.22 Calibre Contest

Yes, you really can learn to compete in a biathlon



Biathletes must have both stamina for skiing and accuracy for shooting.

Photo courtesy of Maine Winter Sports Center

Think cross-country skiing with a rifle. That's biathlon, a sport with Scandinavian hunting roots thousands of years old shown on ancient rock etchings.

Skiing troops were also early biathletes, navigating on foot rugged terrain that was inaccessible by the day's modern transportation.

More popular in Europe than here, the challenging endeavor links stamina and accuracy as skiers skate swiftly on skinny skis propelled with poles while carrying a rifle on their backs. They try to go as fast as they can before stopping at various targets to fire .22 calibre bullets at their marks.

Though they have a need for speed, they also must calm themselves and concentrate to hit the targets. If they miss, they are penalized by either skiing a penalty loop or adding time to their interval, depending on the competition.

At the targets skiers must stop, take their rifles from their backs and fire. Skiers shoot either standing or in a prone position on their stomachs.

Gilford's Katrina Howe hopes to compete in the 2014 Olympic games. She has lofty goals but also encourages others to try biathlon.

"Biathlon is not just for elite athletes looking to make the Olympics," says Howe. "North America has an active masters circuit as part of the North American Cup. Anyone can do it. Just get out there and try it."

New Hampshire has a couple of clubs where skiers and shooters can try biathlon - the Pemigewasset Valley Fish and Game Club in Holderness and the Windsor Biathlon Club in Hillsborough County (see FYI at right).

The Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent near the Canadian border is the training ground for emerging talent and hosted World Cup races in 2011.

The sport isn't just for winter. There are various versions for runners, mountain bikers and paintball lovers. So give it a shot!

Fact

When biathlon was first introduced in the Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport, it was called military patrol.

Gear Box

Biathlon rifles are expensive. It's best to initially use a club loaner before purchasing your own like the German-made Anschutz 1827 Fortner Biathlon or Sprint ($2,980).

Skis are less expensive but not cheap. Salomon's S-Lab EQ 10 series ($549) are lightweight, high-performance skis for those serious about their sport.

Step into the S-Lab Skate Pro boots ($450).

Expert Advice with Katrina Howe

Gilford's Katrina Howe has her sights set on making the US Olympic Biathlon Team for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. She first started to ski with the Gunstock Nordic Association and twice competed in the NCAA Championships. Howe, 26, first took up biathlon while at the University of Vermont and now trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent. Follow her quest at katrinahowe.blogspot.com.

How does someone get started?
All you need is an interest in cross-country skiing and the challenge added by shooting. Then contact a club or someone who's already into it and have them guide you through the basics.

Do I need my own rifle?
Not always. Some clubs have loner rifles that can be used on-site by anyone who belongs with their program. If you really get into it you can get your own.

What kind of rifles and skis are used?
Biathlon, unlike cross-country (or Nordic) racing, employs only freestyle or skate skiing, so you'll only need one pair of skis. The rifles are bolt action, .22 calibre with open peep sights. The two most common brands are Ishmash (Russian-made) and Anschutz (German-made).

How can I learn more about shooting?
Contact your nearest biathlon club or visit a shooting range or Fish and Game club. You can learn to shoot separately from skiing. The tricky part will be combining the two when your heart rate is elevated.

How do you get your heart rate down for shooting?
Short answer: you don't. Ideally you learn how to shoot with your heart rate elevated. However for beginners it's sometimes easier to either approach the range at a slower pace to help yourself relax or just take a few extra moments at the firing point before you begin shooting.

How does the event work?
There are six different events in biathlon (Sprint, Pursuit, Relay, Mixed Relay, Individual and Mass Start). Races will have either two or four shooting stages, half being prone (lying down) and the other half standing. In a two-stage race you'll ski three loops, while in a four-stage race you'll ski five. Total distances range from six kilometers for sprints and relays to 20 kilometers for the men's individual. The targets sit 50 meters from the firing line.

Is it easier to shoot standing or in the prone position?
For me it varies. Prone targets, although they appear the same size, are actually a lot smaller than the standing targets. For prone a plate slides in front of the standing target bank that has holes about the size of an Oreo cookie. For a prone hit you have to shoot through that little hole. The standing target is about the size of a DVD but with the decreased stability due to position, standing can be just as challenging, especially when it's windy!

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