Did you know there is a shooting sport in the Winter Olympics? Biathlon offers fans a mix of speed and drama, with the flair of firearms, all on snow. And there will be plenty of biathlon events featuring Team USA in the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Here’s everything you need to know about biathlon before the games begin.
With their rifles in a harness on their backs, biathletes ski laps around a long-distance course. On skate skis, the biathletes cover upward of 20 kilometers in a race. Each lap of skiing features at least one stop at the firing range. With their hearts pounding, the biathletes must switch modes from speed skiing to precision shooting. And while the skiing takes up most of the time in the biathlon race, the range is where the drama happens.
Whipping their rifles from their backs and loading them quickly with a five-round magazine stored in the gun stock, biathletes shoot one shot at each of five metal plate targets. Not only do the biathletes fight with a pounding pulse to hold each shot steady, but they must also aim using non-magnified, concentric-circle metallic sights. Battling the cold and the wind, biathletes shoot either from the prone or standing position, depending on the event.
Biathletes are penalized for missing a target. That penalty might be in the form of a time addition or a penalty lap for each target missed. Therefore biathletes can move rapidly in rank based on their shooting. And shooters that misread the wind can quickly lose the position they skied so hard for. That makes biathlon the most exciting shooting sport on skis.
Most biathletes shoot an Anschutz 1827 sport rifle in .22 long rifle. According to Anschutz (pronounced on-shoots), more than 97 percent of biathletes use the company’s rifles, which are cold-weather tested and renowned for both speed and accuracy. The 1827 uses a Fortner-style straight-pull action, which helps with speed between shots.
This gif from Fortner-Biathlon shows the straight-pull, speedy bolt in action. The rifles are magazine fed, and after each shot the biathlete must toggle the action back and forth. Semi-automatic rifles are not allowed in biathlon competitions. At minimum the rifles must weigh 3½ kilograms (about 8 pounds), and the trigger pull must be ½ kilogram (just over 1 pound).
Most elite biathletes use a custom wood, composite or aluminum stock. The stock must be lightweight enough for a biathlete to carry on her back without getting fatigued, but heavy enough to meet the minimum weight. Stocks also feature magazine storage and cutouts to hold extra rounds of ammunition for use in relay races.
To best answer this question, I sought help from three-time Olympic biathlete Lanny Barnes. Along with her twin sister, Tracy, Lanny made the transition from small-bore prone shooting to biathlon. Together the Barnes sisters traveled the world to compete in biathlon events. Lanny skied and shot for Team USA in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
So who is Lanny rooting for this year from Team USA?
“We have a really great team this year,” says Lanny. “We have our best chance ever for a medal in PyeongChang! There are three veterans returning to the team this year to keep an eye on. Lowell Bailey is a world medalist and will be looking for a podium. Susan Dunklee is also a world medalist, and she’s an animal who is so fast on skis. And Tim Burke is a veteran Olympian who will be there again in Korea. The women have a younger team, but overall we’re looking strong.”
If you want to try biathlon, it helps to live somewhere it snows in the winter. Lanny recommends visiting the U.S. Biathlon website (usbiathlon.org) to find events near you. I tried biathlon a few years ago at a Nordic ski center in Vermont, so keep an eye out for local events.
Biathlon is a fast-paced, action-packed winter sport. The biathlon events in the Winter Olympics start on February 10, but you can check out World Cup Biathlon events each week this winter. Follow the action at www.biathlonworld.com and usbiathlon.org.
It started as sibling rivalry and grew into a lifelong passion. Target shooting is at the core of Emily Houston Monroe's past, present, and future. A decorated junior and collegiate rifle shooter, Emily now works as an engineer at a leading firearms manufacturer where she can bring her passion for firearms to a new level. In her blog The “How-To” Gun Girl, she will share her experience in various shooting sports. From targets to turkeys. From smallbore rifle up to .338 Lapua Magnum. From 10 meters to 1600 yards. If it is a shooting sport, the "How-To" Gun Girl will try it out and explain it all. View all posts by Emily Houston Monroe