The Olympic Biathlon has always intrigued me. A sport with roots in Scandinavian military history, the Biathlon is a test of not only athletic prowess but marksmanship as well. Today in the Rimfire Report we’ll briefly delve into the history and modern interpretation of the Olympic Biathlon as well as the Rimfire Rifles that are used today in the sport.
Olympic Biathlon – Military Roots
The Biathlon can trace its roots back to Scandinavian Military Skiing Tradition. An alternative to traditional military training, the competitors were divided into 4 distinct disciplines. The first involved shooting at targets while skiing at top speed. Another was skiing downhill in a race among trees. The final two were a downhill race on big hills without falling, and a long race on flat ground while carrying a rifle and military pack.
The Biathlon we know today takes its inspiration from the original military combined exercise of skiing and shooting. In a bid to promote civilian marksmanship, the Norwegen government set up a competition consisting of a 12-kilometer race with large-caliber rifle shooting at various ranges. This variant of the competition was called “military patrol.”
The military patrol would go on to be contested and demonstrated in the Winter Olympic Games in 1924, 1936 and 1948 but would not gain widespread recognition until 1950 because of the small number of competing countries. Additionally, the competition and demonstration were only open to members of the country’s armed forces until 1960, further contributing to the small amount of competitors.
The Biathlon made its first official Olympic Games debut in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California. The competition involved a 20-kilometer cross-country ski race with four shooting stations at ranges from 100 to 250 m (330 to 820 ft). Klas Lestander from Sweden became the first Olympic Biathlon champion. The modern Olympic Biathlon is governed by the IBU – International Biathlon Union, which sets rules and regulations for the competition.
Rules and Equipment
The Biathlon may seem simple but the rules can get quite complex and competitors can find themselves being heavily penalized for small mistakes. Generally, a Biathlon race will consist of a cross-country skiing trail system with either two or four shooting stations. Half the stations will be shot from the prone position while the other half will be shot from the standing position.
Target Distance and Size
At each shooting station, the competitor must engage and hit five targets placed at 50 meters. Target diameters are 45mm for prone shooting and 115 mm for the standing position. This translates to angular target sizes of about 1 and 2.5 MRAD respectively and about 1.7 inches and 4.5 inches in freedom units. Nothing to scoff at for a 50-yard engagement distance. On all modern biathlon ranges, the targets flip from black to white when hit, giving the biathlete, as well as the spectators, instant visual feedback for each shot fired.
Each missed target (not hit at all) incurs a penalty of added skiing distance. Each missed target the competitor must ski around a 150-meter “penalty loop” which typically takes 20-30 seconds for the most elite athletes. Use of extra cartridges placed at the shooting position can aid the shooter in making up missed shots, however, only three such extra cartridges are placed at the shooting range and the competitor will still incur the 150-meter penalty loop for each target left standing.
All cross-country skiing methods are permitted during the competition. This allows for the very popular “skate skiing” style which is by far the fastest method and doesn’t involve the use of poles or extra equipment. Ski length is regulated to a minimum of the height of the minus four centimeters. The rifle must be carried by the skier during the race at all times.
Rifle and Ammunition Details
The first rifles used in the Biathlon were most often high-power centerfire rifles using 30-06 Springfield or 7.62x51mm NATO cartridges. By 1978, 22 Long Rifle rimfire was standardized as the official caliber of the Biathlon.
As mentioned above, the athlete must carry their small-bore rifle at all times. The minimum weight for the rifle is 3.5 kg or roughly 7.71 pounds excluding the magazine and ammunition. The rifles are all limited to .22LR ammunition and must be bolt action or straight-pull bolt action (also called Fortner Action). Specialist biathlon rifles are usually equipped with straight-pull actions, integrated magazine carriers, and ergonomic stock designs suitable for both prone and standing shooting positions.
One unique feature you’ll find on a biathlon rifle is a pistol grip with an integrated thumb rest which is there to isolate the movement of the trigger finger from that of the thumb which are known to have a tendency to move together as a form of sympathetic reflex.
Manual safeties are not required and the governing body of the Biathlon competition, the IBU requires that the trigger pull weight to be no less than 1.1lbs. There are no optics allowed in IBU competitions, only non-magnified diopter rear and globe front sights are permitted. An eyecup (blinder) is often used instead of eye protection, but this is an optional feature and not all shooters will choose to use them. Hearing protection is not required either, most loads fired from these rifles are subsonic anyway.
With .22LR being the standard caliber for IBU sanctioned competitions, you can expect some high-end ammunition to be used. With .22LR being notoriously unreliable compared to centerfire cartridges, manufacturers take great care to ensure their specialized ammo can withstand not only the tough conditions of being jostled around during skiing but hold extremely tight group sized in freezing temperatures commonly found during Winter Olympic conditions.
The current ruling by the IBU was established in 1978 when .22LR was made the required caliber for the Biathlon. The Muzzle velocity of the competitor’s ammunition must not exceed 360 meters per second or about 1,181 feet per second. This adds an additional layer of complexity to each shot as most ammunition produced for IBU Biathlons is subsonic, creating greater bullet drop even at the short 50-meter distance. At 150ft even some faster moving bullets can drop as much as 7 inches.
Bullet weight is mostly restricted to 40 grains or as the IBU would put it “between 2.55 and 2.75 grams.” Maintenance is key for this competition because of the tendency of lead-fouling to build up in the receiver ruining an otherwise good run time. Common manufacturers for Biathlon ammunition are Lapua, Eley, and RWS. This ammunition, however, does not come cheap, with boxes of 500 rounds costing upwards of $200 USD ($0.40 CPR).
With the 2022 Winter Olympics well on their way, competitors are beginning training now for one of the most fast-paced and fierce competitions during the winter Olympics. Hopefully, this brief overview and explanation of the Olympic Biathlon will elevate your enjoyment of the sport if you happen to catch it next time the Olympics Air for Beijing 2022. Until then, thanks for stopping by and reading The Rimfire Report.
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