For many long range shooters there are going to be times when getting access to a range or piece of property that affords the ability to shoot at distance simply isn’t possible. Whatever the setback may be this doesn’t mean that a shooter can’t work on their fundamentals of marksmanship and get in some meaningful practice for when they do finally get to send some rounds down range. This article is going to talk about some things that a shooter can do if they don’t have regular access to a shooting range or one that is limited to a short distance. Of course a lot of the following techniques and ideas can be applied to other disciplines as well such as with carbines, hunting rifles, pistols, and shotguns. The key to a lot of this though is that it can be done in a basement, garage, or with a 100 yard range without a lot of investment in time or money.
Dry Fire Practice
Drying firing your firearm is a common method of practice that doesn’t require any ammunition or even a range to perform effectively. I like the following story because I believe that it exemplifies the importance of dry fire practice and how it can help perfect a shooter’s fundamentals to help make every round count. Back in the 1970’s the country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had a shooting team that wanted to compete in IPSC competition but there was one thing holding them up. At the time it was extremely difficult for them to obtain the amount of ammunition it would take to train and compete on any meaningful level. In fact their ammunition allotment was 50 rounds per man for the year…period. This didn’t get them down though and they came up with a dry fire regimen that helped them to perfect the presentation, trigger press, and sight picture. While some may have scoffed when they showed up at the competition considering their meager beginnings, the team persevered and won the championship that year having only shot 10 rounds per man every month.
Now, even though that story was about pistol shooters dry firing can be integrated into the training regimen of shooters from literally all disciplines. Long range shooters can use dry fire practice to work on their fundamentals of marksmanship such as getting into a stable firing position, executing proper trigger control and follow through without having to shoot a single round. By constantly practicing the trigger press and follow through the shooter can perfect his or her technique to reduce the possibility of making a mistake such as snatching or jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil, or not using the proper grip. For those with bolt-action rifles, dry firing can also help hone the motions required to quickly cycle the bolt smoothly and efficiently without breaking the cheekweld or sight picture. When used with scaled down targets dry firing can also test the effectiveness of improvised shooting positions such as shooting off of a barricade in multiple positions or using a shooting sling. When it comes time for some live practice or in a competition the shooter is going to save time and ammo because they’ll already have a good idea for what works and what won’t.
Dry firing though isn’t simply about pulling the trigger without a round in the chamber; it can be a vital step in helping perfect the mechanics of firing the rifle or pistol. Therefore there should be some goals in mind when doing dry fire drills, otherwise there’s no real point. When working on the trigger press ask yourself is the trigger finger at a good 90* bend to allow the trigger to come straight back on the trigger? The reason you want the index finger at a good 90* in relation to the trigger is that during firing if the finger pressing the trigger straight back it can push bullets to one side of the target or the other. Another area to work on during dry fire practice is proper body position but mainly having the shoulders square to the target and the body as straight behind the rifle as possible. This allows the body to absorb most of the recoil from the rifle and stay on target better. A common issue for new shooters is having the rifle “hop” to one side or the other during firing, mostly due to improper body positioning behind the gun. Entire articles and videos have been devoted to the fundamentals of marksmanship, which is going a bit beyond the scope of this article.
Ideally the goal of dry firing is to go through the steps of firing the rifle and inflict as little movement on the sights or reticle as possible. Using a small tack or paster can also give the shooter a reference for how much or how little the reticle moves to help gauge performance. I’ve noticed that doing consistent dry fire practice at home and at the range I noticed that I had less cold bore deviation and tighter groups on target.
Some shooters, new and old alike, worry though that dry firing will damage the firing pins on their rifles, but this isn’t the case for most quality centerfire rifles. Another reason that dry firing is an attractive alternative for practicing the fundamentals is that it doesn’t require any special tools. If a shooter so desires they can use snap caps to practice with in order to work on loading techniques, malfunction drills, or for function testing, but they aren’t absolutely necessary. If the shooter wants snap caps I highly recommend buying quality aluminum snap caps such as the A-Zoom brand since their construction can stand up to repeated use and abuse. I’ve used the cheaper plastic types of snap caps but I’ve found the cartridge rims to be fragile and can easily break or deform from mild use. Generally about 15 minutes of dry fire practice a day can greatly help improve a shooter’s fundamentals, even more so when mixed in with live fire practice.
