When the best smallbore shooters in the hemisphere competed head to head in June, we asked them what it takes to win.
At the 1996 NRA National Silhouette Championships, held June 19-21 in Winnsboro, Louisiana, North America’s top silo shooters went head to head to see who could overcome invisible mirage, heat, and humidity to claim the country’s top metal-animal prizes in the smallbore rifle and smallbore hunting rifle categories. At the championships, Performance Shooter talked to the top competitors about what it takes to do well in the event in terms of training, technique, equipment, and strategy—and their insights offer a blueprint for improving your own silhouette shooting skills, regardless of your current classification.
Here’s what we learned:
Employ the Woody Allen Rule
Troy Lawton, who is the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit’s running target coach and high-power reloading expert, won the smallbore hunting rifle class by one target and the smallbore rifle class by two targets, recording scores of 109 (possible 120) in each event.
Lawton, a Fort Benning, Georgia, resident who says he competes in silo shooting as a hobby because the USAMU doesn’t field shooters in the silo disciplines, nonetheless takes it seriously. When asked what is the single most important aspect of winning a national championship title, he said, “There are a lot of little things that go into winning these matches. I’m not sure there is a single thing, except that you have to show up.”
Woody Allen has said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, and Lawton apparently agrees. Still, most shooters’ response to this advice is likely, “Well, duh.”
Lawton’s insight has some other aspects to it, however. Not only is it necessary to physically attend the championships in order to win, the shooter must also be ready to compete at the national level, which is another thing entirely.
“I believe most shooters break down in terms of which technique to execute during a tournament,” Lawton said. “Until you get in a competition, you’re not absolutely sure how you’ll react on game day. But you must prepare for certain situations and be sure you can use and execute certain techniques you can rely on.
“In high-level events, there is a certain amount of anxiety and increased heart rate that you must deal with. Everybody gets nervous or excited. It’s how you deal with it that counts. Techniques you rely on during practice or low-level competitions like local meets may not work at other levels. What feels so comfortable and smooth and easygoing at one level works because there is no anxiety, no heart rate. A shooter may perform very well at that level.
“However, when anxiety is heightened, the heart rate increases, respiration increases, and, of course, the holding area increases because of those factors. If a shooter hasn’t trained for these contingencies, then he or she won’t be able to execute shots properly on game day. If you haven’t planned to shoot with your heart rate above 72 beats a minute, in difficult conditions, when you need all 10 targets, with a bigger hold than you’re used to, you will break down.”
Practice Whenever You Can
Cathy Winstead, a 17-year-old high school student from Belgrade, Montana, took second behind Lawton in the heavy rifle (smallbore rifle) event, shooting a 107 with her Anschutz 54 action housed in a pink fiberglass stock.
Winstead is a calm, easy shooter who, like Lawton, has a running target background. As a result, she shoots fairly quickly, as many other good shooters do. Winstead said she doesn’t fire a lot of live rounds, but she does practice as much as possible—even when she has as little as 30 minutes. “I work on the basics,” she said, “position, hold, trigger.”
She estimates she works a ratio of eight to one dry firing to live rounds, and she picks up her rifle as often as possible. “You have to put the time in, even if it comes in little blocks,” she said. “I don’t have many marathon training sessions, but I do have a lot of productive smaller sessions. Everybody has 10 minutes, but not everybody has 2 hours. What makes the difference is the total time you spend in training, as long as you’re working on the basics.”
The Single-Gun Theory
Lones Wigger Jr. took second in the hunting-rifle category with a Kimber 82C, but he also shoots the same gun in the heavy class. He said it was dissension in the shooting community that moved him toward a single gun two years ago, and he’s grown to like the simplicity it offers.
“It was protests more than anything,” he explained. “When they took the chin guns away from us five or six years ago, I decided to stop shooting silhouettes. To start with, the chin guns were unethical; they shouldn’t have allowed them to happen. But they did, and they continued to allow them for five years. I waited and waited until I decided that they were accepted and would be legal. So I had a high-power rifle and a smallbore rifle built. I got to shoot the smallbore chin gun once. I never got to shoot the high-power chin gun before a couple of silhouette committee members outlawed them. That really pissed me off. I like to shoot silhouette. It’s fun. But I got a big investment in those guns, and they arbitrarily threw them out on a whim. So I decided, to hell with it, and I quit shooting silhouettes.
“Last year, I was talking to Greg Warne at Kimber, and said I’d like to see an American gun being shot by the top shooters. I talked to him about taking a Kimber to the smallbore nationals and seeing what would happen. He built me one, and I came to the nationals last year, and I almost won the standard rifle class with a hunting rifle. That’s why I’m back this year. I shoot both categories with the Kimber rifle.
