Looking down from atop a three-story shooting tower, 12 steel targets stand out along a green hillside, each one further away than the last. They’re all challenging, and the furthest sits at 936 yards.
When the buzzer sounds, you’ll have three minutes to shoot all 12. The problem is, you can’t actually see the targets yet. You’re starting at the bottom of the tower’s stairwell, carrying 200 rounds of ammunition, a coat, a gear bag, a sling, sunscreen, elbow pads, bipod, and a heavy sniper rifle. By the time you get to the top of those stairs and see the targets for the first time, a minute will have disappeared. You’ll be breathing hard, and shooting fast.
“It started out as a way to test the practical use of a precision rifle in a military or law enforcement environment”
This is a Precision Rifle Series match, where extreme accuracy, speed, and physical toughness come together. Sniper matches have been around for a long time, but the PRS is gluing them together into a cohesive, Winston Cup-like string. There’s a $5,000 check at the end for the season points winner, and if you’re the top gun at the PRS National Finale, you could take home a $20,000 purse and prize package, just like last year’s winner, Ryan Kerr of California.
Jim See at the CORE training center in Florida. Note the big pillow-like pad under the foreend, along with the fully adjustable stock and heavy barrel. Items like that pillow pad offer great stability on uneven surfaces like this rockpile. (MICHAEL CAGE PHOTOGRAPHY)
Unlike classic long-range events, PRS has a hard edge – like maybe a 3-Gun competition for sniper rifles. The organizers (notably Rich Emmons) drew ideas from 3-Gun Nation, USPSA/IPSC, and the Bianchi Cup. The result appeals to practical riflemen everywhere.
“It started out as a way to test the practical use of a precision rifle in a military or law enforcement environment,” says Chris Reid at Benchmark Barrels. “From there it’s morphed into a kind of timed field shooting.”
At every match the courses change. The distances aren’t marked, and some of the targets move. Virtually everyone uses a detachable box magazine or DBM in a bolt-action rifle. Mounted to a fiberglass stock or a chassis system, the DBM allows for fast reloading of 10-round magazines. Although shooting a semi auto sounds tempting, experts say the bolt-action rifles with DBMs are more stable in recoil. This platform helps the shooter watch bullet trace and impacts. Seeing the hit or miss guides the shooter to the proper aim for the next shot. Most of the top shooters use 6mm to 6.5mm cartridges, which aid in viewing impacts. The 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5×47 Lapua, and the 6.5 Creedmoor are popular choices, but cartridges up to the .300 Winchester Magnum can be used. Most guns are heavy, but remember, you’ve got to carry it all day – up to 12 hours at a pop. You also carry everything else you’ll need to complete the event, just like you would if you were going afield. There is no going back to the car to resupply – it’s just you and your kit, dealing with changing weather, wind, and lighting conditions.
Jim See firing one of Surgeon Rifles’ guns at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Range in Arizona. Jim campaigned with a rifle in 6XC in his first season, a caliber that has been gaining support in PRS ever since. (COURTESY OF CHRIS REID)
Jim See shooting a Surgeon Scalpel rifle in 6.5×47 Lapua..
Reid helps run matches in the state of Washington. The hikes from position to position are arduous enough that out-of-shape shooters won’t finish.
“I’ve seen guys hang it up halfway thro6ugh,” says Reid.
Short sprints are common in PRS, forcing you to balance the speed advantage of running against how out-of-breath you’ll be when you get there.
More than the sum of its parts
Like the original 3-Gun Nation series, PRS grouped together existing freelance events to make a larger contest. Each event has its own history and traditions, and a different local crew gives each its own special flavor; for example, some require pistol shooting. Scoring varies slightly, but course design varies a lot.
Pay close attention to the course descriptions, because sometimes you can make up a miss for partial credit, and other times, missing wipes out your entire score. If you’ve shot a little long-range, or you’re into long-range hunting, you’ve already got most of the gear.
