Getting Started In Tactical Rifle Competition
By Ed Shell
This article is intended to help the shooter new to precision and tactical matches get started. There are many matches around the country with many different themes, so to begin, we need to define "tactical match" in our context and thus define our goals. For our purposes, "tactical rifle" would be precision rifle shooting under varying field conditions that would be common to military designated marksmen, police marksman and even hunting.
The common themes to most of these matches are as follows:
• An accurate cold bore shot.
• Precision shooting under improvised field positions.
• Precision shooting at unknown distances (UKD), often very long distances.
• Precision shooting under induced stress conditions, such as mild exertion, timed events (especially those requiring movement into position), fire on command and similar techniques.
• Shooting steep departure angles from buildings, towers and/or mountains.
• Engaging moving targets.
• Rifle manipulation drills, to include rapid reloading and/or magazine changes.
• Engaging multiple targets.
• Hold over/hold under stages.
• Carrying supplies throughout the day, including food, water, ammunition and shooting equipment.
In order to be prepared to accomplish the tasks above, we will need to examine the requirements for equipment, skills and physical conditioning. Some of the things we'll need to think about can be subjects of entire articles in themselves, so we may gloss over certain items in order not to become distracted from our overview.
Safety is paramount, and safety hazards should always be immediately reported and corrected. The NRA Rules of Safe Gun Handling always apply, and are extremely important at these matches, since the firing line is very often movable and we don't always have a well defined "downrange". We should be especially vigilant with regard to muzzle direction and treat every firearm as if it were loaded.
An Open Bolt Indicator ("OBI") or Empty Chamber Indicator ("ECI") is often mandatory for movement between stages, so you might as well get a few to keep in your pack.
Good eye protection and ear protection are always required equipment. Extra earplugs are good to have, as is a small lens cleaning kit, especially in inclement weather.
A small first aid kit is nice to have, even if it's extremely basic, consisting of only a few band-aids, antacids, some aspirin and an eye rinse. Moleskin can be a very valuable item for matches that require a lot of moving around, and can keep a minor hotspot from developing into an open blister.
Equipment needs will vary with the distances involved, and with the widely varying courses of fire. The equipment discussion below is a start, and as you attend more matches and get a better idea of what works for you, you can develop and refine your own list.
One thing that we do NOT want to do is get too sidetracked in chasing absolute accuracy. The use of field positions for the majority of events will level the playing field considerably. In most competitions, if there are stages where a heavy target gun capable of 1/4 MOA accuracy provides an advantage, as with the "group" exercises, there will be other stages where the weight and/or bulk of that rifle will be a liability, such as offhand positions or movers.
Another consideration that is relevant to target-style rifles and their inherently tight tolerances is that we may need to shoot all day without the opportunity to clean, and a match may consist of 60 rounds to more than 100 per day. If we run tightly throated guns, or rifles with minimum headspace, we may find ourselves unable to finish the course of fire due to fouling or the debris inherent to field conditions.
As long as we can install a scope and there is the capacity for multiple shots and good accuracy, there are many rifle styles and calibers that will work. Because some events are limited to "military calibers", a .223 or .308 can be a very flexible choice, and to a lesser extent, the .30-06 and the .300 WinMag. Calibers larger and/or more powerful than the .300 Winchester may provide an advantage at longer distances, but they are not usually welcome on steel targets. Distances where the very large calibers do show an advantage are becoming less and less common, and we may find ourselves carrying and shooting an unnecessarily heavy and hard kicking rifle that only helps us on a small percentage of the targets.
If the majority of target distances are relatively short, perhaps inside 600 yards, a match grade AR-15 can be VERY effective. When distances become longer, the small bullet can be drifted in the wind rather easily and can also be quite difficult to spot. A miss is often lost in the grass and one cannot correct their follow-up shot if we don't know where the first one went. A further consideration of the small bullet is that it may not be obvious when a distant steel plate is hit, and if we cannot tell it's a hit, it will be counted as a miss.
There are many reasons to start with a .308, including the wide variety of match grade ammunition and bullets, relative economy, moderate recoil and it is permissible to use in almost every match out there. The larger caliber typically provides better wind resistance and is infinitely easier to see than a .224, both the trace and the impact.
Once we make the move to larger calibers, the precision semi-auto platform becomes less viable and more limited, and many semi-auto rifles will not provide the required stability and precision. The AR-10 can be very accurate, but, when compared to a comparable bolt gun in the same caliber, it is heavy, bulky and difficult to carry. It can also be difficult to get into very low positions sometimes required. Its main advantage becomes the timed or rapid fire stages, and even then it may not provide a big advantage, since the timed fire stages are usually set up for bolt guns anyway.
