The Range: An Airsofter’s Adventure

My first ever experience of shooting was with my Grandfather, knocking pegs off my Grans washing line whilst using an ancient side lever air rifle that I couldn’t even load without my Grandfathers help. Shooting was a common bond we had, my dad never really had the same bug that afflicted us… Whilst he liked shooting, it was never his passion. Certainly some things skip a generation, our shared enthusiasm for shooting being one of them.

Things progressed as I got older with me shooting more and more, my grandfather being very much into pistol shooting (which is something I’d have loved to have done more of with him) and an accomplished marksman from his time in the Army in the 1950s, a skill that due to the sometimes mysterious way the army worked at the time resulted in him being kept at home to compete at inter-service shooting competitions whilst others were sent to Korea. Bonkers really, but I guess you can’t let a war stand in the way of inter-service rivalry.

So without boring you with my own shooting history, I’ll simply tell you that it’s been well over 15 years since I’ve shot anything except 6mm plastic balls. There has always been this urge to get back into “proper” shooting but it’s always felt such a difficult thing to do, with no connection to that world now and the odds seemingly stacked against you as a prospective member of the shooting world…

Existing members of the shooting fraternity can be somewhat reclusive as a result of the endless assaults on their pastime and outsiders having such misconceptions about firearms and the sports they’re used in. To the beginner it can all feel a little unwelcoming, maybe that’s for the best… There’s a common feeling in the shooting world that by keeping quiet that maybe they’ll be left alone, I don’t think it always works though… It didn’t prevent the latest legislation from banning MARS action firearms, it won’t stop the next ban either.

I’ve a friend who shoots .22lr semi-auto for short range plinking, in addition to shooting .308 Winchester at longer ranges who I’ve worked alongside for about a year now. It’s strange but I’ve never made the time to go with him, despite the appeal of real firearm shooting up until recently. But a matter of weeks ago enough reasons had come together that I was set on going shooting either with him, or on my own as a guest of the club.

Firstly, I wanted to give the Vortex StrikeFire II a thorough review (click here) with information on its ability in small arms shooting as well as its ability in airsoft. Something that without an FAC I simply wouldn’t be able to do in my own.

Secondly, I wanted to have a go at one of the local club’s shooting experience packages that they offer to the general public as well as members, ranging from “sniper” and “military” packages to ones aimed at giving a newcomer a taste of what’s available.

Initially, I’d been hoping to shoot their Barrett M99A1, an expensive option at £80 for 5 rounds was possibly the only chance a civilian in the UK like me has of shooting such a firearm.

Unfortunately this was not available at the time of my visit, so I decided to cross off another box from my firearm bucket list… Firing a selection of World War Two bolt actions.

The Tunnels offer a package for £55 where you shoot the following three firearms:

    Mauser 98k in 8mm Mauser, not the original 7.92mm that the World War Two Rifle was chambered in but beggars can’t be choosers.
    Lee Enfield in .303 British, a classic but possibly not as good as some would have you believe.
    Mosin Nagant in 7.62x54R, funnily enough the one I wasn’t bothered by initially but it soon won me over.

Each rifle shoots very differently, I was hampered by my lack of experience in shooting bolt actions and bear in mind my relative inexperience in this field overall but I’ll break down how I felt about each one. I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t have time to ask about the specific rifles, I’m pretty sure the Mauser was a Swedish export model in 8mm, the Enfield however I’m not sure which model (I forgot to take any pictures of this one ☹️) and the Mosin was almost certainly a 1944 model with a built in spike bayonet and a shorter barrel.

The Mauser was the one I’d been looking forward to the most, I’ve always liked the German firearms from WW2 and this pre First World War bolt action gave its design to many of the rifles you see today. The Mauser action being arguably the basis for most bolt actions across the world, including the Remington 700 I was to shoot later on.

The Mauser has a pretty nice trigger, firm but smooth to squeeze. It’s pretty light and comfortable to hold as well overall. Unfortunately the club rules stipulated that I had to have the rifle cradled in a rest from a seated position (which I didn’t find comfortable due to my height and the rest being low) but even so I managed to snap off 5 shots onto the 100m target, hitting more than half onto the paper.

