In January and February of 2019, I had the privilege of traveling to New Zealand to represent the USA both in the Individual Long Range World Championship Matches, and as a firing member of the 2019 US Palma Team. This trip was the culmination of a dream that I’ve had for over 5 years, since September of 2013.
Back in 2013, I was primarily an NRA High Power Over the Course (OTC) Shooter who dabbled in prone shooting as time allowed. I definitely enjoyed shooting prone, but I really felt that OTC was where I belonged, and all of my shooting-related goals at that time lay down that road. That Fall, my good friend Brian Mrnak convinced me come to a tryout for the United States National Rifle Team. I was lucky enough to make the cut for the USNRT, and my road to the US Palma Team began. The Fall of 2013 was pretty late in the 4-year cycle to be considered for the 2015 team, and I knew that at any rate, I wasn’t ready. I set my sights on making the 2019 team, and got to work on becoming a better Palma Shooter. Late last Summer, I was selected for that team.
Fast-forward to January 25th of 2019, and I was on my way. Just 32 hours of air travel and layovers stood between me and my second visit to New Zealand in as many years. I planned way ahead, and my flight schedule allowed for plenty of time to deal with any of the complications that can sometimes go along with traveling with firearms. A 3-hour maintenance delay at the Minneapolis Airport all but erased my time cushion, and I made it to the gate for my connecting flight in Dallas with exactly 4 minutes to spare. Not surprisingly, my suitcase and rifle did not make that connection. When I landed in Sydney, my luggage tracker showed my rifle still sitting in the Dallas Airport. Oh well, there was nothing to be done about it, so I continued on to my next flight and arrived in Wellington on schedule. I had a change of clothes in my carry-on bag for just such an occasion. Qantas Airlines and the NZ Airport Police did an excellent job of making sure my stuff arrived on the next plane 24 hours later. I had planned an open day between arriving in NZ and starting shooting, so the late arrival of gear didn’t have any major impact on my plans.
Shooting for me started on Tuesday, with the Masefield Championship; a match of 7 shots at each of the 300, 600, 800, and 1000-yard lines. This seemed like a good match to get settled in and get solid zeroes at 4 different distances before the big matches started. This was a good plan, as I definitely was not settled in that day. Unfortunately, I was also not settled in the next day, which was the first day of the NZ National Championship – the Ballinger Belt Series. I thought that since I had shot on this range and done well only a year before, that I’d be able to pick things up where I left off and continue shooting well. That was a mistake. It took 2 full days of shooting (and some position coaching from Morgen Dietrich and other team mates after day 2) before I finally felt comfortable and was consistently breaking good shots. By then, the Ballinger Belt was all but over for me, so I decided to use the rest of the aggregate to fine-tune the positional changes and get my mind right for the upcoming World Championship.
The Belt Series wrapped up with a final shoot-off of the top 21 shooters, and Team USA was well-represented, placing four shooters in the final. Ray Gross (#7), Nate Guernsey (#14),Trudie Fay (#6), and Brian Mrnak (#19), all participated in the final 15-shots at 900 yards to decide the NZ National Champion. Australia’s Jim Bailey came out on top, but it wasn’t without a fight. Team USA’s Nate Guernsey shot an incredible 74-3v (out of 75-15v possible) in the final to move up 11 places to finish third overall. No one in the top 10 managed a score in the 70’s, and some were even below 60. Nate’s score in this condition was simply amazing, and it was no accident. Over the last year, I don’t think anyone has put more time and effort into this sport than Nate has. Team USA was proud to have one of our own on the podium for the awards ceremony.
On Sunday February 3rd, the International Teams Matches were held. These matches serve as the World Championships for the Under 21, Under 25, and Veterans teams. The Australians set the bar high, winning 2 of those 3 matches as their U25 and Vets teams sailed to victory. The Aussies were clearly not here to mess around this year, and all of their coaches and shooters were in top form. The hosting Kiwi’s U21 squad of Beardslee, May, Riddle, Hutching, and Snowden were not intimidated, using their hard-earned understanding of NZ winds to secure the gold medal by 12 points over the Aussies. Team USA’s U21 squad finished in 3rd against very tough competition, while the U25 and vets squads both finished in 4th. Members of the bronze medal U21 Young Eagles were Jessica Hudson, Justin George, Kevin George, Luke Rettmer, and Trey Frigugglietti.
Opening Ceremonies for the 2019 LRWC followed on Monday morning. Local Civic Leaders and Maori Elders spoke at the ceremony, welcoming all foreign visitors to New Zealand, and wishing us luck in the matches. The Kiwi people are some of the nicest I’ve met anywhere, and they are great ambassadors to the shooting sports. During our stay, they were truly excellent hosts, and helped visitors in any way they could.
