by Jonathan Branch
What’s the recipe for a great Big Game Rifle National Championships? The first ingredient is the people: people who are willing to put in the time, effort and money to travel to the event and play an active part to make it a success.
At the 2018 Big Game Rifle Nationals there were people from all parts of the country and from all walks of life including a salty prawn boat skipper who was a little reminiscent of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There were professional people, tradesmen, a pilot and business people alongside ordinary Australian ‘battlers’, all fighting it out for the shiny little medals. But not just for that. People were there for the friendships and the fun of enjoying and sharing the rifles we are all passionate about.
The second ingredient for a great Big Game Rifle National Championships is a host club with members who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for the successful running of the event. To achieve that, a club needs to be a community and a team. The SSAA Mudgee Branch in NSW is such a club. Led by club President Ross ‘Rossco’ Davies, the Mudgee club has a sense of family about it. Despite the fact that it shoots a variety of disciplines, the club is highly cohesive, with members willing to put personal interests aside for the good of all. It is a club where everyone understands that ‘the things that bind us together are far greater than any differences between us’.
Such a sense of community does not simply happen by itself ‑ it requires active leadership, willing cooperation and time invested to cultivate the all-important relationships. There were a number of members of SSAA Mudgee who were not shooting in the event, but who took holiday time from work so they could be a part of the target team, scoring, or acting as range officers. Such sacrifices often go unnoticed.
The third ingredient for a great Big Game Rifle National Championships is a Discipline Chairman who will shoulder the burden of organising the event. NSW Big Game Rifle Discipline Chairman Ben Doherty combined wholehearted effort with attention to detail and military precision. Ben designed and made the target frames one by one in his home workshop. Ben’s wife, Jeanette, set up the target labelling and entered the competitor data into the scoring program. Ben arrived on the opening morning with everything organised, printed and laid out for the scorers, target team, range officers and catering people. Potential problems were foreseen and planned for and, though a couple did occur, they were covered because the responsible people knew exactly what to do.
The SSAA Mudgee branch shoots on the Windamere Shooting Complex, located at Cudgegong, not far from the town of Mudgee. The Big Game Rifle events were held on two of the four ranges, with Range 1 being used for the core events and Range 2 for the supplementary events.
The Big Game Rifle discipline is made up of a number of core events for heavy calibre classic and traditional big game rifles. In addition, there are a variety of supplementary events that are shot with smaller calibre rifles. For a national championship, there are core events that must be offered and the host club can also choose from the extensive list of supplementary events to add novelty to the program. All events are shot on the standard SSAA-approved 50m Pistol Target.
Day 1: Saturday, May 19
The first event was the Special Snap. The match must be shot with rifles that meet Group One calibre and power requirements or greater. This means the rifles must have a minimum calibre of .330” and produce no less than 2900ft/lb of energy with a bullet weight of not less than 225 grains. Suitable calibres for this event include the .338 Winchester Magnum and the 9.3x62mm.
The course of fire for Special Snap is eight rounds standing unsupported at 25m in 35 seconds. This is a rapid action match that requires the shooter to reload his/her magazine at least once and to shoot it feels like a mad half-minute. That being said, the match can be shot with a single-shot rifle such as the Ruger No. 1, as can the other matches with the exception of the double rifle events.
Gold: Mark Savage (Queensland) 75.02
Silver: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 67
Bronze: Andrew Hepner (Queensland) 66
This match requires 20 rounds beginning with four shots sitting or kneeling in 10 minutes, and then a further four shots offhand in 10 minutes at 100m. The shooters then move to the 50m mark and shoot four shots offhand in 10 minutes, followed by two shots rapid fire in 10 seconds. Finally, the competitors move to the 25m line and fire three series of two shots rapid fire in 10 seconds.
Gold: Robert Christopher (Victoria) 158.01
Silver: Andy Mallen (NSW) 156.02
Silver: Mark Savage (Queensland) 156.02
Black Powder Express
Black powder shooting is always spectacular, producing lots of smoke and the classic and antique cartridge rifles that appeared at the firing line were quite fascinating. One of the black powder express double rifles used had been in the competitor’s family for generations, having been made in the late 19th century. The course of fire is the same as for the Group One match with the final rapid fire section producing lots of pungent black powder smoke.
