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Sports

Going long

Bob Frye
| Sunday, Sept. 18, 2005

Lying on the ground, wearing a heavy jacket, a glove on his left hand, and a sling wrapped around his left biceps almost tourniquet style, Jim Martin aims down range and pulls the trigger.

He fires a second time, then a third and a fourth. All of the shots land within a two-inch group.

"I sold him that gun; that's why it shoots so good," said Jim Levy, with a wink and a poke of an elbow.

"It has something to do with the guy behind the gun, too," Martin shoots back. "You can put that one on the record."

The good natured, back-and-forth banter between Martin, a Bethel Park resident who serves as president of the Clairton Sportsmen's Club; and Levy, a club member from Belle Vernon, is typical of what one might find at any rifle range, with one exception. They're shooting not at a target that's, say, 50 or 100 yards away to get ready for deer season.

Instead, they're shooting away at targets 200 yards away.

And that's only because Clairton's range isn't any longer.

Martin, Levy and West Mifflin's Terry Steiner, their other shooting partner on this night, are among a number of local shooters who regularly compete in matches where shooters fire at targets as far away as 1,000 yards.

"To the average deer hunter, a 300-yard shot seems long. In this sport, targets out to 500 yards are considered mid-range. It's not until you get to 600 yards and beyond that we're talking about long range," said Steve Uhall, a long-distance shooter from the Sportsmen's Association of Greensburg, which has a 500-yard range.

"The draw of the sport is really trying to shoot a long way and be accurate."

The best long-range shooters are classified as high masters. Below them, in order, are masters, experts, sharpshooters, and marksmen. Making high master is not easy. The targets on a 1,000-yard range are big -- the black bull's eye is 44 inches in diameter, the 10-point ring is 20 inches across, and the x-ring is 10 inches across -- but that doesn't mean they're easy to hit.

Competitors, who shoot everything from .223s to .308 Winchesters, have to be able to account for wind that can play havoc with a bullet on its way down range. The wind can change between every shot, too, or be blowing to the right 200 yards away and to the left 800 yards away, all at the same time.

That's why you'll see the best shooters aim through their scope or even open sights with one eye, fire a shot, then peek through a spotting scope with their other eye, to read the mirage and adjust their shot accordingly, Levy said.

"Shotgun shooting is an art. It's like dancing. You've got to have a lot of rhythm," Levy said. "Rifle shooting is a science. You shoot, adjust, shoot, adjust.

"That's the difference between an expert like me and a high master. I'll chase my spotter. That means I'll see one shot hit over here to the left, so I'll aim a little to the right and shoot again, then move back a little this way. A high master, they'll read that wind right every time and shoot right down the middle."

"That's where the real riflemen come in," Uhall said. "It's being able to read the wind and conditions and adjust to them."

They have to be able to do it over and over again, too. In many shoots, competitors shoot "across the course," meaning they shoot 20 shots slow fire -- one shot per minute -- standing at 200 yards, another 20 shots rapid fire -- all within 60 seconds -- sitting at 200 yards, then shoot one or two strings of 10 shots each at 300, 600, and 1,000 yards, all from the prone position, some slow fire and some rapid fire.

"It's hard. It's very grueling," said Bob Doverspike of Mars, a shooter in the Allegheny Valley Rifle League who spent about 10 years on the All-Army Reserve long-range rifle team.

"This is not stuff you learn overnight. You learn from your mistakes, or from your good judgement. And hopefully your next shot will be right down the middle."

A lot of competitors are in the military or once were. That's not true of everyone, though. Some, like Martin, just like the challenge of trying to hit a bull's eye that seems like little more than a black dot when it's that far away.

"We just do it for fun," Martin said. "I could be spending my money on golf or in the bar, but I like to come out here and do this."

So you want to be a long-range shooter?

What does it take to be a good long-range shooter• Bob Doverspike, for about 10 years a member of the All-Army Reserve long-distance shooting team, offered these insights:

  • Even a 50-shot match can take all day to finish, with shooters walking back and forth to targets far away, so "endurance plays a lot into this. You don't have to be Arnold Schwarznegger, but you sort of have to be in shape so you can hold the rifle steady all day," Doverspike said.

  • The best long-range shooters are mentally tough, too. The military goes so far as to train its shooters to be mentally strong so they can maintain their focus in the heat, in the rain, and under otherwise tough conditions. A lack of mental toughness is what knocks 80 percent of competitors out of any tournament, he said.

  • Good shooters also learn to read the wind and mirage and are meticulous about plotting each individual shot on paper, so they can remember where they aimed and how their shot went.

  • Being a good long-range shooter also means being a quick shooter, Doverspike said.

    "You want to shoot in as few wind changes as possible," Doverspike said. "If you can get your shots off in seven minutes, you'll beat a lot of people who take their full 20 minutes just because they have to adjust more than you."

    To learn more about long-range shooting, contact Clairton Sportsmen's Club at 412-233-4411 or www.clairtonsc.org or contact the Sportsmen's Association of Greensburg at 724-423-6350.

    You can also see the sport by attending Pennsylvania's 1,000-yard long-range rifle championship, which is set for Saturday at the Reade Range in Allemans, near Altoona. For information and directions, visit www.readerange.org or call Tom Ferraro at 724-352-0234.

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