Piru, Calif., - Ask someone what it's like to shoot the Steel Challenge, and you'll hear things like "Running on the ragged edge of control," or "It's a rush, trying to hold it all together." Gun racing is a lot like car racing. The shooting itself is simple. Draw, shoot four steel targets and a stop plate. Reload for your next string and holster. Repeat until you've shot the stop plate five times. The farthest target is only 35 yards away, and it's big. Move to the next set of targets and repeat.
Shooting these kinds of stages is a piece of cake - like driving your car around an empty INDY 500 track at 60mph. But like the INDY 500, when someone waves that green flag, or when the beeper sounds here in Piru, everything changes.
Shooting steel as fast as humanly possible is high-octane, high-speed stuff with plenty of instant feedback and laughing at yourself when you mess up. When you come to the Worlds, as I did from Aug. 13-15, you're smack-dab in the middle of California's practical shooting culture, shooting on Mike Thompson's cattle ranch just down the road from an extreme motocross arena. You drive by the "Red Bull" billboards and huge earthen berms used by the highflying motorcyclists along the road to the range. Roadrunners, quail, and even cattle make themselves scarce while the top dogs of shooting fight it out for the one of the most prestigious and lucrative prizes in the sport. It's a match done in California style. Like the bumper sticker says, "Go big, or go home."Steel Challenge competition is intense for a reason. The LAST guy in the main match had a choice of several prize packages worth at least $300. It's still a lighthearted event, run largely by volunteers, but when the winner takes home a minimum of $5,000 in cash, and each STAGE is worth $700 cash ($500 for second, $300 third) everybody is "going for it" on every string. Cash prize options extend down to 25th, with special-category awards sprinkled about like confetti: Top Iron-Sight Revolver, High Lady, High Junior, Top IDPA Custom Defensive Pis-
tol, you name it. The rimfire match alone gave away something like eight prize guns, some for placement, some by random draw. The prize philosophy of the match founders (Mike Dalton and Mike Fichman) is to reward the top end, but to share the wealth generously with the rest of the pack. Guys finishing near the middle of the pack are what fuels practical shooting - and they had their pick of prize packages worth in the neighborhood of $600.
"The Mikes" designed Steel Challenge with media coverage in mind. Even the sponsor's banners are laid out in such a way that they will catch the camera's eye. True to plan, media reps brought so many cameras this year that I heard the first complaints about camera shutter noise! Normally Front Sight has the only remotely-operated camera on the range, but this year we found ourselves coordinating wavelengths and radio frequencies with the other remote- camera-operators around us - including Yasunari Akita, shooting for "GUN" magazine of Japan. On the TV side, John Scoutten and the Shooting USA crew were here, doing interviews and moving in close behind the range officers to get close-ups.
Thanks to that high media value and deep prize table, all the "big dogs" come with their game faces firmly in place. Times that would have won regional and state events across the West this year barely penetrated the top 40 in Piru. World records were set, particularly among the women, and the top shooters put on a great show.
This year's top shooters overcame a major shortage in ammo and reloading components the likes of which Americans haven't seen for decades. With
primers all but gone, and .22 ammunition supplies fleeting at best, market forces spoiled many a shooter's hopes long before the first shot was fired. Economic hardship, high gas prices, and the menace of California gun laws all played a role inkeeping shooters at home. Where last year the Steel Challenge saw 231 main-match registrations, this year saw 192.
"Ammo is horrible!" proclaimed Doug Bamforth, the practice range attendant. "Some people want it and can't get it, others can't afford it. Especially .22 - big shortage of that." Witness the comments of Emanuel Bragg, one of the top shooters on the practical shooting scene. I asked "Manny" why he wasn't shooting a .22 this year. "I would if I could find one that worked," he replied. He, like others, was having a terrible time finding a gun and ammunition combination that would be reliable long-term. As a breed, .22s are notoriously ammo-sensitive, so just having "ammo" isn't enough. I watched Mike Carden suffering through ammo-related jams on the line as he tried to make the only .22 ammunition he could get, work. I know others who just couldn't get what they needed and stayed home. In Carden's case, the brand he could get had a heavy layer of lubricant on the bullets. That ammo sat in the sun a little too long, and the lube softened and flowed to one side before re-hardening. You can imagine the results. "I'm actually thinking of making a chamber gauge for the .22," says Carden. "This sucks!" Long before the match I got calls at the USPSA office from competitors looking for CCI Mini-Mags (considered by many to be the go-to ammo if you're having trou- Glock’s Randi Rogers flashes into action.
Despite all those problems, the number of rimfire competitors held even this year compared with 2008. As one of SCSA's stats officers pointed out, rimfire has one of the highest percentages of people who come to shoot that division only, of all the divisions/categories available. By not shooting rimfire (as he did last year) Bragg was out of the running for Steel Master, arguably the most prestigious prize of the lot. Steel Master is a composite of Open, Limited, and Rimfire scores, and carries an additional $1,000 purse.
