Tips and Tricks for the Mammoth Sniper Challenge from a Range Officer and Competitor’s Perspective
Tips and Tricks for the Mammoth Sniper Challenge from a Range Officer and Competitor’s Perspective
This year’s perspective on the Mammoth Sniper Challenge will be partly from “the other side.” After 6 years of competing in this event, I took the opportunity to help my friend and Match Director Chris Andrews by participating as a Range Officer. The Mammoth Sniper Challenge fell under new management in 2019 with Grunt Style purchasing it from founder and Match Director, Joe Harris. This event has been a favorite of mine and others foolish enough to spend a couple nights outside in the elements, ruck up to the point of physical failure and attempt to engage difficult targets from challenging positions. The new management did a good job and that transition, with its triumphs or failures, isn’t the point of this article.
The Mammoth Sniper Challenge polished my field skills; things I was exposed to and developed growing up a farm boy and skills I was turned onto while attending ITS Muster events. The core of those skills is fieldcraft; fire building, knot tying, the art of layering clothing and managing kit to stay warm and dry in the field. One skill I thankfully haven’t needed to deploy since learning it is field trauma care. However, basic foot care and first aid have been useful at events like Mammoth, as well as in daily life. The Mammoth Sniper Challenge, along with a couple other events sprinkled in over the years, forged that mass of skills into a fairly comprehensive and somewhat adequate skill-set. In my opinion, “fieldcraft” has some basic components and this article will focus on lessons I’ve learned as a competitor and now witnessed from “the other side” as an official.
In Order to Finish First…
If we surveyed the pack weights of those who didn’t make the rucks, I feel certain they’d be some of the highest. This is a field match, so leave the bullshit at home. You don’t need an admin pouch on your chest with 4 pencils, 5 pens, an additional pouch inside for your databook, a pouch for your Kestrel, a pouch for your spotting scope, your 3-Gun pistol belt rig, or even a pouch for your ear pro. Your Eberlestock, Mystery Ranch or surplus ALICE Pack have places for all that stuff.
As many participants have learned, finishing the event is the number one priority. If you didn’t complete the rucks you didn’t see the Prize Table and more importantly, you didn’t get to cross the finish line. Ask any team that finished if they’d trade their prizes for the badge of honor earned by crossing the finish line and I guarantee not many would, not even the winners.
You’ll read stories and I can tell you some of my own of team’s breaking down Friday or Saturday night at the campsite, saying they can’t go on. A couple years ago I listened to a guy literally panic out, shivering, eventually calling for an extract from the campsite and mind you, this was a combat veteran. My team stood on top of Golf Course Hill at Rockcastle, one of only a handful of non-SOF teams that made it, one Mammoth Saturday night. I regard my team’s finish in 2017 as one of my proudest accomplishments, with no mention of the order in which we browsed the prize table.
The old racing adage is “in order to finish first, at first you must finish,” so let’s start there. Focus on the weight of your gear as your first priority and make your ancillary gear used to hit targets second. Let the event staff carry your water. If the rules state that water must be provided on all stages, hold them to it. Hydration bladders full of water can reach 10 lbs. so carry an empty Nalgene Bottle and dump it before each ruck. Certain items should also be considered “team gear.”
Spotting scopes are included in team gear, as are JetBoils and any tooling you decide to carry. Establishing the team gear concept is a good way to start focusing on weight. When your partner’s ruck weighs in at 60 lbs. and you have to carry all of the ancillary shooting gear because you’re at 47, you’ll start pushing back. You don’t each need a JetBoil. If your partner wants the tripod, he may need to factor that weight out of the team gear balance and carry it himself. I’m not promoting arguing here but teaming up to pack your kit is a good start to minimizing weight.
PRS and 3Gun Are Not Field Events
The Mammoth Sniper Challenge is a field event and your local Precision Rifle Shooting or 3Gun matches aren’t, so your kit shouldn’t be the same. “But I need to practice with what I use,” you say? You should, but you won’t use that gear at Mammoth, so practice with what you’ll actually use. If you and your partner have missed time at an event or two, you may need to back that 10 lb. tripod rig out of your kit and practice making hits without it.
