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by a.k.a. sscoyote Last updated: 2009-02-01 14:36:50
As I topped the saddle, maybe a thousand feet or so above timberline, I immediately knew I’d screwed up. Maybe there was too little oxygen getting to my brain at 12,000 ft. or something, but whatever the reason, I’d silhouetted myself momentarily, and of course, when hunting, momentarily is often long enough.
I crouched down then, put the binoc. to my eyes, and quickly realized my worst fears. About 500 yds. to my right a 3/4 curl bighorn ram was staring a hole right through me. I began to unsling the handgun, but it was a wasted effort, as the ram quickly turned and made for parts unknown. I slunk down on my derriere, sulking, thinking about all the scouting, and preparation I’d put into the hunt, just to blow it with a rookie mistake. Just then though, I caught movement on a bench several hundred yards below me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A herd of rams were milling about on the bench feeding, and miraculously hadn’t seen me. All of a sudden, a huge mass of horns and hair appeared from behind a boulder and laid down on the edge of a shallow ravine. It was a full-curl ram, obviously the big daddy of the bunch.
What an opportunity, I thought. I really couldn’t believe my luck. I slipped out of the backpack then and gathered my gear. I thought if I crab-crawled down the steep slope right along the edge of a scree field, a short ways down there was a large flat rock that would make for an excellent platform to shoot from. Seemed feasible enough, so I was off, like a crab.
Shortly, I arrived at the rock that was just tailor-made for resting a long-range handgun stock on. I then placed a glove atop the rock, and set the custom rig on top of the glove to cushion the stock. I then pulled the Leica 1200 Scan from my BDU-type leg pocket, and ranged the big ram at 315 yds. But the shot would be downhill at a steep angle, so since I was not equipped yet with a Sniper Tools Angle Cosine Indicator (ACI) for a more precise reference, I’d have to “wing it”, and figured right around the short side of 300 yds. for the shot. No windage compensation would be required as it was still early enough that the fickle alpine winds hadn’t awoken quite yet. I chambered a round in the action of the custom 6.5-284 handgun. The ram was broadside laying on the edge of the ravine, but he was positioned in such a manner that most of his chest was exposed, presenting a very inviting target.
Peering through the Burris 3-12x scope’s ocular, I lined up the reticle on the ram’s chest, and it was literally rock-steady. A second or so later the trigger tripped, and the big ram immediately jumped from his bed into the ravine. The rest of the herd ran to the edge, and although I couldn’t see him, I could track his progress along the ravine by watching the herd as their heads turned, following him themselves, as he went. Just then they all bolted, no doubt spooked by his sudden demise amongst the scree at the bottom of the ravine. I ejected the case, chambered another, and kept watching either side of the ravine for the ram, since at this point in time the other rams knew more about the big guy’s fate than I did. Shortly, I gathered my gear, and made for the ravine’s edge, hoping and praying the entire time. When I looked over the edge, and saw the big boy lying on his side in the bottom, I let out a whoop, and scrambled over the scree to examine my trophy. He was actually ¾ths on one side and about 7/8ths on the other—truly a trophy of a lifetime. The required photos were taken, and he was then skinned, caped to base of neck, quartered, boned and bagged. The boned meat was then buried in shaded snow at the base of a tree. I then attached the cape and head to the pack for the long, arduous trip back to the truck. It took one killer hour or so (which seemed twice as long) to go 600 yds. to the top of the saddle, and a relatively easy haul the rest of the way down 2 to 3 miles to the truck. One more big push up the trail, then back down again with the meat, and it was done.
This was the first of the two stateside “exotics,” as I like to refer to them—bighorn sheep and mountain goats, in my home state of Colorado. Pursuing them on my own terms, as a backpack hunter, is the real reward for me. As such, portability of equipment is a necessity. This is where the specialty handguns have played such a big role in our (handgun hunting partner, Ernie Bishop, and I) hunts. Besides that, long-range handguns have always fascinated me. The simplistic beauty, appealing curvature, and rarity of a custom-stocked center or rear-grip XP-100, Savage Striker or Rampro always catches my eye, wherever I may happen to encounter one.