Gold: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 157.01
Silver: Robert Christopher (Victoria) 155.01
Bronze: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 143
Stalking Double Rifle
This is designed to cater for the smaller calibre double rifles preferred in many countries for deerstalking and wild boar, especially for driven hunts. One of the standard types of stalking double rifle is the Bergstutzen (i.e., mountain rifle), which is commonly an over/under that features a small-game calibre upper barrel such as in 5.6x52Rmm, and a deer or antelope capable lower barrel such as an 8x57 IRS or .30 Blaser. To participate in the Stalking Double Rifle event you need a double rifle of minimum centrefire calibre .228”. Common calibres for this event at the 2018 Nationals were .30-06 and 9.3x74R on up through .375 Flanged Nitro Express and 450/400 Nitro Express.
The Stalking Double Rifle match requires 14 shots. At the 100m line, two shots sitting/kneeling and then two shots offhand, each in five minutes. At the 50m line, two shots offhand in five minutes followed by a rapid fire four shots in 16 seconds, requiring the double rifle to be rapidly reloaded. The shooters then move to the 25m line and do another four shots in 16 seconds rapid fire string.
Gold: Robert Christopher (Victoria) 118.01
Silver: Mark Savage (Queensland) 112.01
Bronze: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 99
Stopping Double Rifle
After a ‘snagger sandwich’ lunch, accompanied by a nice hot cup of tea in traditional African Big Game Hunter style, it was time for the final core event of the day, the Stopping Double Rifle. This must be shot with a double rifle that meets the calibre and power requirements for Group Two. This means the double rifle must be of a calibre of .400” or greater, firing a bullet of not less than 400 grains and producing a minimum muzzle energy of 3900ft/lb. Typical double rifles used in this event were in 450/400 Nitro Express and .470 Nitro Express on up to .500 Nitro Express. This event can be shot with the largest of the stopping double rifles made including the classic .577 and .600 Nitro Express doubles, and the more recent .700 Nitro Express for those with substantial bank accounts and equally substantial shoulders.
The Stopping Double Rifle match is perhaps the premier event in a Big Game Rifle Nationals and it would have been quite opposite to have an old-fashioned record player at the firing line playing the theme music from Out of Africa followed by some Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We weren’t that prepared, but it’s an idea for the hosts of the next Big Game Rifle National Championships.
The Stopping Double Rifle event requires 10 shots in total; at the 50m mark, two shots offhand in five minutes, then four shots rapid fire in 16 seconds. Shooters then move to the 25m mark and shoot four shots rapid fire in 16 seconds. Quite a number of competitors were using .500 Nitro Express rifles both by British makers such as William Evans as well as continental makers, including Merkel and Verney-Carron.
Gold: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 84.01
Silver: Robert Christopher (Victoria) 79
Bronze: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 72.01
The last event on Saturday was the Light Nitro/Hunting Class which is one of the supplementary matches. The Light Nitro event can be shot with any centrefire rifle from .224” calibre on up, but the rifle must be in a sporting configuration and not be a specialised heavy barrel rig. Unlike the Big Game Rifle core events, rifles used for the Light Nitro match can be fitted with telescopic sights without incurring a points penalty.
The Light Nitro event is one that can be shot with a rifle that can reach out to 100m with a modicum of accuracy. A lever action .30/30, .44 Magnum or .45/70 for example could be used, as could a .22 Hornet in either a bolt-action or single-shot Martini action. So this is an event that could be offered by a club for members wanting to try out a Big Game Rifle match without having to invest in expensive heavy calibre rifles.
Light Nitro is a 20-round match beginning at the 100m mark with four shots sitting/kneeling in 10 minutes followed by four shots offhand in 10 minutes. Shooters then move to the 50m mark and fire four shots offhand in 10 minutes followed by two shots rapid fire in 10 seconds. Finally, shooters move to the 25m mark and shoot three, two shots in 10 seconds rapid fire.
