The F-Class Winning Formula
F-Class is one of the fastest growing long-range shooting disciplines. Shooting with scopes from a rested prone position, all types of shooters can excel in F-Class, even those with weak eyes or physical handicaps. Among the Open Class shooters, Texan Jeff Cochran led the pack in 2005, winning the 2005 Nationals and many other major F-Class matches. Jeff’s Spindle Shooters Team also captured the 2005 4-Man Championship. Jeff primarily shoots a 6.5-284 with Sierra 142gr MatchKings, but he also campaigns a 6BR with Sierra 107gr MatchKings for the 600-yard distances. In this comprehensive article, Jeff shares his winning secrets and explains the fine points of F-Class team competition.
F-Class Competition–Tools, Rules, and Techniques
by Jeff Cochran
I’ve pretty much been shooting, in one form or another, my whole life. Everything from my trusty Red Ryder to a Marlin model 60 as a kid. As a teenager, I shot pistol up to a Ruger .44 mag. In later years I dabbled in silhouette and IPSC matches. It wasn’t until late in 2000 that I was first introduced to F-Class shooting by my friend, gunsmith and mentor, Richard King. Until that time I had never fired a round beyond 200 yards. Needless to say, I was instantly hooked. I’ve managed to win more than my share of matches but 2005 was a really good year for me. The win at the F-Class Nationals (with a 1200-91X score) was icing on the cake. By the way, I want to congratulate Dale Carpenter for winning the FT/R class last year. Seems like FT/R sometimes takes a backseat to Open Class but Dale is a friend of mine and deserves a heck of a lot of credit for a great performance. I also had the unique opportunity to travel with J.J. Conway, to the Nationals. Not only is J.J. the “grandfather of F-Class” in the United States, he’s also one of the finest people I’ve ever met.
Tools of the Trade
In competition, I generally use a 6BR for 600-yard matches and a 6.5-284 for longer distances. I use a 6BR because it is inherently more accurate than most other cartridges from 300 yards to 600 yards. At 600 yards, with Sierra 107s, the 6BR gives up very little BC to the hotter cartridges. It also helps keep the round count down on my 6.5. At extended ranges it’s just hard to beat a 6.5-284.
My 6.5-284 was built by Richard King in the spring of 2001. It has gone through a few modifications since then, and I’ve changed barrels and optics. The photos show its final configuration. It features a trued Remington short action with a fluted bolt, external bolt release and single-shot follower. The bolt release and follower were both manufactured by Richard. The factory firing pin assembly (including the J-lock) was retained but the bolt shroud has screws installed in it to minimize play. The recoil lug is also stock. The action is pillar-bedded in a McMillan MBR stock, with vent slots cut into the forearm. The vent helps considerably with barrel cooling, especially the way I shoot–fast and furious. It has a Pachmyer pad and about two pounds of lead shot in the butt. The extra weight not only helps with recoil but improves balance and tracking. Balancing the gun with weight was the single most important thing I did, from a mechanical standpoint, to improve my scores. Adding the weight reduced my vertical spread during fast strings.
The trigger is a Shilen Benchrest model set at 3.7 ounces. I’ve found that 3 to 6 ounces is just about perfect for my shooting style. The barrel, an 8-twist Broughton 5C, is the best one I’ve ever had. It measures 1.22″ in diameter straight for 30″. I finished the Nationals with 1,014 rounds through it and it’s still shooting great. I can’t say enough about how good this barrel is. Thanks Tim!
For optics, I use a Nightforce 12-42 Benchrest Model with a NP-R2 reticle carried in Burris Signature rings. A TPS scope rail is bedded to the action with JB weld. I also use 1/2″ riser blocks from Bushmaster. The extra risers help with my unconventional shooting position. I have Keratoconus in my right eye–a deformation of the cornea. As a result I look through the scope with my left eye even though I shoot right-handed. Raising the scope pretty high helps me get my head in the right position for viewing with the left eye. You can see I sort of crank my head over to let my “good eye” do the work.
On my 6BR the bolt face is bushed and the bolt nose turned down. It wears a Leupold 8.5×25 LRT on a scope rail built by Ken Porter. Otherwise the 6BR is pretty much identical to my 6.5-284. Both rifles weigh in at a little over 19 lbs. My 6BR was also built by Richard in 2003. It is a superbly accurate rifle.
