A quest for accuracy

For a benchrest shooter like Paul Whitmore, of Webster City, the goal of the sport is simple.

“I’m trying to get the ultimate accuracy out of a rifle,” he said.

In benchrest shooting, that accuracy is judged in one of two ways depending on the type of match being shot. One is Score, in which shooters have to place their shots as close to the X in the center of their targets and Group, in which the goal is to get five shots as close together as possible.

Of course, so are all the other shooters at a match. Getting the level of accuracy from a rifle is a process that requires custom built guns, very careful loading techniques and attention to every little detail.

“Everything is measured to the thousandths,” Whitmore said. “We have the tightest tolerances available.”

While almost everyone on the firing line is competing with a super accurate rifle, when it comes to making full use of that level of precision, the shooter has to work around range conditions. It doesn’t take a lot of wind to move a bullet away from the intended point of impact.

“I compete against the wind and the elements,” Whitmore said.

Tom Gollob, of Fort Dodge, was on the firing line working around the same elements as Whitmore. He, like almost all the shooters, placed a set of wind indicators at several points between the firing line and the targets. While each shooter has their own preference for style and color, they are all there to offer the shooter a clue about what the wind is doing and where it’s coming from.

Learning to read the indicators is more art than science.

“You get to figure that out for yourself,” he said. “It’s experience.”

He said the worst conditions are when the wind keeps shifting, this keeps the shooters guessing and they have to adjust their aim for each change.

While it will move the bullet, a constant and steady wind is easier to deal with over the course of a string of shots.

Another important aspect that makes a big difference is what Gollob calls “bench manners.” It’s not about being polite, it’s about consistency.

“You approach it the same way each time,” he said. “When you fire your rifle, you have to let it do it the same way each time.”

Randy Robinett, of Madrid, not only shoots, he also makes many of the bullets being used by the other shooters. The owner of Ballistic Idiot Bullets, Robinett has been shooting benchrest since 1977 and began hand making highly precise bullets in 1987.

What separates a benchrest quality bullet from a standard hunting bullet or even a match grade bullet.

“The concentricity,” he said. “There’s nearly no center of gravity offset.”

This is important since a fired bullet is spinning as it flies toward the target, and off center bullet will wobble a bit and divert from the intended path.

“Most commercial bullets have in excess of one thousandths runout,” Robinett said, “A typical benchrest bullet is one fifth of that.”

The bullets aren’t the only thing made with a high level of precision in the sport, even the scopes used on the rifles have to perform at level unheard of for hunting.

“Most optics have enough slop, play and float that each shot causes a 1/8 inch point of impact shift,” he said. “For competition you have to have absolute reliability.”

Ammunition for the guns is hand crafted between relays, most shooters bring specialized reloading equipment and set up shop at the match. Each individual case is often a marvel of precise micro machining that fits the chamber it will be fired in perfectly.

Nothing in the process is left to chance.

“You have to be a frog hair splitter,” Robinett said. “You have to enjoy the quest for precision just for the sake of precision.”

Joining the ranks of benchrest shooters has a reputation for being expensive. Even a used rifle with a suitable scope can cost several thousand dollars. Then there’s the reloading equipment, mechanical rest, wind flags and a dozen other things.

Robinett said that the sport tends to attract shooters in their mid-40’s and 50’s. He would like to see younger shooters join the sport too.

Paul Whitmore offers some advice to those with an interest.

“Come out and watch a match and talk to some experienced shooters,” he said. “They’re a friendly warm bunch that will help anybody get started.”