The other weekend I traveled with my 33XC for the first time to Spearpoint Ranch in Barnard, KS to shoot two ELR matches. This weekend was a complete and utter rollercoaster. As an ELR rookie, it was also one of the greatest trial-by-fire learning experiences of my competitive shooting career so far.
- What is ELR?
- Match preparation
- The problems begin
- Match day 1: Catastrophe
- Back to the drawing board
- Match day 2: Redemption
- Lessons learned
What is ELR?
ELR (Extreme Long Range) consists of shooting targets well beyond “typical” ranges for rifles. When exactly distances start becoming “extreme long range” is up to debate, but this match featured targets from 1,510 yd (0.86 mi) to 2,907 yd (1.65 mi).
The main Saturday match consisted of Light and Heavy divisions. Light division included rifles shooting .338 caliber and smaller (max 26lb) while Heavy division included all other calibers up to and including .50 BMG (max 50lb). The Sunday event was a special Rookie match for competitors who’ve shot less than six ELR-type matches and have never placed top 10 in one (limited to .375 CT and smaller).
Both matches began with a single cold bore shot at 1,560 yd followed by three strings of 10 rounds. In each string shooters engaged two targets of known distance – five rounds for target A hit-or-miss followed by five rounds for target B hit-or-miss. Scoring followed King of 2 Miles rules which calculates score based on target distance with multipliers for earlier round impacts.
While the 6.5 held its own in Casper, WY with high DA and easy desert spotting conditions, the Fall Classic in Blakely, GA was a completely different story. If I wanted to compete seriously in ELR I needed to up my equipment and up my game.
After months of accumulating components, my 33XC was born:
- Terminus Zeus action
- MDT ACC chassis
- Tangent Theta TT525P scope
- Spuhr SP-4602 20MOA mount
- Blake straight 1:9″ twist 32″ barrel
- TriggerTech Diamond 2-stage
- ATS XL tuner
- T4+ Terminator brake
- Phoenix Precision bipod
My initial load used:
- 33XC Peterson virgin brass
- Berger 300 gr Hybrid OTM Tactical bullets
- H50BMG powder
- Federal 215M primers
Cases were neck expanded with a PMA Tool carbide expander mandrel, chamfer/deburred with a hand tool, primed with a CPS, charged with an FX-120i + AutoTrickler V4, and seated with David Tubb’s 33XC seating die on a Forster Co-Ax press.
I first broke in the barrel with 50 rounds of the minimum charge, 116 gr H50BMG according to Tubb’s 33XC writeup. Bullets were seated 0.040″ off the lands with a COAL of 4.274″.
With Spearpoint coming up soon, my load development process was very abbreviated. I followed Tubb’s writeup and did a ladder test beginning at 116 gr, incrementing by 2.0 gr until hitting pressure.
My LabRadar was on the fritz during the test, but I captured pressure traces with my PressureTrace II:
The test stopped at 128 gr when I began experiencing heavy bolt lift. I explored 122 gr further and shot an additional 8 rounds with an average 3,148 fps, ES 38, and SD 13.0.
Now, these ES/SD numbers are… not good. But it was a new barrel, unfamiliar cartridge, and I was still getting the hang of prepping these massive cases. Some of the case necks arrived with gnarly dents and, despite mandreling, would’ve benefited greatly from fireforming. For a first, largely exploratory match it was fine.
Tubb publishes a nominal load of 124 gr H50BMG with 300 gr Berger OTM’s averaging 3,160 fps, so my velocity at 122 gr was precisely in-line and I was feeling good. I wanted to stay on the conservative side to avoid any surprises during the match.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to shoot beyond 100 yd paper prior to the match. The only range nearby has steel out to 400 yd, and this rifle would’ve sent those steels into the stratosphere.
I dropped off a batch of cartridges to UPS to ship to Spearpoint, downloaded an Applied Ballistics CDM to my Kestrel, and started packing for the trip.
The problems begin
To uphold the integrity of the cold bore shot, Spearpoint closes its range to competitors the morning of a match. So in order to chrono and confirm zero I made plans to arrive early the day before.
This plan was never meant to be.
My trip began with a 4-hour flight delay. This ate up most of my buffer time, but I was still scheduled to arrive with just enough time.
Rifle check-in at the airport went surprisingly smoothly (for Boston).
