Shooting in a Vintage Sniper Match
July 08, 2016
When the 20-second targets came up, I locked my jawbone against the comb of the M1903-A4 Springfield in an improvised cheek weld, squinted through the three-quarter-inch tube of my "USMC Scope M73G4" and waited until the gusty, fickle wind came full on on the back of my head before squeezing off the shot. Some 300 yards downrange, the bank of targets dropped into the pits. I'd barely gotten the shot off in time.
Thirty seconds before they came up again, I thumbed another Hornady 168-grain Vintage Match load onto the floorplate of my rifle, rested my forehead on the open bolt while I took three deep, slow breaths and shut the bolt and got back in the scope just as the targets came up. Waiting out the wind change had paid off. The white spotter disc showing where my last shot impacted was solidly in the 10-ring. Not bad for 100-year-old technology.
I was lying prone on an eyebrow of a range that clings to a mountainside high in Utah's Rockies, shooting Gibbs Rifle Co.'s M1903-A4 Sniper replica in a vintage sniper rifle competition. Unlike typical across-the-course matches, vintage sniper rifle matches don't use the traditional four positions. All shooting is done from authentic prone positions supported by reasonable front rests, such as sandbags or a steel ammo can rolled up in a wool surplus blanket. Nor is there rapid-fire versus slow-fire: All shooting is done on timed targets.
Few things get a shooter's blood up like shooting at timed targets — unless it's a team event involving timed targets. Most competitions are two-man team events, and team members alternately fire 10 shots each for score at 300 yards and at 600 yards.
Both shooters complete the 300-yard relay — with a two-minute pause to transition from shooter 1 to shooter 2 — before moving to the 600-yard line. In most cases, each shooter brings a rifle to the line and gets dialed during the five-minute period for sighters prior to shooting for score. The nature of the match allows a team to share one rifle if they desire; it had just better be one that maintains accuracy and point of impact as the barrel heats.
Appropriate rifles must be original or mirror original sniper models issued up to and through the Korean War era, including such rifles as the M1903-A4, M1C and M1D Garand (U.S.); the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 PU (Russia/Soviet Union); Gewehr 98 and Karbine 98 (Germany); No. 1, Mk III Series SMLE (Great Britain); M41 (Sweden); and a host of others.
Camp Perry's Vintage Sniper Rifle match is the grandaddy of them all and follows the strict guidelines governed by the Civilian Marksmanship Program. Those guidelines are found in the CMP Games Rules on the CMP website. In essence, only rifles (or replicas thereof) actually designated for sniper use are allowed.
The question of approved scopes is more complex. Obviously, models (and replicas of models) originally issued with sniper rifles are appropriate. According to the CMP's rules, options commonly used in place of issued scopes are acceptable and are listed on the guidelines. However, an option commonly used on a German Gewehr 98 is not allowable as an option on, say, an M1903-A4. All I can say is somebody did a tremendous amount of research in order to form such a comprehensive list of "issued" and "optional" gear.
Depending on the organization hosting the match, rules detailing what scope, mounts and rings and so forth are permissible range from strict to "spirit of the event" tolerance. In CMP-sanctioned matches, only original-type mounting hardware is permissible, although scope rings may be sleeved or modified to accept scopes of non-original diameter.
The strict rules adopted by the CMP in 2011 or thereabouts created some hard feelings among shooters and regional clubs that had been holding vintage sniper rifle matches for years, particularly the ones using to a spirit-of-the-event approach. Suddenly, accomplished shooters with a great deal of passion for the sport were left out for what they considered nitpicky details.
For instance, if the Weaver K-Series scope on a lovingly built Springfield M1903-A4-type sniper rifle read "3X" instead of "2.5X," it wasn't eligible. And it wasn't a question of magnification — Unertl 8X scopes make the cut — it was a question of attention to historical detail. Bases and rings became problematic, too.
Regional organizations also incorporate a lot of flexibility into their match programs. Small matches often adopt a single-shooter format, and some matches are fired at varying distances. Directors of such competitions often couldn't care less whether your scope rings are period correct. As long as your scope and rifle are okay, you face the same challenges as all the other shooters. Such benign attitudes allow a lot of shooters with equipment that wouldn't quite pass historical muster to participate.
On the other hand, rigorous attention to detail is understandable at big matches such as Camp Perry, which is, after all, called the National Matches. The venue is generally thought to represent the pinnacle of the types of competitions hosted there.
All things considered, if you don't already have a rifle set up for sniper rifle competition but want in the game, it's probably prudent to jump through the hoops and set up your rig with period-correct accouterments according to the CMP's guidelines. Then you're home free no matter where you shoot.
Many shooters compete in vintage sniper rifle matches purely for the enjoyment of using various historical firearms. Others get rather competitive and search out the finest possible gear. They tend to post some rather competitive scores, too. At the Utah match I recently attended, Jim Foster posted a 290 out of a possible 300 (individual-shooter program; two 15-shot relays) in heavy, gusting wind to win the match. He used an M1903 Marine Corps sniper replica topped with a Hi-Lux repro of the appropriate 8X Unertl. I was impressed.
Scuttlebutt on the Internet has it that M1903-based rifles have the edge but are more expensive than other options. Original M1903-A4 sniper rifles have tremendous value to collectors, and the reproductions most shooters want cost as much as a nice new deer rifle and scope.
