“Is he close enough?”
I could understand guide Blake Osteen’s growing anxiety. I felt it, too, because we only had 20 minutes left on my Texas whitetail hunt. The largest buck anyone had seen all week was hovering just on the edge of rifle range. A bitter winter ice storm was ravaging west Texas, and in the crystalline landscape, a beautiful whitetail buck stood where he had been jumped from his bed by a band of range cattle that came boiling off a nearby hill. A hunt that seemed doomed suddenly presented us with one of those rare and fantastic 11th-hour opportunities … if I could make the shot.
“The long-range debate has created friction among hunters, and battle lines have been drawn … ”
150 Yards Away
The buck took note when Blake gave a soft grunt. The rut was on, and we had seen a legion of young bucks dogging fleeing does. The big buck was still cautious—he hadn’t reached advanced age without learning to avoid bullets and broadheads—but eventually, hormones got the best of him, and he started our way. I was shooting an Uberti .45-70 and had spent time on the range in Texas shooting at 50 and 100 yards. The cover was dense, and the ranges were close, and in my limited time on range, I hadn’t been able to push the rifle beyond that distance.
So, when the buck appeared at 330 yards and then stalled at 220, my heart sank. He had appeared in a long cut line on the edge of a fence, and that was the only reason we saw him. But he stopped at 220 yards and stood frozen like the ice-encased thorns all around. Two hundred 20 yards is not a particularly long shot with a centerfire rifle, and even the arching trajectory of the heavy .45-70 doesn’t preclude it from hitting deer-sized targets at that range. However, I knew my maximum effective range (the range at which I knew, absolutely knew, that if there weren’t a mechanical failure or some ballistic anomaly, I could cleanly kill game) was more like 150 yards. So, Blake and I waited.
Eventually, the buck started rolling in our direction again, his head low, perfectly at ease. He crossed the 150-yard threshold, then 100 yards and promptly turned around and started heading away from us. I elbowed Blake to indicate that enough was enough, and he whistled. The buck stopped at 115 yards, I settled the crosshairs of the Burris scope just behind the front shoulder and pressed the trigger. The bullet struck hard, and within 30 yards, the buck was down.
What Is MER?
Today, there’s a great deal of debate surrounding “long-range” hunting, a vague term that generally constitutes making shots beyond 400 yards. Some hunters are taking long range to the extreme, shooting game out to 900 or 1,000 yards—and sometimes, even farther. The “long-range” debate has created friction among hunters, and battle lines have been drawn regarding at what ranges it is ethical to shoot game and at what ranges it is not. Perhaps, though, we are missing the point, and that point is maximum effective range, or MER. MER is not a measure of how far your gun will shoot; nor is it a measure of how far the bullet you use carries the energy required to kill game. MER is a combination of factors that come together to make a shot certain, possible or impossible. And it doesn’t have to do with ballistics alone, either. It has to do, in large part, with the shooter.
Allow me to give you an example. I have a .375 H&H Magnum I enjoy shooting, an old Winchester Model 70 that fits me like a fine upland shotgun. I plan to take it along with me to Africa on my next safari, but I am leaving my scope behind.
For those who just guffawed, let me explain that I have hunted Africa before with a scoped rifle and have taken a variety of game, so there’s no rush to check off a bunch of species on this hunt. It’s more leisurely—a self-drive safari where I’ll be stopping at a few different lodges and will hunt only if the opportunity arises and I have time. I know very well that my .375 will shoot good groups out to 250 yards, because I’ve shot it at that range, but I did that with an 8x scope. Without the glass on top, a 100-yard shot suddenly becomes a challenge: same gun, same hunter, same loads, but a 150-yard reduction in MER. I’m going to carry my .375 unscoped, because I want to get close to game before I shoot, preferably 60 yards, and even that only if I’m on sticks. I can make 100-yard shots with irons, but the groups bubble and bulge to about 4 inches off shooting sticks. Some of the game I’ll encounter will be big enough so that this level of accuracy would be sufficient for real giants like the eland; but there will also be springbok, impala, warthog, and real itty-bitties such as dik-dik, steenbok and klipspringer. One hundred yards simply won’t work on those animals with me shooting using those iron sights.
“Know your MER—know it for certain. You owe it to yourself and the game to do so.”
