The chapter below is from Townsend Whelen’s book Suggestions to Military Rifleman. The book was written when the 1903 was still new, but most of it is still very relevant and worth reading.
By: Townsend Whelen
“There are many good short-range men, who have simply not got the necessary brains nor education for first-rate long-range work; and there are very few officers capable of teaching it well, or who ever had half a chance to learn it.” — Tippins, in Modern Rifle-Shooting.
The above quotation, from one of the greatest English experts, applies with equal force to our own service. It is not so much that long-range firing differs from short or mid-range work, as that the laws which apply to short and mid-range apply with equal or greater force to long range, and while one or two factors may be disregarded and still not spoil a mid-range score, yet the overlooking of a single thing will play havoc at 1000 yards. It will be seen that to apply all the principles and rules so far laid down in this work requires a thorough knowledge of them, a quick and active brain, good eyesight, and a good body; and also, it might be said, a good education. These are, then, the essential qualities of a good long-range shot. Eliminate any one of these, and we will in all probability eliminate also the good scores.
Long ranges are classified as those between 600 and 1000 yards. Practically, however, there is little difference between the care necessary to make a creditable score at 600 yards and that necessary at 800 yards. The real difference comes when one retires to 1000 yards; therefore the following remarks will pertain more particularly to that range.
The rifle is the first consideration. The muzzle of the bore must be perfect to give the necessary accuracy. The bore must be smooth and free from rough places and rust, which would make it foul quickly with cupro-nickel. The barrel must be kept in perfect condition with the metal fouling solution, as directed in Chapter II.
The rifleman must do his own part perfectly. His hold must be steady and exactly the same at each shot. The same amount of tension should be placed on the gun-sling for each shot, and the elbows should lie in the same holes. The aim should be as correct as the eyes can see to make it. Canting or leaning of the sights must be carefully guarded against, as a hardly visible cant will carry one from the bull’s-eye into the “two space” on the target. And lastly, and most important, the pull must be perfect for every shot. The least little unsteadiness or jerk in the trigger-pull will cause a miss almost every time.
Every refinement must be used. The micrometer, telescope, and score-book are especially necessary. One may get an occasional good score without these aids, but his average work will be very poor indeed. By referring to the table on page 86, it will be seen that when using service ammunition and not using the micrometer the radius of the shot group will be about 35.17 inches. Of course, all the shots will not fly as wild as this, but every little while one will, and this one often is a miss, or else it causes one to think his sighting is wrong and plays the mischief with the score generally. Individuals, and organizations shooting at long range without the micrometer will find that scores of 25 to 30 out of a possible 50 is about the best they are able to average. If, however, the micrometer is used, we eliminate the error in sight-adjustment and the radius of the shot group is reduced to about 18.9 inches. The average scores of good shots at 1000 yards under these conditions will be found to run from about 35 to 42 out of a possible 50. Service ammunition made in lots of millions of rounds cannot, of course, have the special attention given to it during manufacture which makes special match ammunition so accurate. Service ammunition gives a mean vertical deviation at 1000 yards of about 8.9 inches, and the special match ammunition used by the American Bisley Team in 1908 gave a deviation of only 5.29 inches. This difference is enough to cause the best shots of the country using the latter ammunition to average 47. to 48 out of a possible 50 at 1000 yards, and with this ammunition perfect scores of 50 at 1000 yards have become very common. Therefore, at long range, to get good results, you must use a micrometer and the most perfect ammunition you can obtain.
A good telescope or powerful field-glass is also essential. Small changes in mirage drift must be watched for, quickly determined; and allowance made for them. This is especially necessary in fish-tail* winds.
*Fish-tail winds are those coming from the general direction of 6 or 12 o’clock, but which are constantly changing from 5 to 7 o’clock, or from 11 to 1 o’clock. The flag flutters from one side to the other continuously, and it only through the glass that one can gain a true estimate.
