Aim true, don’t get hoof-prints on your shirt!
The buffalo came double-time.
Twelve steps. Boom! The muzzle leaped; the bolt clacked shut. Boom! At eight feet, .458 perforations show clearly.
Doug fished out a roll of pasters and thumbed them over the holes.
“One above the left eye,” he said, “one centered, both would have done.”
No, it’s not quite like stopping a pair of Cape buffaloes. But it is urgent shooting with a heavy rifle and it hikes your pulse.
“It’s also must-have training if you’re headed for Africa,” Doug Prichard said. He believes in the FTW course and is a retired Navy SEAL with 25 years of shooting on his resume. Doug also taught snipers. He now coaches hunters.
We rolled the buffalo targets back on their rails and moved on to elephants. No trophy fees here, but everything else was pure Africa.
“Hit the first in the brain,” Doug advised. “Lung-shoot the next, then run in front of the buffalo and nail both in the noggin.” They’ll start moving at your first shot,” he told me.
I managed. The distances are short, as befits a dangerous-game course. Life-sized animal targets look too big to miss. But bullseyes in the vitals are – properly smaller than tennis balls. You’re firing repeat shots fast, offhand, running and sometimes reloading between.
“We’ll try plains game this afternoon.” Tim Fallon runs FTW. He too hails from sniper training in military service. And he has traveled the world hunting big game. The expansive FTW lodge, 2 ½ hours northwest of San Antonio, is chock full of trophies.
He’s tried to incorporate every imaginable hunting shot in FTW marksmanship courses – specifically the SAAM event he devised in 2005, a decade after he and Doug began work on the ranch. “It’s our Sportsman’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship class,” he said. Four days of expert instruction from Tim or Doug or Chip Beeman (also with sniper-training background) promise shooters a boost in both competence and confidence. “Our 12,000 acres of Hill Country include a wide variety of terrain, cover, shot angles and wind conditions. Distances range from a few feet to more than 1,000 yards.”
Tim is quick to emphasize that FTW doesn’t promote long-range shooting at game. “Our animal targets test you to 300 yards or so. That’s a long poke under field conditions, when you’re shooting standing off sticks, kneeling or from a sit. The goal is always a lethal hit, not just a bullet hole in the animal.” Steel plates and Shoot-N-C. target faces represent vitals.
Doug says FTW field shooting can challenge even veteran marksmen. “We add yardage and time limits before anyone gets bored hitting the middle. Increasing distance calls for arc and wind compensation. Not so easy as you might think.” He recalls a recent “drop and shoot” event. A third of the 42 trained snipers participating missed with their first round at an 18×30 target, at 427 yards. “Our goal is to improve precision, not add yards to field shots.”
The ranch offers sniper training to military and police units, “but our emphasis stays with hunters,” said Tim. He adds that corporate groups justify the multiple courses of fire. Traditional target ranges have covered benches and position-shooting stations. Safari walks present not just moving targets but life-size pop-outs that appear suddenly through the cedars. “The ranch has real big game too, from exotics like markhor, aoudad and Indian black buck to native whitetails. Some clients combine our training courses with hunts.”
KTW lists three “package” classes for hunters. “Precision 1” focuses on rifle-shooting fundamentals, with the staff calling conditions at long range. In “Precision 2” shooters also act as spotters, and the targets get tougher. The “Safari” class prepares hunters for mixed bag hunts in Africa. While P1 and P2 are conducted with scoped rifles suitable for North American game, the Safari exercise also hones skills with big-bores.
I was fortunate to join Norbert Haussmann on my two-day visit to FTW. Norbert handles distribution for Blaser in the U.S. We met at his San Antonio office. “I’m loaded up and ready,” he grinned – meaning his SUV was squatting under a pile of Blaser rifles and cases of Federal ammunition. Not surprisingly, most of the rifles were variations of Blaser’s fast-firing new R8.
Introduced in 2008, the R8 is a straight-pull bolt rifle that supersedes the R93. It retains the features that distinguish the R93 and have given it broad appeal. Both models have hammer-forged barrels, telescoping, radial-head bolts, and single-stack magazines tucked into compact trigger assemblies. The bolt design and magazine/trigger group combine to reduce overall length. An R8 with a 24-inch barrel is shorter than a Remington 700 with a 22-inch tube.
Blaser’s R93 and R8 don’t operate like an ordinary bolt rifle either. You run the bolt with a flick of your hand. No need to lower the rifle or grab the bolt knob. A quick wrist rotation, with a hooked thumb for the return, will do. Back and forth. No lift or bolt rotation required. A thumb-piece cocks the R8. Shove it up and forward, and you’re ready to fire. When you want to de-cock, push ahead again, but down slightly, and let it return to the rear. “The R93 and now the R8 are the only bolt rifles you can carry safely at the ready,” Norbert pointed out. “They’re not cocked until you’re ready to fire. The thumb-piece is both cocking device and safety.”
