Big Boomers–1000-Yard Heavy Guns
Heavy Gun Gurus Explain the Fine Points of Big Rig Competition
IBS, NBRSA and Williamsport Heavy Guns represent the ultimate in long-range technology and accuracy. These are the “top fuel dragsters” of the shooting world. This week four noted Heavy Gun shooters offer insights into the tools and techniques for 1000-yard Heavy Gun competition. Bruce Baer, a noted stock-maker and gunsmith, was the Heavy Gun Overall Champion at the 2005 Williamsport World Open. Past president of the Williamsport Club, Bruce has smithed many world record-setting rifles. Steve Shelp is a Hawks’ Ridge club officer and Chairman of the IBS Long-Range Rules Committee. Respected gunsmith Dave Tooley has won scores of matches in IBS competition. An innovator, he designed the Tooley MBR stock, and has pioneered many successful wildcat cartridges for the long-range game. George Tompkins has competed at 1000 yards for more than a decade. At the recent 2005 NBRSA Nationals, George took First Place in HG group, and Second in HG Score. He won the 2002 NBRSA 1K Nationals in Light Gun, and George was a previous Virginia State Champion in both Light and Heavy classes.
70-lb IBS Heavy Gun, machined from solid aluminun billet, by Bruce Baer. G&G Alvey rest splits in the middle to comply with rules.
–Big Rigs for Ultimate Long-Range Accuracy
The driving passion of 1000-yard Heavy Gun shooters, as Bruce Baer tells us, is “to put 10 shots in one ragged hole at 1000 yards.” To be competitive, you’ll need a rifle that can print half-inch 5-shot groups at 300 yards. A typical relay-winning group will run about 5″ to 7″ for TEN shots. But it could be in the fours or even threes. The current IBS 10-shot world record group is 3.472″, set by Bill Crawford in 1998. The 6-match Aggregate IBS record is 6.1652″ by Johnny Byers in 2002. There are three governing organizations for 1K Heavy Gun competition, and each has slightly different rules, but the guns used are much the same. They feature heavy 1.450″ or larger diameter barrels, weights of 60+ pounds, and they run on elaborately machined (and very pricey) front and rear rests. These are not rail-guns, nor return-to-battery firing platforms. You still have to push them forward after each shot. But when set up correctly, Heavy Guns slide straight back and come right onto target with little or no “steering” by the shooter. Nearly all shooters free recoil their rigs, and aiming adjustments are made with controls on the rests, not by muscling the guns.
The name of the game is speed. Most Heavy Gun shooters try to launch all ten rounds in the shortest period of time, to get all shots downrange before conditions change. This can be done in as little as thirty seconds by some of the fastest shooters. But, the most successful Heavy Gunners will keep an eye out for conditions, and wait out a shift, or put in a minor correction when needed. When conditions are steady, however, you want to “rock and roll”–fire, reload, slide gun forward, touch the trigger off, then repeat. Normally shooters will get off all their shots in well under two minutes.
Steve Shelp, chairman of the IBS Long-Range Rules committee provides this run-down on the key rules for 1000-yard Heavy Gun shooting, noting the difference among IBS, NBRSA, and Williamsport regulations. Steve notes: “Everybody restricts bores to less than forty caliber, and rests must have at least a half-inch thickness of sand under the gun, and the front and rear rests cannot be connected. Williamsport has a 100-lb Heavy Gun Weight limit, with a 8″-wide max fore-arm width. IBS and NBRSA Heavy Guns are unlimited in weight. NBRSA allows muzzle brakes on Heavy Guns, but brakes are prohibited under IBS and Williamsport Heavy Gun Rules. Williamsport and IBS clubs shoot a single 10-shot string during a relay. The Score Winner and Group Winner of each relay then go to a shoot-off to determine the match winner. In NBRSA, they shoot an aggregate match with multiple targets per gun for each relay. Winners are chosen based on Aggregates, both for score and group. All three organizations prohibit return-to-battery rigs, meaning the gun must move freely on the rest and has to be returned to firing position by the shooter after every shot.” The IBS web site adds: “In IBS competition, both Light Gun and Heavy Gun have a six-minute sight-in period, followed by a 10-minute period for record shots. No sighters are allowed during the record period.” George Tompkins notes one important difference in scoring between IBS and NBRSA: “In IBS, even one shot off paper results in a “DQ”, whereas in NBRSA you add 10″ to the group for that shot. So, in NBRSA, you aren’t completely eliminated in a big match by one errant shot. I much prefer the NBRSA rule, particularly if you’ve driven a long distance to attend a match.”
