Last updated on April 15th, 2018 at 12:02 pm
By Erik Rhode
2018 New Zealand Long Range National Championships | January 26 - February 4, 2018
Late last summer, I was lucky enough to be invited to travel with the US National Rifle team to New Zealand to shoot in their long range national championship. This trip was a warm-up to the Long Range World Championship match that is held every 4 years, and will be held next in New Zealand in 2019. The World Championship culminates with the “Palma Match”, a 2-day, 16-person team match with history going all the way back to 1876. The Palma team trophy is perhaps the most coveted prize in all of Long Range shooting, and participating countries take this competition very seriously. Most send a “scout team” the year before to gather info and gain experience on the foreign range. This was that trip.
After 5 long months of planning and preparation, January 20 finally arrived. I made it through 32 hours of airplanes and layovers without any real complications, and landed in Wellington at 3pm on Monday, 1/22. This was a full 3 ½ days before practices were scheduled to begin on Friday, which gave me some time to decompress and get adjusted to the 19-hour time difference. Driving on the wrong side of the road did little to calm my nerves, but I did eventually get accustomed to the differences of this beautiful country.
For my first three days, I rented a guesthouse at the top of a terrifying hill on the west end of Wellington. Driving from the airport in my rented Prius to find the place on that first night in the country was a harrowing experience. The hill rises 500 feet in elevation in about a half mile, so there are a lot of switchbacks and blind corners on the way up. This is no lonely hill though; it is fully developed with houses everywhere. The streets are all 2-way roads, but realistically they are about 1.5 cars wide in most places, so if you meet another car coming at you, everyone needs to slow down and figure out how to get past each other. Cars park everywhere on both sides of the street, including on the blind corners, and they aren’t always facing the right direction. It was hard enough fighting off the urge to shoot over to the right lane without rounding a blind corner in the left lane and coming face to face with a parked car pointing straight at. Luckily, the rental agency was sympathetic and didn’t charge me for the permanent impressions my fingers left in the steering wheel from white-knuckle driving!
Also arriving on Monday were my friends Bob and Patty Mead from Iowa. We spent Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the south end of the north island by rental car, and seeing some impressive sights. Looking strictly at population (4.7 million) and geographic size (103,000 sq. miles), New Zealand is not far off from my home state of Minnesota. I quickly found that the similarities did not go much farther than that. While the country is relatively small, the views are enormous. We drove through Tararua Forest Park, which runs through a small mountain range with peaks up to 2500’. We later found out that the road we drove through the mountains was one of 2 roads specifically named in rental car contracts as being off limits due to dangerous driving conditions. I guess we will have to keep that in mind for next time! The scenery in this area is reminiscent of the great northwest woods, with giant redwood trees and dramatic green valleys. Continuing onward, we ended up on the west coast at Waikanae, with it’s black sand beach overlooking the deep blue Tasman Sea. Standing barefoot in the burning sand, it was easy to forget that we were less than 10 miles away from the forest and valleys, until we spotted the giant pinecones washing up in the surf.
The majority of the US team arrived on Thursday, and that day was spent relocating from my guesthouse to the team accommodations at the Silverstream Retreat, and picking up teammates at the Wellington airport. The trusty Prius was exchanged for one of the team Kia minivans, and I was designated as a driver for the rest of the trip. No problem, by then I was a pro at driving on the wrong side of the road, and the suburban streets near the retreat were much easier to handle than the hills in Wellington. Thursday evening was spent settling in to the new cottage and getting acquainted with my 3 roommates.
Practices on Friday and Saturday were scheduled to start at noon, but were delayed both days by the 300 Meter New Zealand Championship matches that were fired in the morning. Worth noting, US Team Member Oliver Milanovic won the Open class of the 300m Matches against a very tough field of local and international shooters.
The practices were held at 300 and 1000 yards on Friday, and 300 and 900 on Saturday. Shooters were allowed roughly 10 minutes at each distance to get shots on target and get a feel for the range. The target service was difficult for both practice days, and most shooters did not get many rounds down range. The weather was cool, cloudy and breezy for most of the day on Friday, but the sun peeked out for the last hour we were on the range. Coming from Minnesota in January, I hadn’t really considered the possibility of sunburn, but I should have. It is the peak of summer in New Zealand, and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica makes the sun in the southern hemisphere even more potent. By Saturday I understood, but the damage was already done on Friday, and I would be dealing with the after-effects for the rest of the trip.
