Basics of Palma Shooting in the USA
American NRA Palma Rules Allow .223 or .308 and Various Bullet Weights
by German Salazar
One of the questions that new shooters, especially new long-range shooters, frequently ask is: "What rifle can I shoot in a Palma match?" That is usually followed by: "Do I have to shoot 155gr bullets?" In the ensuing discussion I usually find that they are somewhat confused by the rules for Palma shooting in the U.S. and therefor some clarification is needed. Hopefully, this article will help lift a bit of the fog that surrounds Palma shooting in the mind of the newer shooter. A basic distinction to keep in mind is that while Palma shooting is part of long-range shooting generally, when we speak of a long-range match we are typically referring to a single-distance 1000-yard match, not a Palma match, which is normally a three-yardage affair shot at 800, 900, and 1000 yards.
NOTE: As much as I love the history of shooting sports, this is not an article about the history of Palma shooting; for that I refer you to Hap Rocketto's excellent work A History of the Palma Match, which you can find on my RiflemansJournal.com website.
|EDITOR's NOTE: This article applies to the vast majority of NRA Palma matches held in the USA. In other countries, different (and much more restrictive) rules govern Fullbore rifle specs and ammunition. In addition, there are a few matches in the USA, such as the Spirit of America match, which apply international "Fullbore" rules. However, even in those matches, NRA-compliant Palma rifles that don't satisfy the "Fullbore" rifle rules can usually shoot in a different class. So, at least within U.S. borders, American Palma shooters can effectively ignore the international "Fullbore" rules, and shoot any .223 Rem or .308 Win iron-sighted rifles they choose, with any bullet weight. For more information on International Fullbore standards, CLICK THIS LINK.|
Popular TOP SHOT competitor Kelly Bachand developed his marksmanship skills by competing with a .308 in Palma matches.
|The Palma Rifle -- What Is Allowed in the USA|
The NRA High Power Rifle Rules set forth the requirements for rifles to be used in a Palma match or the Palma Rifle category of a long-range match. The pertinent rule, Rule 3.3.1 reads as follows:
|3.3.1 U.S. Palma Rifle
(a) a rifle with metallic sights chambered for the unmodified .308/7.62 mm NATO or .223/5.56 mm NATO cartridge case.
(b) any service rifle with metallic sights chambered for the unmodified .308/7.62 mm NATO or .223/5.56 mm NATO cartridge case.
That's it, the entire rifle rule, the whole enchilada. The rule is notable for what is left unspecified: bullet weight, rifle weight, trigger pull weight. All of these things are unrestricted. As long as you're shooting a rifle with metallic sights chambered in .308 or .223, you comply with the Palma Rifle rules, in the U.S.A. at least.
You might think that subsection (b) is redundant since a rifle that meets the specifications of (b) also meets the specifications of (a). However, if the match is large enough, the National Championship for example, the match sponsor might provide a separate award for category (b). A service rifle under 3.3.1(b) must, of course, meet all the other requirements for a service rifle set forth in NRA Highpower Rule 3.1.
Can you use a Tubegun? Yes.
Can you shoot 190gr bullets? Yes.
Can you shoot 240gr bullets? Yes.
Can you shoot 90gr bullets in a .223? Yes.
Can you use a 4 oz. trigger? Yes.
Can the rifle weigh 15 lb.? Yes.
Can it weigh 20 lb.? Yes, Arnold
Can you have a lens in the sight? Yes, but only in the front or rear, not both.
Can you use a .30-06? No, the .30-06 was dropped from the Palma Rifle rule in the late 1980's by someone with no sense of history and no common sense. How are we going to get Garand and Springfield match shooters interested in Palma shooting if we tell them their cartridge isn't allowed? The .30-06 is the most-used cartridge in the history of U.S. competitive shooting, by the way. Garand and Springfield shooters are today's entry-level competitors and we need them! Are you listening, NRA?
"Any Sights" Matches and Scope Use
A common question asked by Palma rookies is: "Can I use a scope if I'm shooting in the Palma Rifle category of an Any-Sight match?" No, once you put a scope on it, it's no longer a Palma Rifle. You can still shoot in the Any-Sight match, but you're now shooting against all the unrestricted cartridge rifles, bad idea. Just remember, Palma = metallic sights.
|The Course of Fire for Palma Matches|
This is the simple part. The Palma match consists of 15 shots at each of three distances: 800 yards, 900 yards, and 1000 yards. You'll have unlimited sighting shots at 800 yards and 2 sighters at 900 and 1000 yards.
