For some time I buried the thought of trying my hand at long range shooting. Like a lot of shooters and hunters it seemed like the next logical step in my shooting and hunting experience, but with a busy schedule and lacking any kind rifle that would be up to the task I didn’t try too hard to make it happen. With this latent desire in the back of my mind I get a phone call that drives that thought forward to all I can think about. Special Hunting Weapons and Tactics™ (SHWAT™) has a media invitation to attend the U.S. Optics Long Range Precision Rifle 1 Course at the Altair Training Solutions facility in Naples, FL. It’s just a few hours from my home. As part of my SHWAT™ invite, I’ll be issued a Desert Tech SRS A-1 along with 300 Win Mag DRT Ammo and a U.S. Optics LR-17 riflescope. The opportunity is nothing short of brilliant, but admittedly I’m somewhat apprehensive. I’ve always been an AR guy, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll soon discover that running and gunning with an AR is the polar opposite to precision rifle shooting…
I arrive at the Altair Training Center east of Naples, Florida on Thursday evening and am greeted by Mary Jo, Altair’s Public Relations Officer. I almost feel like I’m in a movie. Other than the lighted building entrance, it is a moonless pitch black. I’m carrying the most impressive rifle I’ve ever seen, a Desert Tech Stealth Recon Scout (SRS) A1 bolt action bullpup sniper rifle in 300WM into what was once an active prison. The facility was converted to a law enforcement/military training facility a few years ago. Just recently, ownership decided to open the facility for civilian firearm training. This provides the U.S. Optics Academy the perfect venue to host their long range shooting courses.
The following morning, I meet Altair’s owner, retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major, Brian Jones. He’s walking his German Shepard just outside the barbwire fence surrounding the training complex. It’s training day and even the dog is in training mode. A few other students join our conversation as we walk together toward the mess hall for breakfast.
I quickly discover that I’m in a class with an elite group of shooters and hunters. The U.S. Optics Academy Chief Instructor today is Tyler “Gremlin” Hughes, a ten year combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. With five tours overseas, Tyler served in numerous roles, most notably Scout Sniper Team Leader and Scout Sniper Platoon Sergeant. His military training is extensive and impressive. Executive Vice President of Falkor Defense and social media sensation Clint Walker is assisting.
As students introduce themselves I discover that several of my fellow classmates have respectable rifle credentials and prior long range experience. Jason and Melinda Sonju, Principals at Falkor Defense are here with their 300 WM Petra rifles. Right about now I feel the nervous anticipation of a rookie. Then the written class materials and the U.S. Optics Data Books were handed out. I’d never even seen a “Precision Rifle Data Book” before, so it’s a bit intimidating.
Prior to this course, the furthest I’ve shot steel was 275 yards using a 5.56 AR-15 with an EOTech holographic site. In the next few hours I’ll be running the Desert Tech 300 Winchester Magnum (WM) sniper rifle weapon system. I’ve literally only touched the rifle twice prior to class, and I’ve never shot a 300WM before. I’ve never used anything like the US Optics LR-17 scope. And I know I’m going to have to write this story. No pressure here! Did I mention I’m supposed to hit steel at 1000 meters, too?
The next few hours are classroom instruction covering scope theory, fundamentals of marksmanship and weapon familiarization. This was a huge benefit to me since my prior hunting experience was based on red dots and/or a simple 3-9×40 scope. It’s a whole different world using high powered optics reaching out beyond 1000 meters. The U.S. Optics LR-17 I’ll use this weekend has a Milliradian (Mils) reticle. It’s based on the metric system and entirely new to me.
With scope theory covered, Tyler moves on to the fundamentals of marksmanship. His explanations of bone support and muscle relaxation really open my eyes. If the shooter can’t comfortably create a stable platform, fatigue will set in. This applies in a prone shooting position or sitting in a tree climber for extended period s of time. I’m starting to connect the dots, and it’s exciting.
With our brains full, it’s now time to move to one of many outdoor ranges at Altair to zero our rifles. We’re in Florida, so the range of choice was simply a flat stretch of grassy ground with paper targets in front of a berm at 100 yards. I lay down my shooter’s mat on a mound approximately 30 feet in length. It’s just long enough for all the students to set up. I carefully position the Desert Tech SRS A1, bolt open and pointed down range. I gather my 150 grain 300WM Dynamic Research Technologies (DRT) ammo and play out the fundamentals of marksmanship, breathing, trigger control and follow through in my head. Tyler is a stickler for trigger control, and rightly so. I’m not new to these concepts, but the anticipation of shooting this new weapon system is getting the best of me. I relax a bit after the first few shots and my groups get better throughout the afternoon. By the end of day one, I feel much more comfortable and ready to send it further down range on day two.
Editor’s note: Tyler Hughes now leads the Max Ordinate Academy while Jim Gilliland heads up the US Optics Academy.