No Matter The Shooting Game, They’re all Growing
By Shari LeGate
Sports really are just games. Games played for fun. From the schoolyard to the Olympics, playful competition has ingrained itself into nearly all aspects of our culture. Winning and fighting for the honor of taking home the trophy draws on a strong work ethic, determination, coordination, concentration and creativity. Things worth striving for in their own right.
Shooting at a target or a mark as a test of skill first began with archery, long before guns were invented. The first recorded use of a firearm was 1364 with the “hand cannon.” A few short years later in the 1400’s, the matchlock arrived and target-shooting competitions soon followed. Firearms were first used in war and then in hunting, but it’s actually unknown when the first organized target shooting competition was held. The earliest recorded shooting match took place in Eichstaat, Bavaria, in 1477 with competitors shooting at a wooden target 200 meters away.
Since then, shooting competitions have continuously evolved with the development of more accurate firearms, better equipment and because of the nature of human competitiveness. Once something is mastered, we instinctively want to make it more challenging and push our abilities even further, just to see if we can. Competition shooting is no different.
The shooting sports have been included in every Summer Olympic Games since the 1896 modern Olympics, except for 1904 and 1928. When it was brought back in 1932, it consisted of only two events, one rifle event and one pistol event. Increasing to a maximum of 17 events in 2004, it has since settled to 15 events—five in each discipline of rifle, pistol and shotgun.
But competitive shooting didn’t stay within the Olympic games. The sports shot in the Olympics are highly regulated and are not inclusive of all the shooting disciplines. There are many more shooting games than ones featured at the Olympics and, not surprising, those sports are more popular on a general basis.
Across the board, the competitive shooting sports have seen incredible growth and of all the types of shooting games being played today, pistol games seem to have grown the most, and have the most variety within its disciplines. Shooting games involving the pistol evolved the farthest in respect to competition and the games attracting the most professional shooters.
Doug Koenig, who has been called the “World’s Best All-Around Shooter,” has captured more than 70 national and world shooting titles, including winning the Bianchi Cup an unprecedented 18 times. Over the years, he has seen how the state of competitive shooting has changed.
When Koenig began his shooting career in 1986 at the age of 17, there were only a handful of competitions. “Back in the late ’80’s, there was only the USPSA Nationals, Steel Challenge, Bianchi Cup and Second Chance. Bringing it up to speed today, the biggest evolvement I see is all the different disciplines. There’s long-range rifle in all sorts of formats and silhouette; in pistol, there’s 3-gun, 2-gun, IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association), USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association). Then there are the shotgun sports: trap, skeet, sporting clays. There’s so much out there for people to get involved in now, it’s hard to keep track of it all.”
Professional shooter and captain of Team Springfield Rob Leatham agrees. “My first formalized competition was in 1978 and when I started there was really only three or four national-level shoots. The difference now is the organizations have gotten involved and there’s a lot more structured matches. These associations have started working together so there’s always organized competitions somewhere. Plus, there’s an active recruitment effort from these associations to get people into the competitive shooting sports and now—anywhere you go—you can go find a club and start shooting in a competition a lot easier than you used to. That’s the biggest change.”
USPSA started practical pistol shooting in general with shooters bringing out what they had. When first beginning, there was only one division and all shooters shot on the same level. But the shooters’ competitive nature kicked in and they started pushing the envelope of technology, mounting red dot sights on handguns and using compensators.
“I won the first world championship in handgun shooting with a red dot on my gun. This was in 1990,” said Koenig. “Now, they’re used on everything, even shotguns. It’s crazy how competition has evolved.”
There’s an even bigger change in the type of shooter now entering the sport, according to Tommy Thacker, Timney Triggers Pro Shooter. “The state of competitive shooting is rapidly changing. You look at it year after year and you can see the action sports are still growing. Three-Gun is still growing. The precision rifle sports are now growing. But the traditional sports of competitive shooting seem to be slowing down.
