September 23, 2010
The M1A takes a historic turn at the National Matches.
As a boy I knew that Camp Perry was a magical place. I had never been there, but I was raised on tales of long-range matches won by professional soldiers or back-country woodsmen in wild and woolly conditions. So when the chance came to cover the 100-year anniversary — and, better yet, shoot in the Springfield M1A match designed to honor Camp Perry — I didn't hesitate.
The National Matches were established by President Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, his last message to Congress was — and I'm paraphrasing — that in order for America to be prepared to defend herself and keep peace, citizens must be marksmen, and that there should be a program in place that promoted good marksmanship.
In 1903, at the president's urging, the 57th Congress passed a bill that is the foundation of the National Matches. For a few years the matches were held at various places around the country. Then, in 1907, they were held at the newly constructed facilities at Camp Perry, Ohio, where they have been ever since.
Another act of Congress in 1905 opened the way for citizens to become proficient with military arms by authorizing the sale of surplus firearms to "Rifle clubs formed under regulations prepared by the national board for the promotion of rifle practice." The organization that is now the Civilian Marksmanship Program became the leading force in developing Roosevelt's ambitions.
Technically an NRA high power match, the Springfield M1A match was inaugurated on Camp Perry's 100-year anniversary as a way to honor history, as well as to give competitors a match dedicated to the classic M1A platform that had been a staple on the National Matches firing line for many years.
This new course of fire involves a total of 50 rounds, all at 300 yards from various positions: 20 rounds prone slow-fire, 10 rounds sitting or kneeling rapid-fire (60 seconds), 10 rounds prone rapid-fire (70 seconds) and 10 rounds off-hand slow-fire to finish. Five sighters are allowed at the onset of the match. All rapid-fire strings involve a reload: two magazines are loaded with five rounds apiece.
The target is the MR-65F, which is a 500-yard F-class target. All scoring rings are black, providing a large 30-inch bull, but the X-ring is only 21⁄2 inches. That is less than one minute of angle at 300 yards. The 10 ring is five inches, less than two moa. All shooting is done unsupported other than a sling.
Winner of the inaugrural M1A match, 17-year-old Ryan Castanguay -- shot an amazing score of 463 out of a possible 500 points.
While planning the event, Springfield Armory decided that if it was going to do the match, it would be the best-awarded match at Perry. The firm ponied up $25,000 worth of prize money and guns to be divided among the competitors. The top 50 shooters would also receive a Springfield M1A medallion.
When the go-ahead came for my trip, I was already behind the eight ball. First, although I have competed in various and sundry shooting disciplines ranging from cowboy action to benchrest, I had never shot in NRA-style high power competition.
I knew the basics of using a military sling and that I needed a glove, but when Rifle Shooter editor Scott Rupp asked if I had a coat, I thought (but didn't say) I need a coat? Isn't the shoot in August?
Here the author is firing offhand during the last string of the match. Note the jacket and shooting position, which draws on relaxed skeletal support.
Thankfully, champion shooter Dennis DeMille — general manager of Creedmoor Sports (creedmoor sports.com, 800-273-3366) — took pity on me and overnighted me one of Creedmoor's excellent jackets, along with a good leather military-type sling. Scott had his glove and mat from his days as a competitive shooter, and I was covered for accessories.
Springfield had kindly offered to lend me an M1A Super Match Rifle for the event, and shortly it showed up at Turners Outdoorsman (turners.com). Unfortunately it had a flash suppressor, which isn't legal in California, so Turners sent the rifle back to Springfield, where the 'smiths spun off the flash suppressor and replaced it with a compensator. Back it came, and on July 22 I walked out of the store with the rifle. My flight to Perry left August 3.
Hornady, Black Hills and Federal all sent me a quantity of .308 match ammunition to sort out the rifle and practice with. At the Angeles Range (angelesranges.com) the first ammo I fed the Super Match was Hornady's 168-grain A-Max. I settled in to get used to the rifle at 100 yards. After a couple of sighters I fired a sub-inch group in the X ring right off the bat and then moved the target to 300 yards. Off a Sinclair Benchrest I was able to keep all my shots in a four-inch 10 ring.
With limited time and considering the excellent performance of the Hornady A-max ammo, I set the Black Hills and Federal match ammo aside for later testing and focused on getting to know the rifle with the Hornady fodder.
The Saturday before I left, Dennis Santiago — one of a dozen or so Civilian Marksmanship Program M1 Garand Master Instructor certificate holders in California — was kind enough to meet me at a private 1,000-yard range to work on form and do some drills to prepare for the rapid-fire stages of the event. High Master shooter Jeff Mendoza, having shot Distinguished with both the M1A and AR-15, joined us — along with his friend Al Morita, a Master shooter.
