by Hap Rocketto
Smallbore shooting, as we know it in the United States, dates from 1919. It was then that Savage and Winchester introduced specialized 22 caliber target rifles, the Model 19 NRA Match Rifle and the celebrated Model 52 respectively, for the first smallbore competition held at the National Matches. Conducted in late August, at the United States Navy’s range near Caldwell, New Jersey, the program called for a series of reentry and squadded slow, timed, and rapid-fire matches in various positions, at distances from 50 to 100 yards. Army Captain E.C. Crossman was charged with conducting what was then known as ‘miniature’ rifle shooting competition in the shadow of the service rifle matches. So popular proved smallbore that the National Rifle Association immediately appointed a committee to make recommendations for the standardization and introduction of smallbore rifle shooting into its program.
The lead editorial in the September 6, 1919 issue of Arms and The Man stated that, “The appointment of a committee to consider the standardization of the small-bore game…may be expected to result in a rapid and healthy growth in this sport in all parts of the country.” Two weeks later the magazine reported on the efforts of the committee to establish the fledgling sport. The original courses of fire were 25 yards for indoor shooting and 50, 100, and 200 for the outdoor competitions, all in the prone position.
At the time the smallbore rifle was viewed as an inexpensive method of training for center fire military competition. Consequently early smallbore target rifles were designed along military lines in regard to length, weight, and trigger pull. By 1922 the Springfield Armory had developed a smallbore rifle for training that was so like the 1903 service rifle that it had common parts. The military style stock of the time was of little concern to competitors as it was adequate for prone competition. This style of shooting would rule the United States smallbore scene for most of the next forty years during which commercial stock styles would remain virtually unchanged. Position competition would not truly come into its own in until after World War II with the United States’ reentry into international shooting competition. The NRA would give position shooting its greatest boost when the National Outdoor Smallbore Rifle Position Championship was instituted in 1957.
Of the many types of formal shooting matches in the United States conventional smallbore prone rifle shooting is, arguably, the most venerable and least changed. It is called conventional because the target, course of fire, and equipment used in its practice is particular to the United States. While the shooting world in general has adopted the metric target and courses of fire of the International Shooting Sports Federation (ISSF) the prone community in the United States remains a bastion of tradition, clinging tenaciously to this uniquely American form of shooting.
The typical prone course of fire consists of four 40 shot matches, shot in 20 shot strings, comprising a 1600 point daily aggregate. Traditionally the first match is shot at 50 yards and the second event is 40 shots for record at 50 meters. The third match is called the Dewar, pronounced ‘Do-er’, which requires 20 shots be fired at 50 yards and a second 20 shot string shot at 100 yards. The day closes with 40 shots at 100 yards. Usually two of these 1600-point matches are fired over a weekend as a 3200-point Regional Course of Fire. The first day is fired with metallic sights and the second day allows any sights, which translates into telescopic sights for most competitors, although metallic sights are allowed. The Critchfield Course, as the 6400-point aggregate is known, follows the same format as regional matches. It is named after General Ammon Critchfield, the ‘Father of Camp Perry.”
All of the conventional prone Open National Records are perfect scores with high X counts. The oldest of them, a 400-39X in the 100-yard metallic sight match, was shot in 1972 by Tom Whitaker. Known in some circles for his Palma expertise, Whitaker is also the first person to shoot a perfect 6400. Mary Stidworthy Sparling set the most recent record in 1987 when she shot a 400-40X, with an additional 40Xs, in the anysight Dewar. This record is made all the more impressive by the fact that the rules require that a record breaking attempt at a mixed ranges directs that the additional shots must be fired at the longer distance.
National Records in aggregate matches are equally impressive. In the 160 shot metallic sight aggregate match both Pres Kendall and Gary Andrade have shot 1600-152Xs while Lones Wigger and George Stidworthy, known as the ‘1600 King’ and father of Mary Sparling, shot incredible 1600-157Xs with the scope. Bill Krilling, one of the United State’s finest riflemen and coaches, shot the first perfect score in the combined 320 shot metallic and any sight match over three decades ago when the rule required a three-pound trigger pull. The present record is held by Ernie Vande Zande’s 3200-301X. During July of 1977 Wigger pounded out the current National Record of 6400-588X for the Critchfield Course. Despite the fact that hundreds of approved and registered tournaments are fired each year the longevity of prone records indicate breaking a record is no simple task.
Recently a new form of prone shooting has begun to make itself known. Metric prone is a combination of the most interesting and comfortable features of the two styles of prone shooting, NRA and ISSF. Shot on the international target with NRA equipment it consists of a 40 shot 50-meter match, a metric Dewar, and a 40 shot 100-meter match for a 1200-point aggregate. Like its conventional counter part it is usually fired twice over two days for a 2400 aggregate and, like conventional prone, metallic sights are used on the first day with any sights being allowed for the second. The more difficult target makes up for the shorter course of fire.
