DON BOWER LONG RANGE HANDGUN COURSE
This page was originally about the long-range handgun shooting clinic Don Bower and Mark Sheehan put on at Alliance, Nebraska in 2002, but has now become a Memoriam to Don Bower. Don passed away Tuesday, October 15, 2013.
American Rifleman Magazine Article on Don, June, 1995 issue
To appreciate who and what Don was, how his influence has impacted us, one needs to know some history and how for better or worse our passion for shooting and sharing it with others defines us.
I believe it was in a 1986 Guns & Ammo article that I first read about Don shooting empty primer boxes at 500 yards with 14" Contenders rechambered to his hopped up cartridges, most of which were based on P.O. Ackley's "improved" cartridge design. That eye opener stuck in my mind for years and set the stage for the events that followed with Don, himself.
Don was not a machinist or gunsmith in the traditional sense. He was foremost a shooter, instructor, and a carpenter. Like me he was also an Air Force Marksmanship Instructor/Field Level Armorer maintaining the weapons we trained with. Though my years of competitive shooting were very short in comparison to Don's, we related well on that level.
My passion for firearms took an abrupt turn away from competitive shooting when buying P.O. Ackley's business in '79 threw me belly deep in chamber designs, ballistics, and firearms metal work.
Our lifetime experiences combined to form a unique complementary relationship that continues to have rippling effects throughout the TC shooting fraternity.
Don's interest in competitive high power rifle shooting had shifted to seeing what could be done with a Contender handgun at what were then considered unheard of distances somewhere along the way in the late 70's as best I can gather. The introduction of the Contender with 14" barrels in this time frame was bringing the gun to the forefront of what a handgun could be. Shooting the 600 yard National Match Course had become old hat to him, so what could he do with a handgun?
As he proved the Contender's metal and conjured up better cartridges for it he became quite annoyed with those that questioned what he claimed to be accomplishing, both in velocities produced by his cartridges and the group sizes that suggested some higher power of the universe was magically guiding bullets into tight clusters at 500 yards and beyond.
He really had something going, but could not manage to get much acknowledgement from the National Rifle Association, the "NRA".
Don had essentially entered "the arms race"of the times trying to maximize velocities from cartridges somewhat over grown for the Contender and going head to head with guys like J.D. Jones of SSK fame, myself, and others groping our way through what worked best in the Contender. At the time, many of us had not quite wrapped our brains around what the upper limit cartridges could reliably be, and truthfully, at one point or another, we all crossed the line pushing the Contender's strength limitations too hard.
Somewhere around 1994 Don got ahold of one of my brochures promoting my .300 BS (Bellm/Stewart) cartridge, which like many of Don's cartridges was also based on the excellent .307 Winchester case. Mine had its capacity moderated by running the .307 case into a common .300 Savage size die and side stepped the need for expensive custom dies. His .30 Alaskan on the other hand directly copied my predecessor's Ackley Improved design and was realistically a much more sensible choice for the Contender than the highly promoted .309 JDJ.
Don filled his pen with nitric acid, crossed out many of my statements, wrote bulls_ across it, and mailed it to me.
Contentions ran high among the purveyors of cartridges promoting their progenies with one in particular always cocked and locked ready to threaten a lawsuit against anyone chambering for HIS "proprietary" cartridge all the while in one manner or another each was to some extent copying what had already been done by someone else.
At a gunshow in Montrose, Colorado probably in late 1994, I met Newt Haleblian, a prince of a fellow, very close friend of Don's, and a VERY proficient student of Don's shooting regimen. Newt related the frustration Don was experiencing trying to get the world to see what he was onto and highly validated Don's long range claims from his own first hand experiences shooting with Don. My interest was piqued. Being the gentleman level headed peacemaker he was, I told Newt I would like to meet Don, to which he agreed and later brought Don in to meet me at a gunshow in Denver.
Talk about a missed "Kodak Moment", I'll never forget that day as Don was being introduced to me from across my Denver, Colorado gunshow table some months later. Trying to chip away the nearly 20 year older iceberg in front of me, not succumb to the intimidation, and make conversation, I mentioned that I understood Don had been in the Air Force and asked what his career field was. He literally puffed up his chest with a deep inhale and sternly, forcefully announced "I was a marksmanship instructor," to which I then said, ".... you mean an AFSC 753x0? So was I."