F-Class matches are all slow-fire, prone shooting ‘for score’. There are primarily two courses of fire in most major F-Class tournaments. A Palma match consists of three stages, 800, 900 and 1000 yards, with 15 shots for record at each distance. At 800 yards, the shooter is allowed unlimited sighters. However, only two sighters are allowed at 900 yards and 1000 yards. That dictates a different strategy for the longer distances. A tournament may consist of two or three Palma matches. The other course of fire that we commonly shoot has stages at 600 yards and 1000 yards, with 15- or 20-shot strings at each distance. A tournament will be three to five strings at each yardage, usually with unlimited sighters for each string.
In all F-Class matches, targets are pulled and marked between shots. Shooters will rotate relays and take turns, either scoring for other shooters or pulling targets in the pits. A scoring disc is placed in the bullet hole, the previous shot is pasted and a scoring disc is placed at locations around the edges of the target frame to indicate the score of the shot. A good target puller can usually have the target marked and back up in ten seconds or so. Every shooter has the responsibility to perform scoring and pit duties to the best of his ability.
Targets have scoring rings that are usually in one-minute increments for each yardage. However the NRA’s newly-approved Provisional F-Class targets will have rings in 1/2-minute increments. This means that even the top shooters will drop a point now and then, and shooters will have to modify their strategies. It will be more difficult to shoot conservatively and count on a 10.
|Shooting the Match — Winning Skills & Strategies|
Having attended a good number of F-Class matches over the past few seasons, I’ve learned quite a few lessons that can really help maximize your match results. Winning performances involve many things–equipment handling, body positioning, marksmanship skills, wind reading, and shooting strategies. I’ve broken this down into sub-topics, loosely following a time-sequence of an actual F-class Match.
We thank Sierra Bullets for sponsoring this AccurateShooter.com article.
Part One: Setting Up Gear on the Line
I’ve done this long enough that I have my routine down pretty well. When it’s time to go to the line I carry just the gear that I really need. This includes an empty-chamber indicator, front rest, rear bag, mat, ear protection, glasses and ammo box. I also take a towel, water bottle and small visor that I attach to my glasses. While it’s always handy to have the water and towel when shooting in summer heat, I use them to cool my barrel down immediately after I’ve fired my string. I actually place the wet towel on the barrel. I like to make sure the barrel has cooled as much as possible before my next relay. The visor is mainly due to my unorthodox shooting position. I lay over the top of the stock and can’t keep the sun out of my eyes without it. Once I’ve got my gear to the line, I can get everything set up and in position quickly. I position my mat behind my front rest in the same position every time. The same goes for positioning the rear bag. The key is to find a comfortable position and duplicate it every time you go to the line.
You also have to be prepared for the variations you find in the firing lines at different ranges. It can be a real pain to have to hunt around for something to stick under your rear bag when you find out you can’t get your rifle level on the berm. As soon as your gear is on the line, the RO will call for a three-minute prep period. Once in position, I dial in my elevation off my drop chart and get comfortable behind the rifle. I can’t over-stress the importance of being comfortable. I’ve lost matches because I wasn’t comfortable and that drew my attention away from the conditions. I’ve seen people have to stand-up and re-position during a string because they weren’t comfortable. I’ve also seen a lot of people fiddling around with their rear bags and front rests during record fire. That’s bad. You want to have all that stuff squared away BEFORE you start shooting.
If you have to stop a re-position yourself during record fire that will take your concentration away from the wind and the flags, and that can cost you a shot. Moreover, remember that the top F-Class shooters are firing fast–often as quickly as the targets can be cycled. If you waste time messing around with your gear or position, you can also lose the pre-dominant wind condition in which you want to shoot.
Part Two: Three-Minute Prep and Sighters
Once in position, I dial in my elevation using a drop chart. I examine the conditions and try to get a good read on the mirage. I also try to decide on what indicators I want to use to read the conditions. Notice I said indicators, not flags. I’ve found that flags can behave very differently on different ranges due to terrain. It basically takes too long to learn the nuances of the flags on a range unless I’ve shot that particular range a lot. Home field advantage can come into play here. I use mirage much more than flags. The only way to become a good mirage reader is experience, but I’ve found that mirage is generally a more reliable indicator than flags. You should also pay attention to small things like wind on your face or the smoke blowing across the range from the shooters on either side of you.
