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High Power Silhouette

by Ray Schnarre

Have you ever been on some Wyoming high ground and spotted an antelope you wanted, only he's perhaps 350 yards away? Maybe you've never taken a shot that far before. Your confidence is surely down and no one wants to take a chance on wounding and the possible loss of such fine game. It's not that I would recommend that shot but I do know how to build your confidence in your marksmanship abilities, even to ranges beyond that. If you are a hunter, shooter, experimenter, how about giving High Power Silhouette a try?

Silhouette is a rifleman's game that originated in old Mexico. Beginning as a live animal shoot, rumor has it that the game started around the time Pancho Villa was active along the border. Starting as a prelude to a grand fiesta, domestic animals (who were about to become the "guests of honor" at the BBQ) were tethered at random ranges, and then shot by the assembled guests/competitors. Intended as an informal competition, these shoots were no doubt accompanied by some friendly wagers, boasts, and camaraderie. As the game evolved, steel silhouettes eventually replaced the live animals, and more formal rules were established. By the early 1960s, there were some well established leagues competing in Mexico. The matches were eventually attended by some U.S. shooters, who brought the sport of Siluetas Metalicas back with them when they returned home. In deference to the sport's origin, the targets are still often referred to as gallinas (chickens), javelinas (pigs), guajalotes (turkeys), and borregos (rams). At many ranges, particularly in the southwestern U.S., the range commands of "fire" and "cease fire" are still given as "fuego" and "alto fuego," the commands originally used en espanol.

Silhouette shooting involves metallic targets of various animal silhouettes. These are set at certain fixed distances according to the discipline being contested, i.e., big bore or small bore rifle. In most of the High Power Rifle disciplines, the silhouettes are shot at four distances: chickens, at 200 meters (218 yards), pigs at 300 meters (328 yards), turkeys at 385 meters (421 yards), and rams at 500 meters (547 yards). Those are long shots indeed. The real catch here is that all shots are taken off-hand . . . standing up, that is. Don't worry, you can do it, and I bet it takes a minute to get the smile off your face when you hit your first target. The offhand position is one not practiced by many shooters. It will take time to develop, and will change slightly as you and your equipment progress. Different conditions will alter your stance as well. Wind, for instance, may warrant spreading your feet a little wider, pulling your rifle in a bit tighter, or becoming more aggressive with your trigger.

In a match, competitors must knock the silhouettes completely off the stands to score, with each target knocked down counting one point. A solid, visible hit on an animal that fails to topple from the stand, is scored as a miss. There is a time limit involved as well; 2 1/2 minutes for 5 shots. Each bank of animals is shot in two five-shot strings. Ten targets are shot at each of the respective distances, to make a match total of 40 shots.

Don't be intimidated by the scores of experienced shooters, they miss targets too. It takes time to get your scores up, even though you may be proficient in one or more of the other shooting disciplines. In the meantime, don't worry about being thrown to the wolves and having to compete against a bunch of steely-eyed, cold-blooded experts. In order to keep the game on a more even footing for everyone, silhouette shooting is organized into a classification system, based on a shooter's proven ability. In High Power Silhouette (the so-called "Heavy" rifle) the classes are based on the number of hits in a forty shot match, and ranked as follows; Master; 32-40, AAA: 26-31, AA: 20-25, A: 13-19, B: 0-12. A new shooter is normally required to compete in the Master class, until he has fired enough rounds (usually a single 40 round match) to be given a proper classification. For the different silhouette disciplines, such as Smallbore and High Power Hunting Rifle categories, the scores will vary accordingly.

