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Introducing the Rifleman Pentathlon: A Game for Martial Marksmen

This article contains affiliate links.

Note: Image credit for the cover photo goes to Run-N-Gun Nation, who took it at a recent Tactical Biathlon match at the Sawmill Complex

I recently introduced the concept of aretê and agon. The former is an ancient Greek concept of excellence, typically demonstrated through contests (agon) of strength, skill, and combat. I’ve latched tightly to this concept and how it can help our community grow and become better citizens. To support that, I felt we needed some kind of standardized competition format that covers a range of important skills and attributes required of a martial citizen.

Yes, there are already many competition formats and organized bodies arranged around shooting sports. No, I don’t think any of them quite meet the intent I’m going for. So let’s set the foundation for why the Rifleman Pentathlon is different and necessary in a world of matches.

The Origin Story

My experience running a tactical biathlon, learning about the Tactical Games, and watching people’s experience in the myriad of Brutality matches has been educational. There is clearly demand for shooting competitions that combine physical fitness with marksmanship. There’s something primal about it, the gritty reality that maybe this is closer to the “real thing” than a pristine square range shooting high power or a high speed USPSA match. I particularly think the addition of team events is noteworthy, and shows some creative thinking going on.

In ancient Greek athletics, there were no team sports. Every competition was individual as a way to demonstrate one’s prowess in combat. The events themselves were directly lifted from warfare: javelin throwing, discus throwing, boxing, wrestling, pankration (essentially ancient MMA), and running were all part of it.

The ancient pentathlon was consistent. Every athlete knew what they were getting into when they signed up. They knew their skill level in each component, and also understood who their competition was likely to be and their capabilities.

The Missing Ingredient

Where I think modern competitions have erred is the very thing that makes them interesting: the unpredictability. You never really know what you’re going to face until you show up. At my recent race, for example, there was no stage briefing at all until you arrived at the stage to shoot it. The Tactical Games are somewhat similar in that they are like doing Crossfit workouts with shooting mixed in.

USPSA, PRS, and similar matches send out stage briefs ahead of time. Nearly every match has some different element to it than previous matches. This keeps things interesting for the competitors who show up consistently.

This is fun, of course, but it’s not ideal you’re the kind of person who wants to consistently work towards excellence and compare yourself to a known mark. You can’t set up a quick match some buddies and run through the stages, or approximations of them, and trust that it reflects how you’ll do at the real thing.

Contrast that against Olympic events which you could train for year round to the exact rules and conditions of the event.

So I asked myself a question: what would modern Greek games look like for everyday marksmen? What events could we pick that everyone knew would always be there, which meant they could train for them specifically. Furthermore, what events would have a passing carry over to success in a Scenario-X, training courses, and even other competition formats?

In short, what would be the best competition format to serve as the foundation for every level of shooter?

Objectives

I like the pentathlon format as the basis for our competition. The original Greek pentathlon consisted of five events: javelin, discus throwing, wrestling, long jump, and a foot race. The modern Olympic Pentathlon looks more like WWI military skills with horse jumping, fencing, swimming, running, and pistol shooting.

There’s another modern iteration known as Military Pentathlon that includes rifle shooting, obstacle courses, throwing, and a cross country run. This style has more relevance today, but it’s too complicated to set up without suitable facilities.

The Riflemen Pentathlon serves regular folks like you and I who have to train at our local ranges or at our homes. So what exactly are my qualifications for such an event?

  1. The competition should only require one type of firearm for the entire match
  2. Events should be accessible and competitive to everyone
  3. At least one event involves direct competition with someone else with shooting
  4. Running the events should be possible in a single day of competition
  5. The framework for events is flexible enough to allow for almost any outdoor range or facility
  6. The events should map to a core set of skills useful in armed conflict

The Riflemen Pentathlon should be accessible to all citizens regardless of where they live or what kind of equipment they use. A shooter from New York saddled with using a bolt action should still have the opportunity to be competitive against someone from a “free” state with an AR-15.

With these objectives in mind, let’s discuss the selected events.

