Take a good, long look at the period at the end of this sentence.
If you can stand 50 feet away and hit that period squarely with a rifle bullet 60% of the time, you just might have what it takes to shoot for the West Virginia University rifle team.
Yes. It’s that hard.
Hitting that minuscule speck takes intense concentration, tack-sharp focus, steely nerves, monastic discipline, and more physical ability than most people imagine. Jon Hammond, WVU’s coach, put it simply:
“The level of accuracy in NCAA rifle competition is completely different from the accuracy most shooters envision,” he said. “Rather than trying to shoot at, say, a tin can, we’re trying to shoot at the dot on an “i” on the small print on that tin can.”
Collegiate rifle matches include two disciplines: smallbore, shot with .22-caliber rifles at 50 feet; and air rifle, shot with .177-caliber compressed-air pellet guns at 10 meters (33 feet). The distances seem short, but keep in mind just how tiny the target is.
“A lot of people think we’re just supposed to shoot at the black circle on the target,” said Milica Babic, a senior on the WVU team. “No. That black circle consists of six concentric circles that score from 4 to 10 points a shot. We’re supposed to hit the 10, which is smaller in diameter than the pellet we’re shooting.”
In a 60-shot air-rifle match, a top shooter like Babic will at least graze the 10 with almost every shot. At that level, what matters most is the ability to hit that itsy-bitsy speck squarely.
“A shot that just scratches the 10 is a 10.0,” Babic explained. “Hitting it dead center is a 10.9. The more off-center you hit that dot, the lower the decimal score becomes. Anything 10.2 or above is marked as an ‘X’. The idea is to have as many X shots as possible.”
Earlier this year, WVU edged defending national champion Texas Christian University in a dual match. Both teams scored 4,708 of a possible 4,800 points, but WVU won the match because it tallied 18 more X shots than TCU.
How can anyone achieve such accuracy?
Equipment plays a role.
“We need rifles that have that level of accuracy to start with,” said Hammond. “They’re typically made in Europe, and they’re a lot more accurate and a lot more adjustable than a regular rifle.”
Shot off a solid rest, competition-grade air rifles are capable of putting 10 out of 10 shots through the same hole. Smallbore rifles aren’t quite that accurate, but they’re close.
“The rifles look strange because they have so many places where they can be adjusted,” Hammond explained. “Rather than adjust our bodies to the geometry of the rifles, we make them fit our bodies exactly. That way, we can be 100 percent relaxed when we get into our positions, not using our muscles to compensate for anything.”
In smallbore competitions, shooters fire 20 shots from each of three positions — prone (lying on their bellies), kneeling and standing. Air rifle competitions are standing-only.
“In practices and in competitions, we’re on the shooting line for hours at a time,” Hammond said. “We have to use a little bit of muscle because the rifles are heavy, but for the most part we’re trying to relax and breathe and let the rifle sit where it wants to sit.”
The rifles’ sights don’t magnify the targets. Babic said that, even at 10 meters, it’s impossible to see that tiny dot at the center of the black circle.
“What we do is to make sure the target circle is in exactly the center of the ring of our front sight, then make sure the ring of the front sight is in the exact center of the ring of our rear sight,” she explained. “When everything lines up, that’s when we squeeze the trigger.”
To help them keep those rings steady, shooters wear highly specialized, supportive clothing.
“Our shoes aren’t fashionable, but they serve a purpose,” Babic said. “Their soles are very flat, and their toes are sort of squared off. They keep us planted solidly on the floor. In fact, they even have depressions in the soles that create little vacuums that keep us in place if the floor is slippery.”
Most shooters wear the same sort of base layers a skier might wear — leggings and a long-sleeved undershirt.
“Over our undershirt, we wear a sweater,” Babic said. “Over the base layers, we wear our shooting suits.”
The suits, made of leather and heavy canvas, consist of snugly fitting pants and an equally snug jacket. Together they form a rigid exoskeleton that minimizes extraneous movement.
The suits help, but they can’t do it all.
“Conditioning plays a role,” said Noah Barker, a redshirt junior from Winfield. “We do workouts twice a week. One focuses on cardiovascular exercise, and the other is usually cardio with weightlifting. We do a lot of exercises to strengthen our core muscles, because those muscles help stabilize just about everything.”
The cardio workouts help slow the shooters’ resting heartbeats, which in turn helps them better control their breathing during pressure-packed competitions.
“Breath control comes into play, especially when you’re shooting prone,” Barker explained. “When you breathe in, the barrel of the gun drops. When you exhale, it rises. So when we [put our sights] on target, we want to be completely exhaled at the same spot each time.”
Shooters need to be strong physically, but they need to be even stronger mentally.
“Most of us have been doing this so long that we have the physical technique down pat,” Barker said. “We can tweak some small things, but after that it’s 80 to 90% mental. In a normal match, you’re totally focused for 2 to 4 hours. It’s more mentally draining than physically.”
That sort of focus, said Coach Hammond, is what separates elite shooters from the also-rans.
“Most people can learn to shoot a 10,” he continued. “The difference is being able to do it again, and again, and again. When you’re on the line, no one is there to give you a pep talk. You have to have a strong inner dialogue to direct your thoughts to something positive, and to stay in the moment.
“You can’t let your thoughts drift to the future or the past, or to worry about things outside your control. The ability to concentrate on each shot, to have good focus for every shot, and to stay calm under pressure is what separates the really good shooters from the rest.”