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Non-standard and improvised shooting positions are necessary at many shooting stations.
One of the best field-style hike-and-shoot long-range rifle challenges is known only to a small number of shooters. Dave Wheeler has been running his "Steel Safari" match for about ten years on his thousand-acre private ranch in the rugged terrain near Logan NM. The format of the match boils down the essence of practical rifle shooting in the field: to locate small and medium-sized steel targets (often hidden), range them, and engage with one shot only, while "on the clock" with a challenging time limit. Some movement on the clock is required, and shoot positions are always improvised, the best you can do while on a reverse incline, over a rock face, shooting down a gully, or leaning out the side of a truck.

The Steel Safari is described in the match application as a "Hunting Rifle Championship, a non-standard contest that examines practical hunting skills, including target recognition, range estimation, wind doping, trail skills, and marksmanship." Dr. David Kahn's Keneyathlon ("hunters test") is another of this type of hunting match. However, these skills are not limited to hunting. Matches such as the Practical Rifle Team Challenge (NM), International Tactical Rifleman Championship (WY) and various Sniper Challenge matches around the country approach the same format from a practical or tactical point of view. In both cases, the crux is target location, ranging, and making first-round hits in field conditions, while moving through the natural terrain. This is worlds different from both Bench-Rest and NRA High Power Long Range.

Chuck Ward engages a long target down off the ridge line.
With billing as the "last Steel Safari," this year's event attracted 26 shooters from Texas to California shooting a variety of rifles and calibers. The match defines two classes: standard and light rifle, and posits they must be "suitable for hunting purposes," which essentially means that they have to be safe and field-worthy. The light rifles are limited to nine and a half pounds, while the standard rifles can be as heavy as the shooter wants.For target durability and scoring concerns, caliber must be .243 Winchester or larger, up to a maximum of .300 Winchester Magnum.

The match is primarily composed of two day-long field courses, each between two and two and a half miles in length, termed the "short" and "long" courses. The short course had 11 shooting locations in addition to the first stage shot on the known-distance (KD) range. The long course had nine shooting locations in addition to a 100-yard mover stage back near the match HQ.

Wheeler's ranch is located at 4000' altitude, populated with scrub brush and riddled with gullies and great sweeping ridge lines, which provides fantastic locations for both shoot positions and tricky target placement. While the travel time from station to station is not timed, the rough, steep terrain and often-brutal weather tax the shooter physically. Temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees are common. Two years ago the match took place during torrential rain which caused a whole other set of challenges. Shooters come to each station blind, with no notion of where the targets will be located. The range officer (RO) reads the written brief from the stage description, and then the shooter has typically between 30 seconds and five minutes to locate the targets, identify them to the RO, do range estimation, dope the wind, and make the shot. Each target gets one shot, and that's it-- no alibis, no sighters. The shooter earns one point for each target located and identified, one point for each normal target hit, and three point for each bonus target hit. Many of the stages require some movement to re-engage the same targets again after moving up to ten yards from the original shoot position. Targets on the field courses were generally six or twelve inches across, and were placed as far as 700 yards.

Breathtaking geographical features make for great shoot positions.
This year the long course had more awkward shooting positions, including one stage where everything had to be shot offhand and one stage shooting from a very steep hillside. A final stage on the long course was a single six-inch bonus plate at approximately 200 yards, however, the shooter only had 30 seconds to locate, range, and hit it, and he was prohibited from using the bipod or any other support. At the end of the first day, the white-painted bonus plate was still pristine with no hits.

The short course had generally more stable shooting positions, however, I thought target location was a little more difficult. Target location is definitely a tough part of the challenge; it's easy to get panicked for time if you just aren't finding a target you know is out there with the clock ticking away. But even once you've found the target standing up with your binoculars, it might disappear when you sit or go to a prone position. It's realizations like these that eat away at tight time constraints. On the short course, times were tight and many people timed out before shooting all the targets on some of these stages.