Rifleman Pentathlon Events

Being a pentathlon, there are five events that make up the match:

  • Precision Marksmanship
  • Rifle Biathlon
  • Head-to-Head Challenge
  • The Medley
  • The Minuteman Dash

Let’s break down each event and how to execute it.


Precision Marksmanship

This is a pure test of marksmanship skill like classic High Power competition. There are two strings of fire, one for precision and one for rapid fire. You can run as many shooters on the line at the same time as you want- so long as you can maintain control of the line and have targets for each.

In the precision string, shooters may take any position they choose appropriate for the situation. This lets match directors incorporate terrain and obstacles into the course if they wish. Shooters have 10 minutes to fire 10 shots, and only 10 shots, for record at the target. 

Shooters begin standing behind the firing line with unloaded rifles grounded in front of them. Upon start they move to their rifles, load, get into position, and begin the string. No shooting aids other than slings are permitted. Bipods, bags, packs, shooting sticks, or anything else are out.

For the rapid fire string, shooters use a fresh target and have 60 seconds to fire 5 shots, reload, and fire another 5 shots. This particular string does bias the event in favor of easily-reloadable semi rifles, but it’s still doable even with a bolt gun.

Shooters may use any position they deem appropriate for the string, but they will start standing at the patrol ready position with loaded weapons.

The precision rifle event may take place at any distance, but the distance must be known and communicated to shooters ahead of time. Common examples might be 50, 100, 200, or 300 yards for standard 5.56 rifles. The distances may be different between the precision string and the rapid string.

Given the flexibility here, you could theoretically set this up for pistols, rimfire, 5.56, or even long range rifles.

The Rifle Biathlon

This event is closer to the Olympic Biathlon than the tactical variety. Whereas a tactical biathlon has you run a course and stop to shoot new stages periodically, the Olympic variety is a little more straightforward.

Olympic Biathlon shooter

The Olympic version takes place in the winter and involves skiing. Our version is on foot and requires three things: a running course, a shooting range with reactive targets, and a penalty area.

The running course is not a set distance, allowing for flexibility on the part of match directors, but for argument sake it should be approximately 400-800 meters. Shooters begin the event with all of their equipment according to their division and an unloaded rifle. On start, they first complete a lap of the running course. Shooters may run with the rifle however they choose. Carried in front, slung on the back, whatever.

After the lap, the shooter approaches the target range, loads their rifle, and begins firing. Shooters must place five shots on a target (or series of targets). The shooter may not leave the firing line until they make all five hits. I suggest reactive targets here for simplicity.

Once they’ve achieved five hits, the shooter unloads and show the weapon is clear to the line judge. Then they proceed to run another lap of the running course. It’s up to match directors to decide how many laps around the course and how many strings of fire they require. As a minimum, I would suggest at least 4 laps. This makes the complete course between 1 and 2 miles.

However, there is a catch. The shooter must make all five hits before they can proceed, but for every shot they take over the number of hits required, they must pay a penalty.

The Penalty Area

The penalty area is little more than a stretch approximately 25 yards long and adjacent to the main running course. One lap of the penalty area consists of running to a marker and back one time (50 yards total, in this case).

The shooter must make one lap of the penalty area for every missed shot during the previous string.

Example: let’s say someone finished a lap of the running course and had to make five hits from the kneeling position. They took seven shots to make their five hits. This shooter must unload/show clear, then run two laps of the penalty area before continuing on to another lap of the running course and shooting the next string.

The penalty area serves as a deterrent against needlessly rushing through the shooting string. It’s the great equalizer, so take advantage of it.

Variations

Match directors are free to mix this up however they wish. Every lap around the course may progress to a different position (i.e. standing -> kneeling -> sitting -> prone), the same position every time (i.e. prone -> prone -> prone), a different set of targets, different distances, more laps, or whatever you have access to for setup. The principle is that shooting is always done from one of the basic positions to reinforce the fundamentals, and always done after a period of physical exertion.

While my suggestion is a 25-yard out-and-back for the penalty area, match directors could us any number of physical tasks from burpees to sandbag carries and kettlebell snatches.

More than other events, the biathlon benefits from a maximum par time before competitors receive a DNF. It may not always be necessary, but in a large match with many squads, I can see this one getting backed up. Asking competitors to keep a stop watch for any wait time they have might be useful.

