Exclusive Web Extra: Thunder Ranch Hart Class

High Angle Rifle
Training At 5,000!

It was 22 degrees and, with the wind chill, more like 10. The snow was blowing hard, with gusts to 30 mph and it was day two of the 4-day HART class. Suzi had never done anything like this before, so it was all new — and the extreme weather made things, well … more interesting.

Suzi’s rifle was covered with ice and snow, and she had just made a first-shot hit at 700 yards on a 12×24″ steel plate with her Remington 700 LTR .308. She was near frozen, fingers numb, half snow-blinded due to the icy/sleety wind-driven mess, but she looked up at me with a big grin, what little of her face I could see past her snow gear was red from wind-burn and cold, but her eyes were bright.

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Girls Can Shoot

Suzi was using a bone-stock Remington (20″ fluted barrel, 1:12″ twist), with the only mods being a conversion to removable box magazine (Accuracy Intl. models) and a larger bolt knob, by George Gardner of G.A. Precision near us here in Missouri. Her scope was a Leupold Mark 4 6.5-20X50mm with their “Tactical Milling” reticle, allowing easy doping and her ammo was Federal Premium 168-gr. Gold Medal Match. See any trends there? All the stuff was first-class, and there are reasons for it to be.

The weather was really putting the eight students — under the tutelage of Clint Smith — through the grinder. At each break extra sweaters and dry gloves were going on, even though most had on snowsuits. There was also much foot stamping and clustering around a couple of propane heaters in the range shack.

But then it was back onto the line, with more testing, training and pushing their guns, ammo and themselves in this extremely trying class. As Suzi said, “This ain’t for wimps!” I was along to take pictures, play spotter, and try to get in a good visit with Clint and Heidi. Suzi was there to work, and she and her classmates did just that over those four trying days.

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Here’s what many of the students were dealing with most of the time —
snow-clouded targets and fuzzy scopes. This is a 400-yard target through a spotting scope

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The 400-yard target through a spotting scope in a moment of sunshine!
Note the “Mil-Dots” on the field of view to help spotters guide shooters.

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A 1″ square painted onto cardboard was the sighting-in point at 100 yards
and was used to determine elevation adjustments from that distance out.

The Course

Clint and Heidi designed this High Angle course for a group of Seals who came to class in August of 2005. The class worked, so they simply added it to their line up.

As it says on the Thunder Ranch website:

The High Angle Rifle Training class is a progression of the Thunder Ranch mid-range rifle course, which is derived from the original TR High Angle Rifle School. Ranges will be from 100 to 1,200+/- yards, with both flat range and mountainous higher-elevated platforms. Participants need to be graduates of Thunder Ranch Mid-Range or Precision Rifle courses. You must be capable of personal mobility to climb up and down very broken ground while transporting all personal equipment on your person with free hands for climbing. Good success has been achieved in the past with clients using .308 caliber rifles; and any high-velocity rifles (+/- 3,000 fps) will be required to shoot paper on the flat steel range out to three hundred for safety. All other targets and all high angle targets have no velocity issues and client’s rifles will be used on all additional targeting. This class is for .30 caliber or like/similar calibers. This is not a .50 BMG format.

Ammunition Requirements: 500 rounds regular ammo: No steel core or tracer ammo please. 
We strongly suggest good quality ammunition like Federal Match, etc. PLEASE chamber-check all ammo before coming to class, and make sure it works in all rifle magazines, internal or external.

A solid rifle is required with strong bases and scope rings. A good uncomplicated scope with external adjustment knobs will provide the best results during the class. Mil-dot or minute-of-angle adjustable scopes are best with power ranging from 3-4X to 12-16X or higher power as the shooter might require. Additional equipment could be a spotting scope or binoculars, a laser range finder, sling, bipod and a pack that will carry your rifle. Clothing suitable to weather above the 5,000-foot elevation and the time of the year is needed.

The smallest/lightest equipment that serves its intended function will be best. A note of caution: If you bring it, equipment wise, you’ll be carrying it — up and down the course of fire.”

