Lining up five targets from 50m away with a .22-calibre rifle on a sunny summer day is pretty standard for most shooters. The Morton siblings from regional Victoria, on the other hand, take the same five shots in freezing conditions with a heart rate of 180 beats per minute, while wearing a large pair of skis. Not only are they taking the shots in those conditions, but they are also taking them very well. At just 17 and 20 years of age respectively, Darcie and Damon Morton are the number one female and male biathletes in Australia.
While shooting events in Australia tend to not receive the media attention they deserve unless it’s the Olympic Games (and even then only gold medals gain a mention), it’s a very different story in Europe. “Biathlon is the biggest winter TV spectator watched sport in Europe,” said Cameron Morton, the father of Darcie and Damon. “It’s a huge sport in Europe and there is a huge fan following. It’s the national sport for Norway, Germany and Russia among others. Athletes are developed through sports schools and professional teams and the level is extremely high - it’s like cycling but in the winter.” To give you some idea, a recent race in which Damon competed sold more than 100,000 spectator tickets.
It all started for Darcie and Damon in East Gippsland, Victoria, where they learned to shoot in a paddock owned by a local farmer who their father would barter with each year in exchange for use of the land. A few years later, with a lot of fitness training behind them, including running, skating and skiing as well as honing their shooting skills at their local range SSAA East Gippsland, the pair are competing at the top of their sport. Currently, they are living in Europe for training and competing, but they travel back to Australia during the European summer. The past few years have been a cycle of moving back and forth between hemispheres in order to create a permanent winter for them.
The individual biathlon event is quite straightforward. Men race by cross-country skiing over 20km while women race over 15km. This skiing is broken down into five laps, with each lap finishing with a shooting phase. The biathlete shoots four times in the order of prone, standing, prone and standing, totalling 20 targets. The targets are 115mm-wide circles and flip from black to white when hit. For each missed target, a time penalty is applied (usually one minute) to the biathlete’s overall time.
Another common biathlon event is the ‘Sprint’, which is similar but only 10km for men and 7.5km for women. Plus, instead of time penalties, the biathletes are penalised by having to ski an extra 150m for every missed target. It’s clear why those who participate in biathlon not only require superb fitness, but also a high level of skill with a firearm.
Biathlon shooting is done with a smallbore .22-calibre rifle, which must weigh more than 3.4kg and have a trigger weight of more than 500g. The rifle must be cycled manually with either a bolt-action or a straight-pull action (Fortner). All athletes must carry their own ammunition with them while they ski as well as the rifle, which they do by strapping it to their backs with the ammo attached to the rifle.
Both Damon and Darcie use a Anschutz Fortner 1827 .22-calibre rifle, which has a straight bolt action. The main benefit of the straight bolt is reloading becomes faster and smoother. The straight bolt is the preferred action of nearly 100 per cent of biathletes on the World Cup circuit. When competing in the cold conditions, which can plummet as low as -15C, Damon and Darcie’s preferred ammunition is Lapua Polar.
Both Damon and Darcie use a ‘sprint’ barrel, which their father Cameron says weighs about 400g less than a normal barrel. “The lighter barrel allows the rifle to be as close to the overall minimum weight of the rifle as possible,” said Cameron. “The obvious disadvantage to a lighter barrel is that it’s harder to be accurate with, but Damon in particular has managed to become very competent with it.”
Off the biathlon range, Damon enjoys doing some hunting with rabbits being his main target species. However, he says he tries not to make a habit of shooting larger calibre rifles because he needs to have the feeling of not anticipating recoil and flinching when back on the sporting range.
Damon says biathlon shooting is essentially like regular shooting but with extra challenges. “The factors of a high heart rate, lots of noisy spectators and a busy and active range with lots of other biathletes coming and going make shooting all the more challenging,” he said. “The art is to combine quick shooting but maintain accuracy with a high heart rate. Once the heart rate drops too much, then the rifle shakes more.”
In the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Cup races this season, Damon shot all his targets in the prone cleanly. His overall shooting average is 92 per cent, which is made all the more impressive since he only takes between 25 and 27 seconds to shoot from the time he stops skiing to the time he leaves the shooting lane. Darcie is not very far behind him either and is steadily improving.
Although three years younger than her brother, Darcie has also represented Australia in table tennis, making her no stranger to the rush of elite competition. “Biathlon is great because it combines two sports, which are entirely different,” said Darcie. “The challenge of shooting fast and accurately against other competitors after skiing hard is always interesting.”
Darcie had Australia’s best female international results in the IBU Cup in December and qualified to remain on the circuit. She qualified for the senior world circuit as a youth athlete in 2016 by finishing 16th at the World Under-19 Championships in the 12.5km individual event where she only missed three out of 20 targets. She also placed 16th in the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, last year in the 6km Sprint event and only missed one target in the event.
Earlier this year, Damon competed in the Biathlon World Championship in Hochfilzen, Austria. Even though Damon is still a junior and was the youngest athlete in the field, he finished only 10 per cent behind the fastest time, despite some bad luck with changing wind conditions during his shooting. Damon finished in 87th out of 103 participants, but is expected to continue improving. He ranked as the 16th fastest in the prone shooting and 24th fastest in the standing shooting.
Damon says biathlon competitions are always interesting because it’s not always the favourite who wins, rather it’s whoever can get everything right on the day. “Cross-country skiing is a very good sport for being outdoors and it requires a high degree of fitness. When combined with shooting, it’s a fun and healthy sport as well as culture.”
Darcie and Damon now have their sights firmly set on their next goal, the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018. Their father Cameron, who competed in the biathlon for Australia in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, is hopeful and confident both of his children can make it.
If you’re interested in following the Morton siblings, check out their blog. Damon and Darcie are also always looking for sponsors as biathletes do not receive much funding in Australia.