There’s not much point in being able to shoot a tight group and knowing where to aim for every distance if you’ve got no idea how far away the target is, so in this article I’m going to concentrate on the basics of range estimation in HFT.
The more advanced topics of ranging by parallax and using your mildots to bracket objects will be covered in later articles.
Using the Mk1 eyeball
In the absence of other clues, don’t underestimate the accuracy of using your eyes to try to judge a distance.
This is something you can practice whenever you’re out walking – look at a distant object and estimate how far away you think it is, then pace the distance out (try to avoid Basil Fawlty style strides because it tends to scare animals and small children). The more you practice, the better you will become.
Start with small distances first perhaps try to estimate things that are exactly 10 yards away. If you can learn to accurately judge 10 yards, then you can use multiples of this to break a distance down.
When you practice judging a distance, practice judging what half that distance looks like if it’s further than 30 yards or twice the distance if it’s less than 20 yards.
For example if a tree on the course looks to be at about 10 yards and it looks like it’s at the halfway mark between the peg and the target then you can guess that the target is probably about 20 yards away.
This method works surprisingly well out to about 30 or 35 yards and it’s something you can practice every day. It does require a lot of practice to become good at though!
You should also be aware that the Mk1 eyeball can be fooled by different lighting conditions and other optical illusions. It can even be fooled by a different colour target faceplate so it isn’t always the most reliable method of range finding.
While we’re on the subject of pacing out distances, of course you should also be aware that a single stride is unlikely to be exactly one yard so it is a good idea to pace out various distances and then measure those distances to see what allowances you need to make for the difference between a natural stride and a measured yard.
Learn the course setting guidelines
The course setting guidelines for HFT set out the maximum and minimum target ranges for different killzone sizes and generally these distances are checked by a non-shooting official before an event. Most HFT competitions around the country use the UKAHFT guidelines and currently the guidelines state :-
- 15-19mm Hit zone Targets from 13-25yds.
- 20-24mm Hit zone Targets from 8-30yds.
- 25-34mm Hit zone Targets from 8-40yds.
- 35-45mm Hit zone Targets from 8-45yds.
Standing and Kneeling shots have a maximum range of 35 yards, and supported standing and kneeling shots with a smaller killzone (25-34mm) have a maximum distance of 30 yards.
It’s not always easy to know the size of a killzone however, for example how would you know that a killzone was 25mm or 30mm when looking through your scope?.
Fortunately, course setters tend to choose the smallest size of killzone for a particular distance, so although it’s within the rules to use 19mm killzones for all of a courses mini-kill targets the kills are much more likely to be 15mm than they are 19mm. The reason for this is that a 15mm killzone is harder to hit than a 19mm killzone. If you get the range wrong on a 19mm kill target, there’s a better chance to sneak a pellet in than there is on a 15mm killzone.
Similarly with the 25mm-34mm killzones – course setters are much more likely to use kills closer to 25mm.
So how does this help you?
In some competitions, you’re allowed to walk the course before the event starts – UKAHFT events don’t allow this but some of the regional events do. But even for the UKAHFT events you still often need to walk along at least part of the course in order to get to your starting peg. When you walk along the course, try to pick out targets that will give you a clue about their range based on the shot. Try to look for landmarks such as large trees that you can use as a reference point for other targets. For instance if you see a standing lane with a target on a large tree you know that the tree can’t be any further than 35 yards – if it’s a small kill on a supported standing/kneeling lane then it can’t be any further than 30 yards.
As you walk along the shooting line, look across to see if you can see the landmarks you’ve picked out and use those reference points to give you clues about other lanes.
This works best when there’s a section of straight shooting line with targets at 90 degrees to the line.
Look for regularly spaced objects
As you’re walking along the course, always be on the look out for objects on the course that have regular spacing. Fence posts are a good example of this, but some woods have saplings planted at regular intervals too.
If you find something such as a regularly spaced fence on the course, you can pace out the distance between two posts behind the line and use that to figure out the distance to a target. So for example if you pace out the distance between two fence posts as 3 yards, all you need to do is count the number of posts to the target and multiply that by 3 to give you the distance to the target.
This doesn’t tend to happen very often these days, but it does happen so be on the look out for it.
Learn from previous targets
Very often large sections if not whole courses are set in a straight line. If you can correctly guess the range to a target, then you instantly have a reference point you can use for other targets along the line. For example if you knock over a target at 35 yards (or even if you miss one) but are able to see where the pellet strikes on the faceplate then that can give you a vital clue about the exact range of that target. All you need to do is remember a tree or some other landmark at the same range and you’ll have a 35 yard marker you can use for subsequent targets along the same line. Other features such as fences or streams that run along a course parallel to the firing line can also make excellent range markers for you.
Of course, it’s not just previous targets that can give you clues – it often pays to look for clues on targets you have yet to shoot. You can casually wander over to the next target on a course while you’re waiting to take your shot or you can quickly scan a course looking for markers while you’re walking from the briefing to your start peg.
This is where the previous articles in this series will really help you. If you know your holdovers and you can tell when you’ve made a good shot or a bad shot in terms of breathing and trigger technique then when your pellet hits either the killzone or the faceplate you’ll be able to see where it hit in relation to your holdovers.
So for example suppose you took a shot at a target that you thought was 25 yards but the pellet hit either the killzone or the faceplate on your 30 yard holdover, then you’ll have a reasonable clue that the target might have been 30 yards instead of 25 yards.
Once everyone on your lane has taken the shot, it’s quite normal practice for shooters to discuss the shot so you can check this with your fellow shooters.
