When I started rifle hunting at age 14, a 3-9x scope was all most people needed on the back 40 or in the woods. A shot at 300 yards was considered the outer limit of what any reasonable person should even attempt. In the last 10 to 15 years, a new trend has entered the hunting arena: long range shooting. Rifles and scopes have become purpose built for this new style of pursuit, most costing many people’s a month salary for each if they get high end gear. My personal preference for this has become a Savage 111 Long Range Hunter in 300 Win Mag with a Vortex Diamondback Tactical scope in first focal plane with the EBR-2C reticle. I’ve come to love first focal plane scopes for their ease of use, but there are many scopes in both first and second focal plane out there suitable for long range hunting. The downside though, is that most people only read the labels and not the directions.
Many people have gotten on the BDC (Bullet Drop Compensating) bandwagon when it comes to scopes, thinking that each line will automatically correspond to their bullets trajectory. After all, the box says the lines are for drop at 300, 400, and 500 yards right? The obvious trouble is that no two rifles or rounds share the exact flight path. Unless the scope is specifically calibrated to that rifle and round at whatever altitude and temperature your hunting, bullets are not going to impact the target.
While I have never been a fan of BDC scopes, last year brought about a particular distain for them. During an elk hunt my client had the opportunity on a small bull 509 yards away on a hillside. It was a calm morning, sunny with little to no wind, and he was using a .338 Win Mag with 225 grain bullets. With the client prone and rifle laid across his pack, the bull stopped broadside in response to my cow calling. Two shots later the bull moved slightly up the hill, my client bleeding from being scoped above his eye, and I had been unable to spot his missed shots. This frustrated me as it was a mostly open hillside with only a couple small junipers. My only thought was that he had shot wildly over this bull’s back. Another cow call stopped the bull long enough for a third shot, this one flying four feet or more over the animal’s back and landing under a tree just beyond.
As the bull walked off, I wondered what had happened. My client was an experienced hunter, and seemed to be confident in his ability to make a long distance shot. I questioned him about what had happened, and it turned out he had been unable to find the bull in his scope at full power, so had turned it down to the lowest setting while still using the 500 yard holdover. Naturally 4x is not what you want to use on a 500 yard target, but I didn’t think it would make four feet of difference. I was wrong!
In researching his scope, a Nikon 4-12x BDC, I discovered that they used a 22-250 Remington with a 55 grain bullet to calibrate the drop lines for that scope. Not only that, but at each power setting the drop lines hold different values. At 12x, the lowest line is set to compensate for 500 yards, but at 4x the same line is the hold for a 999 yard target. WOW! No wonder my client missed!
This issue is not limited to BDC scopes; mil-dot and MOA scopes in the second focal plane suffer from values changing depending on the power setting. I used to wonder why I could regularly hit the 300 yard gong behind my house on full power, but miss almost every shot with a lower power. The answer was largely due to the way second focal plane scopes work. After learning this, I began searching for an economy level FFP scope that would allow me to shoot beyond a half mile if I wanted. At $350 the Diamondback Tactical fit my needs, allowing me a confident 435 yard shot on a Michigan whitetail, no tracking necessary.
Before you step out in the field, take a some time to learn how your rifle and scope work. See at what ranges your bullet really impacts compared to the lines on your reticle. If there’s a possibility of shooting longer range, go out and practice at that distance, or beyond if you can find somewhere. Most shooting ranges don’t go beyond 300 yards, but if you can find some clear cuts or open areas on public land away from buildings, the hour or two drive might be worth it. It could be the difference between spending $4,000 to see some nice views, or coming home with the trophy of a lifetime.