AAR: Thunder Ranch High Angle Rifle II
This post is meant to be a review of the High Angle Rifle 2 class I attended at Thunder Ranch in November of 2013, but the journey itself, as travel often does, offered a few life perspectives worth sharing, so you’ll have to pardon my indulgence in a few philosophical wanderings along the way.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Thunder Ranch is a world-class training facility nestled in over 800 acres of Oregon’s “Outback” near Lakeview. The topography and location make it a perfect spot for testing your gear and skill against long distances and changes in altitude. Thunder Ranch is owned and operated by Clint and Heidi Smith, who are some of the finest people you’d ever want to meet.
This trip marks the 7th time I’ve trained at Thunder Ranch, which might give you some indication of what I think about the facility, particularly since I live in Ohio, a mere 8-states away.
The long drive from Ohio to Southern Oregon is one I’ve made before and yes… it’s a long haul, but I opted to drive again because it simplifies travelling across country with firearms, ammunition and all of the clothing and support gear one needs to spend 3 days in the mountains shooting. This adds about a day of travel time (each way) but saves over $1000 in car rental, excess baggage and firearms/ammo shipping expenses.
The drive there was fairly uneventful… a stop in Montezuma, Iowa for a visit to Brownells headquarters; a stop in Palisade, Colorado at “Meadery of the Rockies” to pick up a case of their excellent honey wine; and a stop at Hart Mountain Antelope Preserve in Plush, Oregon to take a dip in the hot springs. A year previously I had tried to locate the hot springs on Hart Mountain, but Yahoo Maps got me good and lost on Bureau of Land Management trails that I didn’t even belong on with my type of vehicle. This year I ignored the map and followed the signs and drove right to it. While reflecting in the hot water (I had the place all to myself) this struck me as a profound commentary on life. Sometimes, you may find yourself on a rough and rugged road and stubborn arrogance keeps you on that path, no matter how ridiculous things get, until you either turn around or break down. If you find yourself on one of these roads, the sooner you turn around, the better off you are. Sometimes you just have to slam the map to the dusty trail in disgust and just follow the signs. When you do that, the road gets easy and the destinations are refreshing and energizing. Enough philosophizing, back to the class review:
Class began on Thursday, November 28, which also happened to be Thanksgiving Day. I personally can’t think of any better way to appreciate the things I am thankful for than to make full use of them, hanging out at high altitude with cool people shooting big rifles at small targets over great distances. There were 7 shooters in the class. We had a pair of shooters from Arkansas, shooting basically Remington 700’s in .300 Win Mag, a pair of Police Officers from the Great White North shooting Accuracy International .338 Lapuas, a Geologist from Texas shooting a particularly nice Accuracy International .338 Lapua, a Firefighter with a Remington in .338, and myself, shooting a Savage custom shop .300 win mag, left-handed with an Ops Inc. 3rd model suppressor and Leupold M5 Extended Range Tactical scope. While I prefer suppressed rifles, (who doesn’t?), I knew it was inescapable that at a class designed for big-bore magnums, there would be some muzzle brakes loud and obnoxious enough to blow my hat off. Sure enough, there were some vents on these cannons. Fortunately, we were able to place barriers between the firing positions, which kept exposure to muzzle blast down to a minimum.
The first day of class we gathered in Clint and Heidi’s dining room for a brief lecture. Clint pretty much informed us that at this level, we were there to learn, not to be taught, and the best way to accomplish this was not to sit around talking about it, but to get behind the rifles and start shooting things. Clint did discuss a few of the finer points of long range marksmanship, such as Spin Drift and Coriolis Effect, which are just fancy terms for “I missed.”
The first day of class was held on what they call the “flat range,” which involves mainly pristine-position prone shooting out to 700 yards with a few longer shots at targets up on the surrounding hillsides. This helps work out any equipment bugs and gets a solid no-wind zero for the rifles at these distances. Elevation at the range deck is approximately 5200’ above sea-level, which does change the ballistics slightly from what I am used to in Ohio. The less-dense air means the rounds fly a little flatter and a little farther before going transonic.
My first 3-round group was essentially a cloverleaf at 100 yards on the left edge of the square 1” black spotter. I adjusted 2/10 of a mil right and that’s when things went screwy for me. The next group was about 3” across and nowhere near the black spotter. I took the adjustment back off and that didn’t seem to help. The 195 grain Hornady Boat Tail Open Tip Match rounds that had grouped so well for me this fall when I loaded them were beginning to open up into a dreadful scattergun pattern. By the time we were at 300 yards I was lucky to hit the paper backer much less the tiny square I was aiming at. I tried the rifle with the suppressor off, no change in group, just an incredible increase in recoil. One of the assisting instructors asked if he could try out my rifle, sensibly trying to determine if there was a mechanical issue …such as a “loose trigger nut.” 😉 I welcomed this because I truly would have preferred that the problem was operator error and not something seriously mechanically wrong with my optic or mount. When the instructor did no better, I started to feel sick… I had driven a long way to dump bits of lead at random into Oregon’s backside. After 300 yards we ate lunch and I busted out my torque driver to double-check practically every screw on the rifle. When I was sure everything was tight, we proned out behind the rifles and fired for groups at 400 yards. I achieved the same dismal results, which left me with only one more option, quite by chance. Fortunately, when I was preparing for this class, ammunition components were flying off of the shelves in the midst of the latest ammo panic. All I could find was 3 boxes of Hornady 195 grain BTHP’s and 3 boxes of 210 grain Berger VLD’s. I had hesitated to bring mixed ammunition to a precision rifle class, typically a no-no, but what was I going to do? The whole country decided to buy all of the reloading components down to the bare shelves last summer. So… I loaded up about 250 Hornady’s and about 250 Berger VLD’s for the class. I decided to switch to the VLD’s and see if that could help. It was the only variable I had left to change. As we got ready to move to 500 yards, I loaded in a magazine of 210 grain Bergers, dialed my estimated dope for 500 yards and waited for my turn to shoot. When my chance came I quartered the steel silhouette with my crosshairs and squeezed the trigger… “Ping!” a more or less center hit. After repeating this for a few times we moved to 600 yards. I dialed in a few more clicks and started making hits, ditto at 700. Seemingly, my problem had been solved, but my trust in my equipment was still somewhat shaken.
