Brandon Haywood—Hooked in an Instant on PRS
Over the last decade, the shooting world has been turned upside-down with some mind-boggling distance shooting. There’s just something about being able to hit a target you can’t see with the naked eye that’s captured the attention of shooters across the country. The sport has droves of target aficionados flocking to its ranks, and while 1,000-yard performance isn’t achieved overnight, with practice, it is absolutely in the reach of most shooters with the right rifle and optics. The first step is getting beyond the typical comfort zone.
Sweet Spots and Haunted Shots
Anyone who’s more than a twice-a-year plinker knows what their comfort zone is when it comes to shooting. We’ve arrived at that point through many practice hours at the range and the expenditure of plenty of expensive ammo, all of which lets us acquire a mental picture of our capability. This is the range at which we know, if we do all the things right we’re supposed to do right, the shot will strike as intended.
For many shooters, that comfort zone classically lands between 100 and 300 yards. Of course, based on the terrain and the gear quality, this can differ greatly. Consider the deep-woods whitetail hunter who might envision 75 yards as their sweet spot versus the beanfield shooter who routinely stretches shots on big, corn-fed bucks to 350 yards. Again, it varies based on confidence and competence built over time.
Still, that 100- to 300-yard range is the spot most of us know well. So, when we discuss distances of 400, 600, and 800, or the landmark for many shooters, that hallowed 1,000-yard mark, a rifle enthusiast can edge out of their comfort zone. Or leap. Misses stay with hunters. Target shooters with lots of entry fees and many, many dollars invested in gear, too. Too many misses, and you’ll resort back to that original comfort zone.
I missed a record-class mule deer at 450 yards 15 years ago. The experience left me intellectually scarred enough that I refused to take a shot over 300 yards for a decade.
No Hang-ups Here
Such a hang-up is clearly not a problem for Brandon Haywood, one of Team Bushnell’s pro staff shooters.
Haywood has been competing in the PRS—Precision Rifle Series—since 2014, two years after the organization was founded in 2012. The sport is, without question, a good fit for the man: This past May, he took first place at the PRS Altus regional match in Baker, Florida, scoring an impressive 95 points and beating out his nearest competitor with a screaming 43.02 seconds in a tie-breaker shoot-off. Let’s just say he knows what it takes to get into the long-range game.
The PRS has thousands of competing members. The organization organizes local competitions, grouping shooters across multiple categories, and scales up to events on the national level. A point system keeps the competition brisk. Over a weekend, shooters at local matches can earn up to 100 points. Each match uses a variety of different-sized targets that range in placement from a few hundred to 1,200 yards. A clock adds pressure, as does the necessity of physically moving from barrier to barrier, target to target.
Though the wide-open expanses of the West are a natural home for PRS matches, the series is so popular that chances are there’s a match within driving distance from you this weekend, no matter where in the U.S. you reside. Match competitor categories are Pro, Semi-Pro, Marksman, and Amateur, and there are four gun divisions, three for Bolt Gun (Open, Tactical, and Production) and one Gas Gun. In addition to competing in the PRS in general, there are also side categories for military and law enforcement, ladies, seniors, juniors, and international competitors. As stiff as the competition is, though, the atmosphere is welcoming, Haywood told me. Regional matches, for instance, offer an open invitation for new shooters to come watch the events, and by the end of the day, guests usually ask, “How can I do this?”
“I had a friend who was a photographer and documented some of the local matches. He badgered me to go,” Haywood explained. “In one day, I was hooked. This was the challenge I’d been looking for, and I was at the range and practicing for a match just a few days after I saw that first match.”
Haywood says shooters interested in getting a feel for what it’s like to compete in PRS should start with the Bolt Gun Production division.
“It’s really fun. We call it ‘Bring What Ya Got,’” Haywood said of this division and its low barrier to entry. “First-timers show up with deer rifles and scores of out-of-the-box Remington 700s, Winchester Model 70s, Tikkas, Bergaras, and Rugers.” Rifles in Bolt Gun Production are restricted to unmodified rifles and scopes, both of which have to have MSRPs under $2,500.
Those new to PRS competition begin without an assigned shooting class: “unclassified.” Haywood noted that this is actually an advantage because there’s lots of help offered from those already invested in the sport and ranked competitively in the series. He says this is a prime example of how PRS encourages participation in the sport.
“We really love to help these shooters find their way through the course,” Haywood explained, “Many of the experienced shooters offer instruction at the stations. By offering their tips and tricks, these new shooters have a very positive experience. It’s extremely friendly. Anyone who wants to shoot can find a buddy who’s willing to assist,” he said.
Greatness Demands Great Gear
In the distance rifle game, there are key components that must perform at peak levels or a competitor will be left behind. The rifle, cartridge, and trigger, in particular, are critical to successful downrange performance.
Haywood’s rifle has evolved over the last seven years, telling me, “My GA Precision rifle in 6mm GT is certainly an investment. Competitive shooters end up with bolt rifles anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 and more,” he said.
While some competitive shooters invest heavily in European optics, Haywood’s choice, a Bushnell Elite Tactical XRS-2 4.5–30X50mm, is priced at just under $2,000. It’s notable that a scope permitted in the Production class is the choice for someone like Haywood shooting in the Semi-Pro category.
“This scope is ridiculously durable and clear. It has performed flawlessly for me in competition. It’s practical, just a workhorse. Yes, there are more expensive scopes out there, but I absolutely love my Bushnell scope for the PRS,” Haywood said.
Finding Your Tribe
Learning to knock down a target at 1,000 yards is one thing. Finding humans you can depend on at two in the morning is another.
“It’s hard to explain, but the friends I’ve made in the PRS have had a genuine impact on my life. They are way beyond your average acquaintances. Almost all the shooters that I’ve met and that I compete against regularly are simply some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered in my life,” Haywood said.
“The comradery is almost tribal,” he continued. “I’m talking, ‘Call if you need help at 2:00 a.m. and drive a state away’ kind of friends. While the competitions and the challenge of rating myself against some of the best distance shooters in the world is exciting, it’s the life-long friends I’ve met that keep me in this game. They will last well beyond my scorecard.
“If you like shooting over long distances, or even if you want to know what it really takes to become a solid marksman at any range, then get to a match,” Haywood told me. “Go to the PRS website, find an event near you, and just go. You’ll see shooters run barricades, lay in the dirt or mud, shoot from behind windows, and fire at targets you can’t even see. At times, the targets are moving,” he said. “I can almost promise you that witnessing what you can do with a rifle by seeing others shooting a PRS match, you’re going to want to get involved. I know that’s what it did for me.”
Slow Down for Precision Reloading
Success in PRS and other target sports requires the right gun and well-honed skills. It also requires consistent ammunition, and that’s why so many successful competitors choose to handload. Notice I said “handload” and not “reload.” To many there’s a fine distinction between the two, with reloading being the careful but not necessarily super-precise building of cartridges, those builds usually using recycled brass. Handloads are where the precision comes in, and for that, many turn to a single-stage press where every task in the loading process and every measurement can be carefully scrutinized and controlled.
For those looking to handload for quality, not quantity, then the RCBS Rebel Master Reloading Kit is an excellent place to start. This setup includes a 1,500-grain digital pocket scale, hand-priming tool, case neck and primer pocket brushes, our Uniflow-III powder measure and powder funnel, deburring tool, and the comprehensive Speer Handloading Manual #15. All you need to add are the dies for your desired caliber and you’re ready to develop the load that puts the icing on the performance you and your rifle are capable of.—Jennifer L.S. Pearsall