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From Novice To Contender by Ryan Charlton

Originally published in October 2019

Precision Rifle Shooting: the art of engaging long range steel targets from improvised positions against the clock. It is also the fastest growing rifle shooting discipline across the world, but until Tiff Dew of Roundhouse Firearms Training formed the Precision Rifle League in 2019, there was no way of connecting the various independent meetings that had been taking place. Under the new formal league, shooters have been brought together at multiple venues across the UK, all vying for league position to decide an overall UK champion.

I have a good friend in America who’s a well-respected Precision Rifle shooter in the US and had already planned a trip to shoot my first match in the American National Rifle League in Idaho, in late March 2019. With the UK league beginning I wanted to get involved in supporting the growth of the sport in UK. Through my employers Highland Outdoors we arranged to sponsor the league with prizes and heavily discounted clothing for the Range Officers and Marshalls who freely give up their time to allow these events to take place.

I also set about putting together a rifle which would be suited towards competing in such challenging competition, being as we sell factory rifles I’d chosen to compete in the Factory Division which places a limit on the cost of equipment – Rifle SRP must not exceed £1500 and likewise the scope SRP must not exceed £1500. As the UK and European distributors for Howa Rifles the barrelled action had to be a Howa 1500, I chose 6.5 Creedmoor as the cartridge to use as it’s easy to load, offers fantastic ballistics and, most importantly, with a 140gr bullet gives a good “splash” when hitting or missing targets. Stock choice was more difficult, the stock has to be adjustable and for reliable feeding AICS pattern magazines are essential. The trend amongst US competitors is to shoot increasingly heavy rifles for improved balance and recoil mitigation which allows better spotting of splash. I chose the KRG Bravo chassis system which ticks all of the boxes, except for being heavy, however being shaped like a regular stock it has lots of hollow parts to fill with removable weights.

Scope wise the main concerns are that it is mechanically strong and repeatable, it also needs good glass, as well as having enough adjustment to dial up to the furthest targets. For 2019 Sig Sauer launched a new Tango 4 which ticks all of those boxes and more, whilst I waited for the new Sig I used a range topping Sig Sauer Tango 6 which was enough for me to get started! With the rifle and scope picked I needed to decide on ammunition, having experience with Nosler RDF bullets in my other 6.5 Creedmoor I wanted to take full advantage of their class leading ballistics coefficient. Sticking with the theme I also used Nosler brass and set about load development which was pleasingly easy. The whole idea behind this project was that I could use this rifle as a test bed to assist other Howa owners and pass on the benefit of my experiences to aid them in their shooting.

I have a background in competitive Airgun shooting but it’s been almost ten years since I last shot HFT and my experience with firearms has been field based or shooting gongs informally whilst zeroing with friends. I’d not competed at any sport for a few years so this gave me chance to get the competitive juices flowing and enjoy the comradery of fellow competitors. So I half heartedly did a couple of practice sessions as and when the weather allowed and I wasn’t too tired from fox shooting or deer stalking.

Fast forward to mid March and after a pleasing run down to Cornwall I was ready for the first training weekend of the PRL calendar at the Roundhouse Firearms Training facility and my first time trying this style of shooting. To say things didn’t go well would be an understatement! I learned all about how important accurate data is to hitting what you’re aiming at (turns out my chronograph wasn’t as accurate as it could be which had thrown out my ballistics app). However, it was nothing that wasn’t easily resolved and with the support of the other shooters, I got back at it and was consistently ringing steel.

Three days after leaving Cornwall I was on a plane heading to Nevada to hook up with my American buddy and we spent a day practicing in the desert near his house. We spent the whole day shooting pistols, AR’s and setting up his spare Howa Rifle from scratch so that I could get more familiar with the process.  We went through some great training drills which involved hitting steel gongs out to 1100 yards from a variety of positions which helped my confidence. The next day following an 8 hour drive to Idaho (stopping only for snacks, fuel and to shoot Coyotes on public land) we arrived at the range and I checked in.

