2021 Blair Athol Highland Challenge

The Highland Challenge: Gary & Carrie Prevail

Normally, it would be at the end of a match report when I’d give thanks to all those who helped out, but in a break with tradition I feel it best to give credit where it is due and much more prominently; On Thursday morning Paul Sandie and Hugh Inglis each made a 200 mile round trip to help set up the range, then they went back to work that afternoon and had to miss the Friday practice day because of more work commitments. How about that for good sportsmanship and dedication to the sport? Their selflessness ensured that we all had targets to shoot on – top marks to both.

We were blessed with unseasonably favorable weather; good old ‘Global Warming’, as in previous years during this match, before setting off in the morning, I’d have to scrape the heavy frost off the car windows, thankfully there were no such worries this year though. Of the three days we had just one day of intermittent drizzly showers, the other days being dry and fairly bright.

The main thing to note though was the wind; anyone who wasn’t at the match and looking at the scores posted online would have suspected, quite rightly that there wasn’t much wind to contend with, hence the superb scores. Out of the five stages of the match four were shot in remarkably gentle wind – almost, though not quite, zero wind… There’s never “zero wind” at Blair Atholl – just a misleading semblance of no wind.

Turnout for the match was a bit lower than anticipated, yet it worked out beautifully; Blair can only accommodate 12 shooters per detail, so when the entries maxed out at 35 it enabled us to run three details making for short days and more time in the pubs.. The situation I really wanted to avoid was say, 37 or 38 shooters, that would entail a fourth detail and would have added an extra 1.5 hours to Saturday and 1 hour to Sunday, it’s a long time to wait for just a couple of shooters. It was serendipitous then to have a small select gathering of 35 including several who had travelled long distances; such as Tony Marsh, Ian Bellis and Peter Dommett. There was one long-distance traveler who would have topped them all; our good friend from the US, Biff Conlon had been planning to attend but had to withdraw when he had a clash of dates with a family wedding.

Friday Practice

The opportunity to check zeroes and get some practice was scheduled for noon, allowing for a leisurely breakfast and time to recover from sore heads…can’t think how that happened…”never again”..

Thanks to Dave Raybould and his big 4×4, he was able to tow the trailer with the gazebos and managed to get them back up to the 900yd parking area – if it can be called that; in reality it is just a grassy area approached by a short steep muddy incline. It was to prove to be too much for many ordinary vehicles and even 4x4s had to drive with caution. That is something we will take up with the West Atholl club; to see if we can make that area more accessible for all, and while we’re at it, to see if the 1,000yd firing point can be expanded to make it more useable and safe.

Throughout the afternoon, shooters drifted in and out as they arrived from far and wide, most were content to check their zero, while others brought multiple rifles and loads to test & try before committing themselves.

One of the last to arrive was Tony Marsh; thankfully he had brought two rifles…

Poor Tony got a stuck case, so naturally fetched a cleaning rod to rod it out, oddly though the rod also became firmly stuck… so, to extricate it, he wedged it in the hinge of the gate and yanked hard – only to see the rod handle fly off, leaving a handle-less rod still obstinately stuck.. Then somebody lent him pliers and a hammer and finally the rod was knocked out…but, as it came out, the end had become bent over, gouging the barrel the full length as it emerged – and the errant case was refusing to extract! Taking another rod, he tapped it and lo and behold the case head separated, leaving the case body still jammed in the chamber… mercifully he had the second rifle to use.  After all that drama, our intrepid hero took off into the Cairngorm mountains to seek solace and climbed three ‘Munros’ – peaks over 3,000ft.


The forecast was for showers and so it transpired later, but at least we got off to a good dry start, the wind was cooperative too; with only the most gentle drift showing, albeit the flags were heavy with dew. FTR got the bunny detail and made good use of it. Neil Groves who is only in his first season, came out on top – Neil maybe one to watch out for in future. Second and third place went to Julie Bagnall and Carrie Ryan; that was to be a prescient outcome as we’d see.

