A few months ago, I published an article about the devices and apps the top precision rifle shooters were using to calculate their ballistics. We saw that 76% used a Kestrel Ballistic Weather Meter, and 22% used some kind of phone app (see the data). However, most shooters don’t ever touch a Kestrel or their phone while they’re on the clock shooting a stage at a rifle match. Match directors create stages with tight time constraints and/or barricades to intentionally induce stress. Fumbling with buttons and electronics under stress is not a great plan, and inevitably that’s the kind of situation when my device might start acting up. I always try to minimize the number of things that require my focus while I’m on the clock.
New Shooter Note: When I refer to “dope” or adjustments, I’m talking about the output from your ballistic calculator for what your elevation and windage corrections should be for specific distances for your rifle, ammo, and environmental conditions.
Most shooters use a Kestrel or phone app to calculate their adjustments for each target prior to starting a stage, and write down those adjustments on a wrist coach like quarterbacks wear or an index card they attach to a dope card holder on their rifle. A few guys may just write it down on a notepad they lay beside them during a stage, but most prefer an option that is attached to you or your rifle so when you move positions during a stage your dope goes with you – again, minimizing the number of things that require your focus while you’re on the clock.
This part of the precision rifle game is something that can trip up new shooters and make their first match harder than it has to be. My first rifle match was certainly that way! It was Steel Safari at the Blue Steel Ranch in New Mexico, which is a 3-day match. At the end of the first day, my buddy and I drove to the nearest sporting goods store (a 4-hour round-trip to Amarillo) to buy a QB wrist coach! Day 2 and 3 were much, much better. Tip: Use a wet-erase marker (not a dry-erase).
In this post, I want to try to help the guys who might be in a similar situation by providing some ideas for how other shooters manage their dope on a stage. There also seems to be some new, innovative products coming on the market, so we’ll look at some of those in this article as well.
The example below shows what my dope card typically looks like on a stage. This example has 3 targets, and for each one I wrote down the distance, my elevation adjustment, and my holds for the lowest and highest winds I think I might experience on the stage. In this example, I’m guessing the wind will likely be between 9 and 14 mph. Wind can (and does) change either right before your timer starts or even while you’re on the clock shooting the stage, so I find it helpful to write down more than one wind hold. Having your adjustments written down in an easy-to-reference format keeps you from having to push buttons or try to read a screen while you’re on the clock.
How I Use 2 Wind Calls: Like most shooters, I prefer to dial my elevation correction (when given enough time) and hold my wind correction. In the example above, I estimated the lowest wind I’d see would be 9 mph and the highest would be 14. My actual wind call was 11 mph, so that’s what I’d start off holding on the first target. The holds are 0.5 and 0.75 mils, so I’d start by holding in the middle, placing 0.6 mils on the center of the target. Let’s say I got a hit on the target at 460 yards and moved to the 2nd target at 607. The wind holds for the 2nd target are 0.6 and 1.0 mils, so I’d hold in between again at 0.8. Let’s say I got another hit, but I noticed my impact was on the right edge, and that meant I should’ve held for more wind to center the shot. If I have time, I will quickly put the reticle back on the target with the same hold (0.8 mils on the center of the target) and look where the actual impact was on my windage axis. Let’s say the impact was closer to the 1.0 mil mark, meaning the net effect of the wind is 14 mph and I should be running closer to the upper end of my bracket. I wouldn’t question it, or send another round with the original hold – I’d trust the bullet and make the adjustment. Now as I transition to target 3, I know I should lean toward the upper end of my bracket, which at 894 yards is 1.7 mils. Now if we replay that same stage and on the first target I hit the edge on the other side, I’d shift to holding that 9 mph wind and lean toward the lower side of my bracket as I stepped out to the other targets. Occasionally I might end up outside my bracketed range, like if it would’ve taken 1.2 mils to center the shot on the 2nd target. In that case, I’d know I need to be just above my upper wind hold on the 3rd target and I’d probably hold 2.0 mils. I find having both low and high wind holds written down makes it easier to adjust on the fly during a stage and apply knowledge gained from one target to the next.
Being able to quickly adapt to changing wind conditions in the heat of the moment is something that separates the best shooters from the novice. I’ve heard veteran shooters suggest making bold wind corrections, and not missing on the same side of the target twice. Also, fine-tuning your wind call and applying knowledge from previous shots so that you are centering your impacts as you step out can increase your odds of cleaning a stage. I’ve found that writing down a low and high wind call like this before the timer starts can help, and it also increase the odds you aren’t caught off-guard if the wind changes right as you pick up your rifle to go to the line to start.
