Every four years we have the opportunity to enjoy the absolute purity of sport. That’s right; we’re talking about the Olympics. With rare exceptions, we get to skip the arrogance, big dollar expectations, and pompous behavior of regular professional sports.
When the Olympics roll around, we get to see the real passion of competition - athletes who have made incomprehensible sacrifices to work and train in hopes that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to represent their country in the games.
One of our favorite winter Olympic events is the biathlon. Obviously because guns. But seriously, if you shoot guns, then you know how hard it is to hit small targets consistently while under pressure. Now think about doing that while skiing a marathon.
When your heart is thumping out of your chest at 180 beats per minute, it would seem impossible to hit anything, yet that’s exactly what biathletes do. They race long distances on skis, stopping occasionally to shoot at targets the sizes of silver dollars (prone position stages) and compact discs (standing position stages) from 50 meters away.
For every target they miss, they’ve got to ski a penalty lap that takes an additional 20 seconds or so. In other words, missing just a single target often makes the difference between winning and losing. Technique and skill are always the most important factor, but without a rifle that’s not only accurate, but absolutely consistent, even the best biathlon shooters aren’t going to succeed.
So what are those space-age rifles we see zipping around the snowy tracks of the biathlon competitions? To find out, we went to the source. Lanny Barnes is a three-time Olympic biathlete from Team USA. She and her identical twin sister Tracy know a thing or two about the biathlon event and the rifles used by its competitors.
I emailed Lanny for some scoop, assuming she would be planted in front of her TV watching the PyeongChang Games, but no. She’s actually participating in her fourth Olympics, just without the skis and gun.
She’s one of four Olympic athletes from around the world selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to participate in the Olympic Art Project. You can learn more about that here.
Requirements of a Biathlon Rifle
To understand why biathlon rifles are built the way they are, you first need to understand the very demanding requirements. Gold medals and years of training are at stake, so the rifle must be precise first and foremost. If it can’t put shots in exactly the same place, shot after shot, then simple statistical variance might mean the difference between a win and loss even if the shooter does everything right.
Accuracy and Speed
The targets are binary, a hit on the steel disc counts while a one-millimeter miss gets the shooter a penalty lap. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, there is no “close enough.”
The rifles must also allow the shooter to be accurate and quick. A gun with recoil that bounces the sights off target with every shot will cost time on each set of five targets.
The rifles must have precise sights. There are no scopes are allowed—competitors don't get the benefit of magnification or a reticle.
Given that biathlon races take place outside in the snow, the rifle must not only be accurate in extremely cold conditions, but it must also function reliably. Yes, actions of guns do freeze up in very cold conditions. The rifles must facilitate repeatable and accurate shooting from prone and standing positions.
Light and Portable
Last but certainly not least, biathlon rifles must be easily portable - competitors have to lug them around the course while skiing up and down hills and racing across flats.
The Anschutz 1827 Fortner Rifle
So, what rifle meets those requirements? According to Lanny, “We used Anschutz 1827 Fortner biathlon rifles, Anschutz has a monopoly over biathlon rifles because no one makes anything that compares to the 1827 when shooting accurately in the cold.”
Apparently, the rest of the known universe agrees. According to Anschutz, over 97% of biathlon competitors worldwide use the 1827 rifle. Oh, and as I write this, in all four of the biathlon events completed so far, Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal winners all used the Anschutz 1827.
Shooting Between Heartbeats
The 1827 is purpose-built for the sport from the bottom up. Since biathletes have to shoot when their heart is racing at 180 beats per minute, they have to fire between heartbeats - it’s simply not feasible to “calm down” quickly enough. That’s why the 1827 is designed to have an extremely fast “lock time.” That’s the duration between the trigger press and the bullet leaving the muzzle.
In other words, a fast lock time means the shooter has to remain perfectly still and on target for a shorter time. In biathlon, that’s important.
The rifles are also designed to function reliably in extreme cold. The factory maintains not only an indoor shooting range for testing and customer verification and tuning; they maintain a literal "cold range." The 55-meter indoor shooting facility can be chilled to 22 degrees below zero to make sure that the gun will perform in brutal race course conditions.
Specialized Bolt Action
If you shoot rifles, one of the things you’ll notice while watching the biathlon shooting stages is the unusual bolt action.
The shooter pulls the Fortner bolt straight back with the trigger finger to eject the spent .22 cartridge case. The action is fast and allows the competitor to remain perfectly on target through the cycling procedure due to the minimal hand and finger movement required.
