Chasing the dragon
Thoughts from Jack Leuba
After every match, many times before the final stage is even shot, I am drawn into several conversations focused on improving match performance. Well, that’s not truly accurate; the discussion should be about improving performance, but they’re usually really about placing higher and getting better stuff off the prize table. So, let’s cut to the chase and talk about what is needed to perform well.
First and foremost, the competitor MUST have a firm, known, verified zero. I don’t care if you have a 25 yard or a 500 yards zero, but if you haven’t verified actual impact that that exact distance, you do not have a zero. There are many ways to approach “zeroing” and defining a “zero” (follow-up post?), but it needs to be multiple groups of multiple rounds WITH THE AMMUNITION THAT YOU ARE USING FOR THE EVENT.
The immediate second to that is that you need to know where the projectile is going to be at longer range. You can get close with ballistic solvers and verified muzzle velocity, but no number on a screen beats actual verified results. Yes, the environment will play a part in this, but a decent ballistic solver will allow you to factor it in. End result is that the competitor must have solid prediction of what is needed to place the projectile in the correct location at the distances involved. Follow-on post coming on this subject, but if you are able to get firm data at 600 yards, you’ll be pretty solid out to 800. If you can’t get 600, 500 is better than 400; and 400 is better than 300. Compensating for wind effect falls into this category, and it’s a pretty deep topic, but like most aspects of high performance, you don’t want to be learning wind at the match.
A reliable firearm is essential. You can be the best shooter with the best zero and the most refined ballistic data, but if you aren’t able to shoot at the targets, you sure as hell ain’t getting hits. Most of the competitors I interact with tended to have guns that work, but keeping the gun working involves having good magazines, being on-top of maintenance and repair schedules, and NOT DOING SOMETHING TO THE GUN THAT MAKES IT STOP WORKING in the middle of a stage. This is one of the largest detractors from exotic cartridges; there are simply more unknowns and uncertainties on what ensures adequate reliability with them than with established calibers in established rifles. I would rather have a 1.5 MOA rifle/ammo combination that goes “bang” every time it’s supposed to than a 0.5 MOA combo that I don’t have confidence in.
Have an accurate ENOUGH rifle and ammunition combination. See the last sentence in the preceding paragraph. 1.5 MOA performance won’t leave you with a lot of error budget on smaller targets, but it won’t be the separator in mid-pack placement. Decent “match” factory ammo from most decent barrels will keep you under 1.5 MOA. Remember that your barrel gets a vote in the matter, it might love or hate the same ammo that your buddy or that random stranger on the internet loves. Try out a few different projectiles from a few different manufacturers to see what YOUR barrel likes. Group size alone is not the only thing to be paying attention to. For consistent performance past a few hundred yards, velocities need to be consistent. If I am getting consistent 1.1 MOA or better groups with multiple ammunition types, I will go with the ammunition that shows the least amount of extreme spread in velocity over at least 10 rounds, in the temperature range that I will be counting on that ammunition to perform in. This is another pretty deep subject worthy of a follow-up. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that precision isn’t important, it definitely IS important, I’m trying to convey that there are factors inside this that will make me care less about a 0.25 MOA difference in group sizes, or chasing a sub-0.5 MOA combination for practical use.
Have the equipment needed to gain adequate stability for the stage you are shooting, and be comfortable and competent with your support equipment. One multi-purpose support bag will go a long way in getting you what you need for consistent success off of most barricades and supporting structures found in the real world and in matches. The best examples of these types of bags are the Shmedium Game Changer by Armageddon Gear, and the Tricorne Bag from Cole-Tac. Their dangly floppy features hug the object they’re placed on, giving support to the rifle. Most upper-level shooters consider these to be “must haves”. The larger pillow-type bags are used to fill gaps in the shooter’s position, and are generally not used to support the rifle. We tend to focus on bipod use when zeroing and collecting data, and that’s all well and good, but bipod use accounts for less than half of the shooting in these types of matches and in practical real-world use.
Have an aiming device that allows you to accurately compensate for drop and wind effect to at least 800 yards. Do not expect any BDC reticle to match your ammo, you’ll need to do some work to excel with them. Dialing, holding, a combination of the two, and alternating between the two are all completely viable, but different shooters with different optics and reticles may approach a problem with different solutions and perform equally as well. The more you work on multiple mid to long-range targets at different distances the more you will develop preferences and gain proficiency. Don’t stop there, try something different whenever you can to see if there’s an edge with a different method. Different problems will have varying levels of success with different methods, don’t build a belief structure off of limited successes or failures.
Work to see your impact. You will have a short window of time following recoil to get back on target to see the projectile impact. If you failed to connect with the target, seeing where the projectile went will help a whole lot in determining what you need to do to get on steel with the next shot. If you did not hit the target with your first shot, CHANGE SOMETHING. If you were too unstable and you fired a poor shot, fix your position. If you see impact left/right/high/low, aim in the opposite direction the same amount of your miss from the center of the target in relation to your aiming reference. Do not keep repeating the same failure.
Learn to spot trace. In the event that the impact area does not give you feedback on where the projectile went, if you can see your trace you at least have some idea of what’s going on. Distance and environmental factors will change your ability to see the trail, but you will never see it if you aren’t looking for it. It’s easier to learn through a decent spotting scope or high quality binoculars at around 400-500 yards.
Learn from your mistakes and correct your data. Don’t fall into a cycle of failure. If you notice that you are consistently 0.5 mils high, apply that to your ballistic solution as soon as possible. If you are unstable in all of your positions, work to gain adequate stability as soon as possible. If you are timing out of stages, move faster in to and between positions. If you are losing time hunting for targets, get out of the scope and find the next target and then drive the gun to the target and/or pull the magnification down so it’s just high enough for you to be able to aim.
Be willing to bypass a target that is giving you trouble. If you haven’t hit the target within 5 rounds, it’s pretty much guaranteed that taking par time plus one miss is going to work out better for you than burning a magazine of ammo (that you really need for the rest of the stage/match), the time you need to get to the rest of the targets, and the frustration/stress of one target that is simply not that important to the overall game.
Inside General Purpose and Practical Precision this game IS NOT a caliber chase. There were a total of 4 targets beyond 700 yards for this last match, and only 1 was past 820 yards (1004 yards). Those targets combined accounted for 120 seconds in penalties. A 14.5″ 5.56 shooting decent 77gr can easily put a hit on any of the targets presented out to 800 yards within 3 attempts, as long as the above guidance is followed. The average target distance for the match was right around 520 yards, and 3 MOA diameter. You don’t need a 6mm doing 3100 ft/s to break into the top 25% in these conditions
Chase the real problems, work on your skills, and find the equipment that will make a real difference.
Food for thought: 4 of the COMBINED TOP 10 of this match shot 5.56, and another shot a short barrel 7.62.
New calibers are cool, but they aren’t the dividing line.