Article submitted by Mark Hatfield.
Match was held at the Manatee Gun & Archery Club.
My First Ever Rifle Competition
How I Entered a State Championship Match Not Knowing What The Hell I Was Doing.
Actually, I did know what I was doing, in that I already knew that much of what I was doing was wrong. Recently, sitting at this very same computer where sit I now, I heard the voice of the Malechild, Fruit Of My Loins. This is the one to whom I offered room and board while he attended a facility of Higher Learning after completing his service in the Marine Corps. Although, after the Marine Corps, what else could there be that anyone would need to know? And didn’t someone else say that they learned all of lifes important lessons in Kindergarten? (Pronounced ‘Kin- dee garden’ for most of us).
Anyway, he was heard to say telephonically to a friend, that a match was to be conducted nearby and the prizes were substantial, not simply for winning, but there was a drawing for ‘door prizes’ simply for showing up and completing the whole thing. Exclaimed he, the odds of winning a door prize were worth the cost of the entry fee. ‘I have a rifle that could do it’ proclaimed I, thinking that perhaps he would borrow it to use. But he was working as a Range Safety Officer at that same range on that same weekend, I could enter, meaning me, he said. He would pay the entrance fee.
I hadn’t thought about a match like that. I’m a pistol kinda guy. There’s been quite a few periods where I would do a thousand rounds a month or more. I’m been to more than a few classes, learned from some Big Name people, took it seriously. I own and shoot rifles too, casual plinking, some for hunting, some are reproductions of guns from the 1800s. I also practice a little bit of military style stuff and some close range defensive practice in case of zombie attacks, the End Of The World As We Know It, or the Martian invasion, but this match, I learn, is at a thousand yards.
A thousand yards. Now, I had shot at a thousand perhaps twice, nothing serious, just plinking, hoping to have a spotter see where my hits went into the dirt bank. I have done much more of the same at something over 500 yards though not often nor even regularly. At that distance I have shot, or at least attempted serious groups with military rifles and my budget version of a precision rifle. Results varied. Fair at best.
My previous best at long distance, meaning 500 to 560 yards was only minimally acceptable. And that was usually military style shooting, shooting at something sized to represent a persons torso, this match was at twice the distance so the targets would be bigger, right? Wrong, they were smaller. The targets were ‘gongs’, hanging flat circles cut from thick steel. They were only eight inches across.
With a hunting rifle and hunting quality ammunition, I knew that under ideal conditions, I could hit that, yup, all the way out to 300 yards. My precision rifle, with better quality ammunition would do much better than that, but how much better, I didn’t know. When I ‘built’ that rifle I only hoped for one M.O.A. (minute of angle,), meaning that under ideal (really, really perfect) conditions it could keep it shots in about an 11 inch circle at 1000 yards. Realistically, I expected to be able to keep my shots in an 18 or so inch circle perhaps a little better. I figured the equipment could do that if I did my part.
Earlier this year, while learning about the perils of parallax, I accidently shot a target with this rifle and my ammunition of choice which was both very bad and very good. The specific details are complicated enough for a story of their own, but suffice to say the incident ended with two distinct groups of four shots, one of 1 1/8th inch and the other of 7/8th inch, from 300 yards. That’s about 1/3rd of a M.O.A. Three times better than I wished for. It was clear then that the rifle and ammunition had potential, much more than I had hoped for, if only I could learn how to use it.
I was not real excited about this event, I wasn’t prepared for it and maybe not even really interested, but, Kidlet wanted it. I then discovered the high, I thought, entry fee was not for the whole event, it was that much per day. When he learned about that, his interest would drop, I was certain, so I skipped four possible practice and sighting in sessions. Turns out, he knew and still wished to try, so two days before the match, with my best friend as a spotter, I was at the bench.