Like its predecessor, the R8 bolt head locks with a collet forced into a circumferential groove in the barrel shank. “But the R8 is stronger,” said Norbert. “Its locking angle is steeper than the 45 degrees on the R93. Also, a bushing slides into the collet’s center for added support.” The Blaser team has tested this mechanism to pressures of 120,000 psi, he said. “We damaged our gauges before the rifles failed.” The bolt slides easily into battery, locking with a subtle but definite snap. In the event you don’t fully seat the bolt, the striker won’t dent the primer. “It is mechanically impossible to fire the R8 unlocked, and even beginners quickly learn to cycle the action. It’s much easier to operate than a traditional bolt gun.” And much, much faster.
As on the R93, barrels for the R8 are interchangeable. They come in a great variety of chamberings, from .22 centerfires to .500 Jeffery. Specify length, weight and contour to suit your taste. Choose fluting or a smooth exterior. Most chambers are hammer-forged. Plasma nitriding increases the surface hardness of Blaser barrels. “Scope rings and clamps are softer,” Norbert explained. “They do not slip from those dimples. Our saddle rings fit so precisely, you can remove the scope and replace it without losing zero.”
Blaser’s Tom Mack had proved that to me a couple of years earlier when the company introduced the R8 to American journalists. I was firing one, in .300 Winchester, at a pail of Texas caliche 600 yards downrange. Tom watched a couple of white puffs as the MatchKings smashed through the plastic. Then, before I knew what was happening, he snatched the R8 from my hands. He removed the Zeiss 6-24×72 with a couple of tugs on its thumb latches, held the sight aloft as if he’d won it with a prize jar of pickles at a county fair, then snugged it back in place. But what of my precise zero? Surely I’d have to sight in again. “Hold just as you did before,” Tom insisted.
Dutifully I snugged the sling and favored half a minute into a 9-o’clock breeze. When I pressed the trigger, white dust shot into the air. “Bingo!” Tom grinned. “Again.” I ran the Blaser’s bolt easily in prone. Another Federal load rocketed away. “Got it.” Smugly: “One more.” I cycled the R-8 and drilled the pail a third time. “No need to re-adjust, huh?”
Blaser barrels can be replaced with equal confidence. I confirmed that in Namibia with an R93 in .30-06. Trading one barrel for another, previously zeroed, I punched bullseyes at 300 steps with Norma loads. The only tool you need to change barrels or remove the butt-stock is a single T-handled wrench. (The wrench supplied with the R8 is 5mm, that with the R93 4mm.)
A big difference between Blaser’s R93 and R8: the R8’s trigger group and single-stack polymer magazine are hand-detachable as a unit. Just pinch opposing tabs in front of the guard. You can top-load without removing the R8 box, or re-charge the rifle with pre-loaded magazines from your pocket. You can also lock the magazine in place, with a sliding tab inside the box. One box accepts all cartridges for which the R8 is chambered. But the magazine’s inner parts (easy to change by hand), work for families of cartridges. A stop abbreviates bolt travel for short rounds.
When you remove the magazine/trigger group, the R8 automatically de-cocks. It remains non-functional until the assembly is replaced. To protect that assembly while it’s out of the rifle, Blaser supplies a snug polymer jacket. There’s a polymer insert for the receiver.
In Europe, R8 triggers are adjusted to a pull of 1.6 pounds. Triggers on rifles destined for the U.S. break at 2.5 pounds. I’ve found the triggers crisp and consistent; the pull feels easier than the scale indicates. You can special-order a lighter trigger; but parts must be installed by Blaser, as weight adjustment happens in the receiver. Like the R93, the R-8 has very fast lock time.
Blaser offers several stock styles, including an appealing “American” version with ruler-straight comb. It has cast-off at toe and heel, and even 3.5mm in the grip, to make sight alignment quick and easy.
As on the R93, the Turkish walnut comes in several grades. I’ve seen stunning wood in Blaser stocks. There’s also a synthetic option, in handsome forest green with a textured finish. Conservative in profile, this stock handles very well; it impresses me as one of the best synthetic handles on the market. You can specify a recoil reducer in wood and synthetic stocks. It makes sense for chamberings more potent than the .375.
“We have several rifles you can try,” said Norbert, as we wound through the west-Texas hills. Water had been in short supply, spring rains feeble. Now, in mid-April, the green blush was fading. I’d left the Pacific Northwest in light flurries of snow, the northern Cascade highway still buried in drifts as deep as 40 feet. This southern sun felt good.
