By Chris Blankenship
Stone Bay Rifle Range, Camp Lejeune NC. - Cold and rainy weather didn't deter a handful of determined marksmen from coming out to compete at Coastal Carolina Rifle Club's Across the Course match weekend on March 18-19.
This match is fired from three different positions (standing, sitting, and prone), at three different yard lines (200, 300, and 600) with two different methods (slow fire and rapid-fire). Saturday was an 80 round/800 point match, Sunday being a CMP EIC match firing 50 rounds/500 points.
About half the competitors at the match were teenagers and young adults with Junior Marksmanship Support Group (JMSG), one of two major NC organizations that support juniors (kids and young adults ages 12-20) in Highpower rifle competitions. While most came from the central part of the state, one 15-year-old is from the Holly Ridge area. Two of the juniors, a brother/sister combo, were new to the team. This was their first “full distance course,” i.e., a true 600-yard range.
The adults were split between civilian and military personnel. Most everyone was firing what defines as a CMP/NRA Service Rifle: a military M16 or its civilian counterpart the AR-15, that is internally accurized, but must maintain the outward appearance of the stock service rifle. Iron sights or a 4.5 power optic are allowed on Service Rifle. One Match Rifle shooter showed up. Match Rifles can be much more free-form and either a bolt action or semi-auto.
When the weather wasn't deemed bad enough for a rain delay, shooters were squatted on their firing points into 4 relays. Once done, 3rd and 4th relay went to the pits to pull and mark targets, 1 and 2 got ready to shoot the Standing stage. The person must hold the rifle with no sling or artificial support.
Now, most folks know that cold and wet makes one "shivery." That's not great for fine motor skills, but the wind is much more of a monster. As the competitors took aim at their downrange targets, a north wind was pummeling them around. The 1st and 2nd relays made it through getting beat up in the cold wind, but the 3rd and 4th were to have some worse luck.
Relays 3 and 4 had a mix of experienced adults and military along with one of the new juniors. These relays began getting precipitation that ranged from mist to light rain in addition to gusting winds.
The aiming black of the 200-yard target is 13 inches. It consists of a 3-inch X-ring, a seven inch 10-ring, and the remainder is the 9-ring. A 20-shot stage has a possible 200 points. Most of the top shooters are looking to only drop one or two points. Some have "cleaned" the target with a full 200 points, but that's incredibly rare (national record for Standing is a 200-16x). Given the conditions Saturday, that wasn't going to happen, even for the best. The best at this match were only holding the black, with some shots into the white 8, 7, 6 or 5 rings. A few were buffeted around into visible misses (shots outside the 5 ring). The Standing stage was won by a U.S. Army soldier who shot a 182-2x. Meanwhile, the new juniors got a lesson in "if you can shoot in this, you can shoot in anything."
The 200-yard Sitting rapid-fire stages mostly went off without much of a hitch. Sitting, being a more stable position as well as sling supported, had the wind affect the movement of the rifles much less, but mentally, the cold and rain was still working them over. The competitors fired two 10 round strings, with each string having a 60 second time limit. This stage was won by one of the juniors, Colby Smith, dropping only two points for a 198 and getting 11 X’s.
The 300-yard Prone rapid-fire stage, while fired from an even more stable, sling-supported position, causes the competitor to have to really watch the wind. Not only does one have to make a good wind call right at the start of the 70 second string, they have to be prepared to either hold over or dial the windage knobs while firing. A sudden change in the wind can move a group around if it’s not noticed. One of the junior team coaches and a former junior herself, Savannah Andrews managed to make the right call and hang on through both strings to win the stage with a 199-2x.
The 600-yard Prone slow fire stage of 22 shots (2 sighters and 20 record shots) in 22 minutes is what many who first hear about Highpower believe to be the most difficult. That answer is: it depends. Today, the wind had calmed down significantly during the changes from the 300 to the 600-yard line. The “fishtail” from the generally north wind could still catch many unaware. Winds that were accounted for would suddenly stop or quickly turn and come from the other direction. Less skilled folks were dropping 15 to 20 points, the newbies much more so; however, a retired Marine, and one of two seniors in the match came off the line as stage winner having dropped only six points and hitting the 6 inch, 600-yard X-ring six times for a 194-6x.
At the end of the day, junior Colby Smith bested his teammates and the adults for the match win. Junior coach Savannah Andrews came in just behind for second place, while U.S. Army SPC-4 Zachery Frazier came in third.
The 50 round EIC match is the more important match of the weekend for those civilians and military service members chasing points for the Distinguished Badge. This leads to a much greater degree of “match nerves'' for those in the running. It’s also where “if it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” and “it’s not over until it's over” comes into play.
Starting out sunny and nicer than Saturday, the lack of rain was welcome by all. The wind was blowing again, but not as bad as the day prior. There were still lower than average standing scores for many competitors. An Army soldier took the standing by X-count with a 91-3x vs. Savannah’s 91-2x. The 200- yard sitting rapid-fire had only one “clean,” a 100-2x by one of the Army soldiers. There were a number of high 90’s scores, however. Junior Colby Smith, the previous day’s match winner, crossfired onto another target, leaving a score of “0” for that shot.
The 300-yard line had a little bit of tricky winds, depending on which relay one found themselves on. One relay, though, had several shooters saving rounds . . . much more than any other point over the whole two days of rapid-fire strings. These guys unfortunately got big 0’s for each round they did not get downrange. On the other end of the performance spectrum, three competitors, Savannah and the two Army shooters had the same aggregate score of 287 after the 300- yard line was done. Savannah was in the lead by X count having seven X’s to their four and two, respectively. They were trailed closely by Colby who was only two points down behind them (if only he hadn’t crossfired earlier).
At a leg match, later in the day is where the pressure starts to build up. Knowing that your competition is right there with you or so close that a small mistake can put them ahead. Some people thrive under pressure, some try to isolate themselves from the scoreboard so they don’t get those thoughts in their head, some will constantly check and begin to crack. For these folks, their 600-yard performance would be the determining factor.
Sunday’s 600-yard slow fire was worse wind-wise than Saturday. Where Saturday got better as the day progressed, Sunday saw the winds blowing and gusting harder. In the end Savannah came through on top at the 600-yard line, dropping only 12 points for a 188-4x. She would go on to be the EIC match winner, getting six points toward her U.S. Distinguished Rifleman’s badge
While having an outstanding performance given the competition and conditions, Savannah still assisted the JMSG Head Coach, John Ayala with coaching and instructing new and veteran juniors through the weekend. Not a small task to have a good personal performance behind the rifle while also being focused on those around you.
“Junior shooter Hunter Blankenship, 15, of Holly Ridge, NC, takes aim from the 600 yard line.” (left)
“Savannah Andrews, winner of the EIC Leg match at the 200-yard standing stage.” (right)