Knowing the range of a target after you’ve shot it isn’t much help on that particular target, but it will give you a marker point for other targets. Can you see the target in the next lane – is it further away or closer than the one you’ve just shot? If you can’t see the target in the next lane, is there some other feature on this lane that you can see from other lanes? – A large tree, a bank running along the course, a fence etc.
Be aware that the wind not only blows your pellet to one side or another, it can also take a shot high or low.
Being able to see where you hit means you’ll need to carry on looking through your scope until after the pellet lands. That might sound obvious, but watch other shooters (the ones who miss a lot) and you’ll often notice that as soon as they’ve pulled the trigger they start getting up from their shot.
In most cases the pellet takes a split second to reach the target but if you get into the habit of jumping up from a shot as soon as you’ve pulled the trigger then your body will start to pre-empt you and your muscles will start to get ready for you to get up from the shot as you’re pulling the trigger.
This is where follow through becomes so important, and consciously making an effort to carry on looking through your scope until well after the pellet has landed will really help your follow through and it’ll stop your body becoming conditioned to pump blood to your muscles when you’re about to squeeze off of a shot.
As you become more of a ninja and less of a novice, you’ll be hitting far more killzones than faceplates and sometimes it’s not easy to see exactly where your pellet struck in the killzone once the target has fallen over.
The solution to that is to pull the target up while you’re still at the peg and look through your scope again to see if you can spot your pellet strike.
Try not to do that too often because it can really slow an event down if everyone does it on every target. The UKAHFT rules state that you have a maximum of 2 minutes to take your shot once you’ve addressed the peg, but there’s no rule that says you can’t lay on the ground for 5 minutes after taking your shot. It’s not good form though and you’ll quickly annoy your fellow shooters, the event organisers and the course marshals, so choose your moments carefully.
Similarly, it’s quite normal for shooters to discuss a target after everyone in the lane has shot it, but if you’re always the one in your group who starts the discussion after each and every target then it quickly becomes very boring to the other shooters.
Look for subtle clues
Probably one of the biggest clues you can get from a course are pellet strikes on a faceplate. When you look through your scope at a target, check to see where the majority of pellet strikes are – if there’s a large concentration either high or low then it’s a sign that either lots of people are getting the range wrong or there’s some wind on the target driving shots higher or lower. When you gain more experience you’ll be able to make an educated guess as to why other shooters are going high or low but for the moment, just make a note that if you’re in doubt about the range to the target and there are a lot of pellet strikes below the kill – consider aiming a bit higher than you perhaps might have.
Another good clue to look for is when a shooting line for a target isn’t in line with the targets around it. This doesn’t happen very often but when you see it, it can give you a good clue about the range to the target. It normally happens when a target is just slightly over limit for the killzone range. The person setting the course may have estimated a range to a nice tree to place a target in, but when the course was later checked it was found that the target was a yard or two over distance. It’s easier to move a shooting line forward a yard than it is to move a tree and when you see a shooting line suddenly dip forward a yard or two for a single lane, that’s usually a good indication that the target is set at it’s maximum distance.
Pacing out close range targets
You aren’t allowed to walk onto the course during a competition and if you started pacing out the distance to a close target, it wouldn’t be long before you were banned for life from competing, but you can still do it!
With reduced targets (20mm kill zones) the difference between ranging a target as 10 yards instead of 8 yards (or vice versa) is enough to miss the kill zone! On some targets it isn’t so critical, but for the very reduced kills an error of as little as a yard in range estimation can lose you a point.
The method is very simple and surprisingly accurate, but try not to do it too often.
Stand at the peg and look at the target position, then try to imagine you’re standing at the centre of a circle that runs through the target. You should be able to fairly accurately project an arc from the target to another object that’s the same distance on the course pathway.
All you do then is pace out the distance to the object on the pathway and you’ve just paced the distance to the target.
This works well up to about 12 yards, but obviously you don’t want to be pacing 30 yards along the pathway! I don’t do this very often, but when I do I’ll hide what I’m doing by pretending that I’m walking over to look at the next target (which I might also do to give me further clues on other targets)
Use this method sparingly and don’t make it obvious what you’re doing.
It’s not against the rules, but if people spot you doing it, you’ll look like a muppet – especially if you miss the target afterwards.
Of course if you spot someone else doing it, feel free to sneer at them for making themselves look like an idiot (but at the same time, count out their paces so you know the distance they’ve just paced out as well)
When all else fails – Play the odds
There are times when you aren’t going to be sure about a range no matter which range finding method you use. Or it could be that several methods give different ranges. Fortunately the trajectory of a .177 running at 11.3fpe (777 fps) is reasonably flat and there are range bands where it doesn’t matter if you get the range wrong, even by a large amount!
In the cases where you don’t know the range for sure, it is normally possible to guess the range to within 5 yards reliably.
In these cases the best advice is to play the odds game. You should know your aim points for all ranges (or at least have them written down on a bit of paper or stuck to the inside of your butler creek cover) When you can’t decide between two ranges always consider the situation where you’ve got it wrong. If you get it wrong, will the pellet still hit the kill zone? When in real doubt, use the furthest range. It’s better to hit high in a kill zone than it is to hit low. Hitting high requires less energy to knock the target over, so if you do manage to split the pellet at the top of the kill, it’s more likely to go over anyway than if you’d split the pellet at the bottom of the kill.
I’ll cover range finding by eye in more depth, using your scope’s parallax to range find and mildot bracketing in future articles.