practical and accurate way to measure distances. These electronic devices use a laser beam to measure the distance from an object downrange. There are many range finders around; almost all major scope manufacturers have one in their catalog. However, the majority of them are intended for hunting use, not necessarily for precision long range shooting, and for that reason they are limited by distance. Even those who claim to read distances up to 1000yds or more, often fail to do that if conditions are less than perfect. There are few options, in the mid-price range, that are reliable enough up to around 1000yds, like for example the Swarovski Laserguide and the Leica Rangemaster. Devices actually capable of reading distances beyond 1000yds in nearly every condition, such as the Vectronix PLRF, are very expensive (over 5,000$).
GPS devices are a more affordable alternative to laser rangefinders. Today, every smartphone has an integrated GPS receiver, and there are many apps with the function of measuring distances. Google Maps Mobile is one example, but there are also more specific softwares for calculating distances. One such app that has yielded good results for me is Orux Maps for Android. A step up from phone software would be to purchase a dedicated GPS device. They’re also generally more rugged and reliable than smartphones, such as the GPS devices offered by Garmin or Trimble. The only limitation of this system, is that to know your target’s position on the map, you either have to go there to set a mark (the most accurate way), or try to locate, or estimate, its position on the map (not always very accurate). An exceptionally affordable alternative that uses this same method would be to use a topographic map of the area where you’re shooting, and a ruler. In this instance, however, you’d need to be able to identify and mark both your location, and that of your target.
Range Cards are also an effective means of range estimation. Range cards are a map of your field of fire with all the distances indicated, as a radius, from your shooting position. Obviously, you need to know in advance the point from where you will be shooting: the so-called “Final Firing Position.” In the image to the right is an example of range card that I created using Google earth and Microsoft Publisher, with 50m distance steps steps. When you are on the field, all you’ll need to do is to locate your target position on the map. Here again, as with the method above, the tricky part is locating both your and your target’s locations with the maximum degree of accuracy, and when planning your intended FFP ahead of time.
Dulcis in fundo is the method that I prefer, that is, using the scope’s reticle to determine the distance using angle relationships. This method is widely used among civilian shooters and military snipers. Its accuracy depends on the ability of the shooter to “read the reticle,” and on their knowledge of the size of the target. Despite that, it can be a effictively accurate and reliable. It also has other notable advantages, such being always with you (since it is installed in your scope, you can’t lose it), being free from failures (if you break your reticle you can’t take the shot anyway), being not independent of batteries, and cheap (no need to drop any extra cash).
This last method is the one that I’d like to focus on, so because it requires a more thorough dissertation, I’ve decided to dedicate to it all the next article. Stay tuned, shooters!