Last August was a big year in the world of shooting sports. The US had the honor of hosting the Long Range World Championships, along with the annual National matches, at Camp Perry, Ohio. Below is the article Erik Rhode wrote for the Minnesota Rifle and Revolver Association.
2015 FullBore US Nationals & Long Range World Championships - Camp Perry, Ohio
This past August, the USA played host to the World Championships of Long Range rifle shooting for the first time in over 20 years. These historic matches revolve around the Palma Team Match, which was first fired in 1876 to commemorate our country’s Centennial anniversary.
In that inaugural match nearly 140 years ago, the US team battled back fierce competition to emerge victorious over teams sent from Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland. This most historic of shooting matches has taken place roughly every 4 years since then – a total 28 more times on 4 different continents, with the US coming out on top in 13 of those.
While the Palma Team match is certainly the pinnacle of the World Long Range Championship cycle, it is not the whole story. It is preceded by 4 days of individual competition to decide the world’s top Long Range shooter, as well as a week of International Fullbore competition prior to that. Teams and individual shooters alike were on hand at Camp Perry days or weeks in advance of the WC’s to ensure they were fully prepared for the important task at hand. I was not on hand for the Palma Team match, so this article will focus on the days leading up to it.
My personal 2015 Camp Perry experience was a long one. Morgen Dietrich and I drove out on the Thursday night of July 31st, and arrived on post around 8 am on Friday August 1st. A 12-hour overnight drive can be a tricky proposition, with potential side effects that are not usually conducive to good shooting. We had originally planned to stop halfway for the night, but by the time either of us were too tired too drive, we were really past the point of no return. 2 hours of sleep at a truck stop was enough to get us back on the road heading east. This change of plans worked out very well, as getting to Camp Perry at that time allowed us to get through in-processing with no lines, with plenty of time to check on our friends who were already there shooting the NRA Long Range Nationals.
Shooting for me would start the next morning with the Palma individual match – the last individual match of the NRA LR Nationals. This match is one of the most important in US long Range shooting, and the list of past winners reads like a who’s who of the best prone shooters. Semi-local boy Brian Mrnak of Ashland, WI won the trophy in 2013 in what would be considered the crown jewel in any shooter’s list of accomplishments. The competition this year was unusually stiff, as many more shooters than normal from outside the US were on hand due to the upcoming world championships. 371 of the world’s best Long Range shooters would battle it out for the right to have their name added to that historic trophy.
With this number of shooters at this level of competition, there is no room for error. This year, it was the American John Rhynard who made no errors to win the Match with a stunning match score of 450-20x. John is a grand senior (over 70 years old), but he didn’t let that stop him from firing the only perfect score in the match. John had been passed over for the US Veteran’s team on this World Championship cycle, and I’m sure that winning this match left him feeling somewhat vindicated. The top 20 shooters in this match are awarded “Palma Twenty” honors, similar to the “President’s Hundred” in OTC Highpower shooting. This year, in order to make the top 20, you’d need to shoot a 447 with more than 20 X’s. My 446-25x was only good enough for 28th overall, and Morgen was right behind me at 31st with his 446-24x. It was stiff competition indeed.
On Sunday, the 4-shooter Palma Team match served as a wake-up call for the USA, as teams from Great Britain secured both first and second places overall. The USA’s top 4-person team coached by Norm Anderson could only muster a 3rd place finish, 10 points behind the Brits. Would this be a sign of things to come at the WC’s? Hopefully not, but time would tell.
FULLBORE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
Monday morning marked the beginning of the Fullbore National Individual Championships, with shooters competing at the 300, 600, 800, 900 and 1000-yard lines for 3 days. Both the FB Nationals and the WC’s were fired under international rules, as specified by the International Confederation of Fullbore Rifle Associations (ICFRA). ICFRA rules are fairly similar to US Palma, with a few minor, but important differences. As with US Palma, the only cartridges allowed are the .308 Winchester, the .223 Remington, and their NATO equivalents. Unlike US Palma though, bullet weights are limited to less than 156 grains for the .308, and less than 81 grains for .223. This rule goes a long way to leveling the playing field by not allowing any of the ballistically superior heavy bullets that are popular with US shooters. Triggers must have a pull weight greater than 500 grams, or just over 1#. Different targets are used, with scoring rings from 1-5. Matches are fired in 15-shot strings, with a possible score of 75. This particular difference can make math challenging for some of us, as the easy multiplier of “10” that we are so used to is not in use here. One of the most noticeable differences with ICFRA rules is the use of convertible sighters. Shooters are allowed 2 sighters before shooting for record, but may convert one or both to record shots if they so desire. If you have good zero’s and can make good initial wind calls, this can be very helpful in getting you off the line quicker, thus exposing you to fewer potential condition changes.