Sometimes if targets are scattered on a stage, and it seems like I might have trouble finding targets behind the scope or remembering the locations/distances for each one, I may draw a quick sketch of the scene showing a couple major landmarks and target locations, and then write my adjustments beside each target. The example to the right has the same 3 targets and data as the previous example, but with a few landmarks and the target shapes.
I personally use a Hawk Hill Rifle Mounted Data Holder ($120) on most my rifles. I like that it can mount directly to a Spuhr scope mount and its pretty rigid with detents that allow you to snap it into a few different positions and it stays in place as you move through a stage. Hawk Hill also makes a version that mounts to a picatinny rail, if you aren’t running a Spuhr mount.
The Sidewinder Dope Card Holder ($30) is another product that provides similar functionality at a much lower price. I’ve seen more shooters at rifle matches using a Sidewinder to keep track of their dope on the clock than another other product. The Sidewinder was actually created by one of the top PRS shooters, Marcus Blanchard.
Another unique product I recently noticed is the PRC Dope Roller, which is designed to attach to a quick-detach (QD) sling attachment. One clever feature is they’re designed to use the standard 1” x 3” address label stickers. Here is what the manufacturer says about this design: “A number of mountable options also exist to display ballistic data through card attachments or digital readouts, but these products are all large, cumbersome, and limit peripheral vision with the shooter’s non-dominant eye. The DOPE Roller provides a compact and easily readable solution to help solve this problem.”
There are a ton of ways you could keep track of this stuff, and it largely comes down to personal preference. What works well for one person may not work well for another. I’ve even seen a 3D printed dope card holder! I wanted to share a few examples for new guys, but don’t want to present any option (including mine) as “the right way” to do it.
If you have a useful method for keeping track of this stuff, please share it with the rest of us in the comments!
Writing your adjustments down on paper is a fairly reliable and fail-proof solution. That means you’re not fumbling around with buttons while stress is high, and it also means the batteries won’t die on you or the device won’t start acting up at an inopportune time. The only thing you might have to plan for is what you’d do if it rains, but there are some simple options to keep the paper from getting wet and smearing: Rite in the Rain pens/paper, small Ziploc bags, or a wrist coach).
Having said all that, I’ve noticed a couple new products that provide shooters with an alternate solution to viewing your data while on a stage.
One problem with using your Kestrel or phone is the display can be difficult to read in bright sunlight. Enter the E-Dope Card ($130), which uses “electronic paper” similar to a Kindle or other e-reader. Unlike conventional backlit displays that emit light, the display on electronic paper reflects light like paper, which makes them much easier to read in direct sunlight. They also have a wider viewing angle than most light-emitting displays. Electronic paper can hold static text indefinitely without electricity, so they don’t run batteries down like other displays. It seems like a pretty ideal technology choice for this application.
One caveat is the E-Dope card only works with Android phones. To load dope on the E-Dope card, you type in the values you want it to display on your phone in either the E-Dope app or the Kestrel Ballistics Link app. The manufacturer says you can enter an indefinite list of stages with multiple targets. Then you hold the back of your Android device to the front of the E-Dope card, and you’ll see a status bar showing the transfer progress and eventually “Transfer Complete.” Pretty cool tech, although there isn’t a huge advantage over paper – unless you have messy handwriting that is hard to read under stress. I have to admit that my OCD nature does love how neat it is! There are multiple ways you can format your data:
Garmin Foretrex 701 Ballistic Edition
The Garmin Foretrex 701 Ballistic Edition ($500) is a device with a 2” display that is designed to wear on your wrist, but I’ve also seen shooters simply attach it to a dope holder on a rifle to keep it in front of them (shown below). Like the Kestrel weather meter, the Garmin device has integrated environmental sensors and this “Ballistic Edition” model also has the Applied Ballistics engine built in so it can be a stand-alone ballistic solution. I’ve been using one for a year now, and there are certainly some situations that wearing a ballistic computer on your wrist is fairly ideal, especially with such a big screen on it.
Notice the picture of the Foretrex on the right lists 5 targets, including the distance and elevation adjustment for each, and two wind holds. This is similar to the bracketing I mentioned at the top of the article, and a useful feature.
