Improvements in targets, guns, and scoring will change ISU-style shooting at next month’s Olympic Games.
The times, they are a-changing, Bob Dylan sang thirty years ago, and the wisdom in those now-hoary lyrics has come full force to the world of shooting. Visitors to Atlanta’s Wolf Creek Shooting Complex, where the 15 rifle, pistol, and shotgun events of the Olympic Games will be held next month, will see changes in the shooting sports they couldn’t have envisioned even a decade ago.
As spectators found out April 21-29, when nearly 1,000 shooters from more than 90 countries visited Wolf Creek for the 1996 UIT Atlanta World Cup shooting event, international shooting in the United States will undergo a cosmetic make-over designed to make the sport more palatable to an increasingly gun-shy viewing public. However, some of the changes designed to make shooting more television friendly have inalterably changed how some of the world’s most difficult shooting games will be competed, and not all shooters like the changes.
In sum, the most basic element of shooting sports—the targets and how they are scored—have gone high-tech. Instantaneous acoustic scoring, television screens that track shooter performance, and electronic scoring displays reminiscent of an off-track betting salon in Times Square are driving wholesale alterations in what shooters shoot, how they train, and what they win.
Sius-Ascor’s Virtual Targets
The centerpiece of shooting’s make-over is a Swiss firm’s virtual scoring system. Shooters who go downrange to clip up fresh paper targets are hopelessly behind the curve now, because at the world-class level, paper targets don’t even exist anymore.
How can this be? Science has the answer. Sius-Ascor, a Switzerland-based firm which supplied targets for the World Cup and ultimately the Atlanta Olympic Games themselves, has installed 60 50-meter .22 rifle and pistol targets, 50 25-meter .22 pistol targets, 60 10-meter air rifle and air pistol targets, and four running-target scoring devices at the Wolf Creek site. At the heart of the Sius-Ascor target system is sound-differential timing, which uses differences in the arrival time of sound waves to measure the location of bullet impacts. It works like this.
When men’s three-position record holder Rajmond Debevec of Slovenia fires an Eley .22 rimfire bullet downrange toward a paper target, the bullet leaves the muzzle and flies downrange. It quickly hits the paper, punching a hole. To evaluate its location on the bullseye, an observer needs only see where the hole appears in relation to white scoring rings inscribed on a black background to score the shot. Most often, Debevec and other top-flight shooters’ projectiles hit inside the 10-point center scoring ring, which is a little larger than a dime. To score the targets, range personnel pulled a roll of targets out of its target box and scored the 40 record bulls (in three positions) by hand.
Now, however, Debevec looses his shots toward a black rubber sheet. When the bullet penetrates the sheet, it creates sound waves in a still sonic chamber behind the target-facing sheet. Four underwater-quality microphones pick up the sound waves the bullet produces as it tears through the rubber, and a computer measures the length of time it takes for the sound waves to reach each microphone.
“It is the difference in the length of time it takes for the sound waves to reach the microphones that enables us to measure the location of the bullet to within a few hundredths of a millimeter,” said Sius-Ascor’s Technical Director Heinrich D nki, who monitored the performance of the targets at the World Cup and who will also perform that function at the Olympics. “If a bullet is a perfect 10.9, that is, it hits exactly in the center of the 10 ring, the sound waves reach the microphones at exactly the same time. But if the bullet entered the measurement chamber at any other place on the target, it will take varying amounts of time for the sound to reach each microphone, and from that data, we calculate its location.”
Thus, smallbore shooter Debevec actually shoots at a virtual target, which doesn’t exist until a bullet penetrates the chamber.
This creates a number of advantages that heretofore haven’t been available in this country. (However, Sius-Ascor has installed several thousand 300-meter ranges in Switzerland and other European countries, where electronic scoring has been used extensively for almost a decade.)
Shooters now don’t need to bring spotting scopes to the range to check their shots, because the target system calculates the location of the bullet and sends a graphical display of the location to a monitor located at the front of each firing point. Simultaneously, the score (recorded in full-point increments for the preliminary matches and in one-tenth point increments for the finals), is transmitted to a central computer where it is logged and running totals are calculated. Also, the information is sent back to a hard-copy printer located behind the shooter’s point. That printer tape is the only nonelectronic shot-by-shot record of a shooter’s performance compiled.
