Intro to Biathlon: Shooting + Skiing = SO MUCH FUN
Since the temperatures are warming up and snow is almost gone here in New Hampshire, I wanted to take time to explain BIATHLON: how it works, what guns are used, and why I love to ski and shoot.
Biathlon is "wicked fun" as they say here in New England. The sport combines cross country skiing and smallbore rifle shooting. As far as I know it is the only shooting sport in the winter Olympics, and it is Europe's most popular winter sport. Across the pond, fans fill biathlon stadiums in below-freezing temperatures with flags and cowbells, cheering enthusiastically for their favorite biathletes. Here in the USA...not so much. A small but passionate community of athletes and supporters are kickstarting biathlon in America, and I really enjoy being part of that community of grassroots biathletes.
When my dad was in the US Marine Corps in the 1980's, he trained in winter warfare and competed in a biathlon as part of the training. He's a great storyteller and he likes to say two things about his biathlon experience: 1. He competed at Lillehammer before it was an Olympic venue and 2. the Marines beat the Norwegians at their own game, even though the Norwegians had better ski technique, due ostensibly to the superior "engines" of the Marines combined with their dead-on accuracy. #humblebrag
Having a good "engine" is incredibly important for biathlon, as I discovered when I took up the sport in 2014 after moving to The Frozen North (a.k.a. New Hampshire). My expert rifle marksmanship did not help me much when I competed against people who were on skis almost as soon as they could walk! When I put slick sticks on my feet... I fall. Over and over again. But I digress, back to biathlon.
What a Biathlon Race Looks Like
Biathlon events are run in a few different formats. The Anchorage Nordic Ski Club did a nice job summarizing the formats in this post. Essentially, a biathlete starts a race by skiing a fixed-distance lap with their unloaded rifle and four magazines on their back.
The first lap ends at the range, where they shoot from either the prone or standing position at a series of five metal targets that are 11.5cm (4.5in) in diameter placed 50 meters from the firing line. These targets flip up to turn from black to white when you hit them. When shooting prone, the plate you are hitting is actually only 4.5cm (1.8in) in diameter, or about the size of the 8 ring on a A-50 NRA smallbore target.
The shooting portion of a biathlon race is a challenge. By the time the biathlete gets to the range after skiing, they are breathing heavily and might have shaky muscles. Their heart rate is high - imagine running (fast) then stopping to shoot at something less than 2 inches in diameter from 50 meters away. It is such a difficult shot to make, but what a thrill it is when the targets fall. Biathletes must be fast as they transition from skiing to shooting. The very best will be fast and "shoot clean", meaning they knocked down each of the five targets in the shooting stage.
When a biathlete misses a target, they must ski a penalty loop (except in individual race formats). That's why tens of thousands of fans flock to biathlon venues like Antholz, Oestersund, and Holmenkollen. Biathletes can move rapidly in rank based on their shooting. If someone blitzes through it they can move up the ranks, and if someone misreads the wind they can quickly lose the position they skied so hard for. The video below shows one of the fastest biathletes on the range, Johannes Thingnes Boe, making it look easy to enter the range, shoot clean and get back to skiing.
Most biathletes are shooting a rifle similar to what Boe is shooting in the video: an Anschutz 1827 Sport rifle. According to Anschutz (pronounced on-shoots), more than 97% of competitors use their rifles in biathlon.
The patented Fortner straight pull action operates very smoothly and can be opened quickly with the index finger and closed with the thumb. The axial action facilitates aiming after repeating because the loading process is carried out by the wrist and it is not necessary to move the hand from the pistol grip. Therefore the rifle stays very stable in the position. The elbow does not move which is a great advantage especially in prone position. In addition the extremely short locktime of the Fortner action of 3.5 to 4 m/s combined with the possibility of extremely short repeating is unsurpassed. A further big point is the shooting accuracy of the ANSCHÜTZ cold tested precision barrels manufactured according to a special procedure.
The Fortner action is really cool and deserves a post of its own. Here's an image from Fortner-Biathlon showing the straight-pull, speedy bolt in action. It is *not* a semi-automatic, since those are not allowed in biathlon. It *is* very quick and easy to cycle a Fortner style straight-pull bolt.
The other option that people will shoot with is the Izhmash biathlon rifle. This is harder to come by in the USA nowadays and the lever mechanism used is slightly more cumbersome than a Fortner straight-pull bolt, so it is less popular than the Anschutz. I haven't compared accuracy between the two models, though that is on my list of "tests I'd like to do..."
Most elite biathletes use a custom wood, composite, or aluminum stock, from what I've observed in the world cup races. The stock must be lightweight enough to carry on their back without getting fatigued, but heavy enough to meet the 3.5 kg (about 8 pounds) minimum weight. Stocks also feature magazine storage and cutouts to hold extra rounds of ammunition for use in relay races.
Precision Shooting, But It's Still a Race
Ultimately biathlon is a race. Accurate shooting is critical, for sure. But skiing matters more. That's why most of the competitive biathletes are skiers who pick up target shooting skills and learn to transition between the speed of skiing and the deliberation of shooting. That doesn't stop a slowpoke like me from trying, though. I even got coworkers together to attend a biathlon clinic last winter in Vermont and a few of us stuck it out for the race series at a club further north in New Hampshire. Biathlon gives me something to look forward to in the long New England winter!