Besides the two field courses, there was a long-range side match, where shooters had 12 rounds they could fire on KD targets from 400 to 1000 yards. Smaller and further targets were worth more points, and with almost indiscernible wind indicators, there was definitely strategy at play. To maximize points, you want to shoot and (and hit) the furthest and smallest targets, but missing a 9-point long-range target doesn't help when the next guy makes a 4-point hit on a 400-yard target.

Chuck Ward uses shooting sticks to engage a target only visible from an elevated position.
A variety of rifles, calibers, and scopes were used at the match, however, each competitor had a set of more or less similar gear. First, an accurate rifle critical. Bench-rest accuracy is not required; one MOA is sufficient, one-half preferred. Almost everyone is using their own hand-loads with premium bullets from Sierra, Berger, or Lapua. Ballistic data, or "dope," completes the triad with the rifle and ammunition. Most shooters laminate a small card and tie it to their rifle or scope, or use a retractable "pathfinder" available from Allison Machine Tool or Leupold. Long-range ballistic data isn't useful unless the target distances can be determined, and the best tool for that is a laser range-finder. Since many laser range-finders are monocular units with limited field of view, a good set of binoculars can be a life-saver when trying to find that hidden target. Just about everyone uses a bipod on the rifle, except for the shooters in light rifle class whose rifle could not "make weight" with one installed. Next is a set of shooting stick, and a rear bean-bag to help stabilize the butt of the stock while shooting prone. Water is critical because the shooters are on the course for about six hours, and an apple or a Powerbar aren't a bad idea either. The Steel Safari has a small amount of handgun shooting, so a pistol and a magazine or two of ammunition is required. The pistol also comes into play when dispatching rattle snakes. Throw everything in a pack and you're set.

The author shot his Accuracy International AW chambered in .260 Remington, and hauled all his gear in a Kifaru Express pack.
This was the second year I shot the Steel Safari, and I used exactly the same gear this time. My rifle is a Accuracy International (AI) Arctic Warfare (AW) with 26-inch barrel chambered in .260 Remington from George Gardner at GA Precision. The .260 Remington has less wind and drop than the 190-grain factory Federal load for the .300 Winchester Magnum, but with less recoil than .308 Winchester. Almost all the the top-10 shooters at this match used 6.5 mm calibers, including .260 Remington, 6.5-08 Ackley Improved, 6.5-284 Norma, and 6.5-06 Ackley Improved. Most rifles at this match are customized but built on the Remington 700 action. This year a couple rifles built on the Surgeon Tactical action put in McMillan stocks were present.

My AI-AW is topped with a Schmidt and Bender 3-12x50 mm PMII scope, with a P4-Fine reticle demarcating half mil increments, and matching 0.1 mil-rad knob clicks. The most common scope is a Leupold VXIII or Mark 4, followed by Nightforce, and most have top-end magnification in the 14 - 17x range. I prefer the smaller size, larger exit pupil, and wider field of view of the 12x maximum on the S&B. I also shot the match using a .308-caliber sound suppressor. Even though they add weight and make offhand shots more onerous, suppressors act as good muzzle brakes and reduce blast almost entirely.

For ammunition, I shot my own hand-loads which use a 139-grain Lapua Scenar bullet (BC 0.615), just over 40 grains of H4350 powder, in a Lapua .243 Winchester case necked up to 6.5 mm, and a BR2 primer. These give me 2780 - 2820 fps depending on powder lot, and hold half-MOA or better out to 1000 if I do my part. My data charts are printed with the minimum amount of information for simplicity and to reduce human error when under stress in the field, and tied to the forward scope mount ring.

Mike Kolar racks out a round after another hit on the only known-distance (KD) stage.
Rounding out the optics, I use a Swarovski Laser Guide range-finder, which is a monocular-style body but ranges reliably to 2000 yards. The other popular choice is the new Leica Geovids. The Geovids combine Leica's excellent binocular designs with a competent range-finder. The Geovids are the fastest way to locate and range targets, but its range-finder peters out around 1200 yards. That's not a problem for this match, but I need 1000 to 2000-yard performance when shooting the .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge to extreme long range, and I figured I could incur a little time lost on courses like these. The Leica is more than twice the cost of the Swarovski. For dedicated binoculars, I used my Leica Ultravids; if targets were hard to locate, I would use the Ultravids to find them the first time, then grab the Swarovski range-finder and range them.

