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n the immortal words of Mugatu (Zoolander, 2001), “Long-range shooting is so hot right now.” On second thought, maybe he was talking about male model Hansel, but we’ll call it close enough. Whatever the quote, long-range shooting is hot right now and for a good reason. It’s immensely satisfying to nail a target farther away than you can see. Knowing that you’re planning and executing a shot where your bullet may drop hundreds of inches vertically before it hits the target is just incredibly cool. While shooting long-range for fun and pleasure is great, what’s uber satisfying is competition. The added excitement of shooting for score brings a whole new level of challenge and reward to your endeavors. One of the easiest ways to get involved in the long-range game is to take up F-Class shooting. Let’s take a quick and simple look at what it is and how you can get started. The Rules of the Game – Simplified F-Class long-range shooting competitions are a subset of the NRA High Power rifle program. High Power includes several rifle disciplines, most of which are highly-structured courses of fire involving standing, kneeling, prone and other uncomfortable positions. F-Class is excellent for beginners because it’s relatively simple and you don’t have to spend weeks at Camp Perry learning the nuances of position shooting. Besides, you get to lay down on the job as F-Class matches are shot from the prone position.

This competitor has built an upgraded rifle. Note the extra-wide competition bipod for improved stability.
This competitor has built an upgraded rifle. Note the extra-wide competition bipod for improved stability.Tom McHale

The NRA High Power rulebook is 91 pages long, so rather than forcing you to digest that, we're going to provide a concise explanation of the F-Class sub-discipline here:

Matches range from 300 to 1,200 yards. A match can encompass multiple distances per day or just one, as my local club likes to do. For example, our next monthly event might be an 800-yard F-Class match. After some initial practice or sighting shots, competitors might shoot three different strings of fire, each at a fresh target. Big regional and national matches will always have multiple strings of fire at different distances.

The targets themselves are rigidly defined because the National Rifle Association program folks take their shooting results seriously because national and world records are at stake.

The sizes of the scoring rings vary by distance, but as an example, let's look at the target dimensions for 800, 900, and 1,000-yard matches. The X-ring is just five inches across. The 10-point zone measures ten, the nine-ring 20, eight-ring 30, seven-ring 44, six-ring 60, and five-ring 72 inches. As you can see, the maximum scoring area, not counting the "X-ring" is exactly one minute of angle wide at the maximum target distance of 1,000 yards. If you do your job, a rifle that shoots one-minute groups will get you a perfect score.

There are two "classes" within F-Class competition which vary only by the equipment you can use.

The Open class allows rifles of .35 caliber or less that must have a total gear weight of less than 10kg or about 22 pounds. The total gear includes scope and attached bipod. I specify "attached bipod" because open class allows the shooter to use freestanding front and rear rests as long as they are not connected to each other. The width of the fore-end stock can't exceed three inches, but that's rarely a problem if you're starting with a production rifle.

The Target Rifle (TR) class is for service rifles chambered in either .223 Remington or .308 Winchester. Shooters can't use separate rests and must either shoot with an attached bipod or sling although you can use a free-standing rear bag under the stock. Total weight of all gear on the rifle must be less than 8.25 kg or 18.8 pounds.

The classes are for scoring categories only, so shooters on the same line can be in either class.

There are plenty of other arcane rules, but for today’s purposes, they’re not relevant.

When the targets are far down range, it’s important to shoot at the right one, hence the large number markers.
When the targets are far down range, it’s important to shoot at the right one, hence the large number markers.Tom McHale

Don't Be Intimidated by Gear Divas

When you show up for your first F-Class Match, you’re going to see lots of gear. You’ll likely spot expensive store-bought or custom crafted wind measurement systems.

You’ll see portable ballistic smartphone apps and Kestrel weather meters with built-in ballistic software. You’ll see bipods that look some a miniaturized spacecraft hangar structure. You’ll also fall into a seemingly bottomless pit of rifle envy. There will be some sweet guns with high four-figure price tags.

Now that I’ve thoroughly discouraged you, I’m going to tell you some good news. You can beat those guys with their fancy gear. No, probably not on your first outing, but if you focus on developing your skills rather than your gear inventory, you’ll quickly rise to the top of the scorecards. Here’s why: When you start shooting at distances of 600, 800 or 1,000 yards, the accuracy of your rifle and ammo is no longer the biggest limiting factor of your score. “Huh,” you say? Let’s walk through an example.

you can even use a rolled up coat or shooting bag for a front rest
There are some specific details to consider, but you can even use a rolled up coat or shooting bag for a front rest in the Open class.Tom McHale

You can find factory rifles that will shoot accurately to within one minute of angle all day long. In plain English, that means that the rifle, with quality match ammunition, will shoot one-inch groups at 100 yards, six-inch groups at 600, and so on. At 1,000 yards, your store-bought rifle and ammo will keep all of your shots within a ten-inch circle provided you do your part.

Now for the fun part. Wind happens. It’s not unusual to have a 3 mph wind on any given day. At 1,000 yards, that little bit of wind will blow a .308 Winchester 168-grain Sierra Matchking bullet about 33 inches sideways.

Of course, the numbers vary based on distance, caliber, and many other factors, but my point remains. Your ability to estimate wind is going to help your score far more than the accuracy of your rifle, within reason. If you spend 90 jillion dollars on a rifle that shoots ¼-inch groups at 100 yards, that’s great, but if you are off by a mile per hour or two in your wind estimation, that ¼-inch group is all for naught because you're scattering shots all over the target. Make sense? Trust me on this.

