Shooter Interviews – Stuart Elliott

Michael Bell

By way of introduction, Stuart Elliott has been around Fly shooting since its inception.  He has won a swag of major fly events including the biggest event in Australia, the “Federal Cup” in Canberra 5 times.  Stuart also holds the Belmont (QLD) range record for best target in Heavy gun with a 59.01 shot in 2012, and the range record at Tamworth (NSW) for highest score (238.04) small group (1.012”) and best target (59.01) all shot in 2001. Stuart and his wife Annie own and run BRT Shooters Supplies in QLD and provide tools, equipment, components and training to the broader shooting community in Australia. Stuart and Annie are very accomplished short and long-range benchrest shooters and have been very successful both here in Australia and internationally.

Hi Stuart & thanks for your time.

You are a well known identity in Australian shooting sports. Was this something you were born to Do?

In a way yes! I come off a farm on the Lachlan river near Forbes & began shooting at age 8 with Dad’s BRNO model 1, 22 rimfire (which I still own). I actually saw my father shoot a crow circling in the air from 200 meters which, I think, provided the spark for my lifelong journey. I thought, “how is that possible” Well of course I now know it was ‘pure arse’.

As I got older we started shooting foxes and made a lot of money. We got $40 per fox pelt back in 1970. We moved into reloading our own cartridges which ignited a curiosity in what made rifles really accurate.

How did you get involved in benchrest shooting?

I moved to Canberra to start an apprenticeship in 1974. Went to the SSAA Majura range and bumped into some “benchrest shooters” who kindly gave me a few shots from their custom rifles. I was instantly hooked! It only takes one accurate rifle and one small group and you are a drug addict forever. One of those guys was Herb Valerius who has remained a lifelong friend. Herb, at 80 years doesn’t shoot much anymore but is a benchrest Hall of Fame member and has also won the Federal Cup 500 fly in 1994. He was also the person who designed the famous “fly patches” which have become so sort after by those shooting the 500 “Fly”.

The website this interview will appear in is pretty much for 500 fly shooters. You appear to embrace all shooting disciplines. Can you give us an overview of your shooting history.

This could get a little long-winded as I’ve been at it for a long time now, so I’ll try and condense it as much as possible.

It was 1979 when I had my 1st rifle made, complete with

Remington XP100 blueprinted action, 2oz converted trigger and stainless steel Hart barrel. On top was the latest state-of-the-art scope at the time, a 20x Lyman LWBR scope. That same year I travelled to Adelaide for my first “big” match. A group of American Benchrest shooters & wives had come to visit & shoot . The special match was called “The Southern Varmint Titles”.

The match was won by Brendan Atkinson who has been a friend ever since. I also met Ken Melgaard who now makes those fantastic Copper Head bullets that shoot so well both in short & long range. I finished just outside the top 10 but was happy in my first big match.

Annie & I married in 1981 and we went to the USA for our honeymoon. We did a little sightseeing & a lot of shooting. Annie won her 1st trophy at a Benchrest match in Visalia California with a .300”  smallest group @ 200 yards. We met Walt Berger (stayed 10 days with Walt), George Kelbly, Ralf Stolle & Lee Six on that trip. We witnessed barrel changing on range for the 1st time. I bought a brand new Stolle Panda action, a Lee Six thumbhole stock and 2 hart barrels. I believe it was the 1st Panda and possibly the 1st switch barrel rifle in Australia.

I got my 1st Benchrest Hall of Fame points in 1983 by winning at the National Championships in Adelaide. By 1990 I had the necessary 10 points required for acceptance into the Hall of Fame. (I am no 12 HOF). Since then I have accumulated a further 15 points. I have now also achieved Hunterclass Hall of Fame. For “HOF” recognition you need to win at National Championships. You are allocated points for that and you need to accumulate 10 points in short-range BR and 15 points in Hunter class (Centrefire and Rimfire). I can’t recall the exact number of National Champs won but it’s fair to say that in all disciplines of benchrest both Annie & I have won over 75 championships between us.

Basically, I have shot or currently compete in Airgun BR, Rimfire group & score BR, Hunter class BR, Traditional BR, 1000 yard BR, some “F” class and of course 500”fly”.

I have qualified and represented Australia at the World Benchrest Championships several times. First in 1995 at Brisbane, 1999 in Italy, 2001 in New Zealand, 2003 in Sweden, 2005 in USA and 2009 in South Africa and have won either gold silver or bronze medals at most of these events.