My ammo was pretty standard, made it myself, Varget gun powder, 43.8 grains of it measured with calibrated dippers, and a Sierra Match King bullet (SMK). However I had the 168 grain weight bullets. Known for great accuracy and lower price compared to its competitors, the 168 grain SMK is famous for its accuracy, but not at 1000 yards. The cartridge I was shooting was the .308 Winchester, commonly referred to as the ‘Three-oh-eight’. A critical point for this bullet comes at approximately 800 yards. The bullet is slowing down and passes back through the ‘sound barrier’ and thereafter travels slower than the speed of sound. At that point of transition there is turbulence which affects the bullet, so about 800 yards is considered the maximum for this load. But, it is what I had.
My ‘action’ and barrel were a slightly older model made by Savage, the model 110 Tactical, which I had purchased used some years ago. I had recently replaced the incredibly poor quality original stock with an ‘Ultimate Sniper’ stock made by Choate. Not particularly the highest quality, but I didn’t want to mortgage the house to buy a really high quality one and the Choate would still be far better than what had been on that barreled action.
The rifle scope which I had on that gun for years had been an attempt by a low end scope company to make a higher end scope. It had been long discontinued and actually came apart when last I went to adjust it. I now had a Zeiss. Known for good quality, I got mine cheaper because had it been a demonstrator model. The glass is wonderfully clear and the adjustments do exactly what they are supposed to do. This precision of the ‘controls’ of the scope is important to be able to adjust the bullets impact to exactly where you want it and to be able to repeat that. For someone shooting different bullets, having different target distances, etc., this is very important. On many cheaper scopes these adjustments are only approximate or even just hopeful. For people looking to buy a rifle scope I have long said to forget about the price in the beginning. First, determine exactly what characteristics, features you need in your scope, find all with those features, then buy the most expensive one which you can afford.
These matches are shot from a solid ‘bench’, cement in this situation. Front and rear ‘rests’ are allowed and pretty much obligatory if one wants to actually hit anything. At these distances and size of targets, simply attempting to steady the gun on a tree stump or handy rock simply ain’t gonna do it. The rear rest may be a simple bag with a ‘V’ notch to fit the butt of the gun, however the front rest is usually iron, heavy, complex and adjustable for precise positioning of the rifle. I had purchased such a rest recently but had not used it.
My rest came with two front ‘bags’. The one bag was fairly standard and could be used for most common rifles. I used it check the sight settings of a military style rifle and it worked very well, but for my ‘precision’ rifle, it was no good. The forearm of the rifle was too wide to fit into the notch in the bag. Attempting to force the gun down into the notch was unsteady. The rifle needs to move straight to the rear when firing. This provides for consistency and allows the shooter to continue to see the target through the riflescope. By using the wrong front bag, the rifle would ‘jump’ off of the bag to the right, so my shots were less consistent and I could not see where my shots were landing in the dirt bank around the target. If my shots were going high, low, left, or right, I had no way of knowing thus was the need for my friend to ‘spot’ for me. He watched the target with a telescope and told me where my shots landed so I could make adjustments.
I did not expect to hit such small targets at such a distance, but I hoped that I could shoot consistently enough even if keeping my shots in an 18 inch or so circle that there might be an occasional hit just by chance and that I would not too badly embarrass myself. However, my inconsistency was far too great. I suspected it was due mostly to the improper fitting front bag. So we returned to try again the next morning.
The bag was now being beaten and forced closer to shape which I needed but it was still inconsistent. Rarely could I see the impact of my own shots. But I did shoot consistently enough that I could enter the match and not look too much like an ass. But I knew I needed a better bag.
I had placed a small order from Midway USA for some knives and there was a sale on bullets as well so I had ordered some. I had forgotten about them until they arrived, which was the day before the match. These bullets were from the same manufacturer as the ones which I was using but just slightly heavier, 175 grains vs. 168 grains, but more importantly, they were intended for precision at longer distances than the 168. So I loaded some up, using the same powder and charge as previously and went into the match the next morning with a load I had never fired before.
Some guns just don’t like some bullet/ammo combinations but I thought I should be fairly safe but the heavier bullet would have a different point of impart. No problem, hopefully. Before each ‘relay’ of shooting, I would have five minutes to sight in. I could make any necessary adjustments then, I hoped.
