One of the reasons I enjoy Field Target so much is the opportunity to travel. The game has taken me all over the USA and into parts of the world that I definitely wouldn’t have traveled to on my own. There’s a sense of adventure in the travel that I look forward to. It’s the quest for that little bit of immortality many seek, but seldom find. To have our names engraved into the history books of our great game. Or the opportunity to say “I was there” when people tell stories of a great performance, a fatal mistake, or (more often) a funny anecdote. Since my first US Nationals in 2013, I have resolved to never miss one if I can help it. Not because it’s the biggest stage of the FT season in the U.S., but because it is the one place that the sport comes together in the U.S. You see friends you may only get to see once a year, meet folks you’ve only corresponded with online, and of course, try your hand at getting your name into the history books. In 2017, that opportunity laid roughly 2000 miles southwest, in Phoenix, Arizona.
It had been about 23 years since I had been to Arizona, and to be honest, I was so young at the time, the only parts of the trip I recall are the parts my parents captured on camera. The Nationals hadn’t been held out west since 2012 in Oregon, and I know many of our west coast shooters had been clamoring for a Nationals closer to home. When the Phoenix Airgun Club bid to host the match, it made perfect sense to send the match out west. I was excited for the trip and the chance to see a part of the country that I only have grainy video footage of. I was lucky enough to get a direct flight, and find lodging with David and Dottie Slade. And a week or two before the trip, I got word that one of my travel companions from Worlds would be staying with us as well. You guessed it, the incomparable, Alan Otsuka! If nothing else, I knew we would have a great time! Dave and Dottie are great people that I have known since I started shooting FT while in college, I used to drive down to their club in Minor Hill, TN from school in Kentucky to shoot.
I arrived Wednesday evening, and good ole’ Uncle Alan picked me up with Dave and Dottie at the airport. We caught up over dinner, shared some laughs and called it an evening. Nationals has traditionally been a Friday to Sunday affair, but the folks at the Phoenix Airgun Club were on a mission to make their match an event that would be remembered. Starting with an all day sight-in day on Thursday where competitors could check their equipment, sign in and mingle. I arrived at the range, got signed in and found my rifle shooting about 12 clicks right and 8 clicks high. I don’t know if it was the thinner air in the desert or being jostled in the flight, but I’ve never seen an elevation change from a flight…and I’ve flown with this rifle setup 7 times. Regardless, I was able to get it figured out and re-zero my scope. I spent most of the time at the range chatting with shooters, staring at equipment and meeting some new faces to the game. The pistol shoot was the next day and I was sharing a pistol with the creator of the Thomas Air Rifles, Mike Niksch. Mike let me take a few shots with the gun to get used to it and I got a good handle on what it was doing.
We arrived Friday morning just in time for the start of the pistol match. I was shooting with Mike (since we were sharing a pistol) and Mike Schultz. I met Mike Schultz at the Pyramyd Cup and knew he was a good shooter. Both of them were shooting in the Hunter pistol division and I was shooting limited (formerly called open). As expected, both of them started out quite strong, as did I. The Thomas guns are a great platform and very modular, so you can run them as a rifle or pistol by simply removing or installing the butt-stock. I dropped one seated shot that I held too much for a slight breeze on a long target. I ended on a 48/52, the other three shots I missed were on the offhand lane. The shots weren’t hard, but I struggled to get comfortable shooting the pistol offhand. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be applicable for the rifle match and cost me a few more shots. Just as it had the year before, the final totals left Riz Marquez and I tied for 1st in limited pistol. The shoot off would be done on Saturday after the rifle match, but I was very happy that for the 3rd year in a row I’ve shot the highest score in limited class. I was hopeful that I would avenge my shoot off loss to Riz the year before.
Funny side note, Riz is short for Rizalde. At Worlds in Portugal in 2016, I started calling him Rizdale purely as a joke. Much to my surprise, they had Riz on his registration as Rizdale….I told Riz I emailed the host to make sure they spelled it that way, I really didn’t. So the running joke as they called the squads each morning was that they would call “Rizdale.” Even at the banquet, when he was called up for awards, they called his name incorrectly. If I leave no other lasting impressions on this game, I am happy knowing people who attended the 2017 Nationals will likely call Riz “Rizdale” for the foreseeable future. Sorry Riz, just had to clarify that for the folks at home!
