The shooting sports are seemingly limitless, with various pistol, rifle and shotgun disciplines attracting every type of competitive shooter. But no shooting sport these days is more high-tech than competitive smallbore rifle shooting.
“Yeah, we’re way down the rabbit hole of technology,” joked James Popanz, a competitive benchrest rifle shooter. “Competitive centerfire shooters can handload their ammunition to tune it perfectly to their rifle. But rimfire shooters don’t have that option, as we must use factory ammunition. So we have to tune our rifles to the ammunition, and we do that through constant testing.”
Popanz went on to explain that he and other rimfire competitors are not only continually testing various brands of ammunition in their rifles, but also testing specific lots of those brands. All the constant testing and tweaking is necessary because rimfire competitions are often won or lost by mere millimeters.
Much of that testing goes on at the two Lapua Rimfire Performance Centers. Lapua’s eastern facility is located near Marengo, Ohio—on the grounds of the sprawling Cardinal Shooting Center—and the western facility is near Mesa, Arizona.
NRA Family caught up with Popanz and his shooting buddy, Brian Stehlik, in early January at Lapua’s eastern facility. The pair are serious benchrest rifle shooters, two of the best in the U.S. They had driven nearly 12 hours from their homes in Missouri to have their rifles tested, and they do that more than once per year. Managing Lapua’s Marengo facility is Shane Barnhart, who is also a competitive shooter, and has been nearly his entire life.
“I started competing when I was age 10, shooting smallbore NRA matches,” said Barnhart. “I did so well, winning several state and national championships, in fact, that following high school I was offered a scholarship to shoot on the Jacksonville State University rifle team in Alabama.”
Barnhart left college after two years to join the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, traveling the world over the next two decades competing in rifle matches and teaching marksmanship to both military personnel and civilians. All in all, he competed for 35 years, joining Lapua two years ago following his retirement from the army.
“When a shooter brings a rifle to either of our two facilities, the cost to test the firearm is $50, plus whatever Lapua ammunition he or she buys at the end of the day,” said Barnhart. “Our Mesa facility also accepts rifles for testing that are shipped to them, but our Marengo facility does not—a visit here must be in person.”
Barnhart said that the majority of his clientele are repeat customers, mostly benchrest rifle competitors, and they travel to Marengo not only from Ohio but also most of the states east of the Mississippi.
“They come from all over and the miles don’t seem to matter to them,” he said. “For instance, I’ve had shooters here from Texas, Florida, Louisiana, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Vermont … and as soon as they’ve tested, they ask me to add them to the end of the waiting list for testing again. Currently, the waiting list for testing at the Ohio center is 10 months, and seven to eight months at the Arizona center, but we are trying hard to reduce those wait times.”
Both testing facilities have a fully enclosed range tunnel, so inclement weather or wind are never an issue. The tunnels are 100 meters in length, and the modern firing house where the rifle is mounted is either heated or cooled appropriately depending upon the season of the year. Before the firing begins, the rifle is locked into a secure rest so that it is rock steady.
Ten-shot groups are then fired, the hits appearing digitally in real time on a computer screen that looks like three paper targets set side by side. The results show the shot groups at 50 yards, 50 meters and 100 meters simultaneously. A rifle owner also leaves the facility with a hard copy of the results.
How accurate are some rifles with Lapua’s precision ammunition? “Most of my customers shoot custom-made benchrest rifles,” said Barnhart. “The computer measures the bullet holes on the target from one side of the group to the other side in millimeters. I like to see a consistency of at least 12.5mm or smaller per group at 50 meters. Measured in inches, that’s a group just half an inch in diameter. Our all-time range record is a group measuring just 9mm; which, if it were on a paper target, would look as if all 10 shots went through the same hole.”
During a rifle testing session, three grades of .22-caliber long rifle Lapua rimfire ammunition are fired: Center-X, Midas+ and X-Act. Center-X is the least expensive of the three, currently priced at $1,400 per case (MSRP); Midas+ is $1,800 per case (MSRP); and X-Act, Lapua’s Olympic-level ammunition, is $2,800 per case (MSRP). All Lapua rimfire cartridges are manufactured in Schonebeck, Germany. Their centerfire rounds are manufactured in Lapua, Finland, hence the name of the company.
“A case of ammunition contains 5,000 rounds, and some of our customers shoot as many as four cases per year,” said Barnhart. “It’s nostalgic for me to remember that I shot Lapua .22 ammo for its accuracy when I began competing as a kid, and now I’m selling it.”
But not all Lapua customers are serious competition shooters. A few are everyday Joes and Jills who want the best performance they can get from their hunting/plinking .22s. “That group just wants to see how tight a group their rifle can shoot with premium ammunition,” said Barnhart. “And we’re happy to help them do that.”
Lastly, Ryan Sponauer, who manages the Mesa, Arizona, Lapua facility—and who shot on the University of North Georgia NCAA collegiate rifle team—had this to add.
“At Lapua, we have a passion for precision. When you test your rifle with us, you’ll know you have the best ammunition for your rifle. And when the pressure is on, you’ll have complete confidence in its performance. That way, if you miss, it’s on you.”
For contact information and to view a three-minute video of the Lapua Rimfire Performance Centers, click here: https://www.capstonepg.com/rpc/. If you'd like to learn how to properly pronounce "Lapua," click here!