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.