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Crosshairs Long Range Shooting School

By Selwyn Smith

I looked at James with a slightly cynical, almost defeated smirk. “That’s a long, long way away Jimbo. We’re going to have one or three embarrassing moments over the weekend”. I was referring to the 1200 metre white dot nestled amongst the jagged schist on the far hillside.

 

James didn’t exactly disagree, as we both stared at this tiny white spec with increasing scorn. That particular 700mm square gong, along with many others in between, was going to do a lot more than just sort the men from the boys…

 

We were taking in the vast expanse on Bonspiel Station - a mid/high country station in the backblocks of Poolburn – itself an iconic Central Otago destination “up the road” from Ophir/Becks. Yes, the very same Ophir/Becks that holds the New Zealand record for the coldest temperature.

 

Thankfully the mid-March morning was crisp, but settled. We’d teamed up with six other very keen shooters from around the country to attend the annual Crosshairs Long Range Shooting School.

 

“I’d brought along two rifles: first, a Sako A11 chambered in 6.5x47 Lapua … second, a Remington Model 7 chambered in one of my favourite cartridges - the 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag (SAUM).”

 

While I’d swapped some emails with Mike Perkins, I was surprised how relaxed he was. We met him and the other students on the Friday night for a 4-hour theory session and introduction to the art of Long-Range Shooting prior to field work on the Saturday morning.

 

Mike has been a Master Sniper instructor for the last 20 years and serviced as a police sniper for 26 years. Having trained many of the very best snipers in the world, there is nobody better qualified to teach long range shooting than this guy! Mike teaches law enforcement and military personnel globally. I expected a Sergeant Major type disciplinary session - yet Mike was easy going, and as the weekend unfolded, very patient!

 

THE HANDBOOK OF LONG-RANGE SHOOTING: FIRST, THE THEORY EVENING

Friday evening saw us dining on Alexandra’s finest takeaway pizza as we absorbed Mike’s introductory session. The experience across the group was mixed - two attendees had actually sat the course the previous year and enjoyed it so much they were back for more!

 

Mike went through a typical long-range hunting system set-up – quality rifle action and free-floating barrel, crown, action bedding, action and barrel trued to each other, trigger pull weight and let-off, stock design, scope choice and dialling systems, through to the mounting of the scope. All good stuff and valuable for reinforcing the core fundamentals of optimising accuracy.

 

Mike expanded on the reliable shooting platform theme by reviewing bipods, slings and their various uses right through to bubble levels, muzzle brakes/suppressors, binoculars/spotting scopes, rangefinders, wind meters and ballistic apps – including how to drive the most common apps now available. We really lapped this stuff up and amid the banter we showed off our gear and any new shooting paraphernalia.

 

“The Fundamentals to Marksmanship section saw everyone sit forward in their chairs just a bit more as the tension amongst us lifted.”

 

In addition to working through his 50-page manual outlining the fundamentals and course content, Mike also ran through a number of video sessions to expand on the key points. The pace of the course was very comfortable and even those with little in-depth knowledge were well catered for.

 

The Fundamentals to Marksmanship section saw everyone sit forward in their chairs just a bit more as the tension amongst us lifted.

 

Crosshairs, Crosshairs, Crosshairs…” In between sight-picture, proper head adjustment, eye relief, shadow effect and canting, Mike continued to reinforce the key message - “Focus your eye on the reticle!”.

 

Savage .338 Lapua factory in the foreground with an Optima 60 suppressor and Sig Sauer 6-24x50 scope. The self-levelling diode in the reticule is a great idea, and yes, that big truck exhaust of a suppressor did make a difference! The middle rifle is a custom 6.5x284 (built by Hugh Bradley) on a Howa action and “lime green” Berserk stock, Optima 45 Suppressor with a Sig Sauer 3-18x44 - again with the self-levelling diode in the scope reticule. The rifle in the background is a custom 7mm Rem Mag in a McMillan stock and Vortex 6-24x50 scope (Mike’s personal rifle, shooting factory Berger 168gr ammo).

 

Mike laboured the point in between other snippets of wisdom - “...concentrate on getting the centre of the crosshairs on the main aiming point of the target. Lack of mastering this fundamental causes more misses than any other,” mused Mike as he segued into how the course was named. Crosshairs Long Range Shooting School! A-ha! we all muttered as the penny dropped…

 

Breath control was also referenced with some examples of best and worst practice. Couple this with the art of trigger control and grip technique and a lot of our so-called knowledge started to unwind a bit. I’ve done a lot of shooting off a bench and thought I knew a fair bit about the optimum breathing technique. Wrong again!

