Silhouette: Smallbore and Air Rifle
This page introduces the sport of silhouette shooting at Sunnyvale Rod and Gun Club. It covers the following subjects:
- Introduction (essentials of the game)
- Equipment (rifles, scopes, ammunition)
- Getting Ready (testing ammo, getting your scope settings)
- Shooting Offhand (how to stand and hold the rifle)
- The Match (what to expect at your first match)
- Downloadble Targets (PDF files of smallbore silhouettes)
Read the subjects that interest you, but don't stop there: Come on out and shoot! Words and pictures can't convey the fun of the real experience!
A silhouette is a steel profile of an animal (chicken, pig, turkey, or ram) standing on a pedestal. The object of the game is to knock as many silhouettes as possible off their pedestals, shooting one round at each silhouette. It is a very simple competition, with very simple scoring: You get a 1 for knocking an animal off its stand, a 0 for anything else. Although silhouette is an easy game to learn, it is not an easy game to master. The animals are rather small and the distances are rather large; you must shoot offhand (standing); a moderate breeze can move a bullet or a pellet the width of an animal; your concentration becomes more difficult to hold as you knock down five in a row, six, .... These factors make silhouette an endless challenge.
Silhouette shooting originated in Mexico in the late 1940s. It is now shot all over the world with everything from air pistols to black powder rifles. Silhouette sizes and distances vary according to the kind of rifle or pistol, but everything else is the same. For example, high-power rifle silhouettes are life-size, but they are shot at much longer distances than the scaled-down smallbore or air rifle silhouettes. Commands to load, fire, and cease fire are often given in Spanish, in part to honor the sport's heritage, and in part to distinguish the silhouette shooters' commands from those directed at other shooters sharing the range. (Non-Spanish speakers, don't worry; there are only three commands!)
A match consists of 40, 60, or 80 shots at the same number of animals. In a 60-shot match, you shoot 15 rounds at 15 chickens, 15 rounds at 15 pigs, and the same for turkeys and rams. For smallbore at SRGC, the animals are 40, 60, 77, and 100 meters distant; for air rifle, they are 20, 30, 36, and 45 yards away. (At some clubs, yards may be meters and vice versa.) You shoot at the silhouettes in sets (banks) of five; you get 2-1/2 minutes per bank, which is usually plenty of time even for single-shot rifles. In a 60-shot match, there are three banks per animal (3x5=15, 15x4=60); 40- and 80-shot matches have two and four banks per animal, respectively. In a 60-shot match, a few shooters will score in the 20s, most will shoot in the 30s and 40s, and a few will break 50. Perfect scores are very rare. Shooters are classified into handicap groups based on past performance so they can compete with others of similar ability. But it's not just the score that counts. Shooters who never break 40 come to match after match because toppling a silhouette is a satisfying experience that you want to do again, and because silhouette shooters are a great bunch of people to shoot and talk and laugh with.
One of the appeals of silhouette shooting is the gear: There isn't much of it, and you can choose how much money to spend on it. A good-quality off-the-shelf hunting rifle will get you into the game, enabling you to acquire the fundamental skills of offhand shooting; it will shoot good scores if you do your part. If, later, you want to compete at the top level of the game, you can buy a fine-quality rifle.
For smallbore silhouette, you can use most any .22 rifle and standard velocity ammunition. (High velocity ammunition is prohibited because it can damage the targets.) In practice, most people shoot bolt-action rifles with scopes of 16-24 power. However, there is no reason you should not come out with your semi-automatic and 8-power scope, or even iron sights if you can holdover at four different ranges. You'll see how much fun the game is, what the people are like, and what rifles and scopes the veteran shooters are using. If you ask politely, you'll probably be able to shoot any rifle that's there.
To get a little more technical, there are two smallbore rifle classes (for details, buy a copy of the NRA Rifle Silhouette Rules from the NRA):
- Hunter class: A hunting-style rifle, maximum weight 8-1/2 lbs. including scope and empty magazine, minimum trigger pull 2 lbs. Popular choices include (in order of increasing price) NS-522, CZ 452, Sako Finnfire, Anschutz 1710D, plus all sorts of Rugers, Savages, Remingtons, Winchesters, Kimbers, etc.
- Silhouette class: Typically a purpose-built silhouette rifle, maximum weight 10 lbs. 2 oz. including scope and empty magazine. The most popular choices are Anschutz 54.18 MSR (metallic silhouette repeater) and custom rifles built on Anschutz or Remington actions.