Shooting just the Kimber 82C hunting rifle does simplify things. He has one gun, one zero, and one trigger. “I’m shooting better this year than I have when I’ve been messing with heavier guns and muzzle weights and all that other stuff,” said Wigger, a multiple Olympic gold medalist, world champion, and national champion in various smallbore disciplines. Now he doesn’t have to worry about his heavy rifle meeting a modified rule: His hunter rifle will certainly qualify. He placed second behind Lawton this year in the hunting rifle class with a 108.
Wigger said, “Whether I’m shooting either class, I know exactly what my zeros are, and I don’t get confused. More shooters lose because they can’t remember what they’re doing than because of any mistake they make.”
A Cheeky Question
William Zander of Houston, Texas, is the current Canadian silo champion, and is widely recognized as one of the top gunsmiths in the silhouette game. In Louisiana, he placed fifth overall in the smallbore rifle master class and tied for seventh in the hunter rifle class.
An equipment trend he and other shooters are on top of, so to speak, are high combs. This stock-design factor allows the shooter to place a great deal of cheek pressure on the gun, which stabilizes the movement on the gun.
“We’re shooting the standard rifle with a conventional target-style stock on it. The comb on it is real, real square and real up, so that you can get a tremendous amount of cheek pressure on it,” Zander said. “When we used to shoot the chin guns, or the chin-on-top-of-the-comb guns, one of the things we found was that the amount of pressure you could put on it stabilized the gun. Of course, they don’t allow that anymore, so now we’ve had to go to a stock where you’ve got a place to anchor your cheek while you can still see through the scope. That has meant bringing the comb up so that you can get the cheek pressure back on the gun and stabilize the gun like we did on the chin guns.”
However, the heavy guns aren’t the only products to feature high combs, Zander notes. His Cooper hunting-rifle stock, which he designed to fit inside the allowable dimensions for drop and comb rise the rules specify, has the comb top at bore centerline. Wigger’s Kimber is similarly stocked.
What You See Is What You Get
Robert Massey, a former U.S. smallbore rifle champion who spotted for Lawton during this year’s nationals, and who knocked over 100 targets in that event in Louisiana, is one of a growing number of shooters who are using loops, or circle reticles, in their silo scopes.
Loops are available in the Burris 8- by 32-power commercially available riflescope, but many topflight shooters have custom reticles installed by Dick Thomas at Premier Reticles. The Burris product has a duplex crosshair with a 1-minute circle in the middle.
Massey’s loop in his straight 36-power Leupold is a 1-minute internal diameter hole with a 1.25-minute outside diameter, which includes the width of the reticle wires. “I can actually see through the loop and hold a dot or spot on the target inside the loop like an aperature,” Massey said. “Everything I shoot is optically circle inside circle.”
The reticle looks like an upside-down phallus, with a horizontal crosshair in place as a leveling reference. Massey, a left-eye-dominant shooter who shoots right handed, actually tracks onto his targets from the top. The downward-pointing loop allows Massey to settle the gun on the target using this approach. Most other shooters engage their targets from the side.
“With a loop, if I call a shot and I tell you that half of it was thin air, I know it missed him,” he said. “If you shoot a dot, it’s much harder to tell on an edge shot where you are when you break the shot.”
Masseys says he focuses on the actual target, looking through the loop at a spot on the target like a chip or pock mark. “If you’re shooting a big old black dot at a spot, it’s hard for you to tell me exactly where you shot,” he said. “You have to look at a specific spot on the target to take what we call percentage shots. If you’ve got a mirage running at 3 o’clock mixed in with some 2 o’clock, we aim so that the bullet drifts into the middle of the target. If you center up on the target in those conditions and you drift up or left at all, then you’ve missed. But to shoot the percentage shots, you’ve got to see exactly where you are and exactly where you shot. I think the loop helps me do that.”
It Must Be The Guns
For the first time in national silo competition, an autoloader took first place in the heavy-gun class. Lawton, who had never entered a national championship with an autoloader before, said he took the plunge this year because his Williams Precision-modified Ruger 10/22 shot as well as his magazine-fed bolt guns.
“I had won the Texas state championship three times with an autoloader, all of them Rugers,” he said, “and in some other competitions, I’ve shot them based on conditions. But until this year, I never had an autoloader that I shot as well as my other guns. And all you have to do in the master class is pick up one or two targets, and you’ve got it.”
What increased his confidence in the Williams Precision Silhouette/Team Challenge Super Grade product was a particular level of accuracy and a topnotch trigger. Lawton said, “The individuals at Williams Precision were extremely good to me. I told them I needed a gun that shot two-tenths of an inch or less at 50 yards. They said, ‘That’s no problem. Let us put a gun together.’ I came back the following week, and they had a gun that had the length of pull right, and when I shot it off the bags, it shot under point two with nearly any high-end ammo, and came in around 0.178 inch at 50 meters with Lapua. And that’s what I shot.”
