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Fundamentals of Long-Range Shooting: How To Get Started

With modern ammunition and firearms, shooting beyond 1,000 yards isn't the mountain it once was. Here are some basics to get started at shooting extreme long range!

Fundamentals of Long-Range Shooting: How To Get Started

Tarr attended a long-range shooting course in central Pennsylvania. If you’ve never shot out past half a mile (1,040 yards in this case) he highly recommends it. (Firearms News photo)

After leaving Interstate 80, I had been wending my way east-southeast on Pennsylvania State Route 322 for over an hour. Western and central Pennsylvania is both hilly and heavily wooded, and I was on the outskirts of the Appalachian Mountains. As usual, the air was heavy with humidity, coating the distant hills in a thin gray haze. Which made it seem like I was completely lost. Hunters in that part of the country rarely got a shot on game beyond 100 yards, and I was looking for a rifle range that stretched beyond 1,000 yards to attend the Long Distance Shooting class put on by Renaissance Firearms Instruction. In the bed of the truck, I had a new Gunwerks Nexus rifle in 6.5 PRC, topped with a Nightforce ATACR 4-16x42 F1 and a couple cases of ammo for the task. I took the indicated exit off 322, and the first thing I saw was a roadside sign indicating I should be mindful of horse-drawn carriages.

How to Shoot Long Range Rifles
The Mifflin County Sportsmen’s Association has one 500- and one 1,040-yard rifle range. The berms crawl up the side of a mountain, and look like steps for giants. (Firearms News photo)

“Oh, this is going to be good,” I said out loud, continuing my long-standing tradition of talking to myself while driving. Not two hundred yards farther up, there was a large wooden barn beside the road. Before it, two teenage boys, either Amish or Mennonite from their “business casual farmer” uniforms, were heaving bales of straw from a trailer into the barn. From the dirt and sweat it looked like they’d been at it a while. I was told to look for the church, and if it wasn’t for the church, I doubt I would have found the “street”—Ellen Chapel Lane was little more than a driveway between the church and its parking lot. But the message to me had been clear, that was the route I was to take. I turned onto the narrow blacktop road, which soon turned to gravel, heading straight toward a distant, high ridge.

Read Tarr's Complete Review of the Gunwerks Nexus Rifle Here

The road was narrow but well maintained, with trees and bushes crowding close to either side. It seemed like there should be hobbits trudging down the lane, giving me the suspicious looks they always give to the “big people.” After a short downhill, the road began to climb, passing a cornfield with the dark green stalks near shoulder-high. Part way up, the slope of the road turned and paralleled the ridge above the cornfield, wound through several copses of trees, and then before me I saw the long low blue clubhouse of the Mifflin County Sportsmen’s Association.

Past the clubhouse, I began passing the various ranges, eventually reaching the two long-distance rifle ranges—the first one reached out to 500 yards. The one next to it, where I’d be taking the class the next day, had target berms all the way out to 1,040 yards, climbing nearly halfway up the giant ridgeline. The berms were hacked out of the red-orange Pennsylvania clay and looked like nothing so much as a staircase for giants. It was an amazing sight.

Long Range Photo Gallery

Intro to Long-Range Shooting

Tarr attended a long-range shooting course in central Pennsylvania. If you’ve never shot out past half a mile (1,040 yards in this case) he highly recommends it. (Firearms News photo)

Long Range Berms

The Mifflin County Sportsmen’s Association has one 500- and one 1,040-yard rifle range. The berms crawl up the side of a mountain, and look like steps for giants. (Firearms News photo)

Frand and Barb Meloni

The Long Range Shooting course was put on by Renaissance Firearms Instruction. RFI is run by Frank Melloni, and Frank is run by Barb Melloni. (Firearms News photo)

Steel Targets

The view from the 600-yard line, and a few of the more challenging, small targets the members use. That tiny white strip down below is the roof of the firing line. (Firearms News photo)

Full-Size USPSA Target

Past 100 yards, course attendees shot at steel targets, including full-size USPSA silhouettes at 1,040 yards. Here Frank and Barb Melloni set up a swinging steel target, which will get a fresh coat of paint before the class. (Firearms News photo)

