America has been called a "Nation of Riflemen" due to its long-standing history of producing some of the finest rifle marksmen the world has ever seen. And this tradition is a direct result of the great variety of competitive rifle sports, which have become as much a part of American culture, as, well -- Mom and apple pie! 

Rifle shooting competitions emphasize accuracy and consistency, sometimes with a timing element added or with specific equipment variations to add to the challenge and precision required.

General History 

Informal competitive rifle shooting is an integral part of American culture. In the early 1700s, frontiersmen gathered for "rifle frolics" and competed for prizes of food items. Shooting from a rest at a small mark placed on a distant target was a popular aspect of informal frontier matches in the 1700s and 1800s. Typical courses of fire would be off-hand shooting at about 80 yards, and "rest" shooting at over 100 yards. Formal match shooting got its start after 1825 when the percussion cap ignition system replaced flintlocks, thus providing more reliable and accurate rifles. 

Organized shooting really took off when two New York National Guard officers, Col. William C. Church, and Capt. George W. Wingate, decided to do something about the overall poor level of marksmanship exhibited by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Their efforts culminated in the formation of the National Rifle Association in 1871 and ultimately the establishment, by the U.S. Congress in 1903, of the National Board for The Promotion of Rifle Practice. 

The advent of self-contained ammunition cartridges caused this form of competitive shooting to grow in popularity after about 1880. In 1951, the National Bench Rest Shooter's Association was formed as the governing body for various regional bench rest organizations.

The first NRA match incorporating these basics of marksmanship was held at the Creedmore Range on Long Island, New York in 1873. Rifle - OverviewThat competition eventually became the famed National Championships, now held annually at Camp Perry, Ohio. The same basic shooting positions detailed in the Wingate and Church "Manual for Rifle Practice" published in 1870 are still used by modern riflemen. 

In addition to the more modern rifles, muzzle-loading guns are again popular. However, with the implementation of modern firearms, with the self-contained cartridge, the popularity of the previously dominant muzzle-loading rifles declined sharply and they were no longer produced commercially. During the first half of the 20th century a small group of enthusiasts began holding muzzle-loading competitions and by the 1950s, the muzzle-loading reproduction industry started producing models for this growing group of enthusiasts. Today their popularity continues to grow as they are often enjoyed over a several day event including muzzle-loading matches, knife and tomahawk throws, and historic dress and lifestyle. 

From its humble earliest beginnings in frontier America to the high degree of sophistication attained in modern times, the rifle sports offer a variety of traditional recreation that is enjoyed by the young and not so young, and both men and women. The challenge of doing the best one can and the sense of accomplishment when one scores well, along with the loyal comradery of one's fellow competitors, are positive aspects of these sports unmatched by most other endeavors. 

Basic Rifle Terminology 

Technically, a rifle is a shoulder-fired gun with a rifled barrel. Rifling refers to the spiral grooves and lands in a gun's bore that spin the projectile in flight and impart accuracy. Rifling is present in all true rifles, in most handguns and in some shotgun barrels. 

Rifles are generally classed by division, based on caliber (smallbore, high-power, air rifle) and in subclasses depending on weight and stock (main framing of rifle that houses barrel, action, etc.) configuration. In some matches, the NRA Service Rifle Class, for example, the requirements for an individual rifle are very rigid, even specifying particular makes and models. Other classes are less rigid, and allow wider latitude of firearm types. Scopes are permitted in some matches under NRA rules, but are not allowed in international competition or for black powder competitions. For these later classes, shooters generally must rely only on finely adjustable aperture sights, regardless of their rifle's caliber.

Rifle - OverviewCenterfire rifles use cartridges that have a primer loaded at the center of the cartridge case base. These are generally best for longer range (high power) shooting. Almost all rifles are centerfire, except .22 rimfires and a few other calibers that are rare and not widely available.

Rimfire rifles shoot rimfire (smallbore) cartridgesthe cartridge case has a hollow rim that is generally filled with a wet-priming mixture during manufacture. Rimfire shooting is typically shorter range (lower power) than centerfire rifles, with distances of 50 to 125 yards possible with modern rimfire rifles.

Muzzle-loading rifles are also used in separate shooting contests. A muzzle-loader differs from a musket by using undersized bullets and having a smoothbore barrel, so they can be loaded faster. However, muskets are much less accurate and are only effective at distances of less than about 50 yards. 

Some (a few) modern in-line muzzle-loader rifles can even use black smokeless powder, in addition to regular black powder. A strong word of caution, however! Smokeless powder should only be used in guns made for this more powerful charge. Otherwise, serious injury may result! Velocities with smokeless powder and rifled barrels are comparable to centerfire rifles and these guns require a lot less cleaning than with the use of regular black powder.

Modern in-line muzzle-loaders typically have a removable breech plug with a centered ignition orifice that closes the barrel chamber. A powder load is loaded from the muzzle, followed by a bullet. A breech-loaded percussion module then may house a standard shot-shell primer. Seating the percussion module in the chamber and closing the bolt effectively seals the action from the elements. 

Various types of gun actions are available for most rifle typesincluding the most popular bolt-action types, which are strong and capable of rapid follow-up shots. Action refers to Rifle - Overviewthe working mechanism of a firearm. The action is the moving parts of a firearm that allow loading, firing, unloading and the ejection of the spent case. Many types of actions exist--including single-shots, multi-barrels, revolvers, slide- or pump- actions, lever-actions, bolt-actions, semi-automatics and automatics. 

Rifles also can be single shot or have a lever-actionsimilar to the Riflemans rifle in the old TV series. Rifles also come with pump-actions and gas and recoil-powered autoloader-actions. Autoloaders generally produce less recoil and are thus favored by some. Guns with bolt-actions are typically heavier than lever-action guns. Rifles with short to medium actions will have lower weight and relatively higher projectile velocity. 

In general, the longer the barrel of the rifle, the longer the distance fired. Barrel lengths longer than 18 inches are generally recommended for longer shooting distances (200 yards or more). But, of course, the longer the barrel the heavier the gun; this can be a major consideration, especially for the smaller person. 

Many sport-shooting enthusiasts and competitors use reloaded or hand loaded (hand-packed) ammunition rather than factory loaded (factory prepared) ammunition, as they can provide greater consistency and speed, reduce recoil, and produce flatter trajectories. 

Technically, plinking is not a recognized sport. However, it is the most practiced shooting (sport) in the United States. Plinking is any informal shooting a variety of inanimate targets such as paper target, cans, etc. Any firearm that can expel a projectile could be used for this purpose.

(Material courtesy of National Shooting Sports Foundation)