August 16, 2016
If you like playing the precision long-range game—setting up super-accurate rifle/ammo combinations, calculating extreme ballistics and doping wind—F-Class shooting is a sport worthy of your attention. I like all those things, but I had never taken the opportunity to shoot it. So when I got an opportunity to write about it, I jumped at the chance.
Sometimes called "belly benchrest," F-Class shooting was originally conceived as a shooting sport wherein competitors of nearly any physical ability can compete on an equal footing. Because it's all fired from prone, you don't need to get into positions such as sitting that can be difficult for some people. And because you use a front rest, it avoids the physical demands of being in a tight sling for long periods of time, as you are in classic NRA High Power.
F-Class shooting consists of two categories: F-Open and F-T/R. In F-Open—the most popular division—rifles must weigh under 10 kilograms (roughly 22 pounds), may be any caliber .35 and under and may be fired from an adjustable front rest (such as benchrest shooters use) plus a rear sandbag. Rifles must be fired from the shoulder, and rail guns are not allowed.
In the F-T/R division, caliber options are limited to standard .223 Rem. or .308 Win. Rifle weight limit is 8.25 kilograms (about 18 pounds). The only front support allowed is a bipod; a sandbag may be used under the rear of the stock.
It became apparent early on that standard Palma-type 1,000-yard targets were too easy for good F-Open shooters, so the targets were shrunk for F-Open division. Instead of having a 20-inch 10-ring and 10-inch X-ring, they're halved in size. Yep, the 10-ring is 10 inches, fractionally less than one m.o.a., and the X-ring is a saucer-size five inches in diameter. Still, on windless days a very good shooter will shoot mostly 10s. F-T/R shooters still fire at the bigger traditional target.
Commonly, the course of fire consists of 60 rounds at 1,000 yards for record in three separate 20-round strings. Unlimited sighting shots and 30 minutes are allowed for the first string; just let your scorer know when you're ready to go for record. Generally, only two sighting shots are allowed prior to firing for record during the 22-minute second and third strings. Depending on the match, competitors may shoot a string at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards instead of all three at 1,000. It pays to obtain a copy of the match program ahead of time and find out what the range and round counts will be so you can chart dial-ups and pack enough ammo.
Getting started in F-Class shooting is easy, provided you've got an accurate rifle wearing a quality scope with enough magnification. Any good varmint rifle, tactical rifle or heavy big game hunting rifle with a rifling twist fast enough to stabilize long, aerodynamic bullets is sufficient—as long as it's very accurate.
How accurate? Theoretically, in perfect conditions a one m.o.a. rifle would work because it can place all of its shots in the 10-inch Open division 10-ring. However, under real-world conditions and fired from the shoulder of an imperfect human being, a one m.o.a. rifle will spread most of its shots well into the nine and eight rings.
So sooner or later you'll want to purchase or build a specialized rifle. Most serious competitors demand 0.5 m.o.a. accuracy out of their match rifles, and 0.25 m.o.a. capability isn't an unrealistic goal. Savage was kind enough to loan me a Model 12 for F-Class shooting in 6.5-284 Norma caliber. It's a bona fide sub 0.5 m.o.a. rifle with the right ammunition—and when I do my part.
For an optic, you'll need a clear riflescope that offers high magnification—at least 20X on the top end—and, most importantly, reliably consistent adjustment turrets. You need to be able to dial up to 1,000 yards and back to perfect zero time after cog-wearing time. And depending on the matches you shoot, it will have to run up and down between 800, 900 and 1,000 yards and be spot on each time.
Plus, you'll need a scope with enough elevation adjustment to get you to 1,000 yards. In most calibers, that ranges from about 22 m.o.a. to 35 m.o.a. Unless your scope has a great deal of adjustment, you may need a base with built-in m.o.a. I'm a fan of Nightforce's offerings, but there are many good ones out there.
For my first go-round with F-Class shooting, I used one of Burris's new Veracity riflescopes in 4-20x50 with the E1 FFP Varmint reticle, which offers windage hash marks on the horizontal crosshair. Unlike distance, which is consistent and can be predictably compensated for, wind is fickle. Doping it correctly takes experience and a healthy dose of luck. Holding off the center—using hash marks on the crosswire for consistency—enables flexibility. If you see the mirage running a bit faster as you squeeze the trigger, you can hedge a bit, allowing a little more hold with your reticle.
It's essential to have your scope mounted perfectly level and to have a true no-wind zero. Compensating for wind is tough enough without battling scope-induced errors. Speaking of drift, you'll need to incorporate spin drift into your holds. Most rifles with a right-hand rifling twist will have seven to 12 inches of spin drift to the right at 1,000 yards.
If you decide to get serious about F-Class shooting, caliber choice is critical to being competitive in the Open division. You want something that pushes a bullet fairly fast yet isn't too hard on barrels. You'll shoot 65 to 80 rounds per match in long strings that heat barrels. Plus, you'll want something that recoils lightly enough that you can stand to shoot 80 rounds from prone in a morning's worth of shooting. Since most F-Class shooting matches prohibit muzzle brakes, heavy long-range performers such as the .338 Lapua are poor choices. Better are the light-recoiling, economical 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5-284 Norma and 6.5x47 Lapua.