Heavy Gun long-range BR is definitely an “equipment race”. You can very easily drop $5000 for a competitive rifle, quality rests, and a couple of barrels. It helps to be well-heeled in this sport. For while the best equipment won’t deliver a win, sub-standard equipment will guarantee a poor showing. Competing in Heavy Gun competition is like fielding a Formula One racer. Unless you’re prepared to keep pace with technology, and buy top-quality equipment, you won’t stay ahead of the pack.
Fat barrels in barrel bedding blocks are the norm in Heavy Gun competition. These guys burn a lot of powder in their cases and 1.450″ or even 1.600″ straight-countour barrels handle the heat better than HV-style contours. The greater mass of steel makes for a more effective heat sink and the greater surface area of the fat barrels provides more cooling surface. Barrel bedding blocks allow barrels as long a 36″ to be used, but most barrels are 32″ or shorter, with some competitors experimenting with barrels as short as 26″. Krieger, Lilja, Broughton, Hart and Spencer barrels are popular these days, with Spencers being more common on the East Coast. The gun shown in the photo was fitted with a big “Coke Can” muzzle brake for the NBRSA 2005 Nationals. The brake would have to be removed for IBS or Williamsport matches. Many shooters keep a quiver of barrels, with tubes from a variety of sources. George Tompkins tells us: “I’ve shot Harts and Kriegers and one or two Schneiders. I’ve had extremely good luck with Kriegers, I think they make as good as barrel as anybody. But, I’m going to try the Broughton barrels next–I’ve just ordered two 7mms and a .338.”
Barrels can be conventionally fitted into a receiver, or clamped into a barrel bedding block. Bruce Baer explains: “The barrel bedding block is a very good system, well worth the money. With this set-up the action is essentially free-floated, and it becomes just a fire-control unit. The block also aids with vibration control. The block dampens vibration and effectively shortens the barrel in terms of its vibration properties. We’ve found that a barrel block system is cost-effective–you don’t need a big oversize custom action with a lot of bedding surface. A barrel-block rig is also easier to work on. It’s a unit that a guy can put together more quickly since there’s no bedding to worry about. He can change barreled actions quicker.”
A few shooters, such as Charles Ellertson, are experimenting with a “Tension Barrel” system. The barrel is still threaded into the action, but it runs inside an external shroud. The barrel is threaded on the outboard end and secured with a big nut that contacts the shroud. By rotating the nut, you pull the barrel into tension, while simultaneously pushing the shroud in compression. This works like the barrel/shroud system on Dan Wesson revolvers–barrel in tension, shroud in compression. The result is an extremely rigid barrel assembly with very little flex, resulting in reduced vibration.
Stocks–Designs to Control Mass in Motion
Williamsport limits Heavy Guns to 100 pounds. Under IBS and NBRSA rules weight is unlimited. You will see a few massive 200-lb behemoths at IBS matches, but most competitors find that something in the 60-90 pound range works best. Bruce Baer explains, “You can’t stop a gun from recoiling. If it doesn’t recoil it will jump. If it jumps you might as well go home because you won’t shoot a good group. So it is pointless to try to build a gun so heavy as to eliminate all recoil. The more you restrict the rifle’s recoil the more temperamental that rifle will be. The 200-pounders just don’t out-perform something in the 60- to 80-pound range, and I think the optimal weight is 60-70 pounds.