The score-book is very necessary at long range, in order that one may keep accurate records of elevations and weather conditions. These change so often, and the change amounts to so much at long range, that any attempt to keep these in the head soon results in confusion and drives everyone to the score-book.
You must have a thermometer, barometer, and hygrometer, and must use them, it is not necessary to bring them to the firing-point, but they should be read shortly before firing. A man may use an elevation of 1025 yards at the 1000yard range one day, and the next day his correct elevation may be only 900 yards. If he has no instruments and does not know how to use them, it may take him from five to fifteen shots before he gets a hit on the target. Many men’s qualifications as sharpshooters and expert riflemen are ruined from this cause.
A score previously fired at 800 yards does not always give a true indication of what the elevation will be at 1000 yards. Often one will fire and make an excellent score at 800 yards with his normal elevation, and on immediately going back to 1000 yards he may find that at that range he has to use 4 or 5 minutes of elevation above or below normal.
It occasionally happens that elevations worked out according to all the rules are not correct. It is here that the experience of the old and seasoned long-range shot comes in. He seems to know by instinct which way to move to get a hit. About the best way to become proficient at long range is to get such a man for a coach.
In some localities scores at long range will be found to average quite high despite the absence of all refinements. This will be found to be the case where weather conditions vary but little during the shooting season. Thus, in certain parts of the Philippine Islands and in California, and at certain seasons of the year and time of day, the thermometer, barometer, and hygrometer will be found to have almost the same readings day after day. Here the inexperienced shots are able to do very good work at long range. They find the correct elevation, and as long as they keep their rifles clean, and use the same ammunition, they can stick to that elevation during their whole season’s practice. On the majority of ranges in our country, however, during the shooting season, we are liable to have changes in temperature of 30 degrees, changes in barometer of 3/4 of an inch, and changes in hygrometer of 40 per cent; and these may make differences in elevation at 1000 yards of 150 yards, or 10 to 15 minutes.
“Unaccountables” are shots which either miss the target or else hit it in a quite different spot from what was expected, and their deviation from the rest of the shot group cannot be accounted for. A true “unaccountable” is usually due to a faulty cartridge, but one has to be a very good shot indeed before he can truly blame a bad shot on the ammunition. Very often unaccountably bad shots are more liable to be small errors in pull-off, small changes in mirage, wind, or light, etc., which have escaped the rifleman’s notice. With ammunition giving a large vertical deviation “unaccountables” are more liable to occur than with the more recent accurate loads. One may, for instance, aim a little high without noticing it, and then pull off a little high, and the shot may be one of those striking at the top of the shot group, in which case the shot may go over the top of the target, and lead one to think he has had an “unaccountable” shot when such is really not the case. With the recent great improvement in ammunition and the almost universal use of the micrometer, the word “unaccountable” has almost disappeared from the vocabulary of the really expert shot.
It is of little use attempting to get accurate results at long range when the targets are marked with the big old-fashioned marking disk. One must know exactly where his shot hits the target. The alternative method of marking, with shot marks or “spotters,”* as prescribed in the latter part of Paragraph 103, Small-Arms Firing Regulations 1906, should be used exclusively.
*Spotters are small .30-caliber pegs or nails with a round head of card-board or tin. The spotter is inserted in the bullet-hole of the last shot fired and the card-board head is seen by the rifleman when the target is raised after being marked. Black card-board is used to mark shots which hit in the white of the target, and white cardboard for the bull’s-eyes. The card-board should be about 6 inches in diameter for long range and 3 inches for mid range. Field-glasses are needed to see them. This system of marking is used exclusively in the National Matches, and at Camp Perry and Sea Girt.
To sum up, the following precautions should always be used in long-range firing:
1. Keep your barrel in perfect condition.
2. Use a micrometer and the best ammunition you can get.
3. Read the thermometer, barometer, and hygrometer before starting your score, and figure out your elevation.
4. Watch the flags and mirage closely before each shot.
5. Remember that a perfect pull-off only will hit the target.