Hunting is a pastime as old as time itself. However, hunting technology is ever evolving, and frankly tends to leave people behind sometimes. Technology improvements in hunting rifles and ammo is growing by leaps and bounds, and improving the precision and distance capabilities of hunters across the board. People love going to the local shop and buying the new mean looking cerakote rifle, slapping that sleek black tube on top, dropping $4 per round for some fancy ultra-super expanding projectile in some overbore cartridge, and yet giving no second thought to arguably the most important part of a putting a precise cold bore shot on game at extended ranges: DOPE management.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not belittling significant investment into quality gear. Frankly, I am a huge proponent (and patron) of such, but without accurate and reliable data, the return on investment is quite limited.
The proceeding discussion will focus on that. Bear in mind, this will not be doctrine, law, or the Bible of shooting. Simply, it is how I choose to manage my DOPE for quick, reliable engagements. My hope is that this provides you a tool in your toolbox for you to modify or plain copy as needed to put game on the ground with the utmost precision.
Do you calculate and/or carry DOPE electronically or hard copy version?
So let’s answer what tends to be the first question on the subject. ‘Do you calculate and/or carry DOPE electronically or hard copy version?’ Well, a little bit of both.
Why? Redundancy and speed of use for a given situation.
Let’s start with calculation.
In my 6+ years of long range precision shooting, never once have I sat down and long hand calculated drop on a given projectile. I would guess I am in the majority there as well. Yes it’s possible; but with kestrels, various apps, and even self-calculating range finders, you are slower and frankly more liable to miscalculate than they are.
By most people’s estimations, a Kestrel with Applied Ballistics would be the gold standard. Mine has been everything they are advertised to be and more. That being said, some of the better apps work off the same algorithm for ballistic calculations, and are equally capable with the proper atmospheric inputs.
Prior to kestrel, I used the BallisticsARC app with a WeatherFlo weather meter for my data. It is still my form of redundancy to this day. Specifically for hunting, carrying one or both is actually pretty common and convenient. Most people have a phone on them at all times, and a kestrel is pocket sized and light weight. Not hard pieces of gear to keep as a part of your kit.
Ballistic Calculating Rangefinders
The less common, but equally capable, electronic option for calculation is ballistics calculating rangefinders.
Obviously, an accurate range is integral to making a precise first round shot on game, and rangefinders themselves are a quite common piece of kit for more hunters than not. However, until rather recently, rangefinders with built in ballistics calculation were not only uncommon in existence, but their price tag drove them out of all but the least stingy hunters’ backpacks.
Additionally, most were bulky and heavy, preventing the ounce counters from implementing them as well. More recently though, some of the most respected optics brands in the game have released options of widely varying prices, weights, and max ranges, in both monocular and binocular options.
Want a compact, lightweight, and price friendly option with reliable ranging capability and can double as a ranger for Archery hunting? The Sig Sauer Kilo 1800 ABS is a tremendous value that will give you a stand alone drop and windage reading for your bullet out to 800 yards.
Want an all-in-one binocular, range finder, calculator with impressive glass, and yet lightweight enough and wide enough field of view to be able to glass free handing? Both the Sig Sauer Kilo 3000 as well the Vortex Fury 5000 w/ AB will fit the bill quite nicely. Neither are terribly cheap but the bang for buck is above and beyond justifiable for what you get in an all-in-one package.
Want an all-in-one with the aforementioned features but top tier glass? It comes at a price, but even Zeiss and Swarovski have joined the game with the Victory RF and Optik EL range offerings, respectively.
I personally run the Sig 3000’s as my main bino/range finder. If you’re a gear nerd like me, oh what a time to be alive.
So now I believe that sufficiently covers the topic of ‘electronic DOPE management’, but there is a very real and very applicable old saying that can be said here: “electronics fail.”
Relying on a phone or kestrel can use up valuable seconds that could be put towards building a position or reading wind before taking the one shot that defines a hunt of a lifetime. And thus we come back to the second half of the original question: Hard copy DOPE management. The options here are limited by nothing more than your creativity.
However, I will provide you 2 of my chosen methods as well as how I arrive at the numbers I choose to carry.
Let’s start with how I arrive at the numbers I choose to print.
If I am choosing to use my hard copy over a kestrel, it’s more than likely because time is of the essence or it’s a simple verification of a slam dunk shot. In either case, I want the data concise, compact, and easy to interpret. Thus my standard dope card typically consists of a yardage column with rows for 300-600 yards in 50 yard increments, a column for elevation, and a column for windage at 8 mph full value. “Really? That’s kind of random values. Why? Let’s dig in.
I am an overemphasizer of “bad inputs = bad outputs.” However understanding this helps you understand the practical ranges at which your human estimations of weather and wind keep your own shooting capability within the kill zone of a game animal with a high probability. In competitive shooting, we think about our rifle capability as well as our own personal capability in terms of angular precision.