Extreme mass is not necessarily an advantage. Watch a locomotive starting up from zero–it will vibrate from one end to another. If the gun is too heavy I think it will vibrate at the start of recoil and that will kill accuracy. I want the gun to start from recoil with very little effort so it will be smooth from start to stop.
I’ve experimented with a 166-lb gun. It wouldn’t recoil smoothly. It was very temperamental. I couldn’t find anything to lube the bags to get it to break loose on the initial movement. I tried free recoil, different holds, different shoulder pressures. I even tried a “death-grip”, hard-hold. I tried all kinds of things. It would cluster but I couldn’t keep all 10 shots in that cluster. I would always lose a couple shots out the bottom or out the top. Vertical was inconsistent. And inconsistent vertical (if your loads are good and the barrel is otherwise well-tuned) is a recoil problem. If you continually get shots out the top or bottom I would bet money the issue is inconsistent recoil. I couldn’t get the rifle to shoot at well as when it was 80 pounds before I added the weight (via rails) to make it 166 pounds. But even at 80 it didn’t shoot as well as my 60-pounders. I believe we can go too heavy.”
Stocks can be made of any material. Wood, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and metal are all used in stock construction. The most eye-catching stocks are the “heavy metal” wonders, CNC-machined out of a 70-lb blank of solid aluminum. Wood stocks, and to a lesser extent glass stocks, are more forgiving, offering greater damping and recoil absorption. Metal stocks offer superior rigidity, and the CNC machining allows tracking surfaces to be perfectly parallel.
Even with wood and glass stocks however, competitors fit machined metal flats or runners to improve tracking. For best performance, the metal runners must be aligned correctly. George Tompkins, who uses a CNC-machined billet stock produced by Gary Alvey, notes how important geometry is to stock performance: “Alignment is key. Your bottom-plates and side-flats need to be in perfect alignment with the center of the bore axis so the gun tracks real well. On my gun, Gary indicates the bore axis and mills the stock to be perfectly parallel. When I return my gun to battery, my scope never leaves the target, as I move the gun back and forth. I can sometimes fire a whole string without re-aligning the gun. All you have to do is slide her forward and pull the trigger. Gary lives near me in Grand Junction, Colorado, and needless to say, I’m real happy with his work. I think Gary produces some of the best one-piece metal stocks ever made because everything is parallel and the gun tracks so well. Here’s my wife Dee Tompkins shooting a metal-stocked Heavy Gun at the 2005 NBRSA Nationals.”
Rests–The Foundation of an Accurate Heavy Gun
Dave Tooley tells us “A winning Heavy Gun has to be a complete system–barrel, action, stock, and rests. You can’t do well if any part of that system is sub-par.” Dave explains that you need a rest arrangement that fits your rifle, sets up easily and repeatably, and can be comfortable on the bench: “Don’t try and build a gun that is so big and heavy that you’re fighting it as well as the conditions. You need the rest set up so that you can handle the gun smoothly and get in a good rhythm.” (Steve Shelp tells us: “Listen to what Tooley says. He has some of the best bench technique I’ve seen. He is smooth and FAST. And he is consistent. He may not win on any given day, but he is always up there among the leaders”.)
Dave explained that some rests may be masterpieces of machining, but they don’t work so well in competition because they don’t allow a comfortable shooting position. Dave tells us: “The rear rest I use has a smaller footprint than some other designs. This lets me position the rest at the extreme rear edge of the bench and well over to the left (for a right-handed shooter). When I’m shooting, I don’t want my Heavy Gun to be any farther away from me than my Light Gun would be. Otherwise, you’ll be straining and you’ll have a block of concrete in your chest.”
One interesting feature of the rest in the photo at right (created by Gary Alvey for Bruce Baer), is that it is convertible from one-piece to two sections. The four smaller knobs near the center lock/unlock the front and rear halves. With the unit locked, you can set it down on the bench and the front and rear bags will be perfectly aligned. Then just twist the knobs to unlock the unit, and slide the rear unit back a little bit. Now you have a fully legal “unconnected” two-piece rest system, with the two halves in proper alignment.
