Varmint Silhouette — California Style

Fun and Challenging Matches for Precision Shooters

Varmint Silhouette matches combine the fun of an old-time shooting gallery with the challenge of long-range precision benchrest competition. Shooting reactive targets is always fun. Now imagine shooting reactive targets with some of the most accurate rifles ever built — rifles that aren’t compromised by the often illogical restrictions than govern many shooting disciplines. The Varmint Silhouette sport, as it has evolved at two Southern California shooting clubs, is a crowd-pleasing event that’s fun for beginners yet very challenging for skilled, veteran shooters. In this article we spotlight two Varmint Silhouette programs, the 600-yard Paper/Steel combo match at Ojai in Ventura County, and the multi-distance, all-steel match at Pala, near San Diego.

Varmint Silhouette


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Ojai Valley Gun Club 600-Yard Combo Match

Varmint Silhouette

The Ojai Varmint Silhouette Shoot is held the third Sunday of each month, year-round, at the Ojai Valley Gun Club (OVGC) in Ventura County, California. The range is set in the coastal mountains, an 18-mile drive up scenic Highway 33 from the small town of Ojai. Without exaggerating, this venue is a truly beautiful place to shoot. Situated on 58 acres framed by mountains, the OVGC is a great location for a weekend escape. Camping facilities are available. There is a 100/200 yard range and a trap range in addition to the 600-yard range (see below) where the Varmint Silhouette Match takes place.

Mark LaFevers Savage

Originally, the Ojai club ran a 600-yard paper match and a 600-yard silhouette match on alternating months. The two matches have been combined so that you can shoot both official 600-yard Benchrest targets and half-size animal silhouettes in the same outing. The match commences with paper-punching in the early morning. Depending on the number of shooters, match organizers may offer two paper targets first, then the silhouette stages, or they may sequence shooting as follows: paper, steel, paper, then two or three more steel matches. Typically, over the course of the day, you’ll shoot 40-50 rounds for record–10 on paper and 30 or 40 on steel. Each round of steel begins with unlimited sighters, followed by 10 shots (1 per animal) at the steel silhouettes: 1 ram, 2 turkeys, 3 pigs, and 4 chickens.

Varmint SilhouetteTack-Drivin’ Dawn Patrols

In the early morning, the air is typically cool and still with little mirage. Spectacular groups have been shot at Ojai in those glassy conditions. On Father’s Day, 2009, Forum member RBD nailed 1.5″ groups on BOTH of his paper targets. He was shooting a 6-6.5×47 smithed by MTGuns. Barry Bluhm has gone under 2″ many times, and a lot of the guys have flirted with 1″ groups at morning practices.

By mid-morning, however, the winds come up and the range becomes very challenging. The geography allows competing winds from multiple directions. It’s not unusual to have the wind blowing left to right at the firing line and right to left at the target bay. You must pay attention to the flags, and, of course, have an accurate rifle. To be fully competitive at Ojai, you want a rifle that can shoot 1/4-MOA or better groups in ideal conditions. But even if you have a factory rifle, you can still have a good time. As we’ve noted, Ojai is a beautiful location, and the match regulars, including Match Directors Barry Bluhm, Mike Leonard, and Mark LaFevers, work very hard to provide a great experience for the shooters. When the wind blows, Ojai can be humbling, but it’s always fun. Cost is $15.00 for a full day’s shooting (both steel and paper).

N.C.S.A. Varmint Match at Pala Reservation

If you live in California and own an accurate rifle, you owe it to yourself to visit Pala and shoot the Varmint Silhouette match. This is an outstanding monthly event, run very professionally by a great bunch of guys. No matter whether you’re a benchrester, varmint hunter, F-Class shooter, or even a tactical marksman, you’ll enjoy this match & that’s pretty much guaranteed. Visit NCSAPala.com for general information and scedule, and CLICK HERE for a map and directions.

