May 7-9 2021: I took the Level 3+ Steel Safari Train-Up course offered by Colorado Precision Rifle at the JP Rifles Blue Steel Ranch in Logan New Mexico. I planned to shoot the 2021 Steel Safari for the first time as a Carbine shooter since I shoot most of my team matches. I often use these other matches as training for the Sniper Adventure Challenge put on by Competition-Dynamics (who also put on the Steel Safari).
Brian Whalen is the primary instructor for Colorado Precision Rifle, JP Rifles and Thunder Beast Arms. He was the only instructor at our course in May, and our class size was fairly small with 4 students. Attending the class with me were Roger, Steve and Mike.
What is the Steel Safari?
The Steel Safari is one of the oldest continuous hike and shoot matches in the USA. It consists of 3 days of hiking and shooting where ALL stages are blind. A blind stage is a stage where you cannot see your targets or shooting position until you step up and are ready to shoot. This style of shooting presents specific difficulties because you are unable to watch others shoot the stage first. Stages at the Steel Safari are one of two designs; either a 1×6 or 2×3. 1×6 is one position with six targets. 2×3 is two shooting positions with only three targets. The time for every stage is 5 minutes.
Skills required for this Match:
- Target Acquisition
- Target Ranging
- Field based position building
- Target and Data management
Why take this course?
Despite having been a Range Officer (RO) for the Steel Safari in the past (maybe 4-5 years ago), I had never shot the match until this last May. It looked like a lot of fun when I was an RO, so I thought I’d give it a go. From my experience as an RO at both the Steel Safari and Team Safari, I knew that the skill-set was different from a standard PRS/NRL match. Since my exposure to those skills was limited, I decided to take the Steel Safari Train-Up to help update and polish those skills.
After taking the course and shooting the match for the first time, I am very glad I took the course. I felt like I handled the difficulties presented by the match well, due almost entirely to the material covered in the course and Brian’s instruction.
After shooting the match I am certain most competitors would find valuable information in the course that will prepare them to shoot the Steel Safari or NRL Hunter series.
Zero and KD Range
We started Day 1 of the Steel Safari train-up at 08:00 by going to the zero range and verifying everyone had a good zero on their rifle. Of course my zero was off, so we spent some time correcting until everyone was satisfied. After that, we moved to the KD range (pictured above) where we validated our data out to distance. The farthest target is around 1200 yards at the KD range. As an aside, my anemic .223 with 77gr SMK’s was transonic by 750 yards, but I was hammering the 500 yard targets!
Gear and Lunch
After zero and KD range we took a break for lunch while still around the main house, and updated student’s data cards based on the feedback from the KD range. We also took time before leaving the KD range to review gear which is important for these type of matches. Brian thoroughly explained the gear he uses and why he chose it. Beginning with his tripod (Really Right Stuff with Anvil-30 head), spotting device (ranging binoculars [I use the Steiner M830r 1535 and can highly recommend them]), his backpack contents and how its organized, and finally touching on some of the bags he carries with him (like the Bison Tactical Fat Boy Tactical Udder). Brian showcased his new APAC Bolt Action Chassis from JP Rifle, which was both aesthetically pleasing and functional.
Additionally, a trustworthy backpack is a vital piece of equipment for these matches. AttackPAK, a Colorado company, makes a highly functional pack that I’ve used in the Sniper Adventure Race for the last 5 years and at this train-up. While my Bison Pack from AttackPAK works great for the Sniper Adventure Challenge, its not as effective for the Steel Safari where you are mostly carrying your rifle with a sling instead of attaching it to your pack. I highly recommend one of their other packs like the Pulse Medical Pack or Vector Mike pack. Both of these have fast access to the contents and work really well for the Steel Safari.
Moreover, messy data cards will greatly hamper your efficiency in these matches. The creation of data cards for elevation and windage is covered in the Colorado Precision Rifle course Precision Rifle 1. [note* – I found after shooting the match that having a data card that allows you to sketch the relative target positions along with their elevation hold is extremely useful.]
After lunch, we moved out to the West course to start shooting targets.