The matches were scheduled to begin on Sunday morning. The course of fire for all matches for the duration of the week would be 2 convertible sighters, followed by 7 or 10 shots for record. This may not seem like a lot of shots, but keep in mind that there were 8 shooters assigned to each target, and also a 1-hour lunch break each day around noon, so there was a lot to get done in a day. Shooters would rotate through the tasks of shooting, scoring for another shooter, and check scoring for another scorekeeper (this involves watching the string in the same way the scorekeeper does and recording the results on a chalkboard behind the line for public display). When shooters were not assigned to one of these 3 jobs, they were free to do whatever they wanted until their turn came up. Pit pullers were provided as part of the match entry, so shooters were not required to pull targets. These matches are shot on the ICFRA targets, which are scored 5V as opposed to our 10X scoring back at home.
The first match on the schedule was the Wellington Rifle Association Meeting. This is an individual match consisting of 10 shots for record in the morning at 300 and 600 yards, then 7 shots for record after lunch at 800 and 1000. This match is not a part of the aggregate, so it gives shooters a good opportunity to get a feel for the range without too much pressure. The US team placed 2 shooters in the top 10, with Nate Guernsey and Lane Buxton each only dropping 3 points over all 4 yard lines. This was an impressive feat considering that neither had ever shot a match on this range before.
Monday was the first day of team matches, as each team fielded 10 shooters on 2 targets with 2 line coaches, a back coach, 2 plotters, and 2 scorekeepers. This match gave shooters a taste of what sort of complications and logistics are involved in a large-format team match. Neither the US team nor the US Vets team won their respective categories, but a lot was learned that day by shooters and coaches alike, and these lessons would transfer well to the team matches later in the week.
The Masefield Championship aggregate was fired on Tuesday, which is an individual match, made up 7 shots at each of the 300, 500, 600, 900, and 1000 yard lines. I was squadded with US Team Captain Norm Anderson, who is something of a living legend in competitive shooting circles. No pressure, right? I felt like I did a good job matching scores with Norm through the first 4 yard lines before his wind-reading expertise left me in the dust at 1000.
A surprising wind change at the end of my string sent my last shot wide into the 2-ring, which left me down 5 points at 1000, and 6 down for the day. My final placing was #28 out of 164 sling shooters. I would have liked to do better, but this was no train wreck. The US team showed very well in the Masefield, with 4 shooters placing in the top 10, including another overall match win by true American Oliver Milanovic. Other top US shooters were Captain Anderson at #4, Lane Buxton at #8, and Adrian Harris at #9.
Wednesday was the start of the NZ Championship, a 3-day aggregate match known as the “Ballinger Belt Series”. The top 20 shooters after 3 days of matches make it into a final shoot off, and scores from the shoot off are added to the aggregate to decide the final standings. This is very similar to the way the CMP “President’s Hundred” match works in the United States. The Ballinger Belt is the oldest sporting trophy in all of New Zealand, and is named for Arthur Ballinger, who first laid claim to it in 1893. To my knowledge, only one American has ever won it; Eddie Newman of Iowa added his name to this piece of history back in 2004. This is an incredible accomplishment for any non-Kiwi. The home field advantage on the Trentham range cannot be overstated, as the belt has only been won by a foreigner 12 times in the last 50 years. See here for more info on the history of the trophy:
On the docket for Day 1 of the Belt Series were four 10-shot matches. 2 matches were fired at 300 yards in the morning, followed by 500 and 600 yard matches after lunch. The conditions were tricky, but manageable for the morning matches, and lots of good scores were fired. I wasn’t very happy to lose a point in each of the 300-yard contests, but as conditions got tougher in the afternoon, my 50-6v at 500 and 48-3v at 600 helped to minimize the damage in the agg. By the end of the day, we were getting a good dose of the fishtailing tailwinds that Trentham is notorious for.
When we arrived at the range on Thursday for Day 2 of the Belt Series, it was clear that we were in for a different kind of test. The wind hadn’t gotten too high just yet, but the locals were promising that it would be an educational day before it was over. The schedule called for 10 shot matches at 500, 600, 900, and 1000, but due to the forecast of 30+mph winds with gusts much higher, match officials decided to change the order and shoot the long ranges first, starting at 900 yards. The earlier relays definitely had an easier assignment at 900, as the winds gathered strength throughout the day. This single 10-shot match completely shook up the leader board that had been established only one day before. Seeing an opportunity, American Nate Guernsey took full advantage by shooting the only clean match of the day, and his score of 50-3v moved him up 20+ spots to #3 overall. I shot on a later relay and finished with a 44-3v, and I was happy to have it. The changes were happening so fast and so dramatically that 4’s, 3’s, and even worse were turning up on the targets of some of the best long range shooters in the world. In an interesting display of wind convolution, a spectator’s umbrella was snatched from behind the firing line by the wind and taken for an unexpected ride. It was swept left-to-right directly in front of the firing line for 100 yards before making a 90º turn to shoot directly up range for another 300 yards, before cutting back to the right again and leaving the property. That is a tough condition to compensate for.