Doing range estimation using only the MOA or Mil-based reticle in the riflescope can be a real challenge for some shooters and it is definitely a perishable skill. There are plenty of competitions and real world situations where the shooter has to use the graduated reticle in the scope to obtain a range to their target. The batteries in laser rangefinders die all the time and sometimes the object itself doesn’t reflect very well at distance hampering the effectiveness of the LRF. Those times aren’t exactly the best to start learning the ins and outs of range estimation using only a scope especially if it’s just before a hunt or at the start of a competition. There are a couple of ways to practice range estimation that can be challenging and a little fun too but it’ll take some prep work. The first thing to do to be effective at range estimation using the reticle is to get a bunch of measurements for road signs, vehicles, tires, and other everyday objects. The reason being is in order to complete the calculations needed for range estimation the size of the target has to be known. A quick trip around town and to the hardware store will yield a lot of valuable data for the shooter than can go into their data book. What the shooter can do to practice range estimation will depend on the area they’re in but they have a couple of options.
One method that I use is to take the scope off a rifle or use a spare scope and mount it to a tripod so that it can be easily transported to areas that have a lot of objects that can be ranged. This method is good in that it allows a shooter to range real world objects in various conditions so that they can see how different lighting conditions, angles, and mirage effect ranging. Using the scope on a tripod is also less alarming to people is less likely to draw unwanted attention versus taking the scope out with it still attached to the rifle. Another way to do the same thing is to place some small cardboard cut outs or even little Army men in the backyard and practice ranging them. This obviously requires a good bit of property but if done right the shooter never even has to leave the comforts of home to do some good training. This method does have its problems though because of the short range since ranging errors won’t be as noticeable compared to ranging actual objects at longer distances. An alternative though is to measure various objects on nearby homes or cars that can be seen from inside. It’s always a good idea to take along a laser rangefinder if available to double check the actual ranges versus the estimated ranges. Using the reticle in the scope the difference between the actual versus estimated range shouldn’t be more than 5% so if the actual range is 700 yards, the estimated range should be somewhere between 665 and 735 yards. Only practice will reduce that error percentage to where the shooter can accurately estimate the range and engage a target within the effective range of their rifle.
Tripod mounted scopes for ranging practice without the rifles. The tripods are Bogen/Manfrotto 190XPROB with 222 ball action heads which allowed for precise placement of the reticle on distant objects.
In case the above method of practice won’t work out then there is a computer simulation that can actually be helpful to work on a few different skills. However I’m not talking about playing Call of Duty for a few hours, as fun as that would be, what I’m actually referring to is a program called Shooter Ready. It’s a long range shooting simulation that I feel can actually be beneficial for the precision rifle enthusiast. This program has gone through a few versions but essentially the shooter has to engage the targets on the screen by ranging them with a mil or MOA based reticle while calculating a firing solution for the range, wind speed, and direction. In the past I’ve actually used a Mildot Master and an FDAC to do all of the range estimation and firing solutions with a fairly high degree of success.
I’ve found the program to be an excellent way of streamlining my process of ranging and then getting a firing solution when using the Mildot Master and FDAC. I’ve also used to become more proficient with the Accuracy 1st Whiz Wheel before actually using it to shoot long range since the Whiz Wheel wasn’t as intuitive to use as other systems. For those that don’t want to purchase the full program software the website offers a free demo that lets the shooter experience parts of the program. The shooter is limited to certain targets and conditions but I still found it to be an excellent way to work on breaking down the reticle, calculating a firing solution quickly, and using the reticle for wind and elevation holds. All of those skills can be easily translated when actually putting rounds downrange.
For many years the ultimate low cost alternative to full size firearms has probably been a rimfire rifle more than likely chambered in .22 Long Rifle. Even though some people view the .22LR as nothing more than a plinking cartridge it has proven to be a valuable training tool when utilized properly. The cost of .22LR rimfire ammunition is a fraction of what it costs to shoot quality centerfire match ammunition and with hardly any recoil a shooter can shoot for longer. This means that the shooter can spend more time working on trigger control, sight picture, and positional shooting to help hone those skills and supplement their dry fire practice. A rimfire rifle also allows the shooter to practice in areas or situations that don’t allow for a full size center-fire rifle such as an indoor range or in the backyard. I’ve found that when I do dry fire practice and use the rimfire to help reinforce the fundamentals like trigger control and follow through it shows up in improved accuracy when I switch to my center-fire rifle. Rimfire rifles come in a variety of bolt action and semi-auto configurations that can closely resemble their full-size center-fire brethren. This similarity between the two can make the transition easier when going from the training rifle to the full-sized centerfire counterpart whether it’s for competition or duty. Understand though that a rimfire rifle can’t exactly mimic a similar center-fire rifle because the weight, recoil, and action are so different. A bolt action rimfire for example doesn’t have the same bolt throw as a center-fire rifle so this should be taken into account when practicing.
