Competitive Shooting The Hard-Won Lessons of Precision Rifle Competition Rob Curtis September 29, 2017 Photos by Matt Stagliano, Firelance Media Shooting a PRS match is a great way to see just how insignificant the act of actually pulling the trigger can be when it comes to hitting what you’re aiming at. Distance magnifies the need for strong shooting fundamentals, but ask guys to follow some basic instructions, such as shooting targets in a certain order, and then add a timer … any competitor will tell you, the timer steals I.Q. points. One thing easily overlooked when talking about precision rifle competitions is how much preparation is involved. The simplest representation involves showing up and shooting bull’s eyes from awkward positions. Sounds fairly easy, right? But, if it were that simple, we’d all be movie snipers the first time we got behind a 10/22. Practical precision rifle competition, popularized by the Precision Rifle Series, is definitely an adult endeavor. There’s a reason it’s sometimes described as tactical golf. While there’s some aspect of middle-aged white guys running around in funny clothes, the real reason it’s compared to golf has more to do with the way the sport’s deeply contemplative nature appeals to its participants. When we say deep, we mean like an iceberg. Sticking out of the water is the simple, cartoon representation of a precision match — guys showing up and striving to collect hits on small targets at great distances. But, under the surface, there’s an invisible mountain of physical and mental preparation, skill, discipline, and even some psychology. Competitors gather for the shooter’s meeting as the PRS New England match kicks off at the O’Neil Rally school. They spend thousands of dollars a year on gear, training, and travel to ranges around the country in search of Precision Rifles Series points. With so much time and money invested in the sport, competitors continually strive to learn and reduce errors. On the preparation side alone, we’re talking about choosing a caliber, setting up a solid rifle with a decent optic, chronoing and accuracy testing different cartridges, and ideally developing and hand-loading the perfect round for your rifle. Then there’s selecting rifle-mounted accessories to aid stability, accuracy, and efficiency. On the intellectual side of things, there’s learning and applying the fundamentals of long-range external ballistics, which means getting familiar with ballistic coefficients, drag models, and other exotic terminology … and that’s not even considering a baseline of physical fitness and the ability to do eighth-grade math while on the clock. My own journey in long-range practical shooting began this summer at the newly slated PRS New England match. It was the first-ever Precision Rifle Series match held in the northeast. The staff of Team O’Neil Rally School hosted the match in Dalton, New Hampshire, amid the lushly forested and steeply sloped valley that’s home to one of the world’s most respected off-road driving schools. The experience was equal parts rewarding and frustrating. I’ve done a fair amount of long-range shooting and built a solid foundation of accuracy, learning from some of the best instructors in the business. Yet, nearly all of the confidence I had in my ability to make hits at long distances went out the window in the first 30 seconds of my first real precision match. What follows is a list of lessons gleaned from squadmates, other veteran shooters, and my own humbling experience entering the crucible of PRS competition. Competitor's view of the targets across the valley during the PRS New England match. The red indicators are target locators, the actual targets are right next to them. Plenty of competitors scored perfect, but worthless hits on those cardboard indicates throughout the match, despite regular guidance from officials and fellow shooters. THE TOPOGRAPHY One thing I took for granted shooting at range facilities all over the country is the ability to see misses. As I pumped miss after miss into the green canopy of trees and saplings surrounding the steel plates positioned on the northern New Hampshire valley sides of the PRS New England match, it became clear just how much I relied on the obvious splash of a miss hitting the dirt to make corrections to my elevation and wind holds. Buck Holly, left, helps the author diagnose an issue with his ballistic data. As the tools for long range shooting become more advanced, they also become more complicated. Team O’Neil’s leafy hillside and moist soil didn’t give up the