On the F/O side, nothing much had changed by the time they got to shoot, which is not surprising given the details cycle through pretty quickly on the Silver Mountain targets. As with FTR, only two F/O shooters achieved possible 75s, yet again the names were to prove prophetic; Gary Costello and Paul Sandie the two League leaders, though Ian Bellis wasn’t far behind.

Stage 1FTRStage 1FO
Neil Groves75.07Gary Costello75.10
Julie Bagnall75.04Paul Sandie75.08
Carrie Ryan74.05Ian Bellis74.11

It is always good to get the first stage out of the way; it help reassure one that the rifle and ammo are on song – provided of course that one has done the prep’, on the other hand if the early morning conditions are benign and things are still not performing, one gets that sinking feeling as it doesn’t auger well for the later and usually more testing stages. F-class is like that; there’s no hiding place.

It was only 11am and we were ready to start stage 2, but by now the expected rain had arrived, albeit just a light drizzle but enough to get us soaked in due course. The gazebos helped tremendously of course and enabled us to shoot in relative comfort, except perhaps for the shooters who found themselves near the gap, where the gazebos meet – the rain tends to run off down there, the more observant shooters would strategically position themselves to avoid that…

The wet flags were heavy and totally unresponsive and judging by the scores, there was only the gentlest of zephyrs present; nowhere near enough to show up, so an element of luck crept in, if one just happened to squeeze off a shot and got drifted out to a 4.9, while your partner, just moments later got away with a 5.01.. Such is life, despite all our advances; we sometimes still need a wee bit of luck.

Having a good rifle and ammo though means taking advantage of every good opportunity and it was clear that Julie Bagnall had everything lined up perfectly; there was some good-natured leg-pulling that perhaps Adam had got their ammo mixed up, though he was not far behind at all. David Rollafson benefitted from a countback to squeak into third; so remember if you’re going to drop a point, drop it sooner than later in your string.

On the FO side Paul Harkins got the only 75 of Stage 2, that said, the V-counts in FO were pretty high, indicating that those gentle little invisible zephyrs had proportionately less effect on the typically higher BC bullets used by the FO leaders.

Young Tom has clearly being doing his homework and getting commensurate good scores while Pat Allen on just his first visit to Blair acquitted himself well.

Stage 2FTRStage 2FO
Julie Bagnall74.08Paul Harkins75.10
Adam Bagnall74.07Tom Reynolds74.10
David Rollafson73.07Pat Allen74.09

By 12.30 we were ready to start Stage 3, it felt very weird making such rapid progress; thanks in part to the electronics working well and to the reduced field of three details. Nevertheless, standing around in drizzly rain for any length of time has the inevitable effect of getting everything rather soggy, shooting mats in particular take on that awful “wet dog” whiff. Normally, there’d be a refreshing breeze to blow that away, but not this day; even at midday there was barely anything resembling a breeze at all.

One good thing about the Saturday stages was that it gave everyone a fair chance to see what their rifles were really capable of in as near-ideal conditions as you could possibly hope for at Blair Atholl, which is normally a notoriously fickle if not downright diabolical range. With so little information to go on being shown in the flags; shooters were compelled to look further and more carefully for clues, I saw a number of telescopes being deployed in the search for any wind indications. Interestingly, the scores of the FTR detail were just marginally diminished compared to Stage 2 whereas the opposite held true for the FO detail – possibly that ballistic advantage was just helping to sway the odds in their favour just that wee smidgen more.

In FTR, again no one quite managed a possible 75, but Carrie Ryan came the closest with the Bagnall Clan giving chase just a couple of points behind, it was starting to looks as though the FTR match was a three horse race, with none of the front leaders giving away much at all. Julie in particular netted a bronze to go with her earlier Gold & Silver, thereby completing the set – a rare occurrence at any match. Much the same could be said of FO where Paul Sandie and Tom Reynolds achieved the only 75 and with super V-counts, speaking of which, Paul Harkins took bronze with a superb 74 and a V-count of 13 – the highest of the weekend, it is quite an uncommon sight to see such scores at Blair.

