Reading the Salem Swirl – Adventures in Airgun Benchrest

Monday, August 20, 2012

If you see these guys, they are wanted for pursuit of accuracy in the first degree. They are, in fact, the fine air rifle benchrest competitors who showed up for the Northeast Regionals.

You want to know what it was like? Okay, I’ll tell you. It was a little like being the driver of a car, and you’re at an intersection, and you need to make a decision about which way to go, and the person on your right is yelling “Go right! Go right!” while somebody else in the back is screaming “Go left! Go left!”

. . . Except that I wasn’t driving a car, and no one was actually yelling at me. I was merely trying to put an air rifle pellet down range with high accuracy, and I was getting highly conflicting (HIGHLY conflicting, like two people yelling in your ear) information about what I needed to do. In short, I was trying to read the Salem Swirl.

What do these gentlemen all have in common besides air rifle benchrest? They’re trying to figure out what the wind will do to their pellets.

But I get ahead of myself. It all started back in May, 2012. I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when an email shows up from Rick Ingraham:

Re: Air Rifle Benchrest

Hi with the East coast and world postal being in your back yard (Salem NY) how about coming over and doing a write up on it? We will have the number 1  – 2 — and 4 world shooter there . 6 or more from the world team, People from 6–10 states and maybe from out of the USA. And a Pig roast. August 4-5  Salem N.Y. Email or call me if you like

 

Well, that sounded like fun. So after a preliminary visit to the Salem Pistol and Rifle Club to test the Benjamin Rogue, I showed up there on August 4, armed with a camera, to see what the fuss was all about. I had not been exposed to formal air rifle benchrest competition before, but I have to say that I came away impressed.

The bottom line is that the guys (I didn’t see any gals competing, although there certainly are no rules against it) who shoot air rifle benchrest are the accuracy “weenies” of the airgun world. They shoot air rifles off rests at targets 25 meters (roughly 27 yards) away. The target has 25 bullseyes that count for score and some additional bulls that you can shoot for sighters, which are simply shots that are used to make sure your rifle is shooting where it is pointed.

During a match, the shooter typically has 30 minutes to complete 25 shots — one at each of the 25 bulls that count for score. You can shoot .177, .20 or .22 caliber, and there are various classes – such as light varmint, heavy varmint, world postal, and open – for various weights and powers of air rifles. For a full explanation of the various classes, visit http://www.usairriflebenchrest.com/2594.html and http://www.wrabf.com/ .

With the ten ring just two millimeters across, accurate scoring is key. You get one shot at each of 25 bullseyes.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: the 10-ring on the air rifle benchrest target measures just two (count ‘em!) millimeters across. If you nick the ten ring, you get a ten. If your shot obliterates the ten ring, you get an X. If you miss the ten ring and nick the next ring out, you get a nine, and so forth. The highest possible score for a single target is 250 with 25 Xs.

A purpose-built benchrest competition air rifle.

But wait – there’s more: at Salem, you’re shooting outside, so you have to deal with the vagaries of the local breezes. As a result, the vast majority of shooters involved in air rifle benchrest are absolutely fanatical about accuracy. They will do just about anything to get their rifles to put pellet after pellet through the same hole at 25 meters under dead calm conditions. Why? Because once you start dealing with the wind, which wreaks havoc with relatively slow-moving airgun pellets, you want to be certain that it is not your gun that is causing the pellets to go strange places.

The Salem Pistol and Rifle Club is in a picturesque setting.

So I show up at the Salem Pistol and Rifle Club and the first thing that catches my eye is that this is an absolutely beautiful facility. Clean, well-maintained, with 16 concrete shooting benches with an awning overhead. Twenty-five meters out on the grass is a line of target stands, and in between, each shooter had been putting up his own series of various colorful devices for indicating the strength and the direction of the wind between the shooting benches and the targets. With all the colorful wind pennants and gizmos bobbing and weaving in the air, the whole place reminds me of a county fair.

Dan Brown starting to set up his wind indication devices, with the windicators of some of the other competitors visible in the foreground.

A few yards behind the shooting benches are still more awnings and tables where shooters are prepping their guns, cleaning barrels, and doing the friendly shake-and-howdy that is typical of most shooting events I have attended. Presently, Todd Banks, president of the Salem Pistol and Rifle Club and world champion air rifle benchrest shooter, walks over, welcomes me to the match, and asks if I would maybe like to shoot some benchrest. Well, I just came to cover the match, I say, and I didn’t bring any equipment. Yeah, but you could borrow a gun and use my rests, he says. He continues to twist my arm (ever so gently) for about another nanosecond, and I cave in.

Daniel Finney cleaning a barrel before the match. The following day, he set a world record.

A little later that morning I find myself staring down a line of wind indicators between me and the target. I’m shooting Todd Banks super-gnarly multi-kilobuck benchrest air rifle which is resting on Mr. Banks’s ultra-smooth professional bench rests. I have at my disposal basically the best gear money can buy. I ought to have Buddha-like calm, but I don’t. The two windicators closest to me are saying the wind is coming from the right; the two closest to the target say — perversely – that it is coming from the left. And a couple of windicators in the middle haven’t made up their mind. I trigger the shot and it nicks the black six ring.

The view from the “driver’s seat” with Todd Banks’ heavy varmint benchrest rifle, rests, and windicators.

I later remark on this to Pete Robeson, a rimfire benchrest shooter who is helping to score the match. “Oh, that’s the Salem Swirl,” he says. “Wind comes down into the bowl where the targets are and does weird things. You have to learn to read the Swirl if you want to shoot well here.”

By the end of the weekend, it becomes pretty obvious that some of the shooters have figured it out. You can see all the results of the match here: http://benchrest.com/showthread.php?83804-East-Coast-Regional-World-Postal-Results-747-38X-agg-shot-with-a-Maruader!-Long-post

Daniel Finney used a modest setup for front and rear benchrests, but that didn’t stop him from achieving excellent results.

A lot of the shooters had done extremely well, but the highlight, I would say, was Daniel Finney setting a new worlds record for three targets in the postal match of 747-38X. That means, of 75 shots, he only had three that were not tens! Further, he was shooting a highly modified Benjamin Marauder off leather bags supported by wooden blocks. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have the most expensive gear to do well.

In the end, I think airgun benchrest is a whole lot of fun. You can get started with an unmodified Marauder and scope in production class for a few hundred dollars.

Til next time, aim true and shoot straight.

–          Jock Elliott

5 Comments

  1. M.Albrecht,MD says:

    Outstanding resolution in your photos!!

    1. Jock Elliott says:

      M.Albrecht,

      Thanks for the kind words about the photos. That’s a new camera, a Panasonic FZ150, and I am extremely pleased with the results from it. It has a 25-600 mm (equivalent) zoom range, and I used it to cover the Northeast Regional Field Target Championship at Crosman in addition to the benchrest match at Salem.

  2. Rick says:

    Thanks for helping promote our sport Jock . Hope to see you on Wed. nights . Rick

  3. Mark says:

    If you nick the ten ring, you get a ten. If your shot obliterates the ten ring, you get an X.

    I know I will kick myself for stupidity as I’m sure the answer is obvious. What is the difference in getting a “10” rather than an X?

    1. Jock Elliott says:

      Mark,

      An X is also a ten, but it’s a “better” ten. The number of Xs is usually used to decide the winner if two shooters have identical scores. The one with more Xs wins.

      So don’t kick yourself; the answer is not obvious (to me, anyway).

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