Basically, this class teaches you how to run your rifle of choice in varying situations, involving long-range shooting, including shooting from high angles into a deep canyon and across canyons. It teaches you how to run and take care of your equipment, manipulate and understand the tactical scope, understanding windage, minute-of-angle, Mil-Dots, how to work with a spotter and understand external and terminal ballistics. All this really helps you to sort out your equipment — good and bad.

What you bring is put to hard use in the real world and everyone in Suzi’s class soon found out what was working and what wasn’t. “Kit” was changed almost constantly as people tried different solutions to problems regarding carrying equipment, spare ammo, clothing, optics, headgear, boots and about everything else. We even had a $3,500 scope fail when the insides froze solid, locking adjustments up.

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Most shooters used Federal Match ammo.

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Suzi’s dope card and notebook from the class. Note the purple pages.
Who says you can’t have fun when you keep your notes?

Gun Stuff

Everyone used bolt guns in Suzi’s class, with one student beginning with an AR-type rifle in .308 but changing to a bolt-action early on the first day. Everyone was using the .308 but one student, who was using the .260. He was forced to shoot on paper out to about 400 yards, due to the high velocity causing dangerous splatter on steel if shot any closer. During the week, I honestly didn’t see any advantage of the .260. As a matter of fact, his ejector blew out on his rifle due to the high pressure. Lessons learned?

The .308 bolt guns all ran fine. There was one Accuracy International, one Savage and as I recall, the rest were Remington 700 models with a custom rifle or two mixed in, based on the Remington. Ammo ran the gamut from factory Federal to handloads of various weights, with the 168- and 175-grain loads being the norm. Students shot about 800 rounds during the four days. A good sling was required and, perhaps more importantly, a good rifle pack of some kind to tote everything.

The heavy snow and generally bad weather most of the time made it hard on the gear, and the shooters learned to live out of their packs. Adding and removing clothing as the weather changed, carrying food, water, spare equipment like binocs or laser range finders, cameras and dry socks! There were times on the high ridge when I felt like I was on a long-range patrol of some kind. Maybe that’s the idea?

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Clint went step by step, using the rare moments of sunlight to his advantage.
Here he explains about “holding” techniques on the target and terminology
the spotter will be using.

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Students used props on the flat range to learn different shooting positions.
Then put what they learned to good use in the field. Here Suzi practices on
the range, then applies essentially the same position shooting in the field.

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The flat range where students spend day one and two getting things sorted out,
rifles zeroed and equipment up to speed. If it looks cold, windy and ugly to you
it’s because it was. Can you say 20 degrees?

What’d We Learn?

A couple of years prior to this class, we had gone to Namibia on a 10-day plains-game safari. Suzi was the hunter and I was along to supply a pretty face and take pictures. Her rifle was a custom Winchester Model 70 in .30-06 and she used Barnes 180-gr. Triple Shocks as loaded by Federal. The rifle is stunningly accurate, and can deliver .35″ at 100 yards if you behave.

Prior to the hunt, I spent some time with Suzi working the rifle and shooting out to 100. We didn’t have access to anything further. Once in Nambia though, we realized the ranges were going to be long, with the average shot at about 250 to 350 yards. I had made up a dope card for that rifle and load and using it, and a Leica Rangemaster 1200, Suzi was able to hit out to 640 yards! She had no prior experience shooting at those distances, but listened to the holdover and paid attention to trigger control.

Yet, she realized she needed specific training for that kind of shooting, as she still struggled with trigger control at times and needed a more solid understanding of windage, ranging, trigger control and manipulation. When Clint offered the HART class, we jumped at it.

The class showed us the importance of good equipment, especially solid optics. The ability to “zero” the scope at 100 with your load of choice, then to use the turrets to adjust the point of impact depending upon the range so you can hold directly on the target is critical. That avoids what Suzi had been doing in Africa — literally holding the crosshairs “over” the animal, sometimes several feet. That’s a lot of guessing and isn’t the best way at all.

Additionally, a reliable, high-quality rifle is the backbone of the course, and critical to the concept of long-range/high-angle shooting. “Good enough” doesn’t cut it when it’s 10 degrees, the wind is blowing, you can hardly see the target and you’re frozen. We actually had rifles lock-up due to the fact the bolts were frozen in place after one break the class took to get warm. One student had to hold his rifle in front of a propane heater to melt the ice to free the bolt.

