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Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Associated History

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The Second World War all but shut down competitive shooting for the first half of the 1940s. The war had both a positive and negative effect upon long range shooting. When the standards for the award of the Distinguished Rifleman Badge were reviewed after the war, the 1,000-yard stage was dropped. As a result, for almost two decades shooting at distances beyond 600 yards were pretty much restricted to the National Matches. It would not be until the Palma resurgence in 1966 that attention would be focused on long range shooting other than the Leech and the Wimbledon matches shot at each year at Camp Perry.

On the other hand, troop ships had disgorged hoards of the returning veterans with marksmanship skills that they wished to continue to hone on rifle range and in the hills. With them also came an unknown number of souvenir rifles of all makes and descriptions, as well as a desire to see just how well they might shoot. In formal competition the numbers of people participating in NRA events soared.

However, there were those who were not interested in National Match Course shooting. What they sought was one hole accuracy based upon experimentation with powder, ball, and rifle. As early as 1881 William Wellington Greener had written about a special class of target rifle that he described as “a sort of scientific toy” with which the end is absolute accuracy by use of any artificial aid that an active mind can conjure. Today we know such a firearm as a bench rest rifle. Starting with informal activities by the Puget Sound Snipers Congress in 1944, on the west coast, and some matches in Machias, Maine on the Atlantic side these varmint hunters and accuracy fanatics soon met at the Pine Tree Rifle Club in Johnstown, New York on Labor Day weekend of 1947. By the end of the weekend the assembled men had elected officers and the National Bench Rest Shooters Association was born. Harvey Donaldson, Townsend Whelen, Sam Clark, Ray Biehler, Al Marciante, Warren Page, and Lucian Cary were some of the legendary firearms experimenters who laid the foundation for the development of bench rest competition as it is known today.

Center fire bench rest competition is usually shot at 100 and 200-yard distances, with an occasional 300 yard match added if the range construction permits. In this game the group size, not placement, is the criteria for success. The bench rest community has been responsible for many of the developments that have improved the overall accuracy of target rifles used in both NRA and international competition. As far as long-range bench rest is concerned the ultimate came about in 1967 when William Theis, George Reeder, and David Troxell put together the first 1,000-yard benchrest match across the lands of the Lynn and Waltz farms in the Williamsport area of Pennsylvania. The first match, held on October 1, 1967 was won by James Barger who wielded a 7mm Remington 40X and banged out a 16 inch group.

Within a year “The Original Pennsylvania 1000 Yard Bench Rest Club” was incorporated and had obtained a 99-year lease to land from shooter Gene Plants. Construction followed and pits and a concrete pad were soon in place to be followed, eventually, by ten covered firing points and a clubhouse. The club runs a series of matches each year from May to November with a hundred or more shooters attending each shoot.

Much of firearm development has been a by-product of military necessity. The relative short distances and massed troops of World War One brought about the formalized training of soldiers to insure competent marksmen to use specially manufactured or modified rifles for sniping. As a rule the distances were somewhat short, some 100 to 300 yards, but from time to time there was a need for a hard-hitting rifle at longer ranges. The British used what was known as “African Rifles”, large bore high shock power firearms that would otherwise be used to take down elephants, rhinos, and hippos.

The Germans developed the bolt-action 13mm Mauser anti-tank rifle while the United States called upon John Browning and Winchester to devise a firearm to meet the challenge. What would become the classic heavy machine gun of the 20th century-and perhaps beyond, the .50 Browning Machine Gun was ready to be tested but developed too late for employment in France. During the years between wars the .50 BMG would undergo further development and develop into the classic M2 familiar. The M2 was employed, on a very limited basis, in a sniper role during the Second World War. The Perfex Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin manufactured the 3.25X M1 telescopic sight for use on the BMG and, in good conditions, the gun and sight combination were accurate to over 2,000 yards in single fire mode.

The long-range capabilities of the .50BMG cartridge would begin to be fully exploited during the Korean War by two innovative and inventive soldiers, Frank Conway and Bill Brophy. Conway, who won back-to-back Wimbledon Cup victories in 1955 and 1956, lead the way in 50-caliber employment. As early as 1946 he was championing the BMG long range concept. He adopted a German PzB39 anti-tank rifle to the big fifty and demonstrated during the course of its development its effectiveness at 1,400 yards, with 2,800 yard shots being feasible.

