The Military Roots of Olympic Biathlon

Military Patrol competitors circa 1924

The summer Olympic Games include more than a few shooting competitions – rifle, pistol, and shotgun in several disciplines. But frankly, they are pretty dull to watch. No disrespect to the athletes (who are amazing shooters), but it’s a solitary challenge, and not something really suited to crowds of cheering spectators. The Winter Games are different, though. They include only one shooting sport, but it’s a heck of a sport: biathlon.

As I am writing this, Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen is on the cusp of becoming the single most successful Winter Olympics athlete in history. He has competed in every games since 1994, and won medals in every one since 1998, including a total of 7 golds. He is no less than 40 years old now, and has already taken a Biathlon Gold in Sochi, in the face of competitors virtually half his age.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Biathlon is a sport combining cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. It is (not surprisingly) Nordic in origin, and combines the all-around fitness required to be a competitive cross-country skier with the discipline and mental focus required to be a competitive rifle shooter. A typical Biathlon competition involves skiing a set distance circuit, ending at a rifle range where a number of targets must be engaged. Any missed targets result in a time penalty or an additional penalty distance that must be skied. The circuit and the shooting is repeated several times, and the winner is the competitor with the fastest adjusted time.

In today’s Olympics, the distances vary from 10k to 20k (6.2 – 12.4 miles) depending on the event, and the shooting is done at 50m with a .22LR bolt action rifle (the typical competitive action uses a toggle type of bolt, which can be flicked open and shut with the trigger finger without disturbing the shooter’s hold or cheek weld). The competitor shoots at the bank of 5 targets 4 times, for a total of 20 shots (and only one attempt is allowed on each target). Half are shot prone (at a 45mm/1.8″ target) and half are shot offhand (at a 115mm/4.5″ target). By any reckoning, it is a challenging event. Any yet, it is not the challenge that it used to be…

100m Biathlon target (1960)

100m Biathlon target (1960)

Back in the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley California, the biathlon was still being held with full power rifles instead of .22 target rifles (the transition to .22s would happen in 1978). The shooting consisted of 200m prone at the 6.5k mark, 250m prone at the 9.5k mark, 150m prone at the 12.5k mark, and 100m offhand at the 15k mark (and then another 5k ski to the finish). As with today, only one shot was allowed at each target. The sport was evolving, and the competitors were using purpose-built target rifles, often in 6 or 6.5mm. They were still conventional bolt actions with aperture iron sight, though – the American team used Winchester Model 70s in .243 Winchester. Another popular biathlon cartridge at the time was the 6.5x54R – the standard Soviet military cartridge necked down to 6.5mm for reduced recoil and a flatter trajectory.

Swede Klas Lestander took first place in the 1960 Games, with a time of 1 hour, 33 minutes, 21.6 seconds – and a perfect shooting score. Second place went to Finn Antti Tyrvainen, who had a faster raw time (1:29:57.7), but missed a shot at 200m and one at 250m, resulting in a 4-minute penalty and dropping him to second place. Third was Russian Aleksandr Privalov, who had an even faster raw time of 1:28:54.2, but missed three of the offhand shots, for a 6-minute penalty.

The biathlon 50 years ago had more of the original military character of the sport than today’s version, but by the 1960s it was already transitioning away from its military roots towards a more genteel civilian sport. The Biathlon’s first Olympic appearance was in the 1924 Chamonix Games in Paris. There, it was held under the name “Military Patrol” and was a blatantly martial event.

Military Patrol followed the same basic outline as today’s biathlon, although it was more grueling and was a team event. A four-man team was composed of a leader (typically an officer) and three subordinates (typically two privates and an NCO). The three men carried service rifles and did the shooting, while the officer led the team, carried a pistol, and did not do any shooting (he could carry another team member’s rifle on the course, but not at any of the shooting stations or at the start or finish lines). The course was 30 kilometers long (18.6 miles), and include 500-1200m of elevation gain (I can’t find the exact number for 1924, but the 1928 course included 1100m of elevation gain). Oh, and the three men had to carry weighted backpacks (either 24kg each or 24kg combined; sources conflict on this point). Partway through the ski course there was a single shooting station, with 18 targets at 250m. Each of the three riflemen would have six shots to make as many hits as possible, and each hit would confer a 30 second bonus to the team’s time.

