Just when I thought the tactical rifle competition couldn’t get any more challenging, along came my first team competition event. My first thought was that two of us should be able to easily navigate a course of fire, range targets and take turns shooting. It only took one stage of the match to realize that assumption was very wrong. Add that we are a husband and wife shooting team new at this game as it is and you can imagine the extra stress and frustration included.
Located in the middle of logging country in Kettle Falls, Wash., we attended the Camp Patriot Steel Team Challenge. In typical Pacific Northwest style, it was beautiful weather up to the day of the match. Then it poured. I had a pool of water hanging out in the chamber of my rifle even while it was in my rucksack. We did sign up to compete with big rifles in the great outdoors.
The location of this match in the mountains was spectacular and the stage designers and the weather put us to the test. Regardless, if you are a husband and wife team or partners that have shot together many times, this game is very different from competing individually.
Competing individually in precision rifle is similar to competing in 3-Gun; normally you are part of a squad moving from station to station, but instead of engaging targets in the quickest time you have a time limit to engage a variety of long distance targets from concealed or distant positions in variable field conditions similar to military designated marksmen.
Most matches I have done gave me plenty of time before the clock started to range targets. When a squad walks up together we all have to be briefed by the range officer, we can consult each other on ranges and we have time to get our gear ready for the stage. This is not the case in team format.
If possible, each team must wait outside the stage area so they do not see the course of fire. When you walk up to the stage the range officer tells you where the targets are. Once you agree that you also see the targets the one-minute prep time begins. In this one minute both shooters need to range the targets, get the ballistic drops and then get ready and in to position. The stage time starts immediately after and you are off.
You also need to be able to spot for each other. Shooters lie side by side and use scopes or binoculars to spot the other’s impacts. This should not seem that daunting. If it is, you do not understand the game and are not prepared. Gaming and preparation are half the battle.
We learned the hard way about being prepared. With our heavy backpacks full of all our gear, ammo and rifles we walked up to the staging area above the first shooting station. We could see the previous team was over the hill and down in the trees. We got word that the range officers were ready for us and we walked down the hill. While we were still wearing our loaded backpacks the range officer started pointing through the trees to the targets. He mentioned the amount of time each shooter had to engage the targets. We acknowledged we visualized the targets and he said “Good. Your one minute prep time starts now.” Wait, what? We dumped the packs on the ground, bumped in to each other, dug around for our magazines which were thankfully already loaded, pulled the rifles out of the scabbards, bumped in to each other, dug out the range finders and Kestrel Applied Ballistics program, bumped in to each other again and then fought over who was shooting first. Then we ran out of time before the second shooter even had a chance. Yes, it was a disaster. Only later after the sparks of anger diminished did we agree it was a comical disaster, but we learned our first of many lessons of team shooting. Be ready.
What exactly does it means to be ready? You have to assume that you will start your stage time the minute you and the range officer acquire the targets. You should have your rifle slung over the shoulder, your loaded magazines in pouches on your belt, your range finder and ballistics data card or program at the ready. It means you agree ahead of time who will range the targets, who will keep track of the ballistics data for each shooter and who will shoot first. There will still be surprises since every stage is different and each range officer has their own style, but the premise stays the same. Be ready.
Ideally we prefer the stages that have a target at a known distance, plenty of prep time and when each shooter on the team gets his own block of time to engage the target. One such stage was the rowboat on the lake. Both shooters got into the boat with only rifles and no support system. We pulled ourselves along the rope out to the required distance. Of course, the rain increased and the fog thickened in the process. There was only one target at 200 yards across the lake. We each had our own block of time to take three rounds. The trick here was to time the rocking of the boat between rounds.
There was another lesson to be learned here; we each had three minutes to shoot three rounds. That is a lot of time. We rushed it and did not need to, but we were able to shoot out of a boat and channel our inner Navy SEAL. From a moving platform to a moving target, we found the next stage of the match hiking up the hill from the lake.
