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Blazing guns: ringing steel.

* Pistols bark in staccato, machine gun-like bursts and steel plates band and clang in reply as ome of the world's greatest masters of the practical pistol pit their skills against each otehr for four days of sport, fun, fellowship and valuable prizes. It's the Southwest Pistol League's World Speed Shooting Championships, aka The Steel Challene, which was held April 10-13 of this year at Wes Thompson's Juniper Tree Rifle Range in Canyon Country, California, outside the San Fernando Valley.

The Steel Challenge is, as its other name implies, strictly a game of speed. The targets are large--8, 10 and 12-inch steel disks and 18x24-inch rectangles--and ranges are moderate. Even the greenest tyro should have no trouble connecting on each target within the generous maximum time limits prescribed for each string. But the Steel Challenge is no playground for dubs. Strings are fired with blazing speed, and the mastery of pistolcraft displayed by the top competitors is truly breathtaking.

A variety of courses are fired, but they are all basically similar. The shooter stands facing a row of white-painted steel targets placed at varying ranges. Upon hearing the electronic starting buzzer, the contestant, who has been holding his hands shoulder-high, draws and fires at the targets; his last shot must hit the electronic stop plate, which halts the timer. The shooter's time is then recorded, and he repeats the course three or four more times. The competitor's slowest string is not counted, and the times for his remaining strings are added together to give him his score. The lowest score, i.e., the fastest shot, wins.

Shooters may take as many shots as they wish at a target without penalty, but failure to connect with any target results not hit, and failure to hit the stop plate means that the shooter will be charged with the maximum time allowed for that stage of fire--which is disastrous!

The fastest stage this year was the "Triple Threat," which consisted of three 12-inch plates at various heights; ranges were 6, 8 and 10 yards, the farthest one serving as a stop plate. To be a top competitor, you have to draw and hit all three plates in less than two seconds, and Chip McCormick of Austin, Texas, the winner of this event, averaged a remarkable 1.6175 seconds in his four best strings.

By way of contrast, the most deliberate stage was the "Outer Limits" match. Here the shooter has to stand inside a four foot square area, and when the signal is given, draw and hit a 12-inch plate at 25 yards and an 18x24-inch rectangle at 40 yards. The competitor then moves to another shooting box six feet away and engages two identical targets on the other side of a center line. A final hit on a 12-inch stop plate at 20 yards halts the clock. Six to 6-1/2 seconds per string was about par for the top-flight competitors although Stu Mullins, who had the best time on this event, averaged but 5.433 seconds for his strings.

I might add that the Outer Limits event was the only one that required the shooter to change locations during a course of fire. There is no running, leaping, clambering over or crawling under obstacles, etc., such as have characterized certain other types of action shooting. Criticism has at times been leveled against certain practical shooting events to the effect that they are as much or more tests of all-around athletic ability than of marksmanship. This criticism cannot be made of the Steel Challenge--it's strictly a shooting competition.

The image projected to the outside world by the Steel Challenge is a very positive, wholesome one. It reflects the shift of emphasis from "combat" to "action" shooting in recent years. Paramilitary attire and shirts with controversial slogans were banned. Strict safety precautions were enforced--never once in four days of constant attendance did I see the least bit of questionable gun handling. Women were well represented in the match and highly skilled. The use of targets with simple geometric shapes avoids the negative connotations inherent in the use of humanoid silhouettes, and the type of action shooting exhibited in the Steel Challenge certainly doesn't appear one with more combative or bloodthirsty than, say, the International Rapid Fire match, which is used in the Olympic Games.

A high point in the matches was a visit by His Excellency Sr. Leon Febres Cordero, President of the Republic of Ecuador. President Febres Cordero is a former student at practical shooting ace John Shaw's Mid-South Institute of Self-Defense in Memphis, Tennessee, and an avid practical shooter himself. It was a heartening expression of the good will that exists among shooters that a foreign head of state could walk about for hours with blazing gunfire on every side amid hundreds of armed people-and yet without the slightest degree of apprehension or concern on his part.

