Shooter Ready? Stand by…

Between the two precision rifle competition organizations, the PRS and NRL, there are a lot of matches. A lot. This season alone the Precision Rifle Series has 42 matches listed on their website. The National Rifle League is in their second year but they’re about the same level of growth the PRS was around the same time frame with 13 matches on their calendar. Here’s my question to you, dear reader, who’s running the stages at these competitions?

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The range officer volunteers for the 2016 Tactical Precision Rifle Challenge

Obviously every match has different needs, but there seems to be a common theme over the last couple of years: the need for range officers. Matches don’t run without them. Have you ever wondered what the level of experience is with a range officer? Have you seen a more experienced shooter or shooters bully a range officer because they didn’t know anything about them? I’m sure you’ve all had hits that weren’t called and you blamed it on poorly experienced ROs. What about a confusing stage brief? Or inconsistently ran stages? How about being concerned about safety with some competitors flagging everyone with their muzzles? I have a suggestion as a fix to all of these problems and more. Volunteer. That’s right. You. One of the biggest complaints I hear at matches is about inexperienced range officers. At least they volunteered. Imagine how great the shot calls would be and how consistent the commands would be if every regularly competing shooter in the country took one match off and got behind glass or a timer for the weekend.

Personally, I don’t mind taking a match off. I shoot a lot more than most, so sitting out one match most likely isn’t going to affect my overall end of the year stats and it keeps me involved without my getting burnt out. Plus, it’s truly educational. I’ve ran stages with 150 competitors and seen 150 different ways to solve the stage. I’ve also seen some horrible trigger presses, bad positions, poorly thought out planning, magnificent reloads on the fly, impressive hits in tricky winds, pillow forts, stripped down gear, and brilliant time management. All of that has made me a better shooter. Honestly. I learned how to read mirage by working a spotting scope at a 2-day match. I’ve watched shooters far better than I am shoot stages much more efficiently than I thought possible. I’ve also been able to drop some advice and help new shooters just getting their bearings in a big match.

So why doesn’t everyone volunteer for one match? Some say it’s too hard to get to a match to help out. If you have a range you routinely attend club matches at, and most of us do, that would be a great place to volunteer. Yeah, it sucks that you’d lose a little bit of “home field advantage,” but you’d also be the best person to help out those new to the facility. It costs a lot to get to a match is another common complaint. There are matches out there with MD’s paying for lodging and food for their staff. We never used to even consider doing that in the Southwest. You’ll lose a chance at precious series points. Okay, you’ve got me there. I don’t have a good answer to that one. I try to RO at least one match a year and when the match is over, I’m positive I’d have won the match even though I’ve usually only seen the stages I’m running.

Perhaps we should think of it as community service. If you have other ways you’re giving back, like taking on the huge responsibility of being a match director or hosting free clinics where you train newer shooters in your area, then I’d give you a pass. If, however, you’re one of those guys or gals who constantly shoots and never volunteers, then this little blog is directed at you. Leave your rifle at home for the weekend. Let someone else get some points. You’ll still being kicking ass at every match you do go to. As an added bonus, ROing with a hangover can actually be helpful with remaining strict. You’ll be free to talk as much smack as you’d like. You can finally yell “IMPACT” at the top of your lungs. Giving bad news (“sorry bro, I’ve got you down for a zero…”) won’t make people hate you. On the other hand, you could make someone’s weekend (“Great job! You’re the first clean run on my stage!”). If you’re really lucky, someone will thank you and possibly bring you Snickers or a soda. The best parts about ROing? There’s less stress, you usually have shade the entire time, MD’s might let you actually design the stage you’re running, and you can bring your own cooler with cold beer tucked down in the bottom to crack open immediately after the last shooter on the last squad of the day finishes.

Match Directors Lives Matter, man… Seriously, look at before and after pictures of the them. It’s like looking at pictures of presidents. Full head of colored locks to shock white or practically bald. Shocking really. They need YOU to help out. Okay, actually TPRC doesn’t. At least right now we don’t. Somehow our Arizona match has a lot of volunteers. Lucky us. We have a club of bad asses. And we might have told them all that they’d learn a ton watching the rest of you shoot.

