New Rifles for the New Season

For biathletes, changing rifles is a big deal; a decision not to be taken lightly when hitting targets is half of the essence of the sport. Yet it is a fact of life, changing the rifle stock, how it fits and feels is many times necessary, like Sturla Holm Laegreid whose old stock was simply “old and worn out.”

Starting Early

Most rifle changes are made in the spring before training restarts. The decision is made well in advance. Swedish Head Coach Johannes Lukas commented, “During the season you get a lot of information about shooting percentages and speed. You see a lot of different things from other athletes and get ideas about changing. Also, new things take time to prove, so it is always good to do it early in the season…If it is a big change you need some months. We have our Swedish Championships in August, then we can see how it works in race situations.”

Finland’s Head Coach Jonne Kähkönen has a similar perspective, but maybe from a slightly different angle. “A lot of changes are simply part of fine tuning, making things better for the next season. This is the right time of the year; you need some time for the change to happen. If you get a new stock, you want to get it and get quite a few rounds fired, then do some more fine tuning. I have always said that the first three training periods is when to make these changes, by late August you want to be done with all the changes. This gives enough time for the necessary repetition before the season.”

Individualized, Custom Made and Fine Tuned

Taking the plunge to a new rifle stock is not exactly like going to the local store and buying a new coffee maker. It is more than a matter of ten styles and choose the one that you like that fits your budget and needs. All biathlon rifles come with a standardized stock, but beyond the early years, few use that original stock. Rifle stocks are individualized and custom made by many talented craftsman throughout the biathlon world like Italy’s Rudolf Bachman who uses carbon fiber, France’s Franck Badiou who works mainly with a variety of woods and composites and Clement Jacquelin who creates 3D printed stocks. Picking the style, craftsman, taking measurements, and defining individual needs are a part of the process. Hours and days go into every new piece before the athlete ever fires shot #1. Badiou, who was the man behind the scope when Martin Fourcade racked up Gold medal after Gold medal in Pyeongchang commented in an earlier interview he invests “about 50 hours (of handwork) in one, then the athlete tests it for several days. After another 10 hours of fine tuning, it is done.” After delivering Dorothea Wierer her new black stock this spring, Bachmann was spotted doing this type of fine tuning during training at Antholz.

Mental Aspect

Physically replacing a rifle stock is a part of the process, but the second part is mental and the confidence the change brings. Lukas commented, “The mental aspect is a big part. If you shoot with the same stock for a long time and have a bad period, you want something new. If you want to change your position in standing, sometimes the new stock can help make that adjustment. But the mental aspect is for sure a big part.”

Nastassia’s New Stock adds Confidence

Nastassia Kinnunen, making a return to biathlon several years after having a child and moving from Belarus to Finland, replaced her rifle this spring. She admitted the change added to her confidence on the shooting range. “It was part of the plan for my return. I dreamed of getting a rifle in Oberhof from a German master, but Covid changed my plans. I decided on the French weapon because it can be adjusted as conveniently as possible. I am happy with it because I now have enough length for my left arm and got rid of the feeling that I am holding the rifle with every muscle. I changed the design but there is no limit. The coaches continue to make small adjustments…. Today I am confident in support, and it instills confidence that I can be a good shooter.”

“New ways to do the same thing”

The philosophy behind changing stocks has a lot to do with innovation. Kähkönen admitted that there is the never-ending search for perfection. “We always try to find new ways to do the same thing; the weight and balance of the rifle, if it is a 3D stock then maybe there are more options, compared to traditional wood stocks to do the modifications that you need or want. They might be the future, but of, course as a coach, I always want to you to show me the proof (that it is better). If you use a traditional wood stock, you have to be vigilant because after several years out in the weather, it will become brittle and subject to breakage.”

Sturla’s Brand New, Much Cooler Stock

Last season’s breakout star Sturla Holm Laegreid winner of four IBU World Championships Gold medals, hit 92% of his shots opted for a new stock this year, but was not looking so much for innovation as more of the same. “Before the season I knew I need a new stock; the old one was worn out. The new one is pretty much a copy; we tried to make it as similar as possible, Of course it is not 100% the same but my positions feel similar…So far, I am very satisfied! It is like my old rifle but brand new and much cooler!”

Fine-tuning; Work in Progress

However, not all changes are big ones like a completely new set-up. For many athletes, it is as the Finnish coach says, “fine tuning. Typically, it is minor changes like the set-up or the visual thing: front sight or you want to use a different aperture to get a different stimulus (like more light around the target).”

That is where France’s Justine Braisaz admitted she is right now, working on those small details. Shown moving her rear sights during training, she captioned it with, “Work in progress.”

Lukas’ Swedish team is in the same mode. “We have quite a few people who are testing new things, like a different hand stop or grip. If you have good ideas, it is always good to try at least. But you need a kind of a deadline where you decide the change is the right way or you go back to the original set-up.”

Even with his new/old stock, Laegreid like many others did tinker a bit with the fine tuning, adding, “a new front and a new reload arm and magazine tops, but these are small details.”

“Happy with everything, then continue”

Rifle changes in an Olympic or any other season are multi-faceted, from a complete makeover like Kinnunen needed to Laegreid’s almost prefect clone and Justine Braisaz-Bouchet’s “work in progress.” Lukas summed up the need for caution in an important season but also stressed the need for change. “In an Olympic season, if everything worked well last year, I think you will find not many people who will change a lot. If you think that your stock now is not the best for me, then you should try a new one at least. If you are really happy with everything, you should continue. Never change a winning system.”

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Nastassia Kinnunen, Sturla Holm Laegreid, Justine Braisaz, Biathlon Antholz Facebook

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