Biathletes race while wearing cross-country skis. The most notable difference between Alpine and cross-country skis is that cross-country skis are much narrower, no more than two inches in width, and do not have the metal edges you'll find on alpine skis. The minimum length of the skis is dependent on the height of the biathlete themselves. Skis cannot be shorter than the minimum height of the athlete minus four centimeters, but they can be as long as an athlete prefers. Most cross-country skis are made of fiberglass with a foam core.
Bindings, Boots and Poles
Clicking into a set of cross-country skis is very different than the alpine skis like you see in events like the downhill. Cross-country bindings and boots attach the athlete to their skis by the toe only, leaving the heel free to flex up and down, allowing the skier to propel themselves across the snow. Although it looks effortless, cross-country skiing techniques require a tremendous amount of coordination, as you will notice when less-skilled athletes enter a race.
This may be stating the obvious, but biathletes also use two ski poles, just like a cross-country skier, digging into the snow with every ounce of upper body strength they can find on the flats to the most grueling uphill climbs. Poles must be equal in length and can be no longer than the height of the athlete. Did you know it's called double poling when you see a biathlete stick both poles in the snow and push off? Looks easy, but it is one of the most difficult pole techniques to master.
A biathlete’s rifle has two sights: a fore sight, which sits atop the end of the barrel and a rear sight, the one nearest the eye of the athlete, directly above the trigger. Neither of the sights are magnified.
Try to imagine looking down the barrel of your biathlon rifle at a circular target – 4.5 inches diameter for standing, 1.77 inches diameter for prone – at just over 50 yard away, while gasping for air. To put it in perspective, it’s like trying to shoot a softball (when standing) and a golf ball (when prone) from 50 yards away, with no sight magnification.
Biathlon rifles can weight no less than 3.5 kilograms, which is about 8 pounds. Each athlete has their rifle stock ergonomically fitted for their body. Magazines holding five bullets, one for each shooting bout, and three spare loose rounds in relay events, are all carried on the rifle itself. Magazines magnetically click into the stock of the rifle.
Loading and reloading
In high-pressure races, the speed with which an athlete can load his rifle and make accurate shots has a huge impact on how well they perform overall. Nearly all biathletes have their rifles equipped with a straight-pull action. The action is the most mechanically intricate piece of a biathlon rifle. The action loads, fires and ejects the cartridge – aka a bullet. Biathlon events use .22-caliber cartridges.
Straight-pull actions require the least amount of effort to load and reload a biathlon rifle. After loading a clip into the rifle, a simple pull of the index finger and push forward with the thumb loads the first round into the chamber. This is repeated for each of the five shots taken in a shooting bout.
In relay events, athletes are given eight rounds per shooting bout – five in the clip and three loose bullets. The loose bullets must be hand-loaded, one at a time as necessary, after the five in the clip have been expired.
The type of authorized rifle actions are as follows:
- Common bolt system
- Pistol grip cocking
- Straight pull action
- Straight pull action with ball-bearing locking
Only international standard 5.6-millimeter (0.22-inch) long rifle rim fire ammunition may be used.
An arm cuff with a bungie and clip is worn by biathletes on one bicep, which latches to the stock of the rifle making a kind of sling used when shooting. The arm cuff allows an athlete to create a three-point support for the rifle. The rifle is essentially sitting on a tripod made up of the sling and the athlete's body, and no extra effort by the athlete is needed to support the rifle. When shooting from the standing position, an athlete creates a similar relaxed stance by tucking their support arm elbow into their body, just above their hip bone.
Backpack like straps used by a biathlete to carry their rifle on their shoulders.
Attached to a hinge at the end of the rifle barrel – at the muzzle – is a metal flap known as a snow cover. To keep snow from entering the barrel and front sight, the cover, or flap, is closed at all times, and flipped open just prior to setting up on the range.
Before and during a biathlon event coaches line up behind their athletes on the shooting range while looking through spotting scopes. These tripod-mounted scopes offer high powered magnification which assist the coach and their athlete when "zeroing" the sights on their rifle. Coaches focus on the target down range and chart the impact point of each shot taken by their athlete. Prior to competition a biathlete with make adjustments to their sight using two knobs on the rifle, which modify the sight vertically and horizontally. Every "click" of the knob is done so while considering such conditions as light, wind and temperature, all of which can effect the flight of the bullet.
Metal targets and electronic targets are used for competition and paper targets are used for the zeroing of rifles, or the time spent before the race shooting to align rifle sights and to practice shooting. The targets at the 2022 Olympics will have remote reset capabilities and contain electronic target scoring data.