Jim See, who currently shoots for Team Surgeon Rifles, was building custom rifles in his own shop, Center Shot Rifles, when he first heard about the PRS series. He was “a rifle guy” but didn’t have much experience with practical long-range rifle. The PRS series had just started the year before. “In 2012 I was busy raising kids and stuff, but I managed to place fourth at my first match,” he says. “That’s not the norm, but it shows you that it’s actually pretty easy to get oriented once you get started … I was hooked!”
“I’ve seen guys hang it up halfway through”
Thanks to his day job, See rolled up to the line with an unusually good kit – a Surgeon Rifles action on a McMillan A3-5 stock, in 6mmXC.
“That was a gun I had in the shop,” he says.
See’s friends pushed him to try to make the national PRS Finale, so he went for it, eventually placing 13th in the 2012 series. See won the 2015 Bushnell Brawl this year, making him one of the top guns in the sport. “I was 41 when I started, but I had a lot of experience in various kinds of shooting. If you’ve got some experience in long range, you’ll transition pretty easy.”
Unlike the classic long-range events, PRS is 100 percent field based. Common firing positions include uneven rock piles, mock rooftops, kneeling in tall grass – nothing is easy.
“If you take a guy who’s a hunter and have him shoot PRS matches all year, he’ll be able to kill game out to 1,000 yards the following year,” says Reid. “The knowledge and the practicality of it is huge.” If you’re thinking “this isn’t for me,” you might be surprised. Hunters and 3-Gunners deal with unusual firing positions all the time. NRA Bullseye guys have the long-range part down, but often lack the flexibility that practical shooters take for granted.
Awkward terrain forms a big challenge in PRS shooting. Chris Reid tried more-conventional-looking postures, but just couldn’t get settled on this rock pile/shooting position — until he tried laying back. Thank goodness he had a relatively low-recoiling rifle! “I shot that way on the mover too,” says Reid. The rifle is a Benchmark Barrels-built 6.5 Creedmore. Reid runs a suppressor, which helps dampen both blast and felt recoil. (COURTESY OF CHRIS REID)
“An F-class high-master will do great until they have to get into an unusual, nonstandard position,” says Reid. “Without the ability to go prone, they struggle.” People like Shawn Carlock, owner of Defensive Edge, teach long-range hunting classes all over the country, passing on techniques that PRS’ers use. You’ll face the same challenges and more at each and every PRS regional. For someone interested in practical-rifle work, I can’t think of a better training lab than what John Gangl at JP Rifles calls “the anvil of competition.”
“You’re shooting strong-side, weak-side, doing dot drills, moving into and out of positions, and every shot counts,” says Reid.
PRS-style shooting draws ever-larger crowds to what is normally a small, close-knit community. Here’s a typical get-together at the CORE training center in Florida. (MICHAEL CAGE PHOTOGRAPHY)
“This year we have 400-plus guys actively participating in the Precision Rifle Series as competitors,” says See. “These matches cannot be run effectively without dedicated range officers.” ROs set the pace of the match and ensure all participants are safe and receive the points they earned with hits. “It’s nice to travel the country and have fellow competitors volunteer to be range officers on their home ranges. Quality ROs are critical for a successful match,” added See.
A slick member website lays out everything you’ll really need to know, including the dates and locations of all the regional shoots. You can visit them at precisionrifleseries.com. AmSJ
Long distances help make PRS matches distinct. Here a shooter reaches out over the plains at Vantage, Wash. (COURTESY OF CHRIS REID)
Cutting hard around a corner, empty real estate appears between Kenda Lenseigne and mother earth. She floats in midair, held into her stirrups solely by the G-forces in the turn. Like a motorcycle rider leaning into a corner, she banks hard in order to explode out the other side of the barrel to fire at the next target.
Story by Robin Taylor
Photographs by David Mechin, Douglas Smith, Kristen Daulton and J2 Photography
All the shooting sports have unusual athletes. Call them champions, or even stars. Among the stars you find greats that do more than win. They change the sport. Kenda Lenseigne grew beyond star status some time ago, becoming part of the cultural bedrock of mounted shooting. In the course of winning multiple titles on the national and world stage, Lenseigne transformed the guns, the gear, even the saddles used by the current generation of riders/shooters.