"Why 15 shots, why not 20?" Because that's the way it's been since 1874. The Palma is a very historic course of fire, it has a certain rhythm with increasing difficulty as the day progresses and limited chances to make up for a poor shot. Enjoy it for its own sake and don't try to make comparisons to other matches -- the Palma match is unique.
You'll notice in the picture above that the shooter, Allen Elliott, a fine Palma shooter, appears to be praying. Prayer is always a good idea before a Palma match. The wind, heat, dust, haze, mirage and other unseen forces are all working against the under-powered .308 spitting out whatever bullet we choose to use -- and at 1000 yards, those forces are usually winning! Pray early and often, it helps.
The fundamental appeal of Palma shooting is that all competitors are on a roughly equal level in terms of ballistics. That reduces the match to a contest of shooting skill and to many of us that makes for a much more interesting match, since no competitor has a major ballistics advantage. Beyond the level-playing-field aspect, the Palma then throws a curve ball at you by requiring the use of a cartridge that is ballistically very marginal for the distances involved. You will learn more about wind reading by shooting Palma matches (or a Palma rifle in long-range matches) than you will in any other type of match available in Highpower shooting.
|Cartridge and Bullet Choices for Palma Shooting|
As mentioned above, in Palma competition in the United States, you can shoot a .223 or a .308 and you have an unrestricted choice of bullet weights for either cartridge. However, it's worth noting that there are still a few North American matches which are limited to the .308, and many foreign Palma tournaments are for .308 Win (or 7.62x51) calibers only. However, I want to focus on the normal Palma rules here in the USA, where you can shoot either the .223 Rem or the .308, in nearly all Palma matches. A bit of discussion about these caliber choices might be useful.
The .223 Remington (5.56x45mm)
First, let me say that shooting a .223 in a Palma match is a good way to ensure that you are not a threat to the leaders. I've worn out three good barrels in .223 trying to see what could be done with that cartridge at 1000 yards, both with 90gr and 80gr bullets. Once in a while, the stars would align and a good score would be fired. More often the vertical dispersion was significantly more than a .308 and despite the predictions of ballistic programs, I believe the 90's were more sensitive to wind than comparable bullets in 30 caliber. Beyond that, it seems to me from what I read on the web these days, that some of those who are trying to shoot the .223 in Palma matches are loading the cartridge well in excess of SAAMI maximum pressure and that's something I'm not willing to do. I pressure test with real strain gauges regularly (see photo below). I don't guess at it and I don't risk my eyes. I won't shoot a .223 in a Palma match and accordingly, won't have more to say about it here.
The .308 Winchester
The .308 is really the Palma cartridge and there's no reason to think otherwise. The question then becomes: what bullet? More fundamentally: is there any good reason to shoot a 155gr bullet?
Yes, there's a good reason to shoot the 155 grainers, especially for the new shooter. Ready? The reason is that the 155 has a low ballistic coefficient and thus drifts more in any wind than a comparably-shaped bullet that's a bit heavier. I realize that doesn't sound too logical at first blush, but the point of Palma shooting is to challenge yourself and to really learn how wind works and to become comfortable shooting in heavy and fast-changing winds. Shooting 155gr bullets from a .308 is the best way I know to reach those goals.
Apart from the flawless logic which dictates that shooting a ballistically-challenged bullet at 1000 yards is good for you, there is the additional fact that for every Palma or long-range match you shoot, you'll probably shoot three or four mid-range matches. Wind at mid-range has a much smaller effect than at Palma distances, so a light bullet will keep you on your toes and working toward your goal of becoming a great wind reader.
The last point to consider is that the 155-grain bullets from Sierra, Berger, Nosler and Lapua tend to be exceptionally accurate. My highest mid-range score ever, a 600-52X was fired with Berger 155gr VLDs and I've shot a few 448 Palma scores with the Berger 155.5gr bullet. Last month when I was testing a new Palma barrel, even though it is a 1:11" twist barrel throated for heavier bullets, I used the 155gr Sierra (#2155) to check its basic accuracy. The two test string scores of 199-16X and 200-14X at 500 yards with my standard load for 155 grainers showed me all I needed to know about the barrel.
By now some of you are questioning my sanity and a few others are questioning my motives since it's reasonably well known that I don't shoot 155gr bullets very often. Well, I don't shoot them much anymore, but they still have a purpose as I outlined above.
The reason I usually shoot heavier bullets is simply that I don't like shooting close to 3000 fps with a .308 and that's what the 155s require (2970 fps is fairly normal for a 155gr Palma load). At those velocities, the chance of a bullet blowing up in mid-flight is increased and when that happens, you just lost 10 points. I view any chance of a bullet blow-up as an unacceptable risk to my chances at a major tournament; by shooting a heavier bullet at a lower velocity, I reduce that risk considerably. My wind-reading skills are fairly well-developed so the 155 holds little appeal for me.