1,040 Yards

The view from the 1,040-yard line, 0.6 of a mile. The farther out they shot, the more of an up angle the shooters had to deal with. The 1,040-yard line is about a 10-degree up angle. (Firearms News photo)

Gunwerks Nexus Rifle

For the class, Tarr was using a new Gunwerks Nexus, a high-end hunting rifle chambered in 6.5 PRC, with a 20-inch carbon fiber barrel, Swagger SEA12 bipod, and Nightforce ATACR 4-16 scope. (Firearms News photo)

Federal Fusion 140-grain 6.5 PRC

As it was intended as a long range hunting rifle, for use with the Gunwerks Nexus Tarr decided to use Federal’s 140-grain bonded soft point Fusion load. This is a great hunting bullet, but not built for distance. (Firearms News photo)

RFI Course

RFI’s Long Range Shooting course is intended for hunters as much as it is anyone else, and this shooter is using a wood-stocked slender-barreled .308 Win hunting rifle. (Firearms News photo)

Shooting Long Range

Attendees brought all sorts of rifles for the course, everything from heavy-barreled chassis Ruger Precision rifles to wood-stocked hunting rifles. Two shooters shared a bench. While one shot, the other spotted for him, and usually an instructor was behind them on a spotting scope, calling hits, misses, and making suggestions. 

RFI School Guns

Frank and Barb Melloni sighting in a few school-owned guns, in case any of the attendees need a loaner to finish the course. (Firearms News photo)

Calculating Long Range

Tarr didn’t prepare at all for the course, and had no idea of his load’s velocity or his bullet’s ballistic coefficient. So, the instructors made their best guess using ballistic software, and he kept track of the guesstimated come-ups in the left column, and the real come-ups in the right column, as he worked his way out to 1,040. (Firearms News photo)

Rifle and Ammo

The flexible Swagger SEA12 bipod is a good choice for a hunting rifle, but both it and the flat-based, soft nose bullet in the Federal Fusion load handicapped Tarr, Instructor Jeromy Knepp points out all the mistakes Tarr has made in his life to but were a realistic test for the rifle. (Firearms News photo)

RFI Instructor

RFI Instructors like Jeromy Knepp were hands-on with the students. RFI had five instructors for 16 students. (Firearms News photo)

Calling Hits

RFI instructor Joe Ficarro spots for a student, calling hits at 600 yards. After working their way out to 600 yards, the students took a break to let their rifles cool down. (Firearms News photo)

Bench Shooting

Students spent a lot of time spotting for their bench partner, calling hits and misses as they worked their way out. At distance, you were often back on target soon enough to spot your hit. (Firearms News photo)

Student Guns

Students brought a wide variety of guns, scopes, and ammunition. Here a student is running a Remington 700 in an aftermarket stock, wearing a Primary Arms 3-18 power scope. (Firearms News photo)

It wasn’t the first time for me, shooting at distance. I’ve shot on 200- and 300-yard ranges innumerable times. I’ve clanged 600-yard steel with Jeff Hoffman, President of Black Hills Ammunition, using his personal GA Precision rifle (and his ammo, of course). Our own Dave Fortier has an 800-yard range on his property, and I’ve shot there a bunch of times (if you look up ‘spoiled’ in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of it). Once, at a Gunsite media event, I (mostly unsuccessfully) engaged targets to 1,200 yards. But I’ve never had any formal instruction on long range rifle shooting, and so when an opportunity came up, I took it.

Renaissance Firearms Instruction is run by Frank Melloni. I’ve known Frank for a number of years. In addition to running RFI, he’s one of that dreaded subclass of human beings, a gun writer. He’s as sensitive and nuanced as you might expect from a New Yorker with an Italian last name. Once, when our flight was cancelled after a media event, we carpooled from Montgomery, AL, to Atlanta, GA, possibly in gross disregard of the posted speed limit, trying to make a connecting flight. Frank has been shooting out to 1,000 yards for close to twenty years, and is an active competitor in NRA High Power, NRA Small Bore, USPSA, and IPSC. He also, back in the day, appeared on the History Channel TV show Top Shot.

