Bellingham's Shiraz Balolia will experience the culmination of a 35-year competitive shooting career as he leads an elite team of high-powered rifle shooters representing the United States into the five-day F-Class Open Rifle World Championships beginning Saturday, Aug. 28, at Raton, N.M.
As the captain of this group of world-class marksmen since 2011, it's been his responsibility to lead the team in setting its standards for shooting equipment, organizing and managing the shooter selection process, overseeing the team's training and motivation.
A veteran of many regional, national and international shooting contests, the captain will not actually fire a round in this particular pinnacle match.
The holder of a myriad of high-powered rifle shooting accolades and national marksmanship records will stand behind the firing line, but for the intensely competitive Balolia it will still be as if he's on the firing line pulling the trigger on each round.
A TEAM SHOOTER AT HEART
Balolia started target shooting after coming to the United States from his native Kenya and soon took to competitive firearms marksmanship.
As his business has grown, so too has Balolia's interest in the intensely competitive nature of long range rifle shooting, which he began doing at the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department's Plantation Rifle Range.
It was there he met internationally renowned long-distance, high-powered rifle shooter Gary Rasmussen and broke into the regional and national competitive shooting scene.
Balolia, the owner of Bellingham-based Grizzly Industrial, Inc. and two other wood- and metal-working machine tool companies, credits Rasmussen, a former member and coach of the U.S. Palma Rifle Team, for encouraging and guiding him early on in his shooting career.
Balolia immersed himself in the complexities of competitive target shooting, learning what goes into the building of precision match-grade rifles, the science of ballistics and the arcane details of loading by hand consistently performing match ammunition, while raising his "game" to the level of international competition.
He now holds an impressive array of local, state, regional, national and international shooting medals as an individual and team long-range shooter.
In an environment that traditionally has been dominated by a strong emphasis on individual initiative and prowess, Balolia has injected a strong regimen of coordination, cooperation and accountability for performance, in the process of focusing everyone's orientation on team accomplishment.
He and Rasmussen in May collaborated on a video demonstrating how the coordination of observer (wind coach) and shooter works and succeeds on the firing line. It's being used as a training aid.
With winning foremost on his mind, Balolia also has brought the same meticulous attention-to-detail management approach that's made his business a success to the direction of the 2013 F-Class team.
In the lead-up to the world championships he's overseen and dealt with myriad details, such as fundraising for team expenses, establishing ammunition caliber/bullet speed standards and coordinating tryout and training schedules. He's also sought sponsors to supply free or discount replacement barrels as well as reloading consumables and other shooting supplies.
Besides these basic organizational functions, Balolia sees to the maintenance of the team's website and has coordinated development of a set of training aids, including round plotting sheets and photographs of practice targets. He also devised a system of PowerPoint presentations of practice results detailing each individual training performance that can be shown the same day to all team members at post-range sessions.
The latter element not only aided each shooter in honing more quickly their skills, Balolia said, it had the added benefit of stimulating friendly intra-team competition to help better performances, as well.
Balolia said he's also made what he called "'difficult decisions," including the dismissal of a really good shooter who came to meetings late and unprepared.
Others characterize him as a fierce, hard-driven competitor, and Balolia agrees he's passionate about winning team gold for the United States.
He respects the quality and ability of the top foreign rifle teams coming in, but his optimism is spurred by the trend in past competitions where the well-prepared home team has finished in first place.
TEAM SHOOTING CONCEPT
After an exhaustive, nearly three-year vetting process, including 13 qualifying sessions in four cities, the United States' 2013 F-Class Open Rifle team was whittled down to the best 18 shooters and four coaches.
Balolia said this year's team is deep in talented, consistent shooters.
As far flung as Team USA's membership makeup is, with the most qualified American shooters coming from all parts of the country, Balolia has kept the focus on a strong "team" approach in many aspects of preparation and training.
These F-Class shooters come from all walks of life, Balolia said. Among them are a physicist, ambulance driver, welder, engineer and an airplane pilot. Several are retired, and two are active military.