However, to successfully use a rimfire for practice proper ammo selection plays a big part since the average run of the mill bulk pack from Wal-Mart just won’t cut it. While the bulk ammunition is inexpensive it generally doesn’t have the consistency and accuracy to provide for reliable practice in terms of precision rifle shooting. Match-grade ammunition for rimfire rifles does cost more than the average bulk pack but it’s still a fraction of what it costs to buy and shoot quality center-fire match ammunition. I’ve also found that CCI MiniMags are a good source for quality rimfire ammunition that’s reliable and sufficiently accurate to practice with while not breaking the bank. Even though a rimfire rifle will probably shoot anything that’s put into it, it’s recommended to try several different brands to see what the rifle really likes. Rimfire firearms are notoriously picky when it comes to ammunition since two identical firearms with consecutive serial numbers might prefer two different kinds of ammunition.
These targets were shot with CCI 40 gr Mini-Mags and while the accuracy isn’t great it’s more than good enough for my purposes.
The use of rimfire firearms isn’t just limited to practicing for long range shooting though, it can also be applied to other shooting disciplines as well. In recent years there have been a number of purpose built rimfire carbines and pistols that have similar, if not the same dimensions as their centerfire counterparts. These rimfire versions can often accept the same accessories and utilize the same holsters so that again the transition from one to the other is nearly seamless. In fact some shooters have utilized .22LR carbines in tactical rifle courses instead of their standard rifle due to cost and ammo considerations. This is just more evidence that rimfire firearms are being seen as serious training tools today as opposed to the hobby plinkers of yesteryear.
The 100-yard Range
When I can get out to actually shoot, sometimes I’m limited to a local 100 yard range that’s located just a few miles up the road from me. It’s not perfect, sometimes it’s overrun with people that shouldn’t be allowed to look at firearms but it does allow me to get some meaningful practice in. Unfortunately for some shooting at 100 yards simply means putting up a zero target, getting in the prone position, and trying to create the smallest group possible on paper. While that serves a limited purpose to long range shooting there are a variety of ways that 100 yards can be tailored to squeeze more training value out of that relatively short distance as possible. The best way that I’ve found to do this is to vary up the target designs beyond the simple bull’s eye or zero target, add in some stress factors, and starting thinking outside the box a little.
If I’m going to head to the range to try to get in some practice I usually pack a variety of targets in my bag or have a target backer already set up so that all I have to do is stake it into the ground at the range. One target that I like to use is one that I made which has multiple letters and numbers surrounded by a one inch circle that’s printed on a standard piece of printer paper. The versatility of this target and other similar “dot drill” targets is really only limited by one’s imagination. Stress can be added to make the shots more difficult or the shooter can simply take their time and focus on their fundamentals to engage each circle accurately. Target ID can be worked on as well with this target, especially if the shooter is with someone who can call out the letters or numbers at random to be engaged. In addition to a “dot drill” type of target I also like to use hostage targets, scaled down silhouette targets, in addition to different shapes like triangles, squares, etc…
The Sniper’s Hide Training Target is another target that can provide the shooter with a lot of training value at not just 100 yards but at farther distances as well. The target has large silhouette with an additional head on either side of it with multiple circles and dots around the target sheet to provide multiple aiming points for drills and zeroing. There’s also a scale down the left side of the target that can be used to check the calibration and tracking on both mil and MOA scopes. This target allows the shooter the ability to work on a lot of skills from positional shooting to precision cold bore shots, as well as to make sure their equipment is working properly. At about $1.50 a piece they are relatively expensive as paper targets go but I feel they’ll be well worth it to those serious about improving their abilities.