A wide range of cartridges is used in 1000-yard Heavy Gun competition, from 338s to 6mms. Gunsmith Mark King has had great results shooting a little 6 Dasher in his Heavy Gun. But the most popular cartridges are still the large 30 Calibers such as .308 Baer and 300 Ackley, both based on the Weatherby belted magnum case. Second choice would probably be the 6.5-284, a top performer in the Light Gun class. The 7mm is the new kid on the block. There are now many excellent 7mm projectiles available with very high Ballistic Coefficients. George Tompkins’ preferred caliber is a 7mm, and Bill Shehane is building two new 7mm rifles for next season, both Light and Heavy. Here’s what the experts say about caliber choice for 1K Heavy Gun competition:
Bruce Baer: The 30 caliber gives you the most bang for the buck. It is the easiest cartridge if you don’t have time to do a lot of load development. It’s not fussy–it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to load for it. That’s probably why the 30 caliber is still dominant. If a customer asks me what caliber to start with for Heavy Gun, I’ll steer them to the .308 Baer, one of the 300 Ackley-type cases. Yes the 6.5-284 will kick your butt from time to time, more frequently than I’d like to admit. But when you look at the whole picture the 30 cal is still the caliber to beat.
30s are a little less finicky than other calibers. You have a LOT of bullets to pick from. This helps tune the barrel. You might have to try 5-6 bullets to get your barrel to perform. With the 30s, you have a wide choice of great bullets. Sierra alone offers 190, 200, 220, and 240-grain bullet weights. And I’ve heard that Sierra has promised a 210, to come out January 2006–because there’s a demand for more of a VLD style bullet. It may be more like a Berger 210.
The 6.5 WSM, 6.5-284 are good cartridges. But the WSM hasn’t been fully explored yet. As to the 6.5-284, I’ve found (and I’ve heard this from a lot of people) that it is somewhat temperamental. It requires more of your time, as far as bullet selection, brass selection. I’ve shot the 6.5 for years, and played with it. I think one main reason it is so competitive is the relatively low recoil compared to other calibers. Recoil is definitely an issue in the 30 caliber and I believe it takes a little better shooter to master a 30 compared to a 6.5. When it comes to recoil, everyone has to be honest with themselves–can you handle it. If you’re not honest, a big 30 will MAKE you honest.
The 7mm is a very good cartridge. Probably the biggest drawback is bullet selection. In the very early days of the 1K game, we used to shoot a lot of 7mm, but we shifted to 30s because we could tune our rifles easier. The limited selection of 7mm bullets means you have to spend more time at it. You only have a few selections so you have to spend more time tuning to make the bullet shoot.
George Tompkins: The thirties and the 6.5-284 are very popular. Very few people use the 338. I think, of all of them, the 7mm is going to end up on top. I think it’s superior to all of the others. I’ve been using it very successfully. The new 7mm bullets have a significant edge in BC–an even higher BC than the 30s. If you can get the right bullets it has higher BC than a 240gr Sierra. The sevens will hold their own better than a 6.5 or 30 caliber in difficult conditions.
I used to use a 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum belted, but I’ve switched to 7mm. Right now I use a 7mm. I call it a “775″, because it hold 75 grains up to the neck-shoulder junction. Starting with a 6.5×68 or 8×68 parent case (see photo), I blow it out to a 37° shoulder. I use RWS brass.
For my “775″, I use only Cauterucios, both the 165- and 176-grainers. The 176 definitely has a higher BC, but the 165 will shoot in any barrel. All my barrels seem to love that 165. Both of these are VLD designs. These bullets are as consistent as you’d ever want. In the USA, I think Bob Cauterucio makes the best shooting bullets of anybody. He uses Sierra jackets, whereas other guys use J4s. Above about 3100 fps, with J4s, you’ll find some of the J4 jackets fail and the bullets blow up. With the Cauterucios, you can’t push them hard enough to blow them up. I run fast so I need bullets that hold up. With the 176 Cauterucios, depending on barrel twist, I’m pushing them 3280–3320 fps. I coat the bullets with Danzac–the real Danzac I got before they closed up shop. FYI, for powder, I use the OLD Reloader 25 made prior to March of 1999. This is the best stuff I’ve found for my big cases. For any of the three cases I’ve used, my ES is never more than 8-9 fps. With the current Reloader 25 the ES is in the high 20s. Lots DO make a difference.
