Despite having a name collision and sounding like a Speed Steel match, the 2012 Steel Challenge in Kettle Falls, WA is an annual long range precision shooting match that benefits Camp Patriot, an organization that helps wounded soldiers, that is unlike any other long range match I’ve ever attended. The Steel Challenge is a team event, and by team I mean there are two people per team that act as a shooter and spotter while the first shooter is up to bat, then you switch and the second member shoots and the first spots for the other.
My shooting partner and I made the trek up to Kettle Falls for the May 19th match with one goal in mind:
Don’t come in last.
I know that sounds defeatist and not how you should have your mind set before a match, but knowing the level of shooter and experience here we knew we’d be out leagued and even joked about having shirts made that said something like “Team DFL” or “Team Assclown.” To put our minds at ease we simply chose to think of it as training while everyone else around us was shooting a match.
The match had 12 stages and although some were quite different than the others in format and levels of difficulty the central theme went like this. There are 3 targets, each with a marker near by with a number that designated what the taret number was. The RO would tell you the dimensions of one of the 3 that you had to engage and it was the first one you had to hit first. The twist is that you had to reticle range the first target. No laser range finders were allowed for the first target of each stage. Once you ranged it and both members attempted to hit it you could then move on to the other targets, get in position, laze the range, compute scope settings, and attempt hit them as well. Sounds simple enough, right?
Let’s talk about our area of operations for a second. The match is in the mountain area just above Kettle Falls, Washington which is truly visually impressive with it’s many crests and saddles. But when shooting in the mountains there is one force that strives to push your bullet off target. Wind. And it changes. A lot. Shooting over a saddle with close wind moving right to left, the far wind moving left to right, and depending on the time of day wind rushing up from the bottom or down from the top, all make for some tough wind calls. I would love to spend some off clock time out there just watching and shooting, learning the dance of the wind. I think the locals know wind unlike anyone else.
One other thing to consider when shooting in the mountains is the angle which you’re shooting. High/low angle shots can severely impact your range estimation. For example, if I were shooting a target that was 750 yards away on a flat range with a typical 308 round, the Sierra Match King 175, I’d have to dial in 6.4 MILs to adjust for the 174.1 inches of bullet drop. But if I were shooting down into the saddle at the same target at 750 yards at a 30% angle I would have to adjust to only 5.5 MILs/147.4 inches of drop. That’s a difference of 26.7 inches at the same distance! If I neglected to account for the angle I’d be over two feet over the top of the target. And if it were really steep, like down the same ridge I was shooting from which might be a 60% angle the drop would only be 2.7 MILs/72.1 inches, a delta of 102 inches! It pays to know your angle.
Although the format of the stages were defined as mentioned above, not all of the stages were anything like that. For instance, my shooting partner and I started on a boat stage that had both of us in a tiny fishing boat, well a boat in the academic sense I guess, and we were given 2 minutes for both of us to engage 3 targets twice. I can’t say I’ve ever shot from a boat before and it was pretty funny to watch the target vanish out of the bottom of the scope whenever a shot was fired.
The next stage we went to was one that had a mover at 524 yards that you had several passes to get your hits. I calculated 1.8 MILs for lead which turned out to be too much given the wind and it took me way too long to make my adjustments, but alas, I did get a hit with my final shot.
Next up was stage 4 which was true to the format of the match. 3 targets, unknown range, the first you had to reticle range. We reticle ranged and engaged the first target, then lazed and engaged the second target, but the third target was far enough out or sufficiently placed that our LRF couldn’t range it. Hedging our bets my partner went to work ranging it with his reticle while I was still trying to get a read with the LRF which I never did. He ranged it at 1025 yards which later we discovered its actual range was 1026 yards. Kudos to my shooting partner! I dialed in my scope, we made a wind call and I squeezed off the first shot. HIT! Squeezed of the second shot. HIT! Now there are few things in long range shooting that bring me as much satisfaction as optically ranging, calling the wind, building a solution, and getting a first round hit on a 1000+ yard target. My typical success rate for such a task is pretty low so I was on cloud 9 coming out of this stage.
