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Sniper Central Letter: Unknown Distance

Unknown Distance Shooting... who cares?

A vast majority of the average rifle shooters out there in today's shooting world primarily only shoot at known distances, meaning they know exactly how far away the target is at the shooting range. Such as 100 yards, 200 yards, 500 yards, etc. Obviously this is the case because most shooting ranges have the targets setup at those regular intervals in order for the shooter to easily be able to look up the data on their ballistic charts, make their scope adjustments, and then be able to be on target relatively easy. This is all very practical and makes life easy for the shooter and the folks who maintain the shooting ranges.

Of course, everyone knows that out in the field the targets never appear exactly at known distance ranges, such as 300 yards, but rather they appear at an unknown distance such as 463 yards. Most shooters figure that this is no real problem, they just either dial in the data for their 400 yards target and then hold a bit high, or perhaps they figure they will just split the difference between their 400 and 500 yard dope and they should be good. So they ask “Who really cares about unknown distance shooting, and who wants to go through the hassle of practicing it?”

Well, we are not ordinary shooters and in short... everyone should care! This is what we are going to discuss in this edition of the Sniper Central Letter.

It is the Real World
With a .308 rifle shooting the standard 175gr Sierra Match King bullet, if a shooter is engaging a target at 950 yards, but estimates the range to be 900 yards and dials that 900 yard ballistic data into their scope, guess what? The bullet will strike the ground well in front of the target! There is the 'Shooting Range World' and then there is the 'Real World'. The real world is the world in which we have to live and operate. If a shooter plans to just shoot at the shooting range at known distance targets for the rest of their shooting career, then this article will not mean much to that shooter and the 'Shooting Range World' will suffice just fine. But for any shooters who plan to venture beyond the gates of the shooting range, or even try their hand at an unknown distance long range shooting competition, then they need learn to live in the 'Real World'. Many readers may not have a choice as their profession dictates that they engage targets, such as enemy combatants, in the 'Real World'.

When engaging targets outside of the shooting range, it is rare that the distance to the target is known and as such the requirement for determining the range to the target becomes necessary. There are many forms and methods of estimating range, everything from a Laser Range Finder to using your naked eye, but range-e is not the only fundamental skill required. There are many factors including estimating the weather and environmental conditions, setting up in a stable position, communication with the spotter, applying range based calculations for those conditions and many other minor skills. As these factors all get applied to the engagement, the overall act of determining the adjustments to make while aiming becomes an integrated procedure, one we like to call the integrated act of firing.

There is no single way that an integrated act of firing (IAF) has to be done, but rather it is something that is developed as a team, or developed on your own if you are lone shooter doing it for hobby or fun. The IAF typically consists of the process of setting up in a position, locating a target, communicating between shooter and spotter, estimating the range and weather conditions, determining the required adjustments, dialing those adjustments into the scope, getting the proper sight alignment, breathing, squeezing the trigger, following through, calling the shot, making any corrections, sending a follow up shot, and all the other little things that it takes to accomplish that list.

Why do we care about the IAF rather than just figuring it out on the fly and just making it work? The one main reason we like to throw out there first is our motto here at Sniper Central. Consistency Equals Accuracy! That means consistency in everything we do as a sniper team. This consistency in methods and procedures allows the team and shooter to become more accurate in developing their solutions and firing the shot. Beyond that, becoming more efficient with calculating a firing solution and then engaging a target is another benefit as well as instilling discipline and repetitive memory action which will help a team stay focused during high stress scenarios, whether during combat, hunting or competition.

What to Practice
When it comes to actually practicing unknown distance shooting, there are a lot of different skills that need to be developed in order to become proficient at the art of UD shooting. Each of these skills requires time to master and this can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Do not let the size of the list discourage you as typically many of the skills can be practiced at the same time and worked on together. The good thing is that many of these skills can be practiced without having to shoot ammo so they can be done in a training area, at home, or even on the road and without having the capital expenditure of buying a lot of ammo.