Earlier I briefly mentioned stress and integrating that into a short range training routine. In real world incidents stress is simply a reality, a fact of life, and in competitions it’s often used to increase the level of difficulty for the shooters and test one’s abilities. Stress just doesn’t come in the form of physical stress though but mental stress as well and if you can integrate both into a training cycle all the better. Physical stress can come in the obvious forms such as calisthenics like doing jumping jacks or running in place to increase the shooters heart beat and breathing cycle. This type of stress will try the shooter’s ability to control their breathing and focus on trigger control in order to precisely engage the target. While not always fun, adding in physical stress can be an interesting and effective way to make shooting at 100 yards a real challenge. Like physical stress mental stress can also be rolled into any training regimen to create a new set of challenges for the shooter. Mental stress can come in the form of imposed time limits, target ID, and/or target discrimination drills, anything that will make the shooter think about what they have to do. Utilizing a shot timer can be an effective tool for training in this aspect by helping to instill time limits and goals for improvement.
Steel targets, while great for long range targets can also make effective short range targets when used with an above mentioned rimfire rifle. Several companies make rimfire steel targets in different shapes from circles and squares to IPSC targets and pepper poppers, sometimes with features like swinging head and center plates. Since a rimfire round like the .22LR doesn’t inflict as much damage as a centerfire rifle cartridge the targets can be made from lighter, cheaper materials and are therefore fairly inexpensive. I’ve noticed that many of the big box stores carry one or two types of metal rimfire targets in the form of swingers and reset targets so they’re pretty easy to come by.
If the shooter doesn’t want to go that route one could visit a local machine shop and see about having them cut up scrap ¼” or 3/8th inch mild steel into some useable shapes and sizes. Creating simple hangers and target stands from materials available at most any hardware store shouldn’t prove to be too difficult either. With very little investment a shooter would be able to have several targets than can be spread out from 25 – 100 yards in order to work on various skills from multiple target engagement to range estimation.
If steel targets are a safety concern there are some very nice polymer targets from places like Champion and Do-All Outdoors that can be a good alternative. These targets are self-healing in that when the bullet strikes the target they automatically seal up leaving only a tiny pin hole. This means that the target can last for many thousands of rounds from not just rimfire calibers but centerfire cartridges as well. They also come in a number of shapes, sizes, and colors from prairie dogs to bowling pins and the bright colors never have to be painted like steel targets do.
Earlier in the article I mentioned thinking outside of the box a little when it came to doing precision rifle training at short ranges and there are several things that one can do that will also apply later on in shooting. Of course some of this may draw some odd stares from others at the range but you’ve just got to place yourself in a bubble and ignore it. One of the first things that I do is get off the bench and start using it like a barricade to work on my positional shooting and see how stable I can get when things are imperfect.
When doing this I like to use scaled silhouette targets that simulate longer distances to add an element of realism and difficulty. Another outside-the-box that man shooters simply don’t think about is to shoot at CQB ranges with the bolt gun to determine the amount of hold over necessary to make a precision shot. It’ll also help the shooter get used to how out of focus the target will be and ways to counter that by dialing down the magnification to a lower power. I’ve been to competitions where some shots have been as close as 10 yards and if it wasn’t for shooting at those distances prior I may have missed the shot and dropped points. The 100 yard range is also a good place to get a baseline zero for when the rifle is rolled over on its side with the ejection port either up or down. There are ways to calculate this amount of holdover but the general rule of thumb is to hold high to the magazine side. It’s an interesting experience to turn the gun on its side and accurately engage a T-Zone using the elevation on the reticle for windage and the elevation for windage. There are a number of other things that a shooter can do and it’s limited only by one’s imagination, the above were just a couple of examples of things that I do. My point is that the old shooting bench at the range can be used for more than just sitting down and shooting a few groups and calling it good for the day.
I wrote this article to hopefully give people ideas about how they can get in quality practice for long range shooting for those times when they can’t get to a range that goes past 100 yards or any range at all. Of course the techniques and ideas that I talked about in this article can be easily applied to other longer distances if it is available to the shooter or even other disciplines. However I should caution that before a shooter does any out of the box thinking at the range on how to improve their capabilities, make sure that nothing violates the four rules of firearms safety or any of the range rules. It would be no fun to be kicked off a range or possibly endanger someone else’s life while just trying to get in some good practice. The main thing I want people to take away from this article is that everything I’ve talked about is simply supplemental to actually getting out and shooting at long distance. Nothing is going to replace shooting at 1000 yards but you don’t always have to have a 1000 yard range to work on it.