The addiction began years ago with articles written by the likes of the late Bob Milek, J.D. Jones, and the Bower brothers, John and Don. Of course it wasn’t long before Ernie and I began adopting them for our excursions afield. Thompson Center Contenders, to XP-100’s, to custom rigs and wildcat cartridges; we were always looking for something that would provide an edge to increase our efficiency afield.
Several years back I purchased an XP-100 from Ernie that was chambered in a wildcat 6.5 caliber based on the .308 case. But I wanted more horsepower than the .308’s capacity would provide. With some barrel length to play with, my gunsmith Greg Tannel of Gre’-Tan Rifles out of Kersey, CO suggested the 284 case with an average velocity gain of around 150 f.p.s. or so. He felt that would be enough to get me where I wanted to go with a short-barreled handgun. Although 150 f.p.s. is not normally considered significant in rifle-length barrels, when working with shorter handgun barrels even a gain of 100 f.p.s. becomes, at least relatively, somewhat more significant. You must remember these guns would be used mostly for big game, so we wanted as much performance as we could get when ranges began to stretch. Since all the blueprinting had already been done to the action by Ernie’s gunsmith Chunk Youngblood of Moliballistics, all that was necessary was to fit, and chamber it. Greg also suggested a Vais muzzle break now, as the increased recoil could become somewhat of a nuisance. I agreed. The barrel is an 8-twist Shilen which was originally put together for hunting and some target work, and was just about right for my intentions. Hopefully the additional velocity would stabilize the 140 A-Max rated for 7.5-twist barrels, which would give me the option of using a higher-B.C. bullet for game, if so desired. I also elected to go with one of Richard Near’s scope bases which would allow me to use the rig at arm’s length with the scope set at 12X. The Near base lets me mount the scope several inches farther forward on the gun, virtually eliminating the long eye relief problem with that optic.
As it was, Colorado’s sheep season was starting only one week after receiving the rig. At that time I had prepped cases ahead of time and had some loads ready to test with the 129 gr. Hornady SST bullet. One of the loads produced a nice small round group, so I stuck with it, with the limited time I was allotted. Zeroing the additional stadia of the Ballistic Plex reticle I elected to put in the scope, would also serve as a check of grouping consistency as well, to some degree.
Now, when it comes to applying ballistic reticles in the field for long-range shooting the system that I use allows for the least amount of “Kentucky windage and elevation” possible. When I’m in the field, I want to be able to apply whatever rig I may be using at the time, as precisely as possible to ensure that the bullet has the highest probability of going where it’s supposed to. For this reason I have learned to adopt a “tactical” system in the field for intermediate to long-range shooting, which means that I would need to become, for lack of a better term, a hunter-sniper.
Awhile back, I’d spoken to Larry Walsh, Customer Service Director at Burris Optics concerning the practical application of ballistic reticles. At that time he’d asked me if I’d seen the ballistics program, Exbal Ballistics Calculator. When I told him I hadn’t, he said that it was a terrific resource for zeroing ballistic reticles, and that I should look into it. So I gave Gerald Perry, the designer of the program, a call. He was very cordial, and easy to talk to, and it wasn’t long before he had a program in the mail for me. When I received it, and loaded it on my laptop, I found it very simple to operate, and it wasn’t long before I was calculating external ballistics data, and creating models for zeroing various ballistic reticles that were in the database. I’d found the tool was just as Larry had said—an indispensable resource for long-range shooters. So of course, I applied it for the 6.5-284 load. Once the initial trajectory table has been created in the main screen, it’s a simple matter of accessing the Ballistic Reticle Analysis option on the toolbar, and selecting your reticle, or entering your own user-defined reticle, and Exbal provides the additional zeros for the other stadia. Then it’s off to the range to check the data, make changes if necessary, create a range sticker, and go hunting.
