300 Norma Magnum from 800m to 1 Mile balloon poppin!

300 norma mag

In this article we shall explore the last trip we made before the king of One-mile competition in October 2020, held in Caylus military camp in France. For this competition we are running two 300 Norma Magnum rifles. We’ve had these for about a year and a half and have done quite some testing with them over our 4 day shooting trips at a time.

atlas hevy duty bipod

Rob’s rifle was built from the ground up as a custom rifle on a Defiance deviant action with Bartlein barrel shooting the 230 bergers at 3050ft/s while mine started it’s life as an RPA range master rifle originally built in 338 Lapua and I had the barrel changed to a 30 inch Bartlein throated for the 215 Berger to run at 3250ft/s. Both rifles were worked on by the same riflesmith with the same reamers. They are a beauty to shoot.

rpa range master 300 norma

This combination provides little recoil, the rifles barely move when coupled with the excellent dolphin muzzle brake but they move HEAPS of air and gas to the side of the barrel so stay clear. Notice Rob’s 300 Norma Magnum below, it barely moves.

Below is the same shot seen above, this time filmed through the KOWA HIGHLANDERS 85 mm binocular spotter at 1250m

After our last trip to Sicily 1 mile range, we held a post mortem of what worked well and what needed tweaking. We confirmed that our loads were up to scratch, the vertical spread over 10 rounds was very tight, under 1/3MOA, our impacts even at 1630m were banging in the same elevation with a spread of 8-10 inch. The ultimate challenge I thought would be shooting balloon sized targets from 800m to 1 mile so that we could train on really small targets. This would make us work harder at holding our reticle steady on a very small target. Remember the old saying, “aim small, miss small”? Nowhere is this saying more relevant than in ultra-long-range rifle.

300 norma magnum at 1250m balloon

Roberto and Vito who run this range just north of Sicily setup the platform for us. They are amazing hosts with a true passion for the shooting sports. You can see it right away when you meet people that want to go the extra mile to make shooters have a great time at their facility.

RPA Rangemaster 300 norma Magnum
RPA rangemaster 300 norma mag under watchful eyes of Kowa Highlanders 85mm spotter. A mil spec rifle turned super match with tighter tolerances on the bartlein barrel chambering

Ammo/load

I give my ammunition alot of importance. I learnt with the Fclass guys in the UK which have very good loading standards. Vince Bottomley, a multiple UK BR record holder was my first mentor and his tuition was second to none. Vince is a super passionate rifle shooter with energy to put young shooters in a bottle. This together with tips of other top shooters like Russell Simmonds and Tim Stuart have helped me hone my precision rifle ammo loading skills.

300 Norma Magnum ammo
300 Norma Mag ammo in the making – crafting the best ammo we can make that shoots 1/3 MOA 

We settled on 1 load for this trip and I brought my pet load 90 grain of N570 with fed GM 215 primers (*start low and work up), I had tried this before in the steaming summer heat of Sicily in August (40deg Celsius/104 Fahrenheit) while doing a ladder test. Then took this same load together with 2 others to ‘Coldbore range’ in Skjern, Denmark where we held a trip earlier last year (10 degrees Celsius/50 Fahrenheit). The load varies about 55ft/s in average for 20 degrees celcius. We recorded this data in our log book so we could input into kestrel before a shoot where the temperature approximated what we had already encountered.

Shooter/spotter communication

kowa highlanders 85mm

This is really key, we’ve heard it time and time again but you’re only as good as the message you can convey. You may think it’s easy but once you do it under pressure and timed, you will realise as we did, that you have to polish up, use a system that is consistent. Do you want to call out where the shot impacted first or do you go straight for the correction? Make sure the shooter knows what you intend to give him. Will you be using a reticle yourself or will you be calling out the target’s width/height similar to what Mark and Sam do?

I preferred asking the shooter, how big is the target in MOA then work it out from there before each shot. We’ve also tried using hold a target’s width high, come down a target, hold left half a target’s width. Rob would have already checked before starting the shoot what the target measures in his FFP MOA reticle. However you do it, stick to it. My huge KOWA spotter does not have a reticle but it has amazing resolution which for me was more important from previous experiences. If Kowa decide to introduce an MOA /MIL reticle in this spotter, it would be even better.

