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Can a Rifle's Accuracy be More Consistent at Long Range than it is at Short Range?

The Summary
I’ve heard more than one rifleman say that its possible for a rifle to be more accurate at long range than it is at short range. On first hearing this, I assumed they were talking about MOA, rather than actual group size. For example, I thought it might be possible that a rifle could shoot a 1-inch group at 100 yards (approximately 1 MOA), and print perhaps a 1¾-inch group at 200 yards (which is a larger group size but slightly smaller MOA). But, after clarifying, some riflemen say overall group size can indeed be smaller in certain guns with certain loads. They might say, for example, that a rifle’s three-shot group average is .75-inch at 100 yards, but that it averages .65-inch at 200.

They often cite bullet stabilization as the reason, claiming that in some rifles a specific bullet will yaw (a loose term for bullet nutation) and demonstrate poor accuracy before stabilizing and rotating perfectly to become more accurate at a specific longer distance. Because I have never seen this phenomenon occur firsthand, I’m inclined to call 1-800-BullShooters on it. So I investigated.

(*Note: While this question can likely be answered in a complex formula via mathematics and physics, BullShooters is about exploring hunting and shooting via practical side of things—it’s a lot more fun this way. But we welcome your comments and theories on this matter, whether practical, or mathematical.)

The Naysayers
Bryce Towsley is a three-gun shooter, gun writer, reloader and frequent contributor to this magazine because he knows his stuff. Towsley said he’s never seen a rifle consistently shoot better groups at longer range that it would shoot at shorter range. He says that of course it could happen due to a fluke, but he’s adamant that it’s impossible for a rifle to be more accurate at longer range on a consistent basis.

Clay Spencer is a 1,000-yard benchrest shooting legend, a rifle/barrel maker of precision guns and an authority on the topic. Spencer owns Spencer Rifle Barrels, Inc, and the shooters of his rifles have earned multiple accolades in the biggest benchrest competitions for their accuracy. Clay and his disciples earn their keep by eliminated shooter error via benchrests, heavy rifles and load consistency. They measure, with calipers, every group they shoot, and they tediously record everything they do.

“In 36 years [of competitive riflery] I’ve never seen a rifle or a rifle barrel shoot better at 200 or 300 yards [or further distances] than it did at 100 yards, period," Spencer said. "Someone will have to show me before I believe that garbage. It’s B.S!”  (Please note that B.S. is short for BullShooters).

Doug “Dog” Pritchard is a former Navy SEAL sniper who now runs a long range shooting school for hunters call the SAAM (Sportsman’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship) at Texas’ FTW ranch. Pritchard said, “We have seen the miracle groups, but nothing to put in writing to prove that it is possible to shoot smaller inch spreads at distance.”

The Yes Men
Lex Webernick of Rifles, Inc. has been building accurate, ultra-lightweight rifles for many years, and as such he tediously tests rifles, barrels and loads at all ranges. He’s an honest Texas craftsmen and many people in the shooting industry know and trust him. Webernick reports that he’s personally seen several rifles consistently shoot equal and even smaller groups at long range than at short range. He said it sometimes takes a few hundred yards for a bullet to ‘go to sleep,’—a term he said was jargon for when a bullet stabilizes into its most accurate, tight spin. Chalk one for the yes column.

Steve Adelmann is a former special forces sniper, a tactical rifle builder/proprietor of Citizen Arms, a respected gun writer and a ballistical nerd. He studies this stuff for a living. He has done extensive testing under controlled conditions for the military.

Adelmann said, “In terms of actual group size, it is possible (especially in light of some of the classified work going on with powered and/or in-flight guided projectiles) but doesn't happen often, and I have only seen it happen at distances very close to each other (i.e. 100 and 200 yards). This is mainly a big bullet issue in either case, and basic physics explain the "why" behind it. I first saw it during early .338 Lapua Mag. testing I did around 2004, especially with 300-grain projectiles. I've seen it in other places from time to time too, especially in heavy subsonic .30 loads and even some supersonic 7.62x39 loads. [That said] I do not think it at all likely that you could get this result consistently with conventional projectiles. I believe it is possible to see from time to time because I have seen it, but only within very narrow parameters—i.e. slow, heavy projectiles that are not fully stabilized out of the barrel but then settle down within a reasonable short distance.”

Adelmann also pointed out that the larger group size could be because when some bullets are fired the nutation (or wobble) is larger and could tear a slightly larger hole on the paper target that is measured, compared to the 200 yard hole that was cut by a bullet that has fully stabilized.