Stage 3FTRStage 3FO
Carrie Ryan74.08Paul Sandie75.12
Adam Bagnall73.08Tom Reynolds75.10
Julie Bagnall72.07Paul Harkins74.13

Saturday Aggregates

It is fair to say that this was Julie Bagnall’s big day; it was her finest performance for a while, so if we had a “Man of the Match” award she’d have won it, the Daily aggregate is just as good and she took the Gold medal for that by two points ahead of hubby Adam so it was a good day for the Bagnall household. Conspicuously though, Carrie was not very far behind them, that was to prove momentous.

Paul Sandie used his long experience of Jubilee Range to good effect in taking the FO daily agg’, but by only the slenderest margin of one point ahead of Gary Costello and perhaps more remarkably Tom Reynolds who hasn’t anywhere near the experience of that highly accomplished pair, but more than makes up for it with sheer talent. Tom’s day will come, that seems certain.

Saturday Agg’FTRSaturday Agg’FO
Julie Bagnall221.19Paul Sandie224.24
Adam Bagnall219.23Gary Costello223.30
Carrie Ryan218.16Tom Reynolds223.29

Watching the cars exit from the 900yd parking area was a nerve-wracking experience, we can still recall Asad Wahid’s past experience of going sideways in an extremely expensive BMW, this year he would have known exactly how it felt to see the cars slide, pirouette and almost do a triple salchow… humour aside, clearly something needs to be done and it is our intention to raise this matter with the West Atholl committee to see if some improvements can be made.

As shooters dispersed to their various digs around the vicinity, I was minded to recall when in the earliest days of the League, we booked every available room in the Atholl Arms hotel – all 31 of them, filled with shooters. It made for a very convivial time as we all dined together in the old Baronial Hall. Times change and folk find their own places to suit their pockets and tastes, but we may have lost something in the passing and I wondered if there would be any interest in reviving the idea of the “team dinner” for all competitors..?

I had received a number of enquiries as to recommendations of good places to stay and I can happily add another to the list; the “Park Royale” site has a number of caravans and chalets at very reasonable rates. Pitlochry of course, still offers the widest variety of accommodation and eateries. It was rather quieter than usual this year; perhaps partly due to the petrol shortage and or the cancellation of the popular ‘Enchanted Forest’ attraction.


Sunday dawned, misty though mercifully dry, but very distinctly colder – it was clear that winter was on its way and it tends to come early to these sheltered Highland glens, no frost to scrape off yet, but perhaps in another week that would change. The main thing was that it was dry and just perhaps later in the day the weak Autumnal sun would enable us to dry out shooting mats and other kit in between shooting stages.

On arrival at the range, I was most gratified to see the early birds had already gathered on the firing point and had taken the initiative to erect the gazebos, well done everyone! I cannot express how glad I was that we have some really good people in the League who all pitch in and help out, it makes such a huge difference, my thanks to you all. In particular, Paul Harkins looked after the electronic targets all weekend; fettling them and keeping them all charged up and ready for action, we had very little bother at all with the Silver Mountains so I am very grateful indeed.

This time, it was FO first into action, so no leisurely breakfast for them, though in reality most folk do not have to rush themselves as shooting at Jubilee range doesn’t start until 9.30am as a concession to the horsewoman who lives across the valley.

As with Saturday morning, the flags were hanging heavy with the overnight rain and early morning dew, so again it looked as though Sunday was to be largely a contest of trigger-pullers with accurate rifles, instead of a wind-reading contest. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; it is a really good test of precision shooting, with superbly accurate rifles and very carefully made ammunition – and that that’s all  a crucial part of F-class.

If there was a special prize for having the most beautiful rifle, then it would have been a hotly contested duel between Gary Costello and David Raybould; they both had pristine examples of the very best of the art of gunsmithing, they both scored the only 75s of Stage 4 and only one measly V-bull separated them.