The 2019 winner used a small version of the Reasor bag that they sliced open and filled with sand at each stage. As a competitor I watched people drop from within my squad and as an RO I saw everyone and their gear in use on shooting stages. Aside from weight, I saw failures from kit that wasn’t field-rated. Fiber optic sights for your race pistol aren’t field-grade and the ground at our stage was littered with some.
Of all the stages at the 2019 event, ours (Lateral) was one where I think a tripod would’ve been handy. No one used one. The top scoring teams used a rear bag and bipod, some had larger light pillow bags on their knees. Roach clip style data card holders aren’t field-grade and our stage was littered with cheap components related to data card holders as well. I wonder how the dry erase wrist-boards worked Friday as it poured rain for 5 hours straight? I know my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and pens worked perfectly.
The winners this year did use a Kestrel and were able to tell me to “suck it” after the event, as I cautioned against relying on one. However, I firmly believe that you should have data cards printed out in 1000’ DA increments with you so that you have absolutely zero reliance on battery powered devices. You don’t have time, by design, to fully set up your Kestrel with your position, target azimuths, wind and such. At the 2017 Event, it was so cold at that Mammoth Sniper Challenge that most battery operated units stopped functioning. Yes, I carry my Kestrel but I’m saying don’t rely on it on a stage; my goal is to buy the basic unit that just does DA because that’s mainly what I use mine for. Teams that used range cards got DOPE on their rifles faster than those who scrolled through their Kestrels.
Other Common Issues in the Mammoth Sniper Challenge
45-degree iron sights aren’t required on your secondary AR-style rifle. Holographic sites aren’t needed on pistol or rifle, I know that sounds crazy. My optimal pistol for this event would’ve been a Glock 26 with factory night sights and G17 magazines. A pistol for a field event should be light and rugged, like a carry pistol with low profile steel sights in lieu of your fiber optic high-rise fancy 3Gun sights. I noticed some teams had a lack of continuity in pistols and some teams were even shooting different calibers! At our stage, teams were using a ton of pistol ammo and for those who shot it Saturday, many were running out. Not only should teams shoot the same caliber pistol, but there’s a distinct advantage to having the same magazines. Some teams were able to toss their partner a pistol mag, while others dug through their packs to find ammo or even worse, not be able to score any more points because they didn’t hit all of their targets to move on.
Next up is over magnification, let’s talk about it. For those who shot our stage at the Mammoth Sniper Challenge, how many were required to adjust their “zoom” down? How many folks didn’t see the first primary target? The answer to those who didn’t shoot the stage is more than half. Not to sound too old school, but over magnification is one of, if not the biggest issue we saw on our stage. There’s a case for zooming in on the target I guess, I’m not doubting that, nor do I care to hear the arguments for it, because they’re so numerous.
Competitors who engaged the second target as if it were the first target, didn’t score many points on the stage. They obviously had the wrong DOPE and if they didn’t call the range lane markers and just called the target distance and shape, they didn’t have the spotter on the correct target. We had people that made follow-up shots on the wrong target after scoring hits on the correct target because recoil knocked them off the target and their narrow field of view on follow up had them on the wrong target.
Not only is that an indictment on field-of-view, but on natural point of aim and building a solid shooting position. I shot a stage at an event last year that had full IPSC targets at 400, 600, 800 and 1000 yards. I finished the stage on 9x power going 2 for 2 on the 1000 yard plate, with a .308. Keeping a wide field of view helps with mirage and spotting trace or other bullet indicators.
Many folks shooting our stage carried a crate we had (shown in the photo above) all the way to the far end of the orange “box.” This was something the three of us RO’s would laugh about; we’d make gestures to each other during the stages when someone would do something silly. One team finally stopped as soon as they reached the orange box and our spotter threw his hands up gesturing “FINALLY!” Keep in mind we were very cognizant not to do anything to offend any competitors, we know how it is under the pressure of time and we’ve all made silly mistakes, just understand that over the course of 3 days we RO’s interact with each other too. Back to carrying the crate, seconds matter and you may not need to run the extra 20 feet? Also, the spotter was set up on the right side, the side closest to where the crate was carried from. That’s a huge indicator, as the spotter will nearly always be set up in a location that gives him a clear view of the targets.