After the punishment at 900, match officials decided to postpone the 1000-yard match for safety reasons, and instead moved us up to the 500-yard line. I happened to be assigned to relay 1, so was up first to shoot. The wind was literally howling, and gusts were making it difficult for competitors to stand in one place – no joke. As I lay down for prep time, I wondered if I would be able to find an understandable bracket to shoot in without losing my proverbial shirt. At the ranges I frequent back home, a big wind shift at 500 yards usually means a 9, or at worst, an 8. In this condition, a direction change from 12 to 1 o’clock would put me right off the target. I could see the targets shaking under the stress 500 yards away. My strategy was to shoot fast when I thought I understood what was happening, and stop quickly when I found that didn’t. I guessed the opening condition correctly, and was rewarded with 2 5’s for sighters. Great, that’s 2 less shots I’d need to shoot in this madness. A V-bull and 2 more 5’s followed, and I was starting to feel good. On my 6th shot, I was not happy to see that the angle of the flags after I broke the shot was completely different from how I remember them looking right before I broke it. The target stayed down for a long time, and I was relieved when it finally came back up to have caught a wide 2 on the right side. A 2 is nothing to be happy about, but it very easily could have been an off-paper miss. As I stared at my target #30 through the spotting scope trying to decide what to do next, I noticed target #27 start to shudder and then completely break off, disappearing behind the pit wall. 30 seconds later, all of the targets went down and the match director called for a cease-fire. I have no idea if my score would have been good or bad after 4 more shots in those conditions, but I was happy to see the 2 erased, and to not have to take any more abuse. As shooters retired to the shooting village, it became clear that the canopy tents set up for shade were not going to survive this wind. A hundred or so shooters held on to the canopies while it was decided how to go about dismantling them without anyone getting hurt.
After the canopies were taken down, it was wisely decided that the day’s matches could not be continued. The 500, 600, and 1000 yard matches were scrapped, as well as the awards ceremony scheduled to take place later in the place where the tents used to be. As the remaining days were completely booked with matches, this would mean a shortening of the aggregate. While this day offered the craziest conditions I have ever shot in, I loved every minute of it. The wind was incredible; I couldn’t help but stand smiling in awe of it, and of the range. This was what I wanted to see when I came down here; the legendary winds of Trentham. They didn’t disappoint.
By cancelling some of the local team matches, the schedule was sufficiently cleared to fire 3 more individual matches on Friday, and it was decided that the remaining time would be best spent at long range. This left us with a 900 and two 1000-yard matches to shoot. The winds were down from Thursday’s insanity, but the last few days had taught me that there are really no “easy” days here, just varying degrees of “hard”. During the first match at 1000, 2 of the 8 relays got the pleasure of shooting in a downpour – the first rain we’d seen since we’d been here. I was lucky enough to be on one of those 2 relays, and after putting off my prep time for as long as I possibly could, I had to finally accept my fate and lay my gear down. I was completely soaked by the time my prep was over, and I was doing all I could with the few supplies I had on hand to keep my ammo, front sight, and loading port on the action covered. The downpour lightened to a normal rain after my sighters, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a very stable condition to shoot in. I picked my way through it and was rewarded with a 48-3V, which turned out to be a very high score for that match. That stable condition did not last long, and the wind was dialed back up to 11 for the last match of the agg. I was lucky to get off the line with a 43-4V.
As it turned out, my decent showing at the long lines on the last day was enough for me to sneak into the final shoot off in 19th place. This was a pleasant surprise, as I hadn’t really been paying much attention to the scoreboards. I only realized it after seeing a post on Facebook with a photo of the finals chalkboard. Our US contingent placed 4 shooters in the top 20, with Nate Guernsey (#4) leading the way with his brilliant 900-yard performance the day before. Adrian Harris (#8) and Lane Buxton (#18) rounded out our crew of finalists. The shoot off would have to wait though; we still had a short-range team match to shoot on Saturday morning before the final in the afternoon.
Saturday morning’s Masefield Short Range Team match consisted of 5-person teams firing 7 shots per shooter at distances of 300, 500, and 600 yards. Most of the larger teams shot with 2 5-person squads on adjacent targets to simulate the workings of a larger team match. The US teams did this, fielding 2 squads each for both the vets and regular team. This match is technically a “Club Match” and since the US national rifle team is the official team of the United States, we were not recognized as a club. Since we were not a club, and it was a cub match, we had to shoot “out of competition”. Don’t let the OOC status fool you though, the US Team put on a clinic in that match. All 10 shooters worked together with the coaching staff to put up one of the best 300-yard team scores in US Team history, and we didn’t let up at all on the further yard lines. The British Commonwealth Rifle Club officially won the match, and their 2 squads posted the 2 highest team scores of 512-46v and 510-52v. Take a look at the 2 scoreboard pics below for the rest of the story.