“If you had asked me 16 years ago if I thought I could do this full time I wouldn’t have said yes,” says Lenseigne. “Who would have known work would be something you love so much?”
Today Lenseigne is both “making a living” and “living a message” of responsible firearm use that opens doors worldwide. As a trainer, shooter, rider, and ambassador for the shooting sports there is a lot to be said for Kenda Lenseigne.
I caught up with Lenseigne at her New River, Ariz., home, freshly returned from an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) night event in Scottsdale (the Sun Circuit Championship). Like most people, I’d always assumed that mounted shooting was primarily regulated by the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) – the major governing body for cowboy-style events. Not true!
Physical conditioning and plain old toughness play a role in mounted shooting, as the risk of falling is ever-present. “There’s a saying in the horse world that says ‘green horse, green rider usually equals black and blue.’” Lenseigne explained that “even if someone is a great rider in other disciplines, the scenario changes when you start to shoot off of a horse for the first time.”
Mounted shooters and SASS “ground shooters” have very different needs, and when Lenseigne started shooting in 1998, the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) had just branched out from SASS. Since then, the two organizations have followed different roads. The most visible difference being CMSA’s decision to eliminate SASS’ long-standing costume requirements.
“Dropping the costume requirement changed everything,” says Lenseigne. “That one decision opened up the sport to the broader riding world,” says Lenseigne. “Suddenly we had better horses, better riders, and it became a lot less expensive to participate.”
Sponsors like Wrangler took an interest, and people started taking “mounted” seriously. The result was a modern rodeo sport akin to barrel racing – with guns. Horse and rider charge through a rodeo-corral-sized course of fire, circling around and through a proscribed pattern of plastic barrels at maximum speed. At intervals, the rider breaks target balloons using a blank-firing single-action revolver. With as many as 10 balloons in play, the shooter must switch from one pistol to another at full gallop. It happens fast, and at Lenseigne’s level, if you miss one balloon, you lose.
Now that the American Quarter Horse Association recognizes mounted shooting as an official event and the growth of the sport overseas, the future for mounted shooting appears very bright. (J2 PHOTOGRAPHY)
“If you are too far away, the black powder granules burn up before hitting the target, and if you’re too close, once in a while the pattern will have a hole in the middle. The balloon will literally just wave at you. It’s happened to me several times.” Lenseigne continued, “You have to trust yourself to hold off a little bit. If you relate it to bird hunting, you want to wait for the bird to be at an optimum distance. Shooting it too soon leads to a bad result, and so does waiting too long.”
Flying through an agility course atop a galloping charger isn’t “normal” horseback
riding. Barrel racers aren’t quite as crazy as, say, rodeo bull riders, but the pictures with this article show a little bit of what Lenseigne’s horses can do. I mentioned to Lenseigne that my aunt was a barrel racer, and she shot back with “Then, she’s crazy like us!”
This year Lenseigne made her fourth trip to France to serve as an ambassador/trainer for the growing community of Western shooting enthusiasts there. European mounted fans are overcoming some gun-control requirements – using cap-and-ball revolvers if they have to – in order to shoot from horseback.
The following year, Lenseigne was asked to teach a clinic – and France had eased its gun restrictions so she was able to use a revolver. “People started showing up with all manner of crazy stuff. They were just so happy to be there, it was infectious,” she says. “Last year, even more showed up, some with modified .357 revolvers.”
Some European riders are bringing their dream to learn all there is to know about the mounted shooting and cowboy lifestyle all the way to the United States just to compete.
New Sport New Gear
Back in the late 1990s, Lenseigne and her fellow riders had no gear that really worked for mounted-action shooting. Some things could be adapted (barrel racing saddles, for example), but most of the “gun stuff” was just wrong. Imagine trying to re-holster a SAA (single-action Army Colt revolver or Peacemaker) one-handed while using a period-correct “slim jim” holster (a holster with a very narrow girth) at full gallop. It’s not quite like threading a needle, but you get the idea.