For air rifle, you can shoot anything up through .22 caliber, though most people shoot .177 because a wider variety of accurate rifles and pellets are available for this caliber than for .20 or .22. But feel free to shoot what you've got. There are three air rifle classes:
- Target class: 10-meter competition rifle, such as FWB P70, 300s, or Anschutz 2002; virtually all shooters use scopes rather than match sights
- Sporter class: Any factory unmodified sporter rifle, 11 lbs. maximum including scope. Among spring guns, the Air Arms TX200 and Weirauch/Beeman HW 97 are popular. Precharged rifles, such as the FX Tarantula and Air Arms S410, are allowed starting in 2005.
- Open class: Any air rifle up to 16 lbs. including scope; generally these are powerful precharged pneumatics such as the Anschutz 2025 or Walther Dominator or 10-meter rifles modified to shoot a heavy pellet at 800-900 feet per second.
Note: From time to time you will be asked to make your rifle safe. This means laying it down on the bench with the muzzle pointing downrange, the breech open, the chamber empty, and the magazine removed or empty. If your air rifle has a magazine, think about how you will demonstrate to the range officer that it is empty or removed.
Most people need a scope to shoot silhouette well because the animals are small and there are four distances to shoot at. 16 to 24 power is adequate. Beginners will want to start with a lower power because it makes your wobble (motion of the cross hairs across the target) less apparent and therefore less unnerving. Look for these features in a scope:
- Adjustable objective: You are shooting at four distances, so you want to be able to focus the scope at each distance. For air rifle, the scope must focus down to 20 yards.
- Repeatability: When you change the scope elevation from rams to chickens,
you want to be confident that when you do your job right, the bullet or pellet
hits the center of a chicken, rather than flying over or under it. You can
check repeatability by shooting a "box" on a calm day (or indoors
if you an air rifle and space--you need at least 20 yards).
- Resting the rifle for maximum accuracy, shoot five shots at a bull.
- Raise the elevation one revolution; shoot five more rounds at the same bull.
- Move the windage one revolution right; shoot five more rounds at the same bull.
- Lower the elevation one revolution (to your original elevation); shoot five rounds at the same bull.
- Finally, move the windage one revolution left, and shoot a final five rounds at the same bull.
- If the last five rounds hit the same spot as the first five, your scope's repeatability is good.
- Target turrets: You need turrets that are easy to turn with your fingers and are clearly marked. Scopes that have micrometer-style rotation marks (1st revolution, 2nd revolution, etc.) help you see at a glance where the scope is set. 1/4 minute of windage or elevation change per click is good; 1/8 minute clicks will have you turning the turrets more between animals but still works OK.
- Dot or fine duplex or reticle: Light conditions are almost always good, so you won't have trouble seeing the reticle. In fact, a bold reticle can be distracting. More good shooters probably use the target dot (or the Leupold dot, which has tapered crosshairs) than the duplex; but they could all shoot good scores with a duplex. If you start with a duplex, you can sometimes have the reticle changed to a target dot for $50-$100.
- Air rifle rated: If you are shooting a piston (spring or gas strut) rifle, be sure to get a scope that is rated for air rifle shooting; the two-way recoil can break scopes not built for it. Pneumatic and CO2 air rifles can use any scope.
- Variable power (zoom): With a variable power scope, you can increase the magnification as your hold improves -- and decrease it when it's windy or you are having a bad day.
- Reasonable weight: In some classes, especially smallbore Hunter, the weight limit may force you to use a light weight scope if your rifle is on the heavy side.
Popular scope brands include:
- Inexpensive: Bushnell Trophy, BSA, Tasco, Swift
- Moderate: Weaver V16, Bushnell Elite 4200 8-24, Sightron SII 624x42D (all available with dot reticle)
- Expensive: Leupold 6.5-20 EFR (available with dot reticle)
Both .22s and air rifles are highly individualistic about ammunition. Even two rifles with consecutive serial numbers may not shoot the same ammo well. However, some .22 brands seem to work well in many rifles:
- Inexpensive: Federal 711B, PMC Scoremaster, CCI Standard, Wolf Match Target
- Moderate: RWS Target Rifle, Federal 900B, Lapua Master L
- Expensive: Federal Ultra Match B, Eley Tenex, Lapua Midas
Note: If you are shooting a .22 semi-automatic, you may need to install a weaker recoil spring to get the action to cycle reliably with standard-velocity rounds. Many stock semi-automatics have recoil springs that need the extra power of high-velocity ammo (illegal for silhouette) to operate without jamming.
Some .177 pellets that usually work well are:
- Target and Sporter classes: Crosman Premier 7.9, Beeman Field Target Special, JSB Exact
- Open class: Crosman Premier 10.5, Beeman Kodiak Match, JSB Exact
Domed pellets definitely work better than other shapes because they hold their velocity better at the longer ranges.
