Early Origins and Evolution of Bisley shooting in South Africa

The South African Bisley Union (SABU) claims to be the first sport to be formally organised in South Africa. A bold claim indeed but based on the historical archives dating back to Monday, 5th August 1686, when instructions were issued from the Riebeeck Castle, detailing the rules and regulations of a shooting competition to be held at Stellenbosch from the 1st to the 14th October, 1686. This is the first reference to an organised sports event in South Africa, involving what is regarded as Fullbore shooting and the South African Bisley Union has its origin routed in this format of target shooting, soon to celebrate 95 years as an organisation.

The name Bisley has been adopted for the sport, as the formalised fullbore target rifle discipline has its origin from a village named Bisley, situated southwest from London, England.

Rifle clubs started to see the light in the beginning of the 20th century and organised events were held between different provinces. The Brown Bess muzzle loader was used as a target rifle on several ranges in South Africa, followed by the breech-loading Enfield and the useful Martini Henry. Since those initial competitions, fullbore rifles naturally undergone great technical changes. With the conventional .303Br service rifle having been replaced by the remarkable .308Win target rifles, a new discipline evolved, taking Bisley shooting into the 21st century. Today, F-Class (Free Rifle), shoots alongside the original Target Rifle discipline, where latest and greatest of cartridges, bullets and equipment is used to shift the limits of ultimate accuracy over long distances.

SABU’s annual SA Open Championships has been the official national competition since 1928 and hosts rich traditions in its matches, trophies and prestigious events. Within the first 10 years, the competition drew international teams to South Africa to compete against the Springbok teams of the time, with precious success stories of our grand- and great grandfathers, dominating the home ground shooting ranges. Some of the SA Open Championship matches are named after these pioneers that also represented us in oversees events and won sought after cups and prizes.

South African fullbore shooting maintained high standards and produced some of the world’s most profound shooters and coaches, before and after political isolation. The South African squad’s return to international world championships, named the Palma Match, proved to be a steep learning curve, but the SA Team of 1999, finished off victoriously in 1st place. The 1999 Palma Match was hosted in South Africa, on the General De Wet Shooting Range in Bloemfontein.

Match conditions of Bisley

Bisley is shot on targets with a white background and a black circular aiming point, that increases in size as distances from 300m to 900m are shot. The target is divided into scoring rings, with the highest score to be obtained situated at the centre. Scoring is marked as V (Roman five), 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. The V-bull is used for counting out purposes in the case where scores are equal. In the case of a match where 10 shots to count are made, the highest possible score will be 50. The V-bulls obtained are added and a score could end up as 50.6 as example. Full score with 6 V-bulls shot, will thus win over a score like 50.5.

All disciplines are shot from prone position. Each discipline has a set of rules and regulations, that incorporates elements like rifle and cartridge specifications/limitations, supporting equipment regulations, scoring principles and behaviour on the mount during a match. Shooting is primarily done in pairs or three shooters per target during individual matches, while team shoots are done in various configurations of team structures. All team matches, however, are based on the principle that there is a dedicated coach, responsible for the settings on the rifle according to weather judgment calls, and a dedicated shooter, making sure each shot is a perfect delivery.

Ranges are furnished with specific flags to serve as supporting tool to make wind calls, and South Africa’s weather is kind (most of the time) to provide plentiful mirage to assist shooters even further.

After a shot was made, the target is marked to indicate the location of the shot and a value is indicated as well. In recent years, Bisley started incorporating electronic targets for our club and provincial competitions, making it possible to shoot without dedicated markers in the butts.

Diverse disciplines of Bisley

Target Rifle

Target Rifle has always been the base discipline of Bisley and is still shot with rifles chambered for the standard .308Win limited on bullet weight of 156gr and fitted with sophisticated peeps sights, also known as iron sights. This class can also be shot with a .223Rem chamber and bullet weights up to 91gr.

The rifle is shouldered without any support other than the shooters body. To increase stability and support the body on strain points, a specialised jacket is used that are tailored made to the individual’s body sizes and designed to be most comfortable when in prone position. A tensioned belt is also used as sling to decrease muscle tension in the arm supporting the rifle’s fore-end, so that the rifle is only resting on the skeleton while muscles are relaxed.

Target Rifle challenges the shooter to practice precision and consistency of each and every body part, shot after shot. A small shift in an elbow, foot, cheek position or even the unwilling tensioning of a muscle, will shift the bullet’s impact and points can be lost as a result. To further increase the challenge, the weather conditions and wind has a significant impact on the 155gr bullet (with its low ballistic coefficient compared to modern standards) and shoot be accurately judged and anticipated, before going into the “zone” of making that perfect shot.

The peep sights used are a combination of a small peep hole in the back, aligned around a bigger ring situated in the front sight, that in turn, is used to circle the black aiming point of the target. If all three “circles” are kept concentric during the shot, a perfect shot can be made up to 900m. The back sight is also performing like a micrometer to control windage and elevation adjustments.

Target rifle remains a true test for concentration, breath control, trigger control, body control and fitness.


F-Class found its feet in SA Bisley during 2000 and has grown from strength to strength. It has always been divided into two divisions, where a standard .308Win was used in the one, and any calibre between 6mm to 8mm to be used in the other. In 2010, the international trend moved to bipods being used in the .308Win class and bullet weight was opened up without limitations. In the past few years, Bisley proudly sports three F-Class divisions.