The preferred handguns for this type of shooting were overwhelming highly customized auto pistols. A few shooters--19 out of 233 contestants--chose to use revolvers. Most of those that I saw were of the "Bianchi Cup" type--i.e., sporting heavy custom bull barrels and, more often than not, Aimpoint sights. Since most of the events involved engaging five targets in a string, the revolver man could afford only a single miss and thus was at a distinct handicap compared to the auto pistol users. (Remember that there is no penalty for misses so long as the shooter eventually makes hits on all targets.) Smith & Wesson revolvers seemed to be most popular as the basis for such custom conversions. Minimum caliber permitted in the Steel Challenge is the .38 Special.

Overwhelmingly, though, this kind of shooting is the preserve of the auto pistol, and styles and fashions change rapidly as smiths respond to the demands of shooters for pistols that will give them the tiniest of competitive edges. Twelve years ago, when I had my Colt .45 auto combat-customized by King's Gun Works, gunsmith Jim Hoag, who still worked for King's in those days, pronounced it an "ideal" gun for combat competition. If I showed up with that same pistol today at a serious match like this, it would seem almost as primitive and uncompetitive as an unmodified GI surplus 1911a1. By far the most noticeable change is that virtually all serious competitors are using some sort of muzzle brake or compensator device. Aftermarket adjustable sights, ambidextrous speed safeties and the like have long been standard items on Colts customized for combat or practical shooting, but more recent innovations that have become almost universal are flared (as opposed to simply beleved) magazine wells and beavertail grip safeties.

Wilson Accu-Comp custom conversions seemed to be favored by many leading competitors, and shooter/gunsmith Bill Wilson himself was a competitor, finishing a strong 22nd. Custom conversions by Hoag, Clark and other top pistolsmiths were also very much in evidence, though.

From its inception, this kind of shooting has been dominated by the customized Colt .45 auto. I was therefore amazed to see that the .38 Super Automatic has made dramatic inroads into the ascendancy of the .45 ACP--especially in the hands of the top shooters. I was aware of this trend before the match, but I had no idea how far it had progressed. Since IPSC power factors do not apply in this match, most competitors used a light load consisting of a 158-grain cast lead around nose bullet and 3.7 or 3.8 grains of 700-X powder for about 950 fps. I was also surprised by the sudden popularity of 700-X, which I had always thought of as primarily a shotgun powder. However, several shooters told me that they believed it displayed better lot-to-lot uniformity than competitive powders with similar burning rates.

In connection with the new-found popularity of the .38 Super, the ammo-making firm of PMC inform me that they have added this caliber to their line. Of special interest to the reloader is the fact that these PMC .38 Supers are being made with extra-thick rear case walls. This should end the common problems of fired cases in this caliber bulging and even rupturing where they are unsupported in the chamber above the feed ramp cut-away.

I had supposed that high-capacity 9 mms like the Browning High Power might enjoy considerable popularity in these matches, given the fact that competitors can fire an unlimited number of shots in each string. However, I was told that if you needed that much firepower, you'd be out of the running anyway.

Other pistols must have been few and far between. I was told that Angelo Spagnoli, who finished fifth, was using a SIG P-210 9mm, but I didn't get a chance to examine this pistol or learn, what, if any, custom modifications it had.

Without question, the most unusual pistol was the one used by FIE Vice-President Pat Squire to win the Industry/Celebrity competition. Pat used FIE's new TZ/75 9mm DA auto, a close copy of the famous Czech CZ-75 (see G&A's evaluation in the March 1985 issue). This pistol had been custom modified by gunsmith Paul Richter by the addition of Bo-Mar sights and a special compensator he had designed and built. The safety had been modified to permit a cocked and locked carry, and the pistol had been hard matte chromed. Stoked with Brazilian Rio brand 115-grain FMJs, it acquitted itself admirably in Pat's hands as he won the industry match and demonstrated that these pistols may have a future in this type of competition.