There are a couple things worth mentioning that differentiate this from a Kestrel weather meter. First, the Garmin Foretrex 701 doesn’t have the ability to measure the wind at your position. Also, while it does have sensors to measure on-site, real-time air pressure (i.e. station pressure), it doesn’t have sensors for temperature or humidity – you must manually enter those values. In my mind, those small differences give the edge to the Kestrel still being the 100% one-stop-shop, stand-alone ballistic solution. However, the Garmin Foretrex is wrist-mounted GPS, so it can automatically pull in your exact location and use the latitude so the solver can properly adjust for Coriolis. The Kestrel doesn’t have integrated GPS, so it simply provides a field for you to input the latitude manually. Last, but not least, the Garmin Foretrex 701 Ballistic Edition provides a couple of different heads-up display views that are very useful, even while on the clock. The 2” screen simply provides much more real estate than the Kestrel, which Garmin has put to good use.
The Garmin Foretrex 701 is also a world-class GPS navigator with all the features you’d expect, which comes in handy for hunting, hiking, etc. It even provides a hunt/fish calendar, and sunrise/sunset times. The device is certified to military standards for shock, water, and thermal (MIL-STD-810G), so it is extremely durable. The price on this device is typically around $600, but at the time this was posted there were a few on Amazon right now for $499.
Kestrel Heads Up Display (HUD)
Kestrel is releasing a new heads-up display (HUD) product, which looks interesting. I haven’t seen one of these in person yet, but here’s how they describes it: “The all new Kestrel HUD wirelessly connects to your Kestrel Ballistics Meter so you can easily see shooting solutions for up to 10 targets on this clear, convenient, gun mounted display, providing the fastest, most accessible targeting solution data available. Spotters can feed shooters updated target data on the fly and stage data is ready on the HUD as soon as it’s entered in the Kestrel. Let the HUD do the job of managing your target data so you can focus on shooting and hitting more targets.”
The Kestrel HUD above is showing the “One Single Target” screen, but they have other views, like one that allows you to see the firing solution for up to 10 targets at once (also shown). Notice there are two wind holds displayed. They also have a range card screen, which is like the range card you can access on the Kestrel where you can scroll through columns for various distances. They even have a large font option, for those older guys! 😉 Honestly, the large numbers are welcome, and make it where you don’t even have to move your head out from behind the scope.
There are a couple of other compelling or unique features, especially for competitive shooters:
- Stage Timer & Shot Counter. Knowing your progress through a stage, and how much time you have remaining can help you make better decisions and maximize your score.
- Digital Level. While I’d personally still run a bubble level on my rifle, it’s interesting to have that feature built into this device.
- Remote Switch (Optional). Scroll through targets and send target data to your Kestrel without breaking your shooting position.
Info about this product has been out for a few months, but here is the latest from Kestrel: “Full product release for shipment is scheduled for January, 2020.” You can pre-order them now.
There are a couple of models of the Kestrel HUD:
The Kestrel HUD is compatible with Kestrel 5 Series Ballistics Meters, like the Kestrel 5700 Elite with Applied Ballistics. It isn’t a stand-alone device, but more like an additional/larger display for your Kestrel weather meter. It seems to serve the exact function we’re talking about here, which is how do you take the data from the Kestrel or other ballistic app and view it while you’re on the clock. I’ll definitely try to play around with one at SHOT Show, and it’ll be interesting to see how the shooting community responds to the release.
I still remember the first time one of my shooting buddies told me he bought a dope card holder. I hadn’t heard of such a thing and honestly, I couldn’t figure out why he was so excited about it – but I get it now! If you’ve never tried one, I’d recommend it. The Sidewinder is just $30, and that’s what I typically recommend to my friends … but some of these other products offer some features that are compelling for some scenarios. It’s certainly a fun time to see all these new products come on to the market and compete to help us be more effective.
And remember there isn’t a “best” or “right way” to do this. Honestly, what tool I use changes based on the format of the rifle match. For most PRS/NRL style matches, I like the paper & Hawk Hill Dope Holder I talked about to start off this post. But, I’d probably still use a QB wrist band with wet-erase markers in a match like Steel Safari that consists of unknown distance targets that you have to find, range, and engage all on the clock. In Extreme Long Range (ELR) matches with known-distance targets beyond 2000 yards, I have used the Garmin Foretrex 701 with Applied Ballistics and I’ve also setup multiple targets on my Kestrel Ballistic Weather Meter and just scrolled through them while I was on the clock. I’d suggest to start simple. Make a plan, try it out, and iterate.