Matches start at 8:00 am, with an hour to get your come-ups for five yardages: 200m, 300m, 400m (well 385 actually), 500m, and 600 yards. Then you’ll start shooting for record at 9:00 am sharp. Over the course of the next couple of hours, you get to engage 50 reactive steel targets. Let me tell you, it’s enormously satisfying to make hits on steel at 600 yards, and the closer shots (on much smaller targets) are tons of fun as well. For first-timers, not used to shooting multiple distances, the Pala match can be a little daunting. You really need to pay attention to your scope clicks so you don’t lose track of your elevation as you switch yardages from one relay to the next. But Harold (Pala Match Director) can set you up with one of the regulars who’ll spot for you and make sure you stay on steel at every distance. The Pala crew really goes out of its way to make this event enjoyable for new shooters.

Sound fun? It is. This editor can honestly say that the Pala match was the most fun that I’ve ever had at a bench-based (as opposed to run-n-gun) rifle match. At Pala, the whole operation runs smoothly and efficiently, so you can do lots of shooting in the morning and still have your Sunday afternoon free.

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Pala Match on 4th of July Weekend
The next Pala Varmint Silhouette match is scheduled for Sunday, July 5th, on the holiday weekend. If you’re located nearby, why not plan a long weekend getaway in the San Diego area, and catch the Pala match on the 5th? Afterwards you can try your luck at the nearby Pala Casino Spa Resort, or head west to Oceanside and enjoy the famed California beaches.

Varmint Silhouette

Shooting the Pala, California Varmint Silhouette Match

by Mark LaFevers

I want to report on a really fun experience I know you would enjoy. I am a regular varmint silhouette shooter at the Ojai, California range, and last month, thanks to AccurateShooter.com, I had the opportunity to shoot at the monthly varmint silhouette match at the Pala Range near Temecula, CA. I was given the red carpet treatment as a guest of John Adams. John has built a number of Wichita-actioned rifles, many of which were on the line at the match. John loaned me one of his Wichitas chambered for the Adams BRK wildcat, which is a .243 Win with a longer neck and the shoulder reformed to 30 degrees. (Think of it as 6BR geometry applied to the longer .243 case.) Shooting 105gr Bergers with Reloder 22, the gun was very accurate and worked flawlessly.

Pala Silhouette Match

The Pala silhouette range is situated in the California foothills within sight of the Pala Casino complex. The covered firing line shades about 17 benches, with room for many prone shooters as well. (While most competitors shoot from the bench, some shooters prefer to shoot prone from rest or bipod.) The N.C.S.A. Varmint Silhouette Match begins with practice firing from 8:00am to 9:00am to find the targets at five different ranges and record your scope settings. Steel targets are set on rails at 200, 300, 400, 500 meters and 600 yards. There are multiple banks of targets at each yardage. Shooters are broken up in multiple relays, with up to five shooters per yardarge. This way all silhouette banks at all yardages can be used at the same time. That keeps a couple dozen shooters busy!

Pala Silhouette Match

Varmint SilhouetteEach yardage has 10 targets and a sighter plate per shooter, who is assigned a spotter to assist him. When the competition begins at 9:00 the shooter has four minutes to put one (and only one) sighter on the practice plate and shoot five targets left to right. A brief break of 30 seconds, then four more minutes for one more sighter and the last five targets at that yardage. Very challenging, very fun! As long as your sighter shot is on steel at your expected POI that you recorded for that yardage then everything flows for the first five targets. But if conditions change drastically or something goes amiss in your scope tracking, the break in the middle with a second sighter allows you to regroup on the second five targets.

Shooters familiar with the Ojai 600-yard varmint silhouette match will find Palas multi-yardage game very interesting (and challenging). You really have to have rock-solid come-ups for all distances, and it takes concentration to keep track of your clicks as you move from one yardage to the next. Most of the rifles at Pala were using muzzle brakes, with noise reflecting sharply off the corrugated steel roof. And the targets themselves offer plenty of challenge. At Ojai our bastard targets are the nefarious chickens, which seem to be able to bob and weave to avoid bullet strikes (a miracle of material science built into the flat steel at no extra cost.) At Pala, the bastard target is a crow with a triangle cut-out in its center. You can hit dead center and still miss. As one shooter joked, “I cant believe I shot through the middle of every one of those S.O.Bs!” In the video below, you can see me shooting the 300 meter stage. I almost nailed all 10 crows, but did leave one “bastard” standing.