Instantly I was made to feel welcome by the National Rifle League team and after a quick zero check, set about helping my buddy run the MDT side stage by loading mags and working the shot timer. Watching the top American guys shoot from a tank trap for the fastest time was a great experience. I acted like a sponge soaking up as many tips, techniques and methods as I could. Shooting isn’t a spectator sport so I took my turn and fumbled my way through making 5 out of 6 hits on a 5” gong at 300y, from each point of the obstacle in 53 seconds. The winning time by comparison was 6 from 6 in just over 31! These guys meant business, not only do they shoot accurately but they shoot quickly! The words ringing in my ears when we went for dinner were “Move fast, shoot slow”.

In readiness for the match I went over the scoring system and other things. The match consisted of 220 shots, every hit counts as a point and misses count for nothing. Usually a random draw will take place to decide the shooting order, with the first shooter being put to the back and going last at the next stage so that everyone gets a turn at being the wind monkey.

The next day following the safety brief and pledge of allegiance we made our way to the first stage and my card was drawn first. With some help from my squad I approached the stage as best I could needing 2 shots from 5 positions on a burned out pick-up truck. I timed out before getting all my shots off, only making 3 hits. A combination of small targetry, nerves, excitement and unfamiliarity with what I was doing, put paid to any wild dreams of sneaking in a surprise good performance!  The highlight of day one on the firing line saw me in familiar territory, shooting at an 8” moving target from a hay bale 610 yards away. One of my favourite places to shoot from is a bale stack, with a Howa in front of me and I managed 8 out of 10 hits on this stage within the 90 second time limit.

With day one of the two day match complete we retired to the Air BnB with some of the guys I’d squadded with and shot more pistols (with suppressors this time), ate some great food and again I got some top tips from some top shooters. Day two I had made a small improvement; being more familiar with the demands of the competition, I made more hits, moved faster and had a terrific time with my squad mates who epitomised American hospitality and the Precision Rifle shooting brotherhood.

After day two finished we made our way to a hotel for the awards banquet for prize giving and a social, my second day improvement meant I’d scraped a top 100 position coming 99th and gave me an idea of where my weaknesses lay to help me improve before the Precision Rifle League began. The big stand out was the prize table with custom guns, actions, optics, chassis and every manner of cool rifle shooting gear available – even with my lowly finish I was able to come away with a prize! Once the formalities were over I was able to draw my experiences of playing Rugby and taught my American hosts some new drinking games!

Back in Blightly I begun to formulate a training plan as I had better idea of what I needed to do, having competed in various sports my entire life I know how important structured practice is. I bought more steel targets and set about weekly live fire practice with a focus on building a stable position, maintaining good marksmanship fundamentals and moving quickly. This was supplemented with 20 minutes of dry fire practice every other day. With planned practice and training by the time I got to Gardners guns in Scotland for the second practice event I was much more confident, managed to hit more targets and things came more naturally. Feeling happier that things were moving in the right direction I continued practicing and getting as much trigger time as possible – shooting a minimum of 200 rounds per week. Once the clocks went forwards I was able to take advantage of the extra daylight and practice straight from work, standing in a field in my shirt and chinos shooting from a fallen tree gave the local farmer a good laugh!

All of this shooting taught me that the American trend of adding weight is an incredibly good idea as it reduces felt recoil and allows for easier spotting of impacts and misses. I also went the American way and fitted a muzzle brake to my rifle. This meant that I now had a very loud, very easy to shoot rifle which made spotting hits and more importantly spotting misses easier. I added a full length KRG ARCA rail to the fore end of the KRG Bravo stock. As well as being able to directly mount my rifle to a tripod, this enables me to have a bag attached to the rifle which allows one hand to be free when moving position. I also added an Atlas bipod with an ARCA clamp.

As well as the individual competition element there is a team competition element and I was very lucky to be asked to join Team “Practical Precision UK”. Practical Precision is owned by a serving member of the British Army and they make all manner of precision shooting accessories which are used by pretty much all of the shooters in the Pecision Rifle League.

