My mood as I drove up from San Antonio for the final day of the Texas Multigun Championship wasn’t very good. The previous day, I had been all smiles and sunshine, but with two stages left to go, I was less than optimistic about my chances of getting back into the game. I was hoping to make it well into the top 100 shooters, but as I was starting the morning at a distant 147th I didn’t hold out much hope. Looking at the next stage we’d be shooting didn’t help, either. But things were about to take a turn for the awesome . . .
Stage 8 featured extremely long range targets, and was the stage that everyone in the competition was dreading. After engaging six paper targets, you needed to lay down on a wood platform and engage an assortment of steel targets: three at about 100, three at 200, two at 300, two at 400 and two at 500 yards for a total of 12. And to raise the stakes, every missed steel plate added an extra 20 seconds to your time, so skipping the steel targets and taking the time penalty up front wasn’t an option.
As I loaded up for the stage, I found myself disturbingly under prepared. Everyone else had Hornady match grade ammo or at least some heavier bullets loaded up, something in the 75 to 77 grain range to combat the wind and add a little accuracy at distance. The better shooters had their own handloads; super-accurate rounds of their own making that they had practiced extensively with and knew the ballistic tables like the back of their hand.
Me? I had was Winchester white box 55 grain ammunition, the same stuff you could pick up for peanuts at Walmart a couple months ago that sold by the crateload. Making the situation even better was the fact that I was using a Leupold scope with the wrong reticle: a 7.62 reticle instead of one for 5.56. The guys on the team said it matched up with 75 grain trajectory better, but again, I didn’t have any of that ammo. In short, I figured I was well and truly screwed.
The point of the paper targets at the beginning of the stage was to get you to fire your gun fast, thereby heating up the barrel and shifting your point of impact around. Depending on when and how you zero your rifle, the condition of your barrel dictates where your rounds are going to land. Barrels move as they heat up, meaning that if you zeroed your rifle based on the very first shot of the day, you’ll probably miss the target after the gun gets warm. In short, the only reason for the paper targets was to get the shooters to heat up their barrels and make them miss on the distance shots.
If I had been running any old AR-15, that might have happened. But I was using a SCAR, and it was having none of that.
I made short work of the paper targets, then swapped out for a new magazine before flopping down on the platform. I figured that I’d time out for sure if I tried to hit every single target, so I decided to limit myself to three rounds per distance. If I couldn’t get it (couldn’t see the impact on the berm to walk the shots in) I’d move on, hopefully finishing fast enough to offset the penalties. But as I started the run, something amazing happened.
The three 100 yard targets were gimmies. I had shot that far offhand the day before, so I was actually pretty surprised that I missed the first shot. 200 yards was similarly easy after I had dialed up the magnification a bit on the scope, since I was zeroed for 50 yards (and therefore close at 200) all I had to do was hold on the right edge for wind and the targets sang. Then I moved to the 300 yard targets, which were two steel gongs. I tried to remember the ballistic tables for 5.56, and made a guess at the right hold for that distance. I took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
Wait, what? Did that really just happen? I tried again on the second target.
I started thinking that this might just work out after all. I moved on to the 400 yard targets, elevated the gun a bit more, and added a touch more to my right side hold for the wind. I missed with my first shot, but I saw exactly where it impacted the berm and threw up a cloud of Texas dust. I adjusted my aim slightly and tried again.
The targets at 400 and 500 were set up with flashers, small flashing lights that lit up when the targets were struck. A couple more rounds and both 400 yard targets were flashing. I moved on to 500 yards, now determined to abandon my “three rounds per target” rule. I could clearly see the impact of the bullet on the tan colored berm, and walking in the shots was a breeze. Again I missed my first shot at 500, but saw the impact and adjusted.
I literally thought to myself “I can’t believe this is working!” I figured that this would be the final straw, the last nail in my coffin that threw me down to the depths of the score sheet, but instead I was rocking and rolling. The second 500 yard target took a few more rounds (the wind was picking up), but I hit that one, too.
At the end of the range was a “bonus” target, about 50 yards further and positioned to the side of the berm in a fairly dark shadow. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I would have time left to engage it, but there I was with a clean run under my belt and time to spare. Hitting the target would mean a 15 second deduction from my time, and I decided to go for it. I spend an extra 6 seconds trying to hit it before the buzzer went off, timing me out.
As I stood up from the platform, I couldn’t believe it. With a mis-calibrated reticle and what many people said was sub-standard ammunition, I had achieved what many competitors had failed to do even with match grade ammo and dope sheets taped to their scope covers.
I think Erik summed it up best: “when you write about this, you’d better be praising the awesome cold hammer forged barrel on that FNH USA SCAR 16S.” Roger that. And the folks at Winchester, too. Not to mention the amazingly crisp Timney trigger that I swapped into the rifle.
