Unforgettable….that’s about the best word I can use to describe the trip to England and Wales for the the 2017 FT World Championships. When you get a chance to go to the place where it all started, the home of the game you love, I don’t think it can be anything less than unforgettable. I’ve been very fortunate over the last few years to go to some amazing places, meet incredible people, and gain FT experience far beyond what I could have imagined. But this season has felt different for me, I haven’t had that drive to shoot that I have had in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy going to matches and doing my best, but deep down I didn’t have that fire in the belly to knock down targets that has been there over the past three years. I have a few suspicions why that is, but that’s not important. This trip made me realize in a big way, that there are more important things to Field Target for me than just knocking down targets. It’s the experience, the people, and the camaraderie that make this game special and where I find the most value. It’s easy to lose sight of that sometimes, but this trip brought that right back into my view.
I was traveling with Ken Hughes and Alan Otsuka. Both are great friends and two guys I look up to for very different reasons. Ken, because he has not only been in the sport since the early 90s but he has been very successful at the highest levels. 30 years after he started, he is still one of the best shooters in the US and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. He has been one of my biggest mentors through my short time in the sport thus far. Alan, because he is probably the happiest human being I have ever met. I’ve never met anyone that smiles as much, makes friends as easily and is willing to help anyone at the drop of hat. Alan doesn’t care much about his FT performance, but he still makes these trips to Worlds because of the camaraderie and people. While he may finish low on the scoreboard, you go around asking shooters from other countries who they’d pick to be the “mascot” for the sport or who they enjoy being around the most, or even who they look forward to seeing the most….and inevitably, you’d be bombarded with answers of “ALAN.” He’s a legend, and the first thing we did when we arrived in England cemented that into my memory forever.
We all met up at London-Heathrow airport and after talking for a bit and grabbing some food, we got the rental car and headed on our way. Our first stop was Stafford, which is about 20 minutes away from the Midland Game Fair. This is the home of the BFTA European Championships, one of the most prestigious FT matches in England. The game fair plays host to airgun companies, firearms manufacturers and retailers, dog breeders and trainers, falconry exhibits and birds of prey demonstrations and just about anything else you can link to being “outdoors.” It’s kind of like SHOT show or the NRA Annual Meetings but outdoors. We went over to the game fair on Friday, as vendors were setting up to meet up with another legend. The following is why Alan is a legend in my mind. We headed right over to the Air Arms stand, where I had the pleasure of introducing Ken and Alan to Claire West (managing director) and the team from Air Arms. We were there for another reason though, to see Nick Jenkinson. Nick is arguably the greatest Air Arms ambassador of all time and helps the company at events like this game fair. Nick is also an FT legend, having won 3 world championships and almost every other title you can think of in FT. I had never met Nick, but obviously look up to him as one of the best to ever play the game. Hell, Air Arms named a rifle after him, the NJR 100. He was amazingly gracious, down to earth and friendly. The reason we met up with Nick is because he had a rifle for Alan to shoot. Yes, you read that correctly. Alan shows up, no gun, no pellets….not a freaking thing but a smile and clothes! Out of Nick’s car comes 2 rifle cases, 5 bum bags, a “good batch” of pellets, pellet lube, air fill adapters, knee pads….anything Alan could have needed. Alan picked up an Air Arms EV2, took two bum bags and a few other goodies. There are two things you need to recognize here:
- Nick Jenkinson laid out the red carpet for Alan….an FT shooting legend recognizing the legendary FT ambassador and an old friend (their friendship goes back to the beginnings of the sport in the US).
- THIS KIND OF CAMARADERIE RUNS RAMPANT IN FIELD TARGET AND IS WHAT MAKES THE GAME SO SPECIAL!
Number 2 is in caps for a reason, it is the reason I love this game. It is the part of the game that I advertise to people above the shooting, and the part of the game that I will do anything to preserve. When we get too wrapped up in conversations about rules, classes and other political stuff…it’s really the only thing that keeps me coming back.