You must wear eye and ear protection. Here are some additional items you may find useful:
- Pen or pencil and 6" x 9" clipboard: for scoring
- Countdown timer: to see how much of the 2-1/2 minute shooting period remains
- Three or four magazines: so you don't have to reload between banks
- Shooting vest: the one article of special clothing permitted by the rules; the pockets are handy for holding your gear
- Hiking boots: provide a stable and comfortable platform
If you want to have a good time at your first silhouette match, you should do three things in advance:
1. If you are not a member, join the NRA, which is the governing body for SRGC silhouette shooting. (However, you can shoot one unofficial match if you are not yet an NRA member.)
2. Find out which ammunition your rifle shoots most accurately and is consistent with your budget.
3. Establish your scope elevation and focus settings for the silhouette distances:
- Smallbore: 40, 60, 77, 100 meters
- Air rifle: 20, 30, 36, 45 yards
To test ammo and determine your scope settings, you need the calmest possible weather. Even slight breezes will displace a bullet, and especially a pellet, an inch at 50 yards, making it impossible to know whether your rifle doesn't like the ammo or the wind is pushing it around. Early morning and evening are the best times to test, at least in summer. 8PM on Tuesday (SRGC is open until 9 on Tuesday) is often dead calm. (Alternatively, you can do as one air rifle shooter in Southern California has done, and build your own wind-proof 50-yard range from 2' steel pipe!)
At SRGC, the .22 and air rifle positions are on the right side of the range office (positions 21 and higher). To test ammo, set up a multiple-bull target at 50 yards. Choose bulls that are easy to center in your scope; most people can see white rings easier than black ones; some people prefer to align the crosshairs on grid intersections. (If you have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can download this sample target.) Rest your rifle on blocks and sandbags (or on a rifle rest if you have one) to maximize your steadiness. Shoot one five-shot group per bull, holding the rifle as consistently as possible across the shots. Five groups should give you a good idea of an ammunition's performance in your rifle. After changing to a different brand, the first group you shoot with the new ammo may be comparatively poor; if it is, ignore it. If your rifle will consistently shoot 1/2" groups (measured center-to-center, or edge-to-edge and subtracting one caliber diameter) you've found an ammo your rifle likes. But 1" groups are OK if they are consistent. When you've got the right ammo, you can be confident that the animals you miss are your fault, not your equipment's. That's important for observing and correcting your mistakes and also for concentrating on the fundamentals when you shoot. If you want to test .22 ammo more meticulously, test the ammo that groups best at 50 at 100 yards to find out which is really best. Note that 100 yard testing requires dead calm conditions and good benchrest shooting skills.
Getting Scope Settings
Once you've selected an ammunition, you need to get your scope settings for that ammo. With known settings, you'll be able to quickly adjust the scope as you change from chickens to pigs, pigs to turkeys, and so on. To determine scope settings at Sunnyvale Rod and Gun Club, staple a multi-bull target to a cardboard box, and position the box on the range at the distance of one animal. You will probably need to put the cardboard box on a plastic ammo-recycling bucket for the .22 pigs, which are located in dips that can hide a small box. Do not shoot the bucket. Ballast the box with rocks or gravel so the wind doesn't blow it away (though for best results there shouldn't be any wind).
- Smallbore ranges: Look for 2" square caps set into the ground.The chickens are just in front of the wood beam at the 50 yard line. The ram line (which has permanently installed pedestals) is low on the bank behind the 100-yard target line.
- Air rifle ranges: Each animal line is marked with a 2" white disk set flush in the ground about two-thirds of the way between the rangemaster's office and the highest-numbered shooting position. The chicken line is just behind the first strip of gravel; the ram line is just in front of the wood beam at 50 yards.
Apply a piece of tape to your stock or scope tube and mark your four elevation and windage settings on it. Use tape or adhesive dots to mark the four focus points on the scope bell so you can easily change distances. NOTE: Don't assume your scope settings are exactly right. Every time you shoot, you hold the rifle a little differently and therefore change the point of impact. Some scopes are affected by temperature variations. Always arrive early at a match so you can check your settings and adjust them to the current conditions.
You shoot silhouette from the offhand position.This means that you shoot standing and you support the rifle entirely with your body. No part of your body except your feet can touch anything. You cannot wear stiffening shoes or clothing. Silhouette's roots are in hunting, and becoming a better silhouette shooter can make you shoot better in the field as well.
Note: at the SRGC smallbore matches, there's a special "varmint" class that shoots sitting, with the rifle rested on sandbags. This is a great way for beginners to get acquainted with the game; if your rifle is set up properly, you will definitely knock over a bunch of animals from this position.
You can shoot offhand hunter-style, with your support hand forward and cupping the forend However, you will notice that most good shooters use a target shooting position:
- The support elbow is held against the side of the chest, ideally resting on the top of the pelvis (even with the navel).
- The forearm is nearly vertical.
- The forend is supported only from the bottom, with knuckles or splayed fingers (depending on how high you need to raise the rifle to see through the scope with your head erect).
