Rolling with nature and not missing an opportunity to shoot

When the smoke cleared, so to speak, from the first 20 shots fired by four shooters at four banks of small targets on stands, that would fall over when hit by .22 rimfire bullets, all but two of the targets remained standing. Something wasn’t quite right with the world.

When the first relay of shooters walked up to the firing line, I grinned a bit to myself. All four of them were accomplished shooters, the best the day would offer. This first relay would reveal what the competition had brought to the day.

None of the 20 or so shooters attending had much experience in Smallbore Rifle Silhouette, a new competition our club had started the winter before. In the early 1980s, we hadn’t developed into a finished club and the rifle range stretched out before the firing line in mostly swamp. We had a road that ran alongside the range out to 600 yards and berms that stretched across the range every 100 yards.

A footpath we had built ran between the firing line and the 100-yard line, allowing shooters to walk out and check 100-yard targets. The rest of the ground, depending on the time of year, was mostly underwater.

In silhouette shooting, Smallbore Rifle and High-Power Rifle, the targets are set at various distances and are staggered. In Smallbore, a bank of five steel chicken targets is at 40 meters, five steel pig targets at 50 meters, five steel geese at 77 meters and five steel sheep at 100 meters. In High-Power, larger examples of the same animal silhouettes are placed at 100, 200, 385, and 500 meters. In either event, a total of 40 shots are fired.

Because of all the swampland, our options were shooting from freeze-up until the spring thaw. Which is why those of us not shooting watched from around several burn barrels to try to stay warm until our relays were called.

We had arrived for the match on that early January Sunday at 11 a.m. The thermometer said the temperature was 24 degrees below zero. On the plus side, wind plagued the open space of the long range, and it was a rare day when there was no wind, this was one of them. We had not shot a smallbore match when the temperature was significantly below zero to that point, it seemed no big deal.


A bit about how silhouette shooting works. The shooter lines up in front of whatever bank of targets is assigned. On the commence firing command, the shooter has two and a half minutes to fire one shot at each of the five targets. This must be done from the “hind legs” — or what Christine refers to as “just legs when speaking of bipeds” — with no support of any kind, including slings. True offhand shooting.

Smallbore silhouette targets range in size from the chicken with the surface area of a couple of postage stamps, to the sheep, about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The rifle could weigh up to 10 pounds, including the scope, but most everyone shot decent bolt action hunting .22s. Remington 541s, 581s, Anschutz M54 and 164, and an occasional Winchester M52 Sporter. All were accurate enough, the shooter being the primary component of success or failure.

It is not uncommon for a good shooter to have a bad day for various reasons. Sometimes things just don’t click. But the odds of four good shooters all having a bad day at the same time didn’t add up. Instead of having hopes for an easy win, I approached the line when my turn came with a big dose of anxiety. Things are never that easy, and I couldn’t take anything for granted.

My first bank of targets would be the pigs, at 50 yards, a position I always like to start with because they are the easiest for me.

When one misspends their life, as some might say of shooting as much as possible, time and experience allow the shooter to “call” their shot. That means when they press the trigger and the shot is fired, they can “call” or know precisely where the crosshairs of the scope, or the line-up of the sights are on the target when the shot goes off.

Some things can affect a shot, even when everything is right and the shot breaks perfectly. Wind, light, sights, scope out of alignment or another mechanical issue a shooter might be unaware of.

Four of my first shots broke perfect. One was slightly off but not enough to miss. I didn’t hit any of the targets. Another fellow on the same relay, an accomplished shooter, didn’t hit any either. The results for the next bank of five pigs improved, sort of. My last shot knocked over a pig, but I called it as a miss. When the shot broke, I had rushed it and while it should have missed below the rear foot, the bullet struck the pig on the end of its nose.

Trying to maintain focus, nobody said much until we took a break mid-way through the match. Everyone had the same experience. Few hits and those that hit targets had called those shots as misses. Probably the cold, someone said, meaning it affected the shooter. This might have been an acceptable excuse except most of us had shot a High-Power Rifle Silhouette match the day before and the temperature was just as cold, with no problems like this.

Then Don Feltman, one of our best shooters, who wouldn’t accept such an anomaly without explanation said, “Rocket scientists we ain’t. We’re good shooters, just stupid.” Laughing, we all agreed, except we didn’t know what we were stupid about.

“It’s the cold, but not because of us, it has to be the effect on the guns, ammunition, or both,” Don announced. We agreed to finish the match quickly and then see if we could figure it out.

As soon as the match ended, we set paper targets at 50 yards, and set-up sandbag rests. Shooting from the rests revealed that rifles that normally would place five shots inside a half-inch circle, couldn’t stay inside a six-inch circle.

All of us had hunted small game with .22 rifles at well below zero temperatures and attributed misses in the field to the cold or poor shooting. Everyone delighted to have a real excuse for missing. But, what to do about it?

Trying different ammunition in different rifles made no difference. Keeping the ammunition warm didn’t improve the groups. The answer came by keeping the rifles and ammunition in a warm vehicle (we didn’t have a warm-up shack in those days) and quickly moving to the firing line and shooting as fast as one’s skills allowed. Not much of a solution.

One might wonder, why didn’t we postpone the match for better weather? No one considered that option, we would let nature have its way with us, rather than miss an opportunity to shoot.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter who writes about guns and Alaska hunting. He's the co-author, with Christine Cunningham, of the book "The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories."