To improve a skill you must challenge that skill. Proficiency increases when you put a demand on your system of self and gear. Competition is an outstanding way to test your setup and skills, and importantly to learn what works well and what does not under pressure. You may consider a competition to be intimidating. It is a healthy stresser, and much less worrisome than bullets flying back at you. So what if there are professional shooters in the contest, your perspective should be to learn from the best and to compete against yourself, always striving to improve. Everyone started at a baseline, even the pros. There is a significant sense of accomplishment when you do perform well versus your old self, and especially versus other experts. I gratefully had the opportunity to test my skills and equipment in an extremely demanding competition against active duty snipers and award-winning marksmen.
Tarrol Peterson is the Match Director of the Long Range Operators Challenge (LROC). He is the former head of the U.S. Army Sniper School, and previous Director of the International Sniper Competition at Fort Benning. Along with Carl Taylor, a USMC Scout Sniper, they designed a multi-stage course of fire, taking place over three days in early March in the mountainous terrain near the borders of Washington, Idaho and Canada. Their goal was to intensely challenge shooting enthusiasts, hunters, and even military sniper teams. The conditions: long range rifle shooting and short range pistol work, with limited information, unfamiliar and rough terrain, physical stress, and demanding time constraints.
I became involved after receiving a call from my friend Charles, who talked up the difficulty of this uncommon match. My Marine friend is an accomplished shooter, Charles earned the Distinguished Award in Across-The-Course competitions with a Service Rifle. He said the match would be conducted regardless of weather; the first year had heavy snow. We would carry everything in rucksacks: wet weather gear, snivel gear, binos, ammo, food, and water. The physical test appealed to me, and I had performed well at 3-Gun competitions. A slight problem was that my arsenal did not include a specialized rifle for long range. He offered to loan me a custom rifle built for precision. His wife Anette, a super shooter in her own right (and Shooting Lifestyle Correspondent here at GunUp the Magazine), would not be participating and I could use her purpose-built gun. The description on the match website hooked me.
The competitor group was 30-percent military, including the winner of the 1st Marine Division Sniper Competition, active duty Army Sniper Teams (most of whom were officially School certified, one a SOTIC grad). The remainder included veterans, hunters, and a host of other long range enthusiasts with serious investments in gear and training who sought to test themselves in one of the most challenging and unique events in the world.
I made the mistake of mentioning the match to my Ranger buddy Chuck. He is a Green Beret on the East Coast who loads his own ammo and replaced the stock on his personal rifle in pursuit of better performance. He lives for this kind of challenge, akin to an adventure race with marksmanship tests. Now two of my best friends were all-in for a team event; both were handloaders with the proper armory to select good tools for this contest. I let those two pair as a dream team. I reached out to a fellow 3-Gun competitor, Doug, who has performed well in Multi-Gun events around the nation. It turned out Doug had already made the leap into long range competition and was excited about this match. He had competed in three Precision Rifle Series (PRS) matches with a JP gas gun in .260 Remington, and while he turned out to be the oldest competitor, he felt up to the challenge of traversing the tough terrain. His competition experience, stellar observation skills, and superb shooting proved him a superlative teammate.
Teams received maps and eight-digit grid coordinates and then had to navigate their way to shooting points over mountainous and forested areas. Upon arrival at the objective, a Range Officer briefed the team on three different magnetic azimuths aligned with three separate targets, located anywhere along that bearing from 200 yards out to the horizon. With unknown ranges, the two-man team would scan the azimuth searching for steel silhouettes, rectangular and circular steel plates. Targets were fiendishly hidden in woodlines, concealed by vegetation, and sometimes below intervisibility lines from the prone. In those cases targets were unobservable from the most stable shooting position forcing competitors to assume unconventional and awkward shooting positions to see and engage them. Ranges were generally from 400 to 1000 yards, and three stages involved pistols with close range targets.
Ticking Pressure Cooker
Teams were allowed only ten minutes to find and engage targets. Just searching for the deviously concealed steel could take longer than ten minutes, as some teams discovered. Locating and engaging two targets proved a better tactic than wasting all of the allotted time scanning for the third. After finding, the team ranged each target. Laser Range Finders are not all created equally, and even the best will hiccup with vegetation obscuring the target. Offset techniques and mil-ranging helped in some cases.
Each shooter had to develop a solution for each target based on their own rifle/ammo ballistics, much more of a test than a belly or bench match at a flat range. The different altitudes of the various firing points and changing temperatures over three days influenced dope. While the clock was ticking, each shooter had to calculate elevation and windage data to engage each of the three targets. Competitors usually took the time to write each down because it was easy to forget in the heat of the moment, while spotting for your teammate and reacquiring targets well-hidden. The Match designers met their objective of testing “the gear and the person using the gear – through exposure to challenge and adversity.”
