The history of field target (FT) airgun shooting
The history of field target (FT) airgun shooting
With thanks to Richard Welham, writing in July 2019 on the airgunbbs.com. (Richard's father, John Welham, and uncle, Dave Welham, founded the Airmasters airgun tuning company, which was prominent in the 1980s and which Richard worked for too. See this gallery thread and this one for examples of its output.). This ad from July 1986 (thanks to murkywaters on the BBS for the pic):
"Our business was created by our success at Field Target. We wanted to win, pure and simple.
We had a 50’s Bedford coach that my Father and Dave had converted into a caravan and we used to travel the country competing at FT. Travelling with all us Welhams was National Champion Terry Wheeler, John Ford of Sportsmatch fame and his son Matthew, Mark Hicks, Roger Cameron and a few others. They were great days for a young airgun enthusiast. All that airgun talent in one place, discussing new ideas, their latest modifications, what works - what doesn’t. We all learnt so much in a very short time.
Our success led to people asking us to work on their rifles. Our philosophy was simple - accuracy is all that matters. Back then we didn’t give a hoot about aesthetics, recoil, noise, vibration so long as the result produced an edge that won competitions. Terry Wheeler's 45 was ridiculously noisy but by god was it accurate. Our super successful Mastersport is also a gun with a certain ‘hum’ to it and John Ford’s 124 in its Sportsmatch stock was like shooting a box of angry bees. But they were all tack drivers and between us we won many big competitions.
FT was different then though. 30 shots divided into 6 lanes of 5 targets, 90 seconds to shoot each lane, position determined by the target. This meant that you had to shoot and move so we were tuning not only for accuracy but consistency of zero in different positions.
When NARPA collapsed and BASC stepped in, shooting against the clock was removed from FT. Reason being quoting Gerry Turner 'FT is practice for hunting, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to rush their shots’. For many of us at the time this was a massive mistake, we fought against it but it became the norm. This led to most people adopting the FT ‘Cuddle’ hold. With that there came a change in what shooters wanted from their rifles and the HW 77 gave them exactly what they were craving.
The 77k changed everything. The combination of small diameter lightweight piston wrapped in 9lbs of steel and beech opened ours eyes to what was possible and it became the standard platform for 99% of FT rifles.
In all honesty, in my experience, the accuracy gains of any kind of tuning on the 77 are marginal. The biggest gains were to be made in the ergonomics of the stock and trigger and that’s what we really concentrated on.
But we did offer three stages of tune.
Stage 1 . Deburr, new spring, sleeve piston (this was soldered into position), fit piston head, re-lube.
Stage 2 . As above plus a solid guide fitted into the trigger block, top hat and and thrust race to remove torque.
Stage 3 . As above plus glided piston with bronze skirt and ptfe bearing. We designed this not for feel but to isolate the cylinder from any lubrication used on the spring. Then cylinder wasn’t glided, it was just shortened to accommodate the skirt we added to the piston. The piston was fitted with an Original 75 seal. These were fitted with two counter wound springs in the manner of the FWB 300.
So that was the standard offering but if you bought a full FTS and had the time and inclination we also changed the stroke length to suite the individuals style. Our back yard at the shop was 35 metres and we spent a lot of time setting up rifles. We re-barrelled to suite certain pellets, we would venturi cylinders, we tried every possible route with the sole aim of winning FT comps. So when you open one of our race guns, you could find anything.
As to numbers, 75-100 is as mentioned a guesstimate. Chatting to my Dad, we can’t believe we produced more than 100, in fact I would ere more toward the lower number, but most would have been full FTS, the difference in price being marginal between the two.
When launched, the FTS was nearly twice the price of its nearest competitor. When I calculated the cost equivalent at todays prices it suprised me. I calculated this by using the base cost of a 77 in 85 and the base cost today so I think £1700 is pretty accurate.
Airmasters was a brand of the company ‘Knok Down Targets’.
The first knock down targets were very unreliable. They took too much energy to register a hit and when the HW80 came along, before the chrono was introduced, a hit on the faceplate, anywhere above the kill area would trigger the target. So in early ‘82, if you had a .22 80 your kill area was around 4” square.