It’s likely I’ve won more World Championship medals than any other Australian. I have won 3 Gold medals.

The most satisfying victory was being part of the 2009 team which won overall Gold in the 2 gun Championships making this Australian team the 1st ever to beat the USA in the 20-year history of the event.

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the people who started International Rimfire Benchrest (IRB) and I also introduced 1000 yard Benchrest shooting competition to Australia in 1998 at the Canberra Rifle Club after establishing a connection with Bill Shehane in the USA and the IBS. I also started this event here in Brisbane in 2006.

I’ve competed in this event in North Carolina & Ohio in the USA and also at Diggle Range in the UK.

Stuart Elliott
Wow! That’s quite a bit to absorb.
Can we talk a little, specifically about the 500 fly?
When did you start competing, and can you let us in on some of your memories of the early “Fly” events and also about some of your highlights?

I actually shot in the very 1st 500 fly event which was started by Jim McKinley & John Rawson in Canberra in 1990. If I recall correctly I shot a 6mm PPC and finished 4th! Eventually, we formed a committee to organise “the Fly” into the future. That sub-committee was Jim McKinley, Ian Lampl, Annie & myself. We arranged the final target design (which had been evolving) by about 1993. The final design is what we have today. We added the 10 rules and the scoring system and went along to the Canberra patent office to register the design. The sole purpose was not to benefit us but to control the stability of the event and allow for growth without the usual people interfering. I introduced the Light Gun class category (previously the “Fly” was only one class) and we moved the match to the current 5 target plus 1 warm up target course of fire from the 10 target match which it used to be.

The rights to this event were eventually turned over to the SSAA National body in 2010 where it soon became a National SSAA event as part of the Benchrest discipline.

I am very proud to see it develop into the event it is today as over the years the three of us took a lot of flak & grief because we refused to budge on rules & procedure changes.

I have competed in “Fly” events in Canberra, Batemans Bay, Tamworth, Little River, Townsville, Springsure and at the Bogong moth shoot near Jindabyne in the Snowy Mtns.

I have won the Canberra annual Federal Cup Fly Shoot outright 5 times and set a few records along the way!

I believe the “Fly” is the best fun match in shooting, but also one of the hardest events to shoot a really good score at. In my opinion, it’s much harder than shooting 1000 yd BR events with only 100-200 yd short-range group shooting BR being a tougher and more difficult discipline to master.

But having said that it is a different thing and different event anyway and very hard to compare any shooting events side by side so I suppose this is slightly irrelevant.

Probably I’m happiest with my outright win in the 2012 Federal Cup which was the first ever official National Championship for the event. Annie & I had a great team thing going with Les Fraser & Murray Hicks. Those two guys are great shooters and competitors and it is always a pleasure for us to work with them. It was a lot of fun planning for & shooting in that particular match.

Stuart and Annie Elliott
What is it about “Fly” shooting that makes it tough to shoot but also fun?

The 500 Fly is different to other Benchrest shooting events. It is the only one where you are allowed to have a co-pilot, ie a spotter. This adds a lot of interest to the ‘Fly’. It removes some of the formality too and encourages friends to travel and shoot together in this match.

The scoring rings on the target are very close to each other making it difficult to score high points each time.

The restriction of the sighter shots to three forces competitors to plan a strategy. Often the first sighter shot can be low  (especially after cleaning) so its value is sometimes best for windage only. This leaves two remaining effective sighters. Does one fire both before going to the record target? Or fire just one and then start on the record leaving one sighter up your sleeve should things go wrong? The shooter’s choice in the end! That’s the strategy. Also being able to see those bullet holes is a major advantage most of the time. This is why 30 cals are popular. If not for this fact I suspect we would all be shooting a 6mm of some variety.

People who enjoy precision shooting rifles are attracted to this event. They can have their own pet calibre / cartridge combination and get really serious or just have some fun and a good day out. Some people simply like owning nice accurate rifles. Others are simply competitive people.

The fly patches awarded are an important trophy as well with some people going to matches specifically to get a patch.

Can we talk about equipment? You get excellent results shooting your big Heavy gun. Can you tell us a little about your calibre choice?

We started with 6mm, progressed to 6mm x .284 (I am not sure that is good terminology), then various 6.5 cals and finally I bit the bullet so to speak and went to the 300 Win Mag. Really enjoy shooting that gun. A really nice Heavy Class gun is a joy to shot. I’ve replaced the barrel five times over the years. I moved to a McMillan 50 cal stock about three years ago after we bought a similar rifle for Annie. Her 300 WSM has the McMillian 50cal stock so we needed identical stocks for rests and bags.

