One of a kind
John Maxwell visits a unique firing range in NSW
When Ray Dennis wanted to shoot his new Barrett rifle in .50 BMG he was told he wouldn’t be issued a Commissioner’s Permit unless he had access to an approved firing range. “So I built my own,” he told Australian Shooter. The end result is the Klondyke Range Complex on Klondyke Station, a vast sheep property in far western NSW with a series of five shooting ranges available to those with a need to wring out large calibre and long-range options. Alas, that’s not sporting shooters. Klondyke is for Australian defence companies conducting research and development, testing and evaluation of new systems.
When Australian Shooter visited Klondyke, Canberra-based defence company EOS (Electro Optic Systems) was conducting three weeks of trials on its counter-drone systems. Those feature a MAG 58 light machinegun in 7.62 NATO and 30mm Bushmaster cannon, both in a vehicle-mounted remote weapon station and, much more exotic, a 34-kilowatt high energy laser.
“The range itself is the only privately-owned one in Australia available for this type of firearms development and research,” said Ray. “The only other places to go are Defence ranges. The bureaucracy associated with those ranges is unbelievable. What a pain, it’s hard enough even here for what I’m doing. We’ve managed to get licences and approvals up to the 120mm Abrams cannon.” Yet the largest ammunition so far fired at Klondyke is the 30x173mm from the Bushmaster MK44S gun on the Hanwha Redback, during trials ahead of its selection as the Australian Army’s new infantry fighting vehicle.
Ray grew up in South Australia and hunted from an early age, potting rabbits and foxes while pursuing a career as a dentist. That was the era when foxes were abundant and shooters were paid a bounty per skin. For taking them he used rifles in both .17 Remington and .222 Remington, necked down to .17 and fireformed into the Ackley Improved cartridge. The rifles were fine but not the ancillaries and even the best US and European scopes weren’t well suited to night shooting and spotlights, while available, had limited range.
So he developed his own spotlights, founding the Lightforce line and in 1986 travelled to the SHOT Show in New Orleans to market his lights to the vast US shooting community. He also found a manufacturer willing to make a scope to his specifications: 30mm tube and illuminated second focal plane reticule so the cross-hairs wouldn’t grow with higher magnification, obscuring the head of a fox at 300m.
Those early scopes were made in Japan and sold well in Australia, prompting him to establish an office in the US primarily to market spotlights. That was on the reasonable belief that the US market was already amply serviced by an array of well-established scope manufacturers, however as American hunting is done more in daylight, hunters there were less interested in his lights and more attracted to scopes.
He planned to call the new business Lightforce but a US firm making flashing lights for emergency vehicles already owned that name and wasn’t willing to part with it for less than US$25,000. No way ‑ and so was born Nightforce. Those early scopes were good and sold well enough but weren’t mechanically perfect, especially in larger calibre rifles. That led to greater efforts to engineer the scopes to live up to the Nightforce motto: Rugged, Reliable, Repeatable – a requirement with its genesis in the need for a scope which could survive being bumped around in the back of a ute on Aussie hunting trips.
Indeed that’s what led him to acquire a Barrett rifle in .50 BMG to do his own test and evaluation, as US SEALs had complained the Leupold Mark 4 scopes on their Barretts couldn’t handle the recoil. “For every scope on a rifle there was one in the store for repair,” Ray said, “and they just accepted that as being normal. We came along with our NXS series and they trialled them and now they’re down to five in the store for every 100 in the field. That’s the difference.”
In 1998 Nightforce relocated from Seattle in Washington state to Orofino, Idaho where the firm manufactures its own tubes and other components and sources optical glass from Japan with assembly done in the US. Cementing their position as makers of some of the world’s best optics, Nightforce won a succession of US military contracts to equip special forces operatives.
These military contracts really kicked off with the war on terror in the early 2000s when the company went to work on a SEALs requirement for a scope that would function properly after being underwater or high in the sky. That required some specialised test equipment to ensure every scope delivered to the SEALs worked as advertised.
