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Field Target Shooting


by John Clark

September 7, 1980. The Russians were in Afghanistan. The country feared for the safety of the American hostages held captive in Iran. As the world was closely watching these events unfold, those involved in the shooting sports remember that infamous fall day as the birth date of the sport of field target shooting. Field target shooting is a hunting simulation game. Matches are shot with medium powered (20 fpe or under), ultra accurate airguns and the targets are life-sized silhouettes of typical airgun quarry - rabbits, squirrels, birds, and other small game.

The sport was born on a typical autumn day in Sussex, England. Despite the frigid, blustery conditions, over 100 shooters from all over the southern regions of the United Kingdom banded together to try their hand at the new game. The rules at that first match were deceptively simple; estimate the distance to the target, correct the scope settings to compensate for the trajectory of the lead airgun pellet, and shoot at a paper target stuck to the animal.

Today, the rules remain just as simple, but the participants are aided by technological breakthroughs not dreamt of only a decade ago. There are thousands of enthusiastic airgunners participating in this sport from all four corners of the globe, but the hotbed of activity still remains in the United States and in Great Britain.

Most field targets are constructed from a heavy gauge steel, cut out of a solid sheet to represent a life-sized silhouette of typical small game that can be hunted with an airgun. These animals have a hole cut out in the appropriate "kill-zone." and a paddle with a bright orange disc fills the space behind this hole. The shooter's objective is to aim directly for the center of this disc; a direct hit will cause the paddle to rotate backwards and the entire animal will fall over "dead" with a satisfying clank. A miss will do nothing but cause grief for the shooter.

The modern competition targets are designed so that only a direct hit will cause them to fall; a "split pellet" one striking both the edge of the steel target and the "kill-zone," will not cause the target to fall. These animals can be easily reset by pulling the attached string. The size of the "kill-zone" was originally two inches in diameter but as the shooters became more proficient in the sport and the equipment used increased in sophistication, the size was reduced to make for more challenging courses. In today's championship matches, it is not uncommon to see targets with a "kill-zone" as small as 1/2 inch, leaving little margin for error.

Targets are placed at random distances from 10 yards out to a maximum of 50 yards. One of the challenges facing a shooter is to accurately estimate the range from the firing line to the target. Today's courses set the target animals in environments representative of their natural habitat. Many courses are laid out so that some of the birds may be up in trees, rabbits hiding in bushes, and squirrels "feeding" in the clearing across a stream bed. The only rule pertaining to target placement is that the "kill-zone" must be completely visible to the shooter in at least one of the shooting positions, although it does not necessarily have to be the one preferred by the competitors!

Each time the target is hit and falls over scores one point, misses count for nothing. Targets are placed in lanes with one to three animals in each lane. These lanes are marked by posts to the right and left. Competitors must keep the muzzle between these posts at all times when on the firing line, a rule that turns some seemingly simple shots into ones that truly challenge the skills. A competitor may use any shooting position they desire, but the majority use the sitting position, drawing the legs up tight to the chest and using the knees as a stable tripod. Shooters go through the course in teams of three. One person shoots, one scores, and the third resets any fallen targets. All members of the squad shoots the lane before moving to the next station.

As stated earlier, the most critical part of field target shooting is accurately estimating the distance to each target. There is always some small "drop from bore" in the flight of the pellet at longer distances and that makes it critical to correctly estimate the distance from the firing line to the field target. Even a small miscalculation of only a yard or two can often result in a miss.

All shooters use scopes and nearly all use their optics as range finders. Scope power is also highly variable and while a common 6-24 zoom is a good entry level choice, it is not uncommon to find many scopes of 30 power or greater! To range-find with a scope, the shooter turns the parallax objective housing back and forth until the desired target comes sharply into focus. By checking the distance markings on the barrel, the shooter should be able to tell the distance to the target. The next step is to adjust for the pellets' trajectory making changes to the elevation settings of the scope. Very few shooters use "Kentucky windage" during the matches, preferring instead to change the scope and hold dead center of the "kill-zone.

Although there are field target matches for both air pistol and air rifle, the rifle matches are currently the most popular. There are two basic classes of air rifles, the piston class and the open class. Any recoiling spring piston airgun can be used in the piston class, which is further broken down into standard piston category and unlimited piston category The standard category is for guns as they come right out of the box.. The Beeman HW97, HW77, Air Arms TX200, ProSportair and Theoben SLR98 rifles are designed to be highly competitive in this class. Within the unlimited piston category, anything that one can do to a spring piston airgun is acceptable

The piston class is a great way for new shooters to become involved in the sport as a rifle, scope and mounts can often be purchased for less than $1000. Even with this equipment it is possible to go out, have a great time and still remain competitive within the class.

The open category includes all other airguns. This class houses the most technologically advanced equipment available today, including pre-charged pneumatic air rifles such as the Weihrauch HW100S/ HW100T,  Air Arms S500/S510 or Theoben Rapid MFR. The pre-charged guns shoot at the same velocities as a piston gun, but they offer one advantage - they are completely recoilless. This means that a shooter is able to see where they hit or missed, and make compensations for the next shot. Competitors are allowed to use whatever caliber of pellet they desire, although the majority choose .177 caliber. The reasons for this are many. The smaller pellets are lighter so they shoot at higher velocities. This translates into a flatter trajectory for the shots at the 50 yard range. The smaller pellet also has another advantage over the larger calibers - when there is a reduced "kill-zone," a smaller .177 caliber pellet can be farther off center and still score a hit.

Field target shooting was imported into the U.S. from England, and was originally hosted stateside by only a handful of small clubs across the country. As more shooters joined the legions of devoted weekend "hunters," there appeared a need for a national organization to oversee the growth of the sport. Thus, the American Airgun Field Target Association (AAFTA) was born in 1987 to manage the sport. AAFTA has the responsibility of overseeing any rule changes, as well as hosting the annual National Field Target Championships. At this time only clubs are allowed to join AAFTA, but contacting them can result in a copy of the newsletter, which includes a list of airgun clubs around the country that regularly hold matches.

One of the pleasures of shooting a field target course is the lack of regimentation and equipment limitations. One only needs to follow the general guidelines to have an enjoyable day "hunting" with an airgun, without even having to pack a lunch! Give it a shot - you to will quickly become addicted!