The next barrel will be a 7mm Rem Mag just to be different!

I have used Hart barrels but the last four have been the Aussie-made Maddco’s. We finish our barrels at 30” and they are usually 1.5” straight taper’s. The action is a custom job by John Giles. It alone weighs nearly 6kg. Naturally we use March scopes and I prefer the cross hair with 3/32nd size dot on the 80x.

I originally used a Farley coaxial rest which was modified to handle the 22 kg guns. We now use the SEB Max rest which is perfect for our needs.

Our rifles are gunsmithed by Phil Jones at Redback Precision in Qld.

How important is it to have a good relationship with a gunsmith?

Relationships? Well that’s what you need with everyone in this sport! Gunsmiths, fellow competitors, product suppliers, match organisers….

Gunsmiths play a very important role. Those who have “been there, done that” are most beneficial as gunsmiths in my opinion. Getting the pieces together for a rifle build can be a nightmare but once it’s built then it’s just a matter of replacing barrels from time to time.

If the project is planned properly in the first place, which includes the rest system & bags then the only item to need replacing will be the barrel. This is not overly difficult for a good gunsmith and if you have a good working relationship with him it’s likely to not take very long… if you give him a bit of notice.

A well put together rifle will last you a lifetime (barrels excepted). My heavy gun is a good example of this. Other examples are two Stolle Teddy actioned short-range BR rifles built in 1994. Probably had 25 barrels on each and we are still shooting them. Whilst we have new short-range BR guns we use the ‘Teddies” in Hunter class which I recently won the National Champs with in 2013, so they are still working well & winning!

With this in mind the cost of these rifles, in real terms, isn’t enormous; it can seem a lot at the beginning but because they can basically last forever the cost is spread over whatever time you wish to shoot!

Over the years I have heard so many people say that we need to make the sport cheaper. If we allowed that it would get “dumbed down” to the lowest common denominator. No disrespect intended but you don’t see them making these decisions in Formula 1 motor racing. In precision target shooting if you get bitten by the bug you will find a way. Annie and I were not born rich or received a free lunch that is for sure. We worked hard for what we made and built. We have no complaints about the cost. We enjoy quality gear.

Short range benchrester’s seem to be quite particular when it comes to reloading. Should 500 “Fly” shooters apply the same techniques?

Hmmm, interesting question. In a word I would say yes! Possibly with the exception of reloading on the day of the shoot, at the range. For those who don’t know about this, traditional group shooters (short range BR) usually take all their reloading gear to the range and load as they go. The theory is you can make adjustments if and when required. PPC’s are like formula 1 race cars, they can be temperamental & “edgy” and fine adjustments to loads etc can keep you at the front of the field. Main point here is that you need to know what you are doing. Often people fiddle with their loads because of a poor group and end up adjusting in the wrong direction thus making the problem worse (not better).

You can load at the range in Fly shooting also if you choose. We have done it before but gave up. Shooting, reloading and cleaning all day means you are really (and I mean REALLY) working hard and the benefits for this type of event, I think, are minimal.

Could you explain to us your loading process?  (perhaps starting with your fired cases from last shoot).

Well now, should I explain what I WANT to do, or should do…or what it is I actually get to do??

My problem is time. One should really commit a good period of time to the reloading process and tuning & load development. More often than not I end up drawing on my experience and taking a bit of a guess and lucking my way through lately due to business time pressures…….definitely NOT the best recommendation!

So perhaps I should explain what I would prefer to be doing at all times.

I would encourage every one to set up your gear properly and carefully consider your needs. Get the best tools within your means and own them for life. Enjoy the ownership of quality tools and look after them. Half of the fun is just that!

Cases are cleaned & inspected. We usually hand clean with Krazy cloth but occasionally use a tumbler with corn cob media. I personally do not like ulra sonic cleaners. Then I remove the firing pin assembly and run each case into the chamber to “feel” it. Tight cases are separated for careful full length resizing. Runout at the neck is then checked. There should be almost no runout on a fired case. If possible I prefer to simply neck size using LE Wilson style benchrest dies with an arbor press. I’ll size about 2/3rds of the neck which is perfect. I’m looking for good concentricity & consistent neck tension. So…resize, check case length & trim. I have always used an LE Wilson case trimmer which I believe to be far and away the best! You can also lightly skim the case head (after fire forming). You might be surprised at how many of these aren’t square.