I only had 5 rounds with the Mauser, I wish I’d spoken up and asked to swap more of the Lee Enfield rounds for the 98k but I didn’t even think to ask. The next time I shoot it’ll be as a member and I’ll probably just use the 98k as I really feel there’s room for improvement with this rifle… Who knows, maybe I’ll ask for 7.92mm on my FAC?

Next up… Shooting the Lee Enfield is a bit special, it’s what my grandfather competed with at Bisley and across the world all those years ago… I’d by lying if I said that I didn’t think of him whilst I was shooting it. It’s a part of British history, and most people in the UK will have had a member of their family use one as their issued weapon either during the two World Wars or during the times of national service and the Korean War.

The trigger pull is heavier but with a much more comfortable grip and stock than the 98k, the sights are also an improvement… The notch and post of the 98k being replaced by a peep hole and pin sight that gives an experienced shooter a very workable sight picture.

The spring assisted bolt aids in ejecting the spent brass and unlike the Mauser, the striker is cocked on the closing of the bolt making it easier and faster to cycle. The recoil is manageable on the Lee Enfield and is have happily shot this all day, I’d have like to have shot a personally owned rifle as opposed to a club gun though… Lee Enfields have a reputation for accuracy but this is subject to condition and ammunition used… Club guns invariably are not quite as well looked after as someone’s own pride and joy.

Finally onto the Mosin Nagant, a mass produced Russian beast of a rifle made famous by Enemy At The Gates, Day Z and more recently… Player Unknown’s: BattleGrounds.

As I’ve mentioned, this wasn’t the one I was looking forward to the most, the Mauser 98k takes that honour… However, the Mosin Nagant is such an iconic rifle that I was still very excited to be shooting it.

Firing the Mosin is something that you don’t forget quickly, after the more refined 2 stage triggers of the British and German rifles, the short (near hair) trigger on the Mosin took me by surprise. This is followed by a weighty slap in the shoulder from the recoiling stock and a 4 foot fireball flying out the front. Overall the most punchy of the three but not overly uncomfortable, I wouldn’t want to fire one all day but I can see why it’s still such a prolifically used rifle in modern war zones.

A few things became apparent whilst I was shooting the club guns, the ammunition was all PPU. This is widely regarded as plinking ammo and generally not to the same quality as that used in competitive target shooting. The sights were not set up for myself being left handed and in general I’m not sure how accurately those particular firearms were (club guns have a reputation for being used and abused, think of the rental G36s your local Airsoft site uses and you have a good idea).

Overall though, the failings were almost certainly mine and not the firearms. The lack of recent experience showed, as did my excitement with my heart going ten to the dozen and waves of Adrenaline coursing through my veins.

With time and practice I’m sure I could get half decent groupings, certainly with my friends .308 I achieved much better accuracy.

Moving forward 75 years…

I was in the very fortunate position that he had a lot of ammo to burn through, before taking ownership of some hand-loaded rounds for his upcoming visit to Bisley’s 1000 yard range. His ticket having a limit equalling what he’d just ordered, therefore he needed to burn through his remaining stocks in preparation for his new hand-loaded batch… Something I was more than happy to do.

Just as a bit of background to the ammo limits, an F.A.C. (Fire Arms Certificate) in the UK is granted along with an agreed ammunition limit for the calibres requested and based upon the shooters requirements.

This ammunition limit is set by the applicant but often as new shooters don’t want to appear like they’re “pushing their luck” and the lack of knowledge around what is an acceptable amount to ask for, they opt for lower figures than they end up needing.

Every region is different and the actual application is granted/rejected by the visiting firearms officer and whist they are there to ensure the application is applicable to the law, it’s also a personal decision as the officer has to judge the applicants personal character, so there can be a lot of variation in peoples ammunition limits (from double figures to the thousands) based upon what they’ve been told by others who have gone through the process and their own experiences.

