Young benchrest shooter making a mark on his sport
SPENCER - Put a rifle in the hands of most 13-year-olds, and they'd have trouble hitting a truck parked 50 yards away.
And then there's Mason Hildreth. Draw an 8-inch circle on a target more than half a mile distant, and he'll hit it almost every time.
Young Mason is a benchrest shooter, a discipline in which competitors attempt to see how closely they can group a series of shots at ranges from 100 to 1,000 yards. Mason is currently ranked 18th in the world among 1,000-yard shooters, young, old and in between.
"I've never seen anyone that young do anything like this," said Mason's grandfather, John Hildreth, a long-time veteran of 1,000-yard events. "Several young men are good, but Mason has a great future ahead of him in the sport if he chooses to pursue it."
Like many young West Virginians, Mason got his first taste of the shooting sports when he went squirrel hunting. He was 7 at the time. He bagged his first deer at age 8, and a year later his grandfather put him behind the scope of a long-range, high-powered benchrest rifle for the very first time.
As the name connotes, benchrest rifles are not held while they're shot. Instead, they sit on mechanical rests set on a stationary bench. Shooters adjust the rests to center the crosshairs of the rifle's powerful telescopic sights squarely on the distant target.
When Mason started competing in benchrest events at age 10, he wasn't even big enough to sit at the bench. Until this year he shot standing up - and still did well enough to capture the International Benchrest Shooters' Junior 1,000-yard Shooter of the Year honors in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Though the organization recognizes junior shooters, it doesn't force them to shoot only against other juniors. Mason has competed head-to-head with adults in every match he's ever shot.
"The very first relay he ever shot in, he won," said Mason's grandmother, Judy. "He wanted to shoot in a relay with his grandpa and with Stan Taylor, the man who built his guns, and win it - and he did."
At those early matches, Mason picked out the best shooters and resolved to beat them if they ever ended up in the same relay.
"Since then, he's knocked every one of them off at least once," Judy said proudly.
"When he first started winning, they thought it was cute that a kid was beating them," John added. "They don't think it's so funny anymore."
Even with three years' worth of competitive experience, Mason realizes that he knows relatively little about the sport.
"My grandpa is teaching me," he said. "Right now, he's showing me how to reload ammunition. There's a lot more to benchrest shooting than just pulling the trigger. You have to be able to clean your rifles and to reload your own ammunition."
As for the shooting itself, Mason keeps things simple. While other shooters fret about wind, heat, spin drift and the zillion other factors that can affect a bullet during its 1,000-yard flight, Mason takes a minimalist approach.
"I don't worry about those things too much," he said. "I just put [the crosshairs] in the middle and shoot."
One might surmise that Mason owes his success to endless hours of practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"I don't practice much at all," he said. "I just show up for the matches and shoot."
Though he thoroughly enjoys beating adults at their own game, Mason readily acknowledges that he couldn't enjoy this level of success without adult help.
"I never could have gotten started without my grandpa's help because the guns are so expensive," Mason said. "Light guns run about $3,500 and heavy guns run about $4,000."
Thousand-yard shooters compete in two classes - light and heavy rifle. Both of Mason's custom-built rifles are chambered for the 6 x 47 Lapua cartridge and are equipped with 12-42x Nightforce variable scopes. The light gun weighs a few ounces less than 17 pounds. The heavy gun weighs 42 pounds. Both guns are equipped with Jewell triggers that trip when Mason applies just 2 ounces of pressure.
They're also both equipped with Douglas Barrels made in West Virginia.
"Another adult who has really helped is Tim Gardner at Douglas Barrels [in Cross Lanes]," Mason said. "Any time one of my guns needs a new barrel, he has me bring my gun down to the factory to have one fitted."
Like many young shooters, Mason has goals. Someday he'd like to be the IBS National Shooter of the Year. He'd like to make the rifle team at West Virginia University, even though that would require him to switch away from long-range high-power shooting to short-range smallbore and air rifle shooting.
Along the way, he wouldn't mind setting a record or two.
"My grandpa held the IBS 1,000-yard light-gun record for a while with a [five-shot] group of 1.603 inches," Mason said. "My best group so far was 3.180 inches."
So far this year, he has competed in 11 matches and won two. Eight matches remain before the IBS Nationals, which will be held Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 at Barbour County's White Horse Firearms and Outdoor Education Center.
"I won a relay in last year's Nationals, and got a really nice Hornady reloading kit," Mason said. "We compete for really nice prizes, not prize money, and I'd like to win some more stuff this year."
Maybe if he wins enough, Mason's classmates at Mason County's Wahama Junior and Senior High might begin to acknowledge his status as one of the sports top talents.
"I had told my classmates about my shooting, but they didn't really believe it until the principal posted an article about me on the wall," he said.
Mason's exploits might not register on his classmates' radar, but they certainly register on other benchrest shooters.
"At a match not long ago, the funniest thing happened," said his grandmother, Judy. "A guy I'd never seen before came up to John and said, 'Oh, are you Mason's grandpa?'"