If the matches you plan to attend will allow non-military calibers, some of the 6 mms (6XC, .243, 6mm Crusader), the 6.5 mms (.260, 6.5x55, 6.5-284) and the 7 mms (7-08, 7WSM, 7x300WSM, 7mm RemMag) can be excellent choices, offering flat trajectories and excellent wind resistance.
Again, we should remind ourselves that the equipment is going to become secondary to shooting skills in most well planned matches. To closely focus on a given setup because it gives us slightly better long range performance may subject us to more weight, recoil or barrel erosion than we need to tolerate, in return for very little practical advantage.
Whatever caliber and rifle style is chosen, we will need a rifle/ammunition combination that will deliver accuracy of 1 MOA or better. Tactical matches are not benchrest matches, and most targets are bigger than 1 MOA, often closer to 2 MOA. A shooter with strong position shooting skills and a solid understanding of his equipment, shooting a 1 MOA rig will likely outperform a far more accurate rifle in the hands of a shooter who is not prepared.
Optics can also become the object of more concern than is necessary, and we can easily get caught up in too much magnification, weight and expense when the advantages are examined. I believe it safe to say that it is always sensible to buy the best glass we can afford, but beyond that we should remember that there are always tradeoffs.
The first consideration when selecting a scope is going to be the reticle type, and we will almost certainly need either a "mil based" reticle (such as traditional mil dots, Generation II mil dots, the MLR or the TMR) or an "MOA" based reticle. These reticles allow us to range targets, hold over or under to compensate for drop, lead movers and to measure corrections to hold our follow-up shots.
An illuminated reticle is very helpful when night fire stages are anticipated. While most matches do not seem to provide the opportunity for night fire, enough do that this feature is often worth considering.
Next, we will need target turrets to provide precise and convenient adjustments to our elevation and wind. Having good target style adjustments and being familiar with their operation is very important to being able to make first round hits.
Magnification is very subjective, and is greatly dependent on course of fire and shooter experience. Bare minimum magnification for shooting and ranging precision is probably 10x. A variable will provide flexibility to address close range shooting and movers, and yet still provide long range precision. The 3.5-10x scopes provide a good compromise and a good quality variable that tops out at 10x is sufficient for most events, unless we must use our scope reticle for long distance ranging.
Many events will have unknown distance ("UKD") stages that require the shooter to range the target. The importance of ranging precision increases with distance, as our trajectory becomes steeper. A 5% error at 500 yards may not hurt us too badly, but at 1,000 yards, that same 5% error will likely result in a complete miss.
A laser rangefinder (LRF) is an excellent tool for this task, but some matches do not allow these devices, and there are certain conditions under which a LRF will not work, such as intervening brush, precipitation, cluttered target area or extremely bright light.
While very experienced shooters can do extremely well ranging targets with a 10x, the average shooter would probably be better served with more power for this activity. If we find ourselves having to range targets with the reticle, slightly more magnification will usually render better measurement accuracy. The 3.5-15x and 4.5-14x scopes work well for this, and still provide sufficiently low magnification to be useful on movers and in low light.
More power, such as scopes in the 5.5-22x or 6.5-20x magnification range, can be great for very long range precision, but are often a little too much if the shooter is not experienced in scope use, and/or the rifle fit is not perfect. Searching for the target will waste valuable time and the smaller field of view associated with higher magnifications can make acquiring movers nearly impossible for those with less experience with higher powered scopes. There are often times when mirage will prevent use of full magnification, and when light levels drop, the higher powered scopes are the first to lose the target or reticle. Anything bigger than a 5.5-22x is probably going to be too much for the average tactical match, even in experienced hands.
Having accurate trajectory and wind data is critical to first round hits, and fast, convenient access to your data is very important. Keeping a data book is a good idea in any shooting discipline, because it provides us a central location to compile historic data on our rigs that we can refer to for our next shot. Even more important, it is a way to log our successes and failures, in order to duplicate processes that work and to avoid repeating errors.
PDAs are becoming quite popular and many versions, such as the iPod, offer ballistic software applications. A PDA may replace trajectory tables, but cannot replace the data book for historic data and corrected figures. With the ever-present possibility of battery or equipment failure, having backup tables is a good idea anyway.
If a PDA is not carried, a compact calculator in the data book cover or in the rifle stock pack is an excellent accessory. In addition to working mil formulas or cosine functions, this calculator is used to calculate trajectory and wind drift for shots that fall between data points. One example is when a shot is 885 yards and the data points are at 850 and 900.
Another excellent addition to the data book system is a Mildot Master. This slide rule device is able to directly convert target size and reticle subtensions into distances and so saves the manual calculations required to convert milled targets into distances. It can be used under certain circumstances to figure holdovers, and is also usable as a protractor to find departure angles for shots that are not level.
The long shots required for many tactical style matches will place added emphasis on two aspects of rifle shooting, rifle cant and the shot's departure angle. There are worthwhile accessories that will make dealing with these issues much simpler, especially while we are distracted with other circumstances.
