In the late 1990’s, Dave and Lorraine Wheeler started a long-range precision rifle match called the Steel Safari at their Blue Steel Ranch near Logan, New Mexico. The match was held annually in June and involved walking a trail between various stages where the competitor stopped and would engage steel targets in natural terrain. Each competitor would serve as a range/safety officer for the next competitor before moving on. Dave and Lorraine also allowed shooters to visit the Blue Steel Ranch year-round and practice on his square ranges as well as the prior year’s Steel Safari course for a daily fee. The Blue Steel Ranch was particularly popular with a group of Colorado precision rifle shooters, who practiced there several times a year in addition to shooting the match.
In 2003, when Dave and Lorraine first started talking about selling the Blue Steel Ranch, it appeared that Colorado precision rifle enthusiasts would soon be without a good venue for matches and precision rifle practice in natural terrain. In response to this situation, several of the Colorado shooters approached the NRA Whittington Center’s Program Director, Robbie Roberts, to discuss the possibility of establishing a similar match on their 33,000 acre property. Robbie was open to the idea and suggested a site on the north side of the Whittington Center where Coal Canyon meets the Canadian River. Robbie showed the group the location and it appeared to offer all the attributes they were looking for.
With the Whittington Center on board, the initial group spread the idea of holding regular precision rifle matches at the Coal Canyon site with other Colorado shooters and the response was very positive. A Steel Safari like format with 10 stages, connected by a trail, with 6 targets each was established early in these discussions. Eventually, an expanded group of 20 shooters was assembled that agreed to donate $100-$150 each to fund the initial 60+ steel targets and stands necessary to get the match started. (Steel was a lot cheaper in those days.)
In order to satisfy the Whittington Center’s concerns that the match could be seen from Highway 555, and that it might be perceived as a “sniper match”, the match was named the “Sporting Rifle Match” and competitors were prohibited from wearing camouflage clothing. Since then, the “sniper” concerns have faded away and the term “modern sporting rifle” has been adopted by the firearms industry to mean civilian rifles patterned after the AR-15. In any case, the match continues to be called the Sporting Rifle Match today.
The first Sporting Rifle Match was held in May of 2004 with only a handful of competitors. Since then, the match has grown considerably and has continued to be held on the first Sunday of the month, February through September each year. Although the match has seen as many as 80 competitors, it is currently limited to 50. Also under the Sporting Rifle Match banner is a 2-person team match in August and a few rimfire matches on certain Saturday mornings. Since the Coal Canyon area is also prime wildlife habitat, the fall months are reserved for the Whittington Center’s outstanding hunting program.
2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the Sporting Rifle Match.