Back to the fun stuff…

Firing the .308 was quite a contrast to the older WW2 bolt action designs. The rifle I borrowed being a Remington 700 SPS Varmint bedded into a Kinetic Research Group Bravo Chassis. It’s moderated (Suppressed) and is equipped with a Vortex Optics Diamondback Tactical 6-24 x 50 scope (hopefully a guest review as soon as we can get back to Bisley), Magpul MLOK Bipod and fed with Magpul 5 round 7.62 PMAGs.

Overall, it’s an impressive bit of kit.

Steve does have some debatable tastes when it comes to the Kryptek Suppressor wrap and hex skate tape on the grip but I can’t fault the way in which his rifle is set up, the wrap helps stop scope hazing from the suppressor’s heat indoors and the tape aids in gripping the rifle with clammy hands.

Shooting a modern rifle felt noticeably different from their older counterparts, experiencing the standard issue rifles from WW2 showed me quite how much things had progressed.

The newer rifle is noticeably heavier as it’s not designed as an infantry weapon, rather a precision tool to make holes exactly where you want them from very long distances.

Having said that, it’s core firearm (the Remington 700) is a design that has been used as the basis for two of the most recognisable military bolt action sniper rifles out there… The M24 Sniper Weapon System and the USMC’s M40 Sniper Rifle.

Punching holes into a target at range is an extremely satisfying feeling, there’s a pureness that you just don’t quite get with Airsoft. There’s no scope for dishonesty, you squeeze the trigger and if you’ve done everything right… You hit your target.

Steel and Paper don’t cheat, it’s all about ability and experience.

Onto one of the highlights of my trip, shooting a Smith & Wesson .22lr semi-automatic. Probably the one firearm that will interest most airsofters (certainly those in the UK) as the firearms within this class often resemble the replicas we shoot.

Indeed, the Smith & Wesson M&P 15/22 is based visually upon the AR15 platform, although due to the type of round it fires it’s firing action is of Direct Blowback design not Direct Impingement/Short Stroke Gas Piston.

After having the Vortex StrikeFire II zeroed in, shooting steel at the 25m range was incredibly fun and something I’d certainly like to work more on, maybe investing in a shot timer and seeking out competitive disciplines will be a step I take further down the line.

There’s so much more I could talk about when it comes to shooting, the most common questions are along the lines of “I didn’t realise I could do that” and “I thought it was only shotguns and hunting rifles allowed in the UK”.

All I’d suggest is that if you’re really interested in having a go, search for a local club and book yourself in for a taster. It’s not the cheapest pastime to get into but to be honest, neither is Airsoft. However once you’ve got your hardware sorted it’s just membership/range fees and ammo that you need to worry about.

One word of advice though… No matter your experience or background, go into it with the mindset of a pupil not a graduate.

Initially you’ll be viewed as a danger to yourself and everyone around you, your actions are what you’ll be judged on, not what you say you’ve done…

Clear verbal acknowledgments on every bit of advice given and listening closely to the range officer/instructor who’s looking after you won’t just reaffirm the knowledge in your head, it’ll show that your a safe and trusted guest.

The word Airsoft isn’t necessarily banned at ranges despite what you might have heard, I met a few people there who also shot 6mm (including the staff) and I was allowed to shoot my replicas on the ranges but I can assure you, some of the things we do in Airsoft would result in the mother of all bollockings if you did the same at a firearm range as you’d do in an Airsoft safe zone. Of course there will be some places and people that look down upon airsoft as either “not proper shooting” to being an outright threat to the shooting community as a whole, it’s up to you and me to try and mend that image and make sure that we’re united in our common interests, not divided by our differences.

Overall, a fantastic day out (Massive thanks to The Tunnel Target Sports Centre and their impressive set up also a massive thank you to my host Steve, without his assistance I’d have paid more money and maybe never had a go).

As for firearms shooting, it’s something I’ll be exploring further in the run up to the new year and I’ve already begun looking at dates for a return visit… Keep your eyes peeled for further developments.

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