Balolia said his sense of this type of competition is that since the objective is a team win, victory is less likely with a team full of solo mindsets.
Just a decade ago, many aspects of the team's composition and performance were not standardized. Individuals in open rifle class brought their favored rifle calibers and ammunition, plus they made their own wind observations and adjustment decisions during the heat of firing.
However, after the 2009 defeat, Balolia and a number of senior team members concluded that to win in the future, the team needed to switch to 180-grain, 7-millimeter ammunition for its more favorable ballistic characteristics.
Infusing still more of a teamwork mentality, Balolia asserted that the efforts of the on-the-floor firing line talent, must be paired with the capabilities of experienced observers with good spotting scopes.
This observer or wind coach, who sit a few feet behind and to the side of the prone rifer, watches the wind at points down-range, notes the prior shot placement and calls for any needed scope adjustments or aim for the next shot. Under this system, the shooter does not have to combine these functions with the act of perfecting the shot.
Observers often can actually see the slug in flight watching as it hooks, slices or dips in response to wind patterns and velocity, air temperature and humidity as well as gravity.
This melding of observer input and shooter performance is the same tactical approach that's now the norm for military sniper training and operations.
In a question and answer interview for accurateshooter.com earlier this year, Balolia said the selection process for the squad focused on finding good, consistent riflers who also were willing to defer to this collaborative system.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983, has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays.
BALOLIA'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN THE U. S. AND THE GLOBE
? Three time Washington State F-Class Champion
? 2009 U.S. Team Co-captain F-Class World Championships Bisley, England. Came home with bronze, silver and gold medals in various categories of team matches in this quadrennial event.
? 2010 Gold medal, at 1000 yards, F-Class Open U. S. National Championships
? 2011 Appointed to Captaincy of U. S. F-Class Open Rifle Team
? 2012 Gold medal, at 1000 yards, F-Class Open U. S. National Championships
? 2013 Gold medal, F-Class Open Rifle, Berger Southwest Long Range Rifle Championships at Phoenix, Arizona.
? 2013 Gold medal, F-Class Open Rifle, Rocky Mountain Palma Championships at Raton, New Mexico.
? Balolia has earned certification as, high master, the NRA's top classification, in Long Range, Mid-Range and Full Bore F-Class shooting and is holder of several national records in F-Class competition.
THE F-CLASS MATCH BASICS
? Courses of fire for team world championships are rounds of 20 shots per team contestant fired over 20 minutes at distances of 800-, 900- and 1,000-yard distances.
? Target centers or x-rings (worth the highest number of points) are just 5 inches in diameter with widening concentric lesser scoring rings 21/2 inches apart. The overall F-Class target's scoring area, often pasted on a larger Palma or iron sight target panel, is just half the size of the iron-sight target's overall score panel.
? While other shooting disciplines employ a variety of postures and stances (standing, sitting on the ground, seated at bench rest) from which to fire, F-Class contestants lie prone on mats stretched out on the ground side-by-side along a relatively tightly packed firing line.
? Rifles may be seated on an adjustable front rest, that can be either simple bag type or in serious competitions, adjustable tripod mechanisms that are spiked into the ground. A rear rest (under the stock in front of the butt plate) also is allowed. However, by rule, when a rifle is fired in F-Class competition, the stock must be seated firmly against the shooter's shoulder.
THIS YEAR'S PINNACLE EVENT
? Since its inception, F-Class international competition has held world championships every four years.
? This will be the first F-Class international finals hosted by the United States and the venue chosen for this inaugural event is the 1000-yard high-powered rifle range at the National Rifle Association's expansive Whittington Center shooting complex near Raton, New Mexico, northeast of Santa Fe.
? The previous world championships were held in 2009 at the shooting complex at Bisley, England, 2005 at Bloemfontein, South Africa, and 2002 at Ottawa, Canada.
? Fielding multi-member teams for this year's championships are the host country the United States along with Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. The European Union will have 10 countries represented including perennial F-Class powerhouse Great Britain together with teams from Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland and the Ukraine.