Wind calls were pretty close so at times it was a matter of saying ‘favour left edge’ or ‘hold top right edge of plate’. When the shot was good, I’de say ‘same shot rob’ meaning don’t change anything. On this last trip we dialed a maximum of 5MOA of wind with an average of 3 MOA. We took no more than 3 shots per target.

Below you can see 3 shots taken on this balloon at 1340m. First 2 shots were off to the right, we made an adjustment and popped the pole.

We had 2 shots that were 2 or 3 balloons right. In which case the most important bit was to ensure that Rob also saw the impact. At these distances, Rob could basically spot his own shots due to the 2-3 seconds flight time of the bullet. What I was doing was confirming that his spotting of where the shot went was correct. It’s an art so you need to work on the technique and ‘feel’.

Sometimes you’re very close, other times we realised we were within the maximum capabilities of the rifle, ammo and optic system. At 1520m, some shots were hitting the pole but not the balloon. We realised that was as good as we could potentially do. A click would send it too high or too low and we couldn’t hold the point of aim precise enough between a high balloon shot and low balloon shot. Although we didn’t shoot for groups this time round, a ½ MOA group at 1340m is about 8 inches. That means we could touch the balloon or barely scrape its sides as happened in the shot below hitting the pole.

Watch video further down.

33XC by David Tubb
If 300 Norma Mag sounds good, why not Checkout the 33XC by David Tubb, it dominated Ko1M in France!

Spotting equipment

I had 3 spotting scopes available, a Swarovski ATS 65mm with MOA and Mil reticle (made by vortex but interchangeable) and 2 more spotters without reticle;

RPA range master 300Norma Mag at 1 mile
Above, testing the rifles on a cold day at Coldbore range in Denmark.

A Swarovski BTX 95mm spotting scope, highly modular and portable piece of equipment with stellar quality, resolution and finish, ultra-comfortable to look through but less ‘pointable’ when you’re trying to find a target over 1.5km away and walk your way to the next one at 1.7km. A picatinny rail would definitely help mount a red dot sight to make those targets easier to find.

swarovski BTX spotter

Then I also added the Kowa Prominar Highlander BIG EYES binocular spotting scope in dual 85mm body, similar to those you would find on a ship, they’re like being at the cinema, no other way to describe it, easy to find targets with at these extreme distances but be ready to flex your muscles at 2x the weight of the Swaro. A high-quality tripod is not an option but a must. The Kowa have a front sight in between the two body tubes which enable you to place that on the target and basically you would find it in the field of view.

Bisley ranges buffalo target 51

Above: The Swarovski spotter in MOA/ Mil reticle is awesome but I prefer it for closer shots under 1.2k. I found that at times, trying to spot impacts in dirt, muddy conditions or poor weather was challenging even with the Swaro glass. Looking through with one eye is also not as comfortable. The tripod I head was ok for 600-800m shooting but when it was windy or rainy, it was abit on the light side. The new ULFHEDNAR tripod UHHD40 Heavy Duty Tripod is top-notch quality. I bought this tripod as it’s relatively light circa 3kg, super sturdy, foldable, easily removable central plate and STABLE. It enables you to have multiple optics mounted on different plates and swap them around easily. My current KOWA PROMINAR HIGHLANDER 85mm Binocular spotting scope tips the scales at 6kgs. That’s as heavy as some rifles are.

Once mounted on this tripod, it DOES NOT MOVE. It’s like watching a movie on Netflix, just add the rifle shots and bring in the popcorn 😊 The large binocular shape and feel of the Kowa makes it handle more like a binocular, just much bigger. The digiscoping equipment made by Kowa is also super sturdy, slips on the very wide ocular lens of the KOWA providing a rock-solid platform for filming. We filmed the following videos through this system and it’s super clear. You can always increase the magnification using the phone’s digital magnification.

Consideration: Some shooters tell me, these spotters cost as much as the rifles – possibly true but what good is the rifle, if you don’t have the right optics with which you can see the trace throughout the shot and be able to see the impact downrange?? The rounds you send downrange can quite expensive so seeing the impact is even more important. With time, you will probably grow fond of the optics as the rifle system since they are what enables you to steer the shooter to a hit.