In the run up to the first round of the Precision Rifle League I got the bad news that the Sig Tango4 I needed to compete in the Factory Division had been delayed due to a large military optics order. Thankfully my friends at business rivals Country Sports Wholesale and Vortex UK leant me one of their sample Diamondback Tactical scopes to use for as long as I needed. This is quite typical of the UK guntrade, although we’re all competing with each other we’re all supportive of each other once the working day finishes.

Round One didn’t start well, what should be a 4-5 hour drive to Cornwall took 9! I got chance to meet my Team Practical Precision team mates for the first time, we had a couple of beers and got some sleep! We all gathered expectantly at the Round House Firearms Training venue and there was a real buzz about what was happening. Following the safety brief and stage briefs we set off to shoot and I quickly discovered why my American friends take bags of sweets, water and coffee out with them. If things aren’t going well nothing refocuses you like a can of coffee and some Haribo Strawbs!

The scoring in the PRL works differently to the American NRL, at some stages there are two targets, a big one and a smaller one. With the smaller target being worth two points and the larger target  being worth one. I formulated a plan to try and maximise the score. When assessing and planning a stage if I felt I’d max out on the large target I’d shoot the smaller one confident that a 50% hit would match clearing the large target.

My favourite stage involved moving from a seated position shooting from a tripod, to shooting from a bipod on a large rock. I managed to clear the stage whilst shooting the small target as these are comfortable positions for me. I walked off the firing line feeling that I’d done some things very well and some things badly. Surprisingly I managed to win the Factory Division and recorded a fairly respectable score on a challenging course of fire.

The second day of the PRL weekend is an Extreme Long Range day. This isn’t my cup of tea and although my rifle is more than capable I don’t enjoy shooting prone as much as I enjoy the pressure of the time constraints and problem solving element of the PRL. Luckily it’s shot in pairs so I joined forces with fellow Factory Division shooter Tony, who ended up sharing my rifle as he had a scope malfunction. I enjoyed shooting first which meant walking the shots on target, for Tony to make hits and reap the benefit of him spotting so decided that was how I’d treat ELR in the future. Between us we won the Factory 6.5 class using my Howa Bravo and Tony was impressed enough after shooting it to go out and buy one as soon as his variation was granted.

Round Two was held at Gardners Guns 2 mile range in Scotland. Feeling suitably well practiced and having had the course of fire emailed before-hand, I’d been able to formulate a plan of attack. My game plan was to use my Arca bag as forward support and my tripod as a rear rest which creates almost bench rest stability. Unfortunately, as we approached the first stage it was decided that no tripods could be used as a shooting aid, so I planned each stage again as I approached it. My favourite stage was shot from a “Jiggle bed” which is a suspended platform that amplifies any movement with wobble, being as both my rifle and I are heavy weights this helped keep movement to a minimum and despite the bed moving a total of 8 mils of elevation, I was able to ambush the target, hitting 8/10 in under 60 seconds with a magazine change included.  Again I managed to win the Factory Division and in doing so I put in a score good enough to finish second place overall behind my good friend Josh Martin. This was a major confidence boost for me in the PRL as things started to click and I executed my plans for each stage well.

Unfortunately during the pre match zero session, one of my team mates rifles suffered a broken extractor, as he wasn’t able to repair it, it meant he had to use a range rifle and ammo which badly affected his score. As a result I started keeping a more comprehensive spares kit for Howa shooters to keep them in the game no matter what. So far this year they’ve not been needed.

The Extreme Long range day at Gardners changed last minute due to severe weather, into a mini “king of a mile” style shoot, with a detail of five shooters taking it in turn to shoot, starting at 200 yards and continuing to shoot gongs until the last shooter is left. As there were several shooters who were extreme long range specialists with large calibre magnums such as 338 Lapua and 300 Norma magnums, big distances were expected. Due to the close starting distance the big boys struggled to connect and to our surprise Ben Mcilwane and I reached out furthest with our 6.5 Creedmoors, me winning the Factory Division and Ben winning the Opens!