Shooters usually took the time to dial in the adjustments to their scopes. Given the long distances and small targets, precision requirements often precluded holding off on reticle stadia lines as a technique (even though it might seem a time saver – it does not matter how fast you miss). Each competitor was allowed a maximum of three rounds to engage each target, with the first two hits scoring points. The Match Director gave a premium for first round hits to reward the craft of the hunter or sniper. 10 points for first round hits, seven for second, and five for third. Thus the maximum you could score per target was 17 (10 + 7), the minimum was zero (no penalties for misses), and if you only connected on your third shot, you scored a five.
A Painful Experience
We started with an option, a foot movement over uneven terrain with bonus points for the first three teams, or the opportunity to confirm 100-yard zero at elevation, post travel and baggage handling. Some decided bonus points amounted to little if their scopes were off when match target points were on the line; others had confidence in their scope alignment and elevation data, and moved out with a purpose in pursuit of any point advantage.
Doug and I began trekking and he asked me how this compared to my time in the infantry. I said we often moved over uneven terrain like this, except mostly at night, with a high risk of sprained ankles. We came to a fence obstacle, I put my unloaded rifle under it, then climbed over the top, and leapt down from the second rung with a 30-pound ruck on my back. My ankle rolled when long grass gave way hiding a sharp depression in the ground. I fell to my knees in pain, grimacing with realization I had just horribly sprained my ankle after telling Doug of the risk. This injury on Day 1, Hour 1, of a three day contest involving movements over mountainous terrain was going to make the challenge that much harder. A team passed us at the fence as I worked on tightening the laces on my Asolo boot for extra support. My partner Doug picked up my 15-pound rifle to help cross-load, and we rucked up the final hill to our first shooting point.
We were pleased to see our friends, Charles and Chuck, were the first team to the point and received max bonus points. The match went uphill from here, literally and figuratively with the increasing challenge. The next stage required an ascent up a steep, heavily-vegetated slope. We broke brush to proceed as there was no trail. We were passed by another team, with my partner’s age and unconventional packing, plus my hobbled ankle, slowing us down. We found our way to firing points near the military crest, shooting down into the valley and across a canyon at targets on another mountain.
Doug and I turned out to be a remarkable team for scouting and hitting long range targets. We scored the most hits as a team for the first day of competition. We credited our many years of competition experience: being able to rapidly identify targets, plus shoot accurately and quickly from less than ideal positions. Although I was using a borrowed rifle and not as familiar with it as I would have liked, the Huber two stage trigger was exceptional. I ended the day with the top score, shooting 113% of the second second best and 126% of the third best to close the books on Day 1.
The second day brought almost triple the movement requirements, through scenic vistas, with shots down, up, and across terrain features. With an ankle wrap for support and a boatload of Ranger Candy (ibuprofen), I thought I could handle it. Doug had improved his load bearing plan; Charles & Chuck had graciously assisted with the encumbrance of my 15-pound rifle, but after almost two full days of rucking up and down the rough terrain on my significantly sprained ankle, I asked the Match Director near the end of Day 2 about vehicle transport for the last two stages.
Tarrol smiled devilishly, allowing me to decide how to continue. He would permit me to ride, but informed me there was no prize table for those did not complete the course as designed, with teams walking their loads from point to point over rough terrain. I asked where our team stood. He said we were on top of the pack for Day 1 and leading all teams through seven of nine stages of Day 2. My adrenalin surged, I tightened my laces, popped more Ranger Candy, rucked up and moved to the next point.
Doug and I ended Day 2 comfortably in the lead of all teams. We were ahead of the next closest by 6.7%, and 9.2% in front of third. The Match Director said “don’t choke” as we began Day 3, starting us on a cruelly-designed mover. The target moved obliquely, paused intermittently, and was located in the shadows 650 yards up a hillside, with the sun rising over the top. Even with a field-expedient sun visor consisting of a range card rubber-banded to the objective lens, my scope got whited out by the sun. I experienced major difficulty resolving the mover in my optic. Doug and I both zeroed the stage. The pain on Day 3 was more than just physical as our team struggled through some rough stages. Brent and Chris shot unbelievably well, juggernauting from third to first, with Adam and Mike less than 1% behind them. Those teams came on strongly with exceptional scouting and laudable marksmanship; they deserved their pedestal placement. We ended up with 97.3% of the top score and finished in third place. We were thrilled for the most part with our success, wishing like most competitors do for another chance at some stages where we believed we could have performed better. Still we felt proud that we faced the adverse conditions, those set up by the Match designers and those self-imposed, and we finished high amongst tough competition. We eagerly anticipate the Long Range Operators Challenge for 2016.
By Brian Vowinkel. Photos by Brian Vowinkel and Demetrio Montoya. Originally published in the June 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.