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At DuBois, Pa. recently a group of 140 riflemen got together to try and break a world record in what is undoubtedly the strangest form of shooting regularly practiced. The experts call it bench-rest shooting because the rifle is rested on a sturdy bench and snugged down in sandbags. Human error—the most decisive factor in normal target firing—is deliberately and carefully eliminated until it is negligible, for the object is to test the accuracy of the gun and its ammunition. It is fiercely competitive shooting and to a large degree experimental, with the rifles made to order by gunsmiths for cartridges not obtainable in stores. But its value is a highly practical one: as a result of this little-known shooting, a number of superaccurate cartridges are in the process of evolution, among them one which may help us win the 300-meter match in the coming Olympics.
It happens that no world records fell at DuBois, but the Memorial Day weekend matches were none the less remarkable for the fact that a pair of teen-age cousins outshot their elders. Wallace Hart, 19, put 10 bullets into a target 100 yards away which made a single hole measured at .2717 inch. (Bench-rest shooters don't trouble to shoot at a conventional bull's-eye, but concentrate on making one "group" anywhere on the target. The widest-spaced bullet holes are then measured center to center and the resulting "score" is expressed to four decimal places.) To appreciate young Hart's .2717 score, let me mention that O. A. Rinehart's world record is .2402. Charles Hart II, who is 15, won at 200 yards with .6260 inch, less than a 10th of an inch larger than Sam Clark Jr.'s .5276 record.
Men go to excruciating lengths to have their rifles achieve such scores. The gun's forearm is usually rested on a pedestal adjustable for height and holding a sandbag. Another sandbag is put on the bench under the toe of the stock and so manipulated that the crosshairs of a powerful (20X or higher) telescope sight quarter the aiming point. There are more elaborate devices, including a forward pedestal on wheels that run on tracks, the idea being to rest the rifle in the same way from shot to shot so it will recoil straight back and not flip to one side or the other as it is fired.
There are two targets—one for sighting shots and one for record. You can shoot as many sighters as you wish provided you save time enough to get in all your shots for record. The aiming point at 100 yards is a white square, half an inch on a side, in a black ground. Somewhat larger white squares are used at 200 yards and at 300 meters (328 yards). You adjust your telescope sight so that when you aim at the white square you put your shots down near the middle of the target. Thus you do not mess up your aiming point with bullet holes. If your first shot for record is well off center you do not correct for the next one as when aiming at a bull's-eye; you try to keep your succeeding shots where your first one was.
Anyone looking at such a group as Wallace Hart's, which makes one small ragged hole in the target, might ask how the men scoring the target knew that 10 bullets had gone through that hole. Couldn't a man who had four or five shots in a tight cluster fire the rest over the target and claim he had fired 10 on his target?
The answer is "No." There is a backing target behind the target at which the shooter fires. This consists of a band of wrapping paper moved by an electric motor. It travels only a few inches during the 12 minutes allowed for a 10-shot match, but it moves enough so the bullets that make a single hole in the target make a string of holes in the backing target.
When you register at a bench-rest match you are asked to fill out a card naming the man who made the barrel of your rifle, the maker of the stock, the type or make of action, the load you are using, the make and power of your telescope sight and the man who fitted and chambered the barrel. Young Charley Hart wrote that the barrel of his rifle was made by Clyde Hart of LaFayette, N.Y. (his uncle); that the stock was made by Bob Hart, his father; that he was using the .222 cartridge case loaded with 20 grains of No. 4198 powder and a homemade bullet of 50 grains, and that his 'scope was one of 24 power made by John Unertl. When it came to naming the gunsmith he wrote: "Grandpa." Grandpa is Charles Hart Sr. who not only fitted and chambered the barrel but also made the action. The five Harts all shot in the matches.
A bench-rest rifle that will average under a half inch at 100 yards, or under one inch at 200 is a real hot gun. By way of comparison, a real hot big-game rifle will average two inches at 100 yards with factory ammunition, or four inches at 200.
Because the rules go as far as they do to minimize the human error, a boy (or a man) can learn to shoot bench rest in far less time than it takes to learn how to shoot a rifle when standing. Primarily, bench-rest shooting requires fine equipment. It also requires some knowledge. Its adherents are ready, even eager, to supply this knowledge.
One thing the rules can't do anything about is the wind. The DuBois range, though a fine one, lacks proper wind flags. There were flags down at the targets. But a wind flag at the target only tells you what the wind is doing at a point where it no longer matters. What matters most is the wind over the first half of the range, and owing to natural obstacles this may be quite different from the wind down at the target.