September 19th, 2021

SunDay Gunday: N50 Nationals and the Modern Precision Airgun

National 50 benchrest league Raton NM Whittington Center Air rifle .22 LR
.22 LR Rimfire Rifles and Air Rifles Shooting Side by Side — Same Match, Same Targets.

National 50 benchrest league Raton NM Whittington Center Air rifle .22 LRAir Rifles and .22 LR Rimfires Compete Together
There’s a new game in town — an innovative 50-yard benchrest discipline where .22 LR shooters and Air Rifle aces compete shoulder to shoulder. This new Rimfire + Airgun sport was created by the National 50 Benchrest League (aka “N50″) which now has 16 registered clubs in ten U.S. States.

The N50 League held its first-ever National Championship at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, NM earlier this month. This new organization has air rifles and rimfire rifles competing together. Notably, at the first-ever N50 Nationals, a purpose-built .22-caliber slug air rifle won against unlimited benchrest .22 LR rifles. We believe that may well be the first-ever airgun victory in a 50-yard benchrest match over serious rimfire competition.

Top Guns at Inaugural N50 Match

National 50 benchrest league

Lou Fontana took the overall victory in the match with a 2961 score. Lou shot both air rifles and rimfire rifles in the match, proving he’s a master of both types of guns. Ardey Vad finished second with 2957, while gun-builder Mike Niksch (Thomas Rifles) took third with 2952. Mike’s radical, advanced Thomas air rifle with electronic trigger is featured below. CLICK HERE for full N50 Nationals Results.

Lou, who hails from California, enjoyed the match, noting: “I have a good mentor and a better air rifle than me — my Thomas #33″. Lou added: “Thank you all that attended and special thanks for those that helped in any way to make this inaugural event a good time. We had nice weather, good temperatures, tricky wind, and a little rain. States represented were Washington, Colorado, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.” Lou also praised Joseph Friedrich, one of the founding fathers of N50. Joe tirelessly scored the targets, with help from Mike Niksch’s wife Matti.

National 50 benchrest league Raton NM Whittington Center Air rifle .22 LR
The NRA Whittington Center has beautiful ranges. More match photos HERE.

National 50 benchrest league Raton NM Whittington Center Air rifle .22 LR

About N50 — The National 50 Benchrest League

Commentary by Joe Friedrich, Open Grove Benchrest
The new National 50 Benchrest League (N50) is a unique shooting experience. We shoot air rifles with pellets and slugs alongside .22 LR Rimfire shooters. We currently have sanctioned clubs throughout the USA offering competition and good fellowship.

N50 has three Classes: Pellet, Sportsman, and PRO. The first Pellet Class is strictly for pellet airguns ranging in calibers from .177-.30 using Diabolo-style pellets from various manufacturers.

The second class is the Sportsman Slug/Rimfire. This combined class allows any factory air rifle shooting commercially-made slugs in calibers from .177-.30 to compete against any factory rimfire that utilizes a factory-barreled action with no attachments to barrel. Pellet air rifles may also compete in this class.

The third class is the PRO Class, and no you do not have to have some magic card that says “Professional” to compete. This class allows purpose-built air rifles, and what we call “unlimited” rimfire rifles to compete. Three types of loads are allowed in PRO Class: .177 slug air-driven, .22 slug air-driven, and any .22 LR ammunition.

Another point — in N50, competitors are allowed to move up in class — you aren’t restricted to a “lower” division. For example, Pellet Class shooters can also move up to shoot in Sportsman and Pro. In addition, Factory rimfires are allowed in Pro Class. This way shooters with the less-expensive rifles can shoot more relays and also see how they compete with the unlimited rigs. It’s all about having fun.

We wanted to make N50 as simple as we could combining air rifles with rimfire so folks who have a factory rimfire can participate and have fun. We also did not want a lot of classes, so combining the two gun types would be simpler. To be honest we were worried that the rimfires will outpace the air rifles, but that was not the case at this year’s Nationals.

