February 18, 2021
By Tom Beckstrand
Nobody wants to suck. Get a bunch of guys together for a friendly shooting match and, sooner or later, it’ll get serious. I’ve never known a guy to give even a friendly competition his half-effort.
The best way for all of us to get better as riflemen is to compete with others. I learned this lesson while I was in the military. When I was on the combat pistol team at West Point, the matches we attended were against other service academies, and the sport was still new. While the competition was serious for us, it was a far cry from what occurred at the national level. Still, competition helped me identify areas where my shooting needed improvement.
My next foray into competitive shooting occurred when I was a sniper team leader in 3rd Special Forces Group. My teammate, Tung Nguyen, encouraged me to accompany him to the Army Small Arms championship where we shot the long-range event. Tung won and helped re-kindle my love for competitive shooting.
I finally found the shooting competitions I most enjoy when I attended my first Precision Rifle Series (PRS) match in 2013. It was a match held in New Mexico and some of the guys I had never met before the match are still good friends to this day.
As I checked into the match, I figured I would do well. I assumed that because I was a former sniper team leader and a Green Beret that I would finish in the top 20 percent, even though I was new to this type of competition. It sounds ridiculous writing it now, but I certainly underestimated the abilities of my fellow competitors.
This match is where I learned my most valuable shooting lesson, and one that continues to serve me well to this day. I got crushed, and it was by a bunch of guys who had never served in the military or law enforcement. I learned I had no idea how much I didn’t know until I saw scores of riflemen perform at a level I had never witnessed until then.
It’s easy to dismiss an event like that as “just a competition,” or, as I’ve heard many in military and law enforcement circles say, “it’s different when the targets shoot back.” Those are both rationalizations that prevent the rifleman from ever progressing past his current proficiency level.
One of my favorite inspirational quotes is a little harsh, but it reads: “Don’t be upset by the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do.” I didn’t get upset with my comparatively poor performance, because it provided me with the beginnings of an education on what was possible with a rifle. Having my eyes opened was a gift for which I was thankful.
This is an important lesson and one that I encourage all rifle shooters to learn, and learning it sooner is better than later. The best way to do this is to attend either a PRS or National Rifle League (NRL) match. These matches occur at the national level and draw talented shooters into a public event, shooters that would otherwise be invisible.
I had the opportunity to attend the 2020 Hornady Precision Rifle Challenge in Evanston, Wyoming. It reminded me of the first PRS match I attended several years ago. The difference this time was that I knew my lack of preparation was going to hurt me, so I went to the match to shake out some new gear and reconnect with old friends. I shot in the Production class and finished in the top half, but it was still one of my worst performances. However, pain is a wonderful instructor and painful lessons are most easily remembered. So, I thought I’d pass on a few lessons I learned, or re-learned, during the course of that match.
The more familiar a rifleman is with his rifle, the better he will perform with it, but simply possessing the rifle for a long time is no guarantee of strong performance. I attended this match with a new rifle that I borrowed just for the event, and it had an adjustable trigger that I set as light as I dared. By about stage three of the match, I realized that I had gone too light. Cycling the bolt quickly
would cause the sear to slip off the cocking piece, forcing me to lift the bolt handle a second time before I could fire the rifle. This is one of the reasons many “adjustable” triggers on factory guns aren’t really adjustable. Many of us want them as light as possible, but when a shooter tunes the trigger down too much, he often wants to blame it on the manufacturer. Most gunmakers don’t want the grief.
Rifle and optic issues are rare at the range, but common at PRS matches. If you’ve heard someone state, “my rifle shoots just as well as that really expensive rifle,” it’s a good indicator of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know. There’s a big difference between a rifle that can shoot a few tiny groups at the range and one that can do it all day, for a couple days straight, in whatever conditions mother nature serves up. Watching even high-dollar rifles and optics struggle under match-shooting conditions is a great way to identify what expenses are worth the money.
PRS matches like the Hornady Precision Rifle Challenge are the best way to gain an education on how to shoot in the field. Lying in the prone or shooting from a bench is certainly convenient, but prone is rare on a hunt and I’ve never shot a game animal from a shooting bench. Both shooting positions are also rare in combat.
Both hunting and combat require the shooter to develop the best shooting position he can with whatever is immediately available. A PRS match allows the shooter to practice under stressful conditions and, more importantly, watch others do the same. Watching how the best shooters in the country quickly get stable and get hits on target is a real-time demonstration of what works in that scenario. Over time, the new shooter learns to identify and apply the same principles.
For example, I was on a bear hunt in Alaska recently when an opportunity for a shot presented itself. I was on one riverbank and the grizzly was 410 yards away on a gravel bar. I could almost hear the start buzzer sound in my head as I leapt into action.
I grabbed a set of shooting sticks that were lying nearby and borrowed another hunter’s backpack. I sat on a steep hillside, put the forend on the shooting sticks, leaned back against the hill and stuffed the backpack under the stock’s toe. This was one of the most stable shooting positions I’ve ever had on a hunt and it was almost identical to many positions I’ve created at PRS matches over the years. Those matches are where I learned to build positions this way.
Spending the time and effort to get to a match is the surest and fastest way to improve with a rifle. Know ahead of time that there’s a very high probability of being beaten by most of the competitors. However, if a guy watches and learns from those competitors, he’ll come away a better rifleman for it.
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