Last updated on November 19th, 2017 at 10:50 am
Over the last 10 years, the Berger Southwest Nationals have evolved into one of the biggest and best Long Range matches in the country apart from the National Championships. After an involuntary year off from the festivities in 2016, Mia and I were able to make it back down to the Ben Avery Shooting Facility in Phoenix, AZ this year to join in the fun. The good folks at Berger start off the week with a 2-day clinic focusing on wind reading, ballistics, equipment, and shooting position taught by long-range heavy-hitters like Bryan Litz and Mid Tompkins. Having attended the clinic a few years ago, I opted to skip it this year, but would definitely recommend it to anyone who feels like they could improve in any of those areas. So, pretty much everyone.
Competition started in earnest on Wednesday morning, with shooters gathering at the 600-yard line for a day of Mid Range matches. The wind was light and calm, which lent itself to some very high scores being fired throughout the day. I managed a very good score, but one runaway 9 kept it from being a GREAT score. As things shook out, 2 sling shooters out of the 120+ present managed perfect 600’s to top the leader board. Allen Thomas was clean for the 2nd year in a row, and his 600-40x snuck past Benjamin Lucchesi by a mere 3 x’s for the match win. I finished 3rd for the day with a 599-49x – I guess the 6mm SLR will still shoot, even with 2,000 rounds through the barrel! Also of note was that young Ryan Hayes of AZ set a new SWN Match record with his 200-18x in the first match of the day – this kid is getting tough.
Thursday turned out to be another calm, beautiful, desert day – a perfect setting for the 4-man Palma team Match. The visiting Scotland Thistle team, led by Captain Angus McLeod showed all of the Americans that UK shooters don’t need big wind to win. Their team score of 1786-100x won the day, and was only a single point away from setting a new match record. Phil Hayes coached his band of AZ locals (including son Ryan) to a close 2nd Place finish with a score of 1780-97.
The perfect weather held up on Friday for Day 1 of the SWN Grand Aggregate. Day 1 consists of a standard Palma individual match, with everyone shooting 15 shots for record from the 800, 900, and 1000-yard lines. The calm winds again led to high scores, but no one stayed clean all day. Reigning Long Range National Champion John Whidden came the closest with his 449-31x, but there were still plenty of great shooters hanging around to keep the race tight. Wednesday’s 600-yard hero Allen Thomas gave up very little ground with his 448-22x, and Bob Steketee and Annette Wachter also lost only 2 for the day. Quite a few 447’s and 446’s kept things bunched up near the top of the board.
On Saturday, it was all 1000-yard matches on the schedule, and miraculously, the perfect conditions stuck around for a 4th straight day! 1000 yards is still a long ways, even in perfect conditions, and perfect scores were few and far between. John Whidden kept his foot on the gas in the first match of the day, and his 200-12x won the match and kept anyone else from gaining. Pete Church responded with his own 200-12x to take the day’s 2nd match, and MN’s own Craig “The Menace” Bennis posted his own 200 with 8 x’s to finish the day near the top of the heap with a rock-solid 398-20x. Only 2 shooters stayed clean through both matches, and surprisingly, John Whidden was not one of them. Today it would be Kevan Hoffarth’s 400-19x sliding past Jerry Iliff’s 400-18x to win the day. Mr. W let one get away in the 2nd match, but was still holding his overall lead with 2 1000-yard matches left on the schedule for Sunday. Also, after shooting concluded on Saturday was the annual competitor’s banquet - complete with the most epic prize table I have ever seen. Something like $100k worth of donated prizes were awarded by random drawing. Rifles, actions, barrels, stocks, scopes, etc, were given away to those lucky enough to get their name called. Several of our MN and WI locals went home with some very nice prizes.
When I stepped outside on Sunday morning, it was clear that I could expect a different type of match than what we had seen the previous 4 days. It was about 20º cooler than the rest of the week, and the desert wind was howling down out of the mountains. This was the sort of condition that should separate the men from the boys. The 2 matches today were designated as “Any/Any”, meaning shooters who wanted to put scopes on their rifles could finally do so. First relay got the short end of the stick, as the wind was at its peak when they shot. The strong winds were quickly dropping off though, and several Palma shooters I talked to reported starting with 11 minutes of left wind and finishing with less than 8. I was on 2nd relay, and the steady let-off continued. I started with 7 minutes on my 6mm, and finished with around 4. For much of the string, I was literally taking ¼ off after every shot to keep them going in the x and 10-rings! Despite the wind, there were still some impressive scores fired, and again, John Whidden led the charge. He started Sunday off just like Saturday – with another 200-12x. Ryan Hayes edged him out by an X, but John still held a commanding lead. For the final match of the Southwest Nationals aggregate, all John needed to do was shoot a respectable score. As it turned out, a 195 would have sealed the deal for him, but he was not satisfied to rest on his laurels. Instead, he posted a blistering 200-18x, shattering his own match record by 3 X’s, and effectively slamming the door shut on those of us who were still nipping at his heels. In addition to breaking the 20-shot record, his 2-day 1000-yard aggregate score of 799-53x also broke THAT match record – again, previously set by him. If that wasn’t enough to convert any remaining non-believers, his Grand Agg score of 1248-84x beat the previous record (1244-55x, Pat McCann, 2016) by a full 4 points and 29 X’s. This guy is the real deal, and is probably the best prone shooter in the country today.
Things wrapped up on Sunday evening with the awards ceremony, and more prizes for match winners and those placing high in the standings. I was lucky enough to get out of there with 900 free Berger Bullets, and about $400 in cash for my efforts, not a bad haul at all for a shooting match.
John Whidden wasn’t in any danger from me, but I was pretty happy just to get squadded nearby on the same relay all weekend – it’s always a good sign to be placed near the leaders. I went down to Phoenix with the goal of finishing in the top 10, so I was very pleased with my 3rd place finish in the “Any Rifle” category which put me at 5th place overall. Hopefully 2017 will continue the way it started. New barrels went on both the Palma and 6mm rifles last weekend, and load testing will start next Saturday to start getting ready for the Midwest season. Hopefully both barrels will shoot as well as the ones they replaced!
If you are a Long Range shooter who has never made the trip down to the SWN, I only have one word of advice for you: GO! This is really one of the best-run matches you will ever shoot, and Michelle Gallagher and her crew do an excellent job of making sure everyone is happy. And do I even need to mention that it takes place in Arizona in February?!?
CLICK HERE to read Mia's take on the week and more images!