Most are built on old, cleaned-up Springfield actions fitted with brand-new, high-quality barrels and new stocks and mounted with historically correct new-manufacture scope bases and rings. Correctly built, they shoot superbly — the Gibbs Rifle Co. version I'm shooting maintains its point of impact through 15- and 20-round strings and groups better than I can hold — well enough to put me in second place with a score of 285 out of 300 in that same windy match.
Based on my Internet research, the second most popular rifle seems to be the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 PU. Until a year or two ago, original PU snipers in outstanding condition were flowing into the U.S. in good numbers and could be picked up for around $700 or less. Unfortunately, incoming supplies have dried up, and now you'll pay $800 to $1,200 on GunBroker.com.
Fed high-quality ammunition, many of them shoot around a minute of angle, making them quite competitive on the vintage sniper scene. These rifles were hand-selected for accuracy when new and factory-fit with a scope mount that was, legend has it, machined to fit the specific receiver. Beware of surplus PU scopes and mounts that have been cobbled onto common surplus 91/30 rifles. Although they cost far less, they won't have the accuracy needed to shoot sniper competitions.
If you've got the financial wherewithal and are so inclined, original German and British sniper rifles can be found, although they're much less common. They perform superbly as long as they have a good bore and you shoot good ammo. And if you can find a correct Swedish Mauser M41 sniper variant, you'll have the advantage of the 6.5x55's low recoil and a sleek bullet that bucks wind better than the others.
The Gibbs Rifle Co.'s M1903-A4 Sniper I used is built on an original 1903A3 action mounted with new four-groove barrels, and it is perhaps the best and simplest way to get right into the vintage sniper rifle game. Carefully installed into new, correct C-type stocks, then beautifully fit with replicas of the original bases and rings, each rifle comes complete with Hi-Lux's reproduction of the M73B1 scope used on the first model M1903-A4 sniper rifles.
Actions and hardware are correctly Parkerized, and the stock is finished in linseed oil. The rifles are marked to distinguish them from original M1903-A4 rifles, with barrels having the current date of manufacture as opposed to attempting to mirror an original.
The Hi-Lux scope is the company's Generation 4 version. It's an exact copy of the original on the outside, modern performance on the inside. The glass in mine is surprisingly good: no color cast, no distortion, and it transfers light nicely. And while its elevation and windage knobs don't exactly track like the turrets on a Nightforce, they are fairly predictable.
As for accuracy, the rifle/scope combo is better than acceptable. Considering the rifle is not glass-bedded (bedding would disqualify it from vintage sniper rifle competitions) and is fitted to a full-length stock (which undoubtedly affects barrel vibrations), it shoots superbly.
In order to evaluate the rifle's ability to hold point of impact as the rifle heated, I fired three consecutive five-shot groups without allowing the barrel to cool. It maintained zero even through 15-shot strings. The accompanying chart shows group size with two different match loads and one full-metal-jacket load.
Speaking of bullets, CMP's rules are wide open. Basically, anything goes except armor piercing, incendiary and other ammo potentially dangerous to pit pullers. Finding something that shoots particularly well in your specific rifle is, of course, of first importance, but if your sweet-spot load happens to push a high-BC projectile that will buck the wind you'll definitely have an edge.
For factory stuff, Hornady offers four popular calibers in its Vintage Match line: 8x57mm (196-grain boattail hollowpoint), .303 British (174-grain BTHP), .30-06 Springfield (168-grain A-Max), and 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser (140-grain BTHP). All are loaded to appropriate pressure levels for historic sniper rifles and tend to be very consistent. And it's no accident the ammo comes from Hornady. Company ballistician Dave Emary played a key role in shaping vintage sniper competitions at the national level, helping to create CMP's rules and guidelines.
When prepping for a match, it's worth practicing at 300 and 600 yards. CMP rules allow shooters to use either a sandbag front rest or a military-type sling — but not both at once. Most shooters opt for the sandbags (supplied for the match at Camp Perry). Competition shooting jackets and gloves are allowed as well.
Aside from battling the lack of a proper cheek weld, the first thing you'll notice is elevation and windage adjustments on vintage-appropriate scopes often don't track perfectly. Don't assume you can dial up from 300 yards, get zeroed at 600 with a few sighters, and then after the 600-yard relay dial down to the original setting to be perfectly on again at 300. You might be, but just as likely your point of impact will be a shade off.
If I'm in the middle of a relay and notice my shots are a little off, I just tend to compensate by favoring with my crosshair. Making an adjustment in the scope mid-string is just a bit risky, and I prefer to confine my scope adjustments to sighter periods.
Parallax is another factor that plagues shooters with vintage optics. I've read that experienced Mosin-Nagant shooters use the ghost image of the front sight in their field of view to orient their eye the same for every shot. M1903-A4 shooters don't have such a luxury because there's no front sight.
I use a jaw weld — it can't really be called a cheek weld — to help me maintain a consistent eye height in relation to the ocular lens. This helps, but the key is sufficient practice to ingrain muscle memory and assist consistency.
Casual shooting with your rifle also builds consistency and confidence. If you live somewhere with open, public land that permits shooting, wander afield with your vintage sniper rifle and just shoot at targets of opportunity — safe ones, of course, with a proper backstop.
You'll be amazed at how effective such rifles really are, and you'll have a ton of fun becoming better acquainted with yours. After all, while the technology in century-old sniper rifles is, well, old, it was cutting edge in an era that arguably produced America's finest riflemen.