Black Powder Voodoo

Shooting Slow Moving Bullets At
Long Range Requires A Bit Of Magic

By Shari LeGate

The sport du jour right now is long-range precision shooting. I’m a short-range shooter, 25 to 50 yards with a shotgun or pistol and about 200 yards with a rifle. The guys able to shoot 800 to 1,000 yards intrigue me and I have a strong admiration for the sport. Their ability to judge distance, read the wind, understand heat waves, calculate elevation, etc. There’s a science to long-range precision shooting and it takes years to master.

Recently though, I’ve seen disagreement with the opinion on the time it takes to learn the science due to modern technology. You still need a good gun and a good load, but new technology and new optics tell you everything you need to know to make the shot, and take all the guesswork out of it. The only thing the shooter has to do is pull the trigger. With all the widgets available today, the science of the long-range precision shooting sports are losing the mystique they used to have, except in one event: the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match in Forsyth, Montana. It still holds to the ideal, it’s the shooter who makes the shot, not the widget.

Started in 1991 by Al Lee and Earnie Cornett, after seeing the movie Quigley Down Under, the very first “Quigley”—as it is affectionately known—boasted 29 entries. Now in its 26th year, the Quigley is defying shooting sports competition statistics with participation. When most other shooting competitions are showing a decrease in participation, the 2016 Quigley Match blew away their previous attendance records with 697 shooters from 37 states and four foreign countries.

Any passionate shooter is acquainted with this movie, starring Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley, who using his .45-110 1874 Sharps rifle with double-set triggers, Vernier peep sight and globe front sight took care of the bad guys and won the girl with a panache we all wish we had. It’s a great movie and I never tire of watching those incredible long shots Quigley made look easy. But that’s Hollywood and as with everything in Hollywood, creative license rules. Which is why the Quigley Buffalo Rifle match is so exceptional. On the buffalo plains of Montana, there is no creative license, just plain, sheer unadulterated shooting skill.

The black powder cartridge match is shot over 2 days and weather is the primary factor. The Montana winds and dust are legendary, blowing in all directions. Reading the wind is the biggest challenge when you’re shooting targets out at 350 to 805 yards through an iron sight from a shooting line peppered with puffs of white smoke.

Rifles are chambered in .375 or larger, lever action or single shot. Only cast bullets are used and you can’t change rifles once the first shot is fired. Iron sights only and even though there is a division for shooting with optics, this is not what the Quigley is about.

This match brings shooters whose passion for long-range precision shooting using only their experience and wits as their “widget.” It’s a simple shoot with simple rules. In fact, there’s only two. Rule No. 1: Have fun. Rule No. 2: Be safe following Rule No. 1.

Winner Dave Gullo is all smiles showing off his 2017 Championship plaque.
He won against 697 shooters from 37 states and four foreign countries.

The shooting line is peppered with white smoke. Combined with the wind, it
can makes things a little tough to see. Photo: Al Kajin

There is a list of procedures though. Grouped into squads of six and attended by a range officer and scorekeeper, participants shoot at 6 steel gong targets spread out over a variety of distances taking 8 shots at each target for a total of 48 shots. The first five are shot from a sitting position using cross sticks.

Target 1, the buffalo silhouette is the farthest at 805 yards and is a life-size 5×7 feet. From there, targets move in closer. Target 2 is a 48-inch octagon gong at 600 yards; Target 3, a 28×32-inch rectangle is at 530 yards; Target 4, the 24-inch Diamond positioned at 405 yards and the last cross-stick target is another rectangle 22×28 inches at 417 yards.

Target 6 is considered the most difficult, even though it’s much closer at 350 yards. Shaped like a bucket, it’s 28 inches wide at the top, 22 inches wide at the bottom and 32 inches high, but it’s shot off-hand. Imagine taking eight shots at a target with a rifle averaging about 12 pounds, using iron sights, using only your experience to read the wind and hit something 350 yards away.

And according to the procedures, there’s one more thing. When you’re on the line and your name is called, be ready to take the shot. It’s clearly stated, “Do not ‘wait for your conditions.’ Variable conditions from shot to shot are part of the challenge of the Quigley.” Whether you like the conditions or not, it’s time to pull the trigger.