After confirming 700 yard zeros and taking a few shots at a difficult target to see roughly 900 yards away up on the hillside next to the range, we stowed our gear and assembled back at Clint and Heidi’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. The spread was fantastic and the conversation was first-rate.
The second day, we shouldered our packs with rifles, ammo and everything we would need for a day on the mountain. After a moderate uphill hike we divided into 2 groups to engage targets from 2 places on the mountain. We engaged targets between roughly 400 and 1000 yards, some at relatively steep downward angles. My rifle was quickly redeeming itself from the previous day .
When it was time for me to engage the first 1000 yard target, I knew where it was supposed to be, but due to the light and shadows even the spotters were having a hard time finding it. When we more or less figured out where it was, I referenced my crosshairs on something I could see and fired. The spotter told me to hold a half-mil further left, which I did and fired again… impact. I fired a few more rounds at the target… that I still couldn’t see, and got a few more hits. Now I know that it’s generally inadvisable to shoot a target you haven’t identified, but in this training environment with knowledgeable spotters as well as a safe downrange area and backstop, I was willing to fire a few rounds on faith, and it worked out.
After a while, my group moved to a different place on the mountain that is generally referred to as the “Humpy Rock.” Here we engaged targets out to 1200 yards. We had essentially perfect weather with a very light breeze, so windage holdovers, even at this distance, were typically less than 1 mil. I was making pretty good hits, though I did notice that the barrel would heat up and cause some shot dispersion during long strings. This was not unexpected, particularly with a magnum caliber, 26” barreled rifle, with a pound and a half of suppressor hanging off the end. For accuracy in any caliber, a shorter barrel is just more rigid, it’s simple physics, and will yield more consistency. However, the purpose of a magnum rifle is to propel a heavy projectile at faster than typical velocities and velocity is a function of barrel length. So there’s a trade-off, but I was willing to trade some barrel rigidity for velocity in this case.
The third day we hiked up a mountain on the other side of the property. This was a longer and higher hike and I believe it would be fair to classify it as “strenuous,” particularly carrying almost 40 pounds of rifle, ammo, water, etc…
From this location, we were finally to engage the really far shots. The fun part about this location is that the firing positions are awkward, jagged rocks. For the first position, I decided it was time to break out my shooting sticks. Earlier this year I took a precision rifle class at Tactical Defense Institute in West Union, Ohio (also an excellent class that I highly recommend), and the head instructor of that class is a big fan of shooting sticks. I jammed the tips of the sticks into the dirt between the rocks and formed a reasonable rest just above one of the sharp boulders. This made a very sturdy rest for the rifle and I pulled off 1100 yard and 1200 yard shots from this position without too much difficulty. The shooting sticks may have been cheating, but hey… I hiked them up the mountain to use them and “always cheat, always win.”
Next, I changed positions to engage the 1400 and 1500 yard targets. The dope I had calculated for 1400 yards was close, but needed a little adjustment. After getting a few hits at 1400 yards I moved to the 1500 yard target, dialed in another mil of elevation and sighted in on the target. At 1500 yards, a full-size silhouette target isn’t even a half-mil across. This is a tough target to sight in on, even with a 20-power optic. I applied the fundamentals though: breathe, relax, aim, sight, squeeeeeze until I felt the rifle recoil into my shoulder. What felt like several seconds elapsed and I heard the spotter say “that’s a hit!” followed a few seconds later by a faint impact noise on steel. I turned around and looked at the spotter, “are you telling me I made a first-round hit at 1500 yards? “ “Yeah,” he replied “That’s a hit.” Part of me was tempted to just stop shooting right then and there because I wouldn’t top a shot like that, but I threw about 5 more rounds downrange at it, hitting it one more time. By then my barrel was getting good and warm and shots were just missing off of the edges of the target, (must have been spin drift or coriolis effect,) so I moved my gear from the line to make an opening for the next shooter. I had gotten my hits. The Savage had fully redeemed itself.
I fired from 2 more positions that day at targets between about 500 and 800 yards, getting the requisite amount of satisfying hits.
At about 1:00 in the afternoon it was time to pack up and hike back down. We stowed our rifles and gear in our vehicles, gathered for a wrap-up back at the house, shook hands, said our goodbyes to Clint, Heidi and their excellent cadre of assistant instructors and went our separate ways.
This was a challenging class, mentally and physically, and really pushes the capabilities of gear and shooter alike. If, however, you have a solid command of the fundamentals along with a capable rifle and good ammo, you will get your hits on this course by listening to your spotters. They did a great job of calling the wind and walking the shots onto the target. If you live in the East like me, you do have a long journey to get out to the little town of Lakeview, but there are some interesting things to see along the way and in my opinion it is well worth it.