After the pistol match, I headed over to the sight-in range and verified that my rifle was still holding the adjusted zero from the day before. Thankfully, the winds from the day before had calmed down enough to get a very good read on the trajectory and I was happy to find everything held true. So in keeping with my usually pre-match sight in routine, I took ZERO sight-in shots on Saturday morning. We arrived at the clubhouse where the shooters meeting would be held, to find that there were still adjustments being made to the course. After a little over an hour, we were given our squads and instructions for the shooters meeting and the match was underway. They mixed all of the classes, so I had the good fortune to shoot with Vipha Miller (Open PCP) and Ray Perron (Hunter PCP). Vipha is a great shooter and a real pleasure to shoot with. Ray is relatively new to FT, but being a Phoenix local, he educated me on some of the interesting terrain and landscape features. Especially about the plants that were very close to the shooting lanes. There were a few instances where shooters got stuck by cacti because of the proximity to the firing line. I thought it was an interesting way to mix the terrain into the course layout and it definitely meant you had to watch where you were going and where you put your equipment. A few times I had cacti stuck on my shooting bag, thankfully, I was wearing steel toe boots, so I just kicked it off. Others were not so lucky.
Saturday was not terribly windy in the beginning of the day, but there was enough there to make you think twice about your shots. The yellow course that we were shooting didn’t have too many far targets, but there were a decent number of reducers in middle distances (30 – 40 yards) which can be tricky in a subtle wind. I’ve learned to use the strings to help read the wind, but that is hard to do when the string is tangled in a cactus at one or two points down range. Again, the terrain was probably the most interesting and annoying feature of the match. I mentioned earlier that my struggles with offhand were not just in pistol, they came into play in the rifle match as well. Our second or third lane was the long offhand lane. They decided to set up the courses a little differently and have two offhand lanes on the yellow course and two kneeling lanes on the red course. This meant you had one relatively easy positional lane and one difficult lane. Sadly, the first offhand lane of the day was the difficult one. There was a target around 30 yards and another out at 37-38 if memory serves. I dropped the first shot and felt good as I watched it go down through the scope, then something strange happened. I got the gun ready for the second shot on the 30 yard target, felt steady, aimed and pulled the trigger. The depressing ring of a miss that seemed to echo between my ears for the next 30 seconds was a bit of a shock. I felt good, everything looked good, but I planted a pellet at about the 3 o’clock position. I quickly moved on to the longer target and the wind began to whip ever so slightly. I didn’t give the first shot enough wind, and I gave the second shot too much wind. It’s been a long time since I’ve missed three shots in an offhand lane, and I knew that those misses would be crucial down the road.
The day progressed and I dropped a few shots here and there. It was clear that very few were really dominating the course, but that is what I would expect at a Nationals. Ray had started on fire, but hit a rough patch through the middle of the course that he struggled to recover from. Vipha seemed to be cruising along steadily. I really enjoyed their company through the day, it’s a nice change of pace to shoot with folks that you aren’t in competition with inside of your division. There was a fair bit of cloud cover through the day, which kept us relatively cool for the desert and thankfully, we didn’t see any scorpions or rattlesnakes as we made our way through the course. There’s a real majesty to the desert, I am not saying it’s my favorite place to be, but it’s definitely cool to know you’re standing in the midst of a bunch of stuff that could hurt or kill you. And quite frankly, when you remove that, the views are just incredible. The Sonoran desert gets a big thumbs up from this guy! We finished up the day in good spirits, I turned in a 51 which felt horrible, but I found out I was in good company. Mike Niksch, Neil Younggren and Wayne Burns also shot 51, while Greg Sauve and Pete Brooks put up 52. We had heard rumors that one of the Puerto Rican shooters had scored above us all, and it was true. Edwin Tubens came in with an impressive 54! Not to be outdone, Scott Schneider turned in a MASSIVE 57/60 in Hunter PCP. Along with these big PCP scores, Nathan Thomas blazed through the course with his Walther LGU in WFTF Piston, shooting a 50. He was one shot up on Ray Apelles and defending WFTF Piston champ, Brad Troyer.