All targets are scored as a hit or a miss. If the scorekeeper hears a gong, it’s scored as a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s a direct hit, a ricochet hit or a hit on the frame. If it goes “gong” it’s a hit. A “48” is a perfect score and in its 26-year history, there’s never been a perfect score.

The appeal of the Quigley falls on many different levels. First and foremost it’s being on the eastern Montana plains where buffalo once roamed in the millions. The nostalgia of the event is evidenced in the attire of the competitors and the guns they shoot. But what stands out the most is how well the match is run and how well everyone is treated. Attended by well-known shooters and amateurs, for some attendees, it’s their once-a-year family vacation. But one thing they all have in common, is passion and excitement for shooting the long-range black powder cartridge.

Dave Gullo is one of those well-known shooters, winning over 30 National, State and Regional championships including 6 World Championships in black powder cartridge. A humble man, when it comes to talking about his shooting career, the first time Gullo shot the Quigley was in 2008 finishing 2nd. Shooting every year since then, he’s finished in the top 10 six times. Now he can add one more thing to his list of accomplishments: 2017 Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match Champion.

Shooting a Ballard rifle with a Badger barrel he had built in 1999, it was the first time Gullo shot the gun in competition. “I barely shot it a few times and I don’t normally do that,” Gullo explained. “Usually I try out a gun a few times before taking it to a competition, but the targets here are pretty big and a hit is a hit. The Ballard rifle holds better off-hand for me. I’m not known for being a high end off-hand shooter and this gun just holds well for me.”

Dave Gullo’s No. 7 Ballard rifle has a Badger barrel in .45-90. He shot ammunition
at this match loaded for a different gun.

The buffalo target sits 805 yards away and is the farthest target in the Quigley Match.
There are no extra points for a center hit. All you have to do is ring the “gong.”
Photo: Al Kajin

Having the same coach and spotter for 15 years also helps. Gullo and his shooting partner John Venhouse know each other’s shooting nuances and trust each other’s wind and elevation reading ability. “What we do is get an idea,” said Gullo. “If we are shooting under a similar wind at 400 yards and we have 10 minutes of windage on, when we get to the 800-yard target, we know it’ll be roughly twice that—20 minutes of windage or more.”

The first day of the match, Saturday, saw winds of 20 mph and with no sighter shots permitted, all you can do is rely on your experience and your spotter. Starting on Target 5, shooting off of cross sticks, Gullo scored 7 out of 8 hits. But the next target was the off-hand target at 350 yards. Gullo hit it 6 out of 8 times. The wind helped, he said. “I hit 6 off-hand targets with 9 minutes of windage at 350 yards and last year I didn’t hit any. I figured out where to hold and just let the wind push the bullet into the target.” Finishing the first day on the farthest target, the buffalo at 805 yards, his first shot passed right by its nose. Making the adjustment, the next 7 were in the center. On Sunday, the winds died down to 6 or 7 mph in the morning, increasing up to 15 mph by the afternoon. Gullo won the event by 5 shots, scoring 20 hits the first day and 23 the second day.

So, with all the analyzing, evaluating and dissecting going on, is there a science to the game? Not according to Gullo. “There’s no science to it. I think there’s a bit of voodoo in it. We’re shooting a big lead slug that’s got at least a 40-foot mid-range trajectory going out to 1,000 yards, that takes about 3-1/2 seconds to get there. You can have a good barrel, good bullets, good casting techniques and find several loads that work well and you can read conditions, but after you pull the trigger, you’re done. Those bullets get moved around with thermal updrafts and downdrafts and everything else out there. I think it’s all voodoo.”

Is it science or is it voodoo? They may be one and the same. Either way, for the Quigley shooters, there’s a devotion to the heritage of a time long past and an affection for a gun no longer used. Not all long-range shooters have the panache of a Matthew Quigley, but they all certainly have his passion. Dave Gullo is one of those shooters who has both.

Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match
Forsyth Rifle & Pistol Club
Match Director: Dave Gamble
P.O. Box 1398
Forsyth, MT 59327
(406) 351-1265

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