After we got Alan’s gear, we headed over to Millride FTC where the club was holding an open shooting day before the Euro’s for foreign and domestic competitors alike to come down and make sure their gear was ready to go. Thankfully, both Ken and I were able to verify our rifles were zeroed and shooting as they should be. We then shot about half of the course before it started raining lightly and we called it quits. As we were packing up, we ran into Jon Harris who is probably the most famed PCP rifle tuner in the UK. He makes some awesome accessories and does the coolest FT conversions you’ll see. He had a newly converted Anschutz 9015 with him that he let Ken and I try….and after shooting it, let’s just say I need one! Thanks to the folks over at Millride for hosting us and giving us a great practice course to shoot. It’s a great venue and I hope to make it back one day.
The next day we arrived at the Midland Game Fair for the morning session of the BFTA Euro’s. We checked our zeros and noticed some very strange wind variation on the sight in range. This was a good indicator of the wind we would see on the open section of the course, but it was the first time in a long while I can remember thinking to myself “how do you compensate for wind you cannot see?” This would be the question of the entire trip, though I didn’t know that at the time. I was shooting with Wian Strydom from South Africa and Andy Finnigan from England. We had a great time going around the course, and enjoyed the layout. The course is half in an open field and half in a more wooded section of the venue. Just like worlds, they use numbers to designate which targets you are supposed to shoot at which lane. This is vital because there were often lanes where you could see 6-7 targets from your shooting position, so all there was to differentiate them was the numbers. It was a very long course with tons of shots over 45 yards, so the wind game had to be on point.
We started on lane 7, and thankfully only shot two lanes in the open area before heading into the wooded part of the course. In the wooded sections, the wind was more consistent and predictable. That said, there were still shots that I had to hold a few inches outside of the kill zone to hit. I emerged from the woods only down two or three shots, and then I encountered some of the strangest wind I have ever NOT seen. The grass in the field area was pretty long, the strings were off of the ground, and there was even mirage to indicate the wind direction. Lane after lane, I slowly bled a shot here and there, until finally the pain was over and the day was done. I managed to finish on a 41/50, which didn’t feel too bad, but watching some of my misses in that field left me shaken.
“Field Target is a game played between the ears.” I can’t remember if Ken or Alan said that first during the trip, but they are 100% correct. I can’t describe the defeated feeling that comes when you see no wind on a lane/target, or just enough to get you to hold on the edge of the kill zone, and then you watch that pellet sail across the kill zone and land another inch or two beyond it. After you get over the head scratching phase, this feeling of helplessness sets in. So you prepare for the next shot, which is similar distance, same area….should take similar wind, right? So you hold 3” out of the kill (subsequently pushing your crosshairs off of the faceplate), take in the conditions to make sure you’ve done your due diligence and break the trigger. This next part is what makes FT such a cruel game…..the pellet follows your crosshairs and whizzes by the target without any movement from wind. The cuss words that came out of my mouth on that firing line, a result of frustration, feeling helpless and lacking the knowledge/experience to deal with it. As Ken and I talked after the match (Ken finished a few shots back of me), he looked at me stone faced and said, “I’ve been shooting FT for over 30 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on shooting in wind.” He shook his head speechless as if to say, “I know nothing.” And I couldn’t agree with him more. It was easily one of the most humbling FT moments I’ve had thus far. And when I found out that 18 year old Red Gallagher of England shot a 47 on day one, it made the experience all the more humbling.
Day two we shot the PM session, which usually means more wind. Thankfully the forecast for the day looked good so we would not have to worry about rain….or so I thought. I was squadded with FT legend Andy Calpin and Des Edwards. I was super excited to shoot with Andy, I think anyone who knows anything about FT would be. He’s got more top 10 finishes at the Worlds than anyone and he won it in 1999. He’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He had a rough go of it on day one and dropped 10, but I figured he’d bounce back on day two with a good score. We made it through about 5-6 lanes, and I dropped a few too many shots early trying to figure out the wind, then I looked up. A dark cloud was looming overhead, I looked at Des and said “it’s not supposed to rain today, right?” He said he didn’t think so. Within 5 minutes the drops began to fall. It was tolerable at first, then it got to a point where I was sitting at a lane shooting and there was water pooling on my jacket. The drops fell harder and harder, the scope lens got wet, but I still managed to emerge from the woods having only dropped a few shots. Just as it had the day before, the open field ripped my score card apart and threw it into the wind that I couldn’t see! I finished the day dropping 14 shots and I was not happy about it. I was wet and cold and glad to be done. I learned a bit, got to shoot with some great folks and really enjoyed the experience, but now it was time to dry the guns off and turn our attention to Worlds.