When choosing a bullet for F-Open, find something that is both accurate in your rifle and aerodynamic. Typically, that means a match bullet with a high ballistic coefficient. Low BC bullets shed velocity much faster than sleeker designs, resulting in exponentially greater wind drift.
To illustrate that, let's take a quick look at a dramatic example. The 142-grain 6.5mm Sierra MatchKing bullet I used has a reasonably high BC of 0.580 (averaged). Compare that to a typical 180-grain flat-based .30 caliber hunting bullet such as Remington's Core-Lokt, which has a much lower BC of 0.402. Fired at 2,900 fps, at 1,000 yards the MatchKing maintains 1,510 fps and drifts 70.4 inches in a 10-mph 90-degree crosswind. The Core-Lokt maintains only 1,171 fps and drifts 112.2 inches. The forgiveness that the more aerodynamic bullet offers makes a tremendous difference when battling a stiff, inconsistent wind.
Other equipment necessary to F-Class shooting happiness is either a good bipod or a benchrest-quality front rifle rest, depending on whether you shoot in F-T/R or F-Open division. You also need a rear bunny-ear type sandbag and a shooting mat. The best front rest I've used is a Sinclair. I've got an old bench model and a new Heavy Varmint version, and I love both.
When your relay is called to the line, set up front and rear rests, ammo and your rifle with a chamber flag in place. Consult your ballistic card or calculator and dial up for whatever distance you're about to shoot.
Watch the range flags closely to get a feel for what the wind is doing. And while you don't really need a spotting scope to see the target spotter disc (more on that in a second), some shooters like a spotting scope for reading mirage.
The range officer will call a three-minute prep period, allowing you to remove the chamber flag and get behind the rifle and adjust your rests and dry-fire if desired. Confirm the elevation adjustment setting on your turret. Continue monitoring the wind flags.
The targets will go to the half-mast position and the range officer will call out the end of the prep period. After the classic command, "Ready on the left, ready on the right, all ready on the firing line," he'll then indicate that when your targets appear you may fire.
After each shot, the relay in the target pits will pull down your target, pull the spotter disc from the previous hole and put it in the new bullet hole and cover the old hole with a paster. Before running the target back up, they'll score the shot with an orange disc on the edge of the target backing: three o'clock for an X, bottom right corner for a 10, bottom center for a nine, bottom left for an eight and nine o'clock for a seven. If you fire a six, the scoring disc goes at the three o'clock X position, but the spotter disc will be out in the white portion of the target instead of the black.
Fast, reliable work in the pits is invaluable to the shooter on the line. And since he'll be pulling, spotting and pasting for you during your relay, it's worth doing your best. Get the target back up just as fast as you can, allowing the shooter to get his rounds downrange while conditions hold. Speedy target work will also give the shooter time to wait out a fickle condition if need be.
The third part you'll play in the F-Class shooting universe is that of scorer. During the relay before yours, you'll sit on a folding stool (bring one!) just behind the shooter in your assigned position and watch the target through a spotting scope, marking each shot on his or her score card as the target raises back to firing position with the spotting and scoring discs in new positions.
This is a great time to observe the wind. Attend to your duties as a spotter, but as time permits watch the targets up and down the line—often a trend will emerge as the bulk of shooters underestimate or over-compensate for the wind. For example, if the relay on the line is hitting in the left side of the target most of the time, you'll know that there's a stronger right wind than they think. When your turn comes up, make your best wind call according to the flags and mirage and then add a bit.
Many shooters try to pace themselves to minimize the effect of barrel heating, but assuming I've got a good target puller, I like to pick a condition and get all my shots downrange as fast as possible to minimize the possibility of a major shift in wind. As you can imagine, it's important to have a rifle that holds its zero and maintains superb accuracy through 20-plus rounds.
Speaking of round counts, I keep two boxes at hand: a sighter box and a full 20-round box. After firing my sighters, I switch to the full box so I always know just how many rounds I've fired. When the box is empty I know I'm done. Get in a rhythm: loading, observing your last impact as the target appears with the newly placed spotter disc, adjusting your hold if necessary and squeezing the trigger.
If you manage to average nines, you'll qualify as a Master shooter on the NRA's records. With the right equipment, good foundational skills and a very calm day, that's a quite-possible goal. That said, perfectly calm days are rare on 1,000-yard ranges, and averaging nines on a windy day will often win you the match.
Sometimes even less will do the trick. On my first match—a windy day in Wendover, Utah, the competition held on a retired World War II airfield where, allegedly, the initial training of the B29 Superfortress crews that dropped atomic bombs on Japan and ended the war in the South Pacific took place—I didn't average nines and ended up winning.
These days, shooters of all ages and in all walks of life compete in F-Class shooting. For mastering the finer points of complex ballistics, compensating for wind and getting the most out of superb precision equipment, no discipline provides a superior university. Or better company. Many F-Class shooting competitors are savvy, experienced shooters willing to share insights and help you in any way they can.