Among the missing ladies, Lydia Cuyong and Rebecca Jones were sorely missed. Cuyong was second lady in 2008, Jones fourth lady and fourth OVERALL in the rimfire match. Into their shoes stepped Tori Nonaka, protégé of the Abbate racing machine. Jessie herself was in high form, coming off a commanding win at the US National Steel Shoot earlier this year. 16-year-old Nonaka got connected with the Abbates earlier this year at a Pro-Am shoot, and with her parents' permission moved in with them to train for Steel Challenge. She'd been staying with them for a month The Prize Board. Each competitor has a list of all the merchandize prize packages by prize number and approximate value. (Top shooters can choose either a check, OR a merchandise prize.) When their turn comes, they walk up to “the board” and pick from the remaining numbers. and a half when the first timer beeped in Piru.
The effort paid off in a big way, both for Nonaka and, apparently, for the Abbates. Nonaka would ride off with the junior Production title at 132.59, and Jessie would lay claim to EVERYTHING her hands touched. Top lady rimfire, top lady Limited, and high lady overall, for a perfect trifecta leading to another Ladies' Steel Master cup. Jessie's earlier successes had already set off a bow wave of reputation. Before the match started I'd been hearing about how much she'd improved over last year. Turns out the rumor mill had it right. Jessie shot well enough this year that she would have won last year's match with her LIMITED GUN.
This year's 104.79 with a Limited gun beat her nearest Limited competitor by some distance, and nearly skunked second- place finishing Kay Miculek, whose 104.14 with an Open gun was excellent in its own right. When Abbate strapped on her Open gun (an SJC-tuned Glock), she became what I believe is the first woman ever to break the 100-second mark (94.94), finishing at 18th overall. Winning rimfire with a custom S&W model 41, she finished 6th overall, nine seconds behind the leader. She put on an amazing performance,
to say the least! The Melting Pot Like most practical matches, shooters at the Steel Challenge World Speed Shooting Championships rub shoulders with some of the top guns from around the world. However, the Steel Challenge draws from a much wider spectrum of shooters than a typical USPSA event. Rimfire competitors with full-on "race" .22's (complete with scopes and compensators) shoot sideby- side with iron-sighted .38 revolvers and USPSA Production-legal 9mm pistols. Whole squads of Japanese semipros (many sponsored by Airsoft gun manufacturers) mingle with squads of 30 FRONT SIGHT • November/December 2009 Of art and arms. Shooters fired this Tactical Solutions .22 in one of the side matches. Standard-bearer for the Japanese squads, Tetsuya Sakai placed fifth. guys with race-tuned eight-shot revolvers. It's the crossroads of practical shooting. I particularly enjoy watching "Team Loaded" and what Ichiro Nagata
refers to as "Ichi's Army" making their way across the course. Despite very limited access to "real" guns, the Japanese are a force to be reckoned with. Go to www.steelchallenge.com and look at the result; you'll see Japanese names throughout the top 100, starting at No. 5.
That first name is the soft-spoken Tetsuya Sakai of Kanagawa, Japan. Sakai has won the Steel Challenge in past years, shooting a single-stack 1911 from his radical double-bent-elbow Weaver stance. He's a quiet force on SS1, wearing plain street clothes and shooting a pistol that looks like someone bolted it together usingspare parts and Bondo. He's surrounded by guys adorned with all the beautiful high-tech equipment and uniforms money can buy, but when the guy in the grey shirt starts whipping out that wonky-looking single-stack, everyone pays attention. NOT In The Army Now The winners of the last several Steel Challenge World Championships have come from the US Army Marksmanship Unit. However, past champions KC Eusebio and Max Michel both rotated out of the AMU this year, leaving Cowboys at Steel Challenge. Clyde Harrison defeated many with his brace of .38 Special single actions. no AMU representatives on the Super Squad. Max signed on with Sig, KC with Limcat, and both found themselves back in Piru, trying to stay ahead of SV's Steel Master BJ Norris, Glock's Dave Sevigny, and Limcat's JJ "Razor" Racaza.
Steel Challenge has no "safe-harbor" effect, so if you have an equipment problem, or just leave your brain in the car, your sins go directly to your scorecard. USPSA events, for example, only have so many points at stake on each stage. Similarly, each shot in a bullseye match is only worth 10. If your gun dies, or you shoot badly, you can only LOSE so much. Steel Challenge shooters know you can be winning by 30 seconds (an eternity), but lose the match in the last two strings. This idea came to mind strongly as I watched "Outer Limits" - the one stage at the match that involves movement. In it you shoot two shots from one box (one at an 18X24" steel rectangle 35 yards out) then move six feet to a second box where you shoot three more (including another 35-yard rectangle).
