SUTHERLIN — The target is 1,000 yards away, but the distance doesn’t stop Curt Mendenhall from taking aim.
He has double-checked the distance, measured the slight wind speed and stabilized his rifle on a solid rest. He touches the trigger and the rifle roars. A second or two later, the target takes a hit.
This is long-range shooting. Mendenhall of Sutherlin has developed a reputation for being pretty good at it. His expertise starts with building long-range rifles and carries through to shooting them.
An interesting twist to Mendenhall’s passion for this outdoors activity is that he’s been an avid bow hunter since 1978, the year Oregon hunters could no longer hunt big game with both rifle and bow. They had to pick one or the other. Mendenhall went with his bow because of the solitude bow hunting offers, even though he had been shooting guns since he was a kid.
After many years of enjoying the thrill of sneaking within yards of an animal with a bow, he returned in 2002 to the recreational challenge of hitting a target at long range with his rifle.
“Before getting into archery, I shot a lot and I shot a lot at longer ranges,” the 57-year-old Mendenhall said recently in his gunsmithing shop, which adjoins his indoor archery range. “I do find it funny at times that even though I chose not to hunt with a gun, I’ve always liked shooting and long range shooting is most intriguing to me. It’s the other extreme of the hunting scale compared to getting close with a bow.”
Mendenhall, a 1974 Roseburg High School graduate and a full-time timber faller for Lone Rock Timber for 37 years, added another challenge by building his first long range rifle, a .284 Winchester, in 2002. Over the next year, he entered some 1,000-yard competitions with the gun, winning a couple times and finishing in the top three a few other times.
His interest in this type of shooting increased, leading him to connect with Jack Miller, a veteran Roseburg area gunsmith. Miller and Mendenhall worked together building rifles for several years before Miller retired about five years. The younger rifle maker learned as much as he could from the older one and Mendenhall also continued to learn by reading and by talking to participants at shooting competitions.
“I’ve always been amazed at how accurate these guns shoot at that distance,” he said, adding the record at 1,000 yards for bench rest light rifles (up to 17 pounds) is a grouping of 1 1/2 inches.
Mendenhall said long-range shooting has been popular for several years in such states as Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas, but it is still in its infancy in Oregon, slowly catching on in the last five years. He said Western Oregon is not very conducive to such shooting because of the tree covered terrain, but the more open country found in Central and Eastern Oregon is attracting shooters.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it that the average guy doesn’t understand,” Mendenhall said. “You have to calculate air density, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature,” he said. “If you’re going to make a good shot, you have to consider it all because all those elements will determine where your bullet will strike, and they’re changing all the time.”
Mendenhall has a hand-held weather station that provides all those elements and he has a ballistic program, blending the two on his Smartphone to give him the best information for his shot.
“The people I see getting into long-range shooting are more skilled, high-end shooters,” he said. “The guys I know who do this shoot all year and spend a lot of time behind their rifles.”
The gun maker said his basic package for a long range rifle starts at $2,650. He emphasized he’s not a repair shop for guns.
“I build custom rifles, long range or otherwise,” he said.
Victor Thomas of Roseburg owns three Mendenhall made rifles. He uses them to target shoot and to hunt.
“I know when Curt finishes with a gun, I know it’s perfect in his eyes,” Thomas said. “He builds guns that shoot as good as any others around the country that are made by bigger names. Putting together triggers, barrels and bullets that work the best, Curt is just really good at it. I just don’t know how anybody could make a gun that shoots better than one of Curt’s.”
Carma Mornarich of Roseburg has owned a Mendenhall-made rifle for two years. She dropped a bull elk at 550 yards during her first hunt with it.
“The stars definitely have to be aligned when you have a big gun like that,” she said of her rifle that weighs 13 pounds. “You’re not going to take a quick shot, that’s for sure. You have to consider distance, wind, heat waves, breathing, being relaxed when shooting that far.
“Curt Mendenhall really understands what it takes to make a rifle shoot perfectly,” she added.
Mendenhall admitted there is some controversy in hunting with a long range rifle because the animals don’t have a chance to sense the danger and because of the possibility of wounding the animal and it then escaping before hunters can get to it.
But he points out there is an advantage to the animal being unaware of a shooter’s presence, providing time to make an “ethical, perfect shot.”
“I know some guys like the experience of being in the timber, shooting an animal in the timber so it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure,” Mendenhall said. “A lot more goes into it than just driving up on a landing, shooting off the tailgate and flinging a bullet.”
• News-Review Features Editor Craig Reed can be reached by calling 541-957-4210 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.