My wife never wanted to turn me into an obsessed maniac, but that was the unintended consequence of a kind act. In late 2001, she came home with a gift for me: a copy of the movie Quigley Down Under.
In brief, it’s the story of a Wyoming rifleman and cowboy who answers a newspaper ad from an Australian rancher for “The World’s Best Long Distance Marksman.” Quigley shows up down under with a Sharps 45-70 (modified to take a special 110-grain cartridge) with an extra-long barrel, a globe front sight, and a tang vernier rear peep sight. In his first interview with his would-be employer, Quigley hits a bucket repeatedly at a distance of several hundred yards, shooting offhand with open sights.
At the heart of it, that scene embodies what all riflemen wish they could be: thoroughly familiar with their weapon, fully aware of the effect of environmental conditions, and ready to make a few adjustments and pull off an incredibly long shot with precision.
I began to wonder if I might not be able to replicate Matthew Quigley’s spectacular bucket shot — in a scaled-down version — with an airgun. Ted Osborn and I came to the conclusion that the standard of performance for an airgun should be: three shots into a 1.75 inch high bucket target at a distance of 55 yards with non-magnified sights. A few days after our conversation, the mailman showed up with an envelope. In it was a drawing of a bucket, perfectly scaled for 55-yards, with an invitation from Ted to photocopy to my heart’s content and “have at it.”
After various failed attempts, I finally succeeded with a .22 Career PCP rifle outfitted with a special front sight. That was in 2002. Eight years later, in 2010, there is still something bugging me about this whole Quigley thing; I’d like to be able to hit the bucket with a self-contained air rifle like a multi-stroke pneumatic or a springer.
Larry Durham (also known as LD), an engineer and airgun enthusiast of deep experience, suggests that perhaps that the only self-contained air rifle that could get the job done would be an RWS 54, a recoilless sidelever springer. I also ask LD if he knows anyone who could mount a globe front sight and a tang vernier rear sight on a Sheridan. He says, “Send me the gun and the sights, and I’ll see what I can do.”
At this point in the Quigley Project, three parallel threads are underway at the same time. 1) I’m experimenting with mounting a globe front sight and peep rear sight on a .177 RWS 54. 2) Larry Durham is mounting a globe front sight and rear tang sight on the Silver Streak Sheridan that I sent him. 3) I obtain a Feinwerkbau 150 match rifle in an FWB 300 stock.
Fast forward a few months, and here’s the situation. 1) I have mounted the sights on the RWS 54, and I think it will work. 2) Larry Durham has mounted the sights, done what he can to accurize the Sheridan I sent, and has offered the opinion that he doesn’t think this particular rifle is a particularly accurate Sheridan. He thinks maybe it will hold 1.5 inches at 55 yards. 3) I’ve been fooling around with the FWB 150 and find that it shoots pretty darn well out to about 35 yards with domed pellets and the factory match sights.
Finally, in early May, 2010, Dick Johnson (a centerfire benchrest competitor) and I load up the gear and trundle out to the Brunswick Sportsman’s Club to see what we can do. Dick’s job is to act as my spotter; with the non-magnifying sights I am using, I have no idea where my shots are landing. Today, I am shooting off a rest because my goal is to see if the rifles have the necessary accuracy to hit the target.
The first rifle I try is the Quigley Sheridan (QS) that Larry Durham assembled for me. It truly is a wonder: LD had epoxied a globe front sight with level onto the Sheridan’s original blade sight. At the rear, he had routered the stock to create slot where the tang vernier sight could be mounted. I flip the rear sight into position, and the sight picture is perfect. As I look through the pinhole in the disk of the rear sight, I can see the front globe perfectly framed. Inside that, there is an aperture sight disk like the Olympic shooters use.
It takes a few shots to get the Quigley Sheridan zeroed at 55 yards, and the process is made more difficult by the slight bend that was imparted to the rear sight during shipping. I give the QS six pumps, feed a .20 cal JSB domed pellet into the breech, and cut loose. The trigger is simply the best I’ve ever shot in a pump gun – a single stage trigger that goes off reliably at about 1.25 lbs. With the first four shots (after zeroing) I tag the bucket twice. With the next three shots at another target, I hit the bucket once. I try again, but find I can’t hit the bucket three times in succession.
The big problem with this shot, I find, is the optical challenge that vexed me from the start: at 55 yards, a 1.75 inch bucket is just plain hard to see. It looks like a spec floating in front aperture. By comparison, the black part of the international 50-meter smallbore target is roughly 3.5 inches in diameter, and the standing target that Olympic biathletes shoot at 50 meters is 4.5 inches in diameter.
Further, I have a personal problem: the 8 years that have elapsed since I first shot the bucket with the Career air rifle have not been kind to my eyes. The eye doctor tells me that where I once had vision in my right eye that corrects to 20/15, it now is a shaky 20/20. Nevertheless, I am determined to see what I can accomplish.
Up next is the FWB 150. It is a transitional model with the action mounted in an FWB 300 stock. It has a globe front sight in which I mount a Matthew Quigley style post-and-bead insert and a peep rear sight. The FWB 150 is a recoilless spring piston match air rifle from the early days of 10-meter air rifle competition.
After cranking up the rear sight so that the pellet will hit the target at 55 yards, on two different targets I find that I can hit the bucket with a .177 JSB pellet once out of every five shots. The optical problem has struck again: at this distance, the tiny bead on top of the post in the front sight is larger than the bucket. I have to approximate center the bead on the bucket by raising the sight up from below or by sliding it over the bucket from the side.
Finally, the recoilless RWS 54 gets its turn at bat. I have fitted the front globe sight with a very slender Lee Shaver black powder silhouette post and bead insert and a Gamo match rear sight that has been drilled to fit an anti-recoil pin. Unfortunately, I am not able to hit the bucket at all with this setup. I got close – really close – but then suddenly the shots would wander off. This air rifle is wickedly accurate at 50 yards with a scope mounted, so I think the recoil of this powerful air rifle is causing the rear sight to work loose.
In the end, I succeeded a little bit – I was able to hit the bucket a few times with self-contained air rifles, but not three times in a row.
What did I learn from this adventure? That attempting the Quigley bucket shot is a lot of fun, that the 1.75 inch bucket looks really tiny at 55 yards, and that trying to do the Hard Thing is enjoyable even if you don’t completely succeed. But maybe I can teach myself to shoot lefthanded so I can use my better eye; maybe I can do something to improve the contrast and visibility of the bucket; maybe I can improve the rear sight on the RWS 54, or maybe a 1X scope would work . . . Once I am convinced that I have a gun and sighting system that works, I’ll take it to the next level: trying it standing, like Quigley does in the movie.
The Spirit of Quigley lives on, and you’re invited to join in the fun. Feel free to copy the bucket target poster here and try it yourself!