Where it all began...

Back in October 2013, Nige (the Editor and owner of Airsoft Action magazine) traveled to the Grange near Coventry in the UK to report from the first ever Airsoft Surgeon European Championship …little did he know how the event would grow over the next few years.

This is his write-up from the Xmas 2013 issue of Airsoft Action…

The First Airsoft Surgeon Practical Airsoft Shooting Championship

Earlier this year I was very lucky to be able to spend a few days over in Nuremberg, at the IWA OutdoorClassics Exhibition – Europe’s largest exhibition for hunting, shooting and outdoor equipment. Of course, all the major airsoft manufacturers were there, as were a fair contingent of airsoft distributors and retailers, including RedWolf Airsoft with representatives from both the UK and Hong Kong. It was here that I spent some time chatting with The Airsoft Surgeon, Clarence Lai, about the possibility of holding an airsoft practical pistol championship in the UK and that maybe it could be a European-wide event.

That was in March and less than eight months later I found myself standing inside a vast marquee, looking down a row of highly challenging practical shooting stages and waiting for the start of the tournament that had been just a dream those few months ago.

For those of you that are wondering what “Practical Shooting” is, it is a discipline that tests your ability to shoot both rapidly and accurately with a handgun, rifle or shotgun.

Practical shooting can trace its roots back to “quick draw” competitions in the USA, where contestants would emulate “wild west” gunslingers and eventually lead to the formation of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) in 1984. Since then practical shooting has become a worldwide phenomenon (except in the UK, of course) and many believe it to be the fastest growing international target shooting discipline.

The 1997 Firearms (Amendment)(N0.2) Act banned the private ownership of pistols (almost) completely in the UK and effectively destroyed a very active part of our shooting heritage – that of competitive pistol shooting – but it hasn’t stopped an ever-growing number of shooters using airsoft pistols instead.

My first taste of practical pistol was when I was invited down to the East Barnet Shooting Club last year and watched Mark Hurding draw, aim and hit five individual targets in just a smidgeon over 2 seconds – and be upset as he normally did it in about 1.8! So you can imagine what I was looking forward to seeing at The Grange over the next couple of days.

Although hoping for about 35 to 40 entrants, the Tournament proved to be an instant draw (if you’ll pardon the pun) to shooters from across Europe and entrance was closed when numbers reached 84 – with a large contingent from Poland and others from as far afield as Finland and Hong Kong, with the remainder from the UK.

The tournament was held at The Grange, the home of the Airsoft Arms Fair and where I had already covered previous events. I have known Jim and Marie a little while now and know just how much effort they put into their events but I have to say that they really pulled out all the stops on this one! The sixteen stages of the competition would all be under cover – some in the Hall but the majority in the vast marquee they had erected in the area usually used as their range, with an additional small and large marquee alongside.

Eight stages would be shot on the Saturday, which would then be dismantled and a further eight erected for Sunday. The shooters were broken down into eight squads and every shooter would shoot every stage over the course of the weekend and each would compete in one or more of five divisions: Open, Standard, Classic, Lady and Junior. Although the Tournament was not an officially sanctioned IPSC event, it would be run under the IPSC Action Air Competition Rules (of which there are 64 pages), to ensure strict codes of conduct and safety.

Each of the sixteen stages had been designed by Clarence to not only challenge the shooter’s ability to shoot accurately and fast but also to recognise the most appropriate path to move through the stage. On some stages shooters would be required to negotiate obstacles such as tables (which they would have to shoot under), windows (which would have to opened to access the targets beyond) and targets partly obscured by a “no-hit” panel that would attract penalty points if shot.

The majority of targets were IPSC-type Action Air Targets with three scoring zones (A, C and D) surrounded by a 3mm wide non-scoring zone. Just in case you were wondering why there is no “B” scoring zone, this zone used to represent the “head” of a figure and is not deemed appropriate for use by the IPSC. There were also a number of metal “Popper” targets at floor level which fall backwards when shot – although one or two of these were to prove problematical over the weekend.

As the shooters gathered in the Grange’s Café in preparation for the off, I spotted Simon and the guys from Halo Mill/Patrol Base and also had chance to catch up with Mike Cripps from Elite Shooting Centre, while at opposite ends of the Café two teams seemed to be competing for “The Brightest Shirts” award, as both The Wildcats from the Isle of Wight and one of the Polish teams were looking good in their black, red and white liveries.

Following welcoming speeches from Jim Sefton, Clarence and Chris Kong from RedWolf Airsoft, the shooters all moved off to their designated Stages and I tagged along to get as many action photos as I could.

Those of you who have seen me out in the field with my camera, know that I am not adverse to getting right into the thick of the action to get the best shot (and believe me when I say that a Hi-Vis vest is no barrier to multiple hits!!) but Practical Shooting is a very different kettle of fish.

As a shooter prepares to fire, the Range Officer will call “Range Hot!” and from this point everyone must remain behind a line to the rear, until the shooter has finished the Stage and “Range Clear!” is called. You can imagine that this makes it, erm…. “challenging” to photograph and, to top it off, the use of flash is strictly forbidden as it could put the shooter off. Anyway, I hope the pictures here give you some idea of the action – however, what they will not do is convey the level of intensity of the competition, nor the sportsman-like atmosphere in which it was run.