Everyone on the RFI staff has years, if not decades, of experience shooting at extreme range. At one point during the class, I asked instructor Jeromy Knepp, who is on the Hodgdon pro staff, what I thought was a simple question about bipods, and got a ten-minute Master Class-level dissertation on the subject. He’s gotten the farthest hit of anyone on the staff—ten miles. Although that was with artillery….

Renaissance Firearms Instruction is based out of Long Island and puts on a number of different classes, many of them intended for those new to shooting or gun ownership, as Frank Melloni says, they’re located “behind enemy lines.” Their Long Range Shooting course is aimed at those rifle shooters who, as Melloni says, “Are great at shooting at 100 yards, but who have never had an opportunity to shoot at distance and want to learn how.” Their only real gear requirement was that the attendees be able to consistently do 1.5-inch groups at 100 yards with their rifle and chosen ammunition. RFI’s one-day Long Range Shooting course isn’t sniper-centric, it’s as much intended for hunters as it is the tactical types. Roughly a third of the students were using hunting-type rifles during the course. I think this is very important—in order for someone to be an “ethical hunter,” it helps to learn at what distance you can reliably hit a target with your hunting rifle and ammunition.

For the course, I was using a Gunwerks Nexus, and I will be writing up this new rifle in a separate article. But while this is an expensive and accurate hunting rifle, it is mainly intended to be a hunting rifle, not an extreme long-range gun—it has a short, light 20-inch carbon fiber-wrapped barrel. Not what any knowledgeable person would choose when shooting out to 1,040 yards. For ammunition I had my choice, and deliberately chose a hunting round—Federal’s 140-grain Fusion load. The Fusion bullet is a bonded soft point and has proven itself as one of the best hunting bullets on the market. I’ve downed both a Florida hog and gator with one hit each from a 62-grain .223 Fusion. However, a soft-point, flat-based bullet is exactly what you don’t want if you’re interested in extreme long-range accuracy. But I felt that using this ammo would be a perfect real-world test of this hunting rifle.

For the 16 students, RFI had half their entire cadre there, five instructors, which is a great student-to-teacher ratio. The Long Range Shooting course is a one-day event, and we were blessed with great weather. We started off the morning at the range, where RFI presented a roughly two-hour classroom block covering the basics of long-range shooting. This started with the basic definition of “long range shooting”: ‘Long range shooting occurs at the distance where atmosphere affects the bullet’s flight path enough to miss an intended target completely and must be compensated for. This is largely defined by cartridge and target size.” Basically, if you’ve got to adjust for wind, that’s long-range shooting.

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Fundamentals of Long-Range Shooting

They briefly covered what features you’d want in a rifle intended for long range shooting—longer/heavier barrels that are free-floated, lighter trigger pulls, bipods, and synthetic stocks. If you’ve never shot beyond 100 yards certain things won’t matter, but at long range everything piles up against you. The presentation covered the BC (ballistic coefficient) of a bullet. The ballistic coefficient is a number designed to represent how efficiently a bullet moves through the air. The higher the number, the more cleanly it cuts through the atmosphere. This means less drop and drift at distance, and higher intrinsic accuracy. However, most bullets with high BC’s are target bullets, not intended for hunting, so you have to match your projectile to your task.

How to Shoot Long Range Rifles
For the class, Tarr was using a new Gunwerks Nexus, a very high-end hunting rifle chambered in 6.5 PRC, with a 20-inch carbon fiber barrel, Swagger SEA12 bipod, and Nightforce ATACR 4-16 scope. (Firearms News photo)

At long range, there are other factors you might never have thought of before which affect your shooting. Elevation—the higher you are, the thinner the atmosphere, and your bullet will retain speed better. Barometric Pressure—the higher the pressure, the more resistance to the bullet. Temperature—hotter air is less dense, and thus easier to push through. Even the humidity in the air affects bullet travel.

