Ocean racers call them telltales. They’re little scraps of cloth, like miniature banners, that hang from the shrouds and tell the helmsman the tale of the wind, its direction, strength, whimsical eccentricities and caprices of the moment. If the breeze is fresh and consistent and you have a deep-keeled vessel with a tall rig, you can sail up very close into the teeth of the wind. But if the wind is feeling frisky and having fun with you that day and you’re not paying close attention, you can find yourself lured off in senseless circles or taking an unforeseen blast across the beam that turns the power of your close-hauled sail against you with sudden violence.
Trackers in Africa use bags of ash to tell them about the wind, because if you allow yourself to drift upwind of your quarry, the animal will silently disappear never to be seen again. Or sometimes, in the case of elephant, black rhino and Cape buffalo, a particularly belligerent animal will charge your scent with intent to kill. The wind makes a good if fickle friend, and a deadly dangerous enemy.
Such was the case at the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association World Championship at NRA Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico. The telltales were large red-and-yellow banners flying at the top of tall flagpoles all the way from the 1,000-yard line down to the targets. You couldn’t see the targets with the naked eye, at least I couldn’t see them with my naked eye, but you couldn’t miss the banners if you looked. They whispered secrets in your ear if you listened. They told you how to place all of your shots into the 10-ring, but this information was only of use to you if you did not ignore it, and then only if you were fluent in the exotic 1,000-yard downrange dialect of the big red-and-yellow banners.
I felt like the first time a big white airplane lifted me up from the bowels of Los Angeles and delivered me to the heart of Paris. All kinds of people came up to me, gesticulating and speaking and making faces and all I could think to do was nod my head and smile. I might have felt like this if the straight-out westerly telltale I had been watching from the wheel of an ocean-racing sloop close-hauled on the starboard tack suddenly spun around and pointed east at the same moment the portside telltale broke into some kind of Voodoo dance and froze on a point in some other direction entirely and the vast bleached face of the mainsail wrinkled itself up in a disconcerted frown and stared down at me as though to ask, “Now what?” A question I would not be able to nod my head and smile at, could not afford to ignore for even a second.
There comes a time, and it comes rather soon, when you have to pull the trigger. You have to make the decision to launch your missile downrange right through the westerly tendencies and the easterly proclivities and the northern attraction and southern charm and dizzy second thoughts of your friend and fiend the wind who is holding a butcher knife behind her back not to mention the weird gyrations of the mirages in your scope all the way to that little X which you can’t see but you know is there. Like sailing across the roiling Gulfstream in a counter-current blow toward a narrow harbor enshrouded by fog.
I have spent many years shooting big-bore pistols in combat competition. A 230-grain 45-caliber bullet can be quickly and efficiently delivered to the center mass of a man-size target 15 yards downrange even in the midst of a howling South Florida hurricane. Many of my personal rifles are medium and large-bore guns designed to lay low dangerous game at a range where they are still dangerous -– 9.3x62mm Mauser, .375 Holland & Holland, .404 Jeffery, .416 Rigby, .505 Gibbs -– cartridges designed to put their tremendous power at your disposal with absolute reliability at moderate chamber pressures in the dusty air under the blazing sun of Africa so you never have to take time out during a lion charge to pound your bolt open with a hammer. These are minute-of-angle rifles but if they were two-minute-of-angle rifles it wouldn’t make any difference because I only shoot them standing up. Wind is a factor only if it blows you clean off your feet, not if it bends the trajectory of your bullet a couple of inches at a hundred yards. Oh, I’ve done some long-range shooting as well, all the way out to 500 yards or so, all on storybook days when any slight disturbance of the star-spangled atmosphere could only have come from those fairies hovering above the buttercups over by the babbling brook or the bluebirds singing in the shade trees or the chipmunks tap dancing with their top hats and canes.
In other words, all of my ocean sailing has been done at sea level, as you might expect, not on top of some 6,500-foot mountain in Raton, New Mexico. Thanks only to the coaching of Skip Talbot, surely among the wisest wind wizards there ever was and a man accustomed to shooting groups at 1,000 yards of a size I can occasionally pull off at 50 yards with a 10mm Glock, together with the loan of his hand-built gun and his hand-loaded ammo, I worked up the confidence to give it a shot (so to speak) even though the chance of not embarrassing myself was a long shot (so to speak again). Shooting as a rookie in Hunter Class, for two days I eased myself down belly to the ground, a position I would normally assume only if I were on the enforced payroll of the federal government shooting at something more spirited and spiteful than paper. For hours at a time I lay there prone, visions of Carlos Hathcock dancing in my head, until the blue box that began with 50 pristine cartridges loaded with shiny 750-grain AMAX bullets all standing at attention became the powder-smudged graveyard of 50 spent shells, battered and bruised, empty brass receptacles with Mike Tyson dents in their magnum primers.
I didn’t embarrass myself too badly, thanks again to Skip Talbot. I figured if I couldn’t see the targets I was shooting at nobody else could see them either. I shot a couple of groups that would have blown up the heart of a bull elephant five times over, and a couple more that would have motivated him to look me up in the phonebook and pay me a visit in Arizona as soon as he peeled off the last Band-Aid. Whether we call it Hunter Class or, more accurately and honestly, Tactical Class, it’s not a very bright idea to hunt free-ranging big-game animals at 1,000 yards under normal circumstances. That’s what enemy soldiers are for. Prairie dogs, coyotes and other varmints? Almost anytime. A trophy elk at half that distance? Perhaps, as long as conditions are ideal and you’re sure of your shot and your ability to recover the animal. Got a terrorist in your sights a mile away? Pull the trigger. But an elephant that will never forget if you misjudge the wind and end up shooting him in the butt? I don’t think so.
You learn a lot shooting a .50 BMG rifle in world-class competition at 1,000 yards. I certainly did. Despite all the subtle moves Skip Talbot was trying to teach me about how to dance with the mischievous mystery winds that haunt mile-high rifle ranges a thousand miles from the sea, my impulse was to just hold on tight and pretend they weren’t there. That’s an impulse I’ll have to learn to overcome. Because in 1,000-yard shooting, as in ocean-racing, the final battle is not fought out between guns or boats. The winner’s name is written on the wind. All you have to do is read it.