“Some of the NRA events, high-powered events, the bull’s-eye events are not seeing the participation because the newer generation is coming from video games and they’re looking for the same excitement. The older more traditional sports are actually diminishing and dying off a little bit. We’ve got to bridge the gap between old traditional and all the new fun exciting shooting sports. This is going to be key for the next 5 to 10 years. Keeping the traditional sports alive by reinvigorating them.”
The transformation in competitive shooting is also happening in the shotgun clay target sports. There’s been an influx of juniors and women over the last 10 to 15 years with the sporting clays discipline seeing the biggest growth. And like pistol, shotgun has seen more organizational intent with shotgun associations taking a bigger role in hosting competitions, creating a more sophisticated, organized environment and building a stronger infrastructure.
The Europeans have been shooting a form of sporting clays for decades, but it’s still a relatively young sport in America. Will Fennell, sporting clays pro shooter/instructor, shot rifle and pistol before moving to clay target shooting in 1995. “Several factors have made a huge impact on sporting clays the last few years. The biggest was the advent of the automated trap with wireless control. It really opened up the game, making it more 3 dimensional and giving us a much broader target presentation.
“The proliferation of professional level instruction changed the game completely. When the sport first appeared here, we had to learn the game and used the basic fundamentals from trap and skeet. Those basics don’t work in sporting clays and it kept us from growing on a competitive level with the rest of the world. Now, there’s a generation of 30-something shooters who’ve gotten professional instruction and they’re beating everyone. The whole level of the game has risen. We’re seeing a lot more competitions with 500 or more shooters, which has given rise to the professional shooter. I think for the future, we’ll see a class of professional shooters like they have in pistol.”
Fennell’s assessment of the sport aligns with another pro shooter, Diane Sorantino, who’s been competing since the early 1990’s. “We’ve gotten to the point we can say we are truly some of the best shooters of the world and our performance at the recent World Championships proves it. The United States swept the event, but we’re about 20 years behind the other shooting sports when it comes to recognizing professional shooters.”
They’re making headway, though. The Professional Sporting Clays Association (PSCA) came into existence 4 years ago with the mission to provide a professional league for the top sporting clays athletes offering scholarships for juniors, substantial payouts for professionals and heightened media exposure. PSCA tour events are broadcast on the Sportsman Channel and will air its 3rd season this summer.
Sorantino sees the sport moving forward with young shooters shooting better when entering the sport than she and Fennel did when they started. “The level of ability and seriousness of shooters entering competition is much higher. It’s not a side event anymore. We’re a major event now. This game is here to stay and it’s competing at a pretty high level.”
Julie Golob, pro shooter and captain of Team S&W started competing in 1991. “I view the late ’80’s and ’90’s as the best time in competitive shooting. Companies were really doing a lot of research and development, supporting huge teams and using those teams and competitions as their testing grounds. There was an excitement and a level of prestige in competitive shooting akin to the other major sports, but this began to change in the early 2000’s. Companies started to realize even though it’s a sport, they weren’t getting the media coverage they wanted.
“Concealed carry was becoming very popular and their focus moved to this market and on firearms for military and law-enforcement. When the companies shifted their attention, the organizations realized they needed to shift their focus as well, broadening their events so everybody could play. Pushing the envelope was not the immediate concern and the specialization went away. Growing the sport by opening the competition to all shooters was the next step. There was only one division, but not everybody could afford a $3,500 race gun for competition, so more divisions were created to accommodate other types of handgun shooting. It became a more practical event.”
Echoing the tone of Golob, Leatham and Thacker is Jay Duncan, vice president of marketing for LaserMax. Not a professional shooter, Duncan’s just a plain ordinary recreational shooter. He feels competitive shooting influences people who are just getting into the sport and gives those new shooters direction, but he feels the sports also have to evolve. “We need to tailor the shooting sports to the younger competitor. The old guard of competitive shooting is not going to be as active and the disciplines we have now may not appeal to the younger generation. They have to morph those sports into more enticing games and evolve them just like any other sport.”
As a whole, the general sport shooting side is growing but it’s the fun, dynamic sports like action pistol, 3-gun, long-range precision rifle and the explosiveness of sporting clays seeing the most growth. For the seasoned competitive shooters, the biggest challenge is staying ahead of the game.