Most barrels have a right-hand twist, which impart a clockwise spin on the bullet. As a result of that spin, wind moving from left to right tends to make bullets sink more, whereas wind moving from right to left tends to make bullets climb (or reduces drop). The presentation even touched on the Coriolis effect. Basically, the earth is still spinning at a constant speed, but the bullet has left the surface of the earth, and the longer it stays in the air, the more the earth will turn under that slowing bullet. At extreme long range, the earth’s rotation (depending on which direction you’re shooting) can have a small but noticeable effect on bullet travel. To some extent, shooting at distance involves Algebra. Your high school teachers were right, you would use math someday.

There have never been more choices of quality optics for consumers, and the RFI staff covered the differences between MOA and Mil-Dot scopes, and first- and second-focal plane scopes (a brief summary of which could fill up two articles). Every type of scope can be used to determine target size or distance, once you understand how to use your scope. Part of the presentation was not how to shoot at distance, but how to call hits for your partner, as everyone, for the duration of the class, would be working with a partner, spotting for them when not shooting. Saying “You hit below the green bush,” is not necessarily helpful. However, saying “Good elevation, but you hit one target width left,” is much better. Or, “Correct windage, but you’re one mil low.” Good, quick feedback is the best, as it allows the shooter to send a second shot before the wind changes. Hopefully.

And as for wind…

In general, if you can feel a breeze, the wind is moving at three to five mph. If the leaves on the tree are moving, it’s three to five mph. If you see loose papers blowing, the wind is moving at eight to 12 mph. If small trees are swaying, the wind is 12 to 15 mph. Wind blowing perpendicular (90 degrees) to your bullet flight path is called a full-value wind, whereas wind coming in at a 45-degree angle is half value, and wind straight at you, or straight away, has no value. And wind isn’t necessarily a negative, provided that it is constant. But it is rarely constant.

The ability to read wind is the difference between an amateur and a pro. A known-speed wind will push bullets at various distances a predictable amount; it’s just math, like predicting drop. But unlike drop (a function of gravity, which is a constant 9.8 meters per second), wind is not constant or predictable, and being able to read the wind is similar to a pro golfer’s ability to read a green and sink a 20-foot putt. To the uninitiated it seems like borderline voodoo. If you learn anything shooting at long range, it’s that the wind is your enemy, not the distance.

The instructors briefly touched on mirage, which is the heat waves you see at distance, if the conditions are right. You can use mirage to read the wind at distance, however above a certain speed (roughly 12 mph) the wind will blow away the mirage. Whether your barrel is hot from shooting or cold will affect your group size and placement, as will cant, tilting the rifle and scope. As a general rule, if your barrel’s too hot to touch, stop shooting.

Send It!

We started the shooting part of the day by confirming zero at 100 yards on paper targets. Every attendee was supposed to have zeroed their rifle, but travel, as well as different environmental conditions, can affect zero. I think everyone was shooting factory-made bolt action rifles. There were a number of people shooting .308s and 6.5 Creedmoors, as well as a few shooting 223/5.56. I saw ammo from Frontier, Berger, Hornady, Federal, Norma, PMC, and Nosler. Most guys were shooting factory ammunition, but a few were shooting handloads.

Atop my Gunwerks Nexus was a Nightforce 4-16x42 F1 Mil-Dot scope, and the Gunwerks receiver itself had 20 MOA built into it. Most rifles don’t, and you want rings or a mount with 20 MOA elevation built into them, or your scope might run out of elevation adjustment before you get to 1,000 yards (it happened to at least one of the attendees). The rifle was supported by a Swagger SEA12 bipod, adjustable for nine to 12 inches of elevation and built for extreme angles, as it has flexible rubber joints. While not ideal for long-range bench shooting, this is a great choice for a hunting bipod. At 100 yards, my Gunwerks Nexus was hitting just half an inch high, and the windage was perfect. I did a three-shot, sub-MOA group, which I figured was good enough, then zeroed my turrets.

Ballistics software is highly recommended when shooting at distance. With ballistics software, you can plug in the BC of your bullet, the measured velocity out of your barrel, and you can get very accurate scientific guesstimations of the drop you’ll have (and the elevation come-ups you’ll need) at various distances. Being a trained professional, I of course didn’t chronograph my ammo out of the short barrel of the Nexus, and so had no idea how much slower it was travelling than the advertised 2,925 fps. As this is hunting ammunition, Federal didn’t list the ballistic coefficient (BC) of the bullet on the box either. So, RFI’s staff did their best to SWAG my drop at various distances, and I plugged them into my provided record sheet. They were a good start, but as you’ll see either my velocity or my BC was greatly overestimated.

