This is another one of those discussions that gets brought up everywhere from hunting campfires to gun shops to right before the start of a stage. It is typically debated with fervor from all involved parties and accompanied by expressions such as “back in my day”, “if I do my part”, “just as good”, and “crappy Chinese scopes”. But how do we wade through all the opinions, wives tales, and dated information to get a final answer? And will this new found answer finally put the debate to rest for good? Let’s begin.
Before we even attempt to determine which method we are going to use, we have to first determine the level of precision we desire. Now, it’s easy to say “as precise as possible” as you throw out an all knowing smirk. But the reality is, we tailor our level of precision to the task at hand, and must make sure our methods and equipment match that task. No hunter, no matter how good, focuses the same on a vital shot as they do when zeroing their rifle on the bench. There are too many other factors at play, such as adrenaline, movement, position, and time. That hunter also doesn’t require the same level of precision as that zeroing shot or grouping drill. They just have to hit the vitals. Hitting dead center vs slightly off center is less important than getting the shot off at the opportune time. To avoid the “what if” game as much as possible, we are going to assume that we need to engage multiple 2 moa targets, in a limited time, and at varying distances. Determining our required level of precision was only our first of many steps to take while wading through this quagmire that is whether to dial or to hold.
Before we get sucked into the factors separating the two methods. Let’s discuss some of the more obscure wives tales, falsehoods and misconceptions surrounding each one.
“Reticles are not accurate/consistent”.
This usually comes from someone who started shooting with optics during the early days of development. At that time reticles were literally made from crossed hairs or wires (hence the term crosshairs) that were wrapped around small screws on the interior of the optic. There were no dots, hashes, or other marks. Just two intersecting lines. As optics improved, dots began to be added. It could have been small bulges on the hair material, or the reticle could have been painted on to one of the optics lenses. This was obviously inconsistent and caused many issues for shooters, especially those in hot climates that caused the reticles to “melt off”. The next large leap in reticle technology was laser etching the lens. This is a very accurate and consistent way to make reticles, but the original reticles were thick, large, and offered mainly dots to aim with. Again, this made it difficult for a shooter to have repetitive shot placement due to covering up their target. This was a large improvement, but it was still a far cry from the reticles we have today. Around the same time, BDC (bullet Drop Compensator) reticles began to make a larger appearance. In theory these were great. It gives the shooter pre-calculated holdovers at varying distances. Now, as you may already know, for these BDC’s to be accurate you had to be using the exact same cartridge, projectile, muzzle velocity, zero distance, and optic height as the factory for them to be close. You also had to be in roughly the same climate as what the measurements were for. Oh, and you needed a free floated barrel. If one or more of these was incorrect, then you could get wildly varying results from being close(ish) to being off target by several feet. All of these issues led to a large portion of old school shooters believing that reticles were inconsistent or inaccurate for applying dope. Luckily for us, essentially all of these issues have been resolved by advancements in optic technology and moving away from BDC’s for precision shooting. We don’t even need a top tier optic to take advantage of these new features.
“Reticles are too busy, and cause errors”
Even though this does happen, the blame is not due to the reticle, but lack of proficiency by the shooter. If you take an individual that has used mainly mil dot, or duplex reticles and put them behind a Horus, Tremor or Christmas tree reticle, the first feedback they will give you is that it is confusing or busy. They are used to minimal information in their optic and now have been presented with a smorgasbord of measurements and options. The first several times they use it they will most likely hold the wrong line, forget to hold, or lose themselves in the reticle. None of these are reticle issues, but lack of training. Once an individual has become accustomed to the reticle, you will almost never hear complaints about it being too busy or causing errors in the shot process.
“Turrets don’t track correctly”.
This one is more fact then fiction, but can be easily mitigated. As with reticles, scope turrets have seen significant advancements in recent decades (specifically the last decade). It used to be common to find scopes that did not adjust the point of impact accurately when compared to their turret markings. This was mainly caused by errors made in the manufacturing process for the internal mechanism. This was most prevalent (and to a small extent, still is) in lower end or budget scopes. But it was not unheard of in top tier optics as well. In recent years this problem has been greatly diminished by manufacturing improvements. Even some mid/low tier optics are building a reputation for tracking reliably and consistently. That being said, if you feel an optic isn’t tracking, you can conduct a tall target test to confirm. If it is in fact off, then you can input that offset into your ballistic computer to get accurate dope for your rifle. Additionally, Most manufactures recognize this as a defect, and will fix or replace the optic free of charge.
Now that we have dispelled some of the rumors, let’s talk about the advantages of each.
Whether this is a hunt, a match, or a military action, time is almost always against us. The British Royal Marine Shooting Team Mantra is Speed is fine, Accuracy is final. This applies to all disciplines of marksmanship, but for precision rifle we need to find that perfect medium between speed and accuracy, as our ability to re-engage a target is limited. If we have one target, at a predetermined distance, and can dial the appropriate dope to the optic prior to the engagement, then dialing is the fastest way to engage that target. This would allow us to only have to aim center once proper sight picture is attained. Our eye is already drawn to the center of the lens and this is a natural movement for most people. We don’t have to search for our measured markings and find the correct one, which may or may not be specifically marked. But how often do those circumstances align? Or what if our dope was incorrect and we need to make a corrected second shot? Is dialing still faster at this point? That answer is unequivocally no.
If we have multiple targets, are having to apply dope on the clock, or make hasty corrections, Hold overs are the most efficient method to get precise rounds on target. One of the huge time savers is the economy of movement. If I am dialing, I cannot get into my firing position until after dope has been adjusted and my non-dominant hand is back in its place. If I am doing a hold over, my eye/brain can find and apply the correct hold while I am tuning the rest of my body position. This allows for a significantly quicker first engagement and follow on shot. This is especially true if I am shooting from multiple positions and a have to start from scratch multiple times. As long as I have a reticle that is up to the task and I have practiced with it, I will be significantly faster.
As long as you are using a reticle that does not cover the aiming area of the target, it will be equally as precise to hold, as it will be to dial. You only will run into issues if the target is being covered by the reticle and your point of aim is no longer consistent.
Making a wind correction is another factor that we have not discussed up to this point. If a wind condition is extremely steady for both direction and velocity, then there is no benefit to dialing verses holding the wind correction. If the wind velocity, or direction are in constant flux, the holds offer the larger advantage as they can be more easily adjusted on the fly. This gives the shooter the ability to quickly change their wind call to match the present condition, without having to break position or even come off target. The argument can be made that you can plus up or drop off from a dialed wind to match the condition, but this can quickly become confusing in large changes or in fishtailing winds. It is easier to keep up with for fishtailing winds with holds due to the increased speed to change holds, but you also never end up with a negative hold. This happens when you have a dialed adjustment that is added to the wind due to a direction change. All I have to do is hold into the current direction of the wind. This simplicity reduces the risk of human error and increases our likelihood of success.
Now, let’s revisit our scenario.
We need to engage multiple 2 moa targets, in a limited time, and at varying distances.
Which method will work best? Which do you choose?
For this scenario most professional shooters are going to choose hold overs. Due to the need to engage multiple targets in limited time, hold overs will produce a faster result with an equal amount of precision. This gives the shooter more time to focus on delivering well executed fundamentals without sacrificing the opportunity.
All of this being said, a true professional will not argue that one method is superior to the other. But they will learn, understand and master both methods equally. Allowing themselves to choose freely which method is best suited for the situation at hand and not lock themselves into an unideal engagement method over some false sense of pride.