“We had people walking around with water bottles stuffed in their holsters to get them to stay open,” says Lenseigne. “I was one of them!”
The problem became an opportunity when Lenseigne met Safariland’s Scott Carnahan at the NRA’s Bianchi Cup in Colombia, Mo. The holster innovations that practical shooters like Carnahan take for granted – low-cut fronts for faster draws, laminated holster materials, adjustable draw tension – all that was unknown to the mounted community.
Carnahan connected Lenseigne with his design staff, and their Bianchi Cowboy line has offered Kenda Lenseigne signature holsters ever since. Lenseigne’s line takes advantage of the technology that Safariland is known for, but holds the standard of a traditional look and feel. “It’s like an old model car with a new engine.”
The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association branched off from the Single Action Shooting Society in the 1990s and has since become its own regulated event series. CMSA does not have costume requirements like SASS, and many feel this is the aspect that helped the sport to grow even faster.
“When you look at the products I’ve been involved in developing, people essentially are benefiting from my decade of learning the hard way,” laughed Lenseigne. As she explained, it’s difficult to shoot a standard Peacemaker well right out of the box due to the stiff hammer action. Competitive shooters immediately lighten the hammers. “When I first started in the sport, I had heard about the legendary Bob Munden who was the go-to gunsmith, so I sent him my guns. When I got them back, $300 per gun later, I had hair triggers – which is absolutely not what you want for mounted shooting.” Once Lenseigne found the right gunsmiths, her mounted guns began to evolve. “The original hammer spur on the old Peacemaker tends to open your grip when you’re shooting one-handed,” Lenseigne explained. “So, we took that hammer spur and made it lower and wider for quicker access.” Today, Uberti firearms offers the Kenda Lenseigne signature line as a package “racegun” for mounted shooting. They sell well to mounted shooters, and to “ground shooters” who compete in SASS events.
The Mountain Comes to Mohammed
Certain brands have become household words among horse people in the US. One of the largest is Circle Y Saddles.
“In January of ‘09, Circle Y contacted me to design a saddle for them, saying ‘We want to be the first in the industry that builds a saddle specifically for your sport.’” Lenseigne was shocked. What an honor! “This is the saddle brand that practically everybody grew up riding, or at least wanting to ride. Basically, if you own a horse, you know Circle Y.”
Lenseigne had ridden many different disciplines over the years, so she had a lot to say.
Like miniature shotguns, Lenseigne’s blank-firing pistols throw a “pattern” of burning black-powder granules to break the balloon, but those granules burn up at a distance of just 20 feet. Optimally, the rider wants to engage at 8 to 10 feet.
“They sent out their designer to visit with me, and we sat down with a yellow pad. We sketched out what I thought would be a good design for the sport: a forward-tilted horn to allow clearance for your gun leather, free-moving stirrups, and a deep seat to hold you in.” A contract to ride for Circle Y developed, and things got very serious. “They hand-delivered the prototype to one of the CMSA majors in Arizona. They put it on my horse, did a photo shoot, and then gave me the option to ride it in the upcoming event, or ride my regular saddle.” As any sponsored competitor knows, running brand-new gear at an important match invites disaster. If it works, you’re a hero. If it fails you damage yourself and the brand. It’s a high-stakes “hero or zero” gamble.
“I warmed up my horse in the saddle for about 45 minutes, liked it, and decided the time was right to believe in my design and go for it.” Lenseigne set the world record on her first pass, and her saddle design went “hero” instantly. “The design was a hit from day one; we’ve only made some minor changes since then – different grades of leather, etc.,” she says. Not every project has worked out so well, but as she’ll tell you “you can’t excel unless you fail a time or two and learn from your experiences.”