Head-to-Head Competition

The ancient games included plenty of combat sports like boxing and wrestling. We’ll forgo those in favor of another type of head-to-head competition against another shooter. For this event you need a range of any distance and a series of individually-marked reactive targets. I’m a big fan of what I’ve come to call the Simpson Drill for this, named for my friend John Simpson who first wrote about it. His version which calls for balloons of different colors.

Set up five balloons at varying and unknown distance. Balloons can be partially obscured by cover, low to the ground, or anywhere else the match director desires- as long as it’s consistent from heat to heat. Shooters are NOT allowed to view the course before they begin the heat.

Each heat should take 60 to 90 seconds, and begins with two shooters standing at the firing line in the patrol ready position. The RO shouts a unique identifying feature of a target (i.e. color) and the two shooters race to see who hits it first.

Shooters may use whatever position they wish each shot. Competitors earns a point for every target they destroy. All five targets should be destroyed, but the shooter wins the heat if they shoot three or more.

What’s the Point?

This is as if two hostile shooters are in a face off against one another and notice each other at the same time. Who gets the winning shot off first? It’s disconcerting to have the balloon in your sights only to have it vanish before your eyes without having pulled the trigger. Were it real life, you were too slow.

Winners of each heat automatically enter another bracket at the end of the day to determine the head-to-head champion. ROs are allowed to change the positioning of targets/balloons between each round of the championship.

Balloons are just a suggestion, of course, and you could use poppers or anything else that reacts to getting hit. Ideally, the target would quickly disappear so that the other shooter could not also make a hit on it immediately after.

Example of a sandbag carry event in a medley. Photo credit to the Tactical Games

The Medley – Wildcard Event

The Medley is a catch-all event allowing match directors some creativity. The Medley does not have to include shooting, but it certainly can. The only rule is that the event should include relevant skills and capabilities to a prepared marksman.

Examples of elements to consider:

  • Farmer’s carries with heavy implements
  • Heavy sandbag load over a bar or wall (i.e. highland drill)
  • Heavy sandbag bear hug carries
  • Rope climbs
  • Wall climbs
  • Sled drags
  • Dummy carries
  • First aid skills
  • Radio skills
  • Shelter construction

Use your imagination and string things together, make it a circuit, add in some shooting (especially moving targets) if you want and don’t mind the ammo count. As a preference, I think the medley should at least include a strength component since it isn’t tested anywhere else.

This is the one event competitors cannot specifically train for. The other four events in the pentathlon are relatively consistent with minor variation, this one can be completely different from match to match.

The Minuteman Dash – A Modern Hoplitodromos

In the ancient games, the hoplitodromos was the last event. It was a foot race with each runner carrying the shield and wearing the armor of a Greek Hoplite infantryman. This was in contrast to other races, which were performed in the nude. The estimated weight of equipment was between 12 and 30 lbs.

The Hoplitodromos, depicted by Tom Lovell, National Geographic October 1964

The hoplitodromos typically included a single lap around the stadium as quickly as possible. The distance was about 350 to 400 meters, but some events ran longer.

For our purposes, figure a baseline of about 400 meters. Runners begin at the starting line wearing their equipment and carrying an empty rifle. On start, it’s a all out race through a single lap of the course.

That’s it. That’s the event. May the best time win.

Divisions and Logistics

I don’t want to be too prescriptive here. For a bunch of friends doing the pentathlon between themselves, divisions probably don’t matter all that much. when it comes to organized competition, though, I understand the desire to separate out the field a little bit.

So here are my suggestions for Minuteman Pentathlon divisions. Try to keep divisions to a minimum based only on equipment, age, and sex. In general, the choice of division does not change how each competitor experiences the events (i.e. regardless of age or sex, you should be prepared to do the same thing as the young bucks). The only thing the division affects is who you’re competing against.

Division has no impact on the results of the head-to-head brackets.

When it come to age, the Masters division starts at 45 years old for both men and women. Beyond that, it divides to the equipment divisions.