Unlike a standard bolt action, all movement is in the same direction as the bore, so there are no lateral forces to pull the sights off target.
Lanny explains, “It is a Fortner straight pull bolt that has ball bearings in it that cock/reset the firing pin. You pull it back with your trigger finger to eject the spent round and push it forward with your thumb to bring another round into the chamber.”
Sophisticated Irons and Wind
Biathlon rifles have sophisticated sighting gear. While it looks like the rifles have a type of modified scope, they’re really iron sights because no magnified optics are allowed.
The sight itself is an aperture arrangement. On the rear of the rifle, the shooter looks through what amounts to a pinhole. That plays good tricks with the eye allowing it to focus better on both near and far objects. All of the other gear on the rear sight assembly is for wind and elevation adjustment.
While the shooting stages are only 50 yards, nasty winter conditions can cause those little .22LR bullets to move all over when winds are gusting.
“The wind plays a huge role," Lanny said. "At a venue like the PyeongChang where the winds play the biggest role in the race both in the range and on the ski course, athletes that can shoot well will win. Most of the biathletes competing in the Olympics are world class shooters, but there are some that shine on days when the wind has a mind of its own and seems to push that tiny little .22 bullet easily out of the hit zone at speeds of 20mph+.
"Not only are the biathletes battling head to head with the pressure of their country on their shoulders, but they are also shooting with a heart rate around 180 bpm and have to shoot through some of the worst winter conditions this planet has to offer in below freezing temperatures.
"You can either take clicks (adjust the windage knobs) if the wind is consistent, or your can shade (Kentucky windage). I prefer to shade, because the wind is so unpredictable and can be up one second and down the next and shading is faster because you can adjust from shot to shot and not take your hand out of position off the rifle to take clicks.”
There are more custom tweaks to the biathlon rifles. For example, you’ll spot flip covers on the muzzle and front and rear sights. While not required for every race, even those serve an important role as Lanny explains.
“The snow covers over the barrel/front sight and rear sight are to keep snow and moisture from getting into the iron sights or barrel and preventing you from seeing out of them clearly," she said. "It also is to keep moisture out of the barrel, so you don't risk shooting with a lot of moisture in your barrel and possibly getting a bulge in your barrel. It also helps protect the sights from being packed with snow when and if you fall.”
Since a race involves multiple shooting stages throughout, competitors have to carry extra magazines for each five-shot stage throughout the race. That’s why the rifles have four magazine holders in the stock itself.
I asked Lanny about the possibility of losing magazines during the race. “There is always a risk of losing a magazine while on course. In the Sprint race (two shooting stages), biathletes will carry an extra one, but in the longer races (4 shooting stages) you don't have room on your gun for an extra one, so your coaches carry extras in their pockets on the course and in the range if you happen to need one.”
Stock and Grip
When races can be won or lost by fractions of a second, every little advantage counts. Stocks and grips for world-class biathletes are adjusted and shaped to their body and hand profiles to facilitate absolute consistency every time they shoulder the rifle.
For prone stages, competitors wear a Meyer Cuff on their support arm. That allows the shooter to quickly connect a support sling for the prone shooting stages. Oh, one more thing. Since the biathlete has to tote the rifle through miles of skiing, each rifle is equipped with a semi-rigid harness, which is extremely noticeable.
While it looks unusual at first glance, think about the potential time-sucking tangles a shooter could get into with standard backpack-type straps or a loose sling. With the rigid harness, shooters can remove and replace the rifles from their back in a fraction of a second.
Takeaway and Price
So there you have it. All of this performance-supporting technology is purpose-built to give the competitor every possible advantage. As you might guess, that comes at a steep price. “Beginner” rifles start in the $2,500 range while the world-class versions can approach five figures.
All that is nice, but as Lanny explains, it’s the athlete’s performance and mental toughness that really makes or breaks a race.
“The mental stress and pressure is the hardest thing you have to overcome. Not only do you have the mental pressure of competing head to head and for your country, you have the stress and pressure of oxygen debt and severe mental and physical fatigue," she said. "When you have severe physical fatigue, you lose muscle memory and dexterity so being able to battle through those conditions and shoot accurately is a challenge.”
There are biathlon events scheduled every day until Feb. 23 out in PyeongChang. For a full schedule of events, go here.