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Suzi’s modified sitting position put her in a comfy position to engage 400-to
800-yard targets. That short barrel on her Remington 700 LTR didn’t seem
to faze anything and it kept right up to speed with the fancier rifles in the class.

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The line-up on day one. Heidi Smith (first in line) and Suzi partnered-up, both shooting .308s.

The Concept

Day one you spend a couple of hours in the classroom while Clint goes over the basics of what’s going to be covered, how the equipment is supposed to function and some tips and techniques he will be teaching on the ranges. Then the class adjourns to the static rifle range that goes out to 700 yards. Once settled onto the berm, sighting-in targets are set up at 100 and everyone zeros. There are steel targets out to 700 yards, and all are 12×24″.

One hundred yards is the critical range. Once the scope and rifle are zeroed for 100, using dope that is already known for various loads, a shooter can then simply adjust the top turret of the scope as distances change, moving the crosshairs to keep a center aiming point for the shooter. It’s done in minutes so while there is zero minutes at 100 yards, there may be 4.8 minutes of up — or a certain number of clicks of the top turret — for 300 yards. This all depends upon your load and your scope. But once zero’d for 100, shooters then tested how their particular rifles, with their loads on this day shot out to various ranges. They used the dope card supplied to them by Clint as a basic reference point (“X” number of clicks to zero at “X” range), but then honed the actual number of clicks and made the entry in their shooter’s log book. They could then rely on this real time info from their book for shooting at distances as the days passed.

It works like this. A spotter told each shooter what to dial in for each range and, if there was wind, how much to hold off to the side to accommodate for wind moving the bullet’s impact at the range they were shooting.
The scopes have “lines” or Mil-dots on either side of the center of the cross hairs. If the shooter aligns the crosshairs on the target then holds-off to the right or left the number of dots or lines the spotter calls, they shoot to see where the hit is. The spotter can then make an adjustment like “Okay, now hold left, two mils” and can walk the shooter onto the target. You don’t use the turret knob to change windage, only the top knob for elevation.

A good spotter can put a shooter right onto a target on the first shot if he can read the wind and distance well. By day three and four, with Thunder Ranch’s Randy DeHay or Clint Smith spotting, most shooters were often on target on the first shot out to close to 1,000 yards. I saw it with my own eyes.

Shooters continued this practice out to the 700-yard steel on the flat range through day one and day two. I watched them get better and better at reading the wind, operating their equipment and learning to fight the weather. By day two, there was essentially a gale blowing, with seriously freezing temps, gusty wind, snow and ice. Yet, Clint kept the class shooting. And frankly, at the end of day two, once everyone had thawed out, there were big smiles all around as everyone realized what they had accomplished.

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Down in that canyon, about 800 yards away are a few steel plates shooters
had to find and engage — and they did. Understanding angles and distances
was all part of the deal.

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Ha! During one break to get warm, when the class returned they had found the
snow had virtually buried their gear at their shooting positions on the flat range.
Here a Savage shows why stainless steel might be a good idea.

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On day two on the flat range, Clint led the class out onto the range to engage
steel from unknown ranges and from field positions. The snow just made
things more interesting.

The Terrain

Once the “doping” and equipment got more or less sorted out, the move to the “high angle” portion of the class began. The class kitted-up with their gear then hiked to the top of the ridge. Elevations of around 5,000′ and more meant some slow climbing over rocks and small cliffs, with everyone humping their packs, rifles, ammo and supplies.

Once on top, Clint had a series of pre-selected spots to shoot from, onto targets ranging from 400 yards out to 1,200, with many deep into canyons or across the wind-swept gorge to the opposite hill. Each position had lessons to teach, and each shooter had to adapt their shooting positions and equipment to meet the demands of the particular position and the targets they needed to engage.

From prone to sitting, to modified standing/leaning positions, each shooter quickly learned to take advantage of every opportunity to find the best rest possible in the situation at hand. At each position, either Clint or Randy acted as spotter, helping shooters to locate the target, apply the correct “dope” for their rifles, then help them to make the best hits possible.

