What bothers me most about the gun control debate – other than the lack of any actual, thoughtful debate, rather than just high emotions – is that the shooting sports are often left out. I shot competitively for seven years, and it had a hugely positive impact on my life. This impact was so great that I feel I have to make this into two posts: one for the high school years, and one for the college years. Please note that these posts are not about gun control (that will be a whole other set of posts!), but to talk about shooting sports and what their benefits can be.
Before I joined my high school’s Army JROTC unit, I had only shot a couple times in my life. As a girl scout in Berlin, Germany, I got to shoot an M-16. Yes, with my brownie troop. At the urban combat training facility there. Let’s just say the occupied city was an absolutely awesome place to be an American Girl Scout. I had shot BB guns with my cousins a few times, and that was all the rest of my marksmanship experience – unless you count rubber band guns, cap guns, squirt guns, and potato guns.
As a freshman, everyone in JROTC went through a hunter safety course, basic marksmanship training in the classroom, and then shot some three-position air rifle (prone, standing, and kneeling). We used pump-action Daisy air rifles on an indoor range inside our school. Yes, inside. I’ll talk about that more later. I found it interesting and challenging, and learned that I was one of those weird people who is left-eye-dominant but right-handed, and ended up being much more comfortable shooting lefty.
As sophomores, we got to shoot .22′s. These were a variety of brands of single-shot, bolt action, small-caliber long rifles provided to the school by the Army. I loved shooting the .22s. I discovered I was pretty good at it. I was hooked. Rifle was a winter varsity sport at our school, and I decided to try out for the team. I had been a swimmer for nine years and had developed tendinitis in both shoulders, so this seemed like a good way to take some time off from swimming, as my doctor had ordered, and to try something new.
My brother had been on the team for a couple years, and by the first match of the season I was beating him pretty regularly. This might have been a little bit of why I loved it – I had never in my life beaten my big brother at anything! I was always “L’s little sister”… the one that teachers were disappointed to discover did not have his brains. I spent the next couple years gradually improving and starting to get serious about the sport, but stuck with the swimming, piano, choirs, drama, drill team, and myriad other activities on the side as well.
The rifle team had twelve slots available – the most we could fit in with two practice shifts for the six firing lanes on the range. During my three years that team went from having a high male-to-female ratio to only having one guy by my senior year! Shooting is a co-ed sport in both high school and college. The playing field is incredibly level in this sport, which is another thing I really enjoyed. I got to compete against everyone. While there is certainly a lot to the physical aspect of shooting, as my coach would always tell us, it’s about 90% mental. Yes, you have to be able to hold still, hold a heavy rifle for a long time, and deal with painfully numb limbs from shooting with a sling and sitting on your back foot in kneeling. My back would ache after hours of shooting in the sway-backed position that best balances the rifle over one’s center of gravity. But by far the hardest part was having the concentration and discipline the sport demands – to wait for the perfect shot and have the judgment to not take the shot if it wasn’t a good one. And to practice how to set up for getting to that ‘perfect shot’ point over and over. It’s a sport for ultimate perfectionists who thrive on instant reward – that moment when you achieve that perfection take the shot and before you even look in the scope you just know it’s that beautiful deep ten, right in the middle. And then you try to do it all over again.
One of the best parts for me was the two coaches we had for our team. Our head coach was a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, who was also the head JROTC instructor. He had a quiet demeanor, and a wickedly dry sense of humor. He was the best leadership teacher I ever had. He demanded excellence, discipline, personal responsibility, and a good attitude. His favorite slogan was “never complain, never explain.” He lived it, enforced it, and was a tough but incredibly caring teacher.
Our assistant coach was a former Marine, incredibly knowledgeable about the shooting sports, and generous with his time to help all of us improve. He was also the father of a wonderful young lady who was one of my closest friends, a brilliant student, and the best shooter on the team. Her younger brother joined the team our senior year, and I had the great pleasure of getting to train with their family. I miss catching up with them at matches, but try to keep in touch despite the fact that my career has pretty much put a halt to my shooting. They are some of the kindest and smartest people you’ll ever meet, and the whole family shoots.
Thanks to these coaches, lots of practice, and having talented teammates to compete against, I got a whole lot better at shooting. I qualified for the junior olympics my senior year, and I made a rifle team one of the top three things I was looking for in a college (the other two requirements were a good engineering program, and a commissioning path either via ROTC or a Service Academy).
These criteria narrowed my choices down to few enough to count on my fingers. The junior olympics and three state team championships were enough to get the attention of the collegiate coaches. I’m not sure it necessarily helped but certainly didn’t hurt me any in terms of gaining admission to my top choices.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably gotten past the, “Oh my gosh, you had guns in your high school?!” reaction. Yes, we had guns in the high school. In a locked safe, in a locked range. That range was the social center of our JROTC program. We ate lunch there, we slept on the floor there during leadership camp, we had lessons there as juniors and seniors. Most of the rest of the school had no idea it existed. Other students were incredulous if I told them we had a rifle range. I had to explain that it was the funny cement room next to the weight room – the one with the wires running along the ceiling (target carriers, that is).
We weren’t exactly the “in crowd”, and we certainly weren’t well known, but we didn’t care. We shot little paper circles, we were very good at it, we had fun doing it, and that’s what mattered at us. We raised funds to buy our own gear and better competition rifles than the Army supplied. We entered national postal matches, and we held our own summer biathlon just for fun (running and shooting, instead of cross-country skiing and shooting). Some of us drove to nearby NRA matches, so we could shoot more and try new events.
Parents were often just as incredulous as the students that we had a rifle team. One even went so far as to write a letter to the editor of our local paper expressing outrage that the seven local high schools with rifle teams had been “hiding” the fact that we had guns in the schools. Yes, we were working so hard to hide it when our booster club put up “go rifflery team (sic)” posters (hey, they meant well!), all our match results were posted in the sports section of the paper, and several of us had been featured as the “News Channel 2 Athlete of the Month” and interviewed on TV. So very secretive.
The high school shooting program was incredibly safe. No one shot without passing the safety course and having the safety rules memorized. No one shot if one of the instructors decided that person wasn’t responsible enough. Every beginner had a trained coach hovering over him or her on the firing line, loading each individual shot. We never had an incident, in the history of the school district – in fact, we were the only high school sport in which not a single student had ever been injured in any way.
After I graduated, paranoia won. A few years after I left, the .22s went away and all the schools switched to air rifle. I still like air rifle as a sport, but students who don’t shoot both aren’t nearly as competitive when trying to get onto a college team. And college teams mean scholarships, even if they aren’t usually very big ones. Still, every little bit helps.
Overall, my high school shooting experience was invaluable. I learned a variety of life lessons, discipline, a useful skill, and gained mentors and lifelong friends. In the next part I’ll talk about my collegiate shooting experience, which came with a very different set of lessons, both good and bad – and which either way I wouldn’t trade for the world. Basically, I could go on and on and on for even longer than this already-really-long post about how important shooting sports have been in my life, but I’ll spare you that and sum up now.
With proper training and safety precautions, shooting is one of the safest activities out there. It will break my heart if youth shooting sports go away in the name of ‘keeping kids safe’. So after reading my great pitch for youth shooting sports, if you or a young person in your life are interested in shooting, I recommend looking into the following programs. Check for what they have in your area:
It varies by location, but JROTC, Sea Cadets, scouting organizations, Civil Air Patrol, and other similar organizations also often have shooting programs.
Also, let me know if I missed any programs, I’ll add them to the list.