Still, another refinement made an even bigger difference. One of the 10/22’s weaknesses is its trigger. But Lawton had a prototype quarter-pound two-stage aftermarket trigger installed on his gun that gave him a substantial edge. The first-generation trigger was made by Phenix City, Alabama, gunsmith Tony Kidd, who hasn’t decided whether he will market a series of second-generation 10/22 replacement triggers yet. If he does, he expects them to run about $400.
Though his 10/22 was a shooter, Lawton said there were some peculiar techniques he had to use to mow down the steel animals. Most important was grip pressure to control recoil. He said to deal with the gun cycling, which includes a lot of action movement, he had to control and guide the recoil of the gun rearward to ensure the scope stayed on the target until his follow-through was completed.
He also noted that autoloaders can give the astute competitor an edge in handling conditions. Because he can shoot as much as three times as fast with the 10/22 than he can with his bolt guns, when the conditions are right, he aims and takes the targets as quickly as possible. “Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of the conditions,” Lawton said. “Also, I never had to move out of position. Once the sight crossed the part of the target I was shooting at, the gun went off and I moved to another target. It was easy to take the shot.”
Pick A Spot, Any Spot
All of the top competitors commented on how silhouette shooting wasn’t as precise a game as the Olympic 50-meter sports, but that it pays to make it as precise.
Winstead said, “I shoot at a spot on a target, that improves my concentration. If you shoot in the middle of the target, you’ll hit more animals, of course, depending on the conditions.” Having the discipline to try to hit a small target also helps focus her attention, Winstead said. “The key to concentrating for me is to stay consistent and do as many things right as possible. I want to shoot even, solid scores. I shot a 36 on the first day, a 35 on the second day of standard rifle, and 36 on the last day. I would have liked to pick up a couple more targets to catch Troy, but I’m happy with the way I shot.”
Wigger said that shooting high-magnification scopes allows the shooter to aim with great precision, and just the act of holding tight on a fixed spot improves the shot. “By shooting that chip, you focus your concentration. Also, it helps trigger control when you can focus on a spot,” he said. “I would like to see a black dot on the targets. You will shoot better because you will concentrate better.”
Zander says he picks out “a spot on the target, a pock mark, a paint fleck, whatever. When you see that mark, you just squeeze through and watch it go off. The view through the scope should be the dot coming to focus in your mind, resting on your aiming point, then seeing the target off the stand. If you don’t see that target in the scope when the bullet leaves the barrel, it’s gone. You missed. Remember, it only takes three thousands of an inch of movement at the end of the muzzle to move it an inch at 100 meters. If you’re aiming area is too big, you won’t create the precision in your position.”
How To Hold Better
Lawton says a simple drill can make anyone a better shooter immediately. It involves quantifying exactly how well you hold and shoot.
He said, “You must do whatever it takes to shoot smaller groups offhand, and that entails trail-and-error experimentation.
“I start anyone, including myself, at a close distance, 50 feet or 40 meters, where your firearm will really shoot like a laser. You don’t have to worry about dispersion due to ammo that would be off call and detrimental to the training effect you’re trying to achieve. For a AA shooter, I would then draw a 6-inch circle at the chickens, and ask him if he can stay inside that circle in his natural respiratory pause, or about five seconds.”
Lawton said most AA shooters say they can easily stay inside a 6-inch circle at that distance, so he has them shoot 50 shots inside the circle to verify their claim. “Now they need to start training on a circle half that size. You want them to work to maintain their hold inside a 3-inch circle next.” Whatever the initial circle size, Lawton says the challenge is to cut the hold area in half.
Once the shooter gets into the 1.5-inch hold area, his scores can really pick up. Chickens are 2 inches across from their breast to their egg layer, Lawton notes, so a shooter with that hold quality should be able to keep the gun on the target practically all the time.
The concentric circle drill resembles true target shooting, wherein the competitors tries to place his shots in the 10-ring every time. The silo equivalent of the 10-ring is under half an inch on the chickens, and once you’re there, you’re stout.
“Concentric circles is how I teach anyone, and how I try to train myself. I always challenge myself to hold smaller and smaller,” Lawton said. “Concentric circles makes you determine what your hold area is. I’ve tried it many times, and I’ve seen shooters immediately establish where they are and progress from there.”
Also, Lawton notes that training on paper is the only way to record your progress. If you grow tired of trying to shoot inside a circle, he advocates switching to paper silhouette shapes. “Paper is much better,” he said. “You should put at least 75 percent of your live rounds on paper.”
The eventual goal of all this training is make your shooting reflexive. “If you think about it, you’re a second behind,” Lawton said. “You’re reflexing when you pull the trigger, impulsing based on a visual input. Once you’re conscious about it, you will have poorer performances.”