This was cause for considerable frustration for most competitors so one Saturday afternoon my old man, John, sat down to design a better target. By ‘Any Answers’ the next day he had the design for what would become the ‘Knok Down’ target.
This target was rapidly adopted by NARPA and then BASC and became the standard. Webley became the distributor and that, along with the custom work, created enough income for John and Dave to go full time and to launch shop in Hibbert Street.
The component manufacturing was a very important revenue stream for the business. This became Dave’s main focus, although he was still the main man with anything FWB. We manufactured targets, silencers, trigger shoes, scope mounts, set back triggers, target boxes, etc all onsite."
Mark Comoccio, writing in Gun Mart in February 2017:
"1979 was the year when my obsession took root, Webley launched their punchy Vulcan model, and after doing his research, my good old Dad decided it made sense as a sound investment for our starter gun. But talk about good timing! For no sooner had I successfully negotiated with my parents the delivery of that first air rifle so, what has now become known as the inaugural Field Target competition, was about to be staged.
As just six months down the line, saw dates being bandied around for a ‘Field Shooting Challenge’, as it was termed, and our curiosity was well and truly aroused.
1980 - History In The Making
Camping over night just added to the sense of expectation, and I can still remember unzipping the tent on that glorious summer’s morning, only to be greeted by a friendly gang of the local ducks. It was a happy start, to what panned out as a magical occasion. Meeting on the large field, behind a pub in Magham Down, in beautiful Sussex, the excitement in the air was tangible, as everyone began to queue to get booked in and be allocated a shooting slot. No one really quite knew what to expect, but the bringing together of like minded enthusiasts was always likely to be a success.
These were pre- PCP days of course, and the total mix of hardware on show was intriguing to say the least. The majority came with their break-barrel springers, but there were several indoor match rifles (still only pushing 6 ft/lbs), a handful of pump-up designs, and even a couple of handmade specials. But the total lack of experience and willingness to just enjoy the occasion, made for a quite unique atmosphere. BSA Mercurys and Airsporters and the like, were much in evidence, and with very simple scopes being used if at all, you could certainly call it unsophisticated!
Of course today, we have a selection of reactive knock-down silhouette targets, but back then at Magham Down, in 1980, the format was simple. Each shooter was to move along a firing line and take one shot at each target; with 20 in all. These consisted of a static metal plate in the shape of typical airgun quarry - magpie, crow, rabbit, rat etc., to which a 2” dayglo sticker was stuck on the front, indicating the kill zone. Any hit on the sticker would count as one point, and a marshal would blow a whistle to stop the shooting after each lane, then run up and check the target to confirm a hit or miss! Sounds bizarre and time consuming now, but it all worked well on the day.
Each shooter wore a sticker with their allocated shooter number on their back, and with fantastic weather on tap, it was difficult not to enjoy the occasion. My little Vulcan and open sights, had been set at 25yards, and as crazy as it sounds now, it simply hadn’t occurred to me to check trajectory at any other range! A final score of 4ex 20 would see me burst into tears these days, but back then, I banked the experience, and frankly loved every single second. That day started something big for many people, and the seeds were well and truly sown. The sport of Field Target had arrived, and things would never be quite the same again!
Minds were set racing as to how things could be improved for future events, and of course, it wouldn’t be long before the first knockdown targets were developed. As for my Dad and I, we set about looking for better hardware, and a procession of guns followed; including an upgraded Vulcan, an Airsporter-S, Weihrauch 55T, and an Airsporter -’S’ Centennial.
FT shoots came thick and fast, and those early events soon became an exchange of ideas, as enthusiasts talked about their experiences, and swapped tips for getting the best out of the equipment. Home tunes were soon the order of the day where spring guns were concerned. But my factory standard Airsporter-’S’ shot ok, and my first ever trophy came at Basingstoke’s famous walled garden in 1982, after scoring 23ex25, and shooting everything kneeling, as I did at the time. That bloke Welham won it, if my records are correct, and although I didn’t really know him at the time, I was already snapping at his heels!