Before we made the three hour drive to Wales, we met up with Gary Saunders, the former owner of Daystate and long time friend of Ken and Alan. I swear, these guys know everyone! We went to the Royal Airforce Museum and spent a few hours staring at planes, missiles and engines. They had everything from a V2 rocket to the a turbine engine that was big enough for me to stand inside of. We departed the museum and had a good journey down to Wales. I have to say, Ken did a great job of adapting to driving on the left side of the road. Especially on the tight roads that you travel on in most of England and Wales. We took a more scenic route and were only on the highway towards the end of the trip, but we encountered a few roads so narrow that we had to fold in the mirrors of our Hyundai Santa Fe….and they consider that a large vehicle there! It was quite a trip, but we arrived to our hotel safely in Ebbw Vale (pronounced “ebba”) and got a good night’s sleep before the first day of sight in.
We arrived at the range in the morning and headed down to join the long line for registration. It has become customary for the check in process to include an equipment check where marshals will check your jacket, glove, bum bag, rifle velocity and a few other things before allowing you to start the competition. This is especially important in England and Wales because the law says that any rifle over 12 FPE requires a Firearms Certificate or the person in possession of such a rifle can be jailed. Thankfully, all of my equipment checked out just fine and we headed to the sight in range. The gun was still on point despite getting all sorts of wet from the Euro’s. We caught up with old friends, met new ones and even got to spend some time checking out a few of the vendor set ups. Air Arms, Steyr, Daystate, Leupold, Schmidt and Bender, Kahles, Anschutz and JSB all had representatives on hand.
The location where the competition was held is called Glanusk, it is a massive estate that is privately owned and spans nearly 25,000 acres. The sight in range was in an open field just off of the main road and easily fit all 300+ competitors. The courses stretched over 1.5 miles if I recall correctly. The yellow and black courses ran together, so the walking was somewhat limited there. But the spread of the courses meant you’d get a fair share of windy open shots, wooded shots and plenty of positionals. The evening after the first sight in day, we attended the welcome banquet, which was held at the Manor Hotel. It is part of the property and a gorgeous venue. With nearly 300 people packed in, it was a great opportunity to mingle and enjoy a cold beverage with your fellow competitors. It’s a great time and knowing that the next day was another sight in day, meant we could all overindulge a bit! The next day, we attended the Marshaling course hosted by Brian Samson from England. Brian goes through the ins and outs of the current rules and by the end of the session, you are deemed ready to be a marshal at a World’s match. Hopefully this will come in handy in a few years when the Worlds come to the US. Outside of that, the second sight in day was pretty uneventful and we were ready to get down to business!