Next we made our way to stage 7 which had 4 known distance targets extending down a road down below our position starting at 350 yards and ending at 500 yards. Not a big deal, right? But they all had to be engaged one at a time, then back again for a total of 2 shots per target and had to be shot from a sling that was suspended between two small metal fence posts. Thankfully my partner noticed a small loop at the bottom and told me to try to put my foot through it and mash it to the ground. Although the foot mash loop trick did help with the bouncy house equivalent of a shooting position, I should have shot a little low on the first ones to compensate for the angle and kept shooting over the top of the targets. The time pressure of this stage really got to me, too and I should have taken one or two good shots and gotten some points on the board rather than racing through and getting all of my shots off but poorly. Note to self for next year: Points win matches, not speed.
There were a few more stages similar to stage 4 where we had 3 targets, unknown range, first to be ranged optically, that we went through, all with they’re own little twists like bad shooting positions, shooting off of stumps, and shooting off of your partner. Our performance was hit and miss, no pun intended.
And what long range precision match would be complete without a Know Your Limits stage? This KYL stage had 3 targets (10 inch – 8 inch – 6 inch) with a known distance of 500 yards*, and the possibility of 3 points for the state. You can stop anytime, but if you miss a target you lose all of your points. I dialed in my scope, got into a nice solid prone shooting position, exhaled and gave a perfect trigger squeeze expecting to hear the ring of the steel as I racked the bolt and engaged the next target. But there was no hit. My shot just grazed over the top right of the target and I zero’d the stage. I spent a couple of hours trying to identify how I missed the target to no avail until later someone offhandedly mentioned that the actual distance for that stage was 480 yards, not 500, which would have been 0.2 MILs difference. That on top of the angle which I should have held about 0.1 low to compensate for added up to 0.3 MILs which was about where my shot went over the top. New lesson learned. Don’t take anyone’s word for range estimation.
There was a rapid bolt manipulation stage where you were given 30 seconds to get 6 hits up a steep ridge. The angle was steep enough that I had to extend my bi-pod’s legs as well as shoot off of my backpack. It was pretty awkward but at only 100 yards there wasn’t really a need to compensate for the angle and the 3 inch targets fell with ease.
Now for the coup de grace, the coolest surprise stage of the match, nay, of all time; the helicopter stage. That’s right, a helicopter. You were harnessed into Robinson R44, whisked along a road with 4 targets and had 8 rounds to engage the targets as you tore past them. I honestly thought people were pulling my leg, part of some elaborate tradition to haze newbs like myself at they’re first match, but realized it was true when I saw it come over the ridge and tear past us. I felt like the Nintendo 64 Christmas gift kid. I just couldn’t wait to try my hand at this new shooting platform bestowed upon us by the gods of shooting matches. We all sat and discussed our strategies for how we were going to shoot it and I had my plan set, my scope dialed way back to 6.5x and waited for my turn. Like all well laid plans mine quickly came undone after my first shot and turned into my own personal flight of Icarus as the wind from the helicopter’s rotors blew my first shot’s case back into the chamber 180 degrees around and thusly jamming the rifle as I racked the bold like a wildman. I ripped the magazine out hoping like hell I didn’t drop it into the forest below, cleared the case, jammed the mag back into the rifle, and racked the bolt. Took a shot. Miss! Damn! Need less lead. Racked the bolt again and wouldn’t you know it. The next case blew back into the chamber. Damn! Rinse and repeat, I cleared it and pulled the rifle back up into position just in time to see the last fleeting instance of the last target as it vanished safely from my view. My excitement turned to disappointment in an instant as we headed back to the landing zone and my mind was rebuilding what the heck just happend. I know there’s an awkward conversation ahead as my wife walks in on me in the garage with my rifle and her hair dryer.
Here is a video from one of the shooters who mounted a camera on his rifle for the Helo stage.
I always think that I could shoot all day and never get tired, but after 12 stages and packing up and down that ridge all day I was beat. I was ready for hot food and a shower to hose off the 90 layers of Deet and sunscreen that went on throughout the day. And I needed to get a pen to paper and get all of the details into my logbook before I started to forget all of the little details of each stage. The ranges, the wind, my position, what I did right, what I did wrong, etc. It all needed to find it’s way on to paper.
Now that it’s over all I can say is, wow! What a match! Carl Taylor hit it out of the park with this one and I’m still grinning ear to ear from shooting it. I learned so much from this match and know I’ll do much better next time. And the best thing is, we didn’t come in last!