I waited a couple minutes for the score sheets to be tallied after we had finished the stage, and then checked the scores again. My performance on that stage alone had bumped me up from 147th place to 135th. Not bad for 100 seconds worth of work.
In retrospect, I should have avoided the bonus target. It was positioned in the shade, meaning that I couldn’t see the impact in the dirt and walk my shots in. I lost 6 to 10 seconds, which would moved me up three additional places. But right then, I didn’t care. I ran the dreaded long range stage clean, something that few people had accomplished.
My time: 99.89
Erik’s: 65.50 (80.50 before bonus)
Moral of the story: know when to stop shooting.
The last stage of the competition had an interesting twist. Starting with a loaded rifle, you shot a number of steel targets from across the bay. Next, you ditch the rifle and run to your shotgun where you shoot some steel targets that fall over. After dropping the shotgun, you grab a staged handgun and a flashlight before entering a blacked out shoot house and engage some more targets. You end by punching out a window and shooting still more steel targets from the window.
I was still on a bit of a high from the last stage when I stepped up into the starting position. Still, I managed to calm down enough to hit the rifle and shotgun targets with only one miss per array. It was slightly harder to make up with the shotgun, but I did it in a reasonable time. The stage started going south, though, when I grabbed the handgun off the table to engage some targets outside the shoot house and quickly realized that the magazine wasn’t seated all the way into the gun. After a couple rounds with the pistol, the magazine dropped straight out the bottom. I quickly fixed the issue and continued shooting.
Again, having a rail on the bottom of your handgun can really come in handy. I get the feeling I’m going to appreciate it even more at the Crimson Trace Midnight 3-gun coming up, but I’m still pretty appreciative of it right now. I made short work of the paper targets and punched the window out using my handgun (hey, it’s a combat handgun) before firing on the steel outside.
That’s when I ran into another problem; I couldn’t hear the targets when they were struck. Usually steel targets give off a distinctive “ping” when they’re hit, but with the sound reverberating in the shoot house, I couldn’t hear it. I decided to simply put two rounds on each piece of steel and assume that all was well. The cry of “all steel good!” from the scoring guys after the run was complete confirmed that my plan worked.
This is one of the stages that illustrates exactly what I love about 3-gun: shooters always need to expect the unexpected. You never really know what you’re going to get when you roll up for a major match, and while some stages may be borrowed from other competitions, they’re never laid out exactly the same twice. All you can do is work on your fundamentals and trust that you can come up with a strategy for each stage. Critical thinking, making quick decisions and a dash of adrenaline: that’s what I call a fun time.
After the last stage was finished, we sat around waiting for the prize distribution to begin. At every major match, you usually get your entry fee back in the form of trinkets and gun-related gift certificates from the prize table. Sponsors contribute the swag and they’re grouped together into packages for the shooters. Packages are laid out in descending order of awesomeness, and the names of the competitors are called out in the order they finished to come up choose their bundle. You can take whatever is still on the table when you’re called, so if a rifle is there when you’re up, you can snag it no matter how you may have finished.
As the organizers were getting ready to start calling names for the table, I took one last look at my scores and noticed something disturbing. I was ranked 135th, but it looked like the score from my run on stage 12 hadn’t been entered. I talked to another member of my squad and his score was also missing. So I went over to the statistician, made them aware of the error, and they set to looking for the missing score sheet.
At a major match, score sheets are filled out in duplicate. The ROs keep the original and it gets submitted to the stats tent. The shooter gets a yellow carbon copy to keep. That’s so that, if a score is lost (as it was for me), you have proof of your score to show the statistics guys to make the scores right again. There’s normally an hour allotted for competitors to challenge their posted scores, but I only noticed the error after the hour had ended. There wasn’t time to adjust my position in line for prizes, but it could still be updated for the official competition score.
Before stage 12 was added, I was ranked 135th. After it was added, I jumped up to 103rd (out of over 220 in my division alone), almost cracking into the top 100, as I had wanted to. And I was only two positions behind Greg Littlejohn of Top Shot fame. If I had given up on that bonus target on the long range stage, I would have had him.
Top Gear top tip: always keep your yellow copies, keep them handy and check the scores as soon as you’re done shooting. Because you never know.
I was standing with Erik before the prize table kicked off (he walked away with a DPMS AR-10 after winning the Heavy Metal division), and he asked me how well I did.
“I came in 103rd.”
“And how do you feel about that? Do you think you did well?”
“No, I sucked. I can do better, and I should have.”
“Well, you have a good grasp of the fundamentals. You know what areas you need to improve. With a little coaching, I’m sure we’ll get you higher in the ranks by the end of the year.”
Throughout the entire match, the members of Team FNH USA had been extremely supportive and debriefed me after every stage, talking about where I messed up and how I could improve. With help like that, I’m really looking forward to the next 3-gun match.