Big bore calibers in the rifle events are .243 (6mm) or larger, with the 7mm (.284" diameter) currently the most popular bore size. Most ranges do prohibit the use of magnum cartridges, although NRA regulations do not specifically preclude their use. I'd advise against even considering a magnum on two counts; the first is the potential for target damage. Punching craters in your host club's targets is likely to be poorly received, and a fast way to become Persona non grata at future matches. The other is to save wear and tear on yourself! Silhouette shooting calls for precise shot placement through the entire 40 shot course. As a result, recoil is a real concern during a long match. A single shot from your .300 Winchester Magnum at a big mule deer buck won't bother you, but just try to place the last few shots on a distant target, off-hand, after having been walloped by that big magnum 30 or 35 times within the last hour or so. Right now, the 7mm-08 Remington is probably the most popular cartridge going. Some cartridges delivering even less recoil, such as the .243 Winchester and 7mm Remington Bench Rest have developed a following. What we're looking for is a cartridge that delivers just enough momentum to reliably topple targets, without jarring our teeth loose at every pull of the trigger. This isn't much of a concern for the small bore shooters, who shoot one-fifth size targets at one-fifth the distances of High Power. Small bore is shot with the standard .22 Long Rifle rimfire cartridge, with high-velocity loadings like CCI "Stingers" and Remington "Yellow Jackets" prohibited.

Silhouette does not require as narrowly defined and highly specialized equipment as some other competitive disciplines such as Benchrest, HighPower, or IPSC. In fact, in an appropriate caliber, your hunting rifle may work just fine. A certain level of equipment is required, naturally. Minute of angle accuracy, a clean breaking trigger, a good quality scope, etc., but it will nonetheless become apparent this is still very much a shooter's game. If you enjoy the sport, and wish to upgrade to a rifle built specifically for the game, aftermarket barrels, match-grade triggers, and custom stocks may be in the offing. NRA regulations specify two separate categories, generally referred to as "Heavy" rifles and "Hunting" rifles. The High Power Silhouette Rifle, or "Heavy" rifle must weigh no more than 10 pounds, 2 ounces, including sights. These rifles are generally built on a Remington 700 action, with a heavy barrel and a custom (often fiberglass) stock. The lighter, or so-called "Hunting" rifles are limited to 9 pounds (including sights), must have a factory stock and trigger, and in most cases, a functional magazine. In essence, the hunting rifles are exactly what the name implies; a pretty much out-of-the-box factory hunting rifle. Perhaps more than any other style of competitive shooting, the results depend more on shooter ability than any other single factor. This was demonstrated rather convincingly a few years back, when G. David Tubb managed to win the National Championships for both the "Hunter" rifle and "Heavy" rifle categories using an almost stock Remington 700 rifle. As you can see, attitude and mental preparation matters more than equipment.

So as a new shooter who's just dived into this game called silhouette, what are we getting ourselves into? Well, your typical deer rifle is probably sufficient to get you started. Once you've tried the game, and decide you want to go further, you will probably get around to building a silhouette rifle. If you're shooting in the "Heavy" rifle category, you will have the greatest range of options available. You may wish to begin with a heavy barreled "Varmint Special" in a suitable caliber. A great many shooters use these rifles with no other modification than a good glass bedding job. An aftermarket silhouette-style fiberglass stock like those from McMillan or H&S Precision might become a consideration. These stocks offer stability advantages over most factory wood stocks, and can of course be fitted to you exactly.

You will probably want to mount your scope considerably higher than you do on a typical hunting rifle, in order to allow a better off-hand position. In time, you may want to change to a two ounce target-type trigger. Regardless of which category you are shooting in, you will probably want to move up to 24X scope as you progress. The vast majority of competitive shooters today utilize a dot reticle, instead of the duplex that is so common in hunting scopes. The dots are easier to focus on, and you won't have to consciously work as hard (this is true . . .really!) to seek out the crosshair's intersection. If you decide to try a dot reticle, install a big one; 1/2 MOA and 5/8 MOA work quite well, and are currently the preferred sizes among hard-core silhouette competitors. The traditional 1/8 MOA and 1/4 MOA benchrest dots are all too easy to lose in shadows and movement and offer little over the more conventional crosshairs. Regardless of the scope power or reticle type, the scope must be absolutely repeatable. Once a match has started, there are no more sighting shots allowed. Whatever sight settings were recorded during the sight-in period must be clicked into the scope with the sure and certain knowledge that is now where the point-of-impact is going to be. Leupold scopes currently amount to around 90 percent of the scopes used at most silhouette matches.