Check out the mirage in this Video! The camera’s telephoto lens makes it very obvious. Video was edited for length.

What really made the experience memorable was the great attitude of the people there — from Harold running the matches, to John Adams generously providing guns, ammo, and donuts, to Victor my spotter, who gave up a shooting slot to help me play the game effectively. At the Pala match, there is a very professional, yet relaxed feeling that guarantees a positive experience. These are great guys who go out of their way to make new shooters feel welcome. Even the boisterous banter among the line shooters — typified by gunsmith Mike Sosenko’s “What the hell do you guys think youre doing, I chambered your actions, you cant outshoot ME!” — made it feel just like home.

From downtown Los Angeles, the Pala range is about 100 miles south. Take the 405 to the I-5, turn left (East) and head about 25 miles inland along the Highway 76. Entry fee for the N.C.S.A. Silhouette Match is $20. My intention is to return with a group of our Ojai club shooters to see how we hold up against the likes of John Adams, Ted Linton, Don Clark and Katy Freese. Don has shot a perfect 50/50, and Ted Linton won the May match shooting 48 out of 50. Ted, a member of the Pala tribe, shoots with his son and daughter. Shown below is Ted with his match-winning 6mm Dasher.

The Guns of Varmint Silhouette — Chambering Choices

At a Varmint Silhouette match, variety is the spice of life. On the firing line you’ll see everything from factory Savages to $6000 customs. Unlike short-range benchrest (where the 6PPC and 30BR rule group and score disciplines respectively), there is no dominant chambering in Varmint Silhouette. We’ve seen everything from a .22-250 AI to a .300 Win Mag do well at the Ojai matches. At Pala, nothing bigger than a 6.5mm is allowed, but 22s, 6mms, and six-fives have all done well. Whatever chambering you choose, you will need a very accurate rifle to be competitive. At Ojai, the smallest target is the chicken. The hit zone is about the size of a softball, maybe 3″ in diameter. That’s half-MOA at 600 yards. You’ll need a quarter-MOA (or better) rifle to nail the chickens consistently. Though 22s, 6mms, 6.5s, and even 30 cals have excelled at this game, the shared qualities among all top-tier entries are the “Three Bs” — brass, bullets, and barrel. If you want to finish in the top five you need to have outstanding (i.e. consistent) brass, premium bullets, and a quality barrel. As to the latter, we’ve seen some factory barrels shoot very well, but as a rule most of the top competitors run custom barrels from makers such as Bartlein, Broughton, Krieger, Lilja, Pac-Nor, Shilen. Some of the Savage F-Class rifles have performed very well with their original factory tubes, but usually a little more accuracy (and consistency) can be squeezed out of the Savages by installing a custom barrel.

Savage F-Class rifle

You’ll see a wide variety of actions, stocks and chamberings at a Varmint Silhouette match because there are very few restrictive rules. Basically this is a “run what you brung” discipline. There are no weight limits, muzzle brakes are allowed, and stock shapes/angles are unrestricted. If someone wants to run a barrel block or a tension barrel system, that’s basically fine. The only important limit is on caliber size/bullet weight — and that is just to extend the life of the steel targets. At Ojai, you’re limited to a 300 Win Mag. At Pala, the 6.5mm is the largest caliber permitted and there’s an official bullet weight limit of 109 grains. Otherwise you can shoot “any rifle 6.5 caliber and down, any weight, any scope, any wildcat cartridges”. At Ojai, competitors joke: “Rules, we don’t need no steeenking rules!”

Despite the wide-open nature of the competition, nobody has yet fielded a particular type of gun (or chambering) that consistently thumps the competition. At Ojai, one month a 6BR may shoot the best score, while the next month a rebarreled Savage .308 may earn top gun honors. At Pala many shooters have experimented with high-velocity wildcat cartridges, but it’s notable that a plain jane 6BR has shot one of the few 50/50 perfect scores. And Don Clark was the last guy to shoot a 50/50, doing so with a mildly-loaded 6mm Dasher.