In the 1924 Olympics, the gold medal was taken by the Swiss team, with a raw time of 4 hours and 6 seconds, and 8 targets hit for a 4 minute bonus. The Finnish team took 4 hours, 5 minutes and 40 seconds to complete the course but had the best marksmanship, with 11 targets hit. The bonus times from those hits put them a mere 4 minutes behind for the silver medal. Third went to France (with a disappointing 2 targets hit) and fourth to Czechoslovakia. The other two teams competing, from Italy and Poland, both failed to complete the course (a sure sign of a thoroughly challenging competition).

German Military Patrol team at the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz

German Military Patrol team at the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz

Military Patrol would prove to be a one-time deal as an official Olympic event, although it was also included in the 1928, 1936, and 1948 Games as a demonstration sport. Modern biathlon was brought into the Games in 1960, and has been there ever since, with a transition from centerfire to rimfire rifles in 1978. It is a sport requiring power and endurance as well as pinpoint precision and discipline, and it is a sport in which the athlete himself or herself will always be far more important the outcome than their equipment.

So if you are watching the primetime coverage of the Olympics and trying to figure out the how they score the figure skating or what the practical application of ski jumping for distance is, you should consider heading to your computer to find the coverage of the best winter Olympic sport: Biathlon.

And good luck to Ole!

Related

Ian McCollum

Ian McCollum lives in Arizona, where he spends his time searching out rare, unusual, and experimental firearms for his daily blog at ForgottenWeapons.com. His shooting background is in bullseye pistol, and before becoming a full-time gun writer he worked in the solar power industry.


Advertisement

  • noob

    hmm there should be a public military exercise which is like biathalons for tanks.

    tanks from around the world come to show off their skills by land navigating and shooting concrete targets.

    I’d go and watch it! (from a distance)

    • Giolli Joker

      Actually it’s an annual competition held in Russia and usually open to some ex-USSR countries…
      But the 2014 edition (Jul-Aug) has gotten participation requests from around 40 countries (US Army included).
      Should be pretty interesting. :-D
      I hope there will be some sort of media coverage or at least some video highlights being released.

      More in topic: I loved to learn about the roots of this sport through the article!

    • Phil Hsueh

      You should check out an anime called “Girls und Panzer”, it deals with that idea, sort of. The show features different school teams running in restored WW II tanks battling each other, just like a real tank battle except that while firing actual, as opposed to lasers, they’re non-lethal. It’s sort of like airsoft with tanks except that it takes account the tanks armor along with the size and power of the tanks gun.

      • Vhyrus

        While this is almost completely unrelated to the topic at hand, I also have to recommend ‘G & P’. It’s a fairly silly anime but actually rather engaging, and the battles are very well scripted.

      • Doopington

        I liked Girls And Panzer but flat out I’d wager its relevance and attraction is virtually nil for most everyone who come to TFB both in characters (cast is too large and episodes too few to get good character establishment aside from the main five) and tanks (aside from the side material documentaries and socioeconomic impact on tsunami-hit Ooarai).

        The premise of recreational tank dueling is what’s relevant here, and for now it’s impossible from what GuP had (as well as giant city-ships that would put Nazi megaweapons to shame).

        • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Phil W “Senior Writer TFB”

          You’re right about that. Never heard of it. I’ll have to ask my youngest daughter:-)

  • Anton Gray Basson

    This is interesting and sad. I often roll my eyes at the notion that “martial arts” are perfectly acceptable but shooting sports are frowned on. But in South Africa we have a “new” sport appearing called Sport Adventure Shooting. ( http://www.sportsadventureshooting.co.za/ ). Basicly from what I gather its a cross country three gun match.

    • noob

      we need this sport to spread around the world.

    • kevin kelly

      That sas you posted about sounds cool. I’d like to give it a go. Thanks

  • Tierlieb

    Excellent acticle, a usual, Ian.

    Since the .243 Win and the 6.5x54R habe been mentioned, the 6.5×55 SE/Swedish/Swede ought to get a mention, too: It was the cartridge used by most Nordic countries. Used competition rifles by Schultz & Larsen are still being sold in Europe and make great beginner’s precision rifles imho.

  • schizuki

    The perfect sport for all of the Mosin-Nagants floating around in this country. Let’s see – I live in Maine, I have skis, I have several Mosins… Anybody wanna buy me a hundred acres of cheap North Woods land?

  • schizuki

    The Finns played a version of biathlon in 1939-1940 that included Suomi SMG’s and Soviet supply columns.

