Learning from ARA Benchrest Competition

Last weekend I visited the American Rimfire Association (ARA) Virginia state championship match.

If a stock 10/22 is a Volkswagen Jetta, and a tricked-out special with scope, aftermarket barrel and trigger group is a Porsche 911 Turbo, these Unlimited ARA rifles are the Top Fuel dragsters of the shooting world. They are designed to do one thing very well and have no versatility at all. But boy, do they do that thing well.

ARA benchrest shooting is done at 50 yards. The target (known as a “card”, shown below) has 25 bulls on it.

ARA Card

You have 20 minutes to complete the card with 25 record shots, one on each bull. Most shooters fire 10-25 other shots, as sighters and test groups, on non-scoring areas of the card. (This is legal, as only shots in each bull’s scoring box count.) The inner ring, worth 100 points, has an outside diameter of .50”. The next ring is worth 50 points. A 1MOA bullseye (.5” at 50 yards) isn’t so tough? But it isn’t 1MOA. ARA benchrest scores on the “worst edge” of the hole. If the outside edge of the bullet breaks the line, the shot receives the lower score. So you have .250” from the center to the edge, and the bullet is .224” wide, leaving a margin of error of .138” or you drop 50 points. (Dead center shot has its edges at .112”: .250 ‒ .112 = .138) These rifles shoot to an astounding level of precision – a rifle must shoot 5-shot groups of less than .130” to be competitive. Here is a target with a score of 2450:

ARA 2450 Target 150117

What kind of rifles shoot like this? Big, heavy, single-shot bolt actions on which every part is custom made, with 24” bull barrels and tuners (adjustable weights) on the muzzle to damp barrel vibration. Trigger pull weight is 0.5 – 1.0 ounce, and the only part of you that touches the rifle during the shot is your trigger finger. To sit securely in the rest, the stock has a wide, flat forend and a straight buttstock. To see that small bull, they wear scopes of up to 50x. You can easily spend $6,000 on the rifle, scope and rest before you buy a single box of ammunition. Here’s what one looks like:

ARA Benchrest Rifle

What can these specialized rifles possibly have in common with our 10/22s? Well, the principles of accurate shooting apply equally to both. I asked competitors what made the difference between winning and losing:

  1. The right ammunition: Said the weekend’s overall champion, “What makes the holes in the target? Accuracy begins with the bullet. Work back from there.” ARA shooters use the best ammunition money can buy, and they bring several different lots of their favorites to select the one that works best in their rifle on that day. Target-quality ammunition is more consistent in bullet/case dimensions, powder formulation and primer than the bulk stuff. The difference doesn’t matter in Steel Challenge, but if you’re shooting CMP Rimfire Sporter or hunting small game at over 50 yards, it will. Whether due to chamber size/shape or the harmonics of barrel vibration, some rifles simply shoot straighter with particular brands of ammunition. Try a few different ones and see what works best for you.
  2. Barrel cleanliness is next to godliness: What part of the rifle touches the bullet? Benchrest shooters are the most fanatic cleaners I’ve ever seen. Every competitor I saw but one cleaned the barrel thoroughly with solvent, brush and patches after each card; i.e., every 50 shots or less. Their methods are meticulous. They clean from the breech, using polished, stainless steel or carbon fiber rods and bore guides that ensure nothing but the brush or patch contacts the barrel. Just as our 10/22s do, bolt actions develop the hard “carbon ring” in the chamber. Shooters put great emphasis on scrubbing the chamber so that rounds will seat smoothly into the rifling. Benchrest shooters talk about a “window of accuracy”. A completely clean barrel will shoot a flyer, because that is the only shot from the barrel in that condition. Before shooting for score, they shoot 3-15 “fouling” shots, which deposit some bullet lube in the barrel, making the bore condition consistent. Within the window, accuracy is at its best. After too many shots, the fouling is heavy enough to affect the flight of the bullet and groups begin to open up. Bottom line – properly cleaned barrels shoot better.
  3. How you address the trigger is crucial: Even with a .5 –1.0 oz trigger, the smoothness of your trigger squeeze and follow-through affects point of impact. On Appleseed lines, where the trigger weight is usually 2.5 – 7.0 lbs., I often see shooters who learn good trigger control and follow-through instantly shrink their groups by up to 50%.
  4. Consistency is accuracy: Benchrest shooting is so precise because it removes as many variables as possible from the shot. Whether we are position shooting, hunting, or plinking, we will shoot better when we do everything consistently, from establishing a rock-steady position without muscle strain to hold the rifle, to our alignment of the sights, to our follow-through and calling of the shot.
  5. Aim small, miss small: Benchrest shooters sight on the center of the dot. We want to sight on the tightest part of our target. Not the bullseye (with a 6:00 hold), but the exact point where it is tangent with the top of the front sight. Not the can, but the center of the “O” in “Coke”. Not the squirrel’s head, but that spot just below his ear.

I don’t think I’ll ever be an ARA benchrest shooter. If I had that much mad money, I’d probably buy another motorcycle. But I sure learned a lot from them.

Note: There is a new and rapidly growing benchrest league aimed at 10/22 and other semiauto shooters: the Auto Bench Rest Association (www.autobenchrestassociation.com). Their “Factory” class is designed to be low-cost and accessible to owners of ordinary rifles, with only minimal modifications allowed. The target is a little more forgiving, too. I plan to try one of their matches and write about it soon.

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3 Responses to Learning from ARA Benchrest Competition

  1. Sean Welch says:

    Very interesting information. Thank you for your time and commitment to this fine website.


  2. Thank you for reading it, Sean.


  3. Victor says:

    Take a look at ABRA http://www.autobenchrestassociation.com/ where shooting Benchrest with the 10/22 style rifles


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