Out of paranoia I carry my optics in my carry-on rather than inside my checked case. This has always gone fine, but after arriving in Kansas City I opened my carry-on and was presented with this horrifying image.
At some point my Swarovski BTX 115mm objective was banged into and a chunk was taken out of the bayonet cap. Thankfully there was no damage to the glass itself.
After a 3.5 hour drive I finally arrived into Barnard. Despite the fact that sunset was looming, I made a quick stop to pick up groceries for the weekend before the town closed.
In what has to be the world’s worst timing, this detour was the same moment I received a low tire pressure warning. I pulled into the store, picked up food, and by the time I checked out my tire was completely deflated.
I swapped on the spare tire and… despite best efforts didn’t make it back to the range in time.
I picked up my ammo at the clubhouse, installed my scope back on my rifle, and tried to make a plan for starting an ELR match with no zero.
Match day 1: Catastrophe
I was assigned shooter #19 in the lineup. The morning started around 74°F and creeped up to 100°F by mid-day with clear skies, little mirage, and about 10-20 mph wind. I spent much of the morning meeting people and watching other competitors shoot, watching their spotters, and taking notes about how they communicated.
I was shooting the match alone, so I asked around and found several people willing to spot for me. Their first question was always whether I used mils or MOA, and when I responds mils they breathed a sigh of relief. (This became a recurring pattern throughout the weekend: “Mils or minutes?” “Mils.” “Oh thank GOD.”)
When it was my turn, I set up my LabRadar on the line. The plan was to rely on good spotting of my cold bore shot to “back-calculate” my zero, based on my Kestrel data.
String 1: Cold bore (1,560 yd), T1 (1,510 yd), T2 (1,669 yd)
Off the bat my velocities were significantly lower than expected – a full 20-30 fps lower. I didn’t impact a single target as I grappled with both elevation and windage issues.
Alright, no problem. I told myself. I know what my velocity is now, and at least I’m dialed in closer.
String 2: T3 (1,860 yd), T4 (1,943 yd)
I updated the velocity in my Kestrel to 3,131 fps and subtracted an elevation offset based on my “zeroing.” Rounds started sailing over the targets. The LabRadar reported my velocities were now increasing and becoming more inconsistent. I’d receive a correction to come down in elevation, followed by a call to come down even more, followed by a third call to remove the previous two corrections.
This second string averaged 3,156 fps and every shot produced heavy bolt lift. This, despite the same exact load with a very similar velocity (3,148 fps) displaying zero pressure signs in testing at home.
Shot #2 clocked in at an abnormally high 3,184 fps before dipping back down to 3,140-3,160 fps for the remainder of the string.
String 3: T5 (2,203 yd), T6 (2,913 yd)
I made a concerted effort in my third string not to let rounds cook in the chamber, in case that was causing issues. But out of the gate my velocities continued increasing. 3,171, 3,190, 3,183, 3,191…
Every round produced heavy bolt lift, this time worse than before. I transitioned to T6, fired a shot, opened my bolt, and… the fired case remained in the chamber.
I cycled the bolt again to no avail. The case failed to extract. I called out to my spotter who jumped in, made sure the rifle was safe, and helped guide a cleaning rod down the muzzle to push the case out. We ensured the bore was clear, I loaded another round, fired, and… another case failed to extract.
I called it there.
I packed up my rifle, removed the bolt, and a chip of metal fell out. My extractor had broken.
In a stroke of (extreme) luck another competitor Justin Wolf was carrying extra M16 extractors with him and performed field surgery on my bolt to get it up and running again.
Back to the drawing board
The day was a complete catastrophe. I spent that evening talking to others, asking opinions, taking notes, and formulating a plan for the Rookie match the next morning. The biggest question on my mind was whether to even continue shooting in the first place.
Once the temperature cooled down, I went out to the zeroing range with another competitor Gee Mann and confirmed my 100 yd zero, as well as DOPE out to 1,400 yd. Gee spotted for me and helped true my Kestrel data once we started making impacts.
I was now making consistent impacts at range, and my numbers were largely lining up with rounds on target. Across 15 shots, my velocity had finally stabilized around 3,192 fps with an SD of 8.0 fps (interestingly, a sizable decrease from its previous 13 fps).