Let me make a very basic statement: Until you have shot targets successfully and accurately at 800 yards with your rifle and scope, please don’t tell me your rifle and scope shoot accurately to that range. And certainly don’t tell me it’s “no problem” to hit targets at a half-mile. Anyone who is really good at shooting at that range (and I’ve met a few) will quickly tell you it isn’t easy. There are a lot of moving parts. Things such as wind speed, humidity, mirage and so forth that make little difference when shooting at moderate ranges—say 200 yards or fewer—are compounded at 500, 600, 700 yards and beyond. You’ll also need to have an understanding of MILs and minutes of elevation and wind, and if you’re serious about shooting at really long range, you will also need a rifle topped with great glass. The rifle will need to be chambered for a cartridge with the goods to deliver lethal energy at long range. It must be accurate, with a precision chamber and barrel, a good trigger, and superb build quality.
Not every rifle is a legitimate 1,000-yard gun (or a 500-yard gun, for that matter), and even a rifle that shoots MOA will be producing roughly 8-inch groups at 800 yards. Oh … and you need to be a good shooter.
My point is this: Every shooter needs to know their MER, and they need to stick to it. I know it’s hard, especially when a big buck or bull steps out just beyond that range, but you need to stay strong. You also need to practice at the ranges you intend to shoot. If you’re planning on taking game at 400 yards, don’t you think you should be able to consistently hit a target at that range? Ballistic charts are a good tool, but be careful that the chart you are reading matches your bullet’s weight and ballistic coefficient; that your scope is mounted at the corresponding height; and you must verify that the velocity on the box is actually being reached by the ammo you are using. It’s better to create a custom ballistic chart based on the exact load you are using at realistic velocities. Even then, it’s best to practice.
I’ve seen hunters who were slaves to their ballistic charts—and that cost them dearly. One gentleman in camp with me in Africa was absolutely heartsick because he had wounded a big blue wildebeest at a range of about 270 yards with a borrowed .300 Magnum. He couldn’t understand why, he said, because the gun was grouping well at 100 yards.
“Every shooter needs to know their MER, and they need to stick to it.”
To the gentleman’s credit, wildebeest are very tough animals to kill, and they have an incredible capacity to cover ground, even when they are hard hit. Nevertheless, he had a wounded animal.
Aside from the personal disgust that hunters feel when wounding game, he was going to lose a full day tracking the animal. In addition, he was going to have to pay the trophy fee on the wounded wildebeest if it wasn’t found. It was found, and the next day, the trackers led the party to the old bull, which was dispatched without further suffering. Over wildebeest filets that night, we discussed what the problem might be. I’d had a great run of luck on that hunt and agreed to head to the range early the next morning to check out the problem. And we didn’t have to shoot the gun to see what the problem was. The photographer who was accompanying me pointed out the problem right away. “Look at those scope rings!” Not only were they extraordinarily high, they were also loose. The height had caused the bullet to strike higher than it should have at extended range (the standard is 1½ inches, and if these were under 2 inches, I’d have been shocked). The slightly-loose rings, which had little effect at 100 yards, allowed groups to swell significantly at 275 yards. That .300 rifle with a high-end scope should have been a 400-yard rifle, but it wasn’t. And we didn’t know that until we actually shot the thing at distance. The hunter simply shot groups at 100 yards, felt that accuracy was sufficient and extrapolated to determine where the bullet would hit at 200, 300, and 400 yards.
He was dead wrong. One or two shots at the range would have showed him that, but he didn’t take them.
Know Your MER
Know your MER—know it for certain. You owe it to yourself and the game to do so. If you plan to hunt game at long range, you must make absolutely certain you can do so. Regardless of whether the shot is 100 or 1,000 yards, if you can’t hit your target and make a clean kill, you are being unethical.
If you want to extend your range, there are a few cartridges that can really help. A few of my favorites are the .240 Weatherby, 6.5 Creedmoor, the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .30-.378 Weatherby Magnum.
The .240 has mild recoil and shoots laser-flat; and, with tough bullets, you can take game up to and including mule deer at long distances.
The little 6.5 Creedmoor is catching fire with hunters. It’s a fantastic option for hunters, because it combines the high ballistic coefficient and sectional density of a 6.5 bullet with mild recoil and a flat trajectory. The 6.5 will shoot as flat as most magnums, and unless you are hunting really big game, it’s a very versatile cartridge.
The .300 Winchester Magnum is a favorite of long-range shooters, and it’s easy to see why: flat trajectory, enormous load selection, and more reloading data than just about any competitor. The .30-378 Weatherby Mag is a fire-breather, but having shot it at 1,000 yards I can attest to its consistency, flat trajectory and the stunning build quality of the Weatherby mark V rifle in which it is most often housed.
The .240 Weatherby Magnum is capable of long-range accuracy, and it produces very little recoil. It’s one of the most versatile long-range cartridges available.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2016 print issue of Gun World.