The World Championship Individual Matches consisted of 3 Palma courses of 15 shots each at 800, 900, and 1000 yards – 135 total shots for record. The ICFRA target uses 5V scoring (as opposed to 10X in the USA), so maximum score is 75 per yard line, 225 per Palma course, and 675 for whole WC agg. Things kicked off right after lunch on Monday with the first 800-yard stage. The top 18 shooters stayed clean with 75 points, while the rest of us all lost one or more. 18 may sound like a lot of cleans, but remember that this was only the 800-yard line, and there were over 300 of the world’s best Palma shooters on hand. Things at Trentham are a bit different from we are used to at most US ranges, where the 800-yard line is seen by many shooters as “free points”. There are no free points on this range at any yard line, and it wasn’t unusual to lose more points at a single 800 than many US shooters would normally expect to lose in a whole Palma match.
“Challenging” is one word that can be used to accurately describe the range conditions at Trentham. Other terms that were heard during the matches were “mystifying”, “merciless”, “brutal”, and many others that aren’t fit for print. There just isn’t anything to compare it to in the USA, it really has to be seen to be believed. In the Upper Midwest where I live, top shooters feel intense disappointment when they see a 9, or heaven forbid, an 8 show up on their target. At Trentham there are plenty of times when after pulling the trigger, you are just hoping that the target goes down and comes back up with a mark somewhere on the paper. The wind is so strong, and changes so quickly that sometimes all you can do is take the beating. I consider myself to be a competent wind reader, but there were times when all I could do was make a guess, and hope to catch paper.
These “challenging” conditions stuck around for the rest of the individual matches, and we all learned to adjust our expectations from the scores we shoot at home, to the scores that were possible here. The best finish I managed in any of the stages was 6th place in the second 900, where my 74-9v was just a point away from a medal. Only the top 3 shooters scored clean 75’s, which is almost unbelievable considering the level of competition. In that match I started strong shooting 7 quick V’s in a rare consistent condition that lasted for about 4 minutes. After that, the condition changed completely, forcing me to hold for 8 minutes before sadly coming to terms with the fact that my preferred wind just wasn’t ever going to come back to me. With time getting short and 8 shots left, I sent one down in an unfamiliar condition and just caught a 4 on the left side. I kept the rest in the 5 and V rings and was happy to get off the line only down that single point. The long holds were something that I got used to, as nearly every string I shot included a hold of 5 minutes or more. Due to unpredictable things like target pullers, score confusion, etc, I made a rule for myself that if I was in a hold, I would start shooting again when the number of minutes remaining on the clock equaled the number of shots I had left to take, whether I wanted to or not. I got to that magic time limit 3 times that I remember. I came close to running out of time more than once, but never did.
As the aggregate marched on, the top shooters separated themselves from the pack. Like the Belt Series, the WC also ends with a final shoot-off to decide who would hold the title of “World Champion” for the next 4 years. After the 135-shot aggregate is over, the top 10 shooters were assembled for a final 15 shots at the 1000-yard line. These scores would be added to the total agg scores, so big changes can happen in those 15 shots, especially when the Trentham winds are blowing. Australia again showed they meant business, placing 5 of their shooters in the top 10. 2 Americans, 2 New Zealanders, and one Brit rounded out the field as the spectators gathered. The conditions were terrifying; there would be no magical 74 fired in this shoot-off. This time, no one would even break 70, and only half of the 10 best Palma shooters in the world made it to 60. Great Britain’s David Luckman fired the top score of 66-4v, which moved him up to 3rd place, right behind young Mitchell Bailey, son of recently crowned Belt Series Champ Jim Bailey of Australia. Mitch’s fellow Aussie Steve Negus hung on to the lead that he had spent over 3 days building to take the Gold Medal by a single point over Mitch and David. Steve managed his conditions masterfully over 150 shots, securing Australia their second World Champion in as many cycles. The USA’s best duo of Oliver Milanovic and Brandon Green finished 5th and 6th, respectively, as the rest of Team USA cheered them on. Making it to those final 15 shots is something very few shooters have ever done, or will ever do, and is definitely something to be proud of.
To give some more perspective on the difficulty of this range, for those who have never shot here: At the last World Championship Match held in 2015 at Camp Perry, World Champion Ben Emms had dropped only 1 point over the whole aggregate leading up to the final shoot-off. This year at Trentham, Steve Negus had dropped 31 points going into the final on his way to the WC title. I lost 15 total points in 2015, which put me in 97th Place. This year, I lost 72 points, but that was good enough for a 71st Place finish. The 264th Place finisher in 2015 lost fewer points in the agg than the top finisher did this year. That’s how crazy this range is, and it can’t be overstated. The scores we shoot here in the US are just not possible at Trentham.
After the festivities of the LRWC individuals concluded on Thursday evening, it was time to get back to business. Friday was scheduled as a team practice day, and on Saturday morning we would finally start the match that I’d been working towards for the last 5 years; the Palma Team Match. The team practice went well, as the coaching staff made final tweaks to the firing strategy and fine-tuned the logistics of smoothly running a team of this size. Everyone was feeling good, and we were ready for the challenge.