“(Kenda’s) had an amazing impact on the mounted shooting world,” says Ken Amorosano, former publisher of Western Shooting Horse, and current publisher of Cowgirl and True West. “She became a role model for hundreds of girls that wanted to be just like her, and she’s never let them down.” (KRISTEN DAULTON)
Lenseigne’s life involves many pieces. She describes herself as “horse-heavy at the moment” with six of her own quarter horses in varying stages of training, plus several more that she’s training for customers. As you might imagine, training a horse to deal with a gunshot fired near its head isn’t easy, and would-be competitive riders are more than willing to pay her for her help. Lenseigne’s involved with every piece of the puzzle, firing .22 blanks from horseback on her home range, and taking horses to the Ben Avery Shooting Complex to shoot the louder .45s.
“For me the most important thing is building the horse’s confidence to accept the noise of gunfire. People send their horses to me for that.”
Once she gets the horse settled in, she insists on spending time training the rider. “I can train the horse and he’ll be ready to go, but if the rider doesn’t know what buttons to push, that won’t work for either of us.”
Lenseigne explained that even a moderately experienced rider can accidentally send the horse mixed signals – especially with all the distractions created by adding guns and rapid balance shifts to the equation.
“Had I not been an experienced rider, I certainly would have hit the ground more times than I can count,” says Lenseigne. In the Internet age, Lenseigne’s an irony in motion. She’s competing, training, designing, traveling the world, and doing media appearances – all because of her skill with a horse and a gun. ASJ
David Mechin is a French photographer whose ability to capture Kenda Lenseigne in these images portrays his passion for his field and depiction of beauty, power and dynamism. See more of his work at davidmechin.com.
Three Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters wheeled over and roared in low, setting up for a mock gun run. Below them, youth teams from every corner of the country looked up in wonder as the helicopters accelerated to attack speed and hissed overhead. Between the mini air-show, the 105mm start cannon and the blend of prestige and industry support, the 2015 Scholastic Pistol Program (SPP) Southwest Regional competition, highlighted the growth in the industry.
The SPP has explodedonto the national stage
SPP has more or less exploded onto the national stage in the last few years, with youth teams popping up everywhere. The junior high/high school nationals drew more than 300 competitors this summer and the Southwest regional (one of several such events) drew more than 100. Those two matches alone put SPP on par with the largest speed-steel-shooting organizations in the United States. With support from the NRA and the Boy Scouts of America, its current thousand-plus membership, represents what one might call “openers.” The near-term growth potential for SPP has no equal.
My youth group, “Team Gotta” of Custer, Wash., flew down to the Southwest Regional for a chance to shoot against the two top-rated high school teams in the nation, the South Texas Juniors and Red Dawn Marksmanship Academy; both hail from Texas. Many top college teams were present, including the US Military Academy from West Point, Southeastern Illinois College and the Naval Academy. These teams were all there to test themselves against our hosts, the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets.
According to Kevin Jimmerson, match director and Texas A&M coach, the Southwest Regional started three years ago with just 40 shooters. It doubled to 80 the following year and grew to just short of 120 this year. Sponsorship and sporting excellence has tracked that growth, and with more industry support, high-skill athletes are turning fresh eyes to the sport.
SPP is sending kids to college on the strength of their skills with a handgun.
Coach Bruce Hering, from Southeastern Illinois College (SIC), showed up at the Southwest Regional with a four-person squad, all shooting on scholarships. Hering is known for coaching shotgun competitions, but he and team captain Alex Aguilar, made no bones about it; they were here to recruit action-pistol shooters for SIC and had a two-year, full-ride scholarship, for the right candidate. “This is our first match as a (scholarship-level) team,” says Aguilar, who’d been tasked by Hering to form the pistol squad. “What SIC is doing, it’s really an opportunity of a lifetime for me.”
Hering’s current crew is made up mostly of top shotgunners who have picked up the pistol, but they’re looking for someone to come the other way – a national-level pistol shooter who can learn shotgun. Hering sees value in cross-training shotgun with speed-pistol and it helps him maximize his scholarship dollars. “I think we’re going to stick with this model,” he says.
Action-pistol scholarships were not available just three years ago; and combining shotgun with pistol was considered lunacy. Now, talented young pistol shooters have suddenly become valuable assets to a growing number of school teams. Let’s be clear: Most shooting teams don’t cross-train the way Hering does, nor have scholarships, but thanks to SPP, young pistol shooters are looking at college programs in a whole new way.
