Hard core

By Black Sheep Straight Shooter and Greg Hamilton
May 27, 2024


8 min read

There is a lot of personal growth in doing hard things. For me it has shown me my weaknesses in a constructive and motivational way time after time as the years have gone by. It has been pointed out to me and become self-evident in retrospect that I prefer to be good at things rather than enjoy them, which has its own set of problems. More on that later. The constant will to excel means that you never really settle on a high standard. But and the big but is – that without extra challenge and deliberately making the endeavour more difficult – I tend to lose interest, or the work and investment in reaching the new proficiency gets prohibitive.

For example, I wanted to consistently hit the 1 mile (1609m) gong in the field. This involved clearing 100m of saplings near the gong area with some friends to achieve a sight line across a long gully on a mates private property. It also meant pushing a wheel barrow steeply up 200m of shale jagged rocks to make a useable firing point over a full weekend four hours away from home. Then getting a target hit indicator to give you feedback on hits a mile away and seeing misses for correction. I hit it with friends 300WINMAG, 7mmSAUM, 7mmREMMAG on each attempt over five different days but struggled with my very sub calibre 260Rem. Eventually I got it on the fifth outing with my own gear. The next challenge would be 2km on a full size IPSC or IDPA gong target. But that is easy $10k in gear (for only 400m further) and a logistics nightmare to get a venue. Then to get a very secret squirrel invitation in a very narrow band of winter if shot on the flat. Keeping in mind the calibre required can’t be shot on most approved rifle ranges in Australia which means you really had to want it bad and can’t practice near home. I couldn’t commit to that – most people can’t even commit with the funds and being fully aware of the dollars and sense issue.

The type of challenge I sought afterward was – find the target in a bush setting and shoot it on demand or in a cross-country format. Outside of hunting, that does not happen legally in Australia. My sights were thus set on New Zealand. From the NZ side it was just a pre-approved temporary firearms license ahead of time and $25 NZD cash to hand to the policeman who escorted you and your gear to check serial numbers and paperwork. Then off you pop and enjoy NZ. From the Australian side you had to get a Queensland DECO import export permit and be set up in the system like you were a firearms importer and exporter – which I guess you technically were. Then a heavy flight rifle case which you pay by weight with excess baggage forever. Air fare, car hire, match fees and cold weather clothing, food and lodging all adds up but must be considered if your home country does not accommodate the find the target shoot it competition.

The main issue I struggled with in this NZ competition was having a kiwi call out Greg when an American called Craig was in the same detail. There are some accent issues here! This particular stage involved having to mil (I used a mildot master slide rule and rifle scope reticle) the unknown target gong size to get a range in a short allotted time before your name gets called. Then that shooter tries to find the letterbox three inch number identifier near their called target and get the shot off in less than three seconds. All done whilst shooting uphill prone with tussock obstructing sight lines and the sun not too far above the target array. Another stage had card suit shaped gongs at unknown distances over a cross valley frontage where you had about five seconds to shoot the suit on a card flip. Another stage was shooting a semi-auto AR platform on a sneaker range down into a dry creek bed whilst on the move with a shot timer. Another stage was shooting from a hilltop feature down onto a bush airstrip at a round shouldered type E target. It had a tremble switch on it and as the bullet passed through the coreflute for a hit it laid down then stood itself back up as a reactionary target. I got four out of five with a 155grain bullet from a 308WIN at 1100 odd metres. I didn’t see the miss but it impressed my American friend Craig!  Another stage involved shooting over a cliff edge down into very heavy shadowed wet earth at a small gong. Zero feedback on the miss. The hot tip was to sacrifice a shot and shoot on the wheel tracks of a nearby track to get the wind call, then when it was your turn to shoot you could shoot with better confidence. Another stage was to find and shoot a hidden fox gong in a short time frame and prairie dog gongs at far away distances. A lot of these stages you could choose your firing point but it was from cresting a ridge shooting down into a valley. So you could climb the extra elevation for a non-bladed target or you could shoot a larger frontage target from where you wanted, if you were prepared to walk / climb the extra distance. Another stage was a hostage torso target about 250m away with a five inch swinger sitting above a shoulder near the neck, it would swing to the other side with a hit and otherwise the shooter would zero the stage for a hostage hit or missed swinger. And it was cold, we had to walk through inch deep streams / ice melt that was covered in broken glass ice just after first light. There was a crazy kiwi wearing a kilt! As a Hamilton – that is even too much for me, but a Scotsman never tells. The point of giving a taste of these challenges, of which there were many more, was that I had never really experienced non-square-range controlled condition shooting much before. I came third place with my operator partner over two days in a foreign country with strangers. The shooting was hard in a good way. Awesome adventure. I had made some new friends from the experience and was treated to some hydroelectric canal fishing in the forest afterward.