Long shots over uneven terrain are sometimes needed:
A rail or scope mounted level is extremely useful, especially in rough terrain where it is often difficult to find a truly horizontal or vertical reference. With the shooter on a slope, the rifle on an angle and the target on yet another slope, it can be surprising how far off one can be and still look level. Having the rifle-mounted level removes doubt and minimizes the horizontal dispersion that accompanies canting the rifle.
The departure angle is important when we encounter a combination of long distances and steep departure angles. Steep departure angles directly affect trajectory, but if ranges are short, the influence can often be discounted as too small to make a practical difference and overlooked. When bullet drop increases with increasing distances, departure angle becomes extremely critical. A rail mounted angle cosine indicator is quite convenient and an excellent way to solve this problem. A Mildot Master can also be used, but requires somewhat cumbersome manipulation and additional math steps.
Angle fire opportunities can be down or up:
Some sort of rifle support will be needed, and we would begin with a good shooting sling, as opposed to a carry strap. The basic and traditional M1907 sling is the essence of the concept, where the sling is used to provide support in various shooting positions, and there are several good sling designs available that are modernized variations of this theme. With proper deployment, using the shooting sling is very steady and will be necessary in stages that require sitting, kneeling or prone unsupported positions. It is also handy to carry the rifle, but this is a function secondary to providing shooting support.
Unless we plan to make all of our shots slung, some sort of forend support will be needed. Many shooters use a rucksack; many others use a bipod. There is much to be said for either approach and there are times when one method or the other will present an advantage. If a bipod is used, probably the most versatile style will be a 6"-9" swivel, notched leg model, which can be propped up on the ruck if a little more elevation is needed.
Shooting sticks are also very practical for some circumstances, especially when we shoot from higher positions and the use of support is permitted. The use of sticks when sitting, kneeling or standing can make an incredible amount of difference. Sticks are also very good when shooting high departure angles, such as steep uphill shots.
A rear bag, emulating the traditional sand sock, is a great asset and probably well worth carrying. In the prone position, with the rifle on a bipod and sand sock, it is possible to achieve excellent accuracy. The bag can also be used as a forward rest when a bipod or rock is too high. There are certain situations where a bag can be used over a rock, barricade, fence post or other improvised support. When sitting, the bag can be used to provide support under a leg or behind the shooter to reduce muscle strain.
Weather is often a concern, and the further we move afield, the more prepared we should be for weather changes. An additional layer or two of light clothing that is easily put on and taken off can make a big difference in comfort, and often in shooting ability. Lightweight packable raingear is good to have for everything from morning dew to a windbreaker to afternoon thundershowers.
Knee and/or elbow pads can be a burden, a luxury or critically important, depending upon terrain and what shooting or movement drills we will perform. See what courses of fire are expected and go from there.
A good comfortable rucksack is needed to carry this gear, and our daily supply of ammunition, food, water, raingear, tools, lens cleaner and whatever else is deemed necessary. Some matches take place near your vehicle and you won't need to carry much, others will take you too far to return easily and the load grows, so your pack can be sized accordingly. If the load is light and distances short, a vest can sometimes be used.
It is common to pack too much, so beware and give thought to each item that goes into the load you'll be stuck with. In all cases, training and personal preference will dictate what the individual feels necessary to drag along.
Basic gear for a day match:
A certain level of physical conditioning is beneficial. There will often be stress-inducing activities. We'll usually be walking various distances, carrying rifle and gear. The better shape we're in, the easier and less stressful this will be, and the better our performance. Some matches are more geared toward simulating actual field conditions than others, and it pays to find out what will be required.
We must have good basic marksmanship skills. Practice in the basic shooting positions is suggested, and most field shots will be built upon these basic skills. Many shots will be prone, many will not. Being able to assume solid shooting positions on uneven terrain and/or in unconventional surroundings will often be necessary. Shooters who do not at least become familiar with these modified positions may find themselves flustered and confused when forced to deviate from what is customary. If we can practice our positions with some imagination and flexibility, we will be much better prepared for the interesting exercises the match directors may have planned for us.
100 yard "Cold Bore Shot" (1" square) and "Group Exercise":
Beginning with prone, we should be able to shoot as low and as close to the ground as possible, such as in the Hawkins position or using our sand sock under the forend. Normal prone supported, such as that used on a flat range on level ground, will often be used, as will prone unsupported, using only a sling. We should also work on some of our higher prone positions, such as shooting rather high angles with bipod legs extended or pack stood up on edge. We should also consider the effects of shooting over obstructions, where the shooter's torso may be forced off the ground.