National 50 benchrest league
National 50 benchrest league
National 50 benchrest league

National 50 Benchrest League Rules and Course of Fire

The official N50 website,, lists N50 rules, classes, courses of fire, and membership requirements. There are currently 16 affiliated clubs nationwide, with more coming soon.

General Rules — Here are some of the more notable N50 General Rules that apply to N50 matches:

Target Distance: 50 yards
Match Times: 20 minutes per target
Targets: Official targets produced and distributed by N50
Aggregate Score: Cumulative score of 3 targets shot in sequence on same day
Scoring: No competitor shall score their own target

As far as hardware, N50 is pretty open. For all 3 classes, any scope is allowed and any trigger is allowed. For all 3 classes, stocks are unrestricted, stocks may be bedded, and rifle weight is unlimited. However, the Sportsman Class must retain factory barrel and action. N50 competitors in all classes may use 1-piece rests, 2-piece rests, bags, or bipods — whatever they prefer.

CLICK HERE for More Information and N50 Official Rules »

National 50 benchrest league

CLICK HERE for a free, printable version of the N50 practice target shown above. You can also purchase the Official N50 11″ x 17″ printed Match Targets for $25 per 100 plus shipping.

Thomas PRO Class Air Rifle with Electronic Trigger

Quite Possibly the Most Accurate Air Rifle Design Ever Produced

National 50 benchrest league

National 50 benchrest league

Mike Niksch, owner of Thomas Rifles, won the PRO class with a very strong performance. What is remarkable, and perhaps even historic, is that Mike won with an air rifle, defeating all the high-end unlimited-type .22 LR rimfire rifles in the process. This may be the first time an air rifle out-performed high-end rimfire rigs in head-to-head competition, shooting the same targets in the same match. Overall Match Winner and PRO Class runner-up Lou Fontana observed: “The real significance of this weekend is that Mike Niksch and his brand new Thomas Slug air rifle outshot several unlimited .22 LRs in PRO class. This should be a paradigm shift for most. That may have never been done in competition before. I’ll add it was done at the NRA Whittington Center monitored by a NRA Range Officer.”

National 50 benchrest league

Look carefully at that photo. You’ll note Mike’s right hand is on a black box, NOT a conventional trigger. The wood-stocked air rifle Mike shot at Raton is equipped with a state-of-the-art electronic trigger of Mike’s own design. To fire a shot, Mike simply pushes a button that sends an electric impulse via a wire. This trips a mechanism inside the rifle’s action which releases the pressurized air. The system works very well and actually makes the Thomas air rifles simpler to build. The big advantage is that no movement is imparted to the rifle.

National 50 benchrest leagueThomas Air Rifle with Metal Stock
While Mike Niksch shot a wood-stocked rig at Raton, Mike also crafts a version of his rifle with an alloy stock and conventional trigger. We shot a video of Mike with this gun at the Open Grove Range in California (see above). Mike builds air rifles with the buyers’ choice of stock. He likes both the wood and the metal versions, and both shoot great — check out that 10-shot group Mike drilled at Open Grove.

A brilliant innovator, Mike has created a rifle design that sets new standards for airgun accuracy. At right is a 10-shot group Mike shot at 50 yards at the Open Grove range with the rifle in the video. Few centerfire rifles could match that accuracy. We asked Mike to demonstrate his rifle’s accuracy, and he sure delivered!

National 50 benchrest leagueCustom .22-Caliber Slugs
Like many top N50 airgun competitors, Mike forms his own slugs, starting with strings of lead. The lead is cut in short sections then formed up in special bullet-making dies.

The finished .22-caliber slugs look very similar to rebated boat-tail centerfire match bullets. And boy do they shoot!

Mike has tried a wide variety of commercially-available slug designs in his sophisticated air rifles. But nothing has shot as well as the slugs he forms himself. One reason could be that Mike uses custom .22 LR barrels originally designed for .22 LR rimfire rigs. It may be that commercially-made slugs have not yet been optimized for these smallbore barrels. Whatever the reason, Mike’s home-made slugs shoot better than anything he can buy. He has shown us some 100-yard groups that would make centerfire shooters envious.

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