The Competition Breakdown
Scholastic Pistol Program Trophy
If you’ve never heard of steel shooting, it’s simple. Steel shooters start from a “low ready” position with their pistol aimed at a flag on the ground. On signal, they raise their pistol and engage five steel plates of various shapes and sizes until they each shoot one, ending on a “stop plate.” Your score is the time it takes to shoot all five, even if extra rounds are required. Each person shoots the arrangement of plates five times and calculates the best four runs. There are four specified courses, so in all you will shoot 100 targets in a match.
It’s fast, feedback is instantaneous and everyone can tell whether a shooter is doing well or not. On top of all this, there are even endowment prizes available.
Awesome Industry Support
I’m not sure what magical powers SPP directors Scott Moore and Tammy Mowry have, but they’ve managed to bring exceptional support to SPP. Glock’s Ed Fitzgerald and Smith & Wesson’s Tom Yost not only support the sport in material ways, but they appear in person at many of the big matches – corporate reps literally doing the heavy lifting to help make the sport a go. In a few weeks, I will attend the NRA Level I coach school, dedicated to the SPP competition. The idea that this highly conservative organization would adopt a new program into their coaching school was simply amazing. The weekend schools are elevating the prestige, safety and overall quality of the program, coast to coast.
Ferocious Junior Teams
One would expect college-age teams to dominate the sport, but instead freelance gun-club teams, made up of middle and high school students, have moved into the forefront of the competition. These teams are out shooting, out-competing and out growing all comers to the sport, particularly in rimfire. For example, the Red Dawn Raiders Marksmanship Academy boasts more than 30 members, all of whom focus on action-pistol sports. South Texas has a similar number. When these two teams show up, accompanied by coaches, parents and friends, you would think a tour bus had arrived.
SPP focuses primarily on centerfire (9mm) handguns, but shooters are allowed to use a .22 pistol for up to two years. For many reasons, the very young have flocked to the rimfire division and no college has been able to catch the juniors (yet).
This year South Texas Shooters fielded young Ethan Inocando, who shot the fastest score of the match with a blistering 41.59-second round. Team Gotta’s Adam Thomas (a high school senior), was right on his heels with a 42.26-second round (winning “senior” division). Both far outpaced the leading collegiate competitor, Chandler Lewis at 50.86.
Shooting as a team, the A&M Corps of Cadets won the collegiate rimfire category (with a score of 246 seconds) but were dramatically out shot by the younger guns. Team Gotta set a national course record with a score of 183.85 seconds, followed by the South Texas Juniors with 194 seconds.
Centerfire is another game altogether and here the colleges run slightly ahead of the juniors. College student Anthony Vieth, for example, laid down a truly impressive 43.31-second run for the individual win, and the Texas A&M team posted an excellent 204.45. “That was pretty good,” says Jimmerson, whose cadets set the centerfire record last year with a score of 186 and hope to do it again.
Jordon Castro – The fastest Rimfire kid!
Growth And Change
SPP is changing fast and the shooters with it. The sport is so young, some of the youth teams and coaches enjoy an experience advantage. However, this current crop of high school marksmen will soon graduate and join college teams like the Aggies. When they do, they’ll take that experience with them and the colleges should then dominate the centerfire side of the sport. High school senior Jordon Castro from Bellingham, Wash., holds the record at 39.32 seconds. That’s under 1/2 second per target, making him an excellent candidate for any college competing in this sport.
Right now, top-flight competitors are able to engage all 80 steel targets (SPP Course) in just over 40 seconds. Remember that when you throw away the four slowest runs, you have 80 targets left.
“The sport is maturing so fast, it won’t be long before we’re looking at whole teams with (individual) scores in the 30’s,” predicts Moore.
It’s a changing landscape for youth sports. In a world where liberal politicians want to label our schools as “gun free zones,” SPP is sending kids to college on the strength of their skills with a handgun. And that’s an encouraging thought. ASJ