Stand out competitions included the wonderfully high profile National Field Shooting Championship, held at Stickledown range at Bisley. Richard Marriott-Smith was the showman running the Sussex Armoury at the time, and he certainly knew how to stage an event. Elsewhere, The Thames Valley Fieldsports Fair had us shooting round the lake at Kempton Park Racecourse- all pretty heady stuff for its day.
When Theoben launched their ground breaking, gas-ram Sirocco, (1982) I was one of the first to invest in the deluxe version, complete with English Walnut stock. A couple of placing medals followed, but what transformed things for me, was when I joined the club at Markyate, in Bedfordshire, around 1983.
Meeting fellow Markyate member, Dave Welham, opened my eyes to a detailed approach to competition shooting, and of course, what lay at the heart of Dave’s early success was his fully rebuilt Feinwerkbau Sport 124. The full Mastersport tune, including a new brass piston skirt, tuned two-stage trigger, new mainspring, and copper slip grease, among other tweaks, put this model into the supergun bracket, and my Dad and I just knew we had to have one. But it wasn’t just top level kit that was about to elevate my performance. I’d noticed the classic over-arm position being used by some good shots, and when I settled down and plastered the bull, using a loan FWB at home, I just knew something very exciting was about to happen.
When my new Airmasters special finally arrived, it didn’t take long before a major breakthrough! Medway Valley in 1984 saw my first ever main event win, and several more were to follow. But 1986 just has to be one of the very best years of my life, helped in no small part due to various Mastersporttuned HW77’s. Forgive my self indulgence, but just looking back at the remarkable statistics, is still a source of great pride. I entered 36 main events, won 11 and was 2nd or 3rd in 12. I even kept a scrap book, realising that this was a rather special time.
I feel privileged to have been a part of the FT scene, having derived so much pleasure from it, and of course it couldn’t have happened in those early days without my good old Dad’s sponsorship and encouragement; not to mention chauffeur services!
Rivalry & Reputations
The rivalry between Airmasters and Venom Arms- played out at shoots around the country was incredibly exciting, and the atmosphere at the top events, with hundreds of competitors and big sponsors, was second to none. Add to that the way my club, Markyate, had effectively become a centre of excellence, with a host of the best FT shots all being members, and it really was a case of right place at the right time. With the likes of Barry McGraw, Roger Cameron, Andy and Reg Grey, latterly Terry Doe, and of course Dave Welham, we had strength in depth, and a formidable team. Winning the National Clubs Cup knock out competition three times was the icing on the cake, and put Markyate well and truly on the map.
So how does FT compare today. Well what really hits you, if you haven’t been to a shoot for a while, is the super-high tech kit: full sized, fully adjustable target stocks, and ultra sophisticated pneumatic actions. Regulated power plants, super light match triggers, and a top class barrel, are prerequisites in this highly competitive arena. So it’s little wonder Air Arms continue to hold such a record of success in the sport, with a succession of dedicated models such as the 100 Series, EV2, and latterly the FTP900.
A key piece of hardware for today’s budding enthusiast remains the range-finding scope however. Today’s FT shooter needs a minimum of 32x magnification, with some of the top shots now stretching to a whopping 80xmag- all in a bid to make parallax adjustment/range finding that bit more precise.
Looking to the future, one of the hottest developments has to be Rowan Engineering’s DSW unit, or Digital Side Wheel, which is a stunning piece of kit that can help relay information to the shooter. It does still rely on the shooter arriving at the initial target distance, but I can’t help feeling a little uneasy at the way it calculates angles of inclination, regarding elevated targets up a tree for example. Undeniably brilliant in its execution, but doesn’t it just take some of the soul away from the sport? Time will tell as to how much it changes things.
FT is sometimes called elitist, but it remains an excellent flagship sport, pushing sporting airguns to the very limit of their performance, and I for one have no problem with that, as it really is true to say that the trickle down affect, of technological advances, quite often benefits basic airgun design in general.
All things considered, my dalliance with Field Target Shooting, and latterly HFT, has admittedly been something of a lifelong obsession; but it’s given me so much to be thankful for- lots of fun, great sport, and great friends. I’m thoroughly enjoying the switch to Hunter Field Target, with its more instinctive approach; but I’ll never lose sight of my roots in FT, and just how lucky I was, to be involved from the start."