By Brian P.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to become a rifleman. A practical rifleman. Through disciplined self practice, and help from the online community, I have been able to ever expand my skills from a 100 yard skill-set to a 600 yard comfort zone. If I can do it, anyone can, but a lot of people don’t think they can make that jump. I have run into many AR owners who think that if they can’t shoot 1-2 inch groups like they see online, that they aren’t shooting well. They perceive their rifle equipped with a red dot as being too imprecise to carry them past close range shooting. They doubt their skills, but they haven’t tried applying the skills they have. Because they don’t think they can do it, they don’t shoot at longer ranges. But I’m here to tell you that you can . . .

Let’s knock that mental wall down and develop a simple shooting program for all new AR shooters out there. Let’s identify an easy to master system that can carry their rifle out to distances they once dismissed. Today we’re going to create a basic program to get you (or those who need this) a tool-set to drop rounds on a target to 400 yards. Let’s get started….

AR15A2TNR [1280x768 no watermark]

AR15s Everywhere, No Two Alike

Due to the variety of weapons out there, it’s important to define what we are working with. Our average new AR15 shooter is likely running his or her gun as a carbine in a 16-inch format topped off with a backup iron sight, a red dot sight, or a variable scope. There is likely to be a tactical sling, but it may be a model that’s not capable of being used to steady the shot. The new shooter may be shooting anything from 50 grain varmint rounds to 55, 62, or 69 grain SMK. If we are lucky, the gun is zeroed somewhere between 50 and 200 yards.

We have some wiggle room in the rifle setups. Different zeros, different ammo choices, and different sighting systems will be present among any number of shooters heading to the range this weekend. While each individual setup is unique, are they unique enough to make us miss a man-sized target out to say, 400 yards? Let’s look at the data:

Velocities tailored to a 16 inch barrel, 1000ft elevation, 59 degrees Fahrenheit, 200 yard zero, (G1)

Yards 50gr V-Max 55gr xm193 62gr XM855 69gr SMK
200 0 0 0 0
300 -7.3 -7.1 -7.7 -8.86
400 -23.7 -22.7 -23.5 -26.9

Ballistically, many of the popular loadings are within a few inches of each other regarding bullet drop. Out to 400 yards with a 50-200 yard zero, we have strike points that stay well within a minute of each other. The first step in stretching a rifle’s legs it to understand the path the bullet takes once it exits the muzzle. While shooters may not memorize the above table, they can use it to understand our next point: those drops correspond well with repeatable reference points on a human silhouette.

BDC and your Red Dot

Above is Bullet Drop Compesator man. I made him based on average human head width, height, shoulder width, etc. He’s a great display for discussing “the chest, the head, the hat.”

The chest is your 0-200 yard point of aim for any of the discussed loadings. The 50-200 yard zero is flat shooting enough that we don’t need to change holds inside of 200. The head is your 300 yard aim point and will drop rounds slightly above center of mass for any of the discussed loadings. The hat is your 400 yard aim point. Visualize a hat and shoot it off your target’s head. you will easily drop rounds into the mid to low torso of your target at 400 yards with any of the discussed loadings.

Using those three reference points, we can see all our common loadings easily drop right into the target. For example, shooting with 50 grain V-Max at 400 yards, the shooter should visualize a hat on the targets head, and put dot on the hat to shoot it off. Bam, you just compensated for 23.7 inches of drop without the need for a fancy BDC reticle in a scope. At these distances, it’s important to adjust your point of impact past your initial zero. Your group may be minutes off at extended distances that you won’t be able to see with your initial zero.

So We Don’t Need A Scope with BDC?

No, not at all. Well, not at these distances. Magnification helps acquire the target and will no doubt help you in firing upon targets at these ranges, but a BDC reticle isn’t necessary for this basic level of skill. A scope with cross hairs will suffice, or even a red dot sight with a 4 MOA dot. In fact, I prefer a red dot for this exercise over irons since it doesn’t obscure the target. Shooters rocking only a BUIS will have the most difficulty as 1) they obscure the target as we compensate for drop, and 2) the irons require focusing on the front sight instead of a target focus.

If you simply must use irons, get an set with rear elevation adjustment built it, but know that modern sighting systems far surpass irons in speed and precision. A 2 MOA or 4 MOA red dot obscures less of your target and is a finer aiming reference than the wide A2 front sight for practical shooting. I still practice with irons, but I do not worship at the altar of “riflemen must use irons” as a modern rifleman must use modern rifles.

