Thursday, August 18, 2016

First Time at Camp Perry

The beginning of Day 2 of the NRA National Championship Match at Camp Perry, Ohio.
Dawn breaks over Rodriguez Range.  It's the second day of the NRA 2400 point aggregate. Another 80 shot match will begin squad roll call after the Camp Perry cannon goes off and the colors are honored as the national anthem is played.  I'm on relay two which means I'll be shooting in the pair shooting my twenty-two shots of 200 yard offhand first then go to the pits to pull targets.

I've been here for two weeks now having driven from Los Angeles, California to Port Clinton, Ohio.  The drive out following Interstate 40 was a wonderful journey seeing the United States of America from ground level.  It's much better than flying over it.  I-40 replaced the old historic Route 66 many years ago but there are sections of it preserved in business districts along the way.  It's part of the adventure to get off and explore them.  The diners are delightful; the people even more so.  You'll find breakfast out of "Happy Days", lunch in holes in the wall serving French cuisine and Belgian pastries, and dine at family restaurants where the au jus is so rich you dip your sandwich in and it comes out stew.   Part of the journey is desert, most of it is cornfields.  It's vast and you begin to realize just how much food we grow in America.  In highway terms, days of it.

Preparing for this journey has taken months.  From the time I committed to go to Camp Perry as a member of the California contingent of adults and juniors, I've shot local and state matches and expended a couple of thousands rounds of match ammunition in practice.  This included training in the 103 degree heat of Coalinga, California where the official California State Championships are held; hence the adult team being from the Coalinga Rifle Club.  The junior contingent from the state have their own organization, the California Grizzlies, which I have proudly financially supported for years.  This is a gaggle of hard holders.  It's fun to shoot with them.  It's also a well organized machine that arranges lodging in on base "huts", feeds people in an evening chow line, and provides laundry service every few days. As a shooting team, we organized ourselves into individual competition days, team competition days, and designated coaching days.  That team organization turned out to be vital to making my Camp Perry experience even more than I ever imagined possible. It means you get to do things that you would not get to do if one just went there alone.

The team of the State of California at the 2016 U.S. National Matches.
I arrived at Camp Perry a day ahead of the rest of the California team.  The ever helpful staff of the U.S. Civilian Marksmanship Program helped me out by arranging for one night of base housing in the BOQ.  Safely in my little closet sized room for the night, I met up with friend Johnny Fisher and we drove into town for my introduction to the critical landmarks of Port Clinton.   The Walmart and Kroger to buy supplies, the restaurants, the coffee shop, and Andy's Party Mart, where you get your daily ration of "baby head" ice cream.  It got that name from one of the Air Force team members who described the serving scoops being so large they were as big as a baby's head.  The name stuck.  The regular serving is too large after eating dinner, or even having a couple of crackers.  Get the kid size in a cup.  I promptly became addicted to raspberry chocolate.

"Baby Head" ice cream from Andy's Party Mart.  Because a serving is as big as a baby's head.
Navigational beacons in place but team not yet arrived, I helped the CMP with their preparations for a ribbon cutting of their new electronic range facility on Petrarca Range.  This is a new pistol and rifle practice range that the CMP installed with the same Kornsburg electronic target systems as the much larger CMP range in Talladega.  I used it to get some offhand practice; the immediate feedback of the electronic targets meant being able to maximize your time concentrating on technique.  Other people used the range to do function checks, position tuning with new equipment, getting 100 yard zeroes - that's better than no zero for a match at Nationals.   The CMP provided lunch as thanks for helping and I got checked in picking up my competitor packet which included my squadding assignments.

By late afternoon, the lead elements of the California team began to arrive and I got the keys to my hut.   These are modernized versions of old prisoner of war huts from World War II with built in air conditioning.  As summer camp accommodations go, a life of luxury.

The huts at Camp Perry, Ohio.
Life is four to a hut.  You get a bed and a locker.  You go to Walmart to buy a liner, sheets and a pillow. You keep the a/c on at all times.  It prevents the bugs from coming into the hut.  I had the place to myself for a couple of days until the rest of the boys arrived.  The main hardship of my alone time?  No coffee grinder and fresh beans yet.  Runs into Port Clinton to get iced lattes would have to suffice.  Yeah, yeah.  I'm from California.

Summer camp accommodations  :).


One's first visit to Camp Perry is a series of baptismal rites.  I shall now enumerate them.

Walk the base.  Do not drive around.  Get used to walking.  Walk from your hut to everything.  Walk to the administration buildings.  Walk to the ranges.  Walk to commercial row.  Walk to the CMP North Store.  Walk to the CMP or Army trailer to have the triggers of your rifles(s) weighed.  Walk.  This is your primary mode of transportation while on base for the next couple of weeks.