Last year, my rifle got finally put together about a month before the match. I was still doing load development the week before the match, but had something that would work as I set out. I knew I was shooting against some of the best practical long-range rifle shooters out there. Again this year, the heat was on. There were more shooters, and more shooters I knew were capable of shooting all day with less misses than you can count on one hand. Several now had 6.5 mm rifles instead of .300 Winchester Magnum or even .308.

The match started with the long-range side match and the KD stage on Friday evening. My strategy on the long-range side match was to go for maximum point-value targets, working from near to far: engage the one at 600, two at 700, then the single silhouettes at 800, 900, and 1000, for a total of six targets with two shots each. I decided to bypass the tiny target off to the left of the 600-yard plates because with dense bushes behind it no information could be gained in the case of a miss. It took me one round - and one miss - to get dialed in on 600, and I thought I was good to go. But New Mexico wind is tricky and a switch was already in progress; I chased the wind through two more changes and ended up with four or five misses out of 12 rounds, but I did nail the 1000-yard, the highest value target, twice.

Long shots and terrain features make long-range engagements very difficult due to wind effects.
I was scheduled to shoot first Saturday morning on the long course. This is both a blessing and a curse. It usually takes a couple hours for the wind to pick up, however, the low sun can make target location even more difficult. As the first shooter, I never had anyone to wait for when I arrived at the shooting area, so I went straight from high cardio exercise into shooting, which is always tough. The long course had offhand shots, and a bunch of shots that had to be taken from improvised positions other than prone, just because the targets could not be seen from down low. Experience in what positions work well is key, and knowing how to utilize extended bipod legs, terrain features, shooting sticks, sling, and backpack to provide a stable-enough position in limit time is important. I shot alright on the long course with a few "cleaned" stages and a miss or two on the rest.

The short course had more shoot positions, but less distance to hike overall. The first shoot position was from the drivers-side door of an old jeep, at some close-range targets from 10 yards to about 150 yards. At the next station, there were four regular targets and one bonus target spread from 200 to 300 yards that could only be seen when shooting over a stack of old tires. From there, the next series of stages were shot down a ridge-line which meant inclined fire; sometimes the targets were at such a steep angle that to shoot over the lip of the ridge, the shooter had to get to a kneeling or standing position. Many of these targets were hard to find, and it wasn't uncommon to shooters to run out of time before shooting or even finding all the targets. The most frustrating stage for me was a single bonus target with a total of 60 second to find and engage. I timed out at 60 seconds, and then it took me another 90 seconds to find it-- pointless then since I was already timed out. I shot pretty good on the short course on Sunday with six misses total and only the one bonus target missed.

The author racks out a round after engaging a target on the distant hill side from the top of a rock.
When Dave was about to announce the match winners, he checked himself because the results surprised him. It is extremely rare for a light rifle to win the match because of their equipment disadvantage, but that's exactly what happened. A local Colorado shooter Mike Dowd shot like a house on fire both days, winning light rifle and the over-all match by four points. My decent but consistent shooting on both days put me at first in standard class and second overall. Other top shooters included Mike Kolar, Mark Allison, Todd Reynolds, and Chuck Ward. Mike Field won the long-range side match; I was second, and Mike Kolar took third.

The Steel Safari is one of the very few true field-style long-range practical rifle matches. It combines the essential elements of employing a rifle in the field to its effective range, and tests the competitors to their limits. A lot of work goes into putting on a match like this, and the Wheelers have done a great job for ten years. Dave announced this would be the last match he could run because of the extreme time commitment required to make it happen every year. With that announcement on the table, the match's future looked bleak. In association with Colorado Multi-Gun LLC, several Colorado shooters are planning to take over the match from Dave starting in 2008.

Final Scores put Dowd ahead as overall match winner and Light Rifle winner. Zak Smith won Standard, with other strong finishes by Mike Kolar, Mark Allison, Todd Reynolds, and Chuck Ward.

Michael Field won the long-range side match, followed by Zak Smith and Mike Kolar.