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Testing Hunting Rifle Skills At Rifle Competitions like the Vortex Extreme

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Precision rifle competitions of today have some roots in field shooting/hunting conditions. The PRS and NRL organizations have evolved rifle games into highly competitive venues with purpose-built rifles. While not as advertised, there are still field style matches that take advantage of natural terrain for testing shooting skills while also requiring timed movements between stages. Heavy (well over 20-pound) match rifles would work, having to drag it up and down a few mountains will make you think otherwise about bringing it.

One such field match with hunting inspiration is the Vortex Extreme in Douglas, WY. This is a team competition where you cross eight miles of Wyoming hills to reach ten shooting stations. For every station, each team member fires two shots on four targets, ranging from 160 yards to almost 1200 yards. At each firing point, the team has eight minutes to set up and engage the targets.

The format of the Vortex Extreme is inspired by western hunting, and the event has a Hunter rifle class in addition to Open and Gas Gun divisions. For a team to compete in the Hunter class, rifles must weigh ten pounds or less, minus anything that can be easily removed such as the sling or bipod.

Moving up the course trail at over a mile (5,000+ ft) up.

The Gear

Since my shooting partner, Greg, works for PROOF Research, we decided to try out their new Glacier Ti rifle in Hornady’s 6.5 PRC… aka real hunting guns. With the 10-pound total rifle weight we knew the rifles would be easy to carry, but hard to shoot for 80 shots that day. The Glacier Ti rifle features a titanium action, a PROOF carbon fiber wrapped barrel and carbon fiber stock that weighs in at six pounds. The 6.5 PRC cartridge is a newer cartridge that offers a speed upgrade over the 6.5 Creedmoor for a flatter trajectory, less wind deflection and more energy on target. The 6.5 PRC in the Glacier Ti is a formidable package for any hunt, especially when hiking across mountains.

PROOF Research Glacier TI in 6.5 PRC, Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1, CkyePod bipod, SilencerCo Omega suppressor. I added the cheekpiece and built up the grip area for an easier reach when prone.

To save weight, additional niceties that a match rifle would have, such as detachable magazines and adjustable check-pieces were not included. We knew that we would have to single load our rounds and be efficient on each stage. With such a light rifle we were able to use a bigger scope than normal for the match and mounted Nightforce ATACR 7-35x riflescopes. The wide magnification range, good field of view, and clear ED lenses would assist in finding and engaging targets, with plenty of elevation adjustment for reaching far targets.

For both hunting and team matches, Greg and I prefer to shoot suppressed for reduced noise and concussion when firing, which aids in team communication. We knew the greater recoil with the light rifles would push us off target, making partner provided corrections that much more important. We also mounted Ckye-Pod bipods, which offer a significant range of adjustments useful in mountain terrain.

For ammunition we worked up handloads using Hornady 135gr A-Tips, achieving sub-MOA performance at 3,000 fps. The performance of the A-Tip at this speed we felt would be manageable and able to connect on steel even in high winds. Our goal was to have a velocity standard deviation of less than 10 feet per second, meaning our ammunition was very repeatable for greater precision for long-range targets. (Read more about this here)

6.5 PRC with Hornady 135gr A-Tip on left, 6.5 Creedmoor with 140gr ELD-M on right. An extra 10 grains of powder brings a couple hundred feet of second more speed.

On match day we launched from basecamp ready to tackle the stages, each bringing our rifle, a Really Right Stuff Anvil tripod, 90 rounds of ammunition, rear bag, water bladder with electrolytes, Kestrel 5700 elites with Applied Ballistics, written data drop cards to 1,250 yards and laser range finding binoculars (Leica HD-B 3000s for me, Vortex Fury’s for Greg). Aside from the extra ammo and missing a few hunting specific items, this loadout was very similar to what we would bring on a day hunt out west.

All of the gear packed and ready to run.

The Match

All the targets were scattered across natural Wyoming backdrop, requiring a keen eye or optics to find them. Each stage had four steel plates of various sizes and none were placed in a straight line, meaning the rifles required resetting the position for each target. The target distances were provided to competitors, but we verified them with our lasers following the old “Trust but verify” axiom.

Target distances for each stage, provided before competitor's launched.

Target engagements were done as a team, where the designated first shooter would engage target one, followed by the second shooter. Only after both team members engaged the target with two shots did the team shift to the next target. Scoring was done in a 3/1 fashion, meaning a first-round impact was rewarded with a higher score of 3-points, while the second shot scored at 1-point for the hit. During the course stage wait times were recorded for subtraction from the start to finish time, as this was converted into a part of the overall score for placement.

Landscape photo showing the location of two stages.

Throughout the match, we were able to make the movements at a decent speed without tiring ourselves too bad. There were some longer wait times on a couple stages that didn’t count against time, but it extended out time on the course beyond a couple hours. The shooting was as expected, not easy due to the Wyoming wind that was ever-present, as well as up-hill, down-hill and cross-canyon shots. Designated firing positions were not level and clean, requiring you to get dirty and adapt the rifle to the shot.

After the scores were tallied up, we finished in first place for the Hunter class and second place overall. Our time to complete everything (without wait time) was two hours and 41 minutes. We were able to achieve a 67% hit rate on steel, accumulating 213 points.

Stage 3 with shooting positions at low right, target near white arrows.

Stage 10 with shooting positions at right on the hillside, target near white arrows.

Final Thoughts

  • Test your field and shooting skills. Shooting someone else’s course of fire pushes you to find and engage targets that are unknown to you. Solving shooting problems under time pressure with steel plates is great practice without taking a chance on a live animal. There's also the challenge of having to find small targets in open and forested terrain, then get your gun and gear setup for the shot, something necessary on a hunt.
  • Lightweight rifles are harder to shoot. The Glacier Ti’s in 6.5 PRC were very light and easy to carry, however, because they were so lightweight they required strict adherence to good fundamentals for accuracy. When we weren’t in good form in an odd shooting position, it became hard to see bullet splash or maintain consistency.
  • Validate your ballistic data/rifle. Even if you’re not a “long-range” hunter, being more confident in your rifle and gear for even a 200-yard shot is a good thing. Competing like this will let you figure out how far you would be confident with taking a shot in different conditions.
  • Physical test of yourself and gear. Will your clothes, boots and gear hold up? Do you have the right gear? Using your kit helps determine what is necessary to bring along and where you might need to make an investment. Shooting competitions has caused my gear to become lighter where I can afford to do so or upgraded when I’ve found something inferior. Also testing your physical conditioning pre-hunting season will tell you if you are for many miles in the mountains… especially if you are successful and now have to pack out a load of meat.

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