Go shopping.  It's called Commerical Row.  It is the best shopping mall for competitive shooters ever. The sale prices here are Black Friday quality. You stock up on supplies. You can buy elusive powders lin quantity with the same lot number.  Same with bullets and primers.  Everything you need to keep making your pet loads. Oddly, not cases. This is a service rifle tournament.  Pretty much everyone is using LC or WCC cases. The military guys shoot new ammo handed to their teams by the case, mostly 77 grain Mk262 Mod 0/1.  My short line loads are nearly identical 77 grain Sierra Match Kings in one fired Lake City '98 headstamp cases.  Other people's ammo runs from 69 grain to 82 grain bullets.  Everything can drive into the X ring with a good hard holder at the controls.  I stocked up.  Then I began politely watching my expected cubic feet and gross weight capacity for the drive home as other people asked if I could take stuff back for them instead of shipping their loot.

Learn about the perils of Perry.   One, evacuate the range.  It rains at Camp Perry.  Sometimes that rain comes with lightning.  When that happens range controls issues an evacuation order.   Depending on where you are and how much time you have, you either grab your stuff and make for a sheltered structure or leave your stuff under whatever rain cover you have and leave it there until the storm cell passes.   This happened on squadded practice day.  There was no squadded practice.   There was learning to make a better rain cover for the next two weeks because it'd probably happened again.   I was particularly proud of my final design which involved a very large tarp and many bungee cords.  Modern art to be sure.  I received many compliments.

Peril two.  Cease fire, boat in the impact area.  One has not truly been to Camp Perry until your shooting string is put on hold while range control sends someone out to tell an errant yacht or jet ski that it's not a good idea to go into that area with all the bouys with the signs on them that say, Danger. Live Fire. Keep Out.   Camp Perry has this procedure down to a science and it doesn't take too long.  One is delighted by the novelty of it the first time.   Several times later, not so much.

More walking. Final squadding each day takes place at the 200 yard line. One Rodriguez Range that means you walk from the parking lot 400 yards to the assembly line. On Viale Range, it means you walk 800 yards to the assembly line.  You do this the first couple of times and then you wise up and take the very nice people mover.  I love the Camp Perry people mover.  It's like "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at Disneyland with your AR-15.

Colors.  This is a truly moving part of shooting at Camp Perry.  At 0700h, a cannon fires.   Everyone on the base turns to where the flagpoles are.  We stand at attention and honor the flag of the United States of America as our national anthem is played.  For CMP week this year, that anthem was played live by a trumpet.   There are thousands of people here.  And we all pause and remember how lucky we are to be free and realize that so many before us shared a uniting thought, "For this nation, I would give my life."  If you do nothing else when you come to the U.S. National Matches, this is your bucket list item.

Port Clinton.  The town of Port Clinton is lovely.  It's actually a resort town full of yachts.  Quite pretty.   The culinary must do is to sample the local perch and walleye.   Check.

Dining by the harbor in Port Clinton, Ohio.
And finally Pokemon. Do not ask too many questions or expect cogent explanation. Suffice it to say that I was reliably informed that both Camp Perry and Port Clinton are full of Pokemon locations. That is all.

Shooting Gear

I brought two rifles with me to Camp Perry.  The first was my iron sights configured AR-15.  Being my very first trip to the Nationals, I wanted to check off a bucket list item to shoot irons at a national match.   The gun has a Geiselle trigger and an upper I assembled from White Oak Armament parts. The barrel is a Krieger that had 3,800 rounds arriving at Perry.  The sights are pinned 1/4x1/4's.  I run 77 SMK's short line and 80 SMK's seated 15/1000th's off the lands long line with it.   The zeros for the dope card were calibrated at 680 ft above sea level in Coalinga, Californa; roughly the same altitude as Camp Perry.

The other rifle I brought was for NRA week.   It's a 2016 rule Service Rifle, Optic.  It has a collapsible UBR stock and a Geiselle Mk VII quad rail.   There's a weight in the rear compartment of the UBR - not the big blister one - and half a weight in the float tube.   The barrel is an older DPMS .223 that was cryo treated back in the day.  Round count on arrival at nationals was around 1,800. Same ammunition combination.  The chamber on this barrel has a shorter throat so I brought a Lee Hand Press with an RCBS competition seater die to set the 80's back to proper jump come NRA week.  The sighting system for this gun was one of the very new Nightforce 4.5X Competition SR's with the CMP R223 reticle.  Parallax is set to 200 yards.  It's mounted using Nightforce's superbly engineered AR-15 service rifle Unimount. I received the optic a week and a half before leaving for Ohio and had basic zeros for it at 100, 200, 300 yards plus a center hold and 12 o'clock hold basic zero for it at 600 yards recorded at the Burbank Rifle and Revolver Club in Castaic, Californa at an altitude of 2,600 feet. This would be the first time the rifle ever fired in any match.  Well if one has to shoot Minuteman style come as you are and do your best, why not at the NRA National 2400 Aggregate as a baptism of fire.   Good to go!  So glad there are sighters at NRA week.

