Rifle Golf: America’s newest shooting sport

If you’re interested in long distance rifle shooting, or in hunting with a rifle, I highly recommend that you check out the Spirit Ridge Rifle Golf facility, in Utah. The “golf” part of the name is really just part of the rules for how your shots are scored. Other than that, it’s all rifle and no golf, and it’s one of the best opportunities I’ve ever seen to test one’s rifle skills.

The facility is about 90 miles north of Salt Lake City, near Tremonton, Utah. It’s remote, but well worth a detour. A round of “rifle golf” works like this: Accompanied by a guide, you drive  a six-mile loop on a dirt road on a sheep ranch. Along the way, you stop at four different shooting stations. The stations have tables and chairs for benchrest shooting. At the first station, your first target to shoot at is a black wooden silhouette of a moose, at 442 yards away. At the place where a hunter would place an ideal shot on the moose (at the center of the heart/lungs area), there is a hanging half-circle white metal plate, about 11 inches in diameter. If you hit the plate on the first shot, that’s scored as an “eagle” (2 under par). If you get the plate on the second shot, that’s a birdie (1 under par). If you miss the first two shots at the distant target, you take your third shot at something closer; on “hole” 1, that’s a deer at 285 yards.

Each shooting station has three “holes.” So at the first station, you would also try for a grizzly bear (384 yards) and a coyote (169 yards), and then for another moose (511 yards) and a grizzly (192 yards). Your guide will have a very high-powered spotting scope, and give you advice (e.g., “your first shot was perfectly centered, but an inch too high”). For all shooting, you’re one side of a valley, shooting at a slope on the other side.

Shooting stations 3 and 4 are the same, with targets ranging from 558 to 188 yards. Station 2 has a single target, a moose at 1000 yards. You get two shots, and if you hit either, strokes are deducted from you total score. If you get it on the first shot, you win a prize.

What I’ve just described is the “classic” course. If you’re already an excellent long distance shot, you can shoot at the “master” targets at each shooting station. The long shots are up to 875 yards, and the shortest is 399. On the thousand-yard hole, your target can be up to 1250 yards away.

Rifle golf provides shooting challenges that most people can never try except when actually hunting. For most people, it’s difficult to find a shooting range longer than 200 yards. Even if you’re lucky enough to live near a 600 yard range, at the range you and the target will both be at the same elevation. In contrast, the rifle golf targets are at a wide variety of elevations, either higher or lower than the shooter. Thus, it is all the more challenging to estimate how far the bullet will drop due to gravity. (If your rifle scope is zeroed in for 200 yards, then a shot at a target 200 yards away should hit right at the point indicated by the crosshairs on your scope. If the target is further away, then you will need to aim above the cross-hairs point, because as the bullet travels further, it slows down from air friction, and drops more and more due to gravity.) Of course for any given shot, the wind may be blowing, and you’ll have to take that into account in placing your shot.

An ethical hunter must have the realistic confidence that a particular shot can be placed where it will quickly kill the animal (either the heart/lungs, or the brain). A shot that hits the animal somewhere else (e.g., the guts or  a leg) is a failure; the animal may eventually die from infection, but not necessarily quickly. So for hunting, if you see an elk 275 yards away, you must know whether you and your rifle have the ability to make an ethical shot at that particular distance. Rifle golf is an outstanding way to get a sense of your abilities for long distance shots, so that you can take ethical shots, and avoid unethical ones. Indeed, rifle golf raises the bar somewhat higher, because the white plates constitute only a fraction of the parts of the animal that would constitute an ethical shot. So if you can consistently hit the plate at a given distance, then you can be confident that you can take ethical shots at that distance. (After accounting for other factors, such as whether your field rest of the rifle (e.g., shooting sticks) are as steady as a rifle golf bench.)

Whether or not you hunt, rifle golf is great fun for long distance shooting. Almost any centerfire caliber of .223 or above should be usable for the classic course. Just be sure that your rifle has a scope on it.

Compared to golf golf, the Spirit Ridge Rifle Golf clubhouse is primitive, with running water and toilets, but not much else. So plan on bringing all the gear you need. Presuming you don’t show up with an ATV, you’ll need to rent one of those at the course, and it’s worth paying extra (including a tip) for a guide to go with you, especially your first time around the course.

Spirit Ridge Rifle Golf is an extraordinary shooting experience. I’ve been to shooting facilities all over the United States, and never found anything remotely comparable to rifle golf. I very highly recommend it.