The shoot off was scheduled for 2pm, so we had enough time to have lunch and relax a bit before needing to report back to the firing line. The final match for the top 20 would be 15 shots for record from the 900-yard line. This was the longest string of fire shot all week, so there was a lot of potential for some shake-ups in the standings. I arrived behind my assigned firing point at 1:30 and spent the next half hour or so watching the flags and mirage while the f-class final was going on to try to get an idea of wind values and patterns. Things were very unstable. The wind lacked the sheer ferocity that we saw on Thursday, but it was plenty strong, and switchy as usual. There seemed to be a fairly repeatable cycle going on, with a strong wind from 2 o’clock that would last for around 3 minutes. After that, it would boil over momentarily before switching to an 11 o’clock wind that would last for 60 seconds or so. I decided that I wanted to shoot in the longer right-wind condition, and started building my mental strategy around that. I was consulting with Bob Mead before the start, and he suggested that the left wind might be a good option, but I opted for the longer duration on the right side. My plan was to shoot my 2 sighters in 2 different conditions to try to get a good bracket, then try to keep up with the small changes well enough to finish fast and not expose myself to too many of the major switches.
As my prep time ended and the “Fire” command was given, we seemed to be at the start of the longer right-wind part of the cycle. I dialed my best guess onto my Warner #2, and sent the first sighter on it’s way. The target popped right back up with a solid 5 at 4 o’clock. The condition seemed to be holding, and my plan went right out the window as I decided to make a small correction and shoot my second sighter in the same condition. It also came up a 5, and I was feeling encouraged. I converted both 5’s to record shots, and was off to the races. My new and improved strategy was “TRY TO GET 13 MORE SHOTS DOWN RANGE BEFORE THIS CHANGES!” It didn’t work, and a pick-up on shot #3 sent me to the middle of the 3-ring on the left side. After chasing the wind with limited success for 6 or 7 more shots, it eventually occurred to me that Bob Mead did not become the reigning US F-Class Long Range National Champion by accident. The right-side wind condition was too chaotic and unpredictable for me to handle, it felt like trying to wrestle a crocodile. The velocity changes were almost impossible to spot, and they were huge. By shot #10 I had already lost 8 points including a pair of 3’s for #’s 9 & 10. I decided to slow down and try out the weaker left side wind – if I could get lucky enough for it to come back. When it did, I dialed my correction and was rewarded with a beautiful V. The condition didn’t last long, and I lost another 4 points in my remaining 4 points to finish the match. I couldn’t help but laugh at times when the unexpected 3’s came up, but I had a great time. Over the course of 15 shots, the condition varied from 7 minutes of right wind, to 3 minutes of left. Very interesting.
In Hindsight, Bob’s plan would have been the better one. Waiting for the calmer left wind condition and shooting 3 or 4 shots before the change would likely have netted me a better score, but as it turned out, my 63-2v was better than average in the final. It was good enough to move me up 6 places in the agg to #13, which was icing on the proverbial cake for me. New Zeland native John Snowden shot a masterful 71-4v in the final to cement his victory by a single V over the 2017 Champion – Australia’s Jim Bailey. Those two were locked in an epic duel all week, and to have it decided by that close of a margin in the final was as good of a finish as anyone could have asked for.
After the excellent prize giving ceremony on Saturday evening, the only shooting left to do was the Mini Palma team match on Sunday. The word “Mini” in the name refers to the size of the team, not the distances shot. The match is fired at the normal distances of 800, 900, and 1000 yards, but with 8-person teams instead of the 16 that would be on a Palma team. This was another great opportunity for the coaches to work on strategies, and for the shooters to get more experience in the larger team format. The win went to the Australian Gold team, but the USA Rifle Team was a close 2nd, and our shooters and the coaching staff learned a lot about what we might be able expect next year at the World Championship.
This was a great trip for me. I met a lot of great people that I hadn’t known before, and got to know people a lot better that were only acquaintances before. I think that a lot of those acquaintances have now become friends. I learned that there are no slouches on the USNRT, and I learned valuable lessons about adjusting expectations and managing pressure in completely foreign environments.
Not long ago, I couldn’t have guessed that I’d get the opportunity to represent the USA on a trip like this. Now that I have, I just want to get back and do it again.
I hope I get another chance.
February 11, 2018