The M-16A2 type Service Rifle (top) and the 2016 Rule Scoped Service Rifle (bottom).
CMP Week

The Civilian Marksmanship Program National Matches are among the most prestigious high powered rifle competitions on earth.  For the individual rifleman, The President's Hundred (P100) and the National Trophy Individual (NTI) matches are the pinnacle of service rifle competition.   You go toe to toe with eleven hundred other people spread out over two ranges spanning roughly eighty firing points each running six relays per range.   It's a race to be the best.  You are on your own with whatever skill and experience you brought with you.

It starts with the President's Hundred.  P100 is thirty shots.  You need to make ten good offhand shots, make one solid wind call and hold like there's no tomorrow at 300 yards, and surf the wind ten times at 600 yards. That's it. Short and sweet. If you finish in the top 20 out of 1,400 you get to go to a shoot off.  Ideally, you get one squadded practice window to check your zero and sniff the wind at 300 yards.  No such ideal in 2016.  Squadded practice was cancelled due to lightning.   Everybody goes to P100 naked.  It's a fair fight.

The sum total of my experience shooting this range started at zero. My first record shot at 200 yards offhand began a very steep climb up my learning curve.  I began with my Coalinga no wind zero. The shoot broke good.  It came up elevation good but it went right.  Ok, that must have been me.  Check your NPA, settle down and do it again.  Comes up same place. I need to dial a minute and a half of wind?  Since when do you need to put wind on at 200 yards?   Well apparently at Camp Perry on the big end with the wind coming in from the left at near full value, maybe you do.  But my head's still murky thinking I must just not be breaking them clean and it's my nerves being the first time on Viale.  So I do it again.  Fine.  I'll dial wind.  Things get a little better on paper and I'm going, "Ok, I can do this. It's my first time. This is all about learning new things and not finishing dead last."

Next comes one rapid fire string at 300 yards. I feel more confident. I've called wind and centered up before.   I check my wind meter.   Estimate my dial.   Build my position.  Stand up and put my concentration on the target.   The string goes off.  I land a nice group out the right side at the border between the 9/8 ring.   Apparently, I did not dial enough.   So we go out to the pits and I chat with the guys that have done this before.  I tell them what happened.  They all smile and say "Welcome to Perry" this is one of the few ranges where the wind has the same velocity pushing on your bullet from your firing point to the target.  Most everywhere else, trees or terrain weaken the wind pattern.   Here, dial aggressive.  I find out just how aggressive at 600 where I again underestimate how powerful the breeze is and pop an 8 out the right for my first shot, double my dial, and then start to learn how to surf the shifts for the remainder of the string.

The end result of my first P100.  Offhand 85-1, Rapid Prone 86-0, Slow Prone 90-1 for total of 261-2X putting me in 595th place out of 1,139.  Middle of the pack.  Not my best day ever but I notice that everyone is congratulating me on joining the club of people that have shot at Camp Perry.  I feel suddenly so at home among a thousand strangers who've become my family.

The next day is the NTI.  This is the mother of all Excellence In Competition matches.  Fifty shots.  It's a cloudy day and the wind is coming from the right, opposite of yesterday.   Dial aggressively at Perry burns inside my mind.  I shoot my offhand string and deliver an 84-1, about the same as yesterday.  NTI has rapid sitting so I get to this for the first time at Camp Perry.  I set up my position and snuggle deep into the rear aperture to see the target in the overcast.  The shot plan yields me a 90-0, well below my average.   Next comes another bout with rapid prone at 300 yards.  Dial aggressive at Perry.  I got this one.  Maybe not.  Today I've over dialed and I place my group in almost the same spot on the right side of the bull as yesterday.  91-0.  This range has now shattered my confidence and I am a convinced I am a wind calling dunderhead.  Fortunately the clouds clear up and my mood brightens with it and when we get back to 600 yards I finally do something right popping a 189-5 at the slow prone stage.   Total for the day is a paltry 456-6 good for a deep back seat 490th place out of 1,074.