After verifying zero, we moved out to 300 yards, and I dialed in our guessed elevation of 1.1 Mils (1 Mil=3.6 MOA). From 300 yards on out, we were shooting at variously sized and shaped steel targets. Each of the targets was freshly painted, and each shooter had their own target. In addition to your partner spotting for you with his scope, most of the time, we also had an instructor helping to spot our hits or misses using a 60X spotting scope. I scored a hit with my first shot at 300 yards, but saw I was a bit low. My proper come-up turned out to be 1.3 Mils. My guesstimatted come-up at 400 yards was 1.8 Mils, and the actual come-up turned out to be 2.2 Mils. While I was figuring that out, I discovered that the wind was now finally a factor. It was blowing left to right—not hard, but not consistently either.

At 500 yards, we were shooting at 2/3 size USPSA steel silhouettes. Most people have never shot that far, and those targets were large enough to give the shooters confidence. The berms behind the targets were bare earth, so misses were usually easily spotted. My software-guesstimated come-up for 500 was 2.6 Mils, and I dialed in 3. I had a first-round hit at 500, but it was low on the steel, and my final elevation setting was 3.2 Mils. The wind had mostly died at this point, so everyone was quickly getting hits. It was while shooting at 500 yards that I really started getting a feel for the Gunwerks Nexus. I called one shot a bit low, and the bullet hit two inches low. Recoil of the 6.5 PRC cartridge was stout, but not abusive, the muzzle brake effective, and I never worried about developing a flinch. The light, crisp trigger of the rifle was definitely helpful.

Beyond 500 yards, I realized that while my Nightforce’s maximum magnification of 16X sounded like a lot…it wasn’t. And at 600 yards, even a tiny bit of wind can put you off the target—depending on the size of the target. At 600 yards, I started with 4 Mils dialed in, but my eventual come-up to start making hits was 4.3 Mils. After getting on target at 600 yards, we took a break to let our barrels cool, and we took turns trying to hit a 2 MOA target at 300 yards (six-inch plate) with RFI’s .22 rifle, a precision piece made by Vudoo Gunworks. There was no recoil, and flight time of a .22 Long Rifle out to 300 yards seemed to be over a second. It seemed like I was sitting there forever waiting to see the bullet hit. The light wind had a huge effect on the small light bullets, and after putting rounds all around the plate I got a 6th-round hit.

How to Shoot Long Range Rifles
As it was intended as a long range hunting rifle, for use with the Gunwerks Nexus Tarr decided to use Federal’s 140-grain bonded soft point Fusion load. This is a great hunting bullet, but not built for distance. (Firearms News photo)

Back on our rifles, we moved to the 700-yard targets, which were the toughest ones. We were shooting at nine-inch steel plates, which works out to 1.25 MOA targets. My rifle, and in fact most of the rifles there, were more than capable of that kind of accuracy, but the problem was the inconsistent wind. The variable wind had everyone’s bullets dancing around the edges of the plates. I put so many bullets just off the right edge, even after adjusting point of aim left, that if the plate had been ten inches in diameter, I would have made hits much sooner. Come-up was 5.9 Mils.

It was at this point that I understood that if I took this rifle out hunting, with this scope and ammunition, that based on my performance with it, under similar conditions (i.e. wind), I would be limited to game 700 yards and closer to guarantee a good hit, on large game the size of elk and moose. And honestly, I think that’s probably close to the maximum effective range of the Fusion bullet out of that short 20-inch barrel. On smaller game (like white tail) with such wind, I’d want to limit my shots to 500 yards and in, to guarantee a good hit. At 800 yards, I got a first-round hit on a reduced-size silhouette, guesstimating my elevation (7.0 Mils), but then subsequent rounds were blown all over by the wind. I realized that at 700 yards, and beyond, I was being handicapped by the soft-nose, flat-based hunting bullets, which were being affected by the wind more than match bullets would have been.

