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Archive for August, 2013

A biathlete’s rifle stock is generally her most customized piece of race equipment. She will have several pairs of skis to choose from depending on snow conditions, but will probably use the same rifle and stock for the entire training and competition season. It is very important that the stock fits the athlete’s body to provide the most relaxed shooting position possible. All biathlon stocks, even the generic factory ones, include some adjustable components. However, most elite biathletes have their stocks custom made to fit their bodies and shooting positions. Stocks can be made out of various materials but the rifle system must weigh at least 7.7 pounds.

I ordered my first custom stock, made out of walnut wood, from a craftsman in Finland a couple summers ago. At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted the various parts on it shaped, so I ordered a simple design fit to my body’s basic dimensions. With some guidance from my coaches, I began a long process of modifying and experimenting with it to find the perfect fit. It involved lots of wood filler, filing, sandpaper, wood stain and even fiberglass. Along the way, I have made a few mistakes but I have also learned a lot about woodworking and how the stock affects shooting position. My first custom stock will always have a lot of sentimental value for me. In a relatively short period of time (2 years) it has developed a lot of unique character. I also used it to earn my first World Cup starts and my career best 5th place at the 2012 World Championships.

One of my biggest struggles with my stock has been creating comfortable standing position holds for my left hand fingers (grooved area in picture below) and thumb (notch behind trigger well). Athletes with shorter arms often extend their stock further below the trigger well and this provides a big chunk of material that can be easily shaped into finger holds. However, my arms are too long for that and I have very little room to work with for building holds. Over the course of a year, I built, tested, filed down, and then rebuilt several different hold shapes. When I went to my first World Cup races in Sweden at the start of the ’11-12 season, my rifle failed equipment inspection. The finger grooves I had built blocked the area reserved for the event sponsor sticker so we had to file them down before I could race. I had to rethink my design yet again.

20130731-181947.jpgEach variation I have tried has got me a little closer to a good fit, but none of them were perfect. Eventually my experiments compromised the integrity of the wood too much and last summer a piece snapped off. At that point I enlisted the help of a craftsman to cut out and replace the middle section with a brand new piece of wood (the darker wood seen here, reinforced by a lighter colored peg) and he then shaped it. By that point I had a good feel for what I wanted, he had a good feel for what shapes work well, and I was very happy with the finished product.

20130731-182111.jpgAnother one of my projects was building a wider ledge for my left hand to rest on during prone shooting. I used wood filler and painted it brown to make it blend in with the stained wood. In retrospect, I could have made it more flush with the bottom of the stock.

20130731-182016.jpgMy stock’s buttplate (the part resting against the shooter’s shoulder) features a homemade adjustable metal hook that I machined together with my dad in his workshop several years ago. However, my favorite part of this stock is the lighter wood you see here on the end; it used to be the handle of a broomstick. While racing at World Championships this past winter, I crashed on a downhill and broke my stock. One of the Anschütz reps was able to fix it for me before the next race by replacing the broken piece with the only wood we could find on short notice: a range broom that my coach Armin pilfered. In the next race later that week I “cleaned” (hit all my targets) for the first time in World Cup competition. It must have been the broomstick’s magic.

In some ways, I was very lucky that my stock broke at World Championships and not at a typical World Cup because there were industry experts on site and available who could fix it. Normally it takes weeks to send off a stock to get repairs or to order a new one, and it would have been very difficult to race and train with an unfamiliar stock that didn’t fit me. Going into an Olympic year, I decided it would be wise to travel with a spare stock in case that sort of thing were to happen again. This spring I ordered a second stock from the same craftsman who made my first one. It arrived in July.

For this second version of my stock, I was able to provide the craftsman with more detailed instructions for what I wanted. However, even very specific orders don’t arrive with the perfect fit. Athletes often meet with the stock maker in person to finalize the fit, or they ship the stock back and forth a few times to have slight adjustments made. Since the craftman I ordered from lives on the other side of the Atlantic, it was more practical for me to make the minor fitting adjustments myself.

20130731-182151.jpgThe scariest part is making the first cuts into a beautifully finished product with a file or other tool. However, once I started I enjoyed the process. This time I borrowed a handheld Dremel and the work went fast. I made slight modifications to several surfaces around the pistol grip, trigger well, clip well, and left thumb standing hold.

20130731-181557.jpgI changed my standing position slightly this year and had to adjust the butt plate hooks accordingly. My coach, Jonne, and I borrowed a hack saw and metal grinder at the Olympic Training Center’s maintenance shop to finalize the new butt plate’s shape.

20130801-151156.jpgI refinished the modified parts on the new stock and it is ready for use. Like many biathletes, I tinker with my shooting position every year, so my rifle stock might always be a work in progress and never a finished product. My teammate Tim Burke recently told me that this was the first year he didn’t change his shooting position or stock at all, and he has been competing for over a decade. I probably have a few more years to go before getting to that point. The fit of both my new and old stocks feels very similar (which was the goal), and I have not yet completely decided which one I will race with and which one will be the spare.

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