As the 3 days of individual competition played out, it started to become clear that the international shooters might have a bit of an advantage over the US shooters, even on US soil. Most believed that the reason for this was that these shooters do not shoot anything other than Palma rifles with 155 class bullets – ever. No 185 Juggernauts, no hot-rod 6mm’s, just Palma rifles with 155’s. As it turned out, only 2 Americans were able to crack the top 10 in the FB Nationals. It just so happened that Minnesota’s own Matthew Griffin was one of those 2 Americans. Matt shot brilliantly over the 3 days to make it to the shootoff with a #9 overall finish. Norm Houle was the only other American in the top 10 (5th overall), and the list of names below Matt’s was very impressive. Australia’s Matt Pozzebon was the overall winner, making it 2 years in a row of Aussie’s winning this match.
2 days of fullbore team matches were next on the schedule, with several matches running concurrently each day. The storied “America Match” pits the top 8-person teams from each country against each other on the 300, 600, 900, and 1000-yard lines. Great Britain again dominated the field, dropping only 15 total points between their 8 shooters over all 4 yard lines. Their team score of 2385-263v was head and shoulders above the competition. Australia and South Africa rounded out the top 3, with the USA’s top 8 managing a 4th place finish.
In the NRA President’s 4-man team match, the USA finally got a win under the brilliant coaching of Norm Anderson by shooting a dazzling score of 1193-126v out of a possible 1200. Having shot on a much lower-placing team that day, I can vouch for that score being almost unbelievable. Coach Anderson’s team was squadded only a few firing points from my team, and I know that my own coach had over 12 minutes of wind on my rifle when I shot the 1000 yard stage. Norm’s shooters did their job perfectly, but his coaching was unequalled that day.
In the Veterans World Championship 10-shooter team match, the USA vets were determined to show the rest of the world what they were made of. The upper Midwest’s favorite gunsmith Randy Gregory was a firing member, and laid down a rock-solid score of 194-14v while leading the team to a 12-point victory over the Great Britain Vets and a gold medal.
WORLD LONG RANGE CHAMPIONSHIPS
With the Fullbore Nationals officially in the history books, everyone’s attention turned to the real reason we were all here – the Long Range World Championships. Saturday Morning’s opening ceremony saw Former World Champion Sherri Gallagher dropping out of an airplane to land on Viale Range with her US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team teammates to kick things off. A morning practice followed, and then the opening 800-yard stage of the aggregate. The race was on.
The format for the world championships was scheduled to be 3 complete Palma matches over 4 days. A Palma match consists of 15 shots for record at each of 3 yard lines – 800, 900, and 1000. 45 record shots per match with a possible score of 225, 75 possible points per yard line. The 800-yard stage is generally considered to be the “easy” stage, and most good shooters expect to clean the 800-yard stage in any reasonable condition. This was evidenced in the very first stage of the WC’s on Saturday, as 171 shooters shot perfect scores of 75. This meant that dropping even a single point kept you out of the top 171 spots.
On Sunday, the first 2 stages went off without a hitch, and the 800 yard scores were even stronger than Saturday as an unbelievable 242 shooters turned in perfect 75’s. Shooting at 900 yards was uneventful, but the 1000-yard stage was a different story. A torrential downpour rolled through Port Clinton after roughly half of the shooters got their 1000 yard score cards tuned in. After about a 2-hour delay, the match officials decided to scrap the whole stage and try to re-shoot another day. I was not happy about this decision, as I had shot a very good score before the rain started, and a costly error in the first 800-yard match the day before left me with a lot of ground to make up if I wanted to finish strong.
