feature By: Steve Fogler | October, 18
My interest in black powder cartridge rifles began when I booked a buffalo hunt two years ago. I realized I just could not shoot a buffalo with a high-powered rifle; that magnificent animal deserved a little more effort on my part. So, I bought a Smith & Wesson .500 “hand cannon” and practiced with it. It was very accurate and I thought I was going to use it. Then I started reading about the old Sharps rifles and I knew that was what I really wanted to use, but I had never shot a black powder cartridge rifle. A Shiloh Sharps .50-90 was found at an auction and was bought. Some black powder loads were worked up, so I took them on the hunt. They performed well and the family has been eating a lot of buffalo meat, as well as giving it away to other family members so I would have an excuse to go again.
In the two years I have been shooting black powder rifles I never thought I would be interested in competing in a match – especially a long range 1,000-yard match. It was a bit intimidating to think of competing with people on the blogs and forums who shoot at every match and know everything there is about the nuances of black powder target rifle-style shooting. Who was I to shoot with the likes of them? I was not sure I could ever work up a load that would be good enough to try (at least, in front of people) at 1,000 yards and even if I had good loads worked up, I did not have any sight settings for 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. I had never in my life been on a range where you could shoot at 1,000 yard distances. The farthest I had ever shot was 500 meters, but 1,000 yards? And with iron sights? Laying in the dirt? With cross sticks? There are easier ways I could embarrass myself. My intimidation factor was pretty much pegged on the “probably never” side of the scale.
A few months before the Byers BPTR Long Range match, I decided to try silhouette shooting at a local monthly competition at the Golden Gun Club outside of Denver. I had practiced at 300, 400 and 500 yards on my practice range. I was hitting the swinging gong targets regularly so I thought I might try to shoot some iron critters and see how it went. I used my Shiloh Sharps .45-70 with a full-length scope. I was afraid I would embarrass myself with a Vernier sight. I didn’t embarrass myself; I was able hit the critters, and after one match I was hooked on that sport! After shooting a couple more silhouette matches I decided to try the Long-Range match with a Vernier sight at 1,000 yards, just like back in the day.
At the Byers Range, I was greeted with directions to the “pits” and to look for my spotter, Zack “Desert Deuce” Taylor. The “pits?” What’s that? I had no idea what to expect. I did not want to be the reason someone got a wrong score or poor service on the target handling. Zack took good care of me, so the target patching and scoring went well. With good people teaching you, you soon fall into the rhythm and get the job done correctly. The way Eron had the match set up, the switch between scoring in the pits and getting to the firing line to set up for your turn at shooting went efficiently, logically and without complaint. There was no wasted effort or dead time, but it was not rushed, either.
My first shot was on the target at 800 yards and I felt pretty good about the sight setting. Zack, an experienced and excellent spotter, talked me into the black and after a couple more shots I was ready to go for score. It was still early and the wind was fairly calm. I didn’t change the windage on the front sight since the wind remained relatively calm. I shot a 141-3X the very first time I ever fired at 800 yards. The high score for 800 yards ended up being a 141-4X. So, I was happy about the match so far! The score indicated my loads were good and my Axtell Creedmoor could shoot at Creedmoor distances. Then came the 900-yard relay – I totally redeemed myself with a 75. I had failed to consider how high the sight setting would be for long range. All the way up to 800 yards my sight setting let me keep my cheek on the stock and hold with a good cheek weld. At the 900-yard setting, my cheek was off the stock floating around and I was not able to see the same thing twice through the sight. I had never thought about a cheek pad or cheek riser since I had never had a need for one. After I had completed the 900-yard relay, Jack Odor came over and gave me a big rag and a roll of duct tape so I could I make my own cheek riser for the 1,000-yard set.
After another turn in the pits, we moved to the 1,000-yard line. By now it was afternoon and the winds were variable from every direction. I heard, “Two clicks right. Hold, hold . . . okay, now shoot!” a lot. The wind speed was up and down and all over. Now I realized why people have the windage adjustment on the tang sight – it’s not an option. Moving the front sight windage adjustment for each shot was just not practical in continuously changing wind conditions while laying in the dirt with a 34-inch barrel rifle on cross sticks. Zack did an exceptional job talking me onto the target with calls like, “Hold on the right side of the black.” “Hold on the right edge of the paper.” “Hold on the target frame on the left side…your other left!” Yes, the wind was that variable – it’s Colorado. I managed an 80 at 1,000 yards. That placed me 15th out of 24 shooters. I asked Zack if he had been a forward air controller calling in air strikes in a past life. He patiently put up with me shooting my pretty rifle with no windage corrections. To underscore the point about windage, he had a Soule sight and he came in First Overall in the Long Range match – lesson learned.