At dinner later in the week I relate that this range is kicking me hard. I tell people about how hard I was pushing my eye into my aperture.  They smile that welcome to Camp Perry smile again.  They ask what sights I'm shooting on my A2 and I tell them I've got an 0.050" front and 0.038" rear to maximize depth of field.  They smile more broadly and tell me my problem is that I'm from the Western provinces where the sun is bright and the ground is devoid of flora.   Lot's of light.  It's green here and we have clouds I'm told.  Not nearly the same ambient lighting.  You have the wrong sights my son.  Where there's green grass you want a big fat 0.072" front the size of an aircraft carrier deck and a huge (they said "yuge" because the RNC convention was just in Cleveland) 0.046" hole in the morning and maybe close it down to an 0.042" rear aperture later if the sun comes out.  But that desert glare sight system of yours will lose you about 5-8 points in these parts.   Well there you go. Learn something every day.

To tell you the truth, I'm glad I learned these lessons the hard way.  It's more meaningful this way.  It enriched my first tour of Camp Perry and left me hungry to put this learning to use in the future.  I checked off one of the most important bucket list goals of my shooting career, I shot the P100 and NTI with iron sights.  My irons gun earned its "Hell I was there!" sticker.

My A2 iron gun last 4-digit serial number 3010 earned the right to wear the 2016 Nation Matches sticker on its stock.
The remainder of CMP week for me was about teamwork.  I shot the four man NTT team match with the California adult team. It was a learning experience shooting with a 4-person team I'd never shot with before.  The pair firing went fine as we'd practiced that at Coalinga.  The rapid coaching was different from other teams I've shot with in the past. I felt a bit out of my comfort zone that day still reeling from the shock of days 1 & 2.  I felt like I let the guys down and really should have got my head back in the hunt.  I resolved to get out of whatever funk I was feeling.  This was Nationals. Breathe it in and live it already. It's what I came for.  I would find out talking to people later that this sensory shock effect that Camp Perry has on first timers is universal.   Everyone goes through it.  It's part of the baptism.

Hanging with the California team.
The next day I coached one of the California teams in the NTIT Rattle Battle match.  This was the day I finally felt I began to be comfortable at Camp Perry.   Walking up and down the field first as a verifier and then as a coach, I felt back in the game.  At team matches you get to confer with your teammates comparing wind calls and observing the effects of their calls as the shooting members of their squads send rounds downrange.  You watch the traces of bullets arcing in the air going left or right of the bull's center depending whether or not the call was right.  This process was cathartic.  I began to remember that I really can read a range once I get the hang of it.

Life in the pits. The people you meet. The friends you make.
The family you realize shares your love of the game.
Team day three was all about being in the pits; specifically, pulling pits for the National Trophy Junior Team (NTJT) match.  You pack food and a lawn chair and hang out in the pits.  I was paired with a very nice lady from New Jersey whose daughter was shooting on that state's team.  It was a great day of bantering and getting to know people from all over the country.

NRA Whistler Boy Junior Match

The first match of NRA week was a very special coaching day for me.  I got to coach one of the California Grizzly junior teams in their two-man Whistler Boy match.   I've been a financial supporter of the California Grizzlies since the day they were founded.   I've helped coach young shooters and seen them go off to Camp Perry and do amazing things.  Finally, I got to coach two of these fine young people in an actual match at the Nationals.  It was cool.  My team consisted of two bright young men, Tanner Hines and Matthew Nelson.   Both Marksmen, the boys managed a team score of 871-10 shooting well above their classification into the Sharpshooter league.  My team shared a firing point with the team of Sharpshooters Katherine Conley and Reilly Sutton from the state of Washington who shot a team score of 898-15.  It was a great day doing one of the things that I have always enjoyed most about this sport; giving back to the next generation so that one day they will do the same for the next.

The top teams from the Whistler Boy Match being recognized on stage.
My NRA Week

The centerpiece of the NRA portion of the U.S. National is a 2400 point Aggregate championship consisting of three days of 80-shot matches with sighters.   Each match consists of 20 shots each in standing and rapid siting both at 200 yards, rapid prone at 300 yards and slow prone at 600 yards. You get two sighting shots per stage so at the end of the game you'll have fired at least 264 rounds of ammunition; more if you have to shoot an alibi or re-fire string.  Like the P100 and NTI, these are individual matches.  It's you against everyone again.   There are fewer people at NRA week; 297 entries for across the course.  Another 92 are on the other range shooting the Mid-Range Nationals. The huts are a ghost town compared to CMP week.  Everyone there is hunting for awards and there are plenty to be earned.  The NRA Championship match is packed with commemorative cups, one for each firing stage of the tournament series.  There are additional cups for each 80-shot XTC and championship awards for overall high-power winner and one just for sevice rifle shooters.  There are additional NRA awards for the various skill level classifications consisting of high master, master, expert, sharpshooter and marksman classes.