Practical Ranging

So the three holds are easy, but we need to learn a quick way to estimate distance. This is a skill that needs to be developed on your own and for your individual sighting system… but here is a handy chart if you have a red dot and need it done the easy way: The top row represents dot size and the red is where the dot should begin to obscure the targets head, and the blue is where is should begin to obscure or match the width of the shoulders.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 8.29.29 AM

As you can see, it’s usually not weapon capability shooters lack, just knowledge. Developing your own charts and evaluating your own data can help you develop an easily applied approach to practical shooting. With all the BDC calculators available for your phone, all the shooting information and skills available at your fingertips, there has never been an easier time to self learn marksmanship.

I’ve been teaching myself to shoot for a few years now. My time spent online and at the range soaking up knowledge has permitted me to achieve a dream of mine — to develop my skills as a rifleman. Using only advice from fellow bloggers and forums, I was able to develop my skill-set to shoot in my first NRA High Power match with a pot-luck A2 rifle and score 688-4x. While this may be small beans to some, it was important to me. It showed me that I could develop my skills without formal instruction. If I can do it, anyone can.


  1. while semi auto rifles and sweet optics are a huge bonus for shooters, they don’t make up for practice. great article.

  2. Brian P., full disclosure, I’m a Project Appleseed instructor. We teach fundamental rifle marksmanship and teach shooters the skills to make hits out to 500 yards. We teach to a 4 MOA standard. If you haven’t been to one before, I’d strongly encourage you to attend an Appleseed shoot (they happen pretty much nationwide). The website is for information, and if you want to become a rifleman, I can’t think of a better place to start.

    • Huzzah for Project Appleseed! Project Appleseed took me from a young novice who had never shot anything but cans below 50 yards to in a year’s time, comfortably shooting in 200 yard field matches, on the clock, with reloads, in 3 positions, and hitting the black every shot with my AK-74 with a red dot, setting match records against guys with $3000 guns. Just like the OP said, I was made a rifleman who feels comfortably shooting out to 600 yards from a complete novice. I was hitting the target at 350 yards with a .308 bolt and an AR after my first Appleseed.

      I’m a big fan of red dots for practical shooting from 0 to 600 yards. With my 4 MOA dot and a 25 yard zero, a man at 100 yards is 5 dots wide, and your shot will hit at the top of the ” 8 ” if the bottom “o” is your dot.. 200 yards, just over 2 dots wide, the bullet will hit right in the middle of the top “o” of the “8” if the bottom “o” is your dot. 300 yards, man is just over 1 dot wide, bullet will hit at the very top of your dot.

      In an fortuitous circumstance, my far zero, where the bullet crossed back through the point of aim, is at about 350 yards, at which distance a man is the exact width of my dot. Super easy guesstimation tool- target wider than dot, aim low, target thinner than dot, aim high.

      400 yards, man will be just smaller than the dot, bullet will hit at the bottom of the “o”. 500 yards, target will be maybe half the width of the dot, and the bullet will strike at the bottom “o” of the “8” if the top “o” is your dot. 600 yards, target will be about half the width of the dot, bullet will strike 1 “o” below the “8” if the top “o” is your dot. Easy peasy, trigger squeezy.

      • Just have to count imaginary circles to estimate holdovers.

        Project Appleseed is not only affordable, but the people are the best I have encountered in life. I have made so many friends and learned so much riflecraft and history there. My twin brother is an instructor fro them, and I will be volunteering as one as soon as I have some time off school.

  3. Brian P. is discussing (among other things) the presumably lost shooting art of “holding over.” For those of us who trained in the last century and learned the black art of holding over, which was before the advent of BDCs and similar expensive equipment, this article was a breath of fresh air.

    Thanks, Brian, for showing that people don’t need advanced degrees in IT to shoot accurately. You are a rifleman.

    • Yes, Ralph. The only AR type rifles I’ve fired were service issued m16s 4+ decades ago. Irons were our only options and the ranges went to 600 yards.

      Since then I’ve shot maybe 3-5 AR types that other shooters offered me a crack at. All had irons. I’ve just recently started putting glass on rifles. Took up hunting again and my eyes are just not up to irons.

    • It is increasingly common for precision long-range shooters to use hold-over and hold-off using a 1st focal plane “christmas tree” reticle. It’s definitely faster than dialing in windage and elevation, and the reticles are very precise, whereas even the highest quality scopes (S&B, Vortex, Kahles, etc.) show inconsistency in the amount of mil’s (MOA’s) provided per click at different points in their range. I, for one, don’t dial in.