The metric Dewar was adopted as the course of fire for the four man team match at The National Smallbore Rifle Prone Championships in 1989. When the course of fire was changed from the conventional Dewar the Camp Perry records were perfect, a 1600-128X for metallic sights and a 1600-149X for anysights. The current team records are 1564-71X and 1581-89X, respectively, which gives an indication of the challenging nature of the metric target.
To the uninitiated, watching a prone match must seem like watching the grass, upon which the shooters lie, grow. This is far from the truth. Prone is a discipline that requires the competitor to be near flawless in performance to even be in the running for a medal. A perfect score of 400 is usually the jumping off place for the start of the real match that will be decided by center shots, or Xs. Attention to the smallest detail in this discipline is critical. The direction and velocity of the wind, the intensity and angle of the light, the mirage, and the temperature are but a few of the considerations that must observed and to which the shooter must respond. A perfect performance is almost always required to win a prone match. The scores posted by the match winners in the 2000 National Championship at Camp Perry were perfect 400s with high X counts. The one exception is Wigger’s National Championship record score of 6399-527X, one point shy of perfection
So critical are Xs that some shooters will confirm their observations of conditions by a promiscuous use of sighting shots. Sighters are unlimited in this competition and it is not uncommon for some belly shooters to use almost as many sighters as record shots, if the conditions are not consistent. Twenty record shots and sometimes as many sighters, all in 20 minutes, places a high premium on patience, mental control, shooting mechanics, position, and physical conditioning. To the casual observer there seems to be little activity. However, the prone shooter is much like a duck out swimming on a pond. Nothing seems to be happening on the surface but the duck is paddling like crazy below the surface.
A prone shooter’s equipment is not much different than that found in high power. A rifle, mat, spotting scope, glove, sling, jacket, and eye and ear protection complete the basic gear. A brimmed hat, a few small tools, sweat shirt, bag of target clips, loading block, wind indicator, and bag in which to carry the gear round out the basic accessories. The position shooter adds shooting boots and trousers, a kneeling roll, and a shooting stand.
The rifle, sights, and ammunition are the most critical aspects of the sport. Good shooting requires that the combination be both precise and accurate. The rifle and ammunition have to be capable of precisely placing all of the shot into a tight group at 50 and 100 yards. The sights must be then be able to move that group into the X ring and make the fine adjustments necessary to keep it there.
The prone rifle has a long butt stock with either a high comb or an adjustable cheekpiece. The forestock will be broad with an accessory rail to allow the fore end stop to be finely adjusted. As good as modern ‘out of the box’ rifles are top flight shooters will often tailor it by replacing the factory barrel with a custom stainless steel, Hart or Douglas being the most popular. An after market trigger, such as one made by Kenyon, Canjar, Jewel, or Timney might be added. While it is still quite common to find a fine custom rifle built up around a Winchester 52 or a Remington Model 37 action, the European arms companies are producing the bulk of the quality match rifles used today. As a rule most position shooters use fully adjustable Anschütz, Walther, or Feinwerkbau rifles, but American manufacturers are most conspicuous by their absence.
Front sight extensions, known as a ‘bloop tubes’ because of the particular sound a rifle makes when fired with one, are often attached. Weight is less of a concern for the prone shooter but comfort and balance are important to both disciplines. The major difference between a prone and position rifle is the stock. A position shooter requires a stock that can be fully adjusted to the best fit for each position. In addition to an adjustable cheek piece and accessory rail a position shooter needs a butt plate that can be adjusted for length, vertical position, and cant.
The only restriction on the 22 caliber ammunition used in competition is that cartridge not exceed 1.1 inches in overall length and that the lead or alloy bullet not have a diameter in excess of 0.23 inch. Safety, as well as common sense, bars hollow point, tracer, incendiary, or explosive bullets from match competition. Smallbore match ammunition is also produced in two velocities, one subsonic and the other supersonic. In the 1970s European manufacturers Eley, RWS, and Lapua wrested control of the market from Winchester and Remington. Recently Federal has made great strides in returning United States to a position of prominence in the ammunition field.
Smallbore shooters have no control over the manufacture of ammunition; they can’t reload and are therefore at the mercy of the manufacturers. In order to get the best possible rifle and ammunition combination they purchase small samples of many different lots of ammunition as possible. The ammunition is then tested, usually at 100 yards, to determine the best shooting cartridge. While shooters would like to find ammunition that shoots 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards they are usually pretty happy to find 3/4-minute ammunition. The shooter will then purchase as much of this tight grouping ammunition, known colloquially as a ‘knot lot’, as the purse will allow.
