Matthew Keller has developed his own successful style of bench rest shooting. The combination of an obsession with accuracy, a few unique habits and a one-of-a-kind gun called “Tiger Wood” has led the 24-year-old to several big wins, including the state title.
Keller competed against 23 shooters from seven states in the National Bench Rest Shooters Association competition held at Unaka Rod and Gun Club. He took wins in both the light and heavy varmint classes, resulting in the two gun grand aggregate title and the state championship.
“There’s no class separation for beginners, amateurs or pros,” Keller said. “If you come in here and it’s your first match, you’re shooting against the best there is.”
Keller’s custom gun with a striped wood stock weighs 10.5 pounds, allowing him to compete in the 100 and 200 yard portions of the light and heavy varmint classes. Participants focus on precision by shooting groups of five at a designated square on the target. It doesn’t matter where the bullets hit inside the square, just as long as five shots go through the same hole within the seven minute requirement.
“It’s the most accurate form of shooting,” Keller said. “Matches are won and lost by thousandths of an inch.”
The distance between the individual shots in each round are totaled for an average, called an aggregate. Because the groups are so small, a moving backer is used behind the target to make sure each person shoots five per round.
Since there is little, if any room for error, Keller spends much of his seven minutes watching wind flags placed throughout the range.
“You have to read the wind and know how it is going to affect the bullet,” he said. “I have to be very choosy about what kind of wind condition I start in because you don’t want to go out there and just look at it and fire. You have to guide the bullet in and dance with the wind a little bit.”
Deciphering wind patterns is a skill Keller picked up from fellow bench rest shooters that allowed him to develop a feel for knowing how much the wind will pick up the bullet and how to adjust.
As for the bullet itself, Keller uses 6 mm Palmisano and Pindel cartridges and makes his own ammunition.
“You can’t buy it, so you have to make it,” he said. “Everything about this sport is custom.”
Even Keller’s methods themselves could be considered custom. He manually ejects each used cartridge and loads a new one without even taking his eye off the target. Additionally, he uses 28 grains of powder rather than the 30 everyone else puts in their cases.
“I do things just a little bit differently than everyone else does just because that’s the only way I know how to do it,” he said.
Keller put these ideas into practice at the NBRSA match during Father’s Day weekend. His calm and cool attitude subsided when Andy Shifflett, member of the 2011 world bench rest shooting team, started catching up to Keller toward the end of the competition.
“On the last day he started shooting like a house on fire and he was coming after me fast and furious,” Keller said. “My next shot turned out to be the best group of the weekend and that took some of the pressure off. Even knowing that I was going to have to mess up badly in order to forfeit the last match, it was still nerve-racking.”
Achieving such a large win on Father’s Day was bittersweet for Keller. His papaw, Norman Jones, taught him how to shoot when he was 12 years old and served as match director for the Unaka Rod and Gun Club until recently.
“Me winning the match on Father’s Day and on his last day as match director, made it really special for me,” Keller said.
“Without him there’s no telling where I would be. Him taking me under his wing has definitely kept me out of trouble. I’m not much now, but I definitely wouldn’t be what I am without him.”
Jones said words couldn’t describe how it felt to announce his grandson as the winner of such a large competition. The two may be able to celebrate again when Keller competes in a NBRSA Southeast Regional match in Reidsville, N.C., next weekend. A big win would earn him points toward joining the Southeast Regional Hall of Fame. Keller has eight of the 10 points required to make himself one of the youngest on the list. He won five points in 2008, which marked his first big triumph at a Southeast Regional contest.
A long-term goal of Keller’s is to qualify to compete with the world bench rest shooting team and continuing to improve his score.
“If I’m trying to qualify for the world team, I need to stay focus and get a little more serious, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities and I’m definitely in this for the long haul.
“Anything I do, I want to be the best. I want to be the best I can be at bench rest shooting.”