January 8, 2008
Berrien County- It's not unusual to hear the sounds of gun shots in the distance when visiting John Whidden in his harvested cotton field.
"It got off to a real rough start," says John about a drought that grips his farm and others like it throughout the southeast.
A few showers at the end of the growing season really helped out.
"Absolutely," says John. "We had a pretty good year, this year, all things considered.
John diverted some of the worry about his crops' health by making rifles.
His fun world revolves around high tech, science and mathematics of high powered rifles, a custom rifle maker, but more like a shooting scientist.
He spends hours in his laboratory of sorts re-loading his ammunition.
"Drop one more kernel in here," says John as he measures gun powder on a scale so sensitive it needs clear, plastic sides to keep moving air from influencing the weight.
Quality and consistency matter.
"There it is," says John just before he pours the gun powder into a re-loading machine.
He makes doubly sure each bullet meets specifications for its rather short super-sonic flight. John weighs each one again before it takes it to a shooting range near the cotton field.
"It's absolutely fascinating to me somehow if we can aim it real carefully, the bullet will travel the whole distance and punch a hole in that piece of paper," says John.
The target sits more than a half-mile away, a thousand yards from him, barely visible in the distance, where an invisible factor can ruin his day.
"Given a 308 rifle like we shoot, that two to three mile per hour wind will blow the bullet between 20 and 30 inches." says John, if the wind's speed and direction remain constant. Often they don't.
"That's really the whole game," says John. In essence, he shoots the wind, fine tuning the iron sights on his rifle based on where the bullet pierces the target. He always aims for the center and makes micro-adjustments after each shot.
"You shoot into the wind, and the wind blows the bullet back," says John who finds temperature and humidity influence the bullet's track.
The bullet leaves John's rifle at more than two-thousand miles per hour.
"The bullet slows down as it travels along the path, and it takes 1.7 seconds to reach a thousand yards," says John who wears a cap with flaps on its bill to reduce visual distractions.
He wants to hit the center of a 10-inch wide circle.
"We find a good deal of challenge in it, and I haven't seen anyone who's mastered it yet," says John who comes rather close to perfection himself.
He won the National Rifle Association's 2007 high power, long range rifle championship, making him the best shooter of his type in the US.
"It's a natural gift that he has. The rest of us have to work really hard," says Lamar Jones, one of his shooting buddies, ranked 20th in the country.
Make no mistake. John works hard.
"I shoot about four-thousand rounds of serious practice a year. I've shot pushing the 30,000 round mark," says John.
He shoots, along with his buddies, almost every Sunday afternoon.
"I probably shoot better than 48 weeks a year," says John and that doesn't count shooting in matches sometimes held on weekends.
He enjoys competitive shooting, rarely hunts because he doesn't like to shoot to indiscriminately kill.
"I had a pretty good practice session. Had a little bit of wind to correct for," says John as the sun sets on the Sunday afternoon.
He wants to continue his championship reign in 2008 and shoot in a world competition in 2011, and he's right on target to win both.