Spectators benefit from the system because it provides information about a shooter’s performance in real time. At the same time the shot-by-shot data are sent to the official record-keeping equipment, the scores are also transmitted to tote boards located above each shooter’s point. Each shot total is recorded, then running totals for that position are calculated and displayed. Also, a separate leader display, which is constantly updated, is projected onto a nearby screen.
It provides the shooter’s rank on a per-shot average. Though this can cause unusual blips in how shooters can be ranked moment to moment, the more data that’s collected, the firmer the rankings become. Generally, after the first standing target, the top 20 spots have become set, and after the first kneeling string, the top 10 spots become established.
“There’s no question that electronic scoring is going to help boost the popularity of the sport,” says Gary Anderson, a two-time smallbore gold medal winner and the Wolf Creek venue’s competition manager. “For many years, watching shooting has been as dull as watching paint dry, as the cliché goes. Because of these targests, that’s not true any longer.”
The Finals Solution
He’s right about that, especially in the finals competition. In world-class competitions today, shooters go through elimination and qualification rounds to reach an eight-person final. Scores from the preliminary rounds are carried forward into the finals, and the shooters fire another 10 rounds in the rifle, air rifle, pistol, and air pistol events. With scoring carried out to tenths of a point, it’s possible for an eighth-ranked final shooter to shoot a string of center shots and overtake the leader—even if the leader never shoots a 9.
“My strategy for the finals changes from the preliminaries,” said women’s World Cup 10-meter air rifle winner and U.S. Olympic team member Nancy Napolski. “Since you’re rewarded for center shots, it’s worth trying to hit them. If you’re the front runner, you know you need 10.5s and above to pull away from the pack. If you’re in eighth place and you want to move into the medals, then you know you need some 10.7s and better. It really puts the pressure on the shooter to perform at her best.”
Complicating this situation is how closely shooters can be grouped coming out of the prelims. For example, in the men’s World Cup 10-meter air rifle finals, both Leif Stein Rolland of Norway and Young Sueb Lim of Korea entered the final round with 595s (out of a possible 600). One point behind them was Petr Kurka of the Czech Republic, and in fourth with 593 was Anatoli Klimenko of Belarus. The final could easily come down to one shot.
And in a sense, it did, but the one-shot difference occurred on the second finals shot. Rolland, a stocky 5-foot 7-inch Scandinavian, sat his Ansch tz air rifle high on his chest, canted it toward his head, and locked in a tight standing position on point one. Beside him was Lim, a 6-foot-tall, reed-thin Asian with a high, immaculate head position. Both shooters fired good shots on their first targets, Rolland notching a 10.4 and Lim shooting a 10.7. But after the scores for the first shot were announced to the 500 or so people in the airgun range, Lim fell apart. He laid down a 9.2, 9.6, and 9.9 on his next three shots, and the match was lost. On Lim’s 9.2, the audience groaned in sympathy. Meanwhile, Rolland opened up a sizable lead, shooting a 102.5 on his way to the gold medal. Lim dropped to third with a 100.2 as Klimenko zoomed to a finals-high 102.8 score.
“The finals are fun to watch, aren’t they?” Rolland said after the match. “Sometimes they are not as fun to shoot as they are to watch, because sometimes the results aren’t like today. But they can show the audience what the shooters go through mentally. You know now that when you shoot a bad shot, it’s not only going to show up in your diary, but also on the screen. It can be unnerving.”
What’s Driving The Change
Proponents of electronic scoring tout the system as the savior of the sport, because in today’s MTV world, if something can’t be seen and appreciated on the tube, it isn’t important. Unquestionably, at this Olympics the sport of shooting will be tailored to satisfy the needs of Atlanta Olympic Broadcasting (AOB), which will produce the television feed out of every venue. For the first time, photographers and videographers will be allowed downrange during competition. They will set up behind bulletproof glass and film their images right down the muzzles of shooters like free-spirit prone competitor Bill Meek, who won a gold at the World Cup with a high-speed ESPN Betacam sitting off to the left about 10 meters downrange.