 

Mike discussed both shot follow-through and the development of a pre-shot routine to garner repeatable and consistent muscle memory. “Crosshairs, Crosshairs, Crosshairs” Mike continued to jibe.

 

ON THE MOUND

We set up on Bonspiel Station near first light on Saturday morning. Rolling out shooting mats, spotting scopes and accoutrements stirred a layer of excitement across the group.

 

I’d brought along two rifles: first, a Sako A11 chambered in 6.5x47 Lapua featuring a McMillan fibreglass stock and a 20” Shilen Barrel. I topped this with a Burris Tactical 5-15x42 with target turrets. The Lapua was designed as a specialist 300m-1000m target cartridge.

 

Each shooter began by checking his 200 metre zero.

 

Its medium capacity case was designed for small rifle primers. My loads utilized 120gr Bergers with CCI 450 Small Magnum primers. The rifle is a one-hole tack driver at 100m behind a healthy dose of Reloder 15.

 

Second was a Remington Model 7 in a Manners T2 stock chambered in one of my favourite cartridges - the 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag (RSAUM or just SAUM as it is often known).

 

With a Nightforce NXS 5.5-22x50 and a 24” Bartlein barrel, this tight neck chambered rifle gave me many head-scratching, sleepless nights until I discovered the ever so slight dimensional differences between the Remington cases and the Norma 300 SAUM cases the chamber was reamed for (the Remington case is 0.020” longer and caused me all sorts of grief). Once I got this sorted 162 gr ELD-X with N560 showed real promise with repeatable 5-shot groups in the 12-15mm range.

 

I’d spent the previous weekend getting enough rounds loaded and testing done to ensure I had combinations that weren’t going to embarrass me at stretching distances. I had purposely chosen both an MOA & Mildot scope combination to test both systems under the tension of a classroom scenario.

 

While this might seem like a recipe for trouble, this experiment would encourage concentration at all times as I swapped between the two systems throughout the course.

 

Thankfully Cam had one of the new Labradar Doplar Radar chronographs for us to verify velocities as we each confirmed our 200m zero.

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The 7mm SAUM registered 2950fps while the Lapua was a laggard at just 2720 - mild-mannered indeed but a likely fascinating challenge on the outer gongs. James had already moved me off about five metres to the left of him - he had experienced what could be described as muzzle-brake whip-lash as I eased off the first round from the 7mm SAUM. Another lightbulb moment Jimbo - stand well back from the elephant’s tail!


DOPING

After everyone had verified the speed of their loads and firmed their initial 200 metre zero, Mike detailed how to develop a dope chart. He also stressed the value in both a quality barometric wind-meter and the ballistic app. I was reasonably familiar with Shooter and iSnipe, with other users suggesting Styrka and JBM Ballistics.

 

Each app offers unique characteristics that some shooters seemed more enamoured with. I won’t go into the detail of each app because readers really should assess their own needs and do some homework to determine which would suit them best. Point Blank is a useful free app that readers can use to “cut their teeth” and get some understanding of before crossing to a more serious ballistic calculator.

 

The Labradar Doplar chronograph (orange unit in the foreground) enabled shooters to check their loads’ velocities - essential info for the ballistic apps.

 

Mike gave us a lesson in air density and utilised some pragmatic examples to reinforce the difference that air pressure has on the drag of a bullet. Higher altitude generally results in lower air density (less friction) meaning slightly less bullet drop.

 

The effect is of course exacerbated at long range, so understanding the effects of differing air temperatures and barometric pressures is important. Humidity is somewhat secondary, having a relatively minor effect. A half decent barometric wind-meter or rangefinder will give you a humidity reading so it should be used.

 

As I tested each of these apps with my two load options, it became apparent I could use different apps to differentiate the two loads and ensure my Mildot/MOA dialling options were clearly segregated. This worked well and meant I didn’t have to keep swapping out data in one app to accommodate the Mildot/MOA dialling systems across the two rifles. Eureka!

 

CHEAP” OPTICS, THE NEW FOUR LETTER WORD

Gongs of varying shapes, sizes and colours were dotted around the shooting zone. James and I set up shooting mats at the far left of the group so we could concentrate on our own goals. I’d brought some deck chairs, a spotting scope and a tripod.

 

Most other shooters had done the same. Within five minutes of spotting Jimbo onto the 40mm diameter 300 metre gong, I admitted defeat and put the el-cheapo spotter in the boot of the car - muttering its pedigree as I declared it was going straight on TradeMe when I got home.