Whether the sights are metallic or telescopic they must have crisp clicks, positive movement, and no backlash. Most sights are available in a range of adjustments, with 1/4 and 1/6th minute being the most common and popular. Sights with 12 or 20 clicks to the minute are commercially available for those who deal with the metric target international competition. Redfield, Anschütz, Hämmerli, Mo’s, Paramount, Gates and Elite receiver sights all meet the demands of the serious competitor who also uses adjustable front and rear apertures to obtain the clearest possible sight picture. Telescopic sights are usually found in fixed powers from 15 to 32 power. Adjustable power receiver mounted telescopes have become popular recently for both prone and position competition. Fine crosshairs, with a 1/4 minute dot, are very popular reticules for prone shooting. The dot is the same size as a 22 caliber bullet hole and allows the competitor to use Kentucky Windage with some accuracy and confidence. A slightly larger dot and coarser crosshairs do well for position where there is more observable movement. Well maintained scopes will last a life time as witnessed by the many older Lyman Super Targetspot, Unertl, and Redfield 3200 and 6400 target scopes found at matches. The newer scopes produced by Leupold, Simmons, and Mitchell are finding a loyal following.
Conventional prone is a popular form of shooting competition. It allows a shooter to remain active and competitive for decades. It is not unusual to see a seventy year old shooting next to a seventeen year old in shoulder-to-shoulder competition. It is not uncommon to see the youngster take a beating. Experience is key in this discipline and it will often offset the advantages of younger eyes and faster reflexes. Such is the beauty of prone shooting.
The most popular of the smallbore rifle disciplines is position shooting with NRA Four Position having the most classified shooters. The high participation in winter leagues and club competition is probably what gives four-position the boost in numbers, even though the National Outdoor Smallbore Rifle Position Championships are conducted over the three-position course of fire. Most of the older generation of smallbore and high power rifle shooters were raised as four position shooters and this certainly accounts for its continuing popularity. Position shooting in the United States has grown steadily since the end of World War II and the resumption of serious United States participation in the Olympics.
Position shooting requires the competitor shoot a match where each position constitutes a stage. Generally a match will start out with the prone. In four position sitting usually follows it, but in NRA three position the second stage is standing. The third stage in both is kneeling while standing position wraps up a four-position match.
Four position matches are built around stages of ten or 20 record shots with 400 or 800-point aggregates. An NRA three position match is based on 40 shot stages adding up to a 1200 point aggregate. However, 30 and 60 shot matches, called ‘quarter’ and ‘half’ courses, are quite popular. NRA Three Position is a modification of the Olympic style shooting sponsored by the ISSF. The course of fire is the same as fired in international events but NRA equipment is more liberal than ISSF standards allows in regard to the dimensions of coats, slings, and gloves.
Metallic and telescopic sights are used in NRA Three Position while the international game allows only the metallic variety. As most NRA equipment is not allowed in international competition this tends to direct highpower shooters, who use the smallbore game to keep in shape over the winter, to four position matches. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a serious highpower shooter with two identical rifles built up, one in center fire and a matching one in 22 caliber. The other major difference in the disciplines is the target. The conventional targets used in prone and four position are more forgiving than the international targets used in international competition.
Position shooting is fired in both indoors and out. Four position outdoor competition is rare because the National Outdoor Position Rifle Championships switched over to three position years ago. Therefore, outdoor match sponsors tend to run three position and conventional prone events to allow shooters to train for the Nationals.
Winter sees hundreds of leagues start up in the fall and run through spring shooting various courses of fires. The courses of fire and target combinations are only limited by imagination. For some winter gallery leagues are the extent of their shooting while others use these leagues to both keep in shape for the summer shooting season and to warm up for the major indoor matches of the year. State championships, sponsored by the state associations, and the sectionals of the National Indoor Rifle Championships sponsored by the NRA highlight the winter season and mark the high point of the indoor competitive season.
The NRA conducts indoor national championships, in both three and four position, that allow shooters who are unable to travel to Camp Perry to match themselves against the best competitors the country has to offer. Firing in sectional matches, within established geographic areas, the shooter first competes against local competition in shoulder-to-shoulder matches. The sectional scores are then submitted to the NRA and compiled into a national bulletin. The shooters, eager to see how they rank against the best in the nation and those in their class and category, anxiously await the arrival of the bulletin, in late spring.
Part of position shooting’s popularity is based on the fact that it not restricted by season or location, as is prone and high power, and most shooters are, to some degree or another, constituents. Position shooting attracts a wide variety of shooters and it is usually the avenue juniors follow to enter the world of competitive rifle shooting. Within the various rifle disciplines it is the common ground where all rifle shooters tend to meet at one time or another.
Smallbore shooting can be participated in to any extent the competitor desires from local league to international level competition. The equipment can range from the basic rig issued by the Civilian Marksmanship Program to an elaborate kit that is only restricted by the size of the shooter’s wallet. Smallbore shooting is not bound by gender or age and physical handicap places few barriers to successful participation. Because of its egalitarian nature the rewards of smallbore shooting, recreation, fellowship, and accomplishment, are within the reach of any one who wishes to practice this most American of sports.