Dave Emary is one of the top ballisticians in the firearm industry. Officially he is Hornady Ammunition’s Chief Ballistic Scientist. He is a contributor to the world standard of guns and ballistics, SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Manufacturers Institute). This organization is comprised of mathematical and technical geniuses and they don’t spout B.S.

Emary said, “It’s not very common, but yes it is possible. It is primarily with very heavy for caliber and long for caliber bullets or bullets that are grossly over-stabilized. In both these cases it can take the bullet a long time to “go to sleep” or to damp out all the “wobble” from the muzzle. This would cause the bullet to shoot better at longer ranges than at short ranges. Several cartridges that exhibit this behavior are the .338 Lapua and the 50 BMG.”

The Conclusion
Based on the opinions I’ve gathered, I think it’s possible that a rifle can be consistently more accurate at long range that at a shorter range, but not likely. If you have a video, or mathematical proof that proves or disproves this phenomenon, please comment below, and let the debate continue.

Readers: please feel free to discuss your own experiences in the comments section below! You can also email direct responses—even videos, if you've got them—to EmediaBullShooters@nrahq.org.

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19 Responses to Can a Rifle's Accuracy be More Consistent at Long Range than it is at Short Range?

Jesse Bartunek wrote:
August 07, 2013

'accuracy' is the word in question here. We don't measure accuracy by center to center measurements. We measure accuracy by edge to edge measurements. It is possible to gain accuracy by way of edge to edge as the bullet stabilizes but not by center to center measurements. A long bullet that is very accurate but wobbles may make .5moa but yaw out 3/8' at 100ys and stabilize to a smaller edge to edge measurement with no wobble at 200yds. An moa measurement of center of mass would be similar but the group size would appear to shrink.

Michael Watson wrote:
June 25, 2013

The Following Comment Was Received Via E-Mail:

I tried to post these webpage links in the comments section about 3 days ago so that your original experts could see this data for themselves. This is proof of the fact that bullets do initially pitch and yaw, then settle down or “go to sleep."

“Pitch yaw and bullet path” posted by Bryan Litz provided by Berger Bullets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KH9SCbCBHaY.

“Pitching and yawing of a bullet” posted by Bryan Litz provided by Berger Bullets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pF8W5liSRc.

I would hope that you share these links with the panel of distinguished ballistics experts that you gathered for your original article. It would be interesting to see more postings of all their comments once shown this scientific approach. Several of your experts stated that it was not possible to attain better accuracy or a tighter group at 200 yd versus 100 yards. Several stated that this effect was most prevalent on large sized bullets. These are 7mm 180gr bullets and this data supports the fact that these bullets do “go to sleep” at about 120yds. These data sets are very appropriate to the objective of your posted query “Can a Rifle's Accuracy be More Consistent at Long Range than it is at Short Range?”

Steven wrote:
June 20, 2013

Based solely on the grade school physics, I find increased accuracy at greater range nearly impossible to believe. The shooter being better, or maybe more careful, at increased distance, I can believe. Short of personally witnessing a few hundred rounds fired from a gun locked into a vice, I won't believe the gun itself is more accurate at longer range.

Jerry Gaines wrote:
June 20, 2013

Speaking as a Physicist, once a projectile leaves the barrel , as one reader stated there are only two forces acting on it, gravity and the air or wind passing by it. It may stabilize later in its trajectory but it will not suddenly change direction and be more accurate at 200 yds than at 100 yds. The instability will cause an error that will only get larger as the distance is increased.

JJ wrote:
June 19, 2013

I spoke with famed outdoor writer Jim Carmichel, who set a new benchrest rifle record last year. Jim has been shooting competitively for decades and as such, obsessively tests rifles, barrels and loads, and measures each group exactly. He cautions that people who believe that guns can be more accurate at long range are normally very casual in their observations, and not scientific. Mr. Carmichel said, 'I'd pay $1,000 dollars to see such a rifle.' Meanwhile, he turned me on to a book, 'Methods in Exterior Ballistics' by Moulton, that he says proves it's mathematically impossible. Standby for more data in order to solve this myth. --JJ

Gregory Messa wrote:
June 19, 2013

Did anyone think of the optics? A scope can be parallax free at 200y and have enough error at 100y to account for this. Remember to make an effort to keep your crosshairs centered to eliminate this error.