Communication is Key
The Mammoth Sniper Challenge is a team event, right? Another major takeaway for me from the 2019 Mammoth Sniper Challenge was that I want to spend more time developing my communications protocol. The SOF boys who’ve trained as snipers set the benchmark for team comms. Their interaction was clear, concise, low in emotion and regimented.
On the same topic, I saw how some guys negatively interacted with each other. I’m not throwing rocks out of my glass house here, my partner and I nearly came to blows after the last stage of the 2015 event. I’m saying I learned a bunch from watching people interact negatively. Be a nice guy and a good teammate. I heard some serious belittling and cursing at each other! Is that part of my bad side? Yes. Was it highlighted to me in the RO position to where I want to remove it from my repertoire? You’re damned right.
You can blow a stage and still win this thing, don’t pile on by being an ass. Support your teammate. There’s no good argument for not being with your partner at the end of each ruck. No one cares if you demonstrate you could make time when your partner couldn’t, people care that the team made it. What if your partner drops something, or their ruck straps break? What if they need you to tie their shoe? What if they’re thinking of quitting when your support and encouragement could’ve made the difference? Totally unrelated to your team and from a squad leader’s perspective, accountability is important. When you cross the line without your partner we (the RO’s) have to find him. Lock in with your guy and that’s that.
The Toll: Be Prepared to Pay the Man(moth)
Over the years I’ve had conversations with friends and fellow competitors about comparing the different divisions of the Mammoth Sniper Challenge; Extreme Tough Man (staying outside) vs. Regular and Open teams. Before you represent anything other than “there’s no comparison” when comparing scores to a team that competed in ETM with those who slept in a bed, had a shower and a full hot meal, understand in fact there’s no comparison. This was another very strong perspective I gained from the RO side.
Yes, I’ve competed in ETM for many events but you can’t really see the effects as well as you can from the freshly showered and fed side of things. As an RO I saw the degradation of teams from Friday to Sunday. I had two folks attempt to run forward and left after shooting the pistol targets from the right side of the trailer, a path that eventually would’ve lead them right into their teammate’s gunfire. The mental drain is real and the responsibilities of an RO are just as real.
As an ETM Mammoth Sniper Challenge competitor, you must focus on taking care of yourself. The efficiency of movement is critical, as is fueling your body. Most of us experience sore feet and knees after standing around all day, I definitely did in the role of RO. As a competitor, you must stay off your feet any time you can. A huge benefit to the ALICE pack is that you can sit down with it on your back and get back support. Sitting down without back support is great for your legs but sometimes more detrimental to your back and core. Find something to support your upper body and fuel yourself. You will need 2x or more daily calories than your normal amount.
Part of your planning should be a detailed food plan with calories and fat content. Keep in mind that morale food works, a package of Raspberry Crumble (AKA the lord’s crumble), Astronaut ice cream sandwiches, or something other than freeze-dried Mountain House will go a long way to keeping you mentally in the game. The talk in our meetings was to watch out for zombies on Saturday and Sunday, people will be out of it. These guys knew it was coming and it did! Your brain needs nutrients and hydration to function well, so not feeding it is a recipe for disaster.
If you’re keeping score, this puts ancillary shooting props at priority 3 now, with low weight first and food second. Yes if you’re 100% gristle you can make the weekend on 10 Cliff bars, but I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that your scores with 15 lbs. of shooting support gear and a B.S. food plan will be lower than if you’d shed the extra weight, fed yourself properly and treated yourself to a little something sweet Saturday night. My standard would be regular Mountain House for breakfast and lunches, the fancy Pad Thai or Chicken and Mashed for dinner, along with a package of salmon steak packed in oil. Oh and let’s not forget some of the Lord’s own Raspberry Crumble for dessert! (Editor-in-Chief’s note: Yes, it’s really that good) All in though, food weight was still less than 7 lbs.