As with all sports, not everyone wants (or can afford) to compete at the top level and the different Divisions of this tournament reflected that.

In Open Division, apart from a relaxed limit on the amount of rounds per magazine, pretty much anything else can be added to the gun, including sights, compensators, suppressors etc. These are the “Race Guns”, fully tricked up, looking awesome and with the ability to knock a large hole in your Bank balance. Open Division is considered to be the Formula One of Practical Airsoft Shooting.

In Standard Division the guns are much more controlled, in that they must conform to certain size constraints, cannot have sights and other additions, have restricted magazine capacity and must be holstered completely behind the hip line. Using the motorsports analogy, I guess this would be the equivalent of the British Touring Car Championship.

Talking to some shooters about the variations between these two divisions, some felt that the Standard Division provided a greater level of competition, as the guns were all of an equivalent nature and capability. Their point being that with similarly performing guns, success would come from the shooter’s skill, not their ability to spend money. However, they also conceded that a superb gun in the hands of an average Open Division shooter wouldn’t necessarily make them a good shooter. It is also interesting to note that, according to IPSC Rules, a Standard shooter who breaches certain rules would be “relegated to Open Division”.

The third of the main Divisions at the Tournament was “Classic” and, as it sounds, this division is purely for guns based on a classic design, namely the 1911-genre. With constraints on size, 10-round, single stack magazines and modifications prohibited this is the smallest division but also one that tests the shooter’s skill to the limit. I was personally sad to note that, according to IPSC, this Division is “under evaluation” and unless extended, will expire at the end of 2014.

Two other Divisions were being contested over the weekend; Ladys and Junior, with shooters from these Divisions competing in the divisions above and then scored in their own Divisions as well. With 7 Lady and 12 Junior shooters taking part, both Divisions were as fiercely competitive as the rest.

As a spectator, one of the things I really like about Practical Shooting is that you don’t know who has won until the Tournament has finished. It’s not like a football match where the home team are 4-0 up by half time and the away supporters are already leaving the ground, or watching to see who is going to come second behind Sebastian Vettel. Sure, in Practical Shooting you might have an inkling that a particular shooter is doing well but, until that last shot is fired and the final “Range Clear!” is called, anything could happen – and this tournament was a perfect example of that.

Because of the deteriorating weather and light conditions on the second day, it was decided to alter the order to ensure the final stages would be shot in the Hall, where it was both dry and with plenty of lighting. This proved to be an excellent decision as the heavens opened and dark clouds drastically reduced daylight however, just as the final squad moved into the Hall, the electricity went out!

It wasn’t too long before it was back but it meant the shooters had to start their pre-shoot preparation over again. When you consider the level of concentration they’d had to maintain to this point, you can understand how difficult it must have been to get it back again. Needless to say, they were all totally professional and I didn’t hear one grumble or bad thing said; they all just accepted it and got on with what they were there for… Shooting!

With the final Stages complete all the shooters made their way back to the Café to wait for the results (and maybe grab the odd beer or two at the same time, as drinking was forbidden during the Tournament). I have got to say that the atmosphere was absolutely brilliant!

I’ve been to events where the end has almost been an anti-climax, with nobody talking and people too busy packing their gear away to take part in anything going on around them. Here it was totally the opposite as shooters were busy chatting through the weekend and how it had gone for them. Brit, Pole, Fin, Filipino and Chinese shooters all talking about one common subject and, from those I spoke to, a universal response to being asked what they thought of the tournament… Excellent!

The general hubbub was only quietened when Chris Kong climbed onto a chair to announce that all players had been entered into a free raffle and it was time to draw the prizes, starting with tee-shirts and a selection of Airsoft Surgeon parts and accessories. It was then announced that both Mike Cripps and Clarence had donated pistols to the raffle and all the previously winning tickets were returned to the pot as the draw got underway again.

There were five pistols up for grabs, culminating in a fully-prepared Airsoft Surgeon Race Gun, etched with the words “2013 Airsoft Surgeon European Championship”. Needless to say that all the prize winners were suitably delighted and none more so than John Cortes of the Wildcats, who won the top prize (I wonder if he has stopped jumping up and down even yet!)

It was then time for the real serious stuff as Jim signalled to Chris that the scores had arrived and the tournament’s winners could be announced.

First up it was the Junior Division, won by Lai Pak Lam followed by the Ladys Division, which was won by Tiffany Lau. The Classic Division came next which was won by a highly delighted Roy Juurijoki from Finland, whilst the Standard Division fell to his team mate Jaakko Viitala.

The final award was for the Open Division and went to Rafal Tomanek from Poland, who had performed almost faultlessly throughout the tournament.

And then it was all over and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Sure, Practical Shooting is not for everyone but, as is so often the case with airsoft, it shows just how broadly spread it has become and how much of a truly global sport it is.

In terms of the event, I think the best way I can sum it up is to quote Maciej Piwowarski, one of the Polish contingent who contacted me on Facebook after the event; “I most enjoyed the fraternal relationship between the players. The competition was organized very well. I hope that next year more players coming from all over Europe. Only good publicity to attract more shooters. My colleagues from the Polish already gearing up for next year’s competition.”

All that remains is for me to add my congratulations to all the participants and winners.

My thanks also to everyone at RedWolf Airsoft and The Grange for putting on such a successful event and to the man himself, Clarence Lai – Airsoft Surgeon for making it happen.