The motto here is "If it ain't broke, you ain't done!" and I hoped I wasn't about to experience that "broke" thing, as in bones and other important body parts. I was terrified and not afraid to admit it. But, when the gate opened and there was nothing but air between me and the cruel, hard ground 40 feet below I sucked it up and dove head first out of the opening.
An orange line flashed through my peripheral vision as a disjointed voice screamed, "load!" After I realized I was probably not going to die in the next couple of minutes, my brain jumped out of gridlock and I scrambled to slam a magazine into my pistol. The first targets were under me before I was ready. I knew there was no second chance with them, so I more or less lined up the sights and started pulling the trigger. Those two targets were gone in a blink, but a bunch more were coming up fast as I screamed down the zip line and tried to double tap those on the left as they flew under me. I think I got most of them before I reached the belly in the cable and stopped moving forward.
Suddenly I was sliding backward, retracing my path and, remembering my planned strategy, I started working on the right-hand line of targets below me. Then I tried to steady my bouncing sights on the bonus-plate rack 50 yards away. But, two shots later I realized it was pointless and cleared my pistol.
By the time they pulled up the portable stairs and I climbed back to the ground I was grinning ear to ear and begging to try it again. Playing James Bond proved the Ironman might just be the most exciting 3-gun match in the country.
The promoters, MGM Targets, claim it's the toughest 3-gun match on shooters and equipment in existence. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever disputed that. MGM owner Mike Gibson likes to say, "this match isn't for weenies or crybabies." Just to prove his point, Gibson, who is 55 years old, competed in the Trooper Class this year, in which the shooters are required to carry their gear at all times and walk everywhere they go. Considering this range is stretched out over a lot of Idaho desert, that's a serious undertaking.
The match includes 10 stages and has an official 1,100-shot-round count. That's only if the shooter doesn't miss, ever, and if he can turn a complete rotation on the "Double Swinger" spinner targets with a single shot. In my never humble opinion, the "spinner" is an evil target created by a sadist and not even God could turn one with a single shot.
The smart shooters double the round count when packing ammo for this match. For me, even that was not enough! I ran out and had to buy more. All that shooting doesn't count the ammo fired from machine guns and other staged guns throughout the match. You can probably add another hundred or so rounds of OPA (Other People's Ammo) that you will fire.
Every stage requires the use of all three guns. There is a 10-minute per-stage time limit and the average shooter takes seven. In all my years of shooting various competitions, I don't recall ever timing out on a stage. But, I timed out four times in my first Ironman match—usually because of the spinner targets and my obsession to beat them. More than once I heard time called as I looked at a pile of empty magazines by my feet, realizing I had more targets but no ammo and no time left. I also got disqualified on one stage, something I have only done once before in my shooting life. No doubt about it, this is a tough match!
During a three-day match, participants will shoot while driving a golf cart, from the top of a 20-foot tower and while running and carrying a 90-pound dummy. They also shoot while riding a zip line, while standing on a moving platform and after escaping from a handcuffed, hostage situation. You will be required to ride a giant slide while holding your rifle and to shoot at targets as far away as 720 yards. You will run, jump, climb, dodge, scramble, belly crawl and pull the trigger until you puke. You will even fire machine guns for score, shoot clay targets from the air and fight Somali bandits with your pistol, an AK-47 and a machine gun.
What you won't do is sleep much. For three days we started shooting as soon as it was light enough to see our sights and didn't stop until dark. The heat, dust and blowing sand all took their toll on shooters and guns. A lot of guns and more than a few shooters simply screeched to a stop, seized up, broke and were unable to continue. I remember one shotgun that seemed to go in three different directions at once as the barrel flew off, spewing shells, springs and other parts in all directions while leaving the shooter with a buttstock and a puzzled look.
Several of my shooting buddies who, like me, are in their 50s, will not compete in this match. It's definitely not for the timid and the sight of the ambulance taking "casualties" to the hospital was pretty common.I remember as we approached stage three, "The Sullivan Slide," one of the guys on my squad commented matter of factly that he didn't finish this one last year.
"What happened," I asked. "Were you disqualified?"
"Naw, nothing like that. I broke my leg in two places and they took me off on a stretcher with the bone sticking out. I have been waiting a year for a rematch."
Like Gibson said, this is no match for sissies. I figure it must have taken some gonads for that guy to climb that tower and come down the slide again.
When my turn came I climbed up the ladder to the 20-foot high tower and tried to stay focused. In spite of spending a decade as a telephone lineman, I don't like heights and that had me off my game a bit. I engaged the rifle targets and was happy with my performance. I cleared the rifle and headed down the giant playground slide to terra firma, where I was a much happier man. At the bottom I reloaded and engaged the targets again with my rifle. Still happy with my performance so far, I transitioned to the sniper rifle. I was shooting a borrowed rifle and this was the first time I had laid my hands on it. With a 10-inch plate at 550 yards, a 2-foot-square plate at 720 yards and a stiff Idaho breeze blowing, my satisfaction level crashed as I missed more shots than I hit.