I clean primer pockets. They would have been uniformed anyway and I used the same tool to clean. Seating primers is important. Use a good hand tool. Sinclair, K&M and 21st Century seem to be the best. I use 21st century currently for the big cartridges. Make sure primers are seated to the bottom of the pocket but not crushed. All powder charges are weighed. Sometimes I sort bullets, most times I just open the packet and load ‘em. Well not quite as I bullet point first. I have owned a Juenke machine for 20 years and it can be a useful tool to allow you to believe it is doing useful things J

For those who do not know the Vern Juenke machine is an electronic concentricity run out tool for sorting bullets and cases.

We shoot Berger Bullets obviously but over the years have been successful with both Sierra and Lapua. I have always like the VLD style bullet and we seat then into the lands. I do occasionally shoot off the lands but not much. Be careful how you store and transport your cartridges! Most people don’t even think about this. I prefer to actually seat the bullets as close to match time as I can reasonably arrange.

Are there any shortcuts those who are limited in time can take and still get satisfactory results?

Probably not. I guess it depends on how important it is for you to do well. What is your definition of “doing well”? Is it you’re definition or that of somebody else? Be honest.

Seriously if you want to be competitive and win then you will prepare an action plan. A long term plan. A training plan. A mental plan. Lots of years of work. Yep, sorry if it disappoints but it means hard work! If you want to win but don’t want to put in the effort. Don’t worry. There is no shame at all about not winning. You are no better or worse a person for it. Like most things in life you get out what you put in. If you are after a quick fix to make a win (like buying your way to a win) you may luck it once but consistent winners do the hard yards. If you’re short on time you can draw on your experiences (if you have earned experience) but there will still be an element of hope and luck involved. This is far from an ideal situation. I used to get frustrated by lack of time available to achieve what I wanted to do. Now I tend to try and enjoy the experience and accept whatever. I don’t feel I need to win that often but I really enjoy good fellowship often.

I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way but let me tell you in all sports 90% of the winning is achieved by 10% of the participants. It is a statistical fact so if you are ambitious then you will work out how to get into that 10%.

If not, then don’t feel poorer for it.

If you really want to win then the term “hope” never even enters into the equation. Many people come along to big matches hoping they will win but usually the winners will arrive at the match KNOWING they will do well because they are comfortable with their preparation.

You appear to get very consistent results when shooting the “Fly”. If you apply a “method” when shooting, what might an overview of that “method” be? In other words, Is there a plan of attack that “fly” shooters could adopt to get more consistent results?

Method or strategy is an important thing. This is part of the fun, part of the personal challenge, part of the attraction. Part of the despair too.

But it is always YOUR choice.

Basically, I would say it depends on the weather conditions on the day of a match. Most of the time I choose to fire the first two sighter shots before I start on the yellow target. But sometimes I am comfortable to shoot all 3 sighters before I start. This puts the pressure on though because if things on the record start to go wrong you have no sighters left for homework.

Wind flags are a critical part of any form of Benchrest Shooting. In fact any target shooting. You need tools to help you read the otherwise unknown.

Usually, I prefer to try and find a “hole” in the conditions. That is not necessarily a calm wind, just a consistent & steady wind that hopefully will not change too much. My usual technique is get ready for that, fire the 2nd sighter to confirm it so I can predict the first record shot on or close to the fly. So go onto the yellow target, hold off and start shooting. Watching carefully for wind changes as I shoot. If I see the pick up or a let off and can with confidence hold accordingly I will do so. If shots are not going in the correct place I STOP. Reconsider, & use the one sighter remaining to regroup. This may require a break of a couple of minutes.

The single most difficult shot of the 8 shots in the “Fly” is that first shot on the record card. If it’s wrong you are in deep sh*#… because your best assessment said it should hit the fly and then it went wide or low or high. Therefore something is happening which you didn’t see. That’s a problem. Now you are in damage control for the remaining shots

500 Fly is specifically an Australian disipline. How does it compare with, say, IBS 600  yard shooting that’s becoming so popular in the US?

I have not shot IBS 600 yd event but in general terms that event is similar to the course of fire for 1000 yd benchrest event. I am sure that it’s fun but honestly I have shot a lot of benchrest shooting events all around the world and 500m Fly is the most fun and one of the most difficult to score really well at. It’s interesting because many people enjoy this event even though they get a low score. They are happy and they should be. (Rule 10).