The Palma Team Match is the largest match of this type in the world. Each country fields a team of 16 shooters, which are divided into four, 4-person squads. All four squads fire during the same block time on four adjacent targets. Each squad has its own “Line Coach” making wind calls and sight adjustments for their 4 shooters, and all 4 Line Coaches are wired together via headsets to communicate information on condition changes and strategy. Also wired in are trace watchers, plotters, and other coaches doing different jobs. A head coach is wired in to everyone, and acts as the traffic director for the whole operation. A lot of strategy goes into getting the most out of this complicated machine, and keeping all the parts in sync with the others is no easy task. Each shooter has their individual score recorded, and all the individual scores are added up to make the final team score. The team score is the only number that really matters, and all shooters have different roles to play in getting to that number; lead-off shooters, anchor shooters, and pilot shooters all contribute in different ways to the end result.
Conditions were mild on Saturday morning to kick off day 1, and the US coaches got all 16 shooters off the 800-yard line while most other teams were only halfway through. This plan worked well, and Team USA only lost 6 points over those 240 total shots. This gave us an early lead with the Australians down 8, and South Africa down 15. Great Britain, Canada, and the hosting Kiwi’s were all well within striking distance, while some miscellaneous challenges kept the Channel Islanders further back than they would have liked. We all knew that it was much too early to start counting chickens, this match was not going to be won at 800. Things started to get a little more interesting at 900, and the Australians stepped up their game. Holding all but 18 points won that yard line for them, and moved them into the overall lead with Team USA in 2nd, and South Africa not far back in 3rd. The wind was up a bit at 1000, but still manageable. The Brits made up ground on the South Africans, losing 54 points to SA’s 78. This moved them into 3rd, with the USA’s 52 points lost keeping us in 2n. Australia again topped the field, losing only 46 to extend their lead as we reached the halfway point of the match.
Sunday morning arrived with another calm condition, and all teams took advantage of it by improving on the previous day’s 800 scores. Team USA lost only 4, but that wasn’t enough to win the 800 this time. The Brits lost 2, South Africa 1, and the Aussies were clean through all 16 shooters to build on their already strong lead. 900 was also similar to Saturday, with very similar scores being shot. Just like Saturday, it was Australia, GB, and USA finishing 1, 2, 3, leaving the Aussies in front by a mile, with the US holding a 6-point edge over the Brits going into the final yard line.
By the time we got back to 1000, the relatively benign winds we had seen over the last 30 hours were gone. The Trentham tailwind was back with a vengeance, and was ready to punish teams for even the smallest errors in wind reading and timing. The Aussies again managed it best. Even though their 86 points lost equaled their total lost over the previous 5 stages, they clearly knew what they were doing in this severe condition. All of their shooters and coaches worked together to minimize the damage. Points were lost, but they kept the bleeding under control. The Brits were next, losing 112 for their 16 shooters. SA and NZ also put up respectable showings, losing 121 and 126, respectively. Trentham showed no mercy on Team USA, and our 137 points lost dissolved our 2nd place standing.
When it was all over, no one was surprised to see Australia at the top of the standings. Their team aggregate score of 7028-773v was a full 77 points (and 165 v’s) ahead of 2nd place Great Britain. The abuse that team USA took at the final 1000 stage cost the Silver Medal, but we stayed alive, and were happy to go home with Bronze hanging around our necks. Final scores for all teams were:
Australia: 7028-773v – Gold Medal
Great Britain: 6951-608v – Silver Medal
USA: 6932-676v – Bronze Medal
South Africa: 6913-629v – 4th Place
New Zealand: 6827-555v – 5th Place
Canada: 6683-517v – 6th Place
Channel Islands: 6575-452v – 7th Place
Sincere congratulations go out to Team Australia for their decisive victory in the Palma Match, as well as for their performances throughout the entire Long Range World Championship. They dominated the matches from beginning to end, and were gracious winners. They have shown the rest of the world where the bar will be set for 2023, and it will be up to us to rise to that challenge.
Having been back home for a few weeks now, I’ve had some time to think about the whole experience. This was my first Palma Team, and it was very different from what I had been led to expect. Our team had some unique challenges that previous US Teams did not have. We made the best of the situation that was presented to us, and I believe that going home with medals in the face of this adversity was an accomplishment.
Our team was made up of men and women from all over the USA, and from all walks of life. We had everything from many-time National Champions and living legends of the sport, to regular Midwestern guys like myself. Among this group of people shooting and living together for over 2 weeks, there was no drama, no cliques, and no egos. Some of the people on this team are very close friends that have been on this same road with me for years. I knew many of the other team members from previous years of competition, while others I only met in the last year. After this trip, I believe I can honestly call every single member of this team my friends. Team Captain Norm Anderson put a lot of thought and effort into selecting his team, and the result was a cohesive unit with the desire to work together to succeed. I am proud to have been a cog in the 2019 USA Palma machine, and I’m glad that I was able to contribute to the effort. I think that future teams will be able to build on the ideas and strategies used by this team to achieve greater success in future cycles. I hope to be a part of USA Palma for a long time to come.