F/TR (Free Target Rifle) is the fairly new international class in Bisley where riflescopes and bipods are mounted to rifles chambered for standard .308 Win and .223 Rem. Currently there are no limits on bullet weight, but rifles need to weigh 8.25kg or less. F/TR is shot on targets with smaller dimensions than that of the TR class. Shooters are allowed to use a back rest in the form of a sandbag and rifles are not allowed to behave like “railguns”, meaning it automatically returns to battery after each shot.

The challenge in this class remains to ensure the rifle slides back during recoil, rather than an uninhibited jump to a particular side, leaving you off target after each shot. Shoulder, cheek and trigger hand pressures need to be controlled consistently to ensure flyers are eliminated.

F-Open is a class where riflescope equipped rifles built on the Benchrest approach are used. Caliber is limited to 8mm, in any cartridge deemed feasible and rifles can weigh up to 10kg. These principles lead to extremely accurate rifles and require dedication to keep up with the high international levels of competitiveness. F-Open is also shot on targets with smaller dimensions than that of the TR class and shooters are allowed to use a back rest in the form of a sandbag as well.

Long-for-calibre bullets are the norm to gain as must benefit as possible from ballistic coefficient and form factor related characteristics that long range target bullets has to offer. This requires optimal twist rates in those billet barrels to ensure stability and repeatability in bullet performance. This in turn, produces more noticeable torque in rifles that need to be managed through perfect rifle/rest alignment, recoil management and near perfect reset of the rifle on the rest.

Although it could seem that it is impossible to miss a V-Bull with such a set-up, rest assured (pun intended) that this is by no means a class for the timid or above 90 years of age. It tests technical perfection in every aspect from rifles, ammo and equipment used. These rifles have been seen at ultra-long range competitions and 2000 meters is well in reach of the calibres used.  

The latest addition to Bisley is the F-Class Sport Rifle division where F-Class targets are shot at in the traditional Bisley format. This class gives owners of commercially available rifles the opportunity to put their long-distance shooting skills to the test and improve it. Calibres can also span from 6mm to 8mm and barrel lengths are limited to even out the playing field for participants. The class is also making use of bipods and sandbags where rifles are limited for weight as well.

It requires careful consideration and well-informed research to land the perfect calibre, bullet and cartridge combination to remain accurate up to 900m, as well as barrel diameter, choice of action and riflescope. Rifle recoil management is unique to the other F-Class rifles and all the other accuracy requirements come into play in this often referred to, “hunters class”, due to looking more like hunting rifles than conventional Bisley rifles.

Major Bisley events for 2023 and 2024

The next two years will mark significant historical events for SABU when the F-Class World Championship (FCWC) and the Palma Match (Long Range Target Rifle) will be hosted in Bloemfontein during March 2023 and March 2024 respectively. Both Championships occurs every four years, out of step, and participating countries consider it a remarkable honour to host this prestigious event, presented according to the rules of the International Confederation of Fullbore Rifle Associations (ICFRA).

F-Class World Championship 2023

The FCWC 2023 will follow SABU’s annual SA Open F-Class Championships. The program will be adorned with glamourous events in the form of opening ceremonies, prize givings, meet & greet functions and team announcements ceremonies.

The FCWC consist of three days of individual competition and two days of team matches. All of this competed for over distances of 700, 800 and 900 metres. F-Open and F/TR will each field an official Senior SA Protea Team to compete for the world championship title, as well as SABU Federation Teams, to compete for the highly sought-after Rutland Cup (F-Open) and South Africa Cup (F/TR).

All competitions will add up to just under 600 rounds of ammunition and meticulous attention is needed to prepare each round, and even a higher level of concentration is required to fire each round down range. International standards of shooting are extremely high and count out by means of V-Bulls are at the order of the day, so every shot made is just as important as the next.

SA Open F-Class Championships will run from 21 to 25 March 2023 with the FCWC that follows thereafter from 27 March until 1 April 2023.

World Long Range Championships 2024 (Palma)

The Palma competition dates from 1876, featuring long-range rifle shooting out to 900 metres. The first Palma Match was contested by teams from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Scotland and Ireland with muzzle-loading rifles at that time. Today, the bolt-action rifles are to ICFRA Target Rifle (TR) specification (either .308Win or .223Rem are allowed) and fire Match Grade ammunition using a 155 or 90 grain bullet respectively using micrometer aperture, called iron sights.

The last two International Long-range Target Rifle World Championships were held in the U.S. in 2015 and New Zealand in 2019, when the Palma Trophy was won by Great Britain (2015) and Australia (2019). The modern Palma Match requires Teams of 16 shooters occupying four targets, together with four wind coaches, a Captain, a Manager, main wind coach and two reserves.

The Palma Match course of fire consists of three distances: 700, 800 and 900 metres with two sighting shots and fifteen shots to count at each. This format is reflected in the courses of fire for the actual Palma Match, and Individual Long Range World Championship. In the Team Matches the course is fired twice, over two successive days. For the Individual TR Championship three times, plus a final, comprising an additional 15 shots at 900m for the top 10 scorers to date.

The World Long Range Championships will be held during March 2024.

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