It was tough at the top of FTR too, with only 2 V-bulls separating all three medalists, it was starting to look as though Julie Bagnall was in a league of her own as she netted yet another gold stage medal, Carrie Ryan though, had Julie in her sights and was closing in. Ryan Goodman made a welcome return to Blair and netted the bronze, Blair is a tricky range to get about on for most of us, but even more so for Ryan.

Stage 4FTRStage 4FO
Julie Bagnall74.07Gary Costello75.10
Carrie Ryan74.06Dave Raybould75.09
Ryan Goodman74.05Paul Harkins74.09

Now, finally and at long last the prolonged spell of unusually calm and still wind appeared to be ending; the flags awoke with a start and stretched out, this way and that, to and fro’. Now, it was the turn of the wind readers to get their teeth into this variable condition and show what they were made of. Quite frankly, I was delighted with this change in fortunes, it would help stir things up and show Blair in the best light possible with its devilishly difficult reputation restored. It may seem an odd thing to celebrate the arrival of fresh winds, but it really was needed, rather like having been stuck in the doldrums for too long.

There were no more superb high scores to comment on in this stage, this was more like damage limitation; knowing when not to shoot. Gary Costello knows a thing or two about when and when not to shoot, he made some carefully considered wind reading decisions and it paid off, dropping only 2 points when all around him folk were dropping points like confetti. He was three points ahead of GB Coach Tony Marsh using his second rifle and four points ahead of Blair tyro Pat Allen. This superb performance put Gary well out in front and clinched the match for him.

On the FTR side, it was a pretty similar story; Carrie Ryan made all the right wind calls, dropping just 3 points; it was, quite simply a superb demonstration of accurate wind reading from this talented wind coach and a vindication of her role. Like Gary, this super performance is what won the match for her. Ewan Campbell and Peter Dommett were a full four points behind her and most other shooters were much further behind.

Stage 5FTRStage 5FO
Carrie Ryan72.02Gary Costello73.04
Ewan Campbell68.04Tony Marsh70.06
Pete Dommett68.01Pat Allan69.06

What an excellent end to the match; a truly testing, difficult wind reading exercise to test the best. It had the effect of churning up the leader board; promoting some, while cruelly relegating others.

Saturday Aggregate

The nasty, brutal and variable wind of Stage 5 cost Julie Bagnall dearly; from holding what seemed like an unassailable lead right up to and after Stage 4, to coming third in the daily agg, the same could be said for Paul Sandie; from being the main contender to being pushed off the podium on the Sunday, it just goes to show how fortunes can be changed so quickly by the fickle and capricious wind.

Special mention should be made of Ryan Goodman and Tony Marsh; both shot superbly under difficult conditions in Stage 5 and turned around their whole match; it says a lot about them that when the chips were down, they were able to dig deeper and make the right calls.

Sunday Agg’FTRSunday Agg’FO
Carrie Ryan146.08Gary Costello148.14
Ryan Goodman141.09Tony Marsh144.14
Julie Bagnall139.12Pat Allan143.12

The Championships

It was not your typical match at Blair Atholl; the range had lulled us into a false sense of security with tiny, gentle or invisible wafts of wind, then just when we could see the end in sight and we thought we’d gained the upper hand of this range; it lashed out viciously and put us back in our place.

Commiserations to the gallant runners-up; especially Paul Sandie and Julie Bagnall for a well-fought contest.

The winners of the Highland Challenge can rightly claim to be good “all-rounders”; they demonstrated they could be superbly precise trigger pullers and when the conditions called for it, they could be superbly accurate wind readers too.

All credit then to Carrie Ryan and Gary Costello for very well-deserved wins.

The ChampionshipFTRThe ChampionshipFO
Carrie Ryan364.24Gary Costello371.44
Julie Bagnall360.31Paul Sandie365.32
Adam Bagnall358.30Paul Harkins364.42

My personal thanks to everyone who helped out in so many ways throughout the weekend, most especially I’m grateful to Richie Jones who took on the lion’s share of so many tasks that are necessary, yet often go unnoticed, doing them all with great enthusiasm and good humour – thanks Richie!

See you at the British Championships in November.


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