Editor’s note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
It’s called the rifle marathon. But it’s more like a marathon of staying perfectly still.
Among all the shooting events, nothing tests a shooter’s endurance, balance, and their shooting skills quite like the 50m rifle 3-position event. Over a period of two hours and 45 minutes, shooters take aim 120 times while kneeling, lying down and standing ― all the while contending not just with their rivals but also the elements of nature like wind and sunlight.
And that’s just qualifying. In the final, with decimal scoring further complicating things, it morphs into a different game. As much a mad dash against the clock as a marathon. More frantic. More dramatic.
Between 15 shots each in the kneeling, prone and standing position, shooters scramble to make adjustments to their weapons on the fly to recalibrate them.
As Anjum Moudgil, India’s first shooter to have qualified for the now-deferred Tokyo Olympics puts it (albeit in the 10m air rifle event), the 50m rifle 3P event requires you to be a marksman and somewhat of an engineer at the same time.
One of India’s foremost shooters in the discipline, Moudgil explained the nuts and bolts of the 50m rifle 3P event in this edition of Firstpost Masterclass. Excerpts from an interview:
A lot of people understand what 10 metre air rifle entails because of Abhinav Bindra’s gold in Beijing 2008 or Gagan Narang’s bronze in London 2012. But how complicated or tricky is the 50m rifle 3 position event compared to the 10metre air rifle?
In 50m 3P you’re shooting in three different positions whereas in 10 metre you just have to focus on one position. For 10 metre air rifle you have to be very precise. For 50m 3P, you have to understand the basics of all three positions. I just love shooting the 50m 3P event because it’s totally different from any other position. You have to be really good at three different tasks, so that’s the best thing about that discipline, and what makes it difficult and really strategic.
Is that because in 10m air rifle there’s decimal shooting (in the qualification stage as well) while that’s not the case in 50m rifle 3P event?
That also makes a lot of difference. Moreover the thing is 10m air rifle is too precise, which is why they have decimal scoring. Without decimal scoring, everyone would start shooting really good scores. Scores were going really high, so they had to change. I believe they won’t ever start with decimal scoring in 3P, because it is anyway really challenging.
You mentioned that initially the prone position in 50m 3P was too irritating for you to understand when you started out. Could you tell us why?
When I started shooting, in the initial year, I had really good results in competitions before the Nationals. Even the Nationals were fine. But then when you’re good at something, you just try to copy whatever you were doing (rather than working on the skill and fine-tuning it). That is the reason I never shot well in prone for a couple of years (initially when I started), I never crossed a certain score. That’s why I started getting irritated with the position, the pain I used to have in my hand after shooting prone…everything used to irritate me about the position. Your scores also fluctuate a lot when you’re not happy with a certain position and you don’t want to shoot it. When I discussed it with my coach she made me understand that the main problem was in my mind. She asked me to change my mindset and to start working on the position. More than technical, it was mental. I never understood the basics of that position, so the results were not coming. Because the results were not coming, I was getting irritated. Any beginner would get irritated because of bad scores.
Between the three positions ― standing, kneeling and prone ― which one do you prefer? Is there a position where shooting well comes naturally to you?
I’ve worked a lot on all three. When I started 3P, my best position was standing. When I had started shooting, there was a coach who told me that almost all shooters who compete in this event are good in kneeling and prone positions. But there are very few who shoot well while standing. He said it was a really challenging position to shoot in. That made me fall in love with the standing position. I wanted to be really good at it. I did become really good at standing in the initial years of shooting, because I worked on it. Then I started to work on my prone and then kneeling. Now, I love shooting in the kneeling position. It’s a position you really need to understand to the core.
Could you tell us a bit about the things you have to do during changeovers from one event to the other? Maybe you have to change the position of your cheek piece, adjust your jacket…things like that…
When we have a 3-position match, now it’s a two-hour-45-minute match. You start with a 15-minute window for sighting of kneeling position. We set our rifles during this time, we shoot and we check whether our shots are accurate. Then we have to shoot 40 shots in the kneeling position itself. Then we change from kneeling to prone position. Some shooters prefer to not wear the specially-made shooting trousers while shooting prone. There are certain parts on the rifle ― like the butt plate, which we put on the shoulder, then there’s the cheek piece and there’s the palm rest ― small parts of the rifle which need to be adjusted according to the position when we transition from kneeling to prone. Then we lie down and shoot another 40 shots in that position. Then we transition to the standing position. We again get some sighting shots before we have to shoot 40 times. In standing, there’s nothing that supports the rifle except the shooter’s arms… we hold it with our left hand, and pull the trigger from the right. Nothing is attached between the rifle and the shooter (like a sling). There’s a lot of difference between the rifle settings in prone and standing. There are a lot of parts that need to be changed. The height has to be adjusted, the length of the rifle has to be adjusted. We make those changes. It’s quite complicated for a beginner. But over the years it becomes habitual, and we just remember by heart what needs to be changed and what not. In kneeling position, you just put on two buttons of your jacket and your zips (behind the trouser, at the bottom) are open. In standing, every button is buttoned, and the zips are locked.