Redline wrote:
June 19, 2013

The fact of rifle bullets is they do tend to stabilize at around 300M(.308) and shoot better than MOA more consistently. The groups will not be smaller, but the group within the standards of MOA may be more consistent due to the bullet stabilizing it's spin at that range. It is a simple fact that much like a football being tossed in a perfect spiral, it takes a bit to stabilize into a perfect spin. This is where the myth of 'better shooting' at range comes from. The group is not tighter, but it IS more consistent.

Zermoid wrote:
June 18, 2013

Sounds possible, look at some old WW2 wing camera pics of tracers, I've seen ones that seem to 'corkscrew' for a while then straighten out.

James wrote:
June 18, 2013

For those who claim greater accuracy at longer distance, my guess is it is an aiming/target issue, that you are using the same sized X or + or circle diameter target at 300 yards that you are using at 100 yards, and because the target appears smaller at 300 yards than 100 yards, you are concentrating better at precise aiming at 300 yards, whereas at 100 yards being off center by the same amount while aiming at the larger appearing target is not noticeable.

Paul wrote:
June 18, 2013

I had this happen with an M82 Barret, we tried sighting in at 100 yards and it was all over the place but once we got to 300 we were holding 4' groups.

Dennis wrote:
June 18, 2013

In other words it's a definite 'maybe'

Doug Prichard wrote:
June 18, 2013

Not exactly a naysayer. We watch thousands of rounds shoot from various rifles and calibers every week. If the question is in inches, we have not really seen smaller inch groups but have seen the occasional “Miracle Groups” from 100 to 200 yards but not enough data to prove it possible. However, if we are talking about MOA, the short answer is 'Yes'. We see this often in the short actions, WSM etc. It is not uncommon to see a Short Mag shoot a 1.5” (MOA plus) spread at 100 yards and the turn around and shoot the same group size (1.5” groups) at 200 yards (Sub-MOA). Enough times to be convinced it is possible in regards to MOA. Like it or not. Doug Prichard FTW Ranch

James wrote:
June 18, 2013

So are you trying to tell me that if at 100 yards a bullet is off true center and striking at 1 1/2 minutes of angle, that then at 300 yards, this same bullet can somehow self correct its course of travel and strike within say 1 minute of angle? I think not.

Chuck wrote:
June 18, 2013

Before reading the article if you had asked me if pigs could fly I would have said, 'No way!' Very interesting article and I have learned something new today that I had previously thought was campfire, a wee drop too much of the old elixer, bull shooting.

Jim wrote:
June 18, 2013

I don't see how it is possible. I buy the larger wobble at closer range, but once the bullet is out of the barrel, there are only two forces available to change trajectory: gravity and wind. If the it's off at 100 yd, it must be farther off at 200 and greater because the trajectory of the center of mass is off by some angle that can only result in more inches ofat greater distance.

Chuck Smallhouse wrote:
June 17, 2013

A number of years ago, one weapon that was used for regular qualification was the 30-06 caliber M1 Garand. At that time the procedure was to start at 500 yards and then move in closer until we were shooting at 100 yard or less targets. Think that we fired about 10 rounds at each subsequent distance. In my case I had no difficulties in hitting bulls eyes at all of the longer ranges. However at the closest range I noted that my accuracy had very much deteriorated and I even occasionally received a 'Magie's Drawers'. I later realized that after that many rounds fired from the M1, that I was severely flinching ! I never had the same problems with any of the other weapons that I qualified with. Also when a cadet, when drilling in the winter, I regularly also got an 'M1 Thumb'. The M1 Garand was not my favorite weapon !

steve comus wrote:
June 17, 2013

I had such an experience with a .257 Weatherby years ago. Figured it was just a stabilization situation and kept killing animals with. It shot minute-of-game all the way out to 400 yards, which did the trick. But the group was almost an inch smaller at 200 than at 100, about the same size at 100 and 300, and then just a tad larger at 400. Go figure.

Ernie wrote:
June 17, 2013

I recall an NRA 'High Power' publication about the British '303' that stated that the '303' had a tendency to actually group SMALLER at longer ranges vs. short!!! I really don't think THEY would lead all of us astray! Comments/answers/replies welcome !!!! Thanks!!!

Bill wrote:
June 17, 2013

I understand the bullet may take longer to stabilize, but I would expect any inaccuracies caused by the wobble would only be exaggerated the further out you go. The inaccuracies are not going to be compensated for after the bullet stabilizes 200 yards down range. I would also expect that the bullet would not stabilize at the exact same point and orientation in the ballistic trajectory. If anyone has ever witnessed greater accuracy at longer distances it was most likely a fluke. Someone is taking crazy pills.