Sighters–On my sighters I’m trying to dial into the X-Ring with as few shots as possible. Three to five is what I’m trying for, to keep the barrel heat down. I always consider the first one a fouler and put little faith in it. Like Jeff Traylor always says, ‘the first one is free’. I usually don’t adjust for it unless it’s way off. I prefer to shoot just 3-4 sighters. If I have to shoot more than five sighters then I obviously don’t have a good read on the conditions or I have a rifle/load problem. And when I don’t have a good read on the conditions, I want to take my time, get comfortable, get more “input”, and not just waste rounds. The exception are team matches or the 900 and 1000 stages of a Palma match. In those situations, only two sighters are allowed. For this you have to be a little more aggressive. When shooting unlimited sighters, it’s the shooter’s responsibility to notify the scorer when the shooter is ready to fire for record.
Part Three: Reading the Indicators and Mirage
In F-Class shooting, the single best wind indicator is the spotting disc in the target. It tells you exactly what the wind did to your bullet. Or more precisely, what the wind did 10 or 15 seconds ago. The flags are pretty good. However, the flags we use are not little spinning flowers with ribbons on them. They are big sails flopping around. Big flags don’t give you precise readings, especially when they are all pointing at one another. I think mirage is probably the best indicator we have. It can also be your worst enemy if you can’t work with it. At times mirage appears as light, little waves just floating along. Other times mirage can make the targets look like they’re spinning. I can’t begin to tell you all the fine points of reading mirage. I think it’s something you can only learn with experience. There are several good articles on the subject, written by much smarter people than me. The premier article on Reading Mirage was written by Gale McMillan some years ago. Click Here to view this “must-read” reference. Another good resource is the book Precision Shooting at 1000 Yards, published by Precision Shooting magazine. It is packed full of useful information. The chapter written by my friend Larry Bartholome on F-Class shooting is also a must-read. This much I can tell you–to compete at the highest levels in F-Class competition it is imperative that you have an understanding of mirage, how it affects what you see, and how to deal with it. You can bet some of your competitors can read mirage, so you need to develop that skill.
Part Four: Runnin’ and Gunnin’ (the Trigger Work)
When the target comes up after my last sighter, it’s time to ‘run and gun’. One of the first things that Richard taught me was to “keep the target in the pits”. The longer the target stays up, the longer your string of fire will be, and the chances of major condition changes will increase. Of course, F-Class is not like point-blank benchrest shooting. You can’t machine-gun all your rounds down range in 20 seconds between puffs of wind. However, I do try to fire my string just as fast as the target pullers will let me, within reason. I will always complete my 15-shot strings in under four minutes if the pit service is reasonably fast. And while the target is down I always watch the conditions–that is very important. You can’t do this if you’re plotting shots in your log book or painstakingly making sure the empty case goes back in exactly the right spot in the ammo box. I don’t plot shots and I eject all my empties into a pile–no sorting. (That way I have the max time to watch the conditions when the target is down). I then put a fresh round in the chamber and partially close the bolt, all the while watching my indicators. As soon as the target starts up, I close the bolt and send the next round down range within a couple of seconds. But when I’m not pulling the trigger, I’ll be looking and watching conditions–you need to “process” condition changes very quickly, make your call on the right hold-off, then send the next round.
When I’m in record fire, I don’t dawdle. I shoot like I’m in a gun battle–it’s fast and furious. When I’m done with a string I feel like I’ve run a 100-yard dash. I try to get my shots off within two to three seconds of the target coming up. If you “freeze up” or get indecisive when the target comes up, it won’t help your score. This is not the time for contemplation. My mentor told me “think long, think wrong.” That’s why I try to cycle my rounds quickly and I think most of the best F-Classers do likewise.
Once I start firing my record rounds, I will NOT adjust my scope knobs again. After my sighters, the clickin’ is over. I hold off for every shot. There are several reasons for this. It doesn’t take your concentration away from watching the conditions. It prevents any chance of turning the knobs the wrong way (a mistake we’ve all made). It avoids the chance that lash in your scope knobs could cause an errant shot. And finally it’s just plain faster. I believe that most of the top F-Class shooters hold off for the majority of their strings. However, there is one problem that you can encounter when holding off. It sounds silly, but you can forget where you held for your last shot. The target comes up with a 10 at 2 o’clock and you’re not sure if your hold was a mid 10 at 9 o’clock or an inner 10 at 7 o’clock.