So do you also have to be an engineer alongside a marksman while competing in the 50m rifle 3-Position event because you’re doing all these changes on the fly?
We do become engineers. We just have to keep in mind all these tiny things…like screws of the rifle. If something breaks down during a match, we have screwdrivers and tools to fix the issue. We do sort of become an engineer.
How difficult is it for a shooter to get funding or sponsorship in India?
Usually, in any sport in India, definitely in shooting, we start getting support only when we’re doing well. That’s the basic rule. Luckily, I started getting support way back when I was a junior shooter. I was not at the top then. GoSports Foundation started supporting me at the right time because if that support had come even slightly later, I might not have got my own weapon and my basic equipment. So there are a lot of shooters who are doing well but they don’t get support. There are lot of people who start getting support just because they have won a major competition. That is not healthy. Only when a shooter is at the top you start supporting them and when they fall off that peak you stop supporting them. Support is very important but itni easily milti nahi hai shooting main (it’s not that easy to get in a sport like shooting).
In 2018, there was a rule change in 3P, where women went from taking 20 shots in qualifying to taking 40 shots in each position. How has that kind of changed the dynamics of shooting 3P?
Before 2018, men used to shoot 120 shots, but women would shoot 60. Then the rules changed because they wanted equality. For me the change was challenging but also motivating to see where women stand among men. Just to see if we are that good as men are over 120 shots. It was challenging, so I loved it. It was fun for me to shoot 40 shots in each position from 20 shots. A lot of training went into going from shooting from 60 to 120 shots. Training related to endurance, increasing our stability and having energy in our body to shoot for that long. It had a lot of effect.
What is the most important quality you need to become a successful 50m rifle 3P shooter?
Patience. That’s most important in this event. After that, how accommodating you are…how well you can face challenges. If there’s a change to be made in your position, or in your rifle, how well you adapt to those changes.
We know that you have to do a lot of training for any sort of shooting. Do you do a lot of dry triggering in all three positions?
Yes, we do. In dry triggering, we assume the actual position we would in an actual match and pull the trigger. We mimic the actions of shooting a live shot in a competition. Except for loading a live pellet or bullet, everything is the same. That’s dry triggering or dry shooting. That enhances our muscle memory, our endurance, and our understanding of our technique. So during the lockdown, that’s how we were training at home. We couldn’t shoot an actual bullet, but we had to ensure that our body remembered how we used to shoot. That’s how we do dry triggering.
What would you say is the most difficult thing about 3P? Keeping your body still despite you having to assume unnatural positions or keeping your mind still?
Both go hand in hand. If you are able to control your mind, you can easily control your body. It’s mainly about keeping that focus and concentration throughout three hours of shooting. If you control your mind, you can surely have that much endurance and stability to handle your body.
When you start shooting, do you have to work a lot on enhancing muscle memory and endurance?
When someone starts the sport, the body is not used to that specific position. Especially in shooting, we have to stay in one position for long hours. The body is not used to standing in one place for one hour or more in a specific posture, looking at only one side, and holding a weight. So we need to train our muscles, so that the body can remain stable while standing motionless in an unusual position. So we do lot of dry training, and physical exercises to build up the small muscles that are required for a specific position. Then through dry training or actual training we increase our muscle memory so that our body remembers which muscles are used to hold that specific position.
How does your off-season training differ from competition-season training?
It’s really rare that we have an off-season. We have a lot of competitions mostly. I won’t compare the COVID-19 lockdown. But when I am training for a competition, I prefer to do quality training rather than training for a long time. For me it’s making minute changes that are required and brushing up and sharpening my skills. Maybe I’ll do a little bit of result-oriented training. I’ll have a score in my mind that I need to shoot before a competition. Or my coach will give me a task. That’s how competition training happens. It’s not much. If it’s off-season training, when there’s no competition for a month or two, the training will mainly be about increasing my endurance, working on stability and balance, and then, maybe if needed, make changes in my technique. That’s the difference between off-season and in-competition training.
You recently posted a photograph of yourself standing on a balance pad while training for the standing position. How often do you attempt these unconventional ways of training?
I love trying on anything that’s physically challenging…be it standing on different platforms while shooting or balancing exercises. I just love doing that. Not when I am in New Delhi, but definitely when I am at my home range in Chandigarh. In New Delhi, it becomes difficult to carry stuff there. At Chandigarh, some days I will take my balancing pad, some days I will take some other pad.