We’re not shooting 750 grain bullets here so even though it’s not a slouch round, it’s not a 460 steyr you know. And if you think your rifles kicks up dirt, try shooting it on a rainy day on a field and spot the impact. We did it in Denmark, we couldn’t see the darn thing at 2k, the soil swallowed it up so since then, we set out on finding the best set of eyes we could get our hands on.

Target Size

I’ve said it before but will repeat it, shoot smaller targets than you intend to shoot. It’s more rewarding to nearly hit a very small target than get 5/5 shots on a 4MOA plate. It tells you nothing about your load or your shooting/wind reading or spotting skills. Missing a balloon will really test your kit and eyesight. Film your session so you can go back and see your shooting on the day and listen to your wind calls and communication. It’s the easiest way to find out your handicap.

We asked our hosts Roberto and Vito to prepare a few balloons at distances starting from 840m going to 933m, 1250m, 1340m,1420m and 1520m plus a 60x60cm plate at 1 mile. By tying balloons to a pole we could really determine how tight the vertical on our load was but also we were forced to make very good wind calls on a field with no flags. Unlike Fclass shooting where we get numerous flags at Bisley, this would need to go by observation and ‘feel’. Roberto thankfully setup over 15 balloons spread out at these distances across a zig-zag of multicolored fields. We needed a range card and map to plot them and find them.

We then spent time taking notes and truing our kestrel ballistics to the actual data in the field live, there and then. Only few adjustments were needed to get kestrel bang on a balloon sized target out to 1520m, truly amazing. Below you can see the first coldbore shot at the base of the pole. Our data from Denmark was already quite good, we had hits on all the plates there but the targets where larger than these balloons so we knew we would need better truing of our ballistics and that’s what we got done this time round.

We had near misses that either broke the pole or went right through it.

300 Norma pole shot 1340m

Shooting to one mile

For this sort of rifle training, I started out doing the spotting for rob, calling the winds, watching trace and doing my best to be consistent in my corrections. I had his kestrel on the spotter while occasionally just held mine out to see what the cross wind was and whether it approximated what I had in mind +/- 2mph. the stronger it gets, the harder the call is. I always work out the calculation from a 10mph wind full value.

kowa highlanders and kestrel ballistics
Kowa highlanders with kestrel ballistics standing square infront of spotter’s view

Eg. Wind condition is 5mph wind from 5 o’clock at 800m.

I set kestrel to give me Wind1 at 10mph 9 o’clock wind (full value). For my current load, that’s 2 MOA of wind.

2MOA x 0.5 (for 5mph wind) x 0.8 (5 o’clock wind) = 0.8MOA of Right wind.

I’ve seen numerous shooters playing about changing over and over again the direction of wind on kestrel, capturing the wind, forgetting to readjust it etc, etc, in my view too complicated for what we need to do. The focus has to be on the shooting not on the gadget. The wind will change as you sit behind the rifle so be prepared to make adjustments even after the initial calculation. Learn to work it out and read changes – all you need is a 10mph Full value dope for the distance you are shooting to start with. The rest will come down to spotting the shot and adjusting. You should be close enough.

Ulfhednar dope card

To make it even faster, I used an Ulfhednar UH355 Sidemounted Bubble Level Picatinny w/D.O.P.E. card. Very handy piece of kit, I would write down the dope off kestrel some minutes before I start my string of 5 targets and from then on, I wouldn’t be playing about with kestrel. If you can afford it, the new digital heads up display by kestrel can plug into kestrel and give you a live update of the wind and atmospheric conditions.  I love kit and gadgets but at some point, I have to focus on what is going to make me most difference. We travel to shoot so that additional expense means we have to sometimes be ultra-selective against our instincts.

Enough said here is some footage of the action. The string involved the following. 9 mins for 4 targets from 840m to 1420m with 3 rounds max at each distance. When I connected, I simply went for the next balloon. The speeds at which we are running the 300 Norma means it heats up very quickly even with an axle sized barrel. Shooting fast strings is an amazing way to send the rifle in for a new barrel but it’s also the most fun a. Under pressure you have to work fast and stay focused. Walking the shooter or spotter on target can be very challenging so practice that as well. You need to know where the targets are located so you can walk the shooter onto the target fast.

Enjoy the footage, over and out, some more videos will be uploaded shortly!

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