 

Group therapy – everyone keeps an eye on the shooter, happy to call shots and offer advice.

 

Sandwiched between a Leupold HD 45 and a Swarovski 65mm spotter, a couple of other sub-par models also ended up back in car boots as their shortcomings became obvious. Mike distributes Vortex gear and showcased the Vortex 15-45x65HD spotter.

 

He reckoned the 45x magnification and the 65mm objective lens were ideal for most field work. While Mike tutored the other shooters we snuck his spotter over to our end to help track each other’s shots with confidence. The spotter was critical for calling shots and ensuring we had clear directions for making corrections.


MIRAGE

After we’d all successfully engaged the 300m gong Mike introduced us to the effects of mirage. It was about 10am and the temperature was rising toward the mid-20s. Mike talked about the speed of mirage waves dancing around our crosshairs and how to read the wave effect to determine the speed of the wind.

 

Grass at varying distances was also studied to see how wind whipped down some of the gullies and drove across the tops of ridges. Updraft and downdraft were reviewed, as was the ability to call the wind in MOA values. It’s - useful to be able to call wind estimates before targets are engaged.

 

I’d learnt to curse mirage - that dreaded haze that blurs crosshairs and messes with your sanity as your favourite heavy barrel .223 varminter gets hotter with every rabbit shot. Mike caused me to have yet another rethink - mirage is a valuable indicator and the ability to accurately read its effect is pivotal to long range success.

 

REACHING OUT

James and I took turns working our way out to the longer distance targets. I’d started with the mild-mannered Sako while he was shooting his CZ 550 in .308 topped with a 16x Weaver varminter. Mike had instructed us to use our dope cards at every change in distance.

 

We all made notes as we engaged the next furthest target while testing our ability to accurately drive our respective apps. Spotting the shot and seeing the bullet’s vapour trail as the projectile drifted its way towards the target gave us valuable insights into bullet drop and the effect of variable winds throughout the different target angles.

 

I added a second load into the Shooter app to drive Jimbo’s CZ while running my 6.5x47 Lapua load alongside. This worked well, allowing him to focus on either spotting or target acquisition as I read out the respective MOA calculations. While he shot I was able to quickly swap between loads to see the MOA figures I needed for the Sako.

 

“I’d joked to Mike that some sort of divine force would be required to hit that 700mm square plate at nearly 1.2km!”

 

At the 500m mark, the limitations of his Weaver scope started to become apparent. The thin varmint reticule became more difficult to see at distance with mirage making the crosshairs almost indistinguishable. To compound matters, this scope ran out of dial-up shortly thereafter, rendering the 600m target a significant achievement.

 

The Bushnell Elite was also being tested optically at the 700m mark with 800m being a real stretch. Dial-up was fine, but the lack of a zero stop and being more the two revolutions from the 200m zero reinforced the critical need to return to “zero” at every target - especially when we were swapping after every successful hit. You can imagine the language when this rule wasn’t adhered to.

 

Two shooters swapped the Ruger Precision Rifle – the borrower didn’t want to hand it back!

 

The Leupold VX5 and Swarovski Z5 used by the two shooters beside us also ran out of dial-up at around the 700-800m mark. No such issue for Mike’s Vortex Diamondback 6-24x50, Cam’s Sig Sauer Kilo 6-24x50 or Al’s Khales K6-24x56i.

 

Time to swap to my Model 7 in 7mm SAUM with its Nightforce NXS 5-22x50 to see how this set up compared.
Targets were engaged at 450, 540, 610, 670, 720 and 780 metres in reasonably short order. Jimbo was struggling to get any trigger time and was probably ready to throw me a false-call to prompt a miss and a change of guard!

 

CRUNCH TIME!

Mike talked me onto the 890m target, then suggested I ease into the 980 and 1180m white plates. This really was crunch time. I’d joked to Mike that some sort of divine force would be required to hit that 700mm square plate at nearly 1.2km!

--- Article continues below ---

 

My first shot at the 1180m target was about 70cm to the right; “2 o’clock and 2 MOA right” was the call. I had been manually calculating metres to yards with the MOA scope as well as MOA to MILS in my head. I adjusted; moderate breath in, gradual breath out, trigger gently engaged, crosshairs, crosshairs, crosshairs, and squeezed off. Mike called “3 o’clock and 3 MOA right!”. What the!

 

Mike called me over. He had been photographing me as I fired. He showed me a close up of my technique on the screen. I could clearly see an awkward rifle cant. Bubble Up Selwyn! Lesson for the day was the importance of a quality swivelling bipod. 