Gold: Mick Toovey (NSW) 177.01
Silver: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 168.02
Bronze: Adrian Shields (NSW) 167.02
A bush dinner
The evening of the first day’s schedule saw competitors and spouses/friends return to the Windamere Shooting Complex for the bush dinner. Range 1 boasts a decent-sized shed that was set with tables resplendent with colourful tablecloths and guests were treated to barbecued meat and roast vegetables with vanilla slice dessert. Guests were also able to sample wines from the cellar door at Robert Stein’s winery located near Mudgee. It was a time in which new friendships were formed and old friends enjoyed time together.
Day 2: Sunday, May 20
Sunday saw the wind flags standing out sideways in 20-30 km/hr winds, which whipped up the dust from the dry paddocks around the shooting complex. This was a preferable difficulty to cope with by comparison with the NSW Big Game Rifle State Titles of two years ago for which the rain descended from the clouds in much the same way it must have poured in Noah’s time. Sitting in the rain and mud can dampen the pleasures of shooting a tad, so competitors were happy to have dry sunny conditions for these Nationals even if they had to lean into the wind a bit when shooting offhand.
The Group Two match shot with rifles of .400” calibre or greater producing a minimum muzzle energy of 3900ft/lb. This match requires 14 shots in total; at 100m two shots sitting/kneeling in five minutes followed by two shots offhand in five minutes. Shooters then move to the 50m mark and fire two shots offhand in five minutes followed by a rapid fire string of two shots in 10 seconds. The detail then move to the 25m mark and shoot three rapid fire strings of two shots in 10 seconds. I had been loaned a drop dead gorgeous Ruger No. 1 in 450/400 Nitro Express which was a beautifully light and handy rifle, but its owner warned me to “mount it properly, or it will hurt you”. Happily, it didn’t hurt but was a delight to shoot. Suffice to say the Group Two match was very enjoyable.
Gold: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 125.01
Silver: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 113.01
Bronze: Mark Savage (Queensland) 111.02
Group Three requires rifles of .500 calibre or greater firing a minimum bullet weight of 525 grains and producing not less than 5300ft/lb of energy. As I watched some competitors applying band-aids to their fingers and knuckles and then donning protective gloves over that, before stuffing padding made from an old wet-suit into their shoulders, I realised that what was to come would be a gladiatorial event that would leave bruises and provide stories to tell around the campfire for years to come.
Some of the rifles used for the Group Three event were heavy enough with well-designed stocks that made the band-aids and shoulder padding unnecessary. But others were perhaps a tad light, with the result that Newton’s third law of motion “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” was demonstrated in quite painful ways. Range officer Cory Garbutt assisted those suffering the ministrations of their rifles with gentle humour which helped those in pain see the funny side of life, even those who felt they had chipped finger bones, or were going to need to visit a chiropractor.
Given the power of the Group Three rifles, the match is kept down to eight shots; at 100m two shots offhand in five minutes, at 50m two shots rapid fire in 10 seconds, then at 25m two strings of two shots in 10 seconds.
Group Three is an event for the sort of rifles you would take if culling an elephant, buffalo or hippo. With the adrenalin pumping in the event of a charging hippo I doubt if the shooter would feel the pain of shooting even a light rifle – at least not until later. I had the opportunity to handle a nice British double rifle in .500 Nitro Express after the shoot and it was surprisingly comfortable. So, with a well-designed rifle, Group Three would be enjoyable, no band-aids or shoulder pads required.
Gold: Keith Brimley (Victoria) 65
Silver: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 64.01
Bronze: Mark Savage (Queensland) 59
Bore Guns and Rifles
The final core event was the Bore Guns and Rifles match. Bore guns can be either nitro or black powder and are like a shotgun, but can have rifling such as the oval bore Lancaster, or the partially rifled Holland & Holland Paradox and Westley Richards Explora. A variety of bore guns were used from the inexpensive Greener GP Martini single-shot to the more expensive classic and antique doubles. The course of fire is exactly the same as for the Group Two match.