      A very good source on scopes and the trend mentioned:

      It is quite difficult to hold over and off precisely when simply guessing what (for example). 16 inches over desired POI is for your ranged 300 meter distant elk.

      • Of course a rough approximation of the benefits of a 1FP X-Tree reticle can be obtained by learning the details of one’s circle-dot or duplex (fat versus thin line MOA) features. That also works, just with lower precision. As for ranging, who would forgo the use of a laser rangefinder? Windage is the tough one, and really does take practice judging the effects of varying winds on the motion of local characteristic vegetation.

    • Lots of times I don’t adjust the rear sight on my smelly, hold over/hold off is your friend! Especially in the bush. Then again, been shooting the same piece for a long time, and she is scary accurate all on her own.

    • I thought hold over (and under, and to the sides) was normal since it is much faster than adjusting the sights on the rifle. Besides, while adjusting the sights you might lose the opportunity you had.

  4. Shoot out to 400 yards? I don’t think I could even SEE that far out without a scope! I did not understand the second chart or its reference to red and blue. Where does blue come from? I understand the idea of bullet drop, but it is dependent on an accurate estimate of distance (unless you just walk them in)–and I do not know how to do that. Is it even possible with a plain crosshair reticle such as I have on my .22, or the red dot that I have on my AR?

    • I have found that golfing is an excellent way to work on your shooting.

      Clearly marked yardages and references, and lots of people to look at, at those various yardages. You start to get a feel for estimating distance and what 400 yards actually looks like.

      It’s also easy to take your favorite scope with you and use it on the course, (unmounted of course). Gives a great reference for what an actual human looks like in your scope at a given range.

      It’s also a great way to kill time when you are waiting at the 180 yd par 3 over water at the local muny.

    • 29yo, with mild nearsightedness and astigmatism, sighting has been a bit of a challenge past 75-100 yards. Traditional single lens red dots turn into a halo/blob instead of the neat little dot if I look through them normally (Docter, Trijicon RMR, etc). The focus with aperture sights/peep-hole sights helps a bit with a recent and additional issue with farsightedness. (Diabetes since age 0.5. 6.4-7.1 a1c for at least seven years… Degradation is expected)

      I’ll use the best sighting devices I can buy, simply because eyesight typically doesn’t improve.

      I will say time and effort have improved my distance shooting over the two years I’ve been shooting. I can get 70% of my shots on target at 40y with my pistols, and nearly all of my shots with rifles at 75 yards. Narrowing down to MOA…. I’m getting there!

  5. I agree with the red/blue comment earlier. Please clarify, especially for those lacking good eyesight.

    Sorry, could not help myself.

  6. Dear Lord those Taboola links are awful. I know you guys gotta pay the bills but I think you’re starting to drive away readers.

    You may like “The 17 Most Well Endowed Hollywood Celebs”.

    Yes I do but that’s not why I came here!

  7. I am confused, my rifle is always zeroed at a 25m (300m) Military paper target iron sights first, then co-witness the EoTech, then verify at an actual 300m man size silhouette. I have never had a problem with anything 5-500m with this done. Perhaps I am missing something, or maybe it is the Army training but this is normal for everyone I have shot with.

    On a side note, some of these guys reach 1000m with iron sights, I have never been somewhere I could stretch the 5.56 that far yet though.

    • Agreed.
      Guns like an AR-15 or a 5.45 AK-74 like I shoot can have a pretty fantastic “combat zero” when sighted in at 25 yards. The round will never rise more than the a foot (often far less- varies by how high your optic/sight is over the bore) before it crosses back through the point of aim at 300-350 yards. Drops at 400 and 500 yards are quite manageable. In a more detailed comment up above somewhere, I talk a lot about my ranging/holdover techniques just using my 4 MOA red dot.

      • I like the 200 yard zero for a few reasons: out to 100 yards, I can easily hit smaller targets inside of 200 yards with little difficulty. Small targets inside of (and just past for that matter) 200 yards can still be seen with the naked eye easily, and can be shot at without drastically different holds. For example, a head or limb sticking out of cover is small, but can be hit easily without changing holds. Point and click.