Part Five: Match Strategy–When to Be Conservative and When to Be Aggressive
An F-Class match is a score-shooting exercise–so ideally you want to put every round in the X-Ring if possible. However, I will sometimes employ a little strategy. After all it is a game and games are meant to be won. If I’m in the lead going into the final relays, I will shoot conservatively. By this I mean I will favor the down-wind side of the target. This will sometimes result in more 10s than Xs but it will also keep me from dropping a point due to a quick let-up. Pickups are usually not very sudden and are a lot easier to keep up with. A let-up or worse, a switch, can happen suddenly. If I’ve got a couple of minutes dialed into my scope and miss a let-up, it can push me out the other side of the target. If I’m chasing the leader, I generally shoot aggressively. I try for as many Xs as possible and hope I don’t make a mistake. This is a very competitive game with tournaments often decided by one X.
|Reloading and Load Testing
My loading procedure is pretty simple. I use a Lee auto prime to seat primers and I weigh all my powder charges on an RCBS 502 scale. I use Redding ‘S’ FL-sizing dies and try to keep neck tension to about .001″ to .0015″. If possible I want light enough tension that I can soft-seat the bullets but heavy enough so as not to pull the bullets when unloading a live round. This can be difficult to achieve. I seat the bullets about .005″ to .010″ over the ‘touch’ length when using the split-case method. Brass prep consists of chamfering and running them through a sizing die to straighten the necks. On my 6.5-284, I turn the necks to .003″ clearance. The 6BR is a .271 no-turn neck. I don’t do many of the things that other shooters do. I don’t debur flash holes or recut primer pockets. I don’t weigh or sort bullets and cases. And I don’t clean primer pockets. I’ve tried all those procedures at one time or another but never saw any gain in accuracy.
I do most of my load testing at 100 yards. I look at group size and ES. If I can produce consistent sub-half-minute groups with an ES under 20 fps, I have plenty of confidence in my loads for long-range work. I’m no benchrest shooter but I do feel it’s important to know the actual agging capability of my rifle and load. Too often, shooters cheat themselves when shooting practice groups. They excuse that one loose shot just out of the group as a gun-handling error, errant gust of wind, or some other ghost. That one loose shot can translate to a 9 at long range. In many matches, that nine will send you from first place to fifth place instantly. (Believe me I know from experience).
With the current Broughton barrel on my 6.5-284, it’s agging between .3″ and .4″ at 100 yards. I might not win the match but I have enough faith that it won’t be because of my rifle and load. Between tournaments I check throat wear and shoot a few five-shot groups just to verify that my load is still in tune. Sometimes a little tweaking of seating depth may be necessary, especially after the barrel’s round count starts to climb. I also re-test if I’m switching powder or bullet lots. At this point you’re probably saying “100 yard groups are one thing, but how does it actually shoot at 1k?” I have the target from one of my 1000-yard strings from last year’s Texas State Long Range Championships. It measures 6.5 inches wide by 7 inches tall. Now I know there are 1K benchrest groups fired all the time that are half that size, but how many are for 25 rounds? The 26th shot was out of the X-Ring and opened the group up to 8″ tall. And while the 6.5-284 is my preferred long-range rig, you can see how well the 6BR shoots at long range–that’s a witnessed 1065-yard prairie dog hit.
Your editor asked me to comment on my cleaning regimen. First, I’m not afraid of bronze brushes. I brush with Hoppes #9 to take out powder fouling. I run Sweet’s through the barrel with wet patches or a wet brush as many times as necessary to get rid of the copper fouling. Usually three or four cycles will do the job on the 6.5-284. And after every cleaning I’ll run a patch with oil through the barrel. I’ll normally go a whole match without cleaning–that’s how it is in F-Class. You don’t have time to clean after each relay because you have pit duties to perform. So that means you’ll typically run 50-55 rounds (including sighters) in a Palma match. For a 600+1000 match, you could fire as many as 75 rounds in a day. However, if I’m in a tournament with paid target pullers, I will take the opportunity to clean between relays.
I want to add that I know how my gun performs when it has 50+ rounds through it, and the barrel is hot from fast cycling. If, when practicing, you’re taking your time in order to keep the barrel cool, and cleaning every 20 rounds or so, you may be in for a rude awakening when shooting under actual match conditions. I’m not advocating that you run your barrel hot on purpose, I’m just saying that you need to know how your gun performs in actual match conditions. If it fouls out after 25 rounds, you’ll have problems in a match where you have to work the pits between strings and can’t clean. You’ll need to find a way to get your barrel to hold its accuracy longer–or buy a new one.