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Do You Even MD, Bro?

Ever have an experience that was so stressful that you say you’ll never, ever do it again, but somehow end up repeating the same stressful thing every year? That’s sums up how I feel about helping with the Tactical Precision Rifle Challenge each year. I definitely enjoy the work, the stress, the results… but every year I can’t wait for the match to get here already so my local club can get back to being normal again. I’m not sure if most competitors realize how much work goes into producing the matches they want to return to each year. Making something run smoothly, with no errors, is exceedingly difficult. So while there is a lot of pleasure in the end result, there were probably also a few stumbles that made the organizers want to rip out what is left of their hair.

Because I only have my own experiences to fall back on, I’ll explain what my club does to create a successful match. Let’s start in the beginning with the match announcement. Dates have to be decided on and arranged before you can really get anything else done. For our club, that has meant going before boards of directors or command staff at various facilities attempting to gain the blessing of the management. While we don’t expect to make any money off the event, we would like to break even so we’re a bit frugal when it comes to items we might be able to receive at a discounted rate. If you don’t have a facility readily available, one would most likely need to be leased or rented for the dates that have been decided on. In the past we’ve been quoted anywhere from $2,000 all the way up to $25,000 for the use of three days of dirt. Depending on your overall budget, the leasing fee alone could devour a majority of your budget.

You have a location and have decided on a date for your event. What now? If you’ve done a little homework, or asked around with other match directors, you should have an idea on your overall budget. This will help set the rate for your match fee. Our club chooses to keep the match fee reasonable for our competitors. Deciding how many competitors your property can safely hold should also be figured into the equation. Our rule of thumb is a minimum of three range safety officers for each stage of our match: a chief range officer to run the competitors through the course of fire, a spotter to watch for impacts and misses, and a scorekeeper. If extra staff is available, they are asked to work spotting scopes. This speeds up the course of fire because there are less arguments over questions on impacts or misses. We also like to have staff on hand to check that all of the coolers have water, trash bags are being emptied, and to hand out meals on days they are provided.

Registration for matches these days are a lot easier with the introduction of Practiscore and similar programs. I’ll admit that Practiscore made our registration process quick in 2016 for TPRC. I’m hopeful we’ll have the ability to receive match funds online for the 2018 TPRC. Most competitors are used to using Practiscore these days for match registration. You fill out the form, wait patiently to receive the email with your pin to squad yourself, and you’re done. On the match director side, there is a little more work, but not much. Practiscore even allows you to print spreadsheets with your t-shirt order ready-made. If you plan to run your scoring at the competition through Practiscore, you’ll need tablets or your Range Officers willingness to use their cell phones. Using Practiscore speeds up arbitration at the end of the match significantly, plus shooters who stayed home can watch the scores in real time as they are uploaded onto the Practiscore website.  Cost: Practiscore – free or donation to the website, Tablets – $1000-2400 with an additional $100-200 for external batteries to recharge the tablets  

Speaking of t-shirts, you’re probably going to want to order some of those. If you have a friend who’s handy with artwork, or perhaps you are a whiz with Adobe Illustrator, get started on designing something bad ass because all shooters love unique t-shirts. If your design is really cool, competitors will wear your match t-shirt to other competitions or even better, to the grocery store. Put some thought into the color of your t-shirts. Traditional “tactical” ones (black, tan, green, grey, orange) are the shirt colors people will wear until they literally disintegrate. I can almost 95% guarantee that no one is wearing the bright neon blue shirt you thought would look great in pictures… unless they’re washing their car or cleaning their rifles. I’d also suggest picking materials that will breathe in the summer. The shooters will thank you. Cost: Artwork – $0-300, T-shirts – $1000-3000