At that point the entire atmosphere changed from adversarial to best of friends sharing our memories of the Marksmanship School we both attended, though years apart, at Lackland AFB, then home of the All Air Force competitive high power rifle, pistol, small bore, trap, and skeet teams as well as the instructor course we attended. All these functions were in the same area of the base where we both had rubbed elbows with All Air Force competitors and personnel from the supporting gunsmith shop where "boom.....thump" was routinely heard coming from the test tunnel from across the parade field.
Then in June of 1995, The American Rifleman Magazine not only wrote him up, but included an apology for not giving him credence for his long range capabilities with handguns sooner. Don was finally vindicated.
Before I moved from Utah at the end of '97, Don and I set up together at many a gunshow in Colorado and included staying at or visiting his home. We continued to work together through '98 & '99 setting up together at the big Tulsa, Oklahoma show and also jointly put on a long range handgun shooting clinic I had organized at Claremore, Oklahoma in '99.
While some of his views were not totally founded on thoroughly based science, what he lacked on the technical side not doing the chamber work himself was more than compensated for by his skills teaching his shooting craft to anyone open to following his lead and giving it a try. His real forte was in the shooting and teaching.
When standing before a group teaching his craft, Don lit up like a Christmas tree. Teaching was his "zone" where he really shined. Having stood in that position on a range or in a range tower many times myself,
just watching him perform was a joy in itself that still brings a smile.
One of his greatest delights was taking a rank amateur shooter, especially a totally inexperienced woman, to the Byers range east of Denver, and in very short order having that person shooting tight groups with a handgun at 500 yards.
It was as much to out-do the know-it-alls as it was to delight the student with his or her personal accomplishment shooting at extreme distances.
As his eyesight diminished, he complained of too many front sights seen through his thick glasses, but the skills and experience he had acquired flowed freely.
This page is dedicated to The Master who made at least a select few of us look a little farther, think a little deeper, shoot a LOT farther, and walk away the better for having him as a mentor, never being the same again for the experience!
Thanks from all of us, Don.
You touched a lot of us and made a real difference.
Don Bower was also highly instrumental in the evolution of handgun hunting.
What follows immediately is a bit of Don's history that surfaced October 2014 and added to this tribute to Don and the legacy he left.
Mr. Bellm, thank you for your fine article on my old friend Don Bower. You nailed his personality to perfection. Just today, 2 October 2014, I learned of his passing. I knew Don long before he did anything with the Contenders. Back in the mid-1970s he and a Denver cop named Dick Hansen started a monthly match that became known as the Bower-Hansen Magnum Handgun Match. This was offhand shooting with magnum handguns, 40 rounds of full-power loads at 100 yards at three progressively smaller steel plates. The last ten rounds were fired in a fast string against the clock. That match was designed to simulate handgun hunting. It's a long story, but the match was held for several years, and it led directly to the legalization of handgun hunting in the state of Colorado. That came after a long and careful series of demonstrations and meetings with the state wildlife personnel. My most favored trophy is the one I got for winning the State Bower Hansen Magnum Handgun championship in 1977 against all comers. The attached photo shows me with Don as I accepted the huge turkey and big trophy. I was just starting out as a gun writer then, and my first published article was in the August 1977 TheAmerican_Rifleman_ about the Bower-Hansen magnum matches, the article entitled "Sixguns and Steel Targets." Don sure taught me — and many other shooters — a whole lot about handgunning, and I'll miss the acerbic old rascal.
........Ray Ordorica, North Fork, Idaho
..........................Another bit of history Ray added.................
A bit of history: I was heavily involved in NRA target shooting in the 1970s and then got into a bit of silhouette, and then IPSC. When my friend Jeff Cooper hosted the first IPSC Nationsls in Denver I reported it to the NRA, which was their first recognition of it. Just before IPSC began with a vengeance in Denver I met a tall cowboy named Ross Seyfried. He came to a Bower-Hansen match and beat me for first place with a heavy-barrel M29 he had custom made. He and I got together and co-wrote a piece on paper patching bullets for double rifles for the Rifleman, the first time Ross appeared in print. Shortly thereafter he started IPSC shooting at our range, winning just about every match he entered. Ah, yes, time flies.