Dave Tooley: I still consider the large 30 Calibers to be the cartridge of choice. This is mainly because you have a great selection of bullets. You have a wide selection of high-BC bullets, making it easier to select a bullet that works best with your barrel. The more bullet choices you have, the better the chance you have a getting a winning combo for your rifle. I personally have had great success with the BIB 187gr flat-based bullet. It has “enough” BC, and the consistency is there. I’ve found that, barrel to barrel and gun to gun, the 187s are always competitive. With the BIBs, I don’t have to do any sorting. I just trim the meplats and go shooting. The 200gr Sierra is also a fine bullet, and we’ve found the 200 seems to be more consistent that the 220 SMK from lot to lot. I’ll be trying the new Sierra 210 when it comes out.
While the 6.5s have less recoil, I find that recoil is easy to deal with, given the weight of the Heavies, so the 6.5 doesn’t give you an edge as it might in Light Gun. As far as brass goes, for my 30 BooBoo, I use the RWS 8×68 brass. Quality is as good as it gets, and it lasts forever.
Steve Shelp: The 30 calibers are still King of the Hill in the Heavy Gun game, though other calibers are well-represented, particularly the 6.5-284. We’re starting to see more 7mms and they have promise. However I actually tracked the match results at Hawk’s Ridge over recent seasons. The big 30s are still dominant by a large margin: 300 Ackley-syle cases (including the 308 Baer) won 70% of all matches. Cases based on the 300 H&H and 355 H&H case also performed well.
Large BAT Machine Action on D. Capehart’s NBRSA and Montana (Williamsport Affiliate) Heavy Gun.
Bill Shehane, 2004 1000-yard Shooter of the Year, is legendary in the 1K Benchrest Game. Over the years he has devised many innovative stock designs for both Light Guns and Heavy Guns. His “Maxi Tracker” employs metal rails on the underside of the stock for straight tracking and smooth motion under recoil.
Bill tells us: “The ‘Maxi Tracker’ was designed with the latest CAD system and manufactured with CNC equipment to track 100%. The body and barrel block are billet aluminum, powder-coated for zero maintenance in Black and Silver. The front stainless rails are 8″ wide and run on square runners 1″ wide and 1/2″ high up the sides. The rear rail is 3″ wide and also 1″ by 1/2″ up the sides. Both rails are pinned and bolted to the body. The stock is very low-profile and wide enough to make it virtually impossible to upset in the bags on a fast run. It’s designed to use standard-length bolt handles and the trigger guard is an integral part of the stock for added strength. The 9″ barrel blocks can be had in either a split type or glue-in version for 1.450″ diameter barrels. Barrel block halves are pinned and also pinned to the body and bolted all with stainless tapered socket head capscrews. A very low-profile split block can be had for low scope mounting if needed. The complete system weighs 45 pounds ready for your barreled action. Most Rem 700 long-actioned rifles with 34-36″ barrels come in at 60-65 pounds, with provisions for more lead weight if you want. We ship ‘Maxi Tracker’ stocks in a protective rubber-lined crate. Cost (without optics, barreled action, or muzzle brake) is $1795 plus shipping.”
Bruce Baer has been involved in Heavy Gun shooting for decades. He’s seen the game evolve into three factions with three sets of rules. He also noticed that the ranks of Heavy Gun shooters have been getting older each year, while other shooting disciplines, such as F-Class, have been growing more rapidly, attracting new shooters of all ages. Bruce thinks the sport could benefit by some rule changes that would: 1) allow shooters to operate under one consistent set of rules; 2) provide more actual shooting (more rounds fired) in matches; and 3) reduce the cost of entry and increase the “fun factor”, thereby drawing more shooters, particularly younger competitors, into the game. More radically, Bruce also advocates a course of fire change to slow down the shot intervals. This would force HG competitors to focus on condition-reading, not just shooting as fast as possible.