Whilst in NZ I was invited by some New Caledonian shooters to participate in their silhouette sniper international invitational match which was only I think two maybe three months later. At the time you weren’t allowed to shoot military calibres in New Caledonia. I had to get a new gun, do the load development, get all the paperwork done and learn to shoot it in a very compressed timeframe. Only then, go overseas again and shoot another on-demand match in a different language. One stage involved a timed shot at 1309m on an IMSSU Ram gong (about the size of a wheelbarrow). I was under calibre again and decided to shoot the sand near it for feedback. My spotter (the kiwi match director from the previous match in NZ) told me I was probably leading the match and how did I feel about taking a shot that wouldn’t score? I said I didn’t care about the outcome right then but aimed at the ram anyway with a skinny miss. I did hit it a shot later and had big applause from the French. One of the French guys came and tried to put a 416 steyr round into my rifle for fun but it wouldn’t even fit the brass into the ejection port on my Tikka. I shot very well, winning the match and was treated to a Rusa deer hunt afterward by the land owner. We enjoyed the venison whilst there and my host family tried to kill me with fitness – snorkelling, downhill mountain bike riding in the mountains and lots of hiking. It was a great experience with lots of very hard shooting but still just inside my comfort zone. Foreigners in the French colony weren’t supposed to shoot competition and my paperwork in French said I was there for hunting. When I had a massive cup trophy and lots of spent brass leaving for home in NC customs, the question was asked how many deer did I shoot? I said only three but I’m not a very good shot! The next year I went to NZ again and had a scope failure but took a couple of Aussies with me who did very well. We also went and looked at the snow.

Again, the point of all this is to say that I kept deliberately making shooting harder to be challenged more. This led to adventure and getting better and better. But when I came home the itch just couldn’t get scratched. So, I put together my own private competitions and helped challenge others. I also put on legal practical rifle matches as a more formal match director myself in several different venues in three different states. IPSC pistol was at least an eight hour drive commitment for literally about ten minutes of shooting but I loved how hard it was and how aggressive I could be. I will go back to this if I lived in a bigger city again. But – it sucked not having something to train for. I couldn’t walk into most competition shoots others put on and get the same buzz and challenge as I had overseas. Even locally there was considerable cost and travel commitment which I felt wasn’t really being warranted for the experience I was getting in Australia.

I had some health concerns which conventional medicine wasn’t addressing so as a curiosity I had my blood lead levels checked. They were very high. I stopped shooting and reloading and did nothing with a gun for three months, then had the levels re-checked. The blood lead levels went down 25% in just that three months of no shooting. This is an indication of how much trigger time I was having. Being a range officer and having daylight access to a 600m range every day of the week half an hour away and having free fuel in the company car meant I was making the most of it! But it came at a very real health cost if I continued as I was. I had a decision to make. Make my own super hard shooting competitions and not shoot them or travel overseas to scratch the itch and have little quality opportunity to practice and train for them. Regardless, going forward, I wear disposable gloves and be ultra cautious with lead exposure when reloading. (Lead styphnate is in priming compound and gets vapourised during firing, so it’s not just reloading, handling gongs and picking up brass that gets you lead exposure. I have also worked on cars since the 90’s with leaded fuel, AVGAS in aviation and lead even comes from the plumbing hardware in your taps. Electrical tape AND solder has lead in it unless you buy lead free stuff. I can’t blame just shooting but 25% reduction is 25%). Identifying as a competition shooter, hunter and previous infantry soldier and local match director meant it difficult to give shooting away. I didn’t do much shooting for quite a while whilst trying to get my head around my health. I would soon come to terms with my passion not being good for my health if I kept up the same intensity and didn’t take precautions.

On a whim, I went to the local archery club to have a go at archery whilst I wasn’t shooting rifles and pistols. I think it was my wife’s idea. I got to shoot the archery club compound bow that was shit and didn’t get very excited by it at all. I was ready to walk away and started kicking the dirt. One of the members looked on at how I conducted myself and offered me to shoot his sighted modern compound hunting bow. Of course I said yes! I was easily coachable and very quickly was hitting the eye dot of a fox at 10m in about five minutes. Turns out there is a lot of marksmanship fundamentals and transferrable skills in sighted compound bow archery and rifle shooting. He didn’t want me to shoot groups that close for fear of damaging arrows and I moved out a bit further and did fairly-well for a new kid. I asked some very pointed questions about access to the club and what types of archery happened there. Daylight access whenever I wanted as a member, with three 20 photo realistic animal target faced courses always set up and no daily range fee was super appealing. I bought good gear straight away and got very good very quickly. The first month that I had all my gear I was at the archery range 25 out of thirty days. I had already learnt how to learn marksmanship from years of guns and now had an outlet to put all that same passion and fervour into. It was difficult to be at the pointy end of the field but I was prepared to and then did put in the hard work. I got a coach and started winning. I chose a division with gear that was most likely comparable to actual bowhunting. I travelled a lot for competition and did very well. I sold most of my competition rifle gear and mostly only shot guns to hunt and cull for quite a while. Once I was proficient with the bow I had to learn to tune bows all over again for shooting fixed blade big broadheads. It was tricky and challenging. Having done the work, I had the confidence to bowhunt and did so getting some goats and red deer on public land. Bowhunting is hard. Can you see a trend here? If I had my time again, I would have started archery first because you have so much more interaction with the game animal and must think more like a predator to get in close. My furthest deer with a rifle is 750 odd metres and the closest deer with a bow is 18m. I have shot a goat with the bow at 6m. In bowhunting you need to be prepared for and embrace failure. You need to actually get inside 40m on game ideally for big two blade broadheads to work and maintain accuracy. That’s like creeping up to someone’s house and peering over their fence without them noticing you are there. Or staring at them through their living room window while they are watching TV. It is a big deal to sneak up on and stalk prey that has evolved not to be someone’s meal. Hunting on public land you hardly see deer or goats where I live and so the opportunity rarely presents itself. I am not really the type of guy to door knock to get private property access, so I do it the hard way – public land state forest with lots of travel. I got a bit sick of the same archery competition and needed more challenge and started to lose interest again so hung up the three bows for a while. I am saving for a guided fallow deer hunt and will take the bow.  I wish archery hunting was legal in Tasmania, we have one of the best wild Fallow populations in the world. This will get me excited about the bow in a different state again.