The event is still shot over in the UK and it will be shot again in Sweden next year for sure. Stefan Karlsson is currently staying with us for a few months and he is really excited about getting it going again over there. Since 1993  I have sent a lot of targets over to the yanks in various places. Nothing ever evolved as far as match’s go. Maybe because of the “wasn’t invented there” syndrome??

Is there anything we should change about fly shooting to give it some international appeal?

Change nothing! Repeat….change nothing! Keep shooting & keep having great events and keep contributing. Remember, this event is about all of us. It is not something given to us by the government or something. Long ago a seed was sown. Carefully tendered and now the ‘community’ must care for the tree.

Bringing International shooters to these events will help it spread. Enjoy it and respect it. Get involved yourselves and help conduct matches. They are run by volunteers. Become a volunteer. It will be surprisingly rewarding for yourself and your sport. You will actually learn something of yourself that you may not otherwise have known.

Over the years we have brought along many people to shoot the fly from the USA, Canada, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, UK, Indonesia etc. In the end it will depend on local range facilities in those countries if they take it up. But it already has spread so I expect it will continue.

The old saying…”don’t change the event to suit your thinking. Change your thinking to suit the event”

One other important thing is rule 10. Remember rule 10?

Like I said before there are a few unique qualities about “the Fly”. Some were intentional and some were accidental. Either way, do not throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to rule changes! I encourage ALL shooters who are involved in this sport to keep this in mind. There will always be people who come along and think they have a better way, a better idea & want to fiddle with the rules. When these situations come up from time to time, as they do, consider who is it that benefits and whether it might start to decay the foundations of a wonderful event! Back in the early 1990’s we had a very determined plan to stabilise the event by having no rule changes. I think fortunately the evidence of this shows it had a good effect in the end. Now the event is in a whole new realm.

“The people need to be vigilant to keep the power in the people”

I guess what I’m getting at is that we can’t shoot for Australia just yet in Fly matches and am wondering if we could change some things to make this possible?

My thoughts on this might particular aspect may disappoint many but I think the reality of life is that world championships might never happen. Having a genuine World Championship shoulder to shoulder competition requires a minimum of at least 5 competing nations and the difficulties in getting heavy shooting gear to these places around the world is enormous! I have a lot of experience in this so I know the problems. In short range BR there are 2 classes for World Championships but everyone focuses on just the Light gun class guns to shoot in both classes. So there might as well be one class. Most international air flights allow 23 kg of luggage. So you pack your light gun, cleaning gear & some reloading bits & pieces. That’s it! 23 kg with a strong gun case. Have to borrow a benchrest and rear bag from somewhere! You might wear a uniform and have a few light changes of clothes as carry on. Then buy additional items when you get there. As a team you might be able to freight some stuff but it can very quickly get incredibly expensive and very consuming with the arrangements. We have done a lot of this so I believe I know what I’m talking about. Australia hosted the last short range World BR Champs in Sydney last Oct 2013. There were huge amounts of gear loaned out including rifles, rests & loading gear. We alone had two BR rifles loaned, all our reloading gear spread with competitors from 5 countries and 5 Farley rests loaned. It is getting way too hard and this form of the game has the lightest gear.

Now consider our Fly rifles with light class @ 17 lbs and heavy rifles unlimited. Bigger & heavier rests also. Getting Fly shooting equipment to international events is very problematic!

My suggestion for those people who seriously wish to find a pathway to World Championships competition is to get involved in short-range BR or Rimfire BR.

What advice could you give to someone who wished to get into “Fly” shooting but was unsure of the steps he/she should take.

First, just come along and take a look at a match. You will learn a lot that way. If the ‘game’ becomes addictive to you then shoot a match with what you already own. Don’t be ashamed of a hunting rifle. Just have a go! There is no shame at all in a low score. Participating is the most important part. Once you are participating you will find help from more sources than you can handle. It’s like a family. Come and be a part of “The Fly Family”.

It will move on naturally from there. If you try and double guess the best gear to buy first before you know it there will be disappointments and extra expense. Play smart, participate first.

If you are a person who enjoys precision shooting you will genuinely enjoy the “Fly” crowd!

Stuart Elliott

Again, I’d like to thank Stuart for his time & efforts with this interview.
Hopefully the next interview will be with Ken Melgaard who will give us all some insight into the bullet making process.