The list skills to train may include:

  • Range Estimation

  • Target Detection

  • Wind Estimation and compensation

  • Weather and environmental variables and compensation

  • Fundamentals of marksmanship

  • Calling your shot

  • Angled shooting, or "slope dope"

  • Log Book data entry

  • More range estimation, using alternate methods

  • Integrated Act of Firing

There are other tasks and skills that you will come up with while developing your IAF that will also need to be practiced to become proficient, but the above list should be enough to get you going with the training.

The initial focus should be to settle on, and iron out, any questions in regards to your integrated act of firing. Ironing out the details here will allow the rest of the processes and other skills to be more easily defined. Once the IAF has been standardized to a point where you and your teammates, if applicable, are able to naturally go through the flow of acquiring the target, computing a firing solution, engaging the target, and re-engaging (if necessary) without having to think about it, then additional time and focus can be devoted to the other skills.

When evaluating the list, it is easy to see that most of the skills listed do not actually involve shooting the rifle. This will actually help with more easily setting up a practice regime as many items will not have to be done at the shooting range. But there is still work to be done in setting up the training for these various skills which leads us to the question of "how do I practice these skills?"

How to Practice
It does no good to know what to practice if you do not know how to go about doing the practice! Since we have talked so much about the integrated act of firing and its importance, it should probably be at the start of this discussion on how to conduct training, or practice. As much as everyone hates doing "role playing", it is perhaps the quickest and easiest way to develop and iron out any problems with a proposed IAF procedure. If you are a member of a team, then running through some dry fire exercises while setup in position as a team will be of great benefit. This is what we do in our long range precision marksman classes when we are first getting teams working together. Simply getting behind the rifle and spotting scope as a team and having the spotter make up an engagement scenario, is all that is required. I would strongly suggest that it be acted out as real as possible to include dry firing the rifle and calling the shot. The additional practice of the fundamentals of marksmanship can all be thrown in to this exercise as well.


What this role playing does is allow the details of team communication to be ironed out. Such things as what unit of measure will be used when giving scope corrections will quickly come to focus as you go through the process, and the best part is that you do not even have to go to the shooting range or shoot any ammo. This exercise can be done from the comfort of your own training room and it will go a long way to smoothing out the IAF before ever messing with live ammo. Not to mention practicing basic marksmanship skills. Even if you are a lone shooter without a teammate, the very act of going through the complete IAF will make you a better shooter and more consistent. Just be sure not to cut corners and just "think it in your head", but rather talk out loud, dial in the real adjustments, do the real math, and all of the other little details. The closer to reality you can make it, the better the training will be.

Once the IAF has been ironed out as much as possible then take the training to the shooting range and begin working on it while engaging actual targets. Even after the team has achieved their desired comfort level with their IAF, they will need to continue to practice it just to insure the process stays fresh and becomes second nature. It is easy when you are done cleaning weapons after training to just plop down into your firing positions and run through an engagement or two just to stay on top of it. The IAF plays an important part in all the other skills that are needed for unknown distance shooting so it is essential that it remains a top priority for training.

Since the primary difficulty with unknown distance shooting is the fact that the target is an unknown distance away, then it is only logical that a good portion of training and practice be applied toward range estimation. Claiming that all of your range estimation is going to be done with a Laser Range Finder is not an acceptable training program or solution to the problem. For instance, what happens when a shooter has to perform a snap engagement at a sudden target? Well, there is no time to whip out the LRF, instead your eyeballs will have to work for Range-E. What happens when there is brush half way between your firing position and the target and the LRF keeps returning the range to the brush and not the target? Or when the LRF breaks or runs out of batteries? Or when the rain or snow is falling too hard to get a good Range? It is time to use your eyes, your scope reticle, a map, your bino's or any other means you have. Make sure that realistic range estimation practice is happening using a variety of targets to introduce realistic scenarios. Again, this is additional training that can be done without firing any ammo through a rifle, though it lots of times requires some additional help to setup the exercises. It can be as simple as setting out a few known sized targets at various ranges out in a field. Also, do not forget to use creativity to introduce effective training. For instance, if you know your pace count and you are on a walk with your wife but still want to get some naked eye range estimation practice. Just find any object along your path and guess the range to it... then count your paces as you approach. Wife probably will not even notice, unless you count out loud...

