Editor’s Note: Matt here, I want to thank Erik for putting this together. He contacted me some time ago to ask if I was willing to share up his thoughts on a recent event he participated in. So, thanks Erik!
About a year ago, I had the eye-opening experience of watching a rimfire match competitor so unwell that he could barely stand up without assistance. Rimfire steel requires exactly no movement and this guy, despite his infirmity, could still shoot really fast and scored very well even though he had to rest between five-shot strings.
That got me thinking about how compartmentalized our opportunities often are. You can go to a shooting match that might require the occasional burst of speed, or you can go to a race or event that tests your fitness, but it’s really hard to find something that lets you do both. That’s in part because of the practicalities of organizing events involving lots of movement, but it’s also because there is so little overlap between the worlds of endurance sports and shooting sports.
I started looking for something that would challenge me, and discovered biathlon.
We are all familiar with the Nordic biathlon, which involves skiing and shooting rimfire rifles. It’s an awesome sport but I live in the American South, so that’s out. This is a different type of biathlon—something more like a cross between a two-gun match and an obstacle race.
There are a number of biathlon events, but Texas and Oklahoma seem to be the heartland. The original biathlon, and still the most revered of these events, is the Pecos Run and Gun that is held every fall in the wilds of West Texas. Participation is limited. It’s hard to get a ticket, it’s hard to get there, and the course itself is said to be brutal.
Getting Started with Biathlon
I decided to start with something a little more accessible than Pecos, so I signed up for the Waco Tactical Fitness Biathlon, held in Crawford, Texas.
As I understand it Waco began with a group of Appleseed instructors who wanted to develop an event that had Appleseed’s emphasis on marksmanship, but with a more “realistic” physical demands and shooting situations. You must run or walk with all your gear over a cross-country course that takes you into a river, through a culvert, over an eight-foot wall, up a rope, down a zip line, and across a set of monkey bars (terrifyingly far from the ground).
Scattered across the course are shooting stages involving everything from shooting a handgun over a car while holding a baby (a weighted doll) to 500-yard rifle shots. They never tell you the ranges, you have to figure it out yourself on difficult to see steel targets.
The event takes place over a weekend with a 10k course on Saturday and a 5k option held on Sunday.
Biathlon Rules and Equipment
If you’re familiar with USPSA, IDPA or three gun, the first thing that you notice in biathlon is how few rules there are. There are no age groups, no major and minor classifications, no classification based whether you can use iron sights, optics, bipods, range finders or whatever.
Competitors only need a centerfire handgun in at least 9mm and centerfire rifle and some means of carrying all their stuff safely. If, for some reason, you want to shoot a caliber larger than .30 you will have to ask to ask, but only because they don’t want people tearing up their steel targets.
Aside from that, the rules are that you must carry all your firearms, ammo and water for the entire course. If you want to bring a bipod, you can, but you have to carry it with you the whole way.
If you want to carry three times the recommended round count, or half of it, you can. If you run out of ammo, though, you DNF any remaining stages.
Believe me when I say this does happen.
During the safety briefing they told us that their main request was that we not do anything that forces them to make new rules. And if you shoot a cow, you have to pay for it.
Your overall score is determined by a combination of your run time and shooting time. This creates some interesting trade-offs for competitors.
For example, you would probably score better on the long-distance rifle stages if you have a heavy barreled rifle, a bipod, and a powerful scope with a good ranging reticle. On the other hand, you will probably run slower. A simple red dot is easier to carry and quicker on the shorter stages, but trying to pick out a steel target that’s 300+ yards away and obscured by grass will be much more difficult.
Because these events include shots from 10 yards to 500 yards, and require that you actually move with your gear, the rules force you make compromises. They also help you discern the weakness in your equipment, your fitness, and your skills in a way that no other event does.
Plan for the Unexpected
At my first biathlon in Waco, the pistol grip on my rifle came loose. I had used that rifle for years without any issues. In fact, I had just put it through an Appleseed Known Distance event.