Also, remote downrange cameras were tested at the World Cup. One camera was mounted on a downrange beam about 3 feet above the line of sight of the shooters. Another remote camera right in front of the shooters was also tested. It traveled up and down the middle points of the range on a metal guide rod. If some shooter picks his or her nose the day of competition, television viewers will see it.
In sum, these up-close-and-personal looks at athletes will presumably be worth major dinero to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), AOB, and the broadcast rights holders, and make no mistake about it, air time translates into stroke for the sport—which it badly needs.
It is no secret among shooters that in the U.S. Olympic community, shooting is viewed with nothing more than benign tolerance. Were it not for the exceptional cultural significance of shooting in the politically powerful central and northern European countries and the high participation of countries (more countries will bring shooters to Atlanta than in any other sport), shooting might already have been consigned to the dustbin of Olympic history. Gun haters, especially in the United States, don’t recognize shooting as a sport. These people believe that guns are inherently evil in any incarnation, and they can’t stand that rifles, pistols, and shotguns have a place alongside the ribbon-waving of rhythm gymnastics or “tandem drowning,” more commonly known as synchronized swimming.
Though it seems to be putting the cart before the horse, shooting sports need to be seen if they are to continue being viable Olympic sports.
But what about the athletes and the integrity of the competition?
Visual access to shooting is supposed to make the sport more accepted by the viewing public. Unquestionably, the electronic scoring and side-by-side, shot-by-shot back-and-forth of the finals competition will allow nonshooters to understand and appreciate the human side of shooting as they have never been able to before.
But three U.S. Olympic medal winners and other observers of the sport we spoke to have some reservations about the scoring system, particularly about its accuracy. These medalists earned their golds and silvers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and though they didn’t want to swim against the current in applauding electronic scoring and electronic scoring display, they were all skeptical.
“If anyone ever asks me if I said this, I’ll deny it,” said one currently active shooter, who as a condition of speaking insisted that he not be identified. “But I have a lot of reservations about the acoustic targets. “The first and foremost is that there is not a permanent record, a physical record, of how you shot. There have been a lot of matches won and lost by challenges issued on paper targets, and it really bothers me that there isn’t a physical record of the performance. On the other side, however, everybody shoots the same targets, so the playing field is even.”
Another longtime U.S. shooter who describes himself as a “dinosaur” said he thought the target changes and the finals arrangement, while undoubtedly exciting, wouldn’t necessarily produce the best shooter—at least in terms of how shooters were defined in the past. “This is a new age,” the gold medalist said, also preferring not to criticize the format changes publicly. “Though I recognize the sport needs an image boost, I’m of the school that thinks that even though human error certainly played a part in scoring targets in the past, there was a challenge and jury system that could fix any error, if the shooter really wanted to pursue them. Now, there’s nothing physical to touch, to challenge. It bothers me.”
A third medalist said he wondered if the accuracy specs quoted by Sius-Ascor were really as good as their hype. Engineer D nki said the system scores shots to within “a few hundredths of a millimeter.” This shooter pointed out how a hundredth here and a hundredth there can add up to a very important point.
“At the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, you had people who were separated by 1 point after three days of shooting,” he said. “That means that one 9.9, which is actually scored a 9 in the prelims, can be the difference between making the Olympic team or sitting at home. I’ve won a lot of matches where a close shot was plugged and two of three judges made the call on whether it was in or out. Here, there’s no oversight and no review, and also no check on how the machines performed their grading function.”
Competition manager Anderson says he’s heard these complaints before, but he’s confident in the integrity and accuracy of the system. “People make mistakes in scoring,” he said. “In fact, I think people probably make more scoring mistakes than the machines do, and there’s no political component to the scoring any longer. There was a time where in some world-level competitions, blocs of certain countries wouldn’t give foreign shooters any shots unless they were clearly in, which means the shots didn’t need to be plugged at all.
“In the shooting sports this July, I think you’ll see a faster, better-officiated Olympic Games competition. I think almost all shooters will agree that having a higher profile for our sports is in our best interest, as long as we don’t have compromise the integrity of the sport. In my view, what we’ll do at Wolf Creek will improve the shooting sports in every area.”