December 19, 2022
Certain species of game, either because of their habits or the habitat they prefer, are more likely to require longer shots. This isn’t always the case. I’ve shot more than half of the animals on this list at distances under a hundred yards but having acquired the skills necessary to shoot accurately at extended ranges will offer more opportunities to fill a tag. Extend your maximum effective range with a rifle and you’ll also increase your hunting opportunities. Here are the five best North American long-range hunts available today.
The Speed Demon
Pronghorn antelope are a holdover from the Pleistocene, the last member of a family of mammals that died out at the end of the last ice age. Paleontologists believe one of the pronghorn’s primary predators was the now-extinct American cheetah, and as a result the antelope evolved special defenses to outwit these fleet felines. Pronghorns have outstanding vision and are particularly keen on spotting movement. These animals also favor open ground where a lack of cover allows them to see great distances, and when they feel the need to flee, they can cover vast country very quickly.
These qualities make it very difficult to get close. But hunters can use the pronghorn’s predilection for wide open spaces to their advantage because the animals are often seen standing in the open. The average pronghorn hunt requires glassing, but once the animals are spotted there’s still the challenge of identifying a good buck and creeping within range for a shot. Compounding these difficulties is the persistent prairie wind which is prone to shift the flight path of your bullet. Hunting pronghorns offers the ultimate opportunity to put your precision rifle skills to the test.
For years fast magnums with light bullets have been the norm when hunting antelope, but light, fast bullets can do a lot of damage to these smaller big-game animals. Heavier, high-BC bullets are the ticket, and while I’ve killed antelope with a 6.5 Creedmoor and a .308, the 6.5 PRC and 6.8 Western are both better pronghorn options. I prefer the 6mm Creedmoor’s flatter trajectory over the 6.5 Creedmoor, and a 100-grain 6mm bullet of proper construction is perfectly suited for pronghorn hunting as well.
Wyoming is your best bet for antelope, and there are plenty of good bucks there and ample opportunities to draw a tag. What’s more, guided Wyoming antelope hunts are relatively affordable, and you won’t have to wait decades to draw a tag. If you’re looking for a record book buck, New Mexico and Arizona are your best bets.
A Royal Challenge
A mature bull elk is one of the most majestic big game animals on the planet, but old bulls are wary, and a spooked elk can cover a couple miles in a matter of minutes. Most elk hunts require a lot of glassing, and there’s a good chance you’ll have to make a cross-canyon shot. On my last elk hunt in New Mexico our guide instructed us that because of the terrain, which was comprised of steep, juniper-covered ridges near the Gila National Forest, we would likely have to make a 400-yard shot if we wanted to fill our tag. And being able to shoot 500 yards would substantially increase our odds of success. Elk are also notoriously tough, and a bull with a poorly placed shot will likely never be seen again.
These factors demand the right equipment and advanced shooting skills. I’ve never shot at an elk that wasn’t at an uphill or downhill angle, and I believe that’s the case for many hunters. Elk spend the early morning and late afternoon hours frequenting meadows, so there’s a fair chance you’ll have a clear shot at a bull, but you must contend with wind. Mountain topography creates odd wind patterns, and it’s not unusual to find currents moving in opposite direction on opposing ridges. Under these conditions the current crop of hunting rounds engineered for long-range shooting thrive.
Elk are, as mentioned, very tough, and arguments abound over the proper bullet diameter for hunting these animals. To my mind the 6.5s are the minimum, with the 6.5 PRC being a suitable option when paired with a quality bullet. I also believe that the 6.8 Western, 28 Nosler, .300 PRC and .300 Weatherby Mag. are better choices. Bigger bullets don’t make up for bad shot placement, but they do carry more energy at long ranges.
Bullet selection is critical. When you’re shooting elk at extended distances you need a bullet that functions reliably at reduced velocities, and high-BC bullets are more aerodynamically efficient and maintain the velocity needed to expand properly. Hornady’s ELD-X is a solid option, as are Federal’s Terminal Ascent and Norma’s Bondstrike. An accurate rifle is, of course, important, and good glass is requisite not only because of improved low-light performance but also because premium riflescopes track properly when making elevation adjustments. Ultimately, though, you must find a rifle you shoot well and practice with it until longer shots are ethical and effective.
Colorado is a great destination when planning your elk hunt since there are a lot of animals and plenty of public land, but Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Montana all offer excellent hunting. Nevada is an overlooked elk hunting destination, and if you can pull a tag in the right corner of the Silver State there’s a chance you’ll encounter a giant bull.
Coues deer are a compact, desert-adapted subspecies of whitetail deer found in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. To the uninitiated they may simply seem like small whitetail (a good Coues buck’s antlers will score 100 inches while a massive buck might top 110), so they aren’t a desirable species to some hunters. However, hunting for Coues deer is less about inches of antler and more about the experience of chasing these desert ghosts in some of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes in North America.