Despite that, the screw holding the grip in place started to back out on the final stage. That caused the only double feeds I have ever experienced with any of my rifles. What I realized was that despite years of shooting and competition I had never really exposed my equipment to hard use.
There is a big difference between shooting a lot in the relatively controlled circumstances USPSA or Appleseed and the real stresses to which biathlon exposes your equipment.
In a Biathlon your gear gets wet, dusty, muddy, banged around, and shoved through barricades. It also has interacts with lots of other equipment. You’ll to find out how your load bearing equipment interferes with your rifle sling, how easily your rifle sling gets caught on your holster, or how hard it can be to get a rifle that is slung on your back around to the front.
You also get to find out how that chest rig or belt that’s so comfortable at the range feels after you’ve run 6 miles in it. You might also learn, as I did, why mil-spec charging handles are narrow and rounded rather than wide and pointy like their more expensive aftermarket ambidextrous competitors.
Learn from Others
One of the more interesting aspects of this is the the wide variety of approaches to equipment that people take. I’ve seen people with ultralight gear and specialized biathlon slings. I have seen at least one person haul a Garand through the event. His comment afterwards was that it worked ok on the shooting stages, but the rifle was so long that it was hard to get over some of the obstacles.
I have seen high-end Nightforce scopes, ACOGs, and people using scope mounts that cost more than my rifle. I have also seen a guy clean the long-range stage at the Oklahoma Run and Gun with a $50 Sightmark red dot and a no name magnifier that he swore he bought for $20 on Amazon.
Some people do it in running shorts and running shoes, others in BDUs and boots. I have seen at least one person compete in steel plates in July in Oklahoma, just because he wanted to see what it’s like.
That type of experimentation fits the spirit of the events. Both the running and the shooting are timed, but without much in the way of precision.
At some events the shooting is timed with a stop watch rather than shot timer. At all of them, when you are done you go to a desk and tell the person there that you are done and they look at a clock and write down the time. Despite the casualness of the timing, I have never seen anyone make a fuss about their times or scores (though I don’t doubt it has happened).
That’s because most people are there to test themselves and their equipment, rather than going out and buying equipment tailored to the event and then trying to game the results. The organizers at Waco maintain that their event is designed to separate the people who spend their money on equipment from the people who spend their money on ammunition and training.
Given Matt’s emphasis on both fitness and shooting skills, I suspect that many of the readers here have contemplated signing up for an event like this. I have only done two of these, so I don’t claim to be an expert in biathlon. That said, if you want to give it a try, I have some advice.
First make sure you are reasonably competent and safe with firearms. If you have never competed before in USPSA, IDPA, or 2- or 3-Gun, I would do that a couple of times first. Biathlon events involve lots of unsupervised gun handling and you want to be sure that you follow gun safety rules instinctively.
Second, don’t buy anything before your first event. If you have to carry ammo in a backpack and reload mags as you go, I’d do that rather than spend money on equipment that you think you might need. I have never seen anyone criticize or belittle anyone else’s equipment choices. Once you have an event under your belt you can start to refine your equipment list.
Third, make sure you are in reasonably good shape. You don’t have to be super fit, at Waco they actually ask when you sign up whether you plan to run, run/walk, or walk, but the courses are long, isolated and sometimes hot. Lots of people walk the whole course, so don’t feel like you have to be fit enough to run 10k with a load to participate.
However, if you can’t walk three to six miles with some weight on you, biathlon may not be for you–yet. If you want to prepare, I’d say a mix of running, rucking and calisthenics (pull-ups in particular) are probably better preparation than just running.
If you can’t get over the wall or the monkey bars you take a 15-minute penalty, so upper body and core strength matter. I find that the first couple of miles feel like rucking, but as you expend ammunition and water, your pace picks up and it starts to feel more like a run.
I encourage you all to give it try. I enjoyed Waco so much that I signed up for the Ok Run and Gun right after I got home. I enjoyed that so much that I signed up to do both the 10k and the 5K at Waco this fall and I plan to go back to Oklahoma this January.
Someday I will get organized enough to get to Pecos. I hope to see you out on the course sometime.