What follows are some highlights regarding Don, starting with his shooting system equipment and his key points of instruction at the shooting bench.
(If you have stories or photos from shooting with Don you would like to share here, please let me know by email to [email protected])
Here is an example of one type of shooting rest Don used, the flat bottomed wide forend, and grip with flat wood plate on the bottom of the grip
Note that not only is there NO cushioning on the rest, but rather the surfaces have coarse sandpaper glued to them.
Using the rest, you first hold the grip like a saw handle and stroke the gun fore and aft like a handsaw, thus sanding the surfaces of the forend and grip parallel to the rest to eliminate any canting of the gun.
Mike Bellm's personal Bower rest. Grip and forend for this Encore were made by Denzel Roberts. Don's preferred scopes for long range were the older 10x Burris handgun scope as seen in the magazine photo and the more recent 3-12x Burris handgun scope with target knobs.
Forend and ergonomic grip were made by Denzel Roberts, who also has now "left the range." For most TC guns, Don simply screwed a wood plate to the bottom of a factory grip.
Forends varied quite a bit, but all had a flat bottom. Some were simply a factory forend with a wood plate screwed to it while some were custom made. Center forend pedestal in the rest has a 1/8" thick masonite plate that fits in slots in the base of the pedestal for coarse elevation adjustment to get on target.
Eye bolts in the front further tune elevation and tilt of the rest left/right. Final elevation to center on target is done by pushing the gun forward to raise the cross hair or pulling it rearward to lower it.
Once the crosshair is centered on target, there is NO movement of the gun. There is No tremor up or down, left or right, no heartbeat movements, just rock solid and consistent.
HOWEVER, grip on the gun MUST be consistent so that the recoil momentum is also consistent. Just as "milking the grip" with a varying firmness on the grip scatters shots on an upward angle to the right for a right handed shooter in normal shooting, the same thing will occur even with this rock solid rest.
Grip must be firm and consistent. "Dragging wood" with the trigger finger will also effect accuracy, so you keep your trigger finger arched away from the side of the frame and the trigger placed between the finger tip and first joint.
And, as with shooting open sights it is mandatory to keep your eye focused on the front sight, so it is also with shooting a scope. Don stressed keeping your eye focused on the reticle, NOT the target.
To minimize the effects of parallax in the scope, you must not let any black creep into your field of view. Ie, you must see the full, clear view through the scope at all times. In a nutshell, that is the Bower shooting method.
The rest is the function of the spotter spotting the hits, calling out the correction adjustments to the scope, and the shooter learning to work with the wind.
Marc Sheehan is a current source for the Bower style shooting rests and is continuing Don's long range shooting regimen.
You can email Marc at [email protected]
Here is a front view of a forend that typified the various styles he used
Forend made by SHOTS Gunsmithing about 2006.
Interestingly, Don did not "bed" forends or use any hanger bar or pillar bedding. He simply glued felt into the barrel channel to give the barrel some cushioning. Perhaps this is something we may have stumbled over and forgotten, but should be revived.
Don Bower Long Range Shooting Clinic held at Alliance, NE
May 6-9, 2002
That's me, Mike Bellm, pointing to my hit just off center from the edge of the 3" angle iron 660 yard target. Cross winds were a good 25 mph, and Don kept chanting, "The wind is your friend, the wind is your friend...." He taught us all valuable lessons working WITH the wind to make hits.
That orange golf ball on top of the post..... that is one of the targets! And again, the distance is 660 yards! In strong cross winds!
I'm pointing to the 11th shot out of my Hart barrel blank .222 Rem. Mag. Imp. 16 3/4" Contender SIGHTING IT IN. Distance was 660 yards with a new, untested load of 30 gr. WW-760 and 80 gr. Sierra BTHP Match, lit by CCI Mag primers.
Aiming point and goal is to hit the middle edge of the angle iron and split a bullet. May 9, 2002, Alliance, NE.