More than any other North American species, Coues deer demand a lot of glassing with quality optics. They not only love thick cover but are also very wary. On the second day of my 2018 Mexico hunt we found a very large buck bedded at the base of a cottonwood tree along a dark river course, and even though we were hidden a couple hundred yards away with the wind in our favor, the buck located us. He stood up from his bed, followed a wall of thick thorn to the crest of the opposite ridge, and only offered a few seconds for a shot at 500 yards before disappearing over the crest, lost forever.
If Coues deer are on your bucket list—and they should be for every North American hunter—plan on shooting at least 400 yards. Good glass is not only important, but essential. You’ll likely be shooting through a very narrow window into shade, and Coues deer move most in the minutes just after sunrise and just before sunset. They don’t require a heavy bullet: The 6mm and 6.5 Creedmoor, 6 GT, 26 Nosler, and 6.5 PRC are all excellent options. It’s very likely you’ll be shooting cross-canyon in fickle desert winds so a high-BC bullet that resists wind drift and is more forgiving if your wind call isn’t perfect. Shot opportunities are few, make the most of them.
Arizona is the best Coues deer state in the U.S., but if you find the right outfitter a Mexico ranch hunt is a wonderful experience and there are good odds of finding a record-book buck.
You can travel the globe in pursuit of the world’s magnificent goat and sheep species, chasing markhor in Pakistan, blue sheep in Nepal, Marco Polos in Turkmenistan, or bighorn rams in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. On this continent our native mountain species include California, desert, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, Stone sheep, and America’s only member of the Caprinae family, the Rocky Mountain goat.
Not all of these hunts require long-range shooting, but most are very specialized where time is limited, and conditions may warrant reaching out at extreme distances. A bighorn tag in the Lower 48 is a coveted prize, and you may draw a single tag in a lifetime. Weather is also a factor: if you book a ten-day guided Alaska Dall sheep hunt you may spend half of those days hunkered in a tent waiting out inclement weather. Under these circumstances you have to take the shot that is offered to you, and it might be at long range, at a steep angle, and with a strong crosswind. Being able to shoot long distances is not absolutely required while sheep hunting (my friend and fellow writer Mark Hampton harvested every North American sheep species with a handgun en route to obtaining his North American 29), but if there’s any type of hunt which may require good shooting under bad conditions it’s mountain hunting.
If you fear you’ll never draw a sheep or goat tag or aren’t willing to spend the $25,000 or more it may cost to book a guided hunt, you can still experience mountain sheep hunting. Barbary sheep, or aoudad, were released in the American southwest in the 1940s and the species has thrived, taking up residence in New Mexico and Texas. The area around Big Bend National Park in Texas is home to thousands of free-ranging aoudads and the landscape is singularly spectacular. Best of all, you can hunt these animals for a fraction of the cost of native sheep and enjoy the mountain hunting experience.
Aoudad are large, tough animals that prefer steep country, and even though they’re considered exotics, these sheep are wary and use the topography to avoid predators. Long shots are the norm. Be prepared for aggressive up and downhill shots with fickle mountain winds—a flat-shooting, well-constructed bullet is advisable. The best shot I’ve seen on an aoudad was a cross-canyon heart shot on a magnificent 30-inch ram by David Draper, editor of Precision Hunter. Draper used a .25-06 shooting 90-grain monolithic bullets, but that’s on the light side for these animals. The 6.5 PRC, 6.8 Western, and 28 Nosler all offer flat trajectories that simplify difficult shots, and all pack sufficient punch to kill the largest aoudad when using a suitable bullet.
Trophy mule deer bucks have become one of the most coveted trophies in North America, but they don’t exist everywhere and finding them can be a challenge. It’s hard to pull a tag in the best draw areas and doing so can take years. Because the supply of big bucks is limited and demand is extremely high, you can expect a guided hunt on the top-producing ranches in the U.S. and Mexico to cost roughly the same as a Dall sheep, Alaska moose, or a premium elk hunt—and state auction tags may fetch over six figures. Hunts in areas that produce average-sized muleys are still relatively affordable, and you can draw tags in less-desirable areas without accumulating a lot of points, but if you want a big mule deer your opportunities are more limited.
The qualities that make a good elk, Coues deer, sheep, and antelope cartridge also make good mule deer cartridges. For most hunts, classic rounds like the .270, .308, 7mm Rem. Mag., and the .300 Win. Mag. make sense. The .25-06 is another good option, and mild recoil, flat trajectories, and a wide selection of suitable bullets make it an excellent, if old-school, choice.
The advantage of newer cartridges designed for long-range target shooting is obvious: high BCs and improved performance at extended ranges. That makes the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and 6.8 Western great choices. The laser-flat 6.5-300 Weatherby and 26, 27, and 28 Noslers are all fantastic options as well, and while a .30-caliber isn’t required for mule deer the .300 PRC and 30 Nosler are both superb performers.
The .30s also are a good choice if you’re looking for a mule deer rifle that doubles as an elk gun, and with the recent spike in bear attacks, a powerful .30-caliber makes sense if you’re chasing mule deer anywhere where you might cross paths with an aggressive grizzly.