Biathletes skiing during the 2002 Winter Olympics

Photo courtesy La Presse

Biathlon Equipment

Biathletes need equipment for both cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. For the skiing portion, their equipment is identical to that of cross-country skiers. They wear skintight Lycra racing suits designed to cut down on wind resistance and provide the wearer with maximum movement. In colder temperatures, a base layer provides insulation. In addition, biathletes wear gloves and hats made of lightweight materials, and goggles, if necessary. Tinted goggles are effective at cutting down on the glare from the sun reflecting off snow.

Because biathletes use the freestyle method of skiing they use skis that are shorter and stiffer than classical cross-country skis. The tips don't curve as much, either. Biathletes apply special glide wax to the bottom of each ski.

The bindings of cross-country skis only attach at the toe, allowing the foot to flex and move more freely than alpine bindings, which attach at the toe and the heel. Cross-country boots are lighter and more flexible than boots used for downhill skiing.

Ski poles intended for freestyle cross-country skiing are long (about chin-height on the skier) and stiff. Each pole is a lightweight metal tube with a handgrip and a disc at the bottom to prevent it from spearing too deeply into the snow. Early biathlons used high-powered military rifles. In 1978, the .22 caliber rifle became the international standard. Today's biathlon rifle uses non-optic sights and straight-pull-bolt action (no full or semi-automatics). The rifles have a specially made lightweight stock, though by international rule they must weigh a minimum of 7.7 pounds.

A regulation .22 biathlon rifle

Photo courtesy Eberlestock

U.S. Olympic biathlete Jay Hankken fires prone with his arm sling securely attached to his firing cuff.

Photo courtesy Eberlestock

Competitors carry their rifles in a harness that is essentially a backpack made just to hold one rifle. A cover goes over the rifle whenever it is off the range, and a flip-up cap covers the muzzle to prevent snow and moisture from entering the barrel of the rifle.

Ammunition must be the international standard .22 caliber long-rifle shot made from lead or a lead alloy. It is loaded into a magazine that holds five rounds. For the relay, three extra rounds are stored in the bottom of the magazine. Competitors place them into a cup at the range, and only use them if they need them. The magazines are stored in the rifle stock while skiing, and the rifle is only loaded at the range.

When it is time to fire, biathletes hook an arm sling made of webbing to a firing cuff on their upper arm. This connects to the rifle, and provides stability.

The targets are metal discs in a small box. When a biathlete hits a target, a different-colored disc flips up to show the hit. Computers also track modern targets to record whether a shot is a hit or a miss.

In the next section, we'll see what techniques Olympic biathletes use to excel.