I am quietly confident that embracing hard things and not settling on a high standard came from my time as an infantry soldier. The training is deliberately designed to bring out the best of you and show yourself what you can handle. No praise for perfection and no matter what you did, it wasn’t good enough. We were also deliberately stuffed around and ‘re-trained’ to become more resilient and simply learnt to be shat on, sometimes for no reason. This helps you adapt to shitty situations and roll with the punches. You learned to ‘remain flexible, because you were always getting fucked on’. 

An example of this, one of the guys got his wallet stolen whilst on leave hundreds of kilometres away but that meant he had no ID to get back onto base, thus inconvenience one of the NCO supervisors to come in on their weekend and vouch for him. So, first thing on Monday morning meant a 100% stores check. Everyone stood on the parade ground then the NCO said go get your mozzie net and hold it up, entrenching tool, magazines, bayonet, cups canteen, ID etc and drop it at your feet with a time frame of 30 seconds to get it out of your locker and drop it at your feet. This is barely achievable and is very deliberate to make a massive shit fight on the parade ground with shit everywhere. Shortly afterward a deliberate room inspection to have all your gear squared away to inspection standard. I think we got picked on for having dust inside the paper towel roll dispenser. Another time one of the guys didn’t have his water bottle filled to the brim before physical training. The re-training involved emptying your drink bottle out on the parade ground then having it completely filled again in thirty seconds. Another time one guy didn’t have his night vision monocular lanyard clipped onto his webbing. So we practiced taking it out of its pouch and putting it onto our helmet in less than a minute standing with full heavy packs on for at least an hour until we met the standard in the dark. I personally didn’t have my helmet clipped onto my webbing during an urban assault drill de-brief so the supervisor threw it into the wire and made me crawl on my guts to get it until I had learnt my lesson. Other fun character building exercises involved – digging your own graves, polishing brass, painting rocks, trying not to shit yourself in nuclear chemical and biological radiological protective gear, having one hour sleep or less for a week and jumping into ice water whilst learning not to drown in pants boots and long sleeves.

Most of the lessons learnt were designed around coming to realize that the platoon needed to act as a team and endear everyone to do what needs to be done even if it is hard. For me in my early twenties this was a great way to find my feet in doing hard things. I never had a father figure growing up, so for me it was a bit of a fast forward into becoming more reliant and looking and acting like a man amongst men. The last formal day of infantry training involved ‘hardcore’ a physical and mental full day ‘test of objectives’ to see if you met the standard. The day started well before first light with a full heavy pack and gear, forced march at fast pace, kilometres long stretcher carry, IED scenario and first aid station, fighting withdrawal with ‘unconscious’ dragging of your mates after a contact, urban assault, live fire and simulated shooting, and obstacle course. I was deliberately given a light machine gun for the fun of it due to the extra weight and it is literally the hardest physical and mental thing I have ever done even to this day. I rolled my ankle just before the final high wall obstacle and was well and truly fingered with my ass hanging out. I had the option of hobbling around the wall injured and being back-coursed for a few months wallowing in my own pity or digging deep and dragging myself over whilst being pushed by my feet and dragged by my wrists. I found some more and got it done. However, I didn’t land on my feet and splatted on the other side with ribs into the gun. I couldn’t breathe even to yell out in pain but managed to crawl my weak-as-piss ass into all round defence and finally finish.

Some say only things earned by hard work are worth having and for the most part I agree. But you needn’t hold onto what isn’t serving you anymore. Because hard-won resiliency and adversity makes you stronger or puts you in a wheelchair, whilst in the infantry I kind-of ashamedly developed a superiority complex. This is because you have to believe in yourself as a worthy adversary and with the will to win and adapt and overcome better than the enemy – be willing to fight the good fight. I sure grew up and learnt to adult very quick.

What do they say? Good times make for weak men, hard times can always get harder – or something like that anyway (deliberately butchered).