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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

Top guns at Camp Perry not just bunch of sightseers

The final shots were fired late last week in the demanding .22 or smallbore rifle competition in the 100th anniversary of the National Rifle and Pistol Matches at Camp Perry, and it is time for the top guns to take a well-deserved bow.

Those unfamiliar with match shooting and especially smallbore may not appreciate the degree of skill, concentration, and endurance that attends this competition at the national championship level. It is about as different from plinking with a .22 in the sand pit by the creek as a lightning bug is from a lightning bolt.

And when you factor in the necessity of coping with outdoors conditions of midsummer along western Lake Erie which can include sweltering heat and its vision-altering mirages, sweat-dripping humidity, bullet-drifting winds, and match-interrupting storms the true stature of winning a championship becomes clear.

The national smallbore prone championship, the top .22 rifle honor, is an excellent illustration.

The title is a composite of two 320-shot subchampionships, the metallic sight and the any-sight, and at this level of elite shooting a difference as fine as a heartbeat may mean the difference between champion and runner-up.

The 2007 national smallbore prone champion is Army Lt. Col. Robert Harbison, of Columbus, Ga. It is his first national prone title.

Harbison fired a composite score of 6397-542X in the combined metallic and any-sight events, this out of a possible 6400-640X. The X-score refers to perfect bull s-eyes in an inner X-ring inside the 10-ring, and it is tallied to break possible ties.

Runner-up champion was Army Maj. Michael Anti, of Fort Benning, Ga., a three-time former smallbore three-position champion and 2000 smallbore prone champion. He scored 6396-544X.

So, Anti actually fired more X-shots in the course of two grueling matches, but finished just one numerical point short of matching Harbison s total. It may have been just a heartbeat, a short breath, or minor twitch that made the difference. That is how precise and demanding this sport can be. There is no room for error.

Indeed, the third place finisher, Army Sgt. Shane Barnhart, finished just behind the others at 6394-510X, and virtually all the special-category champions fired well over 6300 in their divisions, from subjunior champion Elijah Ellis, of Kingsport, Tenn., at 6337-355X to civilian champion Kenneth Benyo, of Macungie, Pa., at a near-top 6392-515X. In all 277 shooters fired the overall prone title events.

Bettering by a point Benyo s high civilian score was Keith Ridgeway, of Reading, England, also at 6393-496X. But Dot Priesman, who runs the statistics office during the Matches, said that Ridgeway could not share the high civilian title because of his British citizenship. Our laws do not allow a non-U.S. citizen to win the national championship or special awards categories for the national championship. [So] he received duplicate awards and a high-visitor plaque in place of the high civilian plaque.

Smallbore shooting legend Lones Wigger Jr., now retired from a brilliant title-filled Army career, finished 25th in the master civilian category 6379-472X. He is the Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron of smallbore, with his name appearing on national championship and Olympic medal lists since 1963.

Harbison initially won the smallbore prone any-sight (metallic or optical) championship with a score of 3199-281X out of a possible 3200-320X in a field of 278 shooters. Anti was second at 3199-273X, and Michael Jarboe, of Rineyville, Ky., was third at 3199-268X.

The importance of the X-tallies is seen at this level of precision shooting. James Hinkle, of Grayson, Ga., also fired a 3199, but with 232X. He was high senior shooter.

Indeed, sometimes not even the X-score is enough. For Jarboe s third-place finish was matched exactly by the aforementioned civilian champion Benyo, who also fired a 3199-268X in the any-sight match.

To break that tie the statistics office had to examine Benyo s and Jarboe s scores at 100 yards, the longer range in the match, a phase of which is fired at 50 yards. Jarboe fired a better score at the longer range, so he was awarded the any-sight title and Benyo was master civilian.

We had to pull out eight of their 100-yard score cards to determine the winner, Priesman noted.

The English marksman Ridgeway won the prone metallic sight championship at 3199-248X, just edging Harbison at 3198-261X in a field of 281 shooters.

Again it was a hair-splitting heartbeat of a difference between champion and runner-up. Anti took third in this match at 3197-271X, and could have won it all but for two heartbeats, or whatever it is that makes so fine a difference a puff of wind at the wrong moment? that finds the bullet landing in the 9-ring instead of the 10.

Barnhart matched Anti s 3197, but finished fourth and took the service master title at 250X. His X-score also could have won the metallic sight title, had his numerical score been 3199. So he too was just a couple of twitches shy.

Last and not least among smallbore championships is the National Rifle Association s three-position championship, which was won by Barnhart at 2267-74X out of a possible 2400-240X in a field of 324 shooters.

This perhaps is the toughest of all smallbore shooting in terms of all-around skill, for it consists of three legs fired in prone, kneeling, and standing, each succeeding position less steady than the first. It includes metallic sight and any-sight events, both fired at 50 meters. The prone events are fired at 50 yards and 100 yards.

Anti is the record-holder at 2311-96X, fired just last year. He finished second in the master-service category this time at 2233-80X.

Barnhart, who won the event in 2002 and 2005, was well ahead of second-place shooter Abby Fong, of New York City, at 2252-71X, who was awarded the civilian, high-woman and junior titles, and Harbison at third with 2251-76X.

Barnhart came within a hair of beating the legend, Wigger, for all the marbles in the national prone overall title in 2002, the last time Wigger has taken it all in prone. Barnhart actually fired a better X-score, 480 to 476. But his numerical was a ring shy, 6376 to Wigger s 6377.

But that is the story of life in the world of elite, precision shooting, a world away from the fantasy nonsense and frankly criminal carelessness of Hollywood, and worthy of high respect.

The National Matches continue into August with centerfire or high-power rifle competition, the largest phase of the championships. It is fired at distances as great as 1,000 yards. Visitors are welcome at Camp Perry, on State Rt. 2 west of Port Clinton.



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