        When you push the target to 300-400 yards, my holds become gross adjustments on a man sized target. If a target at those ranges is small, i am going to have difficulty seeing it… for example those small targets might be difficult to see in the first place. It’s all man sized aiming references out here until you grab some optics.

        So the 25 yard military zero is good, nothing wrong with it… but at ranges inside of 200 where I can still see small targets of opportunity, I want my 200 yard zero for easy hits. No need to under hold for a head-shot sized target at 200 for example.

        It’s all moot though if you practice your holds regularly. If you practice enough, you can memorize your holds.

        • Brian, I see what you’re saying, and trigger time is always the most important bit, especially for knowing your holds. Working ranges the last few months for units has made me realize many bad habits and even some of my own, even soldiers relying too much on optics without a good grasp on iron sights or the basic fundamentals. The key is by far and away consistency especially for long range. While the 5.56 is a capable round and great for practice and probably most cost effective to learn, I would be reaching for something that carries more energy out past 500m like a 6.5cm or grendel, .300wm or even a .308 thats why we always have a designated marksmen typically with an m14.

    • For my personal AR-15, I actually zero my sights at 75 yards. It’s a good compromise between 25 and 100 yards. Although we were required to zero at 25 Meters with m16s and m4s in the Army, I never liked the fact I had to aim below the targets up to 100 Meters because of the ballistic nature of the 5.56 cartridge coupled with the angle of the rifle barrel. I know others don’t seem to have this problem, so maybe it was just the way I could see/shoot. After putting up with it with my service rifle, I preferred zeroing my rifle at the longer distance, since I rather just aim higher instead of low than high depending on the range and target.

      • 75 is a bit extreme. If you zero at 50 instead, you’ll get the other zero at around 200 (depending on the bullet), and it will overshoot much less than a 25/300 zero – so much so that you can basically ignore it and just assume POA=POI out to 250m or so, a couple inches either way doesn’t really make a difference.

      • Actually, in a military type shooting situation I prefer to aim low and work upwards. For hunting you obviously want that first rd in a lethal hit area, which depends on the animal and just how the shot presents. For sniping I was taught to drop the RTO first, preferably with an abdominal/lower body hit so they are down and screaming. Then pass out head shots to everyone who comes to help him. Dirty, underhanded, and effective.

      • Oh, and yes, I zero at 75m off the bench and freehand. The 2 rifles I have scopes on are zeroed at 125m, I find they are pretty easy to snap shoot with that as the baseline.

  8. Brian? I am rather old school, I always tell beginning shooters to leave off the optics and lasers UNTIL they are proficient with their piece on iron sights, rifle or pistol. Too often people pick up bad habits starting on optics too early. Proficiency out to 300 meters is the standard I was raised with, only problem is far too many ranges don’t have that kind of reach. Using US military reduced range targets is the only real alternative for a whole lot of people, and it is a system that works. Been used for many years and the bugs are well worked out of it.

    I am glad to see younger people taking up the training torch, and a point that must be emphasized is not to get discouraged. A bad day at the range is just a bad day at the range. Part of being a good instructor is knowing how to get trainees past those bumps in the road. Good luck and good shooting!

  9. Hey guys, I realize that the table for estimating range didn’t format blue and red like it was supposed to… I will eventually have all this re-posted on my personal blog with additional references and info for new shooters looking to expand their skill-set and will feature a properly color coded table.

    Thanks for the kind words guys. One of the hardest things now a days is to find a range which even has a 400 yard backstop. I lucked out by moving from Texas to PA and landing near a world class shooting range where I realized I could work on my skills.

  10. This is all great in terms of hold-over. What about shooter errors, ammunition problems, and wind?

    I was recently sighting in long guns with decent optics. One long gun was shooting 1.5 inch groups at 25 yards for no obvious reason. Then I changed ammunition and basically put all of the bullets into a single hole. That rifle and ammunition combination would not have been capable of putting rounds into a human size target at 400 yards.

    • You already know how to solve inaccurate ammo problems, you switched brands. Some firearms love brand ‘X’ and hate brand ‘Y’ and I don’t know why. but it happens. so don’t buy 1000 rounds until you find out what works well in your gun. Wind requires practice. There are charts and suggestions on the web to help you judge winds speed from the movement of tree leaves, to watching grass fall from your hand. Shooter error, is something that books have been written about, from flinching, to jerking the trigger, to improper sight use. Shooter error is a VERY broad topic. I could talk about any specific problem you might be having, but the whole range of possibilities is too much for a single post on a blog.


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