Squadding for NRA Week.

On the change over day between CMP and NRA week, I changed guns.  It was time for the iron sighted A2 to go back in its case and the scope equipped AR to make its debut.   I took the rifle over to the CMP's Petrarca electronic range and spent some time sending some rounds downrange.  This gun is almost identical to the rifles being used by the top shooters at Camp Perry this year.  The NightForce 4.5X SR on it is so new only the military teams had them.  The one on my gun was a Test and Evaluation unit that the company Fedex'd me specifically to test at Nationals.

Getting basic zeroes for the scoped gun in California a week before going to Ohio.
A scope brings several advantages and one very big change to the shot plan for service rifle shooting. The big advantage is seeing better.  With irons, you play a balancing act changing front and rear sight pieces to compensate for light conditions.  As your eyes get older, you fight floaters crisscrossing your sight picture and trying to manage your eye comfort so it lasts the entire string of fire.   No such problem exists with an optic.  There's always enough light and there's always good focus.  Indeed, you can maintain a far more comfortable focus on a properly set up reticle than a front post.  At 4.5X, the target is huge and you can easily see into the X ring as you aim.  Do not bother to turn the magnification down.  That wobble you see was always there.  Now it's visible and you can work on improving your hold to shrink it.  It changes and improves your technique.

The big change in shot plan with as scope is that you build your position around the scope. This is different from an iron sighted rifle where you build your position around the stock dimensions. One is far more concerned with being perfectly and consistently behind the scope when shooting an optic. In this regard, the collapsible butt stock shows its worth.   The one I had was a Magpul UBR with a weight insert to help balance the gun's center of gravity better.  Being able to collapse the stock to A1 or less lengths for offhand and sitting vastly improves ease of positioning the eye begin the glass. Same with extending it to greater than A2 length to optimize head placement and shoulder tension in prone.   Basically, it's almost a match rifle; better because you don't need an allen wrench to change the settings.

Critical notation, the scope dials the opposite direction from the A2's sights.   A2 windage knobs turn like a car's steering wheel to move the impact left or right.   An optic turns like a bottle cap, open the cap to go right, screw it in to go left.  I dwell on this for a reason.  It's easy to make the error of turning the scope the wrong direction after you've been driving an A2 for a week.  I did for my first string of offhand. I did the dufus move dialing myself all the way to a miss before I slapped myself.  I learned that the Midrange and Long Range guys have a trick for this.  They typically shoot one day irons and one day scopes in their regionals.  In addition to writing the number of their firing point on their hand, they draw an arrow to remind them which direction turns right each day.  Good idea.  I learned this after I made my error; as every teachable moment should be at Camp Perry.

Still, the zen of the game for the NRA Championship is "shoot your average".  This is the culmination of a year's worth of preparation.  Everyone has worked hard to be here.  It's time to execute, to do what you know and do it the way you know how today.  Where you wind up in this field of amazingly stellar talent is a calibration of your investment in this craft.  Enjoy being part of the orchestra.  There is no other like it.  Shake each error off and move on to the next shot.

Here's my tale of my tape for the 2016 NRA 2400-point National Championship,

Match Name Score
441 Day 1 OF 154.01
442 Day 1 RS 191.02
443 Day 1 RP 195.06
446 Day 1 SP 188.06
414 Day 1 728.15
444 Day 2 OF 188.01
445 Day 2 RS 192.04
448 Day 2 RP 192.05
449 Day 2 SP 194.03
415 Day 2 766.13
450 Day 3 OF 181.04
447 Day 3 RS 197.04
451 Day 3 RP 194.04
452 Day 3 SP 186.01
416 Day 3 758.13
400 Total 2252.41

In the end, not the greatest score and not the worst.  I shot my average 93.8% even with a dufus-dial move at my day one offhand.  This is not bad using a gun I'd never shot in a match before.  My show up and shoot effort says it really doesn't matter what gun I have in my hands, I'm going to shoot my average.  Color me happy.  And there's a bonus. On Day 2, the day of the photo at the very beginning of this article, I did well enough in Expert class to take home my very first NRA Award Points.  Now there's a nice souvenir.

The best souvenir from my trip.

I ended my time at Camp Perry attending the awards ceremony for the NRA Championship matches. Another drive through America's heartland this time via Interstate 70 would take me home from what will always be one of the most special vacations of my life. The things I saw, the things I got to do, the new things I learned, the people who's company I enjoyed. So many stories. So many moments. These will be the lasting memories of my first time at the U.S. Nationals.