Most holsters worn were of the strong side, forward-rake, cutaway from type, but a considerable number of the competitors did use cross-draw styles. Front-break types, shoulder holsters and designs that left the triggerguard fully exposed were prohibited by match rules.

A new aspect of the Steel Challenge this year was the Mossberg-sponsored shotgun competition. Autoloaders with extension magazines dominated this event. The top slide-action user, Stu Mullins, finished no higher than 14th. John shaw was the winner of this event. Loads were usually high-brass No. 4s or 5s.

A special match was held for industry representatives and visiting celebrities. As previously mentioned, Pat Squire of FIE won this with his unique custom TZ-75. G&A Publisher Jay Hard finished a strong fourth in this event using a borrowed Hoag-customized Colt .45 and a Davis competition holster rig.

The Steel Challenge attracted most of the big names in combat/action shooting in recent years. Such outstanding competitors as Mickey Fowler, Mike Dalton, Nick Pruitt, Mike Plaxco, Tom Campbell and Jerry Usher were all there. However, most informed observers predicted that it would be a three-man race between John Shaw, Rob Leatham and Brian Enos--all three truly great athletes and sportsmen.

When the gunfire had died away and the steel targets had ceased ringing, the final standings showed some surprises. Quite predictably, Rob Leatham was the winner with an aggregate time of 68.99 seconds. In second place was Stu Mullins with 72.39 seconds, followed by the tiniest of margins by Chip McCormick with 72.45 seconds. In fourth place was John Shaw, 73.86; fifth was Angelo Spagnoli, 74.40, and sixth was Brian Enos with 75.40. High woman was Lee Cole. Her score of 9o.51 put her 64th overall.

I seem to recall that it was target shooting great Huelet "Joe" Benner who once said, "You have to have a party heart to be a handgunner." I don't think anyone could exemplify this better than the new Steel Challenge champion, Rob Leatham. He is already famous among action shooters for his easygoing "looseness" during matches. A good example of this took place during one match when a timer broke down just as Rob was in the middle of completing this stage. Although one might think the match pressure on the front runner would be immense, Rob remained merry and laughing throughout the enforced lull as the timer was repaired. "There's no point in getting uptight," he later remarked to me--certainly a refreshing contrast to these temperamental "tennis brats" we see on television!

An outsider might think that the leading combat/action shooters would be a pack of swaggering bully-boys or short-fused potential Wes Hardins, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rob especially impresses one as an exceptionally affable, gentle-mannered young man, and all the other top men I talked to struck me as a very pleasant bunch of guys. (I get the impression among pistolmen that there is usually an inverse ratio between real skill and a swashbuckling demeanor.)

Rob and his partner Brian Enos both use Wilson Accu-Comp LE .38 Supers. They estimated that they each shot approximately 20,000 rounds a year. Fourth place finisher John Shaw also used a nearly identical .38 Super from Wilson.

Many winners took home cash prizes and industry-donated merchandise. Rob's victory netted him $5,000 in cash alone, and all the top 32 finishers, plus the first fine women, the top three revolver users, etc. all took home prizes. Various firms in the firearms industry sponsored the different match stages and events. Guns & Ammo sponsored the final banquet that marked the end of the competition.

Special credit should go to San Fernando valley veterinarian and Southwest Pistol League Executive Director Dr. Larry Cohen for his great work in organizing matches and for the constant help he extended, while competing himself, to competitors, exhibitor-sponsors and journalists. The crew of match officials did a wonderful job of keeping things running smoothly and, above all, safely.

This Steel Challenge shooting looks like an awful lot of fun--and it has plenty of potential spectator appeal to boot. It is also very infectious. Several members of the G&A staff have been inspired to start seriously training for next year's competition. Maybe we'll see you there too!
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Title Annotation:World Speed Shooting Championships
Author:Libourel, Jan
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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