For equipment, we delineate between defender, lightfighter, and armored divisions. The distinction determines what each competitor must have with them at the start of the day. Once the shooter selects a division for the pentathlon, they remain in that division for the entire match. It’s match director discretion if competitors must “top off” their supplies (i.e. water and ammunition) before each stage, or let those things naturally dwindle as the day goes on.

An important rule is that whatever equipment a competitor starts the day with is what they must use throghout the day. That means no changing optics depending on the stage, no swapping out slings from a loop sling to a biathlon sling, or anything like that. Stick to the intent of the match.

Defender Division

This is for the minimalist crowd. I liken it to the kind of person throwing on a battle belt on short notice to protect their home. At the start of the day, a competitor in the defender division must have equipment and a rifle that meets the following specifications:

  • A rifle that weighs between 6.0 and up to 8.0 lbs unloaded including any optics or accessories
  • Three lbs of ammunition appropriate to the weapon (i.e. three full 30-round magazines for the AR-15 or equivalent weight to a different platform)
  • First aid kit with a minimum of a pressure bandage and a TQ
  • Battle belt equipped to carry required equipment
  • Eye/ear protection
  • Clothing suitable for a race (i.e. trail running shoes, athletic shorts, etc.)

Lightfighter Division

In my opinion, the lightfighter division should be the bread and butter of competitors. It’s the closest thing to what most of imagine as a modern minuteman. At the start of the day, a competitor in the lightfighter division must have equipment and rifle that meets the following specifications:

  • A rifle that weighs between 7.0 and up to 12.0 lbs unloaded including any optics or accessories
  • Five lbs of ammunition appropriate to the weapon (i.e. five full 30 round magazines for an AR-15, or the equivalent weight for a different platform)
  • 1 qt of water in a full canteen (or equivalent)
  • First aid kit with a minimum of a pressure bandage and a TQ
  • Load carriage equipment appropriate to the loadout (i.e. battle belt, chest rig, LBE, etc.)
  • Eye/ear protection
  • Appropriate tactical clothing for the weather (i.e. boots, pants, soft hat)

Armored Division

The armored division is the heavy division, for those who wish to stretch things a little bit further. At the start of the day, a competitor in the heavy division must have equipment and rifle that meets the following specifications:
  • A rifle that weighs between 9.0 and up to 16.0 lbs unloaded including any optics or accessories
  • Nine lbs of ammunition appropriate to the rifle (approximately six full 20-round 308 magazines, or nine full 30-round AR-15 magazines)
  • 2 qt of water in two canteens (or equivalent)
  • Factory ballistic armor plates, front and back, weighing at least 15 lbs or an equivalent steel plate substitute
  • First aid kit with a minimum of a pressure bandage and a TQ
  • Load carriage equipment appropriate to the loadout (i.e. battle belt, chest rig, plate carrier, LBE, whatever)
  • Helmet (either ballistic or bump)
  • Eye/ear protection
  • Boots/appropriate footwear
  • Appropriate tactical clothing for the weather

As an aside, if match directors want to make the heavy division deal with heavier items in the medley (i.e. 100 vs 150 lb sandbags), they are free to do so.


Logistics

I want to keep things as flexible as possible for match directors, so there’s not much to add here except for a few addendums and suggestions.

Squad Grouping. Try grouping competitors into squads of similar divisions and capabilities. This keeps people running on a similar pace throughout the day.

Champion’s Bracket. At the end of the match, organize a champion’s bracket for all competitors who won their head-to-head heat earlier in the day. This is a chance to win more points and achieve a top spot of the event. When in the champion bracket, the rules of division no longer apply, and shooters can bring as much or as little to the line as they wish.

Scoring

Scoring schemes are flexible and at the Match Director’s discretion. The goal is litting anyone organizing a pentathlon do it how they wish, so long as the four main events are relatively consistent from match to match.

That said, here are a few ideas for managing scoring:

Time Minus Points

Take the combined time from the biathlon, medley, dash, and any penalty time accrued (if applicable). Add up all points earned through the precision marksman and head-to-head events and multiply it by five, this gives you the number of seconds to deduct from the overall time. Lowest time wins.