For more information on the above range finding formula, visit the members mastering mil-dots page.

The fundamentals of marksmanship are also crucial and should not be forgotten. Steady Position, Sight Picture, Breathing and Trigger Control will never change. In addition, do not forget to put in "Calling your Shot" as the 5th fundamental. A lot of practice on these can also be done without firing live ammo as well. When dry firing, there is some debate whether even a snap cap is necessary to protect the firing pin, but they are cheap and it doesn't hurt, so grab one and then dry fire... A LOT! It is amazing how much dry firing helps marksmanship. This is also a fantastic drill for getting used to "calling your shot", exactly where the crosshairs are when the firing pin drops and the rifle goes boom.

When the time comes to actually fire live rounds, do not just waste them, make each and every shot count. Make sure that you go through the fundamentals, focus on your breathing and squeezing the trigger. Do not just "spray and pray" the ammo you have. Act as if each shot is "the shot". When shooting at a known distance range, focusing on these fundamentals is more important as there are not as many of the other variables involved. But also be sure that each of these shots is logged in your log book and spend a good amount of time concentrating on the wind when you are shooting at longer distances. The known distance range is the time to really focus on these types of details, always pay attention to the details. Once you get to the unknown distance shooting, it becomes difficult to try and track the effects of the wind and other details when you do not know the exact distance to the target. Environment variables come into play here as well. Temperature, humidity, altitude all should be logged and tracked in as much detail as possible when training.

Eventually you and your team will get to the point where actually engaging unknown distance targets needs to be done and practiced. Unfortunately, if your primary shooting range does not have a UD range, it is difficult to setup and get your training in. Some teams and shooters have gone to public BLM or Forest Service land where shooting is legal and have done their UD shooting there. If that is the case, then there are still challenges as most shooters do not have access to a lot of steel targets to setup at various ranges. One method we have used when having to do ad hoc training such as this with only one or two targets is to setup the target and then from the target, start walking AWAY from it, talking as you go. The talking helps your mind to not subconsciously do a pace count or try and keep track of how far you have walked. Then, after a decent amount of time, stop, and prepare to begin the engagement. On command, time yourself as you turn around and go through the complete integrated act of firing to assume your position, find the target, come up with a firing solution, and engage the target. This drill will go through the entire spectrum of skills needed and is a great training aid and does not require too many resources to accomplish.


Once the target has been successfully engaged you can stand up, turn around, and do it again from that spot, or head off at an angle, or go back to the target and start over, or anything else that will help make the next engagement more challenging.

Be creative when designing and preparing training exercises; try to include as many aspects as possible to keep it fresh and interesting. Incorporating a target detection drill or a KIMS game is easy to do and provides excellent training of some of those other skills needed for UD shooting.

To us here at Sniper Central, we feel that long range unknown distance shooting is the pinnacle of shooting skill, and frankly, enjoyment. Yes, it is the core of what sniping is about and is probably more than 99% of the type of shooting that a sniper team engages in when in the field. This is why we love teaching the LR Precision Marksman classes that we do. This is a usable skill by more than just snipers or competitive shooters, but it is also used by hunters and should be known by all American Riflemen!

Because UD shooting is done 99% of the time as a sniper team, it should then in theory be 99% of the shooting that a sniper team practices. Obviously, due to constraints on resources and available training areas, this is not practical, but there are many of the other skills that are used for unknown distance shooting that can be practiced and contribute to the overall effectiveness of a shooter or team when it is applied to unknown distance shooting. Take the time to focus on these skills and make sure that the training that you are doing applies to what skills are needed in the field. When it comes to snipers, designated marksman and the legendary American Rifleman, unknown distance shooting should be that primary focus.

In the next issue of the Sniper Central Letter, we plan to talk about the pros and cons of BDC's and whether we should use them.

Until then, take care and shoot straight!

Sniper Central