Monday’s schedule was rearranged, and the 3rd and final 800-yard stage was scrapped in favor of re-shooting the lost 1000 from the day before. Most supported this decision, as since this was a Long Range World Championship, it only seemed right that the longest ranges determine the winner. The revised schedule would feature a 900 yard match in the morning, followed by 2 1000’s. The 1000-yard winds were as tricky as I have seen at Camp Perry, and some very accomplished shooters were taking some serious abuse at its hands. In the first 1000-yard match of the day, Brian Mrnak topped all shooters with his score of 75-10v. This would be enough to earn Brian a World Championship gold medal, and give him a reason to drive to Sandusky to buy a new suit!
Tuesday was the final day of the individual aggregate, and all that was left was a 900-yard stage, and 1 last 1000 before the top 10 would face off in a final 1000-yard shoot off. Throughout the 4 days of competition, Australia’s Ben Emms had been untouchable. Dropping only a single point all week left him in easy reach of the Gold Medal in the most prestigious rifle match in the world. Ben’s aggregate score of 599 put him a full 4 points ahead of his nearest competitor, and as the top 10 assembled for the final shoot off, his World Championship victory looked like a foregone conclusion.
As fate would have it, the shoot off proved to be a lot more interesting than any of us expected. Mr. Emms seemed to be cruising along on auto pilot, comfortably recording 5’s and V’s when out of nowhere a “2” showed up at 9 o’ clock on his target for lucky shot #13. On that one shot, Ben had lost 3 times as many points as he lost the previous 4 days of shooting combined! Ben stared in his scope, watching the conditions and the other shooters’ targets for signs of what had gone wrong. Seeing nothing similar come up anywhere else, he needed to make a call and carry on. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally shot again. This time, the target came up scored a “3” at 6 o’clock! Those of us in the gallery were stunned – it seemed we were watching the wheels coming off of what had previously appeared to be an unstoppable train. 5 points lost in 2 shots and only 1 shot remaining. At this point, Ben was the only shooter left still firing, all of the others had already completed their strings. Great Britain’s Nigel Ball had posted a phenomenal shoot-off score of 74-4v, putting him within a single point of Ben. Ben had accumulated more tie-breaking V’s over the week than Nigel, so a 4 or better on his final shot would secure the win. All of the spectators on hand were on the edge of their seats as Ben finally shouldered his rifle. I can only imagine the pressure he felt as his sights settled on the target, the trigger broke, and the firing pin slammed home on that final round. It would be 4 more years before there would even be a possibility of competing in another World Championship match. A lifetime of training had come down to a single 155-grain bullet that was now spinning at 3000 feet per second towards a target over half a mile away. The slightest twitch of wind, an imperfectly loaded round, an uncontrolled heart beat, any of these seemingly insignificant things could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A Ben Emms win had seemed like a sure thing only 10 minutes ago, but after the last 2 shots it was anyone’s guess. The crowd was silent as the target went down for the last time. Every spotting scope on Viale range was trained on that one target. Cheers erupted when the target finally came up showing a 5.
Ben Emms had won the 2015 Long Range World Championship!
After all the dust had settled, the Australian team carried Ben off the range in the ceremonial champion’s chair. He may have done it the hard way, but outstanding shooting and nerves of steel when the chips were down proved that he is the best Long Range shooter in the world. I was glad to have been on hand to witness the shoot off. We all know that shooting is not much of a spectator sport, but those 15 minutes or so watching it unfold were pretty darned exciting - it is not something I will forget anytime soon.
Overall, my experience at the Fullbore Nationals and World Championships was a great one. Spending 11 straight days shooting with my friends, and making new ones from all over the world was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I didn’t shoot as well as I had hoped, but I guess that is always the case. I did manage to shoot well enough to qualify for the next WC’s in 2019 in New Zealand, so I will have to put some serious thought into that possibility over the next few years. I hope to be on the Palma team for that trip, but this way I could go and compete as an individual even if that doesn’t happen. It’s good to have options. A lot can change in that amount of time, but I’d sure love to get another opportunity…
Erik is a sling shooter, President/Founder of the Palma Alliance™, and a member of the US National Rifle Team.