Even prone may not always be easy:
Sitting positions are often employed, and the ability to achieve a solid position is very important. We will occasionally need to modify our sitting position, to accommodate obstacles or utilize barricades. The use of our rear bag or pack is sometimes allowed, either as support for the upper body, or behind us as a leaning support. To be able to find a solid sitting position at various rifle heights or angles is a definite advantage, so do not confine practice to flat ground and level shots.
Sitting, with support:
The kneeling position, especially behind a barricade, is often encountered. It can be difficult to find a good position with enough stability unless this position is well practiced.
Kneeling with support:
Standing unsupported or standing behind a barricade or fence post may be encountered. As smoothly as a heavy tactical rifle shoots from prone, bear in mind that it can be surprising just how heavy that rifle can be at the end of a standing string of 10 shots. Work at strengthening the upper body and/or keeping rifle weight down. Learn to find a comfortable position behind objects, such as spreading the legs to reduce torso height in lieu of bending at the knees or waist.
Standing unsupported is often encountered:
Between these basic positions, we will often find ourselves in a shooting position that defies description. Shots might be from the top of stepladders, from or across ATVs, from elevated platforms or using a partner for support. Shooting across roof angles can be tricky, and creative use of pack, bipod and/or sand sock can make a difficult position relatively steady. When faced with challenging positions, return to and draw upon your basic principles. Remember that solid support, firm stock pressure, good cheek weld, trigger control and follow through will be needed for a good shot, and work your improvised positions accordingly.
Some improvised positions one might see:
We will need to be able to operate our optics. Being able to dial on dope and return to zero reliably, as well as dialing out parallax are always at the top of the list. Ranging is often important, and if you need to be at a certain magnification to do so, practice checking that setting. Another problem often seen is the failure to return to zero after making a shot. Try to develop good habits, such as returning your scope settings to zero before leaving the firing position. An index mark, such as with a felt-tip marker or paint pencil can be a huge help in the event of any confusion.
Opinions will vary, but most shooters prefer to dial all corrections so that the first shot is "on". By approaching it this way, we have a very clear idea of where our reticle was when the trigger breaks and can easily and precisely make any needed corrections, even if our first shot was a hit. Peripheral hits, while still counted as hits, should be noted and minor corrections made to our data. Noting even minor errors allows us to constantly fine tune our data and to learn from our shots. This can be especially important to engaging multiple targets. By applying these minor corrections as we shoot, we can often prevent the next shot from being just off the edge, even though it may only be a fraction of a minute away from our previous (peripheral) hit.
The next important skill will likely be ranging the target with our reticles. Most matches will have at least some unknown distance work, and some matches are almost all UKD. Some allow lasers, but many do not and reticle ranging is one of the skills a rifleman should have anyway. Practice is the only way to become proficient, and the use of a laser rangefinder to verify our estimates is a great help. There are many resources for learning to range with a reticle and it is not necessary to expound here, but the greater precision we can muster at this phase, the better our results will be as we build our calculations on this critical measurement.
Some matches will require that shots at multiple distances be made with one sight setting. This will require the use of "hold-overs" and possibly "hold-unders". A convenient way to prepare for this sort of challenge is to create several drop tables in our data book, based on various zero ranges. We then select the most appropriate zero range to the series of distances you will need to shoot. For example, a zero of 300 yards may be a good point to use if we expect to address targets between 100 and 500 yards. Know what the drop will translate to in your reticle and it will be relatively straightforward to establish a zero and hold as needed.
This series of targets is an example of multiple targets that may be shot without making sight adjustments:
Wind is almost always a factor. In the case of short distances and gentle breezes, it can be minimal. In the event of longer distances and heavier winds, it will usually make the difference between a hit and a wide miss. Learning to dope the wind is a refined skill that takes much practice. A pocket anemometer can be of great value, but always remember that it is only telling part of the story, and the winds "out there" are at least as important as those we feel at the firing point.
Many matches incorporate moving targets ("movers") into the course of fire. Shooting movers requires that we lead the target anywhere from almost nothing, to several mils. Learn how to calculate your lead based on the mover's speed and your bullet's time of flight.
The growing sport of shooting tactical matches encompasses quite a few diverse courses of fire. Much of your opportunity will depend on your location and willingness to travel.
This article has been geared toward helping one get started, but cannot cover all aspects. We all have differing experiences, and even among shooters at the same match there will be a wide range of opinions on how to shoot what stages and what to carry along. The very best thing one can do is find out what matches are available, read after action reports, look at the pictures and ask questions. The first step is to simply enter and go. Do your best and have fun, and fine tune from there.
Beginning with a .22 at eight years old, Ed Shell has been shooting nearly all his life. He was on the local 4-H District Rifle Team in the 1960s, saw military service in the 1970s, has been hunting big and small game and shooting long range varmints throughout and now shoots long range precision rifle in several styles. Current interests include tactical/precision rifle competition, F-Class matches, teaching marksmanship and coaching shooters new to long range.