I went to Alliance thinking I had trumped Don's cartridges by going smaller in the diameter of the chamber, thus letting me run higher pressures than he could with his .307 Win. based cartridges.
Coupling higher pressure with slower powder and the high B.C. of the 80 gr. Sierra .22 cal. bullet,
I expected to out do him, and the cartridge did it alright, BUT Contenders were eclipsed by much more potent Encores and bolt guns at the event.
I was satisfied with my accomplishment but sent no shock waves through the group present. My main purpose was to observe more of what Don taught and how he taught it.
Ernie Bishop's center hit on the 660 yard angle iron target. Pictured left to right proud Ernie, Marc Sheehan the newly appointed head of the Bower shooting program at Alliance, NE, and the "Old Sarge" himself, Don Bower.
Ernie came to the shoot already well accomplished as a long range handgun shooter with some ideas about shooting that differed from Don's. I still chuckle when I recall Don's grumbling about that darned preacher Ernie.... who, by the way is one of the finest people walking this earth, bar none.
Look at that 500 yard wind flag!
Look at that range flag in winds that gusted to 30-40 mph during the 4 day event at Alliance. I think Don finally got everyone to reluctantly believe "The Wind Is Your Friend." This is looking at the rams at the 500 yard line. We "zeroed" on the rams at 500 yards, then shot at the 660 yard angle iron to the left of the rams.
Sighting in was not done on paper, but simply with directions from each shooter's spotter partner. Neither here at Alliance, Nebraska nor at the clinic Don and I put on in Claremore, Oklahoma in 1999 did Don have us sight in at less than 500 yards! You learned immediately to work with your "spotter" partner who observed the bullet impact, then gave you the windage and elevation scope adjustments to make.
Paul Klauger and his 500-yard ram.
Our bud, founder of the Long Range Handgun Association on the internet, and the man largely responsible on the net for promoting Don Bower's long range shooting regimen, Paul Klauger with his 500 yard group. Yep. He has been a good Bower student and can shoot!
Alliance was a very memorable event with shooters gathering from both ends of the US, the midwest, and also included our internet buddy, Vincent Van Oers from The Netherlands.
Alliance was one of Don's last shooting events before Alzheimers a short time later cruelly removed him from what he loved doing the most in life.
With the finality of Don passing away, reflecting on how he directly influenced a select few shooters and the lasting effects that rippled especially through the TC shooting community in the 1980's and '90's, relatively few shooters are aware of the impact he had on us all. But nonetheless, Don greatly broadened our horizons.
While silhouette shooters validated the Contender's capabilities and essentially "made" the Contender, and SSK wowed us with Contender "Hand Cannons" exploring the Contender's potentials on game, with little magazine fanfare Don wowed us with long range accuracy far beyond all reasonable expectations at the time.
On several occasions he related putting the Contender through its paces out to 1500 yards. Granted there are superior guns for that kind of distance, but Don proved that in good hands using his techniques, the Contender can place shots well beyond 1,000 yards.
Just to make a point, the .222 Rem. Mag. Improved barrel I shot at Alliance was loaned to Marc Sheehan who shot a 12" group with it, .22 cal. no less, at 1,000 yards.
What SSK did for the Contender in terms of energy capable of taking the biggest game on the planet, Don did for us in spades not only exemplifying the long range capabilities of the Contender, but more importantly teaching others how to do it. He did not keep the glory to himself, but generously shared the glory with everyone he could.
Don did not make it totally clear to me what his role was with the Air Force in Vietnam as a sniper, but on more than one occasion he stated clearly that if he were to go back and perform that role again, he would do it with a Contender.
That is a very bold statement, but one he could readily back up!
On a technical level, Don and I were not always in agreement, but I warmly hold him in high regard for the many things I learned from him and the impetus to dig a little deeper into understanding more of the factors involved in the Contender's functions and limitations.
I count Don Bower among the truly great people who have shaped my own thinking and from whom all of us shooting the TC guns benefit from in one way or another. What P.O. Ackley was to me as the foundation for gun work, Don was for long range handgun shooting.
Thank you, and rest in peace, Don.