The odd shape of the targets adds difficulty to Silhouette shooting, as if shooting 500 meters off-hand wasn't enough. As strange as this may sound, the symmetry of a round bullseye type target actually helps your brain guide your eye into correct target/sight alignment. Many shooters have a tendency to shoot at the whole animal. Resist this, as it is guaranteed to cost you hits. You must shoot well within your target to minimize all the other tolerances such as shot dispersion, personal movement, timing errors, etc. To do this, you must train yourself to pick out one particular spot on the target, and shoot at that spot only! This need is, I think, why you see such high magnification scopes in this sport. They simply allow you to be more specific with your shot placement. Some never get used to higher powered scopes due to their apparent visible movement. In any case, this is a personal decision that the shooter will need to make.

Silhouette shooting, with the right spotter, could be called a team sport. A good spotter can keep you on track with the clock, spot your hits and misses, and offer the support you may need to keep focused. You might want to team up with a more experienced shooter. His abilities to spot and coach may shorten your road to success. Each shooter seems to require different input from their spotter. Some only need to know where their impact was and a note of remaining time with no other conversation. Others may want a running list of information. There are those too that don't value a spotter at all. When spotting, ask what info your shooter needs, then do your best to give him just that. All in all, you may be surprised at how much your performance can be improved by being paired with a truly compatible partner.

There are many levels of involvement in this sport. Some will be quite content to leave it at the entry level and simply enjoy a nice day of shooting. Others will increase their efforts until they push their scores as high as possible. Still others will try to buy points with equipment. This can work to some degree, especially if your early equipment was modest, but in time, we all come back to the brutal knowledge that it is the shooter that makes the score in Silhouette. As a personal example, in the hot summer months I usually practice with two guns, so one can cool while I continue shooting with the other. One is a custom-built Shilen barreled Remington Model 700 in a McMillan stock, scoped with a 36X Leupold, chambered for the 7mm-08. The other is a standard Model 700 Varmint Special (also a 7mm-08), in the factory stock, and scoped with a 24X Leupold. Keeping score during my practice sessions, I find my scores vary little from one rifle to the other. Silhouette is a shooters game, not an equipment game. There is some specialized equipment which has been developed for the game, but don't think for a minute that you can bolt a few accessories on to your rifle and immediately begin winning matches. This is still very much a sport in which a box-stock gun with little or no modifications can still be very competitive.

This will be a new experience with much to learn about long-range shooting, load development, and exterior ballistics. You will be joining a group of exceptional rifleman with knowledge to match their abilities. You will also find these shooters very open and helpful of anyone interested in their sport. The Sierra ballistics technical staff will be of considerable assistance on these matters, and several are avid competitive silhouette shooters themselves. They can be reached at (800) 223-8799.

Silhouette has come a long way since its origin in Mexico. It is now being shot in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and of course Mexico with others sure to follow. The first Nationals fired in Mexico in 1952, the first U. S. Nationals in 1973, and the first World Championships in 1994 in Grasse, France., with over 400 competitors from 13 countries. During the World Shoot, they shot four rifle divisions and 10 handgun categories. This sport is growing.

During the national championships, shooters are surveyed about their equipment. Based on this information, the "typical" silhouette rifle is most likely to be a Remington 700 action, preferred because of their light weight (remember the weight restrictions!), fast lock-time, and proven track record for accuracy. It has probably been rebarreled, using a heavy, match-grade, after market barrel. The barreled action has been carefully glass-bedded into a fiberglass stock, designed for off-hand shooting. And finally, the scope is almost certainly a Leupold target model, probably either 24X or 36X magnification. In the "Hunting Rifle" class, the standard Remington 700 (probably in 7mm-08) is the hands-down favorite. This should provide some idea of the types of equipment that is prevalent at such matches, so the novice can select rifles and cartridges of known ability. No matter what level or category appeals to you, as you progress you will have met some very good riflemen and increased your own abilities and knowledge a great deal. As with all things your reward will be in direct proportion to your efforts.

Personal Note
I like to shoot. Everything about it interests me; the equipment, mechanics, ballistics, load development, and, of course hunting. But once a gun is purchased, scope mounted and sighted in, and loads developed, you have two choices; wait until hunting season opens, or spend hours shooting at the same hole in the same piece of paper (boring). Then came Siluetas Metalicas. Now I can shoot all year long (never boring) and am challenged every time I compete or practice. It is always rewarding for me, whether it is a match or practice session because I will have learned something about myself or my equipment. C'mon out, give it a try . . . and we'll see you at the range