During his first 25 years hunting big game, Robert Phillips never killed from farther than 250 yards. He wasn’t certain how to calculate the pull of gravity on a bullet traveling farther than that, not to mention the harder-to-calculate effect of wind.
But four years ago, Phillips invested in a rifle and sighting system that does all that calculating for him. On a hunt in New Mexico this fall, Phillips downed an elk with one shot from 683 yards. His longest kill with this new gear came at 1,180 yards, four times beyond any conventional range.
“From that distance, the animal isn’t frightened. It’s not jittery. And you’re not jittery either,” says Phillips, a home builder in Columbus, Ind.
In this ancient American sport, the newest thing is a long-range-shooting system that measures distance, determines wind effect and fires high-powered ammunition. These systems turn hunters into snipers by taking the guesswork out of calculating the effects of gravity and wind on a bullet traveling as far as a mile. Applying technical expertise to firearm sighting systems, new players such as Gunwerks and TrackingPoint are winning shares of a market long dominated by venerable brands like Remington and Winchester. “A TrackingPoint Precision-Guided Firearm ensures never-before-seen precision at extreme distances,” says the website of TrackingPoint, based in Pflugerville, Texas.
Of about 14 million rifle hunters in America, about 5% are using new long-range systems, estimates Gunwerks founder Aaron Davidson. “And I would expect that 5% to turn into 50%,” says Davidson, a mechanical engineer who started his company in 2006. In the hopes of spurring such growth, Davidson’s company produces a cable hunting show called “Long Range Pursuit,” which he says gains about 300,000 viewers a week.
But as if big-game hunting weren’t controversial enough, many of the sport’s own practitioners disapprove of long-range hunting, calling it a violation of a tradition known as fair chase. Getting close to a deer or elk requires stealth and patience. Within 300 yards, the snap of a twig or sudden shift in wind can alert a wild animal that danger is near, sending it under cover. For the hunter, evading a wild animal’s exquisite senses can be one of the greatest thrills of the sport.
“The animal should have a chance,” says David E. Petzal, Field & Stream magazine’s field editor and a hunter since 1960. “If you shoot at an animal from 500 yards or farther, you’re depriving him of his tools. You negate his eyesight and his hearing and his sense of smell.”
Long-range shooting is the latest new technology to come to the attention of state wildlife officials, who in various places have limited or banned hunters from using drones, trail cameras and night-vision equipment. This year in Nevada, the state wildlife commission proposed outlawing electronically controlled firing systems on big-game rifles, a measure that could effectively ban some long-range shooting systems. “To their credit, our wildlife commission is taking a stand on technologies they feel are going beyond the fair-chase ethic,” says Tyler Turnipseed, Nevada’s chief game warden.
In a 2014 statement, the Boone and Crockett Club, a 129-year-old conservation and record-keeping group, said the club “finds that long-range shooting takes unfair advantage of the game animal, effectively eliminates the natural capacity of an animal to use its senses and instincts to detect danger, and demeans the hunter/prey relationship in a way that diminishes the importance and relevance of the animal and the hunt.”
Hunting big game ought to be as difficult as hitting a fastball, says Field & Stream’s Petzal. “If you practice it ethically, most of the time you won’t succeed,” says Petzal, who once went 17 seasons without taking an elk despite hunting for one every year. “I’m talking about 2-3 weeks up and down mountains year after year with nothing to show for it,” he says.
Proponents of long-range hunting acknowledge that it can improve a hunter’s chances of making a kill. But what’s wrong with that, they ask, given that hunters often spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, travel and licenses in pursuit of animals whose numbers are abundant—sometimes overly abundant? They also say that long-range systems don’t eliminate the element of chase or the grind of hauling heavy equipment up mountains. “It’s no cakewalk,” says Phillips, a 65-year-old Gunwerks customer.
As for ethics, proponents say that super-accurate sighting systems make hunting more humane at any range, by killing animals instantly, thereby reducing the risk of wounded prey escaping. “Without TrackingPoint 14% of animals shot suffer and require two or more shots to be killed. Many are never found,” says a TrackingPoint document. “With TrackingPoint 99.5% of animals are cleanly harvested.”
South Carolina home builder William Sinnett bought a TrackingPoint system not only for himself but for his business partner, who had a habit of jerking when he fired upon a big-game animal.
“He had a tick, so he’d just wound an animal, and sometimes we’d find the animal and sometimes we wouldn’t,” says Sinnett, a former military sharpshooter. Since using the TrackingPoint system, however, “my business partner hasn’t missed a shot,” says Sinnett.
Proponents of long-range shooting also argue that the virtues of creeping close to a big-game animal are overblown. They note that bow hunting—which requires extraordinary stealth—often wounds rather than kills. “Bow hunters wound animals that get away—and that’s unethical,” says Phillips.
One factor likely to limit growth is cost. While a conventional deer rifle can be bought for a few hundred dollars, these ultra-sophisticated rifles and shooting systems can cost a few thousand dollars up to nearly $25,000.