Example: Shooter 1 ran the biathlon in 24:05, the dash in 60 seconds, and finished the medley in 2:23. All added up, their time is 27:28. They also earned 165 points in precision marksmanship and destroyed 15 total balloons through head to head competition. That’s 180 points. Let’s say every point is worth four seconds deduction, so 180 x 4 is 720 seconds, or 12 minutes. Shooter 1’s final time is 15:28 for the day.

This scoring method puts heavy emphasis on conditioning. Naturally, someone who can run a lower time on the biathlon and Minuteman Dash has a huge advantage since their starting point will be lower.


Percent of Leader

In this scoring model, you take the event winner from each division and use their score as the maximum point value. Let’s say that’s 200 points for the event. For each competitor, you calculate how close they were to the event winner as a percentage, and then multiply that percentage by the maximum points (200).

What does that look like in practice?

Example for shooting event: Let’s say Shooter 1 wins the precision marksmanship event with 160 points. Shooter 1 earns 200 match points for being the event winner. Shooter number 2 scored 145 points, which is 90.6% of Shooter 1’s score. 90.6% x 200 is 181 points. Shooter number 2 now has 181 points for the event.

Example for running event: If we’re basing it on time, things get a little more complicated. Let’s say Shooter 1 is the event winner for the biathlon, with a time of 23:05 and earns 200 points. Shooter 2 finished with a time of 27:15.

We convert their time into seconds by multiplying 23 x 60 and then adding the remaining 5 seconds (1,385 seconds). Shooter 2’s time calculates out to 1,635 seconds. So how much worse did Shooter 2 do? Subtract 1,385 from 1635 and you get 250. 250 is about 18% of 1,385, meaning Shooter 2 did 18% worse. Or, alternatively, they earned 82% of Shooter 1’s score, translating to 164 points.

Yes, this model is more complicated, but a spreadsheet will make quick work of it if you’re tracking scores with a laptop.

Raw Points and Scoring Tables

The last option I’ll discuss is scoring tables. This is probably the most straightforward, but could also easily result in ties. Any of the events that earned points are left as such. So hitting 10’s and x rings on the precision marksmanship event earns a bunch of 10s. Every balloon won during head-to-head also counts as points. The real challenge is the timed events.

My suggestion is to look at something like the score tables of the Everyday Marksman Fitness assessments. Pick a time that earns maximum points for each event, say 15 minutes for the biathlon as an example. Then bracket down sections of 2 to 15 seconds where every bracket loses some number of points. I suggest making the bracket spread much closer at the competitive times and wider at the slower times- this makes every second count at the high levels. Do this for the biathlon, dash, and medley. The tricky part is knowing what a “good” time is for each event if you’re making it up on the fly.

Now what to do about tie breakers?

Tie Breakers

Eventually, you’ll have a situation where two shooters earn the same score for the win. In these circumstances, I suggest you pick one event score to serve as the tie breaker. That could be the top score or number of x rings on the precision marksmanship event, the dash time, or (my favorite) the number of points won in the head-to-head.

Wrapping Up

So there you have it, a model for how I think Everyday Marksmen can organize matches all over the country at both large and small scale. The Rifleman Pentathlon covers a variety of important capabilities including precision, speed, physical fitness, and focus. These are all the foundational components of other shooting disciplines.

In fact, if someone trains to become proficient at the Rifleman Pentathlon then they are also well-positioned to branch out into any other shooting discipline. Those who excel at the precision marksmanship component naturally flow forward to High Power or CMP shooting. Doing well at the biathlon and medley also bodes well for other Run & Gun events or the Tactical Games. Success at the head-to-head pushes you towards USPSA. You get the idea.

Perhaps more importantly, training to perform well at the Rifleman Pentathlon provides an extremely solid foundation for success  in more advanced training courses like small unit tactics, scouting, and more.

What do you think? Are you willing to run it for yourself? Let me know what questions you have about how this competition might run so that we can refine it together into something truly amazing.

Matt

Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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15 Comments
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Newest First
Andrew
Andrew
Guest

I love this idea! I’ve competed in multiple competitive shooting outlets and there certainly is an overarching level of predictability that allows too much “gaming” the competition and few displays of real combat skills and fieldcraft. Many of these competitions also focus on building the sport by tailoring the events to their competitors who have very large social media followings.

Hopefully, an event like this takes off.