After introductions at the FTW lodge, Doug and Tim, with Carlos and Alfredo, helped unload Norbert’s battery ̶ an R8 Synthetic in .308 with Zeiss 2.5-10×50 Varipoint scope, an R93 Tactical in .300 Winchester with a 6-24×72 Zeiss Diavari, and a new safari-class R8 in .458 Lott with an Aimpoint red dot sight. Another R8 big-bore in .500 Jeffery and a Blaser double rifle in .500/416 wore only open sights. “We have Federal ammunition for the .308, .300 and .458,” said Norbert. “Excellent loads.” We’d feed the .500 with Kynoch 535-grain solids, the .500/416 with 400-grain softs from a German custom ammo shop.
The day already spent on our arrival, we started early next morning, with a zero check on the .308. I’d shoved the scope forward on its rail to save my brow in recoil. The Zeiss rail mount is wonderfully simple – sleek, strong, easy to adjust. It’s better than scope rings, in my view. And just as repeatable on the Blaser’s hard, precisely machined barrel.
The .308 liked Federal’s 150-grain Fusion hunting load. We marched it out to 250 yards, where I fired a 2 ¼-inch group from prone. The Tactical rifle preferred Federal’s 190-grain MatchKing loads to lighter bullets. But soon it was printing groups a smidge over half an inch at 100 yards. “After lunch, we’ll stretch those rifles,” Doug promised.
We did, too. From hills arching above long drainages, Doug pointed out ranks of colored steel plates. They dotted the brushy draws like wildflowers – “400, 450; that one’s 500.” I found them in the .308’s glass. Slinged up, prone, with Doug calling wind, I banged gongs to 600 yards, then swapped rifle for spotting scope. Great fun. As the west-Texas air got frisky, we endured a humbling course in wind-doping.
“Time for a trek through the bush,” declared Doug. Nobody objected. Having littered the moving-target range with the carcasses of elephants and buffaloes foolish enough to defy the .500 Jeffery R8 and the .500/465 Blaser double, I grabbed the .458 Lott for our safari. Norbert brought the .308 as a light rifle.
My bullet landed very close to center; but at the shot another buffalo swung out of the bush to our front. “He’s charging! Kill him!” I fired too fast, missed the brain, fired again and hit it. I’d remembered too clearly the hidden buffalo, not a target this time. A good reminder to keep an open mind and consider all possibilities when hunting dangerous game.
I was also learning to keep my fingers off the ejection port, to let that costly brass spill. “Cycle with your eyes looking for another target,” Doug admonished. “You don’t want someone to find you under buffalo tracks with your hand full of empties.”
Leopard was next, from a blind. The realistic form of a gazelle hung from a tree. When Doug squeezed my arm, I cheeked the .308, already aligned with the branch above. A leopard swung silently into view. Bang! I should have seen a hit in the Shoot-N-C, but didn’t. Cycling fast, I fired at a second cat that appeared on another branch. No hole. How could I miss scoring rings as big as grapefruit at 30 yards? “Did you check that zero after our 600-yard session?” Doug thought of it before I. Hoo boy. We repeated after taking a big wad of clicks from the elevation dial. Two dead leopards.
We shot a lion, too, and dropped three elephants in quick succession after wading into a hostile herd. Then, my cartridge belt all but emptied of the cigar-size Lotts, we swapped out rifles for a go at plains game. A grysbok took a perfectly centered bullet, offhand from sticks. I sat for a zebra after shooting another standing. I went prone for distant springbok and kudu, prone again for downhill shots to brain a crocodile and a hippo – both in water.
Then we left Africa. From a hill-top firing point popular with tactical shooters, we set the Tactical R93 on its bipod. I squirmed into prone behind it.
The .300 made short work of targets to 750 yards. But to reach 1,000, those MatchKings had to span many deep ravines. A freshening breeze with quick stalls, pick-ups and reverses gave us fits. The Blaser’s short, straight-back cycling was a real boon – no bolt lift, no need to get out of position, just a flick of the hand to chase prevailing wind. Doug was on the rifle last. Mirage suddenly flattened in my Zeiss spotting scope, a new condition but strong enough to last. He lost bullets to 2 o’clock with a center hold, but I had to call what I saw. “Two minutes to 4 o’clock,” I barked for the final shot. Twenty inches hold-off on what had been the weak side! Doug didn’t hesitate. The bullet track cleaved a river of mirage. The gong winked. Then we heard the whack of a solid hit.
“Excellent finish,” Norbert smiled. “We’ll have to do this again.”
Indeed.—Wayne Van Zwoll