FORSYTH — Like a shifty prize fighter, the wind gusting across the rolling prairie north of here bobs and weaves, moves in with force and backs out quickly, or sometimes just whales away, unrelenting, punishing.
The wind is the most temperamental element in the otherwise sedate and sociable Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match, an event that has taken place here every Father’s Day weekend for the past 22 years. Competitors respect the wind, constantly try to compensate for it when they shoot out to 805 yards, and in the end credit luck as much as skill for top scores.
“The wind can easily blow a shot 12 to 16 feet off the target at 500 yards,” said match director Buz Coker. “The real challenge is the variable winds.”
The Quigley shoot is the granddaddy of buffalo rifle matches, drawing shooters even from overseas. A Pole is seeking to export the match style and name to his country. Keith Lay, a two-time match winner, spends two days driving north from his home in Bay Springs, Miss., just to shoot the Quigley. They all come for the same reason: to shoot rifles based on designs first crafted in the 1800s — long-shooting, large-caliber, single-shot rifles favored by sharpshooters in the Civil War and later by buffalo hunters.
The past two Quigley events have attracted more than 600 competitors of all ages and abilities. Over two days, the men, women and children who pay the $20 entry fee fire eight shots in a row at six steel targets ranging in distance from 350 to 805 yards. A loud ping registers a hit, the sweet sound of success to a shooter’s muffled ears.
“Hitting the target is my favorite part,” Coker said. “It’s a challenge.”
Out of 48 shots, the most hits on the target wins. The best score ever recorded was a 46.
Ed Tilton of Columbia Falls won the match this past weekend with 43 hits. The number of entrants was down slightly to 568. Once again, the wind — this year light and variable — frustrated the best competitors.
“We had big-time shooters who weren’t even in the top 10,” Coker said.
Lay said the variable winds at the Quigley shoot will often force him to recalibrate his rifle’s iron sights eight times in eight consecutive shots to compensate for the wind’s velocity and direction. In the detailed shooting log that he keeps at his side, Lay has recorded gusts of 25 to 33 mph during shoots. Others have noted winds up to 70 mph.
“And your bullet is going through half a dozen different wind changes on its way to the target, so you have to average them out,” he added, smiling and shaking his head from side to side in a show of respect and disbelief.
“You have shooters who are previous national champions that won’t win here,” Lay said.
All but eight of the shots are taken with the rifle’s barrel resting on crossed shooting sticks, giving the marksman a sturdy and steady rest for long-range firing of cartridges as big as your finger, like the .45-70 and .45-90. But the matches are typically decided in the eight closest shots – “close” still being 350 yards away — fired when the competitors have to hold the rifle aloft, called offhand shooting.
“That makes or breaks the match, the offhand,” said Linda Clendenen, from Amidon, N.D. She’s the nine-time winner of the match’s women’s division. “If it was cross sticks on all of the targets, there would be perfect scores at times.”
The shooting may be the reason for the gathering’s creation and continuation, but it has also evolved into a social event. Vendors hawking everything from smoked pork sandwiches to polished agate jewelry and gun paraphernalia back up trailers and pitch awnings under which they spread their wares.
The vendors are evenly spaced just behind the firing line so shoppers are constantly serenaded by the deep boom of rifles being fired with the … wait for it … clang of a 405-grain lead bullet striking a far-off steel target about two seconds after the rifle’s report. (In comparison, a modern hunting rifle like the .270 shoots a 130-grain bullet.) The shooters’ puffs of fired gunpowder make the air smell like a festive Fourth of July celebration.
The shoppers are anything but ordinary. Instead of carrying department store bags, many push or pull wheeled carts bristling with spotting scopes, one or two rifles, ear muffs, shooting sticks and ammunition. The carts range from designs similar to golf carts to customized ones that look like a tiny covered wagon or a small wooden outhouse.
“We’ve got families who meet here for their family vacation,” Coker said. “They’ll compete for bragging rights until the next Quigley. That, to me, is what this is all about.”
Behind the vendors are rows of RVs and trailers of all sizes, along with tents and the occasional tepee, spread across the wide grassy valley like covered wagons making their way West in the 1800s. The campers are huddled between low-rising, cactus-covered hills – one of which provides the backdrop for the targets. That backdrop is also known as Al Lee’s lead mine.
The event takes place on a portion of Lee’s ranch. He’s one of the shoot’s founders, a match organized after watching the Tom Selleck movie, “Quigley Down Under.” Each year following the match, Coker walks the hillside, picking up the remains of lead bullets to melt down and recast.
“Al is pretty protective of his lead mine,” Coker said. “I mine it and know where to deposit Al’s share in his basement.”
A little luck
Clendenen, the nine-time women’s champ, hopes to one day win the entire Quigley match, something done by only one other woman. Last year, she placed fourth overall. This year, Margo Hanson of Twin Valley, Minn., was the top women’s shooter.
“I like to beat the guys,” Clendenen said with a wide grin. “It’s fun to compete in a man’s sport.”
But there’s no simple formula for success, she added.
“It takes a lot of luck, everything just has to click – your spotter, your bullets, the wind has to be just right,” she said.
Lay, the two-time winner from Mississippi, agreed.
“The good Lord has to smile on you to win,” he said.