West Course and the Plan
Brian gave some very useful instruction on the process he teaches for approaching each stage of the Steel Safari (or any blind stage for that matter). Some of the main points are:
- Have a plan
- Have a time plan
- Confirm the shooting point and margins
- place you tripod/spotting device directly over the shooting position
- set down your gear in a consistent fashion
- immediately start scanning for targets with the naked eye
- scan for targets with spotting device in a systematic pattern
- when you find targets write down the data on your card
- after finding targets drop down with spotting device to confirm what position you will need to use [prone, high prone, reverse kneeling etc]
- spend time building your position
- communicate with your RO about the targets your shooting – and shoot the targets
This was the Steel Safari Train-Up and not the 2021 Steel Safari match, so we shot each stage twice! The first time we shot the stage blind (we tried to avoid informing ourselves about the target locations but still stayed in a group), then reshot the stage a second time “PRS style” which meant we know the target locations and already had the data on them. We used 5 minutes for the blind stage, and 3 minutes for the PRS style stage.
During the month of May the weather in New Mexico can be fickle. We had a LOT of variation in the weather over just 3 days. We had HOT (90+), COLD (40), rain, high winds (35+mph) and extreme variation in winds. It rained on our first day, so if you attend one of these courses make sure to come prepared for a variety of conditions.
We shot the west course for the rest of the day, finishing at around 18:00. We met back at the main house for closing briefs and so Brian could answer any questions. After that we all headed into town to the Cowboy Chuckwagon for some delicious burgers.
We thought the day was over but everyone wanted to update their data cards, so Brian broke out his printer and laminator and helped everyone get new data cards made. We hit the sack around 23:00.
Day 2 kicked off at 08:00 straight into shooting on the South course. It didn’t rain on Day 2, but it was 88-95 degrees so we wished it had. We had lots of high wind on Day 2 with gust over 35 mph which made things sporty – particularly for a .223 carbine shooter with a short barrel.
High Wind, South Course
If your going to have a train-up you want to train for the worst case scenario rather than the best case scenario. I was certainly happy that during the actual Steel Safari match we only had 10-15 mph winds and not 35+ mph.
We spent a lot of time on Day 2 shooting example stages with a lot of 1×6 stages and a couple of 2×3 stages. Most of the stages were prone, but some required reverse kneeling to be able to hit all the targets you could see from standing behind the spotting device.
Reverse Kneeling the CP Rifle way
While I was familiar with reverse kneeling from shooting PRS/NRL matches, Brian taught a specific reverse kneeling position that I found much more stable than the conventional one I’ve used in NRL/PRS.
- In advance determine the correct tripod height for supporting your rifle
- Support bottom leg ankle with a rear bag
- Use your backpack between heel of bottom leg and your butt
- Support your chest if possible with a big bag
Here is Brian demonstrating reverse kneeling while shooting one of the stages.
We shot a lot of stages with more 2×3’s on Day 2 than Day 1. We all started getting significantly better with time management and by Day 2 everything started meshing as we got the feel for the method.
One of the primary lessons I learned from the 2021 Steel Safari Train-up was “the method” or “the process”. For these types of matches it’s extremely important to have a method you train with. At a PRS or NRL match, you can learn by watching other people. While it seems insignificant, it means you constantly modify your process, even little things like where you store your pens, or how you handle writing your data. At the Steel Safari you are 100% on your own – with the exception of the same person you RO (and thus watch) all day. This means your process is very important.
I spent time after the train-up running through imaginary stages with my gear. I approached a position, started my timer and deployed all my gear as if I were going to shoot a stage. If you get nothing else from this course, refining your process of approaching a stage is worth the entire cost.
Throughout Day 2 Brian would give coaching instruction if he saw issues that were affecting your ability to make impacts. This was ongoing throughout the course, but really kicked into high gear on Day 2 because we were far more focused on shooting a higher volume of stages.
At around 18:00 we all headed back to the main house for closing brief and then headed off to dinner at “The Annex” in town.
We got started with Day 3 at 08:00 sharp. Fortunately, it was cooler and less windy than the day before. We again shot on the west course and proceeded to shoot more stages with a variety of 1×6 and 2×3. For me the 2×3 stages were more difficult, primarily because of the difficulty finding and managing 6 targets verses 3 targets. I didn’t normally have an issue obtaining a solid shooting position, but I didn’t always find all the targets.