None Shall Pass
No one will complete the Mammoth Sniper Challenge without pre-paying some of the tolls. For a Regular Guy (RG) to finish this event you must train for months, as the lightest pack you can assemble won’t get you by on its own. You can search out plenty of training plans for rucking; Mountain Tactical has 10’s of online training programs tailored to whatever selection style course you are trying to pass, all of which would be great for this event. In addition, the Army has tons of stuff out there as does GORUCK. I went with a basic program of rucking with squats, some curls (for the girls of course) and yoga. If you don’t do yoga you should, but seriously if you don’t, you need to learn how to stretch. I’m mainly talking to my fellow 35+ guys out there. Ladies and gentlemen, stretching is the number one factor that helps with training and competition pain, as well as injury avoidance. If you only do the bare minimum here you should pack light, ruck for a couple of months and stretch.
As far as rucking, it’s my opinion that you should be familiar with the weight on your back. I know a very good RG competitor that always rucks light and I respect his process but I don’t want the first time I feel 60 lbs. to be Friday morning at 0600. For me, starting 3 months out I’ll ruck with a Sandbag Pill (approximately 30 lbs.) at a reserved pace for a couple of days to a week. Once I’m feeling good I’ll push my pace and go hard to get as fast as I can. Then I’ll add 10 or so pounds and go easy again, building up to trying to smash the clock. Repeat.
I’ll build that up until I’m at 55 lbs. or so and moving well. If the time hack is 16 minutes and you’re rucking 5 lbs. more than your estimated competition pack weight at 15 minutes or below, you’ll make it. You should also have hills in your route, but if you don’t you’d better be a couple of minutes below time. Even at that, it’s hard to train for the suck of a long hill without doing a long hill. Try to find one. Don’t forget to practice your stretching too; it’ll help keep the pain down and reduce the chance of injury. I can tell you that that you won’t sleep better than on Saturday night at the Mammoth Sniper Challenge, after a hard 2 days of physical exertion, a good dinner topped off by the Lord’s Crumble and a solid 20 minutes of stretching. That stretching, combined with copious amounts of high-quality H20, will flush the lactic acid out of your muscles and have you as good as you can be to kick Sunday (and the last ruck) in the teeth.
…At First You Must Finish
This is already deeper into the weeds than I intended to get, but much is to be shared and learned about training and kit. Yes, you need to know how to tie a bowline and taught-line-hitch with paracord to make your camp better, whether supporting your tent better or hanging up clothes. Yes, you need to know that cotton is rotten and yes, for the Veterans reading this, the regular Army or Marine Corps didn’t teach you those things.
The point here is that the Mammoth Sniper Challenge is a serious endeavor and the first couple hours of the event prove, every single year, that 10-20 teams didn’t see it that way. It’s as close to doing a field op as many of us will ever get. The draw of it for many Regular Guy’s is to do SOF shit with your SOF friends. As an RG you’ll live in the field with real operators from most branches including SF, Rangers, Delta, MARSOC and Recon, as well as more regular units that kick ass for America.
And guess what? If you’re a solid PRS shooter that practices hard, physically trains harder and has solid fieldcraft, you’ll beat many of them. The 5th Group teams there don’t have the time to dry fire off a barricade for 10 hours a week like many of us Regular Guys do, they’re busy doing their jobs. Many of them come because it’s a great time and they aren’t “at work.” They’ll ruck by you though and they’ll continue to walk until you can’t see them anymore because they’re in great shape. They won’t be tapping out Saturday night when it’s -5 because they have great fieldcraft. They will finish. If you prioritize your fitness, pack weight, fieldcraft and nutrition plan over your shooting support equipment, you will too.
Special thanks to Matt Sprouse Photography for the great photos here in this article and to the Mammoth Sniper Challenge title sponsors, Grunt Style, Vortex Optics and Realtree Outdoors.
Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Jason is a small business owner in Virginia specializing in Physical IT Infrastructure and Electronic Security. He splits his free time between racing cars and all things tactical. Jason is very proud to have attended the Inaugural Muster event with ITS and we’re stoked to have him as a Life Member!