The next morning I checked in. The wind was relatively calm. Good, the cross winds are often bad and I know the wind would increase as the day progressed. A cross wind can easily move a bullet two feet or more from the target at that distance. All shooting assignments were made randomly and would be randomized again the next morning. I was assigned to the second of four relays, bench 4A. Each relay had an ‘A’ and ‘B’ group. Clay ‘pigeons’ discs used by shotgun shooters to simulate flying birds, had been placed on the bank near the targets. These clays would be used for getting our rifles sighted in. The impact of missed shots could be seen in the dirt bank, seeing these misses, the shooters could see how much of any adjustments were necessary to their sights.
When a relay was started, the designated shooters had five minutes to place their rifles, rifle rests and other gear on their assigned bench, the rifles could be aimed at the clay targets. A second five minute period then started, both A and B shooters could fire at the clay pigeons during this time. Shooters used this time to fine tune their zeros for this distance and more importantly, to adjust for the ever changing wind. The B shooters then had to remove the ‘bolt’ from their rifles to ensure that it could not be fired during the next stage, shooting for the record. Eight minutes was given for the A group to fire eight shots. One or more ‘spotters’ would be seated behind each shooter with a high powered optic to watch the potentially swinging target to see if it was hit. A scorecard was marked for each shot, hit or miss. The shooters were not given any information about the location of their misses. Shooters were allow two additional ‘sighted’ shots during this time before starting to fire for the record, these shots had to be clearly announced to the spotter before firing.
My sighting shots were low, perhaps 2 to 2 ½ feet low and to the side. Way off. But when my rifle moved in recoil it did not move straight back so that I could still see the bullets impact. Most of them I could not see. I could aim precisely, but not being certain where the bullets were impacting I could not adjust to put them where I wanted them. This continued to occur during firing for the record. Then the A group removed the bolts from their rifles and the B group had their eight minutes to fire for the record.
There was a break where the targets were repainted then both groups shot again. Another five minutes of sighters, but then the B group shot first.
About half way through my string, I saw one of my shots almost hit the base of the post on the right of the target, at least two feet low and two feet to the right. In frustration I aimed at the top of the left post and saw some of my bullets impact near to the target. I had to get a better front rest which fit the forearm of my rifle properly, allowing the gun to move straight back during recoil. That would make for more consistent shooting and I would be able to see the impacts and then adjust my aim as needed.
One of the other shooters in my relay hit 11 times out of his 16 shots.
Why hadn’t I been using the correct front rest bag? My heavy iron precision rest had come with a generic ‘fits most’ bag which I had been trying to use, and had as well, a bag more suited to this rifle, but it was unfilled. Filling it seemed like it would be a pain in the ass and I had been just too lazy to do it.
On my way home, I stopped at three places which might have such a front end bag though the odds were slim. I found none. I even had half a silly notion to replace my rest with one of several similar used ones for sale, but given the price that would have been quite foolish. My buddy had suggested that I could fill it with sand from an unused sandbag left over from a storm. I could go the beach and get sand. Some people in the past used lead shot, small lead pellets used in shotguns, but I did not want to deal with the lead dust they could create, and sand which was not cleaned, filtered and processed could rot my bag from the inside. In desperation, I did a most unmanly act. I found a certain paper I had kept, I read the directions.
‘What!’ I thought, ‘They recommend THAT for filling this bag’. Not the stuff which usually goes into them and their other models of bags, sand, shot, ground up moon rock (I touched one once, long ago at the Smithsonian), but instead, the same material which is used for cleaning empty brass cartridge cases. I had that stuff.
Filling the bag was not as difficult as I thought it would be, but spillage was a concern. The small dried particles of ground up corn cob went into the center portion of the three lobed bag through an opening which had no closure. Put some in, try to hold the opening shut while trying to force the filling into the outer lobes, repeat. One had to try to pinch the opening shut while forcing the stuffing about in the bag. The opening in the bag was later sealed only by later placing it on the metal rest and bolting it into position. There was a good bit more spillage than I would have thought. At least I had the good sense to carry out this procedure over my sons computer keyboard and equipment rather than my own, an act which did not pass undiscovered later.
