Don Atkinson peers through the scope of a 50-caliber rifle that was used to win a recent shooting contest in Nevada by hitting a target at 1,000 yards. The gun, which has its bolt open and unloaded for this photo, weighs 50 pounds. - Bob Pennell

On the Mark

Peering through a high-powered scope mounted on a gun too big even for Rambo to wield, a 6-square-foot target doesn't look much bigger than a baseball card when it's 10 football fields away.

"It looks like a package of cigarettes that someone put a black dot in the middle of," says A.W. Larson, of Shady Cove.

But Larson and shooting pal Don Atkinson were able to punch enough finger-sized holes in that seemingly tiny target with a 50-caliber rifle to walk out of the Nevada desert together as top shots in long-range target shooting.

Larson, of Shady Cove, and Medford's Atkinson were top shooters in a recent regional sanctioned match held in Nevada by the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association, whose members are dedicated to perfecting the craft of firing big bullets with big guns over big distances.

Shooting competition versions of military sniper rifles at targets 1,000 yards away, Larson owned the match's top five-shot group score of 49 points out of a possible 50 points, with one bull's eye.

Atkinson backed that up with the best total aggregate score in the light-gun category for those shooting firearms weighing 30 pounds.

For Larson, 74, and Atkinson, 68, it was their first wins in more than a decade of competing in this niche genre, besting shooters from around the country, some of whom were half their ages.

"Not bad for a couple of old guys," Larson says.

Their long road to victory sounds a lot like the way to get to Carnegie Hall.

"You gotta practice," Larson says.

No one has practiced with 50-caliber competition firearms for long.

Their genesis is traced to 1985, when a small group of gunsmiths set out to build a single-shot, bolt-action 50-caliber rifle that could be shot with a table rest without breaking the shooter's shoulder.

The result is a firearm as heavy as 50 pounds that, when fired, slides into the shoulder more like a shotgun recoil than a gun firing a 750-grain bullet at 2,900 feet per second.

Association members proudly say their breakthroughs in muzzlebreaks and other avenues were adopted by the U.S. military. Competitors have never stopped tweaking those tweaks as they continue to seek improved accuracy.

"Our club is full of people who love math and research," says John Burtt, an association board member in Oklahoma.

The association, which sports about 4,000 members throughout the United States and almost two dozen other countries, holds about 15 regional matches annually with the targets always at 1,000 yards.

"We'd love to shoot the bullet at a mile," Burtt says. "But there just isn't a mile-long range in this country."

Atkinson stumbled into the long-range regime in 1990 when he bought his first 50-caliber rifle on a lark.

"I just bought one because it was such a novelty," he says.

But the shooting became addicting. Atkinson in 1998 lured in Larson, his long-time hunting partner.

The pair share ownership of two $7,000 guns, one weighing about 30 pounds and the other 50 pounds.

With no local 1,000-yard range, Larson and Atkinson have to travel to out-of-state matches, usually arriving a day early to practice.

They shoot six five-shot clusters for scoring over two days. Shots are all from a bench with no assistance other than a wind meter.

"A thousand yards is a long way," Larson says. "You have to be pretty skilled to shoot competitively."

The variables are intense, with everything short of the curvature of the earth coming into play.

Winds can push shots two feet or more off target. The smallest movement will alter a shot by several inches. Different bullets fly at different speeds and are affected by the elements in different fashions.

Even the heat off the gun barrel can ripple the air like a desert tarmac, blurring an already tough-to-see target.

"The waves make the target shimmy at 1,000 yards," Atkinson says. "It's really hard to focus on it. You have to figure out which one of those waves is the real target."

When shooting a five-shot sequence, competitors get two practice shots with which to dial in their accuracy.

After each shot, the target gets pulled and the shot's location is marked by a plastic disc so shooters can adapt their aim.

"You have to have a lot of concentration," Larson says. "You have to block everything out and stay focused on the target."

Atkinson says comparing match rifles to standard hunting rifles is the equivalent of putting NASCAR vehicles next to street rods.

Their victories qualify them for the national championship July 4 in New Mexico.

But neither plans to go.

"I'm not that good," Larson says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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