So what cartridge/caliber should you choose for Varmint Silhouette Matches?
Here’s a run-down on the most popular chamberings, and how they stack up…

22 Dasher
22 Dasher AdamsThanks to John Adams, this editor shot the Pala match with a 22 Dasher. This cartridge is accurate and flat-shooting. With a stout load of H4350, Adams can run 80gr A-Maxs at 3350 fps. You read that right… and with RL17, more velocity may be possible. The 22 Dasher brass is easy to form (just neck-down half the neck to .22 caliber, leaving a false shoulder) and is very stable once formed. Mike Sosenko has shot a perfect 50/50 at Pala with a 22 Dasher. If you want a high-velocity cartridge that rivals the accuracy of the best 6mms, the 22 Dasher is a great choice.

6mm BR Norma
For pure accuracy, out to 600 yards, the basic 6BR is still hard to beat. The secret is the tight vertical. A really good 8-twist 6BR can hold 1″ of vertical at 600 yards with the “go-to load” of Berger 105s and Varget or Reloder 15 powder. It’s very comforting to shoot at the longer ranges knowing that you don’t have to worry about the vertical, so you can concentrate on the wind. At Ojai, John Southwick set the season, multi-match Aggregate record shooting an 8-twist 6BR. The 6BR has light recoil, is economical to load, and delivers good barrel life.

6mm Dasher and BRX
The 6mm Dasher (40° shoulder) and 6 BRX (30°) offer the accuracy of the parent 6BR cartridge, with 100-130 fps more “top end” velocity. Robert Hoppe won the 2009 NBRSA 600-yard Nationals shooting a 6mm Dasher, and many shooters believe it is THE cartridge to beat at 600 yards. Ted Linton won the most recent Pala match with a Dasher, and Don Clark shot a perfect 50 at Pala with his 6mm Dasher in March 2009. Don loves the cartridge because, with a mild load, it delivers great accuracy and the brass lasts a long time. The extra capacity of the Dasher lets you easily achieve 3000+ fps velocities with the 103-108 grain match bullets, a known “sweet spot” for these 6mm projectiles.

6mm Dasher Loh Rest

6-6.5×47 Lapua
If there is one cartridge that may dethrone the 6BR/6BR Improved as Kings of the medium-distance hill, it may be the 6-6.5×47. This cartridge can be a bit finicky to tune (compared to a 6BR). You may have to try multiple powders, and four or five different bullets, but when you get this cartridge dialed in, it can deliver record-setting accuracy. Forum member RBD (office mgr. at MTGuns), has a Barnard-actioned 6-6.5×47. Last week at Ojai, that rifle drilled a 1.5″, 5-shot group at 600 yards, and then produced another 1.5-incher on the next relay! That’s competitive with anything on the planet. With careful tuning the 6-6.5×47 can match the accuracy of the 6BR, plus it can push the 105gr to 108gr bullets way faster than a 6BR or Dasher. And if 3200 fps isn’t enough, you can try the 6-6.5×47 Improved, aka the “Long Dasher”. With Reloder 17, the “Long Dasher” can drive 105s at 3300 fps, as Pala shooter Mark explains in the video below.

6.5×47 Lapua
The 6.5×47 Lapua is one of those inherently forgiving cartridges that is easy to tune and works well with a variety of components. With Scenar 123s or Berger 130s, and Reloder 15 or Varget, this cartridge has shown great accuracy. Don Nielson won the NBRSA 600-yard Nationals a couple years back shooting original Jimmy Knox 130s in a 6.5×47. Since its first release, the brass has improved in consistency. If you stick to the 130gr or lighter bullets this cartridge won’t disappoint. Mac Tilton recently built three 6.5x47s on Barnard actions for Ojai shooters. All three hammer. Check out Bill’s Blue Beauty below:

6.5x47 Lapua

6mm BRK and .243 Improveds
6mm shooters looking for an edge in windy conditions have turned to larger capacity cases, such as the .243 Win, and even the .284 Win necked down to 6mm. With enough boiler room you can drive the 105gr bullets at close to 3600 fps. Whether accuracy can be maintained at such high speeds is another question. In any event, Mike Sosenko and John Adams have created an interesting wildcat, the 6mm BRK, based on the .243 Win parent case. Depending on how you look at it, the BRK is a “long BR” or a long-neck, 30°-shoulder .243 “Improved”. The BRK, in the hands of Adams and Sosenko, has proven very accurate.