Some of the folks with mortgaged gear on the firing line will be really good as well, and they’ll teach you some things. Many others won’t be any more skilled than you, so their gear isn’t going to carry the day if they can’t accurately account for wind and execute a stable shot.

You can start without a weather meter, but if you get hooked you’ll want a device like this Kestrel Meter with built-in ballistic computer.
You can start without a weather meter, but if you get hooked you’ll want a device like this Kestrel Meter with built-in ballistic computer.Tom McHale

The bottom line is this: Start with the gear you have or can easily acquire without breaking the bank and get busy shooting. Learn from the experts. Those are the ones who get great scores, not necessarily the ones with great gear. Invest your energy in skills until your equipment starts to actually limit your results. Then, you can buy an expensive rifle and start hand-loading ammunition.

Equipment You'll Need (And What You Won't…)

So, what do you really need to get started in F-Class? Here’s your shopping list.

A bolt-action or AR-type rifle chambered in some reasonable long-range caliber will fit the bill. If you go the bolt action route, get one in a common (read: easy to find ammo) caliber like .308 Winchester or 6.5mm Creedmoor. Check out models like the Savage Model 12 Long Range Precision Rifle. It’ll take you a long way in the F-Class world when you add a quality scope. If you choose a semi-automatic rifle, stick to either .223 Remington / 5.56mm or .308 Winchester, so you have the option of competing in the TR class.

This Savage Model 12 Long Range Precision Rifle is a great solution for F-Class shooting.
This Savage Model 12 Long Range Precision Rifle is a great solution for F-Class shooting.Tom McHale

F-Class doesn't allow use of suppressors or muzzle brakes, so be sure to get a thread protector if your rifle comes with a brake installed. Add a decent and stable bipod. Don’t go for a cheap import because you’ll want stability, so you can focus on wind and technique rather than holding the rifle still. Be sure to get a rear sandbag on which to rest the stock. Like the attached bipod, you can use that in either Open or TR class.

You’ll also want to invest in a decent (meaning crystal clear) scope. If you’re going to compete in matches in the 600 to 1,000-yard range, something that offers up to 15 or 25x magnification will do just fine. Don’t worry about achieving maximum magnification. That can actually make your life harder as things get more sensitive at higher power levels.

You’ll see more movement and more mirage when you shoot on warm days. I’ve been using a 15x scope for 800-yard shooting, and it works just fine. The biggest aid to your shooting is clarity, and that costs money, so don’t try to pair a $150 scope with a $1,000 rifle. Scopes aren't sexy, but trust me on this. Spend whatever money is available to you on a quality optic. You won’t regret it.

shooting matt
You don’t need much to get started with F-Class long-range competition. You can even substitute an old towel or blanket for a shooting mat – or skip it altogether if you’re up for a bit of discomfort.Tom McHale

If you’re just getting started, use factory-loaded match grade ammunition. There’s always time to take up reloading to create your own rifle-specific custom loads later.

However, you will want to invest some time at shorter ranges to see which exact ammo your particular rifle likes. Rifles can be notorious for shooting one brand and style of bullet better than another with identical specs, so spend some time finding out what your rifle prefers.

If you have or want to buy, a spotting scope, be my guest. Just don’t wait until you have one to go to your first match. Like scopes on rifles, a spotting scope isn’t worth beans unless it offers not just big magnification but exceptional clarity, and that costs money.

In F-Class, your bullets are making tiny holes in a large black target circle, so they’re exceptionally difficult to see from the firing line with any optic. You won’t see them at all with an inexpensive spotting scope. The “sighting” strings of fire will allow you to see where you’re shooting and adjust accordingly when shooting for score.

In addition to Kestrel ballistic devices, you can also get smartphone apps that calculate ballistic solutions.
In addition to Kestrel ballistic devices, you can also get smartphone apps that calculate ballistic solutions.Tom McHale

You’ll want a way to calculate the trajectory of your rifle and ammo combination at various distances, so you’ll need some type of ballistic calculator solution. You can find your theoretical ballistic data using an online web tool offered by most of the ammo manufacturers. Better yet, spend a couple dollars on a Smartphone solution like Ballistic.

It allows you to calculate trajectory information for a wide range of calibers and specific bullet types. These theoretical numbers will get you close for the right scope adjustments, but you’ll want to verify them on the range before your first competition. This is another reason that it’s important to find your ammo and stick with it. You can jot down actual adjustments for different ranges and use that data forever.

NRA official targets
NRA official targets for F-Class shooting at 800, 900, and 1,000 yards have five-inch X-rings and 10-inch ten-rings like this one. The whole target shown here measures 42x42 inches.Tom McHale

If after your first match, you decide you like the game, you can add more gear then. For example, a wind meter will give you even more precision in your adjustments. Rather than watching grass sway to gauge wind speed, you’ll know wind velocity exactly and can compensate accordingly. You also might want to invest in upgrades like competition bipods, a fancier rifle, and better optics. And of course, once you get that serious, you’ll be looking to load your own ammo that’s perfectly fit to your competition rifle. But that all comes later.

Get Busy!

The important thing is to get the basics together and just go. As with all the other shooting sports, you’ll find that there will be lots of people at the match more than willing to help you get started. Don’t be shy. Tell them it’s your first match, and you’ll get lots of help with the procedures and format. If you’re completely new to longer range shooting, be sure to arrive early and perhaps one of the match directors or experienced shooters will help you get on target.

These shooters are placing their 20-shot strings on 800-yard targets.
These shooters are placing their 20-shot strings on 800-yard targets.Tom McHale