And it’s not just in the US. Under Australian Defence project LAND 159 Tranche 1, Nightforce’s ATACR 7-35x56F1 riflescope was chosen to replace German Schmidt & Bender scopes, long regarded as among the best optics money could buy. Nightforce scopes are also the choice of competition shooters and hunters with deep pockets, as one from the top-of-the-range ATACR series could set you back more than $5000, though there are cheaper options.
As well as Nightforce, Lightforce and the Klondyke Range Complex, the Ray Dennis shooting empire also includes Horus (reticules, accessories and ballistic software), Force Ordnance (the Defence arm of the group), Theon Sensors (night vision) and Adelaide-based riflemaker Ace Precision Rifle Systems.
Klondyke, located on the scrubby red dirt plains of the far west, started out as a single range. “Just for myself, I don’t need to be flash and can put up with a few flies. From there it built up to where it is today,” said Ray. That’s five ranges, each with different characteristics and to give an idea of the sizes, range two is a single narrow lane with a danger template out to 36kms. Range four features shooting lanes with stop butts from 600 to 3000m, while range five is configured to allow firing of weapons up to .338 Lapua Magnum in a full 360 degrees out to 4kms. The same range allows firing of weapons up to .50 BMG in an arc of 284 degrees out to 7kms.
Facilities of this order necessarily mean Klondyke is a long way from anywhere, 300kms west of Bourke. However, the range does have its own airstrip and since testing is unlikely to be completed in a day, there’s visitor accommodation at nearby Tongo Station. With civilian ranges generally too small and military ranges mostly unavailable or far distant, the only other option for Australian Defence companies would be to head overseas. “You need customers to warrant putting in this type of facility,” said Ray. “Here we have a system set up, we have the licensing and are out of everyone else’s way. There’s no risk to the civilian public and no road next to us. We’re out with the flies, trying to look after Australia, that’s the theory.”
So far, customers have included EOS, Hanwha Defense Systems and W&E Platt, a Sydney firm which manufactures weapon mounts for vehicles and ships. “This is really an opportunity for us to test the system in field conditions against free-flying drones in an environment where we can manage the risk,” said Matt Jones, EOS executive vice-president for Defence systems. “We’re well away from anywhere but there are still risks to be managed – we have flights overhead. The employment of high-energy lasers as a weapon system is something that brings with it a completely new framework of risk. Coming to Klondyke allows us to test and develop that new capability in an environment where we can manage the risk.”
That risk is to passing aircraft even at high altitudes and to put that in perspective, hand-held lasers with power exceeding one milliwatt (one-thousandth of a watt) are banned. More powerful lasers could potentially dazzle or damage the eyesight of a pilot and anyone wielding such lasers faces serious penalties including hefty fines and jail. So at Klondyke, all laser operations ceased when aircraft were in the vicinity, known through monitoring of aircraft onboard Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) identification beacons.
A drone downed by gunfire isn’t that exciting as it simply tumbles to the ground, though if the onboard lithium battery is hit, the effect can be more pyrotechnic. On our visit the EOS 30mm cannon was firing practice ammo, essentially large solids. Best effect would be achieved with the new Northrop Grumman XM1211 proximity fused round which explodes when close to the drone, allowing engagement out to a couple of kilometres.
Alas, Klondyke isn’t yet certified for use of explosive ammo and in any case the US Army, which funded development of this round, is taking all production (it’s also expensive at around $500 a bang). The laser system is housed in a shipping container and when operational, all on-site personnel are indoors wearing laser-safe eyewear and watching proceedings on a TV screen which shows a bright light on the target.
As well as being the boss of Klondyke, Ray wears another hat on his vast range complex. “I’m feral pest controller for the million acres. I have a full-time job that everybody else wants to help me with,” he said. “Someone has to do pest control and I’m the poor unfortunate.”
His preferred firearm is a custom-built rifle in 25.06 Remington with one-in-eight-barrel twist for the 133-grain Berger VLD projectile. “By default, out here because the ammunition is cheap – and it’s not my favourite but I use it – is the .308 out to 500 yards,” he said. “If you had the choice and money wasn’t an object, you’d probably go up to a .300 Win Mag or .300 Norma of 7mm Remington Magnum to go a bit flatter with better trajectory.”