I was squadded with Sergio Arman from Spain and Red Gallagher from England. You’ll remember Red from his day one top score at the BFTA Euro’s the weekend before. I also have seen Sergio over the last few years of attending world matches. He has finished top 15 in the world in the two prior years, so it was clear to me that I was shooting with some top level competitors. The morning shooters briefing was quick and concise and we headed to lane 18 on the yellow course. Those who had the opportunity to walk the courses said that the black course was the hardest, then yellow and white was the easiest, not that things like that matter much at a worlds. The only bad part of the day was the rain, while it wasn’t as punishing as at the Euro’s, it was enough to make things wet and uncomfortable. Thankfully, Ken, Alan and I devised a way to keep the rain out of our guns using tape and plastic from water bottles. One less thing to worry about, since the game is played between the ears! The day started off pretty solid, our first 8 lanes were in a relatively open area, but it was not overly windy. The wind that was present was consistent and because of the rain, easier to gauge. Folks spend too much time hating the rain to realize that it is a great windicator, I tend to embrace the rain as it adds an element of entertainment to the shooting for me. Lane 25 was an offhand lane and I remember being steady on both shots but only getting one of them, such is life. We made the long walk to lane 1 and this was where I got slapped in the face! It was this huge open expanse with just a few trees here and there. Gorgeous to look at, horrifying to try and read the wind in! Over the next 8-9 lanes, I managed to miss 7 shots in a row….that’s 3.5 lanes of bad wind calls and that distinct “tink” of the pellet hitting the plate. I remember thinking to myself, “am I ever going to hit one again?” When I finally did, it was the biggest relief I’ve ever felt on an FT course. I ended the day on a 37 and was downright depressed. The biggest take away was the fact that I missed a handful of positional shots. If I had buckled down on those, I could have escaped with a score in the 40 range. But tomorrow was another day. I spoke with a few of my teammates about the other courses and the sense that the white course was the easiest was confirmed. Thankfully, the weather looked better for the next day and we would be on the white course.
The white course was nestled in a different section of the grounds than the black and yellow and ran in a big circle. We started on a kneeling lane, which I was happy to clear. There was sunshine, and a tricky wind coming through the more wooded course. On lane 24, there was a target where you had to completely change direction between the first and second shots. Made the first shot without issue, but the second shot caught me out a bit, I didn’t give it quite enough wind and watched my pellet land about 5mm outside of the kill. I found that funny, since there was no movement in the grass, no movement in the string and my windicator wasn’t moving. Here is where the game gets in your head really quickly. We move to the next lane and the far target is in a very similar place to the long target that I missed on the previous lane. I had to remind myself of what I learned at the Euro’s, address each shot on it’s own as it is unique and likely different than a similar shot just taken. While that may have helped at the Euros, it was bad advice here. Again, no wind showing anywhere, I held just right of the center of the kill zone and pulled the trigger. Just as it had on lane 24, the pellet carried left of the kill about 5mm outside the edge. Had I held inside right edge of the kill zone, I’d have dropped that target without issue, but because I didn’t use all of the information at my disposal I lost another point. I carried on through the majority of the course 2 shots down, which felt good. I dropped three more shots in a tricky downhill section of the course where the wind was blowing hard at the shooter, but none on the target. I did manage to clear all of my positional lanes which was a bright note for the day and ended on a 45. Sergio also ended on a 45, after shooting an impressive 44 on the first day. And Red put in a 44, after beating me by one with a 38 on day one. As the scores came in, German Stefan Kawnik and 2013 World Champ John Costello were tied atop the leader board, with 2016 champ Jack Harris and a few others just one behind.
Day three always has a bit more intensity in the air as everything is up for grabs. Big moves can be made in both directions, and every so often you see something that is truly miraculous. I’ll be completely honest, I was tired and not terribly enthusiastic about shooting…especially considering there was a light mist coming down. We were finishing on the dreaded black course, the toughest of the 3 by the numbers. I’d venture to say over 60% of the shots were over 40 yards, and the positionals were just a bit longer than on the other two courses. I dropped my first shot of the day, splitting the pellet on the left edge of the kill zone. The only good thing about that, is it gives you a decent read on the wind early. Sergio had a tough go of it early too, he and I dropped a few shots in the first 8 lanes before making the trek to lane one. Red was rock solid though, he wasn’t too pleased with his first two days performances, and he was determined to make the final day his best. Again, the wind in the open section of the course (lanes 1 – 7) caught me a few times, but I managed to keep the bleeding to just that section. We had about 8 lanes left, and we came to a lane with two targets both over 45 yards, completely in the open. I held too much on the first shot and watched the pellet land just on the edge of the kill zone. Refocused on the second shot and held too little and watched the pellet sail across the kill zone landing on the opposite edge. Sergio dropped one here as well, but Red cleared it. He didn’t wait for the wind, he sat down, ranged the targets and dropped them both. I remember thinking to myself at that moment, “He’s gonna clear it.” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of or seen a Worlds course cleared before, but I would think it’s been done. It’s still something that just doesn’t seem like it should happen, not at Worlds. We pressed on, lane by lane, target after target, Red kept putting them down. Finally, we arrived at the last lane…two more targets wide open with some tricky wind. I don’t have many pictures of the course, because you’re not supposed to use your cell phone on the course while shooting….but this moment was too monumental, so I pulled out my phone after Red dropped the first target. He settled in on the second shot, gauged the wind and pulled the trigger and we all watched the target fall! The look on his face as he turned around and looked back at Sergio and I, the smile mixed with disbelief….as the Brits say, it was MEGA!
