– I think you have to be a little crazy to do what we do. Or maybe I should rephrase that: We have to be very dedicated, very patient, and like to work with statistics, says Lars Axel Nygård.
Nygård is a part of Norway’s biathlon team, and as the chief gunsmith, he plays a crucial role. Biathlon is a sport that combines competitive skiing with target shooting. Over the past decade or so, it has grown immensely in popularity, becoming one of the most important winter sports. And with popularity comes increased competition. One of the ways to stay ahead is simply to make sure the bullets hit their mark.
– For the athletes, that can mean the difference between an Olympic gold medal – or twentieth or thirtieth place, Nygård says.
Top biathlete Synnøve Solemdal (four times relay world champion) agrees:
– Our sport is about hitting the target! We need the bullets to go where we aim. Of course it’s important to have good ammunition.
– What happens if you don’t? If you have a product with poor precision, or something that behaves unpredictably?
– Well, if you have a poorly performing bullet, and miss even once, that translates to a time penalty of up to one minute in a race. That’s a lot. And if you miss too much over time, it will have a negative impact on your confidence. You’ll start wondering: Is it me? Or is there something wrong with the equipment or the ammunition? That can break a biathlete’s confidence in a dangerous way. Because the confidence you bring onto the shooting range is very important. You only have a short time there, and you need to be really confident. There’s no room for doubt or errors, Solemdal says.
The situation Solemdal describes is not entirely unfamiliar for the Norwegian biathletes. Until around 2002, they had a reputation for unpredictable shooting, and missing quite often. The situation prompted the team’s shooting and ammunition experts into action.
– We decided to start testing ammunition more systematically. The goal was to improve accuracy and predictability, cooperate more closely with the ammunition manufacturer, and get the best batches of ammunition, says logistics coordinator Jan Gustavsson.
Gustavsson explains that the team needed to test shoot much more, establish a methodology for the testing, and build a statistical base that showed accuracy over time, for each ammunition and gun combination. Such a project would require an enormous effort. But as it turned out, that effort quickly started to pay off.
An Olympic success
One of Gustavsson and Nygård’s predecessors, coach Kjetil Sæter, had already started a professionalization. But there was still room for improvement. Until the early 2000s, test shooting was done manually, in cold conditions, often a freezer room.
– Everyone was basically freezing their pants off. As the amount of test shooting grew, we just couldn’t do that anymore, Nygård explains.
In the period before the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, Gustavsson and Nygård started to use some of the more rigorous test methods. They test fired more, and hand picked what they believed were the best ammunition batches (biathletes use small .22 caliber rounds). Judged by today’s standards, the testing regime was still in its infancy, but even a basic effort to improve seemed to net big gains.
– The 2002 Olympic relay biathlon competition was a turning point. In the relay competition, our athletes hit the very edge of the target no less than five times. All of these could have been misses if the bullets had been less accurate by as a little as a millimeter or two. But a hit is a hit! Norway went on to win the competition – and the Olympic gold medal. But even one miss could have changed that, says Lars Axel Nygård.
Norway took home four biathlon gold medals, as well as two silver medals in those Olympic games. Nygård believes the credit – obviously perhaps – should go to the athletes. But he also thinks the ammunition effort played a part in enabling Norway’s biathletes to be at their best – for years to come.
From 2004, Nygård and Axelsson had come up with a good testing methodology. It’s a system they still use today.
– We have a very good cooperation with the Lapua ammunition factory in Schönebeck, (Germany). They do some testing, and give us the best batches. These are selected, naturally, from their top brands: The Lapua Polar and Extreme This year, they gave us 39 batches. We tested these, and came away with around 350.000 shots for our athletes, Jan Gustavsson explains.
– 350.000? That sounds like it should be enough for a small army! Isn’t that an enormous amount?
– It is a lot. But we have the elite teams, the recruits and the junior teams. That’s quite a few athletes, and each individual can shoot more than twenty thousand rounds over a season. We do need quite an amount, Nygård adds.
All the ammunition is taken to Trondheim in Norway, where Nygård is in charge of test firing more than 30.000 rounds – to select the best of the best. He also has to make sure the weapons are top notch. Each of them is fired a thousand times!
– It’s a real puzzle. Every athlete gets their weapon tested with different ammunition batches, in different temperatures. Given enough time and test firings, we start to see patterns. Those patterns show us which ammunition batches match which weapons the best. What we are looking for is a low average spread combined with a high precision, Nygård explains.
Nygård and Axelsson show off the end result: a few sheets of paper with all the athletes’ names – and a lot of numbers. We are only allowed a quick glance, because this is normally a secret even the best biathletes in the world are not supposed to see.
– This basically shows which ammunition batches each athlete gets, and how well it performs. To be concrete, it show how many millimeters the average spread is. But this is something we want to keep to ourselves. We don’t want the athletes to speculate too much about the ammunition. All they need to know is that they get a really good product.
– And I suppose the best athletes get the best ammunition?
– As a rule of thumb. But sometimes, someone on the junior or recruit team can get lucky and get a super result: That’s when they have a weapon that’s just a perfect match with a certain ammunition batch, Nygård says.
The crazy bit: submerged and frozen ammunition
Today, the gunsmith has arrived at a testing regime that he feels works well. In addition to all the testing results they get each year, a massive historical database has been developed, showing trends over time. And with the Norwegian athletes doing so well, Lars Axel Nygård feels they have succeeded. But he has to admit they tried a number of unorthodox experiments along the way.
– At one point, we were curious about the effects of prolonged vibration. So we taped boxes of ammunition to a car gearbox, and drove 700 kilometers. Another experiment was to submerge ammunition in water, to explore possible effects when these products are exposed to a high humidity. We’ve also looked at lot at what happens at different temperatures. I’ve actually frozen and un-frozen a lot of ammunition, Nygård recalls.
– What did you find out?
– Vibrations have little effect. Water is – unsurprisingly – no good, and temperatures can absolutely affect performance. We did learn something, and I guess I am a curious type: I certainly had some fun along the way as well, Nygård laughs.
Synnøve Solemdal certainly appreciates what the experts have done for the biathlon team.
– We know the trainers make a huge effort to find the best ammunition for us, matched to our weapons. Today, we know we have the best weapons and ammunition. It’s only up to me when I’m out there, Solemdal says.
– The ultimate feedback is when we are on tour with the biathlon world cup. And everything just goes well, and we hear the victory cheers from an athlete. That’s a good feeling. Then we know did something right, Nygård concludes.