billowing signature of dry earth so typical of the prepared backstops found at commercial ranges, which are mostly barren of foliage after thousands of impacts. This alone gave rise to a few lessons. The first coming from Jack Culotta, a seasoned PRS competitor, sponsored shooter and prior service Marine. He says it’s easy to second-guess yourself, especially in situations like this. He warns against shooting the same miss twice. Unless you can remember it, get something that'll keep elevation and wind holds notes on the gun or on your arm for each stage. We used a rifle-mounted data board from Prater Precision and some small index cards. SHOOTING THE SAME MISS TWICE “You’re so stressed by the pressure of the clock and all of that,” says Culotta, “you assume that something’s not right, and you wind up not trusting your own ability to put a shot where you want it.” You might make a miss and assume you caused it by jerking the trigger or boning another one of the fundamentals. Long-range shooting is a head game. Shooters become so focused on their own shortcomings they fail to account for external variables that cause misses. Or, in the opposite case, shooters are so confident in their marksmanship skills that they hold the same point of aim for shot after bad shot with the stubborn belief the wind will eventually prove them right. “Even if you don’t see the miss, don’t send the same shot because you’re not going to see it next time, either.” Culotta says, “Add more wind or try adding more elevation if you think the rifle’s been shooting low. Just don’t use the exact same point of aim again. Because, if you’ve got a PRS-worthy rifle, and you shoot the exact same point of aim again, it’s going to be the exact same miss.” Jack Culotta works his CADEX rifle from the cockpit of a side-by-side during the first day of the PRS New England match. THE IMPORTANCE OF TRACE You’ll hear experienced shooters talk about seeing trace — the wake left by a bullet as it travels through the air — and making adjustments for wind during a stage. Spotting trace is critical when shooting matches without dirt berms behind the targets, as was the case at the PRS New England match. As much as it’s a shooter skill, you may also need to work on your rifle so you can see trace if it’s not apparent. You might need to adjust the weight of your rifle and install a brake to settle the gun, giving you a chance to follow through and keep your scope steady enough during recoil to watch for trace. Brix Birckner suggests it's alright to take a moment and go over the stage instructions with an R.O.. On the first stage of a PRS match in Kentucky, Buck Holly, a member of the C&H Precision Weapons Boomsquad shooting team, was shooting small targets buried in a tree line at about 450 yards with no berms. There was a slight breeze, and Holly dialed in a 0.2-mil hold. After missing his first shot, he backed his optic’s magnification down from 22x to 15x. “I lined up for my next shot, but this time I told myself to stay on the gun a little longer and watch for trace.” Holly says it was like slow motion as he watched the mirage-like bullet trace all the way to the target, which missed just off the left edge. “I had to pause for a second and compute what I had just witnessed,” he says. When he realized he’d just watched his bullet track in the wind, he made a correction and cleaned up the remaining shots. Don’t be embarrassed to go over the details of a stage with the RO. Stage RO and match coordinator, Wyatt Knox, goes over the course of fire with PRS competitor Buck Holly. KEEP A LOGBOOK Culotta keeps what he calls a Dumb Sh*t I’ve Done That I Never Want to Do Again log book. It’s filled with stuff reminding him of the time he began a stage without enough ammo in the magazine, or the time he didn’t notice he rolled an optic turret an entire revolution while hiking between stages. “I’ve probably got 30 or 40 different things in there,” he says. “It’s good to keep those sort of notes so that before guys shoot their next match, whether it’s sitting at the reloading bench or on the plane or riding in the car, they read that stuff again to try to ensure they don’t cost themselves those same points at the next match.” It's important to watch other competitors work a stage, not only to figure out what might work but to offer advice for improvement, if asked. Clockwise from left, Rob Curtis, Buck Holly, Jack Culotta and Brix Birckner. BUILD A ROUTINE “One thing I’ve begun doing in the past six or eight months that’s really helped me a lot was build a routine before and after