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Three-time Olympian and 1992 Olympic Medalist Bob Foth

On Target: Testing Your Ammunition
At the National Youth Shooting Sports Leadership Conference held in Camp Perry in October, CMP Director of Training and Olympic Medallist Bob Foth talked about the importance of testing and selecting good ammunition. He advised, "life is too short to use bad ammo."

Good equipment is one of the key building blocks of successful competitive shooting. That includes ammunition. In competitions, the difference between good and poor ammunition can be several points in final scores. And when you shoot live ammunition in practice, you need ammunition that tells you the truth about your performance.

Good shooters test their ammo before selecting it because they know that there are significant variations from one ammunition to the next. The key is to find ammunition that performs well in that particular rifle barrel. The only reliable method for determining this is through controlled testing.

Even beginning shooters need reasonably accurate ammunition and rifles. I often wonder how many potentially great shooters we have lost because they never had equipment that would allow them to learn how to shoot tens. If an experienced coach or shooter cannot shoot tens (maybe nines or tens with an inexpensive sporter rifle) off of a rest with a rifle, that rifle should be repaired or retired.

The goal of all testing is to fire the target rifle and ammunition in controlled conditions where the only variable is ammunition quality. In a perfect world where perfect ammunition is fired at exactly the same aiming point under exactly the same conditions, all test shots would hit the target in one spot, making only one small round hole. What you are more likely to see is groupings of shots that form larger, irregular holes or groups of holes. You must then measure and visually compare the different "shot groups" to see which are the smallest.

With most air rifles, testing is relatively easy. You need a firmly mounted vise and a target with a backstop set at ten meters. Clamp the air rifle in the vise, being sure to protect the rifle stock from the vise jaws. Once you have the rifle safely mounted, shoot several ten-shot groups at the target using different brands and lot numbers of pellets. Move the target after each set of ten shots. Some models of pneumatic sporter air rifles may be difficult to mount in a vise and can only be tested from a bench rest.

Competitive shooters start their ammo tests by purchasing 500 round tins of several different lots of pellets. Pellets normally come in different sizes that also need to be compared. When the pellets producing the best shot groups are selected, note the lot number and go back to the dealer and purchase a large quantity of that lot. The best competition grade pellets in top-class competition air rifles will produce test groups where the outside diameter of the shot group is no more than 5-6 mm. Even pellets selected for training new shooters should be capable of producing shot groups with outside diameters of no more than 8-9 mm at the worst.

Ammunition for smallbore and highpower rifles is tested in much the same way. Such tests, however, are generally done on a firing range at greater distances. Smallbore rifles should be tested at a distance of 50 yards or meters, if possible. With smallbore and highpower rifles, you can mount a high-magnification telescope (15-30X) on the rifle and shoot the rifle to be tested off of a bench rest with good sandbag support. Be sure to do outdoor testing in calm conditions to minimize the effects of weather

For smallbore testing, obtain at least 50 rounds each of several different lots of ammunition from two or three different manufacturers. Try to shoot two or three ten-shot groups with each lot. Smallbore and highpower shot groups are normally measured by checking the center-to-center distance of the shot holes that are the farthest apart. Beware of selecting any smallbore ammunition that places eight or nine shots in a small group, but has one or two shots outside of the group (fliers) that would almost certainly be nines even when properly aimed at the center of the target. Not only will it cost you points, but it will make it hard to know whether your poor shot was due to your performance or your equipment.

The reason for having ammunition that works well with your particular rifle should be obvious-with so many factors involved in learning to shoot well, having a rifle/ammunition combination that gives you accurate feedback with each shot striking where you fire it on the target is crucial. Many of us, however, take this for granted and do not consider that some shots that are out of the ten ring or that are "off-call" are the fault of the ammunition/barrel combination and not the firer. World Champion Matt Emmons recently told me that he had learned a tremendous amount about wind reading this past year because his current rifle/ammo combination is so extremely accurate. It gives him almost perfect feedback about his performance.

The only way you can be sure to obtain the results your performance produces is to test and select ammunition that performs well in your rifle. Here are some tips for ammunition testing:

1. Not all ammunition is the same. Determine which ammunition or pellets are best for your rifle by testing.

2. Use a method of testing that maintains the rifle in a fixed position (test vise) or that allows each shot to be fired at exactly the same aiming point (bench rest testing).

3. Select the ammunition or pellets that produces the smallest test groups in your rifle.

4. Ammunition that shoots well in one rifle may not shoot well in another rifle.

5. When selecting air rifle pellets, select according to the lot number, not the pellet size.