The above photos show Tim Kurreck, an SRGC member and national champion. The idea of this stance, which will probably seem very odd and uncomfortable at first, is to make the support side of your body like a post on which the rifle rests. The post is composed of bones, not muscle, because bones are much steadier. To make the support side of your body like a post, thrust your hip toward the target and try to plant your support elbow on the pelvis (above your hip joint and even with your navel). If you're doing it right, the support side of your body will be relaxed and you will feel the weight of the rifle on your pelvis. To aim, use the large muscles of your midsection, not the small muscles of your arm or shoulder. Note: not everyone's body proportions permit resting the elbow on the pelvis; if your elbow doesn't reach that low, hold it and your upper arm firmly against the side of your chest.
Here's what to expect in your first silhouette match at SRGC. When you arrive between 8 and 8:30AM, you'll help set up the targets, sign in for the match and at the range office, choose the animal you want to start with (pigs are easiest, turkeys are hardest), pay an entry fee, and then practice for half an hour or so. Cost is $5 per rifle plus a yearly fee of $12 for your NRA score book. If you are not an SRGC member, you must also pay the standard range fee of $12, which entitles you to shoot all day. Use the practice time to verify or adjust your sight settings, then shoot some animals to warm up and get accustomed to the conditions. If you have a count-down timer, set it to 2 minutes and 45 seconds. The small bore match usually starts around 9 and ends between 12-1. The air rifle match starts around 6:30PM and ends before 9. Both proceed as follows.
- Shooters divide themselves into relays that shoot together. At SRGC, a relay is up to eight shooters; two for chickens, two for pigs, and so on. Depending on the number of shooters, there may be one, two, or three relays, and they are called relay 1, relay 2, and relay 3. At some point, the match director (technically the Chief Range Officer) will call your relay to the line. Carry your rifle (unloaded, breech open, muzzle up) to the shooting station for your animal; signs above the stations denote "pig 1", "pig 2", and so on. Lay your empty rifle on the bench with the open breech visible and the muzzle pointing down range. If you have magazines, load two with five rounds each. Arrange your magazines, ammo, scoresheet, pen, and timer on the bench so they are easy to see and reach. Then stand a few inches from the shooting bench.
- The match director will soon announce "Listo", which is Spanish for "Ready". Start your timer. Load a magazine or a round. Check that your scope focus and elevation are correct for the animal you are shooting. Begin aiming at the leftmost animal in your first bank of targets.The first bank is is always the lower-left one. (In a 60-shot match you will have three banks of five animals; shoot them in this order: lower left, upper left, lower right.) Be sure you are aiming at your chickens, not at those of the shooter next to you--hitting the wrong animal is a miss! Each set of banks is marked with a number, "1" or "2", that corresponds to your shooting station.
- After 15 seconds, the match director will announce "Fuego", which is Spanish for "Fire". Shoot the leftmost animal in your bank. Whether you hit or miss, the next round goes to the next animal to the right--you get five rounds for five animals, period. When you finish, lay your rifle on the bench, unloaded, breech open, and muzzle pointing downrange.
- After two minutes and 45 seconds, the match director will announce "Alto Fuego", which is Spanish for "Cease Fire". Do not fire again. Even if you have not taken five shots, make your rifle safe and lay it on the table. Record your score, marking an X for a hit, a 0 for a miss.
- After a short break, the match director will repeat the Listo-Fuego-Alto Fuego sequence for the next bank. When your relay has completed its banks, the match director will arrange for the entire range to cease fire, and you will go downrange to reset the animals you have shot in preparation for the next relay. Take a can of white paint with you and spray over your hits so the next shooter has clean targets.
- When all relays have shot, you will be called to your next animal. Although you may start with any animal, the progression is always chickens->pigs->turkeys->rams->chickens. Before leaving one animal, set your scope up for the next one, so you don't forget.
Occasionally, for various reasons, you may not have five animals to shoot at. In such a case, you make your final shot at an animal left standing in a prior bank. It should be one of your animals unless there are none, in which case it can be one of your relay partner's animals. Before shooting an animal in another bank, let your partner know which you intend to hit, and ask for permission if you must shoot at one of your partner's animals.
When the match is over, total your score and transfer it to the sheet maintained by the match director. After scores are announced, the range may remain open for practice or a shootoff if there's a tie. When the match is finished, help gather the targets, put away the target stands, and begin thinking about how you're going to shoot better next time.
Click the links below to download PDF outlines of the smallbore silhouette targets. These targets include a one-inch ruler. Measure it after printing to verify that your printer is set up right.
- Two chickens - distance 40 meters
- Two pigs - distance 60 meters
- Two turkeys - distance 77 meters
- One ram - distance 100 meters
- All four animals (1.7MB)
Thanks to Rachel Thomas for creating the targets.