How important is it for a rifle shooter, particularly in 3P, to work on their core muscles and cardio?
It’s very important. Working on cardio will increase your endurance, which is very important in 3P because you have to stand, kneel and lie while shooting at the range for three hours. You have to keep shooting and keep shooting. Your breathing should be controlled, you have to manage your heartbeat. For that endurance training and cardio training helps. For standing, be it any event in shooting like air rifle or air pistol, it’s very important to do cardio and balancing exercises. It just gives the body better control when you’re holding the gun.
Lot of shooting coaches around the country instruct young shooters when they’re coming up to maintain a shooting diary. Could you tell us why it’s more important for 50m shooters to maintain a shooting diary?
There’s no convention that 50m rifle shooters have a shooting diary and 10m air rifle shooters don’t. It’s just that there are a lot of settings in 50m 3P as opposed to 10m air. You have to note down things like what you have learnt for wind shooting, things about shooting in each of the three positions. There are a lot of factors in 50m 3P. In 10m air rifle, it’s just your gun. Nothing else. In 50m rifle 3P, it’s your gun, your ammunition, your target, the wind that’s blowing, at what rate it’s blowing… so it’s a lot of things. It’s difficult to keep all that in mind. That’s why it’s better to keep a diary.
Do you still maintain a shooting diary?
Yes, I do.
In 50m 3P shooting, a lot depends on how you balance yourself, and contact points between the rifle and your body, particularly in standing and kneeling position. How much of an effect does weight have in 50m 3P? If a shooter loses or gains weight, does that have a bearing on their score?
There are many shooters of varying body types. Some shooters in 3P are super skinny, while some others are overweight. But they still shoot very good scores. Even if a person is overweight or super skinny, if they have the endurance to stand and they have control over their body, I don’t think weight matters. It depends from person to person. A person like me, I love to eat and it’s very easy for me to gain weight. I just work out a lot. If I work on my stability, my strength and my shooting postures, I don’t think my weight gain ― be it one or two kilograms ― will make that much of a difference. But if you’re not doing these exercises and then gaining weight, then it will have a negative effect. Two to three kilograms of weight gain will not have that much of an effect on your shooting.
You mentioned that there are a lot of factors to contend with when you’re shooting 50m rifle 3P. Because it’s an open range, there’s the challenge posed by natural light. Shooters have filters that can negate the factor of too dim or too bright natural light. Can you tell us about that?
Filters are these things that we attach to the backsight of our rifles. It has two-three different features, one is changing the colour of the light you see through the backsight. You can change it to a greyer shade, or a blue, green or yellow tint. If it’s too bright or too sunny, you can use the filter to make it a bit grey. If it’s too dark, you can change it to a yellow shade using the filter. This way we can ensure that the target remains clear. Sometimes, if it’s too hot while shooting, you’ll see a mirage while looking from a backsight… like a heatwave. Certain filters have a feature that can negate that so you see the target more clearly.
It’s easy to understand what effect light and wind can have on a shooter’s performance in 50m rifle 3P. But there is also the weather that can have an effect. Could you elaborate on that?
The weather in New Delhi is very humid right now. So if we were shooting right now the kit we wear will be wet due to sweating. Because of this, the shooting jacket may not be able to provide a shooter with that much stability as it can provide in winters. In winters, the shooting jacket feels stiffer and we have a proper feeling of the shooting kit we are wearing. But in summers or humid weather, that completely changes. The feeling of our muscles and rifle against the body feels different in different weather conditions. In Europe, in the cold weather, certain settings would suit us, but the same settings may not suit us in humid conditions in New Delhi. People tend to get really tired in hot and humid weather. In cold weather, we don’t feel the fatigue that much. Otherwise it depends on the individual shooter. People from South India or Maharashtra, where the winters are not that cold, they find it very difficult to adjust to cold weather in New Delhi. But for someone like me, who’s from Chandigarh, it’s easy to shoot in the winters. On the other hand, for me, the humid weather, like in Mumbai, is irritating.
You have a degree in sports psychology. Do you feel that that gives you an added advantage, because maybe you don’t have to go talk to sports psychologists as often as other shooters?
It’s not like that. I’ve just done my master’s degree in sports psychology, it’s not a PhD. It has helped me understand many situations that I have faced. (Because of my degree) there are a lot of shooters who feel comfortable talking to me regarding their issues. But I don’t feel that just cause I have studied sports psychology mujhe zaroorat nahi hai sports psychologist ki (I don’t need a sports psychologist). They have new things to help an athlete with. So I’ve had the chance to speak to a couple of them, but I’ve never needed any sessions.