On the second day I had been assigned the first relay, bench 3B. There was no wind. I felt a little guilty taking the spot from someone who probably spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours perfecting their equipment and skills who would have loved to have that period before the wind picked up, but it had been randomized, so…
I had forgotten to adjust the side supports of the front rest at the bag. This meant the bags surface was much wider than the firearm of the rifle and the gun slid from side to side. Now my vertical stringing was horrible. This means that the up and down variation of where my bullets were hitting was EXTREME. I did not realize it at the time but I probably packed the new front bag too full so the rifle was resting on a relatively ‘hard’ surface and bouncing off of it with each shot. Could also have been that my breathing was not consistent or I was not consistently placing the ‘butt’ of the gun into my shoulder or a combination of all the above.
On the last of my sighting shots I nearly had to quit the event. I could not move the bolt of my rifle to remove the empty ‘brass’ and put in a new cartridge. I had to take a multi-tool from my belt and pound the bolt open. This happened several times during the shooting, I then realized the cause and took corrective action.
During the sighting in, the spotters saw my plight, I heard some comments, including, ‘He must not be able to see his impacts’. Seeing my pathetic attempts, a couple of the guys tried to guide me on target but my vertical variations were so extreme and unpredictable it was of no help. Strangely, I amazed myself and moreso them for my horizontal placement of the shots was near perfect, sometimes beautiful in fact. Just incrediburgable. So perfect from left to right, so astronomically off top to bottom. And that’s with a gun which is sliding to the side with every shot.
On my two strings for the record I saw very few shots impact. On the next to last I saw a perfectly centered hit or would have been hit on the target if it had not been about three feet low. ‘This is it now, my last shot’. I focused as best I could. I aligned my sights to three feet above the target, carefully steadied then pressed the trigger. I saw the impact. Side to side was alignment was perfect and the shot hit exactly where I was aiming, three feet above the target.
One of the other shooters hit 14 out of 16 shots.
There were shoot-offs for winners in each relay, for each day and for the overall winner. Wind was quite substantial later in that second day. Cash prizes for the winners of each section. Then also there a drawing for ‘door’ prizes just for showing up and staying through both days, I won a prize worth 300 dollars.
People who ‘get into’ this type of shooting will buy a large lot of precision match grade bullets then use specialized gauges to inspect them and use only perhaps the most consistent 10 percent of these. That’s not my style. The ‘brass’, the cartridge case will also be match grade, again inspected, carefully checked and only the most uniform of the best are used. I used brass which had been thrown away and recycled, not only not match quality, but from several different manufacturers. One of the brands was one which I had not used before, the bottom ‘rim’ of these seemed thicker than the others and would hang up in the tools I used to make the ammunition. It was these which had to be pounded out of my gun. When I realized this, I checked the bottom of each one before shooting to see the makers markings and set aside those from that company. Note: The maker was Privi Partizan. On the other hand, I have shot over 2000 rounds of their 5.56 M193 ammunition in two other rifles with only one problem occurring which might have been due to the ammunition and have been generally satisfied with that.
When the event was over I assisted with some of the cleanup, taking down sign-in tables and such. One of the organizers asked if I had figured out what was causing the vertical ‘stringing’, I had not, but I will. He asked if had figured why some of the brass was getting stuck in the gun. I told him that it was a specific ‘head stamp’ which I had not used before, that for the match I had used mixed brands range ‘pick-up’ brass. You could almost see his jaw hit the ground.
I am very curious to fix the cause of the stringing. Think I’ll work out the bugs and do it again, at least if not a formal match, but keep shooting at a 1000. Maybe next year show them what I’ve learned. Might still use cheap brass though.
*** Looserounds, nor Mark, take any responsibility for any reloading data listed above. Always use caution when trying a handload you have not worked up safely in your own gun. All reloading precautions should be taken when handloading. Always follow reloading manual instructions and warning of the component MFGs.***