Engaging Moving Targets


Shooting long range targets at unknown distances in varying weather conditions is extremely difficult on its own. But when you throw in targets that are moving, things become even more difficult! But as snipers, when you look at the types of targets a team might encounter in the field, very few of them are motionless targets, nearly all of them are moving, whether it is just breathing movement while sitting in a chair, or a target that is in an all-out sprint. Moving targets at unknown long range distances are the most difficult to engage successfully, but with some knowledge, and a whole lot of practice, one can become fairly proficient at it. Of course, one of the major problems that an individual sniper, or a team, runs into, is finding the facility and means to practice with moving targets. Ranges with moving targets for long rifle work are very rare and difficult to find. If you are lucky enough to live or work near such a facility, be sure to utilize it as much as is feasible. Many times it may take utilizing a second team from either your existing unit or a nearby unit to trade off and help do moving targets practice at a range with a Butts system.

When thinking about moving targets, think of an NFL quarterback and how he leads his receivers. Notice that he does not throw to where the receiver currently is, but rather he throws the football to where the receiver is going to be when the ball travels down field. Shooting long range moving targets is the same concept. At closer ranges the bullet is moving fast enough that with a normal moving target no leads are really required. But as the distances grow and the bullet takes longer to get to the target, then aiming in front of the target is mandatory to get a hit. So with this concept of leading the target explained, let us get down to some of the fundamentals.

Different Methods

There are three main methods for engaging a moving target. These are outlined below:

  • Tracking: This method tends to be a favorite among the USMC and Navy SEAL snipers. Tracking involves actually moving the rifle at the same pace as the target and following along, or tracking the target. Once the crosshairs are aligned where the shooter believes the proper lead should be, the shooter fires the shot while continuing to track the target and maintaining proper follow-through.
  • Trapping: This method is a favorite among British snipers. Trapping is also known as “ambushing” a target, the reason is because the shooter places the crosshairs well in front of the moving target and simply waits until the the target gets to the desired lead and the shooter lets off the round, in essence, ambushing the target as it approaches the kill zone.
  • Tracking & Trap: This method is my personal favorite and is a mixture of the above two methods. The shooter tracks the target and while tracking moves the crosshairs ahead of the target a small distance and then waits for the target to move to the desired lead and fires the round off. Some shooters will not completely stop tracking the rifle but will rather just slow down and let the target catch up into the “trap”.

No one method is better than the others and it is typically a matter of trying each and using whichever feels the most natural to the shooter. The combo Tracking & Trap method is what I have adopted, but I have seen many very good shooters using all of the different methods. Controlled breathing and controlled and rapid trigger squeeze are important for successful moving target engagements, no matter which of the methods are being used.

Lead Values

When engaging moving targets we have already discussed how the shooter will lead, or aim in front of, the target. Of course, the leads that we will be calculating are for targets that are moving directly perpendicular to the shooter and we refer to these lead values as being a Full Lead target. When a sniper is engaging a target, he or she can normally tell that the target is moving perpendicular to them when they can only see the side of the body and only a single arm is visible. But there are times when the target is not moving directly perpendicular to the shooter, but rather at an oblique angle. When there is only 2/3 of the target’s body visible to the shooter it is considered moving at an angle and only half of the normal lead value should be applied to the firing solution.

When the target is moving directly toward or directly away from the sniper and both arms are visible on the target, this is a no lead target and no adjustment to the point of aim should be applied. This is the same if the target is moving toward or away from the sniper.

There is one last lead value adjustment that needs to be mentioned and considered. IF you are using the “Tracking” method of engaging moving targets, typically you as the shooter will need to apply a longer lead when engaging a target that is moving toward your shooting side. So if you are a right handed shooter and the target is moving left to right, then the lead will typically need to be longer. There is no set amount but rather it needs to be determined through experience on the range and then annotated in your log book.

Lead Calculations

We have talked about the important aspects of shooting at moving targets and the last thing left to do is discuss just exactly how far ahead of the target we need to aim. Since most tactical scopes use a reticle that has some means of measuring melliradians (MILs) we will talk about our aiming points and calculate are lead values using MILs as reference points. With that in mind, a proper two MIL lead when engaging a target would look like the image below:

So how do we calculate our leads? It is a fairly simple formula to get the actual distance to aim in front of the target, but then we have to convert that actual lead into MILs to use with our scope reticle. Of course, if you are using a MOA style reticle then your calculation will be different, but have no fear, we’ll show you that method as well.

