Experimental design failure


Staff member
Bill was a friend of mine. He’s been gone for a number of years now, but I loved talking shooting projects with him. He was a serious competition shooter. He developed wildcat cartridges, worked up loading data, developed all kinds of specialized competition loads, and wrote extensively about what he learned. I didn’t always agree with Bill, but I always listened to what he had to say because it was always borne of real experience, and not just a regurgitation of something that he might have read somewhere. As he got older, he got out of the IHMSA game because he just couldn’t focus on iron sights anymore. He still had the competitive fire, he still had the shooting skills, he still had the knowledge, he just needed to find a discipline that allowed him to use optics. He looked around and settled on .22 benchrest.

.22 Benchrest is commonly shot using custom hand-built rifles, fancy optics, and expensive match-grade ammunition, not to mention a variety of specialized accessories (spotting scopes, sandbags, wind flags, air-speed gauges, etc.). This form of competition is generally shot outdoors, with targets at either 50 or 100 meters. Match format varies – sometimes it’s who can shoot the smallest groups, sometimes it’s who can hit the most tiny targets (e.g. targets printed with flies, fleas, or lady bugs), sometimes it’s who can shoot the highest scores on small round bullseye targets – but it’s always about precisely placing a .22 Long Rifle bullet on a challenging target 50 or 100 meters downrange, reading the conditions, allowing for the wind, etc.

Bill went and spent a lot of money getting a competition rifle custom built to his specifications – top quality match barrel, blue-printed action, pillar-bedded fiberglass benchrest stock, high quality high magnification target scope, premium quality adjustable match trigger (adjusted down to 2 ounces). He was very proud of his new match rifle.

He took delivery of his rifle in November. .22 Benchrest matches are normally shot in the spring and summer months, so he had several months to break in his new rifle and get everything dialed for the competition season. The only problem is the winter months here in eastern Washington tend to be blustery, and not necessarily the best conditions for getting a precision target rifle calibrated, dialed in, and ready for competition. So, he brought it down to our old indoor pistol range to show it off, and to see if he could make use of our indoor 50-foot range to break his rifle in, and do some preliminary ammunition evaluations, etc., under windless conditions.

He got set up with his oversized leather sandbags (carefully dusted with talcum powder so the rifle would break uniformly in recoil shot to shot), his spotting scope, and about 15 different brands of top-shelf .22 LR match ammunition. He took his rifle through a break-in and cleaning routine, then got down to some serious group shooting. As I recall, he would shoot 10 rounds into the 2 sighter bulls as fouling shots for each brand of ammo, then shoot eight 5-shot groups on the record bulls of each A-36 target (the international indoor smallbore target). He would then change targets, and ammo, and repeat the exercise. He used dial calipers to precisely measure the size of each group.

All of his groups were fairly small (< 0.5” extreme spread), and some were smaller than others, but nothing was approaching the single .22” hole he was hoping for. He brought some of his results over for Lyle and me to look over, and started grousing about the poor results. Lyle (a master class rifleman) proceeded to pepper him with questions about breathing, heartbeat, trigger technique, cheek pressure, how the crosshairs broke in recoil, etc. Bill was a little exasperated at times, but gave good answers to Lyle’s questions.

Eventually, Bill started to feel that he was seeing the “best of the best” that .22 rimfire rifles had to offer, and started spouting off about how smallbore rifle competition was a crock because his results showed that legitimate “possible” scores were not in fact possible, and if they happened it was because of luck, not skill, due to the random performance of the ammo.

Well, I think this might have pushed some of Lyle’s buttons. “Glen, would you go hang a target for me please?” As I did that, Lyle went into the backroom and selected an old canvas shooting jacket, a canvas sling, and one of the old bolt-action Mossberg .22 rifles that we used in our Junior Marksmanship Program (many of the Mossbergs had been in use for 30+ years at that point; these Mossbergs were fitted with Lyman peep sights). He brought this gear onto the firing line, unrolled a shooting matt, stretched out prone, and started to establish his position and adjust his sling. “Glen, would you prepare an ammo block for me please?” I was already filling a loading block with Winchester white box T-22 (the same ammo we used in our Junior Marksmanship Program).

As he went through his breathing and dry-firing drills and fine-tuned his position, I delivered his ammo block to him and declared the range hot. As I watched through the spotting scope, Lyle laid down prone, using a well-worn entry-level target rifle, with a GI-surplus canvas sling and iron sights, shooting white box ammo, proceeded to put five .22 caliber bullets into a .30” caliber hole that neatly removed the 10-ring on the A-17 sighter bull of the target I had hung for him.

Lyle’s group was smaller than anything Bill had shot all night.

Bill was incredulous, and suggested that perhaps Lyle had cheated and had “dumped” 2 or 3 of his shots off the paper. We were able to quickly convince him that this was indeed a 5 shot group (I had seen the paper move with all 5 shots), and that it was possible for a skilled shooter to do this on demand by showing him some of Lyle’s postal targets from last season. Then Bill started going off about how maybe he’d been ripped off by the gunsmith who had taken all his money and given him such a crappy rifle. Lyle and I both agreed that we thought the gunsmith had built a fine rifle.

“So, are you saying that I don’t know how to shoot?” Bill demanded, getting a little hot. “No Bill, we know that you know how to shoot.” (I’d seen all of his IHMSA trophies…).

“Then why can’t I get any decent groups?”

Thus began Lyle’s lecture on parallax. Bill was familiar with the basic concept, but (like many shooters) he assumed that since his scope (which had adjustable parallax) was parallax adjusted for 50 yards, that he was OK at ranges less than that. That’s a good assumption if you’re shooting tin cans, or ground squirrels, but if you are shooting in a match and measuring groups in tenths or hundredths or thousandths of an inch, your scores just got wiped out by parallax.

In short, when you’re looking through a scope, “zero parallax” means the focal plane of the target is in the same plane as the crosshairs internally inside the scope. If the focal plane of the target is not the same as the crosshairs, then when you move your head side-to-side, it will appear that the crosshairs are moving back and forth across the target. This is parallax. This means ANY minute change in eye position will change the point of impact on the target. Higher magnification increases this effect.

This was an expensive lesson for Bill (he had burned through a couple hundred bucks worth of ammo shooting groups which turned out to be meaningless). But things turned out OK in the long run as Bill did just fine when he took that match rifle outdoors the next spring and shot it at distances that its optics were better suited for.

Good teachers are a blessing indeed, and Lyle was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in action.