The war in Korea eventually reached a stalemate that was reminiscent of the trenches of World War One, setting the stage for a rebirth of sniper activity. Brophy, a Distinguished Rifleman and Ordnance officer, found that the state of the sniper program within the Army in Korea was poor. The equipment, mainly M1Ds and M1903A4s, were in poor repair, the infantrymen assigned them were not trained, and the supply and maintenance system was incapable of providing adequate support. Brophy reached into his own pocket and purchased a Winchester Model 70 and a 10X telescopic sight. Within short order he made effective use of the combination and believers of the Army snipers. However, there were many targets of opportunity that were far outside of the range of the 30-caliber Winchester’s 1,000-yard capability.

While rummaging around a cache of captured enemy equipment Brophy came across a Soviet 14.5mm PTRD1941 anti tank rifle. Building on Conway’s pioneering work he had it fitted with a BMG 50 caliber aircraft barrel and attached a skeleton stock, cheekpiece, and bipod. A Unertl 20X telescopic sight was mounted upon it and this particularly homely looking collection of welded pipe and spare parts was soon making distances between 1,000 and 2,000 yards most uncomfortable for the enemy. Brophy would go on to even greater fame in a second career in firearms when, after retirement, he served as Marlin Firearms Company’s Senior Technical Manager, author of seminal books on the L.C. Shotgun, .30-40 Krag, 1903 Springfield, and the Springfield Armory, and competitor with the Palma Team.

Within the shooting community there exists a less formal, but no more intense group of competitors, who are very much cut from the same bolt of cloth as the benchrest shooter-the varmint hunter. Not as formally organized, but no less fanatical about accuracy, these long-range hunters often deal in distances that certainly would be considered long range. Varmint hunting may best be described as a cross between bench rest and hunting. The major differences being that he distances are longer than bench rest’s traditional 200 yards and the targets are smaller than the average deer hunter’s quarry.

Varmint shooters consider distances in excess of 850 yards to be ultra-long range. To be successful they quite often are involved in customizing rifles, ammunition, and optics. Armed with a truck loaded with gear that might include a bench rest table, sand bags, a mechanical rest, range finder, and an array of long-range optical gear the varmint shooter seeks out rockchuck and prairie dog colonies. After scouting out an area the truck is unloaded, quite often in the dark hours before dawn to take advantage of the most favorable shooting conditions of the day, the quiet time just after dawn. After setting up shop the shooter and spotter spend some time observing and becoming familiar with the target area and the calm conditions at day break.

May 31, 2000 dawned as a perfect morning on a mesa near Pueblo, Colorado as Kreg Slack and his spotter Nadine Parry peered out at a prairie dog town some distance away. The light was coming up, the air was clear, it was still too cool for mirage to build, and there was not a breath of wind. Slack was very familiar with the area as he and his regular shooting companion, Bruce Artus, had been working up an Dillon/McMillian stocked Obermeyer barreled Winchester Model 70 action in .308 Ackley Improved for some long range shooting at the site. He was shooting at a 16-inch metal gong that the pair has earlier set as a target. As Kreg peered through the Leupold scope, modified to 40X by Premier Reticules, he noticed a prairie dog lounging in the sun near the gong. Taking up the slack on the two-ounce Jewell trigger he broke the shot.

Pushed by 85 grains of IMR 7828, a 338-caliber 300-grain Sierra bullet was in the air at a muzzle velocity of 2,750 feet per second and quickly struck near the unsuspecting varmint. Making a quick adjustment Slack fired another round that kicked up another column of dust just a foot or so from the now curious, but not alarmed, animal. While his target looked about to investigate the source of the strange dust spouts Slack made a quick adjustment to the scope knobs, squinted through the scope, and fired a third shot.

Much like General Sedgewick the fearless dog was taken unawares by a long-range shooter. The distance was ultra long range not just by varmint shooter standards, but also by anyone’s reckoning. A laser range finder measured the distance at an astounding 3,125 yards! The shot at, 1.78 miles, is the world’s longest successful, recorded, and verified aimed rifle shot to date.

The history of long range shooting in the United States is fast approaching 400 years. Since European explorers and colonists first brought gunpowder to these shores the definition of long range has grown along with the nation. While the United States may have reached the extent of its physical boundaries the imagination, ingenuity, and success of those living there who seek to hit a target at further and further distances has not.

Hap Rocketto is a United States Army Distinguished Rifleman and has earned the National Rifle Association Smallbore Distinguished Rifleman Award in position smallbore competition. He has been three rimes a member of The Presidents Hundred. A National Smallbore Record holder, Rocketto was the US 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, a member of the 2007 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the 2009 Robert Team. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. A historian of the shooting sports, his work regularly appears in Shooting Sports USA, Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com. He was a member of the writing staff of the NRA’s The National Matches: 1903-2003 The First Hundred Years…