First, let us talk about calculating the amount of distance we need to aim ahead of where we want to hit.

Time of Flight (Sec) * Target Speed (Fps) = Lead (in Feet)

Based off of the required information above, it is obvious that you need to know the speed at which the target is moving, here are some averages for human targets:

  • Slow Patrol = 1 fps
  • Fast Patrol = 2 fps
  • Slow Walk = 4 fps
  • Fast Walk = 6 fps

The second part of the formula is the time of flight of the bullet, but obviously that will change based off of the distance that you are shooting from and the cartridge and ammunition you are utilizing. This information can be obtained from any ballistics chart or ballistics software. For our example here, we’ll assume we are shooting a Sierra Matchking 175gr bullet at 2600 fps (at the muzzle) and we’ll say the target is at 600 yards and doing a fast patrol (2 fps target speed).

The time of flight for this round to travel 600 yards would be .87 seconds, and the target is moving at 2 fps, telling us that the target will move 1.74 feet. We come up with this value by multiplying the target speed, which is 2 feet per second, by the amount of time it takes the bullet to reach the target, which is .87 seconds. So multiple 2 * .87 and you get 1.74 which equals the feet that the target will move from the time the bullet leaves the barrel until it gets to the target 600 yards away. Now that we know the distance we need to aim in front of the target, we want to convert that number to the number of MILs that we can use on our scope reticle to aim ahead of the target. The easiest way to do this is to plug the lead value into the mil relation formula which looks like this:

Lead (Yards)
———————————– X 1000 = Mil Lead
Distance to Target (Yards)

We just need to convert our lead from 1.74 feet to yards, which is done by dividing 1.74 by 3 (the number of feet in a yard) which equals .58 yards. So let’s plug everything in and get our answer:

—– X 1000 = .97 MIL Lead

Obviously, we would just round that .97 up and call it a 1 MIL lead. So all you need to do is use the 1 MIL mark on your scope as your aiming point and engage your target. If you are using an MOA reticle you can either just convert the MIL lead value into MOA or you can use the following formula instead of the MIL formula displayed above.

Lead (Yards)
——————————- X 3438.4 = MOA Lead
Distance to Target (Yards)

Using the same values in our original example, it would look like this:

——— X 3438.4 = 3.32 MOA Lead

So hold 3.3 MOA ahead of your aiming point and you should be good to go.

This is obviously not a formula that you will want to be calculating every time when engaging a target, so instead, you will want to create a full chart for your specific load and then go out and verify the data by doing the actual testing on moving targets at a range. Once you are happy with your calculations you can then add the chart to your log book or commit it to memory. Of course, just getting experience with engaging moving targets goes a long way toward improving your comfort level with this difficult task. The more practice, the better.


To conclude this topic, I wanted to provide a couple of additional tips that should help with engaging moving targets.

  • Concentrate on the crosshairs, not the target. Focusing on the crosshairs will help you to properly release your shot when the correct lead has been achieved. If the shooter is focusing on the target, the shot is typically late.
  • Squeeze the trigger, do not jerk or flinch when trying to execute the shot – Many shooters have the tendency to jerk or yank the trigger when they see their target get to their desired lead. This affects the accuracy of the shooter and it is typically a good practice to concentrate on a good trigger squeeze.
  • Do not ambush and then start tracking, it is better to let the round loose – If you are ambushing the target but for whatever reason do not let the round off, it is better to pull ahead and ambush again instead of trying to start tracking.
  • Don’t forget wind – Easier said than done! Because a shooter is busy calculating how far to aim left and right for leads, it is a natural tendency for a shooter to forget about compensating for wind. There are a million things to consider when engaging a target, but practice sure helps.

Unknown distance long range shooting is already extremely complex and difficult and when the targets are moving it takes it to a new level. But by applying these techniques and then practicing whenever possible, a sniper team can become proficient at doing it. It is especially important since most targets are in motion. Hopefully what we have discussed can be of help.


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