With the best two PRL scores from five rounds to count, things were certainly looking up!

My build up to round three wasn’t ideal. I ended up having to replace my rifle 3 days before the event with a brand new one! This was made worse by the fact that I’d just had the rifle Cerakoted Pink for charity by Tactical Coating and Practical Precision had made me some bright pink bags. Unfortunately practice costs barrel life and after over 2500 rounds which were mostly 10 shot strings the barrel had given up! Luckily the replacement barrel liked the same load and was just as accurate so approached round three which was held at Orion Firearms Training with some confidence as I’d been shooting well during practice. Bar some mental mistakes on a couple of stages which cost me a lot of points, I shot well and finished just 6 points off the top Open shooters – my good friend and team mate Alex White shared the win with Josh Martin. The stand out stage for me was something I’d never encountered, as it was shooting from a strap and a chain, by keeping a neutral balance and focussing on a good trigger press I was able to hit the target 7/8 times.

For the Extreme Long Range I paired up with Ben McIlwane to shoot in the Open division and we attempted to repeat our performances from the previous round. Sadly due to targetry failures and how well the rest of the field shot this wasn’t to be, however we had a lot of fun shooting with friends and I enjoyed that ELR day more than any of the others due to the comradery of everyone on the firing point.

In the short turnaround between rounds I had my rifle Cerakoted pink and in doing so managed to raise over £600 for charity the Royal Marines charity and the Hoplite Fund. The pink bags are being sent over to a deserving young shooter in America to use and hopefully they’ll bring them the same amount of luck they’ve brought me!  At Orion I noticed how well the fitter shooters dealt with the heat and walking uphill to the firing points so as well as my regular shooting practice I started exercising in an attempt to improve my fitness for next year.

Round four saw us head to the Roundhouse again, this time there were unknown distance stages requiring range finding to be done without a laser range finder, I’d heard whispers about this before the match so had practiced the formula for ranging using a reticle and packed a calculator into my kit bag. My favourite was a stage which involved running down a hill into a trailer and engaging two hidden targets with a rifle on a tripod. Not being the quickest at moving over the ground I decided I’d be the most spectacular and began with a commando roll any Spetznaz member would be proud of, before sprinting downhill and only just managing to stop in time to enter the trailer as a result of momentum! As the only Factory Division shooter I recorded a win, but most importantly with the best 2 from 5 shoots counting made it impossible for me to be caught with 4 wins from 4 shoots securing the Factory Division win overall. I celebrated with my friends and team mates sampling some of Cornwalls’ famous Rattler cider.

For the Extreme Long Range shoot on the Sunday I paired up with my team mate Karl Franks and we shared my rifle to compete in the Factory Division. Dressed in Hawaiian shirts, our plan (other than looking cool) was again for me to do the shooting first and Karl to spot with his spotting scope walking me in on target and gathering DOPE. Armed with a trued ballistics correction Karl hammered the targets and we shot a superb pairs score and won the Factory Division category.

With preparation in full flow for round five, I took to using my 22LR for practice, to supplement my positional dry/live firing practice with my 6.5 Creedmoor and have begun entering a local field based 22 competition series called the Hunters Challenge. There will be a 22 Precision Rifle League beginning in 2020 which, given the shorter distances, smaller areas and lower costs involved has the potential to be huge as it opens up lots more venues. So far it’s been a terrific way to practice building solid positions and transitioning between obstacles.

Due to range bookings the final round of the season at Orion Firearms Training, had been jigged around, with the ELR element being shot on Saturday, followed by the sponsors raffle and the Sunday being the final PRL round. Friday was offered as a practice day on the dark side of Orion. Making the best of a chance to get an entire weekend of shooting in I booked up an Air BnB for some friends and I to call home from Thursday to Monday.