The Greener GP was by far the most popular gun used in this event. Greener’s GP Martini action was used in a number of interesting guns that he sold back in the days of the British Empire, including his Greener Light Harpoon Gun. This was not big enough for a Moby Dick encounter but handy for big-game fishing. The Greener GP ball and shot gun loaded with black powder is enormous fun to shoot, packing just enough recoil to make it interesting but not so much that would make you wonder if you’re going to need hospital treatment after the shoot.
Gold: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 105.01
Silver: Robert Christopher (Victoria) 90.02
Bronze: Graeme Wright (Queensland) 89
African Plains Game Rifle
For the final test, shooters moved to Range 2 for the African Plains Game Rifle match, which is one of the supplementary events. This requires a sporting rifle in a magnum calibre from 6.5mm-8mm and producing a minimum of 3000ft/lb of energy with a minimum bullet weight of 140 grains. This is a perfect match for owners of sporting rifles in such calibres as the 7mm Remington Magnum (which can make the energy levels with some loadings but not all), .300 Winchester or .300 Weatherby Magnum, or the continental 8x68S. So for a club whose range is subject to the 8mm calibre restriction, this is a good event as it allows owners of these Magnum rifles to use them in a match specifically designed for them.
The course of fire begins at 200m with three shots in five minutes using shooting sticks. This is followed by two shots sitting post (if you are on a range set up for SSAA Field Rifle) or sitting with shooting sticks. The final string at 200m is two shots standing post rest (on a Field Rifle equipped range) or two shots standing with shooting sticks. Shooters then move to the 100m mark and shoot three shots standing unsupported in five minutes, three shots sitting post (or sitting with shooting sticks) in five minutes and then three shots standing post (or three shots standing with shooting sticks) in five minutes. Finally, shooters move to the 25m mark and shoot two offhand strings of two shots each, one in 20 seconds and the other in 15 seconds.
The variety of rifles that appeared on the firing line for this event was fascinating and included an original vintage Oberndorf Mauser fitted with an equally vintage Hensoldt riflescope. Other rifles included modern ones with stainless steel actions and fibreglass stocks and modern classics blending blued steel with traditional walnut stocks. There was a Merkel break-action single-shot at the line and a superseded model Merkel KR 1 with its telescoping bolt-action reminiscent of the old Mauser 66.
Gold: Mark Hibbert (Queensland) 139
Silver: Andy Mallen (NSW) 131
Bronze: Ben Doherty (NSW) 114
The 2018 National Big Game Rifle National Championships was impeccably organised. Firstly, thanks go to all those who made the journey to the Windamere Shooting Complex to participate. There were 32 competitors who nominated to shoot, making this one of the best attended Big Game Rifle Nationals yet.
Thanks also to the members of the SSAA Mudgee branch who don’t shoot Big Game Rifle, but were willing to make the sacrifices required to come and help as range officers, target crews, scorers plus sausage sandwich and tea makers. These were the people who made things happen flawlessly.
NSW State BGR Discipline Chairman Ben Doherty and SSAA Mudgee branch President Ross Davies were the glue that held everything together with the organisation and team building essential to the event being the success it was. Also involved was Andy Prowse, Secretary and range licence holder of the Windamere Shooting Complex. His tireless efforts in working with the NSW Inspector of Ranges enabled the re-opening of the range for Big Game Rifle calibres and so made it possible for NSW to host the 2018 BGR National Championships.
With the medal ceremony finished and the traditional prize table picked clean, the participants progressively made their ways to vehicles to begin their journeys home, some carrying medals. All had an item or two from the prize table, but most importantly all shared fond memories of old friends and new, amid a couple of days enjoying time with each other shooting the big game rifles we are passionate about. It was a fabulous time and a great event.
Special thanks also go to A & R Industrial Supplies – Unanderra, NSW, who generously donated items for the prize table, including some high value articles.
Gold: Mark Hibbert (Queensland)
Silver: Mark Savage (Queensland)
Bronze: Graeme Wright (Queensland)
Gold: Queensland (Mark Savage, Mark Hibbert, Graeme Wright)
Silver: Victoria (Robert Christopher, Keith Brimley, Robert McCallum)
Bronze: NSW B (Ben Doherty, Laif Foreman, Andy Mallen)