Keep in mind, the same steel target size was used, regardless of range. The 12×24″ plate is about the size of an average man’s torso, so those who were hitting with a first shot out to 800 and 1,000 yards would have been on target if the problem had been an enemy soldier or piece of equipment that needed to be destroyed. It was enlightening and gave us all insight into what our snipers are doing overseas.

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One nice thing about deep snow is it makes a handy rifle holder.
Here an Accuracy Intl. rifle used by one student stays dry … at least for now.

On Top

The weather continued to play a vital role in the learning experience as it kept changing almost minute by minute. Now and again the sun would shine blazingly, allowing easy target acquisition and the shooter and spotter could sometimes easily see the hits. Then five minutes later, the wind would kick up, snow would begin to fall and suddenly visibility was severely restricted. At times on the flat range, shooters were limited to 400 yards since targets further out were simply invisible. Check out some of the pictures to appreciate that!

Still, time and time again, with good spotting and careful rifle and trigger work, I watched shooters be on target on their first shot at hundreds of yards. Often this was in conditions where I needed to brace on a rock to steady my binoculars; I could barely make out a target through the snow and wind. I’d hear the spotter quietly say, “Give me 12 clicks up and four mils left” and I’d watch the shooter make the adjustments, carefully settle in and press. After the shot, if you listened carefully, you could hear the soft “clang” of the steel from hundreds of yards away. It was the damndest thing I’d ever watched.

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During a short break in the weather, Suzi proves even “girls” like to
shoot rifles. And some of ‘em are pretty darn good at it. She and Heidi
would not be two ladies anyone would want to tangle with!

But Why?

For anyone who appreciates the joys of an accurate rifle, likes to challenge themselves, and who finds the sublime satisfaction of “pointing their finger and smiting at a great distance” — this sort of long-range shooting is without peer. Clint’s modest teaching methods invite a student to excel, and he maintains a certain level of excellence his students strive to meet. Simply put, he expects them to do as well as they can and they invariably try. It’s almost unique to his method and has a great deal to do with the person he is, rather than the mechanics of what he teaches.

I think all of the shooters were surprised by their learned ability by the end of the class. All had some degree of experience beforehand, and this is not a class for first-time rifle shooters. As a matter of fact, take note you have to complete the Mid-Range or Precision Rifle courses to take the HART course. You need to be familiar with your rifle, your equipment and the basic tenants of long-range shooting. Above all, you have to have the confidence to challenge yourself, and be willing to make the investment in a top-quality rifle, scope and related gear. This is not the time for cheap, Wal-Mart “package” deer rifle/scope combos and gun-show reloads. But keep in mind, once you make the investments, they are things you’ll probably keep the rest of your life to enjoy.

We’ve only given a broad overview of what a class like this entails and you need to do more research on your own. Read books about accurate rifles, find reputable online forums where people who actually do long-range shooting meet to compare notes (and be wary of the “posers”!), find people at a local range who understand what we’re talking about and most importantly, feel free to call Thunder Ranch to ask Clint or Heidi questions. They’re always ready to answer.

If success could be counted in enthusiasm, everyone in Suzi’s class was floating on air afterward — in spite of having to hump their packs and rifles over the past four, cold, stormy days. I could see that glint in Suzi’s eyes as we stowed her gear that final day. There was a new level of self-confidence, and I pitied any miscreant wildebeasts on our next African trip who think just because they’re 500 yards away they are safe! “I don’t think so …” smiled Suzi. *

Special Note: One of the original Seals in that first class, Adam Brown, was killed in the line of duty. There is a fund you can find out about on the Thunder Ranch website to donate money to Adam’s wife and two small kids, if you’d like to help out. I know Clint and Heidi would appreciate it.
Story By: Roy Huntington

For more info:

Remington LE

G.A. Precision
(816) 221-1844

Thunder Ranch
(541) 947-4104

Eberlestock – Rifle Pack
(877) 866-3047

One thought on “Exclusive Web Extra: Thunder Ranch Hart Class

  1. Andrew Blubaugh

    Been out to TR for the high angle class and it is a great venue for the class!

    Good article though one correction I would suggest…. This picture is lists the rifle as being a Accuracy International, it is not. The rifle is a Sako TRG.


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