Fridays practice session was great, once the fog and rain lifted to give enough visibility to allow shooting to safely commence. 16 of us including a contingent of some of the top Irish shooters helped each other out practicing on barricades and shooting targets out to 1500 metres in very strong, challenging wind conditions! Once the serious practice had taken place the fun guns came out and we were ringing steel with a variety of guns from 223 straight pulls to 45-70 under levers!

Saturdays shooting didn’t go according to plan, unfortunately for us the Welsh long distance walkers association had planned their route right through the target area. For the ELR competition I’d talked in my friend and long range shooting specialist Linus Isley-Ridge from Hadfield Guns, who’d recently returned from the 50cal world championships and king of Two Miles at Baton Rouge. Although we didn’t get to shoot we had a great time watching Ireland beat Wales in the Rugby World Cup warm up with the Irish shooters before making our way to the sponsors raffle.

One of the things I enjoyed most at the NRL was the awards banquet and with around 50 of us taking over a function room in a hotel this had the same feel to it. The British Shooting Industry is very generous when it comes to supporting the growth of the sport and the prize table reflected that with prizes including caps, rangefinders, rifles and everything in between. I was pleased to present a Sig Rangefinder to Jason Miller from Ireland and a Ridgeline Sniper bag to Gary Josey.

Sunday morning we were greeted to a cold and damp start to the day, with the promise of sunshine to come and even the wind had calmed down. In the Open Division 6 shooters were in with a chance of sharing the title with Josh Martin so there was everything to play for. My fellow factory shooters had been practicing hard, although I couldn’t be beaten to first place there were three shooters vying for second. Two of those were fellow Howa shooters Terry and Tony who have epitomised the great attitude of shooters in general by approaching everything with big grins and a great attitude.

The firing line was split into two parts, the first was around the range at Orion which involved engaging targets out to almost 1100 yards. My favourite stage here was shot from within a cabin, 3 shots on a 200 yard IPSC target from the standing position, before moving to take 3 shots from a bench at a round gong 800y away and moving again to take another 3 shots on the gong from a window sill. I also made a very costly mistake on a stage by not listening to a change in the stage brief, I cleared two 4 shot sections from the wrong position and that cost me 8 points! 

Heading up to the second firing point on the top of the hill we waited whilst there was a lunch break and enjoyed the view as the sun had come out and treated us all to another glorious day at Orion. This section of the course treated us to some challenging targets both with time constraints, challenging positions and steep angles. One of my favourite positions of the year was shooting from the far point of a tank trap down into the valley at a 48 degree angle, having two of my squad mates stood on the tank trap to stop it tipping over took away some of the fear!

With the final shots fired we all gathered around expectantly to hear the results, the day was won overall by Michael Ward who scored a whopping 113 points, in the Factory Division Terry Still shot a superb 92 to take his first win which was really pleasing as he was also shooting a Howa in 6.5 Creedmoor. Overall the 2019 champion was Josh Martin who’d been Mr consistent throughout the year, Irish shooters Michael Ward and Rory Gibbons occupied the other podium spots. The Factory Division was dominated by Howa shooters occupying all three podium positions. Terry’s brilliant last performance saw him finish second, over his good friend Tony Hollard in third with me in first place.

The success of the inaugural PRL season has been enormous, it’s bought shooters together from around the country who’ve all encouraged one another to keep pushing their abilities. I’m certain that next year the sport will grow and continue going from strength to strength. I’d like to see a larger uptake in Factory Division Shooters, I’m sure with a skilled marksman that a factory rifle is more than capable of winning a round overall – My Howa is certainly capable of this.

The biggest take away from this years’ PRL season for me has been how much all of the extra trigger time has improved my shooting; the extra confidence I’ve gained through being well practiced will no doubt help this coming winter when culling deer and catching up with fox shooting on the estate. As well as returning to normality shooting wise, I’m already planning my equipment and shooting timetable for next year, both at home and internationally. The welcoming nature of the shooters I’ve met around the world means I’ll be happy turning up anywhere and knowing that I’ll be amongst a group of people who all want to hit the same targets and will encourage and help everyone to do that.