6.5-284
The 6.5-284 offers outstanding ballistics with 139gr to 142gr bullets. In California, it’s usually calm in the mornings, but the wind kicks up by 10:30 or so. When you’re dueling with 15-20 mph winds it’s nice to have those high-BC 6.5mm bullets. With the introduction of the Savage 6.5-284 F-Class rifle, this cartridge has staged a come-back at Varmint Silhouette matches. No question about it, the 6.5-284 is a great choice when it’s windy, and the accuracy is there at moderate velocities (2950-3050 fps). Still, barrel life is an issue; if you don’t want to buy a new barrel every 900-1200 rounds, you may be happier with a smaller 6mm cartridge.

.308 Winchester
At Pala, you can’t shoot a 30-Caliber in the Varmint Matches, but there’s no such restriction at Ojai, and the venerable .308 Win remains a “fan favorite”. Don’t underestimate the accuracy of a good .308 Win. Yes, a .308 has twice the recoil of a 6BR, and yes you’ll spend more on powder and bullets, but the .308 is a proven performer. You can tame the recoil some by shooting 155s, and the higher component cost (compared to a 6mm), will be offset by the long barrel life. A .308 Winchester often delivers 4000-5000 rounds of match-grade accuracy.

Spotter-Shooter Teamwork and Spotting Scopes

At both Ojai and Pala you are allowed (and encouraged) to have a shooting buddy spot for you. Having a good spotter is very important in this game. Your spotter can make the difference between winning a match and finishing well down in the pack. At Pala, with its multiple, rotating yardages, a good spotter can help you avoid critical mistakes.

Pentax PF-100EDTeamwork is Key
At a varmint silhouette match, the shooter and spotter ideally work together as a team. Not only can the spotter help with the wind calls, but your spotter can help identify the exact location of your hits (providing key feedback for the next shot). The spotter also can help calm your nerves and keep you focused during the string. When this Editor shot at Pala, my spotter “saved my bacon” by keeping track of my elevation clicks. At Pala you start at one distance, say 400 meters, then work outward to further distances, then come back to pick up any of the shorter yardages you haven’t shot yet. Needless to say, it is very easy to lose track of your come-ups. Armed with a come-up table, your spotter can really help make sure you have the right elevation for each yardage. This is critical in a game where you are allowed only ONE sighter shot before each 5-shot string for record. If you miss steel on that sighter, you could easily miss all five silhouettes before you’re allowed the next sighter.

Some of the most successful shooter/spotter teams, such as Don Clark and Katy Freese, have a system worked out so the spotter can give simple number values for hit locations and aiming points. This is more precise than telling your buddy “Uh, hold a skosh more right.” Don recently shot a perfect 50 for 50 score at Pala, so he and Katy have obviously developed a system that works. In the video below, Don spots for Katy and makes wind and elevation calls for each shot. Katy is shooting a 6mm Dasher and Don is using a Pentax PF-80ED scope with 20-60X zoom eyepiece.

Spotting Scopes — What Works
At both Ojai and Pala, it is very important to have a quality spotting scope. The better your spotter-assistant can see, the better he/she can make the right calls on bullet hits and wind shifts. At Pala, half the course of fire is at 400 yards or beyond, and at Ojai, everything is shot at 600 yards. That puts a premium on resolution. With a cheap spotting scope that doesn’t focus sharply, it can be difficult to locate hits on sighter plates at 600 yards. A poor scope will also quickly lead to eye strain as you constantly fiddle with with the focus knobs to try to see better.

How much power do you need? In the morning when viewing conditions are pretty good, we’ve used up to 75X magnification with good results. Ideally, your spotting scope should deliver at least 50X magnification. With a high-quality spotting scope, at 50X or greater magnification, you should be able to see 6mm bullet holes in the white at 600 yards. We have proven this in range tests. However, once the ground heats up and the mirage starts running, all bets are off. Still, we found that most spotter-assistants like to run their optics at 40X or above at long range. This will give you enough magnification to see bullet strikes on steel. When the mirage gets really bad, some folks like to dial the magnification way down. However, we find that it is often easier to see the mirage when the magnification remains at 40X or above. Remember, the spotter assistant doesn’t have to aim a rifle through that mirage. He/she only needs to communicate what the mirage is doing, and high magnification can often make mirage more obvious.