We talk 1 moa guns, 2 moa targets, etc. This isn’t exactly practical when thinking about game. For a mature mule deer, the reliable killzone is somewhere in the realm of 10” x 14” or so, let’s say, regardless of distance. That’s a boiler room shot, not spining, neck shot, liver, etc. For elk, maybe a little bigger, little smaller on antelope. But let’s use deer for this example. From prone and with no heartbeat on the other end, I could confidently go 8 for 10 on most days at 1k yards with such a sized target. But for game, no way I’m taking that chance outside of the most perfect of conditions. And more often than not, the big issue will be my ability to read wind. The difference between an 8mph cross wind and a 10 mph cross wind at 1k is nearly 10” even using a high BC 156 gr bullet at 3k FPS. However, when we shorten that to say 800 yards, that 2mph swing is just under 5”. Basically with a dead center hold, I can hold 8mph worth of wind, and between 5 and 10mph stay within the left and right lateral limits of the boiler room assuming a good trigger break. Now let’s shorten that up to 600 yards. An 8 mph hold still keeps me within +/- 5” o from 4-11mph, or else essentially a 4mph margin of error for a confident kill shot. Everything closer just creates more and more forgiveness wind wise. I know that’s a lot of data, but bear with me as this is vital in deciding your max effective range to print on a data card
So let’s move on to elevation budget. Anyone with decent experience long range shooting understands atmospherics play a tremendous role in necessary elevation adjustment while shooting. However, it is also common to underappreciate how close is close enough when shooting moderate ranges. I typically use a ‘Density Altitude’ (DA) value for my atmospherics to keep things simple.
Let’s go back to the earlier examples of ranges. I do my research for the area I’m hunting (or maybe I hunt there year after year). I know that for first season, DA more often than not hovers around 7000, swinging from 5000 on a cold morning to 9000 on a hot afternoon. At 1k yards, the difference between 5k and 9k DA value is a 9” swing alone, assuming nothing else such as round to round speed variation, head & tail wind, or even aerodynamic jump, much less the fact that your gun is likely close to 1 moa rather than 0.1 moa. I don’t like those odds. At 800 yards 5k to 9k DA swing equals a 5” variation in elevation. We’re getting better, but no slam dunk. At 600 yards that DA swing is 2” worth of elevation difference, or else plenty of room for error for the other variables I previously mentioned. Closer distances only further minimize this cause of error.
So back to the earlier question: ‘why these random values on your dope chart?’ Well, I don’t print less than 300 yards, because less than 10 mph and I will all but ignore wind. And with a 100 yard zero I can look at my 300 yard dope and calculate +/- 0.1 mil elevation without needing it printed. Remember, concise and compact. I do 50 yard increments simply because it’s easy to extrapolate all the distances in between. My elevation at 550 yards is 2.7 mil and at 600 yards is 3.1 mil. It’s easy to do mental math and arrive at 2.9 for 575. Furthermore, every 50 yards in a 10mph wind is only worth about .1 mil or less out to past 600 yards. So there is not even any further mental math to do. Long story short, being self aware of my own capabilities to load consistent ammo, pull a trigger, and estimate wind, I believe 600 yards and in I can use the printed chart alone and make very high probability kill shots on game.
“So, you only print out to 600 yards on your dope card. Do you shoot past 600 yards on game?” Well to me, the most important part of hunting big game at extended ranges is knowing when NOT to take the shot. So, no this doesn’t mean that I won’t shoot big game past 600 yards. But what it does mean is that I make myself pull out my kestrel or phone to take that shot. This leads to thinking about the shot a little more. This leads to taking a wind reading to try and refine that margin of error wind calling. This leads to taking a much more exact DA reading to refine my elevation. And ultimately, it leads to me taking an extra second to decide, “is this really the shot I want?” As long range hunters, we owe it to our quarry to ask that question, and answer it with sincere thought. The distance that this question deserves extra effort varies for everyone, but the thought process remains the same.
I would be remiss to not quickly cover off on how I carry my hard copy. People do all sorts of things. Lots of hunters keep a card printed out for every 1k DA laminated and in their pack. Some run an armband similar to a quarterback forearm playbook. I prefer to just keep it on my rifle somewhere. I used to tape it to my buttstock and wrap it in clear tape all flat and pretty. This kept it handy, and pretty weather proof, without adding bulk to my set up. Recently, I have started actually minimizing it and putting it in my flip up rear scope cap, due to running a chassis hunting gun rather than traditional stock. Both work great, but the scope cap method means you better make sure you cap is likely to stay on. All versions work, and come down to personal preference. Either way, I recommend keep it on your person or rifle somewhere as we’ve all been in a position where we dropped pack, then had to move quickly. The kestrel and phone can have a habit of still being in said pack when you need them the most. Hard copy DOPE is hard to beat as being old faithful.
So there you have it. That is how I choose to essentially have 4 methods of DOPE management on me at all times. Redundancy can really be a life saver in these situations. But whichever method you use, you must ensure your inputs are accurate. Furthermore, you must be familiar with whatever method you use, or else leave yourself prone to poor calculations, rushed shots, or even worse. I can’t emphasize enough here keeping things compact, concise, and easy to interpret. We put a lot of money and time into this pastime we hold dear. Sometimes seasons are long and hard, and shot opportunities are rare and fleeting.
Whatever method you choose, when game time comes, you better be ready to manage your DOPE.