Factory vs. Custom Action
A lot of people blame the action for other problems. Sometimes even new barrels just won’t shoot. You need to understand that barrels are disposable, just like primers and bullets. Don’t waste your time on one that you don’t have confidence in. This can get pricey but I’d much rather have extra barrels than a fancy rest or cool paint job. Another thing to consider is that F-Class is not sterile like BR. Actions are subjected to dust, dirt, debris and rain. You need reliability in all conditions.
The Cost Factor
Future Plans and New Developments in F-Class
One of the neat things about F-class is that there seems to be no set standard like some other shooting sports. For 2006 I’ve made quite a few changes in my equipment. I purchased a new rest and mat, and I have a new 6.5-284 in the works. My last one has served me well but it’s time for it to get a much deserved place of honor on my reloading room wall. The new one will be quite a change for me. I’m admittedly an “econo-shooter” but I decided to upgrade to a BAT action, Jewell trigger, and stock from MasterClass. Of course I will still use a Broughton barrel and Nightforce 12-42X. Jeff Traylor and I are also working on a 6mm wildcat we are calling the 243 FC (“FC” for F-Class). This a modified version of the 6PPR developed by Howard Pitts.
While it’s certainly nothing new or ground-breaking, with the 243 FC we are looking for a case design that has the inherent accuracy of the 6BR while being able to drive 107s and 115s faster. Initial tests show that the velocity is there, but the case-forming does require special dies to move the shoulder down (and extend the neck). I think the biggest trend this season will be with similar case designs. The 6BR will always be one of my favorites but when everybody has one, you naturally start looking for ways to separate yourself from the competition.
While I haven’t used any 115s yet in competition, I think the DTACs, in one of the mid-sized cases, could soon dominate the 600-yard matches. A mid-sized 6mm with DTAC 115s should give you significantly better ballistics than the 105-107 grain 6mm bullets, yet still offer less recoil and (hopefully) better barrel life than the 6.5-284s. For the shooter looking for a good all-around cartridge, a decent-sized 6mm pushing 115s will be a good choice without giving up much to the 6.5s at 1000 yards. Whether the favored 6mm cartridge will be a 6XC is an open question. We may see two or three mid-sized cases that are all competitive. Time will tell.
As far as projectiles, the hot ticket may be the DTAC 115, or other bullets that are on the drawing table right now (Norma 6mm, Sierra 120). The other possibility, which is more of a long-shot, is going to lighter, faster bullets, such as the Berger 88LD or the BIB 95. While I’ve seen these deliver astounding accuracy in ideal conditions, I question whether they will be competitive when it gets wicked. Before investing in a 10-twist to shoot light bullets, you have to ask yourself, are you going to travel across the country with that set-up and hope you have a perfect day with super-calm conditions. In my experience, as soon as the wind starts to blow, the higher-BC boat-tail bullets will out-perform the flat-based bullets. But I’m sure we’ll see some 10-twists on the line this year. For strictly long-range events, I dont see the 6.5-284 being bumped off the podium anytime soon. There has been a lot of talk recently about 7mms so it will be interesting to see if they start to gain favor among the top F-Classers.
About the Rule Changes
Up until now we’ve primarily shot big targets with a one-minute X-Ring. When you’re doing that you can be more conservative. The new 1/2-MOA target is going to change the game dramatically. You can’t shoot so conservatively and count on scoring tens. You don’t have that extra “room” to play with. Everybody is going to drop points–I think everyone will have a few 9s when the conditions get tough. Big matches used to be decided on X count, now they’ll be decided on points. It won’t be over ’til it’s over You can’t sit on a lead the way I’ve done in some matches, with the smaller new target.
In general, I think the target size change is a good thing though I was torn on the issue for a while. At the 2004 Nationals they tried scoring the Xs as 11 to spread the field out. I didn’t have a problem with that. With the new smaller target, yes it changes the way you shoot a little, but it’s fair for everybody and you work out your strategy according to the size of the targets.
What Is Team Competition?
Jeff Cochran (far left) and “Team Spindle Shooters” members (2nd L to R): Mike Williamson, Mark Deluia, Jeff Traylor.
How Does a Team Match Work–What Are the Basics?
How Did You Form your Team?
Is There a Strategy for Team Shooting?
How Important Is the Coaching by Team-Mates?
Would a Dedicated Coach Provide an Advantage?
How does someone get involved in team shooting?
Acknowlegements: Thanks to John Huebener for the photography. And very special thanks to my wife Stacy. Not only for her support but for understanding that this is much more than a hobby for me–shooting is what I do.
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