PS. Don’t tell Tactical Games their competition is CrossFit + shooting! Even though it kind of is! LOL

Andrew
Andrew
Guest
Replying to  Matt

The thing is, it evolved into that when ownership changed. The founder of TTG was former SF and in the earlier years, there was a lot more fieldcraft and cognitive testing that more closely mimicked a realistic tactical environment. As the years progressed, it looked more like a 3-gun match wearing armor, to Crossfit with rifle and pistol.
I don’t recall any point in my two tours where I had to pick up someone or something and toss it over a fence or high wall 21-15-9 times then shoot pistols standing straight up out in the open.

Paul
Paul
Guest

Matt – looks like you’ve put some time in this! It’s a great concept that combines in one event what might be only experienced in several other separate competitions. I haven’t competed in anything in years so my next comment may be out of context and I’m sure I’m trampling all over the ‘agon’ core concept of this event. I think the ‘scoring’ system is a little complicated and IMO that intimidates too many would be participants. I look at something like this as an ‘experience gaining event’ where ‘Everyday Marksman’ (not ‘hardcore’ competitors) can participate in a simulated environment… Read more »

Paul
Paul
Guest
Replying to  Matt

Cool! So a ‘little idea’ that can be casual or competitive as you want to make it – that works!

Sunshine_Shooter
Replying to  Paul

In the interest of keeping it welcoming to newcomers, Desert Brutality has a very good way of doing that: Random prize table awards. The prize table is less of a way to reward winners and instead treated as almost a door prize. When you don’t have to be good to go home with a new barrel or optic, its very enticing.

Paul
Paul
Guest
Replying to  Sunshine_Shooter

That ‘is’ enticing! I’ve watched a few YT videos on the Desert Brutality event – I can see it looking a little intimidating to beginners who have never entered such events – including myself (I did shoot in a few action pistol events years ago). I was simply suggesting to Matt that the scoring system he was conjuring up seemed a little complicated for people who just wanted the better experience of ‘action shooting’ than that of a square range. As long as it’s more fun and safe than complicated it works.

Alexander
Alexander
Guest

This is a great idea! a lot of room for adding certain things! Really good template for everyone to start their own with a friend or two or even a whole group!

Dan
Dan
Guest

I am currently looking at owning a shooting range in the Ft. Bragg NC area, and we have been talking about putting on an event like this for some time. I am a bit short on time at the moment, but would love to participate in discussion about this a little more at some point. At first blush a couple quick bullets: The competition shooting world needs this. It’s a great idea. We need to decide between standardization and match director freedom. The stated goal is to have a standardized event, and the stated complaints were that the actions shooting… Read more »

Dan
Dan
Guest
Replying to  Matt

Yeah, the different ranges/different equipment thing is a valid point. I think it depends on what you want to accomplish. It seems like the “spirit of the game” that we’re really looking for here is: building a better general purpose rifleman with combat oriented competition. Having each stage test a different essential element of that (hence the pentathlon challenge concept) One method of doing the whole “standardization” thing might be to have a set of standardized stages that could be used as classifiers. That way, just like USPSA, match directors can do their thing and keep it fun, but there’s… Read more »

Dan
Dan
Guest

One more thing, I think that making everyone carry all their stuff AND have to run with it will really cut down on all the “gamer” stuff that has become endemic to other gun games. Also, I think it should be a point to make shooters shoot BOTH fast and close, and something like a bullseye NRA high-power stage with the same gear.

Sunshine_Shooter
Replying to  Dan

Making people run with all their gear will definitely cut down on the “gamer” stuff, but also cut out a lot of the “Tactical Timmy” stuff as well. In the event that Tactical Pentathlon becomes popular, we would inevitably see a rise in gear made for optimizing this event. Lightweight rigs, tactical running shoes, etc.

Andrew
Andrew
Guest
Replying to  Sunshine_Shooter

That gear has existed for years. Think the highest of high end gear, clothing, and footwear used by the cool guys in SOCOM. Crye, Mayflower, London Bridge. Stuff that’s durable enough for combat, yet light enough those guys can jump and swim with it. Just be prepared to shell out many hundreds, if not thousands, for them.

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