By Bruce Baer
I don’t like to see divisions in anything. We need to sit down and talk about things. I think the best thing for the sport would be if all the entities were all under the same format. If we would unify under the same format it would be better for everybody.
Attracting New Shooters to the Sport
Increasing the Fun Factor
F-Class is growing by leaps and bounds and I think it’s because the amount of shooting you can do during a match. At Camp Butner you can shoot upwards of 150 rounds in a weekend. By contrast, some guys will drive three to five hours to an IBS or Williamsport match, just to do two minutes of shooting, and then be done. Consider the simple expense of getting there, gas prices, motels, just to shoot 10-15 shots and go home–it’s not worth it. I’ve seen shooters come over from prone or Highpower disciplines who tried 1K Benchrest once. They walked away, shaking their heads, saying “you’re crazy”. We spend an awful lot of money for a very short shooting experience.
I would like to see IBS go to an aggregate match, more like what NBRSA does. Shoot three to five 10-shot groups. Now, at Williamsport we count group or score, and if you win either in your relay, you go to a shootoff. But this is a sudden death thing–win or lose. If you lose you are gone. I advocate that everybody gets to shoot multiple targets. Have an aggregate match, do away with the shootoff and have an aggregate winner for the weekend.
If the logistics could be worked out, I would also like to see multi-distance matches. Something like 500, 800, and 1000 yards–that would be fantastic. Not all ranges could handle this, but it would be great to try it. Anything that allows shooters to send more rounds down-range on a weekend gives us more fun for our hard-earned dollars–a higher return on that $5000 investment we’ve made in our rigs.
Course of Fire Rules–Baer’s Radical Idea for Shot Pacing
I would like to see a big change. Right now we have a 10-shot string fired all at once. I would like to see the record fire broken down into ten intervals, with 20 seconds to shoot each shot. So, the rangemaster would call “Shot One” and you’d have 20 seconds for that, then he’d call “Shot Two”, and you’d get 20 seconds for that etc. One shot per 20-second time window. You’d still fire 10 shots, but you’d do so over ten, 20-second intervals. Over the whole course of fire you’ll need to look at conditions and make decisions, not just machine-gun.
My reasoning for that is that it would force shooters to pay more attention to the conditions. Moreover, I think this is a way shooters can get a greater sense of accomplishment. Shooters need to get a “pat on the back”. With this system you get more satisfaction actually watching the conditions and making an intentional decision on the shot. Back in the early days of 1000-yard shooting, we used to shoot intentionally because we were hunters and that’s how we hunted. But today, we no longer place the shot intentionally for the most part. I would like to see reading conditions put back in our game. Taking more time will also train you to become a more deliberate, disciplined shooter.
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Topics: Heavy Gun, HG, NBRSA, IBS, Williamsport, Montana, Bruce Baer, 308 Baer, Dave Tooley, Tooley Custom, 30 BooBoo, George Tompkins, Dee Tompkins, Steve Shelp, 6mm, 6mm BR, 6BR, 6.5-284 BS, 7mm, 300 WM, 338 Lapua, 338, Weatherby, H&H, 6.5-284, JLK, Cauterucio, Norma, Hart, Lilja, Krieger, Shilen, 1000 yards, IBS, NBRSA, F-Class, Benchrest, 1000-yard, 1000, 1K, thousand-yard, Hawks Ridge, North Carolina, Nationals, Jewell trigger, Benchrest, BR, Bench Rest, Single-shot, competition, rifle accuracy, Norma, Hodgdon Powder, Varget, Vihtavuori, N150, N540, Berger, Lapua Scenar, Sierra, MatchKing, Competition Shooting, stocks, Metal Stock, Robertson Composites, BAT Machines, Kelbly’s, Stolle Action, Panda, stainless barrel, Tubb 2000, reloading, powder, case forming, neck-turning, Lapua Brass, Scenar, bullets, precision.