Quite honestly, without the assistance of those three gentlemen and the CMP-style instruction Dennis provided, I'd have been at sea when I arrived at Perry.
The morning of the M1A match dawned gray and drizzly. At 6:40 a.m. I parked as close as possible to the range and unloaded my gear. I figured out pretty quick why everybody had carts as I slogged across the wet grass to the firing line.
The target face seems large up close, but hitting the 2.5 inch X ring - unsupported - from 300 yards is quite a trick.
Several competitors didn't show, due to the rain, I imagine. With great efficiency the range officers organized the 500-plus remaining shooters into new squads and sent half to the pits to pull targets. I was squadded with Eugene Spears, an excellent shooter who had been competing at the National Matches for 15 years.
When my turn came I lay down on my sopping mat, covered my open action with my hand and waited for the call "ready on the right, ready on the left, all ready on the firing line!"
Eugene Spears, the author's squad partner, shoots rapid-fire sitting from the 300-yard line.
Five sighters were allowed. I took four, felt pretty good about my sight picture, stated that I was shooting for record, and promptly shot an eight. Almost relieved that I'd got that out of the way, I settled in and shot a long string of nines and 10s with a fair scattering of Xs mixed in. Twenty rounds later I had a score of 189 out of a possible 200.
Another departure from standard procedure in the M1A match is that shooters begin rapid-fire strings "in position" rather than starting from a standing position.
The rapid-fire sitting position was the only position I had not been able to build to my satisfaction. With limited time to practice I ended up simply using an open position rather than the more stable, but also more difficult, cross-legged position, and it showed in my score. Ten shots later I had shot a dismal 76 of 100.
Relays were reversed, and the sun came out briefly as my squad partner and I walked to the pits and pulled targets. The heavy cardboard backing was flimsy with rain, and the faces themselves were so wet that the adhesive loosened and the targets sagged. We smoothed out the wrinkles and hoped they wouldn't fall off entirely.
It rained in bursts, and the wind came up as we made our way back to the firing line over an hour later. I watched my shooting partner fire his prone rapid-fire string, made some mental notes, and took his place. The wind was up slightly and I took my sight one click right, knowing I would have no time to adjust if I were wrong.
When the targets came up out of the pits, I locked the front sight at six o'clock on the bullseye and squeezed, gulped a breath and squeezed again. When my action locked open I pawed the empty magazine from the gun and slammed home the fresh one, dripping with rain.
I could have taken more time, but I was used to starting from a standing position and had built a rhythm around that. I finished with 15 seconds left, scoring 91 of 100.
The wind was up a bit when it came time to shoot offhand, but I felt like a beetle nestled into his shell in the wonderfully supportive Creedmoor shooting coat. I was so steady, in fact, that I almost matched my sitting score, firing a 75 out of 100.
Detail of the M1A Super Match sights. Precision adjustable in 1/2- minute increments, the authors reference hash-marks are visible.
Our scorecards were almost too wet to write on, but we added up our scores and signed our cards. I finished with 431 out of a possible 500.
If you've never been to Camp Perry during the National Matches, it is well worth going. Commercial Row is a long line of buildings that are taken over by various manufacturers for all or part of the matches, and I've never seen such an array of match-grade firearms and parts.
A solid prone position is the foundation of shooting a good score.
I discovered that I could walk into almost any of the big manufacturers' buildings and have my rifle rebarreled with a match-grade barrel by company armorers — while I waited. Most of them charge only for the barrel: Installation is free.
The award ceremony was to be at 6 p.m. As I approached the theater where it was to be held there was a rumble emanating from a crowd surrounding the sheets where the scores were posted. I listened as I checked my scores, pleased to see I had placed 38th.
I quickly gathered that a junior had turned in the highest score, outshooting the adults in all categories. Yet as he had entered as a junior, he was entitled only to the juniors' award: $500. All the shooters believed he should be awarded the top prize.
It took some time, but Springfield's match coordinators got it worked out. Kudos to them: They created a new category on the spot — overall match winner — and ponied up an additional $2,500 in prize money for 17-year old Ryan Castonguay of New Hartford, Connecticut, who fired a 463-8X.
As Springfield's Bill Dermody said "This kid knows he won the match — that he beat the adults — and he needs to be recognized for that. He needs to be able to say, for the rest of his life, 'I won the first M1A match as a junior.'"
Next year, if you have the hankering to go somewhere very cool and shoot in a truly rewarding discipline, try the National Matches at Camp Perry. In my opinion, shooting an M1A battle gun in competition is about as fun as it gets.