I finished the day on a 41. I managed to reel it in on the last leg of the course, clearing the final 7-8 lanes. But the rocky start to the day took it’s toll. I wasn’t going to hit my goal of getting the WFTF Master (92.5% of the high score) patch this year, and that’s okay. I ended up as the highest scoring American shooter and tied among many others around the top 40. Similar finish to last year, but in worse conditions, on harder courses and among probably the best field of FT competitors in recent history. So I’ll take it! All in all, between Euros and Worlds, this trip was extremely humbling and inspiring. It’s safe to say the fire in the belly is back, and I know what needs to be worked on over the course of the next year. There will be lots of experimentation done over the next few months to see how I can improve my game, and I know my fellow US shooters will be doing the same. It’s safe to say that we were all humbled by the difficulty and conditions we encountered in Wales, but I know everyone enjoyed it. Even when you’re missing, FT is one of the most enjoyable games that I know. That night, we enjoyed the closing banquet dinner back at the Manor Hotel. We drank, we ate, (yes, in that order) and we praised both the winners and the match organizers. Because the US is so large, I forget how little we American FT shooters get to see each other. Heck, I don’t think I’ve seen California native Riz Marquez since Nationals last year and that was almost a full year. I only see Greg, Ken and Harold a few times a year as well. Sure, we all talk more frequently than that, but still, we aren’t as fortunate as many of the European countries are in the sport of Field Target. No matter how long it has been though, each time we see each other, it’s like no time has passed. The camaraderie we share reminds me why I love this game and it’s what keeps me coming back.
To my international friends, another year has come and gone too quickly, and I cherished each moment we spent together. Sharing the course with you all was an honor and privilege I will not soon forget. To the English and Welsh, you welcomed us with open arms and smiles, and I only hope that we can return the favor in a few years time. Your generosity, kindness and tireless dedication to the game is appreciated more than you know. The experience you all have provided was worth so much more than I can put into words right now. I cannot wait to see you all again in Poland for the 2018 Worlds. And a special thanks to Martin Calpin at Pellet on Pellet, if you guys don’t follow him on social media or know about his website yet, check it out here. Martin is a great guy and keeps the rest of the world well up to date on FT happenings in the UK. He also takes some first rate pictures. Also to Peter Staddon for his top quality pics as well. It was a pleasure meeting you both and thank you for the excellent documentation of the events!
A special shout out to Ken and Alan. Thank you both for letting me tag along with you on this wild adventure. Your fellowship and friendship is something I truly appreciate. I had an amazing time and I’m convinced most of that was because of you two. I always look forward to seeing you guys and I know the next time will be full of even more laughter and smiles than this trip. And don’t forget to save me your pocket change, the claw game awaits!
It’s been a heck of a ride folks, the 2017 Worlds in Wales was an amazing experience and I cannot wait for 2018. Every year I learn something new and every year the improvements I am making show. It’s been a whirlwind of a year for me and I am sure that the pace I am going is not going to slow down anytime soon. The US Nationals in Arizona are quickly approaching, and I am excited for that experience. For those of you that are going, I look forward to seeing you there. Those that aren’t, I will miss you but look forward to sharing the lanes with you again soon.
As always, shoot safe and see you on the lanes.