I came to Spearpoint with 79 rounds on my barrel, and the consensus I received was that my barrel had finished speeding up during the match. With that factor sorted out, the only remaining question was how to mitigate pressure.
With no reloading gear available, decreasing the charge weight wasn’t an option so I turned to another variable I could control – temperature.
Match day 2: Redemption
With newfound confidence in my data and a plan in place, I came into the Rookie match with a vengeance.
That morning Gee Mann located a cooler and we filled it with bags of ice. I kept my ammo chilled throughout the day and only removed them when it was my turn to shoot. I was careful to keep the cartridges dry.
String 1: Cold bore (1,560 yd), T1 (1,510 yd), T2 (1,669 yd)
I started with a baseline of 3,190 fps in my Kestrel. My cold bore shot missed low, but I transitioned to T1, held top of plate, and impacted my first two shots. I made a correction and I was dialed in.
I ended string one with 8/11 impacts and a clean on T2:
My first few rounds shot around 3,150 fps but trended back to 3,180-3,200 fps as the chamber heated up and the cartridges warmed back to ambient.
String 2: T3 (1,860 yd), T4 (1,943 yd)
I took note of this velocity pattern going into my second string. Instead of writing down a single number from my Kestrel for each target, I bracketed my velocity between 3,150-3,195 fps. I began the string using my slower velocity DOPE, then as I continued shooting I corrected towards the higher velocity DOPE. This worked surprisingly well.
String two I scored 6/10 impacts:
String 3: T5 (2,203 yd), T6 (2,913 yd)
This was the final string of the weekend and I went in with the same plan.
I took five shots at T5. Five splashes danced around the plate in the dirt. I transitioned to T6.
At the high end of the bracket, my Kestrel calculated 34.00 mils for T6. Shouting over the wind, my spotter called 6 mils of wind left. I dialed to the end of my windage turret, dialed 25.0 mils of elevation, and held over an additional 9.0 mils in my reticle.
Pulled the trigger… 5.3 seconds later my spotter caught the splash. “Come RIGHT 0.4 mils! RUN IT! RUN IT!” I made a correction and fired. I struggled to open the bolt. As I pried it open, I realized my action screw was now loose and my action was wobbling inside my chassis. My spotter frantically called another windage correction.
I took another shot. The LabRadar recorded its highest velocity yet, 3,212 fps, and my bolt locked closed. The round sailed just off the edge of the plate.
I ended my string and the match there. Despite making zero hits this string, my elevation on all three shots at 2,913 yd were spot-on.
And somehow, that all was enough.
With a total score of 41,476 Ko2M points, I took first place at the Spearpoint Rookie match.
Like I mentioned, this weekend was one of my greatest learning experiences in competition shooting so far.
- Understand your rifle, your load, and the conditions you’re shooting in. Err solidly on the side of caution. I didn’t understand the cartridge I was shooting, I didn’t understand my barrel yet, and I didn’t account enough for the extremely high temperatures in Kansas. Factor in a healthy safety margin, not only for what you expect but what you don’t expect.
- Don’t get flustered when things go wrong. Focus on what the problem is and what’s within your control to address it. Being upset is only a distraction.
- Bring tools. Bring extra parts. Have a plan for everything that can possibly loosen, break, or fail. Whatever can go wrong inevitably at some point will.
- Go into each stage with a well-organized plan. Chefs use mise en place to prepare their workspace ahead of time and keep a clear head. Devise a plan so that you’re simply executing, not thinking on the line.
- Use gear you’re comfortable with. I went into the match with an F-Class rear bag and realized mid-way through I hated it. Without an adjustable bag rider it was difficult to make fine elevation corrections. As soon as I swapped it for a heavy fill PRS bag, I felt more comfortable and stopped fighting against my own gear.
- Dial your corrections. This was a big change coming from the PRS world where holdovers are common. Dialing allows you to make precise corrections without thinking and line up targets more quickly and precisely with your crosshairs.
- Efficiency is key. Quicker corrections means quicker shots before conditions can change. Develop economy of movement and practice shooter-spotter communication so you’re not fumbling on the clock.
- Learn from people smarter than you. Find the experts and experienced shooters you trust, stick by them, and learn as much as you can. Some of the most talented shooters at a match are more than happy to help rookies. Just don’t bother them when they’re getting ready to shoot.