Since you’re ordering t-shirts anyway, and you have this cool logo you cooked up, how about having some other stuff for the shooters? Items that seem to go over well and can be reused constantly are empty chamber indicators (ECI), insulated water bottles, coffee cups, and beer mugs. While you’re admiring your match artwork, start working on trophies. A decision will have to be made on how many trophies and for which placements prior to contacting any of the companies who design and build them. Once again it will end up coming down to your budget. Trophies from your local awards shop might be a great place to pick up an award for Salesperson of the Month or Little League Champions, but if exposure for your competition is what you want, those types of trophies just won’t do. We all tend to look at the awards from other events. If you’re not sure who to contact, ask a couple of other match directors where they ordered their trophies. Cost: Extras for swag bag – $250-1500, Trophies – $300-3000.

Lately there have been many conversations on social media about prize table donations. From the match director side it always seems to end up with wanting either cash prize tables or trophy matches. From a competitor standpoint, prize tables are always exciting and something to set a goal towards. Personally, I like prize tables. That’s the reason I’ve ended up volunteering to organize them for TPRC for the last few years. Last year the staff at TPRC contacted over 250 companies and personally hand wrote thank you cards for the 85 companies who contributed items or paid for some part of our match to take place. Be sure to set a schedule to follow up with the companies you’ve contacted. Shooting related companies are hit up by people like yourself quite often for product or discounts for their matches, so you can see how easy it would be to overlook a request or two. After the match is over,be sure to thank all of the companies who participated or contributed. A “thank you” goes a very long way to ensuring that a company will want to participate again in the future. I’ve yet to see a match director fail to request that competitors send thank you’s to the companies represented at their events. Believe me when I say that those companies truly appreciate a quick note in their inbox, a letter, a tag on Facebook or Instagram, a carrier pigeon, smoke signal… whatever. But thank them. Using your media coverage to gain exposure for the sponsors is also an awesome way to give them a bit of a return on their investment in your event.

While you’re setting aside time to reach out to potential sponsors, made sure you’re sending an email here or there to the competitors keeping them updated on the progress of the match. As shooters we all appreciate updates to the round count, locations of close lodging/food, and estimates for when the match will be over for their travel plans. Cost: Time – 24 to 48 hours minimum; Materials – $0-250

What about the other odds and ends? How about items like shot timers ($100 each), steel targets ($1500-7500), backup score sheets ($30 for heavy duty paper), matchbooks ($50-400), pop-ups/easy ups ($50-150 each), materials for props ($500-5000), water for competitors and staff – better to overestimate than underestimate here ($300-600), and food ($2500-6000). This isn’t counting the multitude of spotting scopes you’ll be borrowing from friends, family, neighbors, and sponsors. The hours of time spent designing, shopping for, and building props to challenge competitors in a variety of different courses of fire is also not included. I’ll guarantee there were many weekend work parties that took place for most competitions so the tally of actual hours working is probably in the hundreds by the time the match date rolls around.

Our club also tests every single stage we’re going to feature in TPRC. We do this for two reasons: to decide on the par time for the course of fire and to test the difficulty level of each stage. Everyone likes to hit targets and we all hate to zero stages. For our par times, we average the times between our most and least experienced club members. Our goal is to have the winner score 85% or so of the overall available points. In some years, Mother Nature has decided that hit percentage should be lower or higher. We’ve actually thrown out or redesigned stages because the course of fire ended up being too difficult. After all, we’re shooters first and match staff second. Also, I guarantee if you make a stage “not cleanable” someone will come along and clean it. Make the target sizes generous and the par time doable, and even the best competitors in the world will miss a few targets.

Even with all of the labor that goes into successfully pulling off a national level competition, participating in the planning, organization, and work behind the scenes is the absolute best way to fully appreciate what the match directors are trying to convey. It’s also the best way to gain an appreciation for all the trouble you may have put range officers and/or match directors through in the past as a competitor.  

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The match staff for the 2016 Tactical Precision Rifle Challenge. Photo Credit: Brittney Weldon