Sgt. Ben Cleland felt good when he woke up to participate in the 2019 Charlie Smart Memorial NRA High-Power Event earlier this month. One of his fellow shooters and mentors in the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) had predicted that Cleland would shoot a perfect score, and the Swanton, Ohio, native had been shooting well — and winning competitions — all year.
There was just one problem: Cleland didn’t have his rifle. He planned to borrow one from one of his teammates, but he’d just mounted the scope the night before and he wouldn’t have a chance to sight it in.
Fortunately, he had a plan.
“The wind conditions were tricky, and the gun was an unknown factor, having not shot it before. But I decided I was going to treat each shot like it was my very first shot,” Cleland told GunsAmerica, referring specifically to his final 20 shots at 600 yards. “I’d make a wind call each time, so I could shoot the deepest shot I could and make an adjustment for the next one.”
Cleland’s plan worked. He scored an 800-34x — the first perfect score in the history of the competition. He had to make a few adjustments along the way, but the unfamiliar rifle didn’t seem to affect his performance.
The first “800” in Cleland’s score indicates that he landed all 80 shots in the 10-ring, a target that measures 7 inches at 200 and 300 yards and 12 inches at 600 yards. The “34x” means he hit the inner X-ring on 34 of his 80 shots. The X-ring measures 3 inches at both the 200 and 300 yards, and 6 inches at the 600 yards.
The 80 shots are broken down into four 20-round matches. The first match consists of two sighting shots and 20 standing, slow-fire recorded shots at 200 yards and within 20 minutes. The second match consists of two sighting shots and 20 sitting/kneeling, rapid-fire recorded shots at 200 yards within 2 minutes. The third match consists of two sighting shots and 20 prone, rapid-fire recorded shots at 300 yards within 2 minutes and 20 seconds. And the fourth match consists of two sighting shots and 20 prone, slow-fire recorded shots at 600 yards within 20 minutes and 20 seconds.
The previous record of 798 was set by Gunnery Sergeant Julia L. Watson of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Another former USAMU Service Rifle Team veteran, Sgt. Sherri Gallagher, shot an 800 at this event, but she used a match rifle rather than a service rifle. Service rifles are limited to M16s, M14s and M1 Garands with a 4.5x scope.
The accurized M16 that Cleland used featured a high-grade 20-inch barrel, a free-floated hand tube, and a 4.5x scope. He used 77g 5.56 NATO rounds at the 200 and 300-yard targets and a 75g projectile at the 600-yard target.
Cleland started competing when he was eight years old by participating in muzzleloader events with his family. He moved into archery when he got older and started shooting small bore after that. He hadn’t shot high-power rifle events until he joined the Army at 21 years old.
Cleland fell in love with the challenge of competition, and he looked up to his father, who was also a member of the Army Marksmanship Unit. His grandfather had been a competitive shooter as well.
“I wanted to be like my dad. I thought he was the greatest thing. And once I joined the Army, I was surrounded by so many people who were such good shooters. I couldn’t even list all the people I looked up to,” Cleland said.
That lifelong love of shooting has paid off. The Charlie Smart event isn’t Cleland’s first time in the winner’s circle — far from it. In May, he won the 2019 CMP Cup at the Eastern Games in Butner, North Carolina, with another record-setting score of 2389-133x. That score was enough to beat the previous record at that type of event, also set by Cleland at the 2018 National Rifle Association’s Service Rifle Championship.
He’s collected lots of hardware on the precision rifle circuit as well, winning the Masterpiece Arms Precision Rifle Challenge, the Remington Long Range Classic, the Accuracy International Precision Rifle Competition, and the K&M Tactical Rifle Competition.
Cleland used that prior experience to maintain his confidence as he prepared for his final shot at the Charlie Smart event in June.
“I’ve lost matches or had less than a perfect score because of the last shot. Throughout my life, having grown up competing, I’ve trained myself to treat the last shot like any other. I tell myself, ‘At this point, you’ve shot 79 10’s. How hard is it to shoot one more?’
“It’s confidence. That’s truly what it is. Just knowing you can do it, and do it. Shut everything off. Do what you’ve trained your body to do, let that muscle memory take over, and it happens.”
Passing on the Knowledge
The Army Marksmanship Unit was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Cleland describes it, the AMU was instituted to “train the trainer,” among other things.
“Our mission is to win national and international rifle competitions to advance small arms lethality and to further lethality throughout the force of the Army,” he said. “We R&D weapons systems, ammo, training tactics and theories, and we go on to teach instructors within the Army about how to better help the people they’re teaching marksmanship to.”
Cleland clearly loves this aspect of the job. He was more than happy to give advice to current and prospective competitive shooters.
For competitive shooters hoping to up their game, Cleland’s advice is simple: focus on trigger control.
“Shooting is all about trigger control. It’s the biggest factor. If you have perfect trigger control, you don’t have to have a good position, or really even know what you’re doing, because you can break a shot in the middle every time,” Cleland said. “My emphasis would be to learn proper trigger control by doing lots of dry fire.”
And for those who haven’t yet dipped a toe in the deep end of competitive shooting, Cleland encouraged them to just jump in.
“Don’t be intimidated by how you’re going to perform,” he said. “Just go and learn, because everybody there is more than willing to teach you. That’s part of the fun for us.”