Since this rig had target turrets installed, I also wanted to check the elevation turrets repeatability and accuracy, so I went back to Exbal’s main screen, replaced the zero with the lower post’s zero. I then accessed the Sight Adjustment Option on the toolbar, and punched in the 1/8 inch per hundred yard (IPHY) turret click value, and recalculated the trajectory table to 700 yards. Obviously Exbal's turret calculations beyond the reticle's lower post tip zero wouldn’t be used for the ram hunt, but it would provide a quick check of turret accuracy besides being just fun as heck to see what these handguns in big cases/high BC bullets were really capable of.
A day or so later, I packed up some portable long-range targets, handgun and associated gear, and Exbal’s calcs. for a quick run out to a local ranch I had permission to shoot at. Once there, I setup all the targets at the lasered ranges the reticle was zeroed. I then got setup off the tailgate (a very stable makeshift shooting bench actually). Now, at this point in time, I performed a procedure that’s absolutely crucial to shooting accuracy, but unfortunately is all too often, overlooked. I recalibrated the parallax adjustment, by checking parallax at all the ranges. Although most parallax adjustable (PA) scopes are marked for yardages they’re supposed to be parallax-free at by the factory, I’ve never seen one yet that was accurate. I’ve seen over 3” of parallax at 100 yds. with some scopes, which of course introduces an absolutely intolerable shooting error, before you even pull the trigger. After noting true parallax correction, I then proceeded to fire 3 shots at each stadia's zero range including 700 yds., and after rezeroing the turret, one last shot at the lower post’s zero range hoping the last shot would fall back into that particular group again. I said a quick prayer, and walked out to each target. Once again, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but each group was MOA or less, and all around the bull at each range — PERFECT! Targets were then pulled, gear stowed, and this happy camper was headed home.
Of course this was all well and good at the atmospheric conditions typical of fall in Pueblo, CO, but what was going to happen when I hit 12,000 ft. with the consequent drop in barometric pressure, and maybe 30 degrees difference in temp.? Of course the bullet will shoot flatter with less pressure, but it would also shoot lower with a drop in temp. But my concern was by just how much? As it turns out, according to Exbal, which provides an option to recalculate trajectory based on a different set of conditions relative to sight-in conditions, out to 500 yds. or so there would be an avg. trajectory increase of right around 0.4 MOA, and from 500 to 700 yds. I could expect something like 0.8 MOA avg. change. Since I wouldn’t be shooting any further than 400 yds. on a bighorn, the change was really negligible. Of course, had it been a rockchuck shoot where 700 yds. wouldn’t be out of the question, then I would need to make note of the changes in reticle/turret zeroing. The nice thing about Exbal is that it’s also available in PDA format, so the user can enter real-time changes while they occur to provide a much more precise zeroing system.
Certainly there is a lot of information/lingo to grasp here, and if the shooter has never attempted this type of “tactical” shooting in the field it can become complicated. The shooter really needs to become a student of optics and external ballistics to become efficient with these concepts. For this very reason I have chosen to have constantly available an on-line article titled, “Tactical Ballistic and Ranging Reticle Analysis,” which goes into extreme detail regarding tactical long-range shooting solutions, and is noted in the references at the end of this article. The article also outlines a system for interpolative zeroing for the “in-between” ranges, a system to apply the reticle for windage reference, and a reticle-rangefinding system as well.
Earlier I alluded to a little gizmo called the Angle Cosine Indicator (ACI). A company called Sniper Tools carries the tool, and it is a godsend when faced with angled shooting at intermediate to long ranges. It’s a simple dial indicator unit that attaches to the scope, and provides a factor that’s used to calculate the horizontal distance to the target, as a percentage of the true or lasered distance. For instance, if the target is lasered at say 435 yards away, but the angle is steep, simply line up the target in the scope, read the yardage percent on the ACI, and multiply the lasered yardage by that factor to calculate a firing solution. Anyone that may expect to encounter very hilly or mountainous terrain while hunting would be well advised to have one of these little gizmos attached to their scope.
Armed with a practiced tactical system, such as the one described above, the hunter/shooter can now go afield with a degree of confidence heretofore unrealized. The days of “guess and hope” on long-range shots are long gone now when time allows for tactical systems to be applied, and frankly, can take us handgun shooters to places we only dreamed of before.
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