We are currently living in the golden era of long-range rifles. With more and more companies producing top-shelf components and complete rifles, and an ever-changing caliber landscape that is constantly striving to hit harder farther, it is clear that long-range shooting is not only exploding in popularity, but is here for the long haul. With the increase in people shooting long-range precision rifles, naturally, the migration into the hunting world has happened. This begs the question: What differentiates a long-range rifle from a long-range hunting rifle? Are they the same, or does someone need two guns to accomplish both long-range target shooting and long-range hunting?
THE LONG-RANGE TARGET CROWD
If size was no object, a 30-pound, 60-inch, long-range-steel-slaying machine would be the ultimate hunting rifle. Minimal felt recoil, maximized stability, and comfy as hell to lay behind while you line up the perfect shot. Reality dictates that this is nowhere near practical. Unless you use an ATV or a truck to get literally everywhere when out on your hunt, you are going to be on foot at some point; and hopefully for the bulk of your hunt, as that is when the best hunting takes place.
While most of our fathers have all had successful hunts wearing old blue jeans, a worn-out Stanfield shirt, and carrying their father’s 30-06, most of their shots, with all due respect, would be considered a chip shot nowadays. It is no real feat to buy any large name-brand, mass-produced, target rifle like the Remington 700 PCR, Bergara B-14, Ruger RPR or Tikka T3x CTR, and a couple of boxes of ammo off the shelf of any sporting goods store and go shoot steel past 1000 yards your first time out. I know many who have done this their first day shooting long-range – myself being one of them.
So does a rifle inspired by the long-range target crowd exist in a hunting package, and is it worth investing in? Simply put: absolutely.
While following the laws laid out by the governing body in the area you are hunting, you can hunt with nearly any rifle your heart desires. However, there are many situational aspects to take into consideration when choosing your latest beloved boomstick.
This is where we see the merge between precision rifles, and precision hunting rifles. Brands have taken design inspirations from items in their own lineups and from other brands that were geared towards the long-range target community and reimagined them for the hunting discipline. There is no shortage these days of long-range-oriented stocks and accessories with both hunting and target shooting in mind. In fact, more and more items are being designed specifically with a long-range hunting focus. Even ammunition and bullet manufacturers are taking notice of the ever-increasing need for premium ammo geared towards long-range hunting.
THE HUNTING CROWD
Companies are now designing long-range hunting stocks and chassis, titanium actions, and carbon fiber wrapped barrels. They aren’t doing this for the target crowd. The target crowd will often welcome more weight on their rifle, and usually aren’t splitting hairs over ounces. These products are all designed for one very specific group of people – hunters.
There are many differences between a “traditional” hunting rifle and a long-range target rifle, but now with hunting and long-range coming together to build some of the greatest advancements in modern-day rifle design, the main difference between a “target” stock or chassis and a “hunting” stock or chassis, is simply weight.
You might ask: “What is wrong with my $500 hunting rifle that I picked up from [insert big box store here]?”
Or: “Why would a company spend time, effort, and money developing items like an adjustable long-range hunting stock that weighs just over two pounds?”
First, nothing is wrong with an off-the-shelf, mass-produced, “traditional” hunting rifle. Trust me, they will definitely get the job done. Like many, I packed around my 18-pound target rifle in a foot of snow thinking I would be able to expand the range I was comfortable shooting at. With that particular rifle, I knew I was capable of consistent hits at a mile, so the added weight was worth the peace of mind if I was only being presented with shots at my maximum comfortable range. “Instant regret” is an understatement, and hence the obvious void in my rifle quiver.
Until you experience something like I’ve described, you might not think that a long-range hunting rifle is necessary; and for you, maybe it isn’t. I, however, am all for giving myself every advantage I can to have successful hunts where I can feel comfortable and confident while I squeeze the trigger on an ethical shot. Just because a rifle is deemed to be a “long-range” hunting rifle, doesn’t mean you can’t harvest game at shorter distances. It will actually make you even better at those shorter distances. Hence, why I feel there is a justifiable need for two rifles. One for slapping steel at a mile, and one for piling up bucks at a quarter of that.
So, what constitutes a long-range hunting rifle?
The stock needs to be designed to favor shooting in the prone position. While the stock is just one component, it will dictate the ergonomics of the rifle and can make or break a build.
Not every shot will be taken from the prone, but being one of the most stable-shooting positions there is, you want a stock that lends itself to being comfortable and shootable in the prone.
“Long-range” stocks will often have a more vertical grip and a wider, flatter forend to make mounting of ARCA rails and bipods easier, all while promoting a more rigid construction. Depending on price point, some will have an adjustable cheek rest and length of pull. The more spent on a stock the more features it will have – all the way up to and including being built with a carbon fiber shell for the ultimate lightweight package.
Being that these are not off-the-shelf rifles, you will need to find yourself an action to build with. While there are many custom action manufacturers out there, budget-conscious folks will often elect to use an off-the-shelf action to build with. Quite commonly, a Remington Model 700 will be blueprinted by a gunsmith to use as the base of a build. “Blueprinting” or “truing” a rifle action ensures the receiver face, threads, lugs, bolt lugs, and bolt face are square to the centerline of the receiver. This is something that when buying a custom action, you will not need to worry about, but when using an action from a mass-produced rifle, the tolerances aren’t as tight and so the action will often need “truing”.
If your budget allows for a custom action, there are many options out there. This can be an area where you may be able to shave some weight with the recent introduction of titanium actions. Some companies claim their titanium actions save you a half-pound over their stainless counterpart.
The last major component is the barrel. While there are many options and opinions on barrels, there are some valid generalizations. Generally speaking, a thicker barrel will be easier to tune if you are hand loading, as it reduces barrel harmonics, or whip, which leads to improved accuracy at extreme distances. This is where the carbon-wrapped barrels have made their grand entrance onto the scene, as companies attempt to save weight, while still having a meaty barrel. While claims are made of other advantages, the most impressive are claims of up to 64% in weight savings over traditional stainless barrels of the same size.
These days, building a long-range tack driver has been simplified for the consumer. That said, without some forethought, it is easy to build one that will not work well in the hunting arena due to a lack of packability. Not everyone needs to strive for a sub-five pound rifle, but a balance between shoot-ability and packability needs to be found. It doesn’t take long searching to realize that a lot of money can be spent on a long-range hunting rig.
While I am the first to acknowledge this, I will also be the first to tell you from personal experience that trying to go the inexpensive route will often lead you to another purchase shortly down the road when trying to achieve goals that only components truly designed for such a task can accomplish.
Premium components will not only help you shoot better at all distances with tighter tolerances and increased precision, but will save your back whilst hiking into the backcountry on your next pursuit. Keep in mind, hunting rifles are often packed more than they are shot during hunting season, so the wear and tear on components will be nowhere near as extreme as a dedicated target rifle. For many, this is often an investment for the better part of a lifetime.