Thursday 13th August – Day 1 of The Palma Match

Two evenings ago the “batting order” for the 2-day Palma Match was announced, following more than 2 hours of deliberations by the Management team, and preceded by much analysis of score sheets and plots. Yesterday evening another short team meeting took place, to finalise details and focus minds, followed by a muted though enjoyable team BBQ at our accommodation and an early night for all.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the finalising of the “order of fire” for the 2-day match was not a team selection; the Palma team was selected several months ago. Every member of the touring team continues to have an important part to play over the coming 2 days. Just 16 of the advertised team of 26 (28 with our 2 physios) will be “firing shots”, but all are fully involved, and indeed have been over the past 3 years of training and preparation. Furthermore, the team would be much the poorer without the participation and dedication of the whole Palma squad from the beginning, and the support of so many of our family and friends “back home”; we want to perform well for you, for our fellow team members and for our Country. All should share in any success we may be fortunate enough to enjoy (and perhaps sympathise with any unexpected shortcomings!). We are well prepared, confident but not complacent, and ready to do battle.

On to the business in hand….

It is 0750. The mood is quiet. The tension is palpable. At 0800 the team assembles for 15 minutes communal team exercises and some light-hearted banter to help ease the tension. As the warm up is brought to a close, target allocation for the first range is announced. The team moves rifles, equipment, scopes, chairs, bags etc. behind the allocated targets towards the right hand side of the range; of the 8 target group allocations we start second from the right. During the 2 days each team will fire on 6 of the allocated target groups, and never more than once on any one group.

A final team brief during which the Captain reminds us all that the World is watching and expects a performance deserving of the current holders of the Palma trophy – no pressure there then! The first firers move forward to find as good a position on the firing point, which is badly worn and pitted. The match referee is called to adjudicate on options of exactly where we can position both ourselves and our kit; a compromise is reached, not ideal, but workable. “Colours” take place at 0855; the countdown begins…10, 9, 8….2, 1…. All are standing to face the cannon half a mile away. A large plume of white smoke is followed nearly a second later by the report of the cannon. Servicemen and women and some USA Veterans salute, others place right hand over left breast in the USA style; the remaining 200 odd competitors and officials remain respectfully still. As the last bars of the USA anthem die away “Carry on” is broadcast and we are back into the “zone”. Things now happen at a faster pace. The 5 minute “blow off” period commences without delay and the air is filled for the first time today with the crackle of several hundred shots in a couple of minutes, before relative silence once more descends. Team members go about their well-rehearsed preparations, in part to keep occupied and not dwell overly on the task ahead. Even the more experienced team members have to work to relax and stay focused; it is surprising how mentally tiring this can be! Muted conversations, a few light hearted jokes; some read, some revisit the physios, others listen to music through private earphones. Some use mental visualisation techniques to rehearse the action to come. Your scribe writes the diary for today…

Every team member wants to do their best for the team; no one wants to let the side down – especially as the coming 2 days are the culmination of so much effort by so many. In the back of the firer’s minds will be the need for care in every one of the 90+ shots each has to release. A cross-fire is a real danger here at Camp Perry, with the targets so close together and the number boards difficult to read. The penalty of 5 points lost could cost the match. Even though the total maximum team score is a possible 7200 points, the crucial figure for each team is the number of “points dropped” and an unnecessary loss of 5 points may be critical. It is worth recalling that over the last few days the Australians had a cross-fire in the America Match, as did our GB Veterans team in their World Championship match.

Also playing on the firers minds (though hopefully pushed into the sub-conscious on the firing point) is the knowledge that one poor sideways shot may not only lose one or more points in itself, but can mislead the 5 coaches and result in the other 3 firers losing points following ill-advised corrections. Then there are the direct physiological effects of the psychological tension. The “fight or flight” response kicks in; small surges of adrenalin enter the bloodstream and within 2 seconds the heart rate increases to pump more oxygen to the muscles to prepare for action. Fine for a sprinter on the athletics track, but seriously counter-productive for the rifleman. That steady sight picture can deteriorate into a rapid dance of the front sight across the target, further increasing anxiety, and a vicious circle ensues. It has to be said that competing in our sport at the highest International level is not for the faint hearted or those of a nervous disposition!

The wind coaches are certainly not exempt from the pressure of expectation or the weight of responsibility. Failure to detect even subtle changes in wind strength or direction can lead, in the worst case, to all 4 firer’s shots moving out towards the edge of the target, leading to the potential loss of many points. On the other hand, they must avoid freezing with indecision or unduly upsetting their firer’s rhythm with too many stops and waits. Every one of the hundreds of decisions has to be as considered and accurate as possible.