I shoot a stage,” says Brix Birckner, another veteran of the PRS. Just like any competitor, he’s suffered a few brain farts over the years. He says he may or may not be guilty of “accidentally writing down the DOPE for a different stage, dialing up the wrong DOPE, or accidentally putting .223 Remington data in a Kestrel [ballistic computer] instead of 6.5x47mm, and so on.” Just like any competitor, Brix Birckner's suffered a few brain farts over the years. Birckner keeps a meticulous pre- and post-stage routine that he says keeps the stage gremlins at bay. In response, he’s built a pre- and post-stage routine. “I’ll make sure I’ve got the right stage, and I’ll ask the RO (range officer), ‘Hey, is this stage 12?’ ‘Yes, this is stage 12.’ Then I’ll start writing my DOPE down. I’ll double-check it, and I’ll set my turret for the yardage of the first target of the stage. That way, before I even lay down, my data’s already in my scope. I don’t even have to worry about it. I just try to cut down on the Dumb-Ass factor.” When he’s done with a stage, he’ll zero out his scope turrets before getting up. “I might have 12 mils dialed for a 1,400 yard target. The next stage might be a 400-yard target, and I’d be shooting 10 mils over the damn thing. I’ve never been off by a whole [revolution], but I’ve seen it happen to a ton of people.” TALK TO THE RO “It’s almost like people are embarrassed to ask the [range officer] questions about the stage sometimes,” says Birckner, “and, that’s what they’re there for.” Let’s say there are five targets on a stage and the matchbook says you’re supposed to shoot them in a certain order. Make sure you and the RO are on the same page. Any time he approaches the line and the RO asks him, “Do you understand course of fire?” Birkner doesn’t answer with a simple yes or no. Instead, he’ll respond, “I’m supposed to do this, this, this, and this.” And, if the RO says “correct,” then that’s what he’s going to do. That way, Birckner says, “Later on, when he says, ‘oh, that’s not what you were supposed to do,’ well, I can say ‘I confirmed that with you and that’s what you told me.’ So, even if I did have a screw-up, they’d probably be willing to give me a reshoot on the stage because it would have been more the RO’s fault than my own.” It takes a decent amount of gear and even more preparation to compete in a PRS match. The author may have overpacked, but there’s no reason to defy the “one-is-none” principle when shooting your first match. DON'T TRY NEW GEAR ON GAME DAY This one’s mine. I’ll start out by saying I upgraded from my old Remington 700 .308 rifle to a Proof Research Switch rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor for my first match. I knew there was a lot that could go wrong moving to a new rifle, so I spent time evaluating a few different kinds of factory ammo, carefully gathered velocity data for my chosen cartridge (Prime Ammunition 130-grain OTM Match+), verified the rifle’s headspace, triple-checked the torque on every bolt of the rifle and optic mount … I checked everything. Despite my diligence, after firing the third round on the first stage of the match, I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t help that my squad drew the longest target of the match as our first stage. It was also raining so hard the spotter had trouble seeing hits. All of that added up to a huge confidence deficit when I couldn’t connect a bullet with a 36-inch square target at 1,200 yards using a rifle I knew was up to the task. PRS competitor Jack Culotta keeps what he calls a Dumb-Sh*t-I've-Done-That-I-Never-Want-to-Do-Again log book during every match. He says he's collect 30 or 40 gems over his PRS career. This isn’t going where you think it is. The trouble wasn’t the rifle, or the ammo, or my middling shooting skills. I’d been using a Kestrel 5500 environmental meter with Applied Ballistics as my ballistic computer for a while, and with great success. Well, the night before the match, I saw there was an update to the Kestrel Link app for iOS, so I decided to take advantage of the fact I could edit, load, and back up rifle and ammunition data by connecting my iPhone and Kestrel over Bluetooth. In the process of backing up and organizing my data, I renamed my gun profiles. Without realizing it, I reversed the profiles, giving my new Proof Research rifle all the ballistic attributes of my old Rem 700 profile. After a half-day of goose egging stages as I struggled internally with every other skill- and gear-based cause I could think of, I asked a squadmate for some help, figured out