After the rifle match was over, the Pistol shoot offs were completed. Being a self proclaimed professional “borrower” of FT pistols, Riz allowed me the use of his gun for the shoot off as I didn’t want Mike to have to swap his scopes just for a pistol shoot off he wasn’t involved in. Garrett placed a ⅜” KZ target at 18 yards and we went at it! I shot first, splitting the pellet at 7 o’clock with about half the pellet welding into the kill. Splits can be super depressing in shoot offs, actually they are depressing at any time. Every now and again you get lucky and a splitter goes down for you, but that day it was not to be. The target stood tall, giving Riz a chance to close the door. Riz was unable to take it down, so back down I went. A gentle breeze had picked up at this point, which required some windage hold off, I held on the right edge of the kill and watched the pellet split on the opposite side….AT 18 YARDS!! At that point, I was pretty sure Riz would end it, and he did. Riz, well done buddy. You got me again, but as they say “the third time’s the charm.” So I am looking forward to another showdown in 2018! In all honesty, I don’t care too much about pistol, which is probably why I do fairly well. The trick is to figure out how to adopt that same mentality for rifle, maybe I should start borrowing guns for that too!?!?
Sunday morning always has a more serious tone to it as everyone tries to put on their best game face for the final day. I was squadded with Doug Miller and Nathan Thomas. Yes, Doug is Vipha’s husband and a top shooter in the Open PCP class. And of course, Nathan was leading WFTF Piston class by one shot, needless to say, I was squadded with two top shooters. Nathan got off to a very impressive start, clearing the first few lanes. We started on the kneeling lane, and just like standing on Saturday, I didn’t do well. Like the offhand lanes, there was a long kneeling lane with one target at about 30 yards and the other at about 38 yards. The other kneeling lane was shorter and much easier. We started on the more difficult of the two, and with the tricky morning winds gently pushing my windicator around, I was unable to hold it together. Starting the day a few shots down is never ideal, but it is what it is and I have no one to blame but myself for those shots. I pulled things together over the next few lanes, dropping only a tricky long shot here and there. The wind was rarely consistent for more than a few seconds, which made things very tricky and thought provoking. I recall one sideways falling bird that was in the high 30s, distance wise. It was a full size kill zone, and I recall very clearly watching Nathan (who was shooting first) miss it twice. I sat down, ranged the target and wondered how Nathan was unable to take it down. I checked a few times for wind, but didn’t see anything noteworthy, held just left of center and pulled the trigger. The pellet went across the kill and landed on the right edge. Needless to say, I was stunned. There was nothing indicating that kind of wind drift, the string was completely dead and my windicator was as well. I held out of the kill zone for the second shot, and watched the target go down, shaking my head in amazement. Similar to Wales, I am struggling to learn how you hold for wind you cannot see. But I suppose this is a struggle for all of us that we all learn in our own ways, or not at all.
The red course was definitely longer than the yellow course had been, which made it more difficult in the tricky winds. There seemed to be more than a few reduced KZ’s (1” – 1.25”) in the high 30s and low 40s, coupled with the wind made for some very carefully calculated shots. For me, it was usually a matter of holding on the edge of the kill or holding a half inch out. There was only one shot that I can think of where I had to hold more than that. It was the one moment I can remember where the wind picked up and stayed consistent. The target was a 42-43 yard 1”, the first shot I held on the edge and was fortunate to drop it. As I was loading, the wind kicked up and as I settled in behind the scope, it was clear that the wind wasn’t letting up. I’ve found it’s best to embrace these moments rather than wait it out. I moved the crosshairs about an inch off the edge of the kill, took up the first stage in my trigger pull and held on the second stage wall. After holding for a second to make sure the wind wasn’t going anywhere, I applied the 3.5 oz necessary to send the shot. I watched the pellet flash just before it entered the kill zone, then the sweet view of the target falling. That, my friends, is why you practice on those windy days. It’s having the confidence to take in what you can see and feel, and react accordingly without second guessing yourself. Sure, I don’t do this every time the wind starts blowing, but every now and again it just feels right.
A quick side note about practice (yes, we’re talking about practice): If you don’t practice, you’re not going to get better. I shoot indoors a lot because I can. Also because it’s colder than your refrigerator for 3-4 months of the year here in Ohio. This is great for proofing your trajectory and grouping capability of a rifle, not great for learning to shoot in the wind. So I’ve spent a lot more time this year outside in the wind than ever before. I try to practice in open areas, and see how quickly I can decipher what the wind is doing at various distances. In theory, you need to be able to do this on the first shot, every time. But the important part is that you actually get out and practice in various conditions. Anyone can shoot a great score on a calm day, but you need to be able to do it when the wind is blowing to give yourself a shot (pun intended) at the top.
