Fourth-Place Medal investigates the mystery of the biathlon rifles

After solving the mysteries of Michael Phelps' iPod playlist, showering divers and disappearance of Cullen Jones in Beijing, the Fourth-Place Medal Investigative Unit is back for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Our mission? To solve the most pressing Olympic mysteries of the day. Our motivation? An insatiable thirst for Games-related knowledge. Our methods? Tireless on-the-ground research and occasional glances into our copy of "Encyclopedia Brown Saves The Day". Today we tackle our first question of these Olympic Games: What's the deal with those biathlon rifles?

Though they look like toys, these rifles are very real. They shoot .22 caliber bullets at over 1,000 feet per second. To put it another way, if used in the wrong way, it could be deadly. It rarely is. Though biathletes deal with dangerous conditions and elements, the sport has a remarkable safety record when it comes to the rifles. Our search found no known fatalities in major competition.

If the rifles look a bit flimsy, it's because they're designed that way. Competitors carry the rifles on their back during the skiing portion of the event, so the guns are designed to weigh as little as possible. All Olympic biathlon rifles must weigh at least 7.7 pounds. They are mostly made of walnut (the base), nitrade steel (the barrel) and aluminum (trigger mechanisms).

Though each competitor's gun may look a bit different because of multi-colored graphics and personal adjustments, over 95 percent of competitors use the same type of rifle: the 1827 Anschütz Fortner. The German-made piece features a patented straight pull action and can shoot in temperatures as cold as -20 degrees. It retails for about $4,000.

Bonus fact: Biathlon is the sweatiest sport at the Winter Olympics. A 2002 study showed that athletes competing in the 20-kilometer race produce approximately five pounds of sweat during the event.

The only heat packed by the Fourth-Place Medal Investigative Unit is when we put hand warmers in our Team Canada mittens. If you have an Olympic mystery you'd like solved, leave a note in the comments section or send us a message on Twitter.

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