the issue, and finally started scoring hits. ASK FOR HELP As a corollary to my last act of public self-deprecation, PRS shooters are some of the most magnanimous and helpful guys in all of shootingdom. Maybe it’s because there’s so much to learn and it’s only a matter of time before even the most experienced PRS competitors know they’ll need a hand, or maybe they remember how overwhelming the whole PRS scene can be for new shooters. Either way, from gear advice, to sharing wind calls, part of the PRS culture is helping out. Case in point. I only had one AI mag for my rifle and knew I’d need at least a couple to compete. So, I ordered a few. It took a little longer for them to arrive than I’d hoped, so I didn’t have time to break them in, but they all ran all right during the last practice session before the match. Brix Birckner, on glass. By the seventh or eighth stage, my rifle wouldn’t feed from a full mag. The rounds would hang, the bolt would bind, and I had to drop the mag and single feed the first two rounds of every mag. I figured the bottom metal was messed up or the bolt was hitting the mag. One of my squadmates, Birckner, saw my suffering and gave me one of his well-broken-in AI mags to try. The old mag fed the gun like a jackrabbit on a honeymoon. Turns out, the feed lips of the new mag were rough; along with the spring tension, the sticky lips created enough friction to bind the action. I ran the rest of the match on borrowed mags without an issue. Once home, 5 minutes with some 1,200-grit sandpaper on each mag’s feed lips cleared up the issue entirely. BYE-BYE DOPE Rei Hoang is one of Falkor Defense’s sponsored competitors. She’s eager to help out new shooters and relates the time she thought she’d write her stage DOPE on a small clipboard that she’d bring to the line and work from as she shot. Gear is important. But, no matter how good a rifle is it's only as good as the preparation made for the match by its owner. “I put it down somewhere and lost it,” she says, “my name got called so I borrowed some paper and laid it down next to me as I shot. A gust of wind came by and blew my DOPE away.” Instantly, she was reduced to guessing her holds. She says, “Memorize your stage DOPE, or get a sidewinder (a DOPE chart holder that attaches to your rifle), and always place your items back in your bag after each stage.” The author ran a lightweight hunting rig, a pre-production Proof Research Switch rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor with a Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 and a Thunder Beast Ultra 9 silencer. The setup features a Savage barrel nut and an interchangeable bolt head for easy swaps between training, hunting, and competition configurations. LESSONS FROM FIRST-TIMERS We asked a handful of first-timers at the PRS New England match what they learned after shooting their first match. Ken Mcloud It’s easy to over-guess the wind. Several times today I had a situation where the wind is rolling up these hillsides. It’s funneled right into your face in the shooting position. You start out with one idea what that one’s doing. Then, while you’re shooting, you’ll feel this big gust right in your face, making you think the wind just got really strong and you need to hold more. It seems like almost every time I’ve done that I’ve pushed too much wind. Ross Roetman Trust your DOPE. I dialed it in, then I started messing with it for winds that weren’t really strong or overcompensating for inclination — it didn’t work out. When I went back to the numbers I’d mapped out beforehand, I’d get hits. Nick Devlin Make sure you know what you’re shooting at beforehand. It sounds silly, but look at the targets and orient yourself before you’re down behind the scope. I neglected to do that a couple of times yesterday, and I spent a lot of time acquiring the target. I did shoot the wrong thing at one point. But after realizing it, I’ve been more relaxed on the line and more confident. Anytime there’s a chance to look through the spotting scope or pick the RO’s brain, I’ll take it. Dustin Coleman The most fun thing is challenging yourself in new shooting positions, and learning a lot of the tips and tricks that the more seasoned guys know. There’ve been a couple of stages where we’re walking up and they’re still finishing up. You ask a couple things, and they’re always willing to help out. James Radziewicz By watching more experienced shooters, I’ve learned there’s a lot of different ways to do something the right way and the wrong way. 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