My two main loads for Palma shooting are the 175gr Berger at 2830 fps and the 190gr Sierra at 2640 fps. If you run the numbers on these combinations using a good ballistics program like JBM Ballistics, you'll see that the heavy bullet ballistics are very comparable to that of the newer 155gr bullets launched at 2970 fps to 3000 fps. I've tried plenty of other bullets for Palma shooting, but these two are a good balance of BC, reliable performance, and ease of use.
In order to use the 200gr and 210gr bullets effectively, the chamber needs a very long throat. I've done that with a couple of 1:10" twist barrels, but the results haven't been earth-shattering and the ability to use shorter bullets is severely compromised because they will have to jump quite a way to the rifling which is detrimental to accuracy. Since I prefer to have some flexibility in bullet choice, that's a serious negative. More importantly, I find it more difficult to develop a load that holds very good elevation as the bullets get heavier - that's another good reason for the beginning shooter to stick to the 155gr bullets. The 175- to 190-grain range seems to be well suited to the .308 cartridge, just well balanced. My reamer has a 0.114" freebore and that is a good compromise for these bullets while still allowing the use of the 155 when desired.
Things That Won't Work
I noted above that the .308 at 1000 yards is a marginal setup and that's very true -- your responsibility to your fellow competitors and to your target puller is to make sure you are on the right side of that margin. The first thing to consider is remaining velocity at 1000 yards. Use a chronograph to get reliable MV numbers for your load and then use a good program like JBM Ballistics to see if the bullet will still be traveling 1300 fps (or faster) at 1000 yards. If not, the load is likely to cause you grief. As bullets dip below 1300 fps or so, their stability can be affected and they may not reliably hit the target. The Sierra 168gr MK is a great bullet for mid-range shooting, but after about 800 yards it becomes unstable regardless of velocity and will not reliably reach the target. Don't even consider using it for Palma shooting. If your barrel is shorter than 28", you may not be able to keep the 155gr bullets at 1300 fps with safe pressure levels. If you can't maintain 1300 fps at 1000, you will be better off with a heavier bullet. If you want to use 190gr bullets, you should use a 1:11" twist or 1:10" twist barrel. Sometimes a 1:12" twist will work with 190s, but not always; however it will work well with 180gr and 185gr bullets. A 1:13" twist barrel will handle both 155gr and 175gr bullets easily.
Conclusion -- The Joy of Palma Shooting
That's about it, I hope this introduction to the basics of Palma shooting with a few equipment and loading tips sparks your interest in trying what I think is the most interesting and challenging type of rifle match. As I was writing this piece, I gave some thought to my most memorable Palma match. No, it wasn't the 449, it wasn't Camp Perry or Connaught. My most memorable Palma match was a club match here in Phoenix a year or two ago in late April when the spring winds really blow and the ability of the frames to hold the targets without snapping was in question. We had a good turnout, probably 40 or so shooters, mostly High Masters; the wind was kicking dust into our faces, the flags were straight out and giving limited information and the wind fishtailed left, right, left all day. I gave the windage knob a real workout and spent many moments waiting for a reasonably known condition in which to shoot. When it was over, I won that match with a rip-roaring score of 419. The most notable thing about that score was that I was the only shooter that day without a miss! I still smile when I think about that match because it made me work harder than any other Palma match I can remember; every skill in the old noggin had to be put to work. That's the real joy of Palma shooting!
|Reloading Advice for .308 Win Palma
Below is a short list of some of my personal .308 Win reloading practices for Palma shooting. These practices have helped me produce consistent and accurate ammo, but I'm aware that there are other valid methods for brass prep, and my choices in reloading components are certainly not the only good options. (Other powder/primer combos may work as well or better in your rifle.) Whether you coat your bullets with moly or other friction-reducing compound is also a matter of personal choice.
- I uniform primer pockets with a K&M tool.
- I turn necks for uniform neck tension.
- I full-length-size all brass.
- I weigh all powder charges.
Choice of Components
- I use Winchester or old WCC brass for Palma loads because this brass has thin necks and holds the powder charge without having to resort to vibrating or long drop tubes.
- I use Russian primers because they consistently give the lowest SD and lowest pressure of all primers tested.
- I shoot moly-coated bullets so that when I get to the 1000-yard line at match's end, the barrel has as little copper fouling as possible.
- I use H4895 or IMR 4320 powder for 155gr and 175gr bullets.
- I use IMR 4064 for 190gr bullets.
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