From there I ran down the hill and engaged the pistol targets poorly, due to some confusion about where to start. Then I ran to the shotgun area, picked up my Benelli and finished with a decent showing. The "official" round count for this stage was 104 shots. I had probably pushed that past 150, which made it a pretty typical stage. I had also run (in my mind) about the same distance as covered by my left-wing neighbor chasing after her cause of the week. Only I did it at full speed, usually while carrying a gun or two, while she lopes at a leisurely pace carrying only a folded ribbon and a water bottle!
I had fired four guns more than 100 times at targets from 5 to 720 yards. All this on a stage that has a reputation for sending shooters to the hospital if they screw up. Yup, it was a pretty typical Ironman stage.
Speaking of running, stage five had us running a half-marathon. It starts with a rifle as you run down the outside of a "building," shooting through the many windows and double tapping all the targets, which takes 22 rounds if you don't miss.
I emptied a 45-round mag and left unsure—I got them all as it turns out. After clearing the rifle you must run out of this shooting area, around a big sand berm and up to the next shooting location. It felt like five miles, but was probably only about 100 yards. Needless to say, you arrive out of breath—at least this old, fat guy did. The choice is to start with either of the two machine guns or with your shotgun. I picked the shotgun and fired the fast, close stuff first, then hoped my breathing had calmed enough for the long-range slug shooting. It had not. There is a lot of precision slug work in the Iron Man, including some very challenging targets. But, these were closer and a bit bigger than on other stages and I cleaned the targets by shooting between the gasps.
Then I picked up an MP5 submachine gun and cleaned the plate rack before dumping the rest of the magazine into the bonus target. So far, so good. The gun beside it was a full-auto Tommy Gun, and it was used to turn another dreaded spinner target. Every time it went around earned bonus points and I had watched a bunch of shooters, including my buddy Matt Foster, spin it like an airplane propeller. But, it wasn't for me. Once more the spinner curse got me and I wound up emptying the magazine without turning the cursed target.
I cleared the guns, dumped them in the safe box and ran down the length of the second shooting pit (26.45 miles as I recall) where, again out of breath, I engaged the multiple pistol targets, including another ##*%$&&& spinner! Without the spinners it was a good run. With them, which is kinda of what they required on the score sheet, I sucked!
The official round count was only 76 shots, but that doesn't count the machine guns with OPA, misses, spinners or the "insurance" shots I put in the paper targets to make sure there were at least two scoring holes. I would guess I dumped close to 200 rounds in this big stage.
At stage two we stood on a big platform suspended by cables. Every time you moved, it moved. Every time you breathed, it moved. In fact, even thinking made it move. Couple that with the fact it was covered with empty brass and shotgun hulls, and it was a tough place to stand, let alone run back and forth to shoot. Remember the games when you were a kid where you spun around and around until you were too dizzy to stand and then you tried to run? Same effect!
You shoot a steel popper and when it falls it pulls a cardboard IPSC target from the ground in an arch, so it flashes up and over to lie on the ground again, pointing in the opposite direction. This happens in about one trillionth of a second. So, you must hit the popper with your pistol and then double tap the following target when it flashes past, all while standing on a platform that is about as secure as a politician's promise and do it so fast your mind can't keep up with your trigger finger. Nothing to it!
One more note on the following target. Stage 10 had three lined up in a row. The trick was that the middle one was a white "no-shoot." I was in the "Super Squad" with some of the best shooters in the world—guys like Bennie Coolie, Tate Moots, Dave Neth, Randy Luth and others. I was also the only shooter on our squad who did not shoot the no-shoot target. So, I can brag I was better than the best in the world on one target!
Stage seven was one of the most interesting. It's a "blind" stage where there is no walk through before shooting. Actually it's a "blind" stage in several ways. You start at a door where you surrender your unloaded pistol, close your eyes and then are guided through the door. Once inside, a bag is pulled over your head, your hands are handcuffed and you are instructed to sit in a chair. The scenario is that you have been captured and beaten. At the buzzer you must get out of the handcuffs, pull the bag off your head, find your pistol and then fight your way down several halls and corridors. Along the way other guns, including an AK-47 and an SKS, are staged and you must use them to engage targets. Once outside the "building" you will find one of your buddies, unconscious, (well actually it's a dummy, a term that describes a few of my non-shooting buddies too!) and you must carry it with you as you continue to shoot your way out of the terrorist compound. This ends at the top of a hill where you dump the dummy beside an MG42 machine gun that you use to hit a steel target and stop the timer.
These were just some of my favorites, but all 10 stages were as challenging. In the Ironman match you will shoot more bullets, run more miles, skin more knees and scare the hell out of yourself more times than in any other 3-gun match in the world. You will end up dirty, tired, sore, out of ammo and wondering how you can possibly endure the long year's wait until the next one.