About those 1000 yard sniper shots…

Hollywood is full of them, but that’s not all Hollywood is full of. We’re talking about 1,000 yard sniper shots.

Many people claim the capability, some of them with unbelievable equipment: WWII sniper rifles, H&K G3s or HK91s, Dragunovs, or varuous Dragunov-styled AKs out there, mostly from Romania (which are even less accurate than Dragunovs themselves). Naturally, they don’t just claim 1,000 yard shots, but 1,000 yard headshots.

To put it very politely (rather than scream, “We call bullshit!”), there are problems with the 1,000 yard shot, including

1. Mechanical accuracy of weapon

2. Precision manufacture of ammo

3. Bullet drop

4. Range estimation and wind estimation

5. Time in flight, and not least

6. Terminal ballistics.

All these things have to come together for a 1,000 yard shot. That said, SOF snipers are making shots to and beyond this distance, but they are selected personnel, subjected to intensive training, and equipped with very good stuff, and extensive training in getting the most out of it. You notice that we said training twice: this is not coincidental. Training, and experience, is the most important factor.

Can you do it with your rifle? Well, those guys who are doing it are not Superman, and their rifles are bound by the same laws of physics that yours is. If your equipment is good enough (or can be improved enough), and you’re willing to open your mind and let good instructors pour good ideas in, if you are willing to work, and yes, even do math, and if you are willing to practice, then you might actually get this good. Can be done.

This video shows a guy who’s customized a Russian M1891/30 sniper rifle. His goal is to get five out of five on a man’s-torso sized target at 1,000 meters. Watch the video to see how hard it is. He has  got optimized conditions (shooting from a bench in the open — not a habit-forming practice in combat) and his rifle has fiberglass bedding, a free-floated barrel, custom handloads, and removed sights, none of which were available to the real Vassily Zaitsev or any other WWII sniper.

We queried our SF brain trust and got quite a variety of useful information, not much of which will make it into this post. But this is the first, perhaps, of many on precision shooting. The first thing to ask yourself is: why am I taking 1,000 meter shots? A very experienced trial lawyer (and shooter) points out that it’s not a practical self-defense technique. You’d have a hell of a time explaining it to a judge. “I was in fear for my life” looks pretty thready when you’re standing most of a mile away with your smoking .338 Lapua Mag and the bad guy has a Glock. Hunters in some places and hunting some game need very long shots — think of trophy hunters in the Rocky Mountains.

Not to say that there are no benefits to extreme long-range shooting. For one thing, the report doesn’t give away your position. Unlike most shooting at live targets, you may get a second chance after a miss.

The next thing to ask yourself is: do I have a place to learn? Because if there’s one thing the gurus of long range precision agree on, it’s that you only get there by long range practice. Ideally in a variety of wind conditions, because in the real world the weather puts a thumb on the scale of your precision shooting system (of which you are one component). Shooting at 200m does not prepare you for distance shooting, shooting on a range with high berms breaking any wind does not prepare you for real-world shooting, and shooting on a flat range does not prepare you for engagements in the real world.

So having seen that it’s possible, and assuming arguendo that you have a reason and a place to fire, lets take those six problems one at a time and then wrap up.

The mechanical accuracy of weapon is actually one of the more easily satisfied goals. The days when a minute of angle gun was considered uncannily accurate are gone. An M16 or M4 can often be a sub-minute gun, although not with M855 or M193 ammunition (but at 1000 meters, it’s no longer a rifle but the world’s lowest powered mortar, delivering plunging fire). Larger calibers and high velocities, usually with long barrels, are needed to give a flat enough trajectory to be accurate over a wide range of ranges. Many precision-made rifles are capable of great accuracy at a long range. A 1-MOA weapon is mechanically capable of keeping the bullet within a 10-inch radius circle at that range, but 1-MOA and sub-MOA weapon/ammo combinations are rare in the military. Rarer still are these combinations once the performance of the human shooter is taken into account.

Precision manufacture of ammo. The issue is, ball ammo is made to a price and issues of function are much more important than absolute precision. So a long-range precision shooter must build or buy premium ammo (or get his agency or service to provide it to him). Making perfect handloads is further complicated if you are firing a gas-operated semiautomatic rifle; the gun, the cartridge, the gas system, and its dimensions are all independent variables. But there are many good options in bolt and gas precision rifles.

The bullet drop of a .30 caliber round at 1,000 meters is over 30 feet from the muzzle. Drop is readily calculated, because a bullet flying through the air at 2500 feet per second is still being drawn towards the center of the earth at the same rate as if you dropped it. (The part that requires a bit of math to do is the deceleration, which will vary based on initial muzzle energy and the bullet’s aerodynamic characteristics. Several forces act on the bullet, but the ones that matter to the shooter are inertia, aerodynamic drag, and gravity. As the bullet slows down along its path, its resultant of motion is proportionally more affected by gravity and less by its inertia.In other words, the further it goes, the faster it drops, so that each hundred meters further causes more and more of a drop. One further implication of this: if your weapon is oriented towards very long range (say sighted in at 600 yards as long-range target shooters do) you’ll still have plenty of hold-over at 1000 and a lot of hold-under if you suddenly need a 200-yard target solution. You have to know where your gun prints at every range.

Range estimation and wind estimation are two skills that can only be learned by practice, although training can focus your practice until it’s most effective for you. On the range, your targets are at a known distance. In the real world, targets are at unknown distances. But the steep and rapidly steepening trajectory of the round at long ranges makes accurate range estimation vital. Wind, likewise, is an issue, and it’s complicated by the fact that, while a target will only be at one specific range, the various winds at the target, firing position, and everywhere in between all affect the bullet.

Time in flight. A 1,000 yard shot with most .30 caliber weapons will take almost two seconds to reach the target, and will drop some 30 feet from the muzzle. This complicates every shot, but most especially shots on small and moving targets, and shots in appreciable wind. To see what I mean, here’s a mental exercise anyone can do. Take any kind of scoped weapon (or just a scope) and “practice” dry fire on the birds or squirrels in your yard. Figure out where your lead needs to be then “shoot”. The minute the “shot” is fired hold the scope and count “one thousand, two thou-” and see if your crosshairs were on the vital parts of the little rodent or bird. Do this a little and you’ll notice you’re getting better at it. Don’t overdo it unless your actual plan is hunting squirrels (ain’t gonna happen at 1000 meters, for sure).

Finally, and not least, terminal ballistics matter. Depending on load, most 7.62mm NATO sniper rounds have about 525-550 foot-pounds of energy at 1,000 meters. That’s enought to kill (it’s about like the old M193 at 300 meters or so, and more than a .45 or 9mm at point-blank) but you don’t have a reserve of kinetic energy for penetrating cover, equipment, or to make up for bad bullet placement.

So there you have it. A lot of these things need to be mastered, and some of them are hard to master. (Conversely, something most shooters and hunters don’t do, that is: memorize the bullet drop of their chosen weapon and load at every 50 or 100 meters, and know how to mentally interpolate for intermediate ranges, is simple and easily mastered). There are a lot of tricks to doping wind and estimating range, but there’s really no shortcut to experience, except competent training. And it’s almost all mental. The secret is never to send the bullet anywhere your mind hasn’t been already.

So where do you get this training? This post is already double normal length! Three approaches, tomorrow.

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