 

I’d long cursed swivel bipods for the way they can tip a rifle over - usually on the most jagged rock on the hill. Adjusting the notched legs on the Harris bipod only got me so far and a sod of dirt was promptly dumped under the right leg to level the set-up.

 

Hit’! was the next call, followed by two more within 20cm of the centre! To say I was elated was an understatement. It was 3pm and I’d managed to hit a tiny white plate 1.2kms away in only a few hours with Mike’s tutorage.

 


DAY 2 - THEORY

Day Two saw us meet at Cam’s house at 8am sharp for more theory - we were to put into practice what we had learnt under real field conditions. Mike went through all the possible shooting scenarios we might encounter on game animals and demonstrated the correct ways to obtain a stable shooting platform.

 

Shooting sticks were new to most of us. Mike showed us all sorts of clever tricks to maximise every possible field rest and how the sticks could be used to great benefit.

 

IN THE FIELD

Back to the range. We quickly checked our 200m zeros again and proceeded to step out to 300m and beyond to reconfirm our app settings. Gremlins had clearly taken over during the witching hour! Everyone was out by a good 2 MOA! 

 

Mike talked us through the change in conditions. The much warmer southerly was causing an up-draft and everyone had to adjust their settings accordingly. Mike encouraged us to use the Windage Mil Dot settings on our scopes where possible rather than dialling for a cross wind, unless the wind was “stiff”.

 

You need a good spotting scope for calling shots beyond the 500 metre mark.

 

That’s a 2 MOA left to right wind I reckon Selwyn,” Mike chimed as I put the crosshairs onto the 450m target. I squeezed off and was rewarded with the plate shuddering and the tell-tale swing of a hit. Jimbo had “borrowed” Al’s new Ruger Precision in 6.5 Creedmoor.

 

With the Hornady 143 ELD-X and a stiff load of Vihtavouri, Jimbo had a crash course in trying to decipher the Christmas tree reticle of Al’s big 56mm Khales K6. Some 30 odd rounds later and I could see that Al was going to struggle to wrestle the rifle back. Jimbo had found his second love! Just as well Al had loaded 100+ rounds for the weekend!

 

REAL-WORLD SIMULATION

Into the vehicles we piled, heading to the back of the course. I’d left the Model 7 in the truck, thinking the lightweight Sako would be an advantage as we clambered through the rocky schist outcrops. Mike had set up some fascinating targets.

 

The first was only 375m away but quartering into a reasonably stiff wind. Two shots each. Seated, with rifles wedged between our knees, everyone before me missed - and no wonder. A round steel plate with only 25% of the face exposed was tricky, plus a gusty wind! I went last (good idea with an audience to try and read the misses). Slotting the 3 MOA windage dot onto the target with 5.3 MOA clicks up resulted in a resounding hit!

 

Several shooters ran out of dial-up on their scopes as ranges crept up to and beyond 700 metres (see text).

 

Now varying target sizes and angles out to 730m were shot. Sitting, kneeling, standing, using the sticks, using other shooters. You name it, we tried it. We all took turns as first shooter to keep everyone honest.

 

The final target was 770m away - a small white painted rock down a steep, narrow ravine. With a breeze steaming down the valley wind-meters were dragged out and approximate angle measurements used as a multiplier to calculate true value: 2 MOA at 770m and 22 MOA clicks up was my reading for the 6.5x47 Lapua.

 

Breathing out, crosshairs… I squeezed off. “Three feet high!” was the call from Mike. Yes, you guessed it, I’d failed to return to zero on the previous shot and was about a metre out.

 

“We’ve taken too many so-called hunters out recently who have “...all the gear and no idea”.”

 

Windage was pretty good. Hmmm, that’s about 8 MOA out I thought. I didn’t have time to reassess the app and decipher the true value. I fired again as the audience anticipated how I was going to correct for the error! “Hit!” yelled Mike.

 

Before we knew it the weekend was over. I’m still buzzing. As Mike continued to reinforce, hunters have a strong ethical construct to ensure every game animal is harvested cleanly with the minimum of fuss - practice, practice, practice is the only means to this ideal.

 

We’ve taken too many so-called hunters out recently who have “...all the gear and no idea”. Hunters must be willing to practice and learn things the hard way - the concept of ethical shot-taking is incumbent on all of us.

 

The course is being run again in March this year for anyone keen to participate.

 

Safe shooting, and remember, crosshairs, crosshairs, crosshairs!

 

Selwyn

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