Meade ATX-125Magnification vs.
Field of View

A zoom eyepiece is handy. This will let your spotter-assistant reduce magnification and open up the field of view. That can help him watch more windflags, or look for other “evidence” of wind direction, such as blowing dust or vegetation. When it comes to field of view, remember that not all spotting scopes are the same, even if they offer the same magnification level. The new Kowa Prominar for example, with its 88mm objective, offers a very wide field of view, even at high magnification. And there are scopes like the Meade ATX-125 (photo right), which borrow the internal mirror design from astronomy telescopes. The internal mirror allows a huge front objective which offers great light-gathering ability and a wide field of view. Since the ATX-125 costs less than a premium conventional spotting scope, why don’t we all use such a design? First, the ATX-125 and similar scopes are not particularly weatherproof. Second, based on a side by side comparison, I found that the view through the ATX-125 is just not as sharp as the view through the best conventional spotting scopes, such as the Swarovski 80ED or Kowa Prominar APO. The big astronomy-type scopes are bright, but as with anything, you get what you pay for.

Size Counts — But Sometimes Less is More
Since we agree that a bigger front objective is generally a good thing, should you get the biggest spotting scope you can afford? Not necessarily. AccurateShooter.com has a Pentax PF-100ED. Pentax makes superb eyepieces for this scope (and its 80mm baby brother). With its huge 100mm objective, the PF-100ED has great light-gathering ability. That 100mm lens is awesome early in the morning. When light is marginal (say during a 6:00 am practice session), the PF-100ED will literally outshine any 60mm, 70mm, or 80mm spotting scope on the market. However, there is a price. With its large surface area, the PF-100ED is much more affected by winds than smaller scopes. Also, it is very long, with a LOT of weight cantilevered way out front. Even with a very secure tripod, a slight bump can cause the Pentax to shake. Mounted on the same tripod, the relatively compact Swarovski 80HD didn’t shake as much in the wind or when jostled by the user.

Pentax PF-100ED

Geared Heads for Spotting Scopes — Worth the Money
During my first visit to Pala, I noticed that many of the best shooters had unusual gizmos fitted to the top of their tripods. “What’s that thing?” I asked John Adams. “That, sir, is a geared tripod head… try it, you’ll like it.” John was absolutely correct. With a normal tripod head, you have to use clumsy handles to adjust windage or elevation. Most of the time, it seems, when you try to change position you go too far, and end up way off target. That wastes time. With a geared tripod head, you can micro-adjust both the horizontal tracking (traverse) and the vertical elevation. When viewing a plate at 600 yards, I could literally move the center of the field of view up a couple inches (on the plate) at a time. Likewise you can easily track from side to side without disturbing your elevation one bit. John, thanks for donating a Manfrotto 410 geared head to this site. Shown below is the Manfrotto Pro Model 405 geared head on Ted Linton’s spotting scope. Ted won the match by the way.

Manfrotto Geared Head Spotting Scopes

TOPICS: California, Ojai, Ventura, Pala, Pala Reservation, Pala Casino, Oceanside range, Varmint, Varminter, Silhouette, Metallic Silhouette, Benchrest, F-Class, Prone, Tactical, 600-yard, 200m, 300m, 400m, 500m, John Adams, Mike Sosenko, Mark LaFevers, MT Guns, precision, centerfire, Loh Rest, Wichita Action, BAT Machines, Broughton, Krieger, Bartlein barrel, Reloder 17, Hodgdon H4350, Reloder 22, 22 Dasher, 6mmBR, 6BR, Norma, 6XC, 6-6.5×47, 6×47, 6.5×47 Lapua, .243 Winchester, BRK, Long BR, Long Dasher, fire-forming, Spotting Scope, Pentax, Leupold, Swarovski, Zeiss, magnification, Bogen, Manfrotto, Geared Head.

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