Shooting a moving target has the same rules across the board for any shooting discipline: you need to lead the target. The difference in this game is that the movers are out to hundreds of yards rather than a few feet.
Normally the steel target rolls back and forth on a track at three miles per hour, which is considered the walking speed of a human. At this match they had two stages like this, one had a target distance of 450 yards and another was out to 800 yards up a steep hill. Unfortunately the 800-yard target broke half way through the match and we were not able to shoot it.
It is already challenging to shoot these when in a stable prone position on the ground, but we were given a pile of rocks to shoot from. We needed to figure out how to maneuver to make the shot work. If a range officer does not mention restrictions on props than you can assume anything goes. We thought we were clever to use our backpacks, which are large and cushy, as a platform to shoot off of on top of the rocks. It did certainly help, but there was a big gap between the rocks we were shooting from and the set of rocks behind and around us. After we were done with the stage the next more experienced team came up and moved the rocks around so that it bridged the gap and gave them a full-length, fairly flat surface to shoot on. Gaming the game, another lesson learned.
As we hiked around the hill on the first day of the match, the rain taunted us. We tried to protect our rifles as best as we could, but when you are in position shooting you are exposed to the elements. We arrived at one of the stages and we noticed a competitor was blowing primers. That could only be due to the moisture. We performed a maintenance check on our rifles and saw a pool of water around the chamber. One thing you must always have in your rucksack is a cleaning and repair kit. The cotton cloth patches soaked up as much as they could and by then the rain was down to a mist. I also opened up my scope caps and the lens front and back were both steamed up. Ah the great outdoors. We managed to avoid any malfunctions on our equipment. Fortunately, that lesson we did not have to learn. We were prepared. After a night of drying out our shoes and gear, day two of the Steel Challenge brought us relief and the skies opened up to some sunshine.
The match location was divided up in to two mountain areas. Day two was on the very lush and forested side of the hill. Most targets were hidden up the mountain across the valley from where we stood. Not only did we have to find the targets hidden in the trees but we also had to shoot through trees and brush on our side, and the incline to some of the targets was quite steep.
I felt a bit more ahead of the curve for the first time that weekend since we had a pair of Leica Rangefinding Binoculars. This bad boy not only ranges, but also gives you advanced ballistic compensation technology. To have that information of angle allows you to adjust ballistic drop accordingly. Since we were both shooting .308 this made a difference. One stage was so steep that it required both of our backpacks on top of each and the bi-pods extended as long as they would go.
The second day seemed to go a little smoother for us. We actually started to work together as a team. We approached one stage with some advice given to us by another shooter the day before. We were at the edge of a cliff with nothing but a tree perched on the precipice. There were four targets across the valley hidden through the trees, but there was nowhere to support the rifle. The ground was not going to work because of the angle, which left us to smash the rifle against the tree and shoot somewhat offhand. My teammate grabbed one of our packs and put the waist around the tree trunk, snapped it together and it stuck to the tree giving us part of the pack as a platform to shoot from. I don’t believe we would have thought of this on our own having not seen it first. Again, gaming.
The match threw many more challenges at us. After so many rounds the paint on the targets wears off. Rain, fog and even the angle of the sun on the second day made many of them impossible to see. This is a situation where you decide it is better to use the limited time to engage and hit targets that you see rather than waste it on ones you can’t. One target was actually hidden behind a log and we were told that in order to get an impact you had to shoot through the log. All you could see was the post underneath the log giving you a direction of where it sat. It worked. Apparently bullets go through logs.
These are the challenges of the precision rifle sport that are experienced by individuals as well as team competitors. The issues my husband and I had were not due to being a married couple, but rather were the result of inexperience. We started out as any rookies would. As a team we now know preparation and designated job descriptions are necessary. And perhaps some practice. For information about the Kettle Falls Steel Challenge and other team rifle events go to snipershide.com/forum or precisionrifleseries.com.
By Anette Wachter. Originally published in the July 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.