A guest post written by Eve Flanigan.
In September 2015, I found myself invited to a basic precision rifle marksmanship course sponsored by McMillan Firearms. I was a little anxious, not knowing what to expect and knowing I’d be using a loaner rifle. Prior to this course, my only formal long-range training had been at an excellent three-day known distance boot camp, an Appleseed Project event. That was four years ago, and rust had collected on my skills. I set my mind on exercising good trigger and breath control, and absorbing all I could about the rest.
The facility, I knew, would only enhance the experience. Historic, scenic and well-managed Felix Canyon Ranch of Flying H, New Mexico is host to a shooters’ retreat I co-organize, as well as a training ground of elite Canadian forces, law enforcement, and screened civilians, in addition to providing guided hunts.
The first morning of class, two of the three-man instructor team introduced themselves. Jerod Johnson is Director of Operations at STA Training Group, located in Central Arizona. STA Training Group is McMillan’s contracted instructional resource for its customers. Johnson served as a Marine scout sniper and special operations sniper as well as other roles in the USMC. His post-military career has included, in addition to instruction, government contracting and training aspects for corporate firearms and optics manufacturers.
STA Lead Precision Rifle Instructor Rob Pettorson, former Marine scout sniper leader/Chief Scout, among other USMC roles, was recruited by McMillan sniper school upon discharge. In addition, he’s devoted much of his non-government service time to the rifle manufacturing industry as well as training.
“We’re not about egos here,” said Pettorson in the class overview. He followed with some examples of how advances in rifle and optic design and construction have rendered some methods and tools obsolete. He spoke of the value of learning and mastering new methods rather than doggedly sticking with outmoded but comfortable ones. However, both trainers admonished against becoming so wrapped-up in accumulating the latest in caliber and gadget trends that one fails to master any one system. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, the guy with 40 rifles and a collection of optics in his safe that he’s not spent time on will lose to the guy with one rifle who understands it,” Johnson said.
The atmosphere was comfortable enough that I found myself confessing that I was anxious about only having used minute of angle and not mil radian terms before that day. It was promised that we’d be walked through the process of mil versus MOA, especially as some of us had optics on which the controls are MOA increments, but the reticles are in mils. The instructors were patient and quick to assist on the couple of occasions on which I got lost in the numbers.
Half the first morning was spent in the classroom, covering basic marksmanship principles, safety and a brief overview of the typical performance of the three calibers represented in class: .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum, and 6.5mm Creedmoor. Larger calibers are addressed in a separate course.
Later that morning, we met on the lawn and each student received a personal critique of their military prone position (“it should be comfortable”), followed by custom adjustment of the adjustable cheek piece, eye relief of the Nightforce 5-35X scope, leveling of the scope and its Horus reticle, and finally, a fine-tuning of the optic for each student’s vision. Having endured too much eye-relief discomfort and frustration before today, the care taken for this process relieved much of the trepidation I had. Fitting here is a quote used in STA’s materials, attributed to Abe Lincoln, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first hour sharpening the ax.”
The first of two early afternoon shooting sessions was spent zeroing. The 100-yard range at Felix Canyon is in a pasture on this working ranch, and the occasional passing through of a Black Angus offered both a break from this concentrated exercise as well as a bit of comic relief. My fellow students—who had traveled from as far as California, Florida, and Vermont—proved to be great company. For starters, I wasn’t the only female in the group. Eden “Lil’ Red Danger” Rose, a Facebook public figure, was there to sharpen her ax too. A former Army man-turned-aerospace defense contractor was there, as well as two serious precision rifle hobbyists.
Any recounting of this experience would be incomplete without mention of the superb equipment those of us on loaner status got to use. Surgeon’s “Compact Sniper Rifle,” (CSR), chambered in .308 Winchester, with a foldable, adjustable stock, solid, one-piece chamber/rail construction, was assigned to me. It’s unlike any rifle I’ve ever handled. The smooth action of the bolt, fully custom fit and sub-MOA accuracy from its 16-inch barrel are suited for royalty (whether you are royalty or shooting at them, haha—just kidding—sort of).
This fabulous package was topped by an AWC suppressor, which rendered the boom of mine and my neighbors’ .308- and 6.5-caliber rifles to a level that made absorbing instruction easier. Oh, and there was an easy-to-use telescoping bipod on the front as well. Altogether, it’s a five-digit package, the price of which reflects the quality of the components.
By the end of the first afternoon, everyone in the group was confidently ringing steel at 550 yards. The pace of turns firing, combined with reloading, recording elevation adjustments, and finding the next target, was intense and fun. The experience was made richer with the stunning desert view from the Felix Canyon Ranch sniper platform, and the fun of using the facility’s nimble Tomcars to navigate the rocky hill on which the platform is sited.
The next morning, Johnson coached us on being more efficient with verbal communications with him as scout on the spotting scope. We learned to cut the BS and call our shots as either good or bad, based on the position of the crosshairs at the moment a shot broke. Based on that feedback and wind conditions, he would then either repeat the command “send it,” or give a short correction, i.e. “hold two-and-a-half mils left,” which the shooter would repeat to confirm having heard correctly. It was a rare luxury, having someone gauge wind and windage holds and recommend elevation adjustments, the latter of which were dialed into the optic and recorded on a DOPE card when they worked.
Adjunct instructor Corey Clancy, also a former Marine sniper with experience in precision rifle construction and ammo development, walked the group through a confirmation that our rifles were zeroed for 100 yards before we headed to the sniper platform. Clancy’s easygoing style is reflected in a reality check he reminded us of at breakfast that morning….despite the best technological information about hitting the target, sometimes the SWAG (milspeak for scientific wild ass guess) is the default method. Talk is cheap, but Clancy can walk the walk too. He had half the group’s zeroing completed with only six rounds fired, the rest in nine or 12 rounds.
By noon of day two, the Surgeon’s 16-inch barrel and my left index finger had become a fine team. Johnson’s quick mental math calculations (an amazing thing to behold during the whole course) informed me the rifle was steadily netting 1.0 minute of angle groups at 725 yards. Much to my amazement, the effective range of this rifle with my finger on the trigger and Johnson’s keen judgement on the spotting scope had my rounds hitting their mark at up to 1,200 yards. The crowning glory of the class was my partner on the line who, with a borrowed Surgeon Scalpel model, in 6.5 Creedmor, was hitting a 36-inch square target at a range of one mile.
The class was a week ago, and I’m still on cloud nine. The McMillan marksman course is free with the purchase of any McMillan or Surgeon rifle. The cost is $500 for those wanting to attend at their own expense, with ammunition and loaner rifles available for those who must travel. The experience is highly recommended for improving skill and confidence with distance shooting, for updating old skills to match modern methods and technologies, and for answering any burning questions about long-range precision shooting and equipment.
Eve Flanigan is a firearms instructor and writer residing in the American Southwest. Flanigan provides instruction in safety, basic and defensive pistol, defensive scenarios and basic rifle as well as concealed carry. Flanigan’s work in the non-profit sector has provided opportunities for participation in law enforcement firearms and use of force training. Her instruction, as well as her reviews of guns and gear, center around safety and practicality for self-defense. Her development as an armed citizen and instructor is aided by a variety of firearms and self-defense instruction plus competitive shooting. Persons wishing to contact Flanigan for instruction or to offer materials for review may do so through www.about.me/eve.flanigan