Doug, Nathan and I made good time around the course and enjoyed each other’s company. Nathan had some struggles midway through the course, but put up a respectable 44/60 on the harder of the two courses. Sadly it wasn’t enough to keep him in the lead, as Brad was his usual self, shooting an impressive 47/60 (better than many of the PCP shooters) which gave him a two shot overall lead on Nathan to take the National title. I turned in another 51, putting me in a three way tie for 2nd overall. Greg stayed strong in the tricky conditions with a 53, to take the WFTF PCP crown. Edwin and Mike Niksch were the two shooters I’d have a shoot off against, which was fitting considering how the rest of the weekend was going. In Hunter PCP, Scott finished with a commanding lead over his next closest competitor to take the title. Well done Scott, great shooting. His 106/120 was the highest score. In Open Piston, Mark Kauffman took top honors with a 74/120 for the weekend. Mark is an AZ native and a real gentleman, great shooting Mark and congrats! In Open PCP, Bobby Corcorran posted a 103/120 for the top spot. Well deserved and another true gentleman in the sport, good shooting Bobby. Last but certainly not least, in Hunter Piston, intrepid New Yorker Eric Brewer made the long trip to AZ and went home with a nice 1st place medal, posting an 86/120. Great shooting and way to represent for the Northeast.
After everyone came off the course and the scores were tallied, the shoot offs were announced. Mike, Edwin and I sat down on the same ⅜” target at 18 yards. The wind was mildly pushing right to left. I shot first, holding on the right edge of the kill zone, and watched the familiar view of splitting a pellet on that target. So I waiting as Mike and Edwin shot, they both missed as well, so back around we went. This time, I held a bit more and watched the pellet clip the bottom center (6 o’clock) of the kill zone, the target stood tall. Mike and Edwin both nailed it on their second attempts, which meant I ended in 4th place. Mike ended up winning the shoot off and taking second, and Edwin took third. Good shooting gentlemen! Later that evening, we all gathered at the closing banquet. We took in the annual auction, which featured some amazing items including a brand new Anschutz 9015 Field Target Rifle, a limited edition Daystate Regal, an Air Arms S500, Sightron scopes and a bunch more. It was a great time and I think all who attended enjoyed it. It’s one hell of an undertaking hosting a Nationals, and it is inevitable that there will be mishaps and occasional issues. I think there were a number of broken strings during the rifle matches since most of the strings would get hunt up on cacti, which caused a number of cold lines. But in the grand scheme, I was impressed with the event as a whole that the Phoenix Airgun Club put together. It was certainly different than any Nationals I’ve been to thus far, and the environment is something you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the US. It also gave me a chance to put faces to names and spend time with many new FT friends, and for that, I am always thankful. Well done, and thank you for hosting! Nationals in 2018 will be held in North Carolina, and it should be a great time.
I’m looking forward to 2018 with great anticipation. 2017 was a bit up and down for me, but overall, I can’t complain with the results. It’s easy to forget that I am still relatively new to the game and I need to remember that I am always learning. Hell, we are all still learning …I saw that happen to far more experienced shooters before my very eyes a few times this year. It’s going to be a long winter of practicing, experimenting with new equipment and trying to keep the knife edge sharp for the coming year. One thing I always miss during the winter is the face to face interaction with my fellow shooters. I (like many others) have been so fortunate to meet some of my best and closest friends through Field Target. I’ve been blessed to be able to travel the world shooting Field Target, share the lanes with shooters from all over the globe, and build lasting friendships with people I’d never have met anywhere else. Airguns and Field Target have given me so much, it’s a debt I gladly incur, a debt to this great game. I believe all FT participants owe this debt as well, and I know most of us try to repay it and pay it forward as much as we can. Whether you host matches, help run your club, serve on the Board of Governors, help your fellow shooters, bring new blood into the game….Whatever you do to give back to FT, I thank you for your efforts. And I cannot wait to see what the future of this great game holds for us all.
Until 2018, shoot safe and see you on the lanes.