After only a few moments we are called to the firing line for the 3 minute preparation period. The first 4 firers move forward, joined shortly afterwards by the 2nd firers positioned on the other side of their respective coaches. When the targets appear we get the first indication of today’s sight picture. With some light cloud cover the aiming circles on the targets are visible, so the option is there to use either a small foresight aperture or to open wider to frame the target. The concave shape of the targets, perhaps exacerbated by a recent soaking, results in the left of the target being significantly brighter than the right hand side, as the sun moves just past the 3 o’clock position looking down range. The moderate to fresh wind comes over the left shoulder from between 7.30 and 8 o’clock, a direction hoped for by our coaches in the expectation that the terrain to the left will provide more varied and challenging conditions, to make the most of our well practised coaching drills. The temperature is a pleasant 20 Deg. C, the air dry and the moderate to fresh breeze ensures comfort even in sweatshirt and heavy shooting jacket. Overall, as pleasant a day as we have experienced over the past 3 weeks on the southern shores of Lake Erie.

The match commences at 0915, once again a little later than the advertised time of 0900. Our firers double up as plotters, clearing the point after completing their string of 15 shots, then returning to plot for their coaches and fellow firers. As the first firers finish, having proved to themselves that they have not lost their skills overnight, and that the pressure of the occasion has not been detrimental to their performance, there is a noticeable easing of tension.

As the last of the 16 firers are about to commence, the tannoy bursts into life again, “Cease-fire, cease-fire, boat in the danger area”, followed 6 minutes later by, “we have been placed back in a hot status – you may load and fire when your target appears”. An additional non-convertible sighter is made available to those that wish it. The USA terminology on the firing point is also a little different; while our coaches instruct our firers to “go on”, they call “knock it down” or “send it”. The former presumably recognising that the target “falls when hit” when the target puller detects the shot; the latter may conjure up a bizarre vision of the bullet being put in an envelope and posted to the butts? I digress…..

So, after an hour at 800 yards and with 40 minutes to spare the last shot goes down range for GB. We have a marginal and insignificant lead of one V bull over the USA; however the psychological benefit of winning the first range is significant. Three teams, GB, USA and Australia are just one point off (1199 ex 1200), followed by South Africa, Canada and New Zealand on 6, 8, and 12 off respectively. The final 2 teams are Germany and West Indies on 26 and 43 off respectively.

We commence again at 900 yards at 1105. This time the wind coaches are being more cautious. There are significantly more waits and stops, and the firers struggle more to find a steady rhythm; altogether a more tiring range for all concerned. The wind is also up, from a moderate breeze at 800 yards to a fresh, gusting strong wind at 900 yards. Subtle changes in angle are also present but the mean direction is unchanged. An examination of the wind plots indicate a total wind spread in the order of just over 2 minutes of angle, i.e. the width of the Bulls-eye; Camp Perry is living up to its reputation for deceptively steady winds – so far. At the end of this range, GB has a marginally increased lead with 8 off, with the Aussies 13 off, USA 20 off, South Africa 33 off (possibly credited with a miss), Canada 39 off, New Zealand 43 off, Germany 112 off and West Indies 118 off. The field is spreading out.

As we start the final range of the day the wind has freshened further, the sky is clear and the temperature on the firing point has risen to the high 20’s in the shade (not that there is any shade on the mound!). The conditions are among the most challenging experienced over the past 2 weeks, with the wind bracket varying between 5 and 9 minutes of angle (greater than the distance from centre to edge of the 6ft square targets. More stops and waits and a slower shoot than at 900 yards. After 70 of the allocated 90 minutes have passed, our final firers have just started. The tannoy bursts into life….”Cease fire, cease fire, Eagle in the danger area, unload….”. The presence of a protected American Bald Eagle is a compulsory stop – another “first” in your scribe’s 50 odd years of full-bore shooting! Twenty minutes later we are off again, only to stop once more for a boat in the danger area. This time it is only a brief interruption and the final 10 minutes of the match are soon completed. The 5 coaches and final firers retire looking suitably fatigued. The strain of the past 8 hours also tells on the captain and support team; it is additionally frustrating to watch without any direct control over events.

As the results come in, and subject to confirmation, GB has increased its lead to 30 points with 49 points off. Points dropped by the other teams are: USA -79, South Africa -88 (with, I understand, a miss at both 900 and 1000 yards), Australia -91, New Zealand -115, Canada -174, West Indies -302, Germany -305.

We have enjoyed the generous support of members of the GB Under-21, Under-25 and Veteran’s teams; this has been invaluable in allowing our team to concentrate on the main task and has contributed significantly to today’s sound performance.

It has been a good day, confidence is high, and your scribe looks forward to handing over reporting duties tomorrow, to enjoy some light reading, rather than writing, between 3 relaxing and enjoyable ranges on this second and final day.

The scene is set…