The guy sharing my bench was shooting something you would think would suck at this distance—an 18-inch barreled Ruger American Rifle in .308 with a Magpul stock. He was shooting Norma Golden Target ammunition. He’d never shot his rifle at distance and the velocity loss from his short barrel was huge—his elevation come-ups were more than mine. Still, his 175-grain BTHP bullet was bucking the wind far better than my lighter hunting bullets, and beyond 700 yards he was hitting the targets, as well or better than me, even with that short barrel.

We were told we could skip the 900-yard targets if we wanted, but I wanted to learn my elevation adjustment for that distance—8.7 Mils. 900 yards is just over half a mile (880 yards), which is just incredible. Granted, we were shooting at steel circles as wide as a person, but getting regular hits at half a mile in variable wind is a huge ego boost to anyone. Shooting at 1,000 yards, that’s at least a second of bullet travel, and three seconds for the sound of the hit to get back to you—so that’s four seconds from your shot until you hear the hit. Usually, you see the hit long before you hear it.

At the 1,040-yard targets, full-size steel USPSA silhouettes, the wind seemed to have died. I dialed in 10.4 Mils and fired my first shot. Windage was perfect, but the bullet hit the dirt below the target. The trigger felt like it had broken cleanly, but before I dialed in any changes I wanted to confirm, so I fired two more shots. The three-shot group in the dirt below the target couldn’t have been more than six to eight inches in diameter. Wind had definitely died. Using the scale on my reticle I dialed in another 1.1 Mils of elevation, for 11.5 total, and fired again. Dead center hit. On a target 1,040 yards away. Using a short, hunting-length, carbon fiber-wrapped barrel and soft nose flat base hunting ammunition.

The observed trajectory from my bullet showed me that, past 800 yards, it just started to drop like a stone. 1.7 Mils drop between 800 and 900, and 1.8 from 900 to 1,040. In truth, all of the RFI instructors were impressed that the Gunwerks rifle was able to do as well as it did with the hunting ammunition. I found the carbon fiber barrel heated up faster than steel, but cooled down faster. Everyone in the class was able to get hits at 1,040 yards, even the guys shooting .223/5.56.

Bragging Rights

How to Shoot Long Range Rifles
Attendees brought all sorts of rifles for the course, everything from heavy-barreled chassis Ruger Precision rifles to wood-stocked hunting rifles. (Firearms News photo)

After stretching our rifles out to 1,040 yards, the RFI cadre set up a few different targets for various challenge courses of fire. The first COF was engaging with one round the target at 300, 400, and 500. Any miss and you had to start back at the beginning. I’ve shot a lot of competition, so for the COF I set my zero at 400 yards, held under the 300-yard target, and over the 500-yard target, as I figured that would be fastest. I also dialed my magnification down to 10X, for a wider field of view. I shot it clean my first time through, but took my time, ending up with an 18.79 time, which I was happy with. I could have shot the COF four more times and taken my best run, and maybe I should have, as the winning time was under ten seconds….

Read Tarr's Complete Review of the Gunwerks Nexus Rifle Here

The second course of fire was hitting targets at 500, 400, and 600 yards, no time limit, just the lowest number of shots. Lots of people did it in just three shots. The wind picked up during my attempt, and my first three shots went off the right edge of the 500-yard target. Then I went three-for-three. The third challenge COF had competitors firing at 800, 1040, and 700 yards, for time. Did I mention how much I hate that tiny 700-yard target? I do. Screw that guy. After shooting out beyond 1,000 yards, shooting at 400 and 600 yards seemed easy. Almost close range. Which is, to some extent, the point of the class. To show you what you and your equipment can do. And most people found they could hit targets at distance far easier than they thought. Provided the wind cooperated.

There are not a lot of 1,000-yard rifle ranges in the country, especially not within driving distance of the east coast. But if you’ve never shot at extended ranges, I highly recommend it—not only is it fun, it is very educational. And how many people get to brag that they’ve made hits at half a mile and beyond?

RFI Contact Information


About the Author

James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon. 


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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