    • Martin M

      I’ll never understand why the Finns gave concessions to the Russians. The Russians took a terrible beating.

      • schizuki

        They took a beating at first. Then sheer weight of numbers inevitably overwhelmed the Finns. The Soviets would have eventually ended up in Helsinki if the Finns hadn’t given them what they wanted. The upside is that they impressed Stalin enough that he was content to leave them be after the war.

      • Scorpy

        It’s hard to continue fighting when you have nothing to fight with. Sure, the tactics worked, us Finns were well trained and familiar with the conditions. Conscription enabled us to field large reserves for our size, and active White Guard organization plus the agricultural lifestyle of most Finns helped to keep the men able bodied after service.

        We had insufficient material and reserves to start with, due to lack of funds during the interbellum era, post independence and Civil War. Able men for reserves weren’t trained due to a lack of money, and some things vital for modern war (such as AT capabilities) weren’t acquired. Production capabilities for ammunition were only there for certain calibers (out of the many types we had and received as help), and never reached the levels needed for the continuous use. During the whole war our artillery managed to fire less than 100k rounds, which the Soviets could match in 2 days. Sure, we had good fire control, but it’s little use when you can only fire a few rounds at a charging mass.

        We managed to beat the initial attack (“2 weeks to Helsinki”). The Soviets learned from their mistakes, improved their training and tactics, and had no shortage of material or fresh reserves. The major push started in February, after two months of combat, during the coldest bits of the winter. We simply threw in everything we had; at Kollaa for example there were companies down to one third of their men, led by NCOs. Reinforcements moved in were mere companies in the end. We managed to counterattack lost positions usually, but each defensive and counteroffensive action ground away from the little we had.

        A bit long of an answer, but, oh well… I hope it gives some insight.

        • thomas

          Scorpy has nailed it exactly! At the expense of sounding frivolous, I would like to extend the sporting analogy.
          There were only 2 main contenders in the 1940 winter games: Finland and the Soviet Union. There were some private contestanta from Sweden but a projected UK/France team failed to appear.
          In the events held around Suomussalmi-Raate, the Finnish ski troopers swept all top ten places by destroying the Soviet 44th and 163rd rifle divisions at a cost of 400 men…perhaps the greatest victory ever recorded in a winter games!
          Further north in Lappland where there were no forests, the Finns had only a 1:4 advantage so part of the Soviet 112th division did get back to Russia sans artillery, vehicles and a company of tanks.

          Well played Finland! And it was the only country on Russian borders which kept its freedom after WW2

  • Fred Johnson

    Thanks for the history lesson, Ian. I enjoyed it.

  • Martin

    I always appreciate a well written and well researched article. Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.

    Regards, Martin.

  • Ullr

    Thanks for the very informative article. I was aware that “military patrol” was how biathlon started, but had no idea as to the original course of fire. Four hours plus!

    One minor niggle on content: almost none of the current biathletes use a toggle action rifle. The Russian Izhmash is a toggle action, and used to be relatively well represented in international biathlon. It’s only competition was the Anschutz Fortner based action, and that rifle has come to entirely dominate the field. I think I saw one guy with an Izhmash among the 160 or so biathletes. Nearly everyone, including the Russians, have turned to the Anschutz. For reasons that I don’t quite understand, it offers more consistent accuracy in cold weather. It isn’t the barrels, because even when Izhmash actions were common, they were typically barreled with Anschutz tubes.

    The Anschutz biathlon rifle is a straight pull bolt action, but it is not a toggle action. More of a sliding wedge affair, using ball bearings for locking lugs. This discussion on the Swiss Rifle forum: http://theswissriflesdotcommessageboard.yuku.com/topic/3220#.UwMIVZ3n8u4 has some good pictures of a disassembled Fortner, from which you can probably deduce how the mechanism functions. Also some good close-ups of an Izhmash toggle. Schematics of the Fortner here: http://www.homegunsmith.com/Archive/T25838.html .

    Aside: the Swiss Rifle forum is dedicated to another very fine and very accurate family of straight pull bolt action rifles that is neither a toggle nor wedge, but a cammed turning bolt like the AR15. The Swiss used their K-31 when biathlon was shot with full bore rifles …

  • Scorpy

    This looks far more interesting than the current sport.

    Good one, again, Ian. I enjoy watching and reading your thorough reviews!

  • john clark

    Call me nuts but the modern Biathalon should be played with full power rifles and not .22 rifles.