Brian explained some ideas for target searching and trying to speed up target acquisition. Some topics were:
- patterns of target layout
- managing your margins
- not searching outside your target distance
- reference landmarks for rapid target reacquisition
- guardrails (like in land navigation)
- a better search pattern method
We shot stages like the West course waterfall until around 4pm when the course ended.
My Lessons Learned
I had a number of personal takeaways from the course, and some lessons learned from the train-up that got applied in the actual 2021 Steel Safari match.
I started the 2021 Steel Safari train-up with the intent of shooting the 2021 Steel Safari with my Special Operations Tactical 14.7″ ultralight AR15 using a AB Suppressor Raptor 2. This is currently my rifle for 2021 Sniper Adventure Challenge, so I was going to use it at the Steel Safari for practice. After shooting the train-up I decided I needed more velocity than I was getting after seeing the data for my ammo. It was a good thing I did since 2021 Steel Safari had 1480+ yard targets!
Here are pics of my train-up gear vs the actual gear I ran at the Steel Safari
I like to show these two because I learned a lot at the train-up about how the gear I initially planned to run would (or would not) function. Based on going through the train-up I made some pretty large changes to what I actually used.
What did I actually keep?
The only gear that I kept the same was the TFCT-33 Really Right Stuff Tripod and my Steiner M830r 1535 binoculars. I switched rifles to run my JP Enterprises JP-15 18″ rifle for more velocity and better groups. Once I decided weight wasn’t an issue, I chose to run my Thunder Beast Arms Ultra 5 suppressor. I switched my backpack from the AttackPAK Bison Kit to the AttackPAK Pulse Medical Pack.
In the 2021 Steel Safari Train-Up I ran my Tangent Theta TT315M which has very clear glass, but is light weight. This scope is what I had decided to run at the Sniper Adventure Challenge where weight is of primary importance. This scope was mounted to my SOT AR15 with an Ultralight Aero Precision single piece mount. When I started shooting at the KD range on Day 1, I ran out of elevation travel and had to dial all available elevation and still hold 5 mils to hit the 1000 yard target. When I got back from the train-up I ordered a Warne Skyline Precision 1 piece 20 MOA 35mm cantilever mount so I could switch to the Leupold Mark 5HD 3.6-18 scope. This worked great for all the targets I shot at except for the 1480 yard targets.
I use the Tab Gear A3 Arm Band to manage my data, and after the train-up I had to re-print my data cards. I switched to using heavy weight writable poly that is laser printable so I have my data and a section to draw the layout of the targets. I also got a better pencil and eraser, because mine broke during the train-up.
Additionally, I use the CP Rifle sling for carrying my rifle, and decided I needed to deal with the extra “tail”, so I put several wraps of electrical tape to keep the tail managed.
How to attach the rear bag?
I went to the 2021 Steel Safari train-up with 30 round AR15 mags, but because of the stages a shorter mag was a better choice. I ended up running Lancer 20 round magazines instead to get a lower profile and avoid hitting rocks in prone.
Coaching Advice from the Master
Trigger control and trigger hand/finger position became a focus. Brian gave me some coaching on my firing hand that helped immensely. I couldn’t implement this right away at the train-up however, because it would mean a lot of adjustment to what I was doing. This actually resulted in a gear change as well. During the train-up I was using an AR15 Carbon fiber grip from Smoke composites, but it was difficult to get a good prone finger position. When I got back, I took an MPA vertical grip off one of my MPA chassis and drilled a hole in it so It would fit on my AR15. This was a grip I was used to, and helped me maintain a correct hand position for better trigger control.
My data cards were a mess when I went to the train-up and Brian helped me work through fixing them. This certainly helped a lot because the Steel Safari is a match where using data cards is very useful instead of trying to shoot like a PRS/NRL match.
I mentioned it previously because it was so important, but Brian’s method of reverse kneeling is very stable and I practiced this after the train-up and used it during the 2021 Steel Safari.
See you next year!
I had so much fun at the match, I am going to try to shoot the Team version in October, and hope to shoot the Steel Safari 2022. I hope to see you there!