Eron had a big barbecue planned for that evening and from all accounts there was a fabulous amount of barbecue meat and everyone had a great time. Since it was my wife’s birthday and she had already been gracious about me spending it at the shooting range, I thought it wise to make an appearance at home and take her out for dinner.
The second day was the Mid Range match. I took another rifle this time. I was satisfied to have shot the Creedmoor Sharps at a Creedmoor-style match so I brought my Shiloh Sharps .45-110. I had worked up loads with a Postell 545-grain bullet with 98 grains of Swiss 1½Fg. I had sight settings for 300 and 500 yards but not 600 yards. This rifle has a Soule sight that provided windage on the tang sight, so what could possibly go wrong? Closer targets, two out of three tested sight settings, good load, good spotter and . . . ah yes, the wind again! This time it was at least 20 mph from a predominately right quartering tailwind but direction was variable for each shot. Long gusts estimated at 40 mph were the rule all day. This time, spotters were calling four or five clicks of correction, then “Hold,” then back two clicks. I ended up subtracting 5 MOA from my vertical setting at 600 yards due to tailwind. So now Zack was calling horizontal and vertical changes with each shot. I have prescription long-distance shooting glasses and separate “near” glasses to see the tick marks on the sight staff – I don’t like bifocals. To make adjustments on my sight, I have to use my near glasses. It works for practice, but changing the settings at least once, sometimes twice, for each shot due to wind variability meant I was always taking off one pair of glasses, putting on the other pair, then back to the shooting glasses. By the time the first correction was dialed in, the wind had changed and a different correction was needed; too much time was spent making changes. Zack went back to his forward-air-controller mode and called me on to the target. He would call where to hold two or three times while I was lining up – the wind was that variable or gusting that strong. This time there were no high scores for the windy Mid Range match.
So, what did I learn from my first Mid and Long Range match? I ended up with a score of 296-4X in Long Range and a 234-2X on Mid Range for a total of 530-6X. That tells me I did better than I thought for the first match (thanks to Zack’s spotting) but I have more work to do and some equipment to update, specifically:
Do not be intimidated by going to shoot at a match. Eron Ahmer did an outstanding job of running this competition. He kept everyone safe, busy and focused on shooting. Every competitor there was glad to see a new shooter – black powder isn’t the most popular shooting event in the shooting world, and all the people there were glad to see someone new. All were eager to give advice and help the new guy without being overbearing. These shooters take great pride in the skills they have developed over time and are confident enough in their abilities to share. There was no “I’ve got a secret” stuff here. This is where the experts on the blogs and forums come to shoot. If you want to learn to shoot Black Powder Target Rifle matches, Byers Range, Colorado, is the place to go. I wish I had gone to a match sooner.
Pay attention to your equipment. Fancy, expensive accessories are not required, but a cheek riser and a windage-capable tang sight are a must. Find your cheek weld and use a cheek riser, at least for the longer distances; shooters don’t “wing it” at 1,000 yards. I am looking for a suitable cheek riser now. Learn how to make windage adjustments when you are practicing on your range – don’t just shoot on calm days, practice with some wind and learn to make the corrections. “Combat offsetting” may be okay for silhouette targets, but it is too hard to do on Long Range targets – center the target in the sight, but you can only do that with proper windage corrections while using good equipment.
Buy proper glasses. I don’t like bifocals, but what I like doesn’t matter. You have to see the numbers and tick marks on the sight to take advantage of the excellent spotter that is trying his best to help you. Do the spotter and yourself a favor: Invest in glasses that let you shoot your best on the range. I dug up an old pair of bifocals to use until my shooting glasses with bifocal lenses arrive.
Going at least once to a Long Range event will give you far more confidence in your abilities, even if you don’t do all that well. You will look at shooting from a different perspective. You will have more confidence as a marksman whether hunting, shooting silhouette or for recreation. I warn you though – you will most probably be hooked on the thrill of using iron sights and black powder to shoot a big bullet and hit the black at 1,000 yards. I know I am. See you at Raton and Byers next year!
Long Range: Axtell Sharps 1877 Long Range Creedmoor .45-100, 545-grain Postell bullet with 80 grains Swiss 1½Fg powder, fiber wad, and Federal 215 primers.
Mid Range: Shiloh Sharps 1874 Hartford .45-110 with 545-grain Postell bullet with 98 grains Swiss 11⁄2Fg, fiber wad, and Federal 215 primers.