Ideally everything will happen in five seconds or less with no wasted shots - ideally. I watched Angus Hobdell shoot his 10-shot Dan Wesson empty, then start a satirical chorus among his squadmates, cheering "I love this stage!" I'd just seen a talented wheelgunner on this stage try to shoot a ninth shot out of his eight-shooter and do a standing reload against the clock. It felt like watching an INDY 500 car grind down the wall.
Out of Hobdell's smoke and flying tires emerged a little blue car driven by BJ Norris. His steady shooting prompted even Rob Leatham to quip, "Now HE is good." His combined time of 12.84 would be beaten only by his own Limited score of 12.56, and the hot-shooting Todd Jarrett, at 12.55. BJ Norris won the Steel Master title in 2008, and would do so again in 2009, but KC Eusebio and Max Michel have been trading the main match title back and forth for some time. As the "Open" day elapsed, the leader board looked a lot like past years, only with BJ and Sevigny working their way toward the top.
Controlled aggression is seen as a ticket to success on “Smoke & Hope.” From the first shot (left), S&W’s Julie Golob swings her While many of the top women use an aggressive stance akin to this, Golob’s for a back injury that limits her ability to turn at the waist. ROs deducted time from your run. SCSA did away with that when KC's "option" times started threatening to go sub-zero. KC set the standard again here, and with that, he was back in the hunt.
Going into the last stage, Para-Ordnance's "Accelerator," Max Michel had a slight lead, leaving the door open ever-so-slightly for BJ Norris. The match was Michel's to lose, but as I said earlier, two bad jams and you're out. Several shooters met hard endings here, including more flying tires and smoke from Angus Hobdell and an even more unfortunate Phil Strader (whose rear sight kept trying to fall off). KC laid down some strong times, but suffered from an abundance of make-up shots before nailing down a final run of 2.58. It wouldn't be enough. BJ slammed in two beautiful 2.4-second runs before a jam forced him to do a reload on the clock! That 7.14 second gaffe became his throwaway, only to be erased by another 2.4, and a 2.94. Max stepped into the box and mowed down his first set of targets with his usual calm intensity. He raised his hands for the next string, and after the buzzer sounded, multiple voices said "he jumped!" In Steel Challenge, starting to move your hands before the buzzer sounds (called "jumping" or Glock’s David Sevigny brings his Open gun into action as RM Chris Endersby (grey shirt) and RO Dan Gage look on. "creeping") will cost you three seconds - an eternity when you're trying to keep your total time down around 80. The RO, however, didn't penalize Max, launching a flurry of controversy. "He was moving," the RO said later, "but not enough to get the penalty."Because the string in question was his second-slowest of five similar runs,adding the un-assessed penalty would have changed Max's total time by a mere 1/8th second. In the end, it's a tempest in a teapot. Max won by 2.33 seconds. With the penalty, he won by 2.20 seconds. Michel reigns as champion for a third time, at a total time of 82.09.
While impressive, 82.09 is quite a bit slower than Max's world-record time of two years ago, and KC's 79.16 from 2008. All the top times were slower. I asked him about that after the shooting was over. "Any given day, things can happen," he said, smiling self-consciously. "The reality of competition is that you don't have to shoot your best, you just have to shoot better than everybody else." I couldn't help but think of that INDY 500 analogy once again when Michel said "There are three to five guys here that push each other so much, sometimes a lot of ugliness comes out." While there isn't any 200mph "rubbing" of fenders going on, trying that hard for that long brings some inevitable crashes. "You don't normally have this kind of collision among so many top guns," he explained. "Normally they're segregated by division.
As he said, the intensity of Steel Challenge comes partly from its lack of true "divisions." S&W's Jerry Miculek, for example, could enter in "Open John Bagakis focus on revolver paid off in Piru. He won second Iron Sight Revolver for S&W.
Sight Revolver" and still win the top overall prize. The shared pursuit of that $5,000 silver cup pushes all the top talent onto the same squad.
After the last shots are fired on each day, there's often a rush at the side events. The Ruger rimfire rifle and Vang Comp shotgun events attract small crowds, as do the various singlestage "walkup" events sprinkled around the match grounds. On these last you literally walk up, lay down your $3, and the RO hands you a firearm with supplied ammo. If you post the fastest time or best score on that stage, you win the gun. If you didn't, they throw your name in a hat for another gun to be given away by random draw. It'shard to beat a deal like that, and it gives you a chance to play with a wide range of firearms for a very small price. Of course, the super squad types play this game too, so to win one of the walkups outright, you need to shoot well!
While the Steel Challenge has come back into the limelight over the last five years, it has retained much of its local flavor. As Jamie Foote said, "We could shoot matches anywhere, but we come here for the people." Many of the range officers have worked the same stages at Steel Challenge for years, so for many, Steel Challenge is half a shooting match, and half "old home week." The tradition, the culture, the match, and the prizes have made the Steel Challenge a featured stop on the "tour" off and on for 20 years. If you haven't been to one yet, mark your calendar now for the third weekend in August, once again in Piru, California (just north of LA). We'll see you there!