Story and photographs by Robin Taylor
Three Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters wheeled over and roared in low, setting up for a mock gun run. Below them, youth teams from every corner of the country looked up in wonder as the helicopters accelerated to attack speed and hissed overhead. Between the mini air-show, the 105mm start cannon and the blend of prestige and industry support, the 2015 Scholastic Pistol Program (SPP) Southwest Regional competition, highlighted the growth in the industry.
SPP has more or less exploded onto the national stage in the last few years, with youth teams popping up everywhere. The junior high/high school nationals drew more than 300 competitors this summer and the Southwest regional (one of several such events) drew more than 100. Those two matches alone put SPP on par with the largest speed-steel-shooting organizations in the United States. With support from the NRA and the Boy Scouts of America, its current thousand-plus membership, represents what one might call “openers.” The near-term growth potential for SPP has no equal.
My youth group, “Team Gotta” of Custer, Wash., flew down to the Southwest Regional for a chance to shoot against the two top-rated high school teams in the nation, the South Texas Juniors and Red Dawn Marksmanship Academy; both hail from Texas. Many top college teams were present, including the US Military Academy from West Point, Southeastern Illinois College and the Naval Academy. These teams were all there to test themselves against our hosts, the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets.
According to Kevin Jimmerson, match director and Texas A&M coach, the Southwest Regional started three years ago with just 40 shooters. It doubled to 80 the following year and grew to just short of 120 this year. Sponsorship and sporting excellence has tracked that growth, and with more industry support, high-skill athletes are turning fresh eyes to the sport.
Coach Bruce Hering, from Southeastern Illinois College (SIC), showed up at the Southwest Regional with a four-person squad, all shooting on scholarships. Hering is known for coaching shotgun competitions, but he and team captain Alex Aguilar, made no bones about it; they were here to recruit action-pistol shooters for SIC and had a two-year, full-ride scholarship, for the right candidate. “This is our first match as a (scholarship-level) team,” says Aguilar, who’d been tasked by Hering to form the pistol squad. “What SIC is doing, it’s really an opportunity of a lifetime for me.”
Hering’s current crew is made up mostly of top shotgunners who have picked up the pistol, but they’re looking for someone to come the other way – a national-level pistol shooter who can learn shotgun. Hering sees value in cross-training shotgun with speed-pistol and it helps him maximize his scholarship dollars. “I think we’re going to stick with this model,” he says.
Action-pistol scholarships were not available just three years ago; and combining shotgun with pistol was considered lunacy. Now, talented young pistol shooters have suddenly become valuable assets to a growing number of school teams. Let’s be clear: Most shooting teams don’t cross-train the way Hering does, nor have scholarships, but thanks to SPP, young pistol shooters are looking at college programs in a whole new way.
If you’ve never heard of steel shooting, it’s simple. Steel shooters start from a “low ready” position with their pistol aimed at a flag on the ground. On signal, they raise their pistol and engage five steel plates of various shapes and sizes until they each shoot one, ending on a “stop plate.” Your score is the time it takes to shoot all five, even if extra rounds are required. Each person shoots the arrangement of plates five times and calculates the best four runs. There are four specified courses, so in all you will shoot 100 targets in a match.
It’s fast, feedback is instantaneous and everyone can tell whether a shooter is doing well or not. On top of all this, there are even endowment prizes available.
I’m not sure what magical powers SPP directors Scott Moore and Tammy Mowry have, but they’ve managed to bring exceptional support to SPP. Glock’s Ed Fitzgerald and Smith & Wesson’s Tom Yost not only support the sport in material ways, but they appear in person at many of the big matches – corporate reps literally doing the heavy lifting to help make the sport a go. In a few weeks, I will attend the NRA Level I coach school, dedicated to the SPP competition. The idea that this highly conservative organization would adopt a new program into their coaching school was simply amazing. The weekend schools are elevating the prestige, safety and overall quality of the program, coast to coast.
One would expect college-age teams to dominate the sport, but instead freelance gun-club teams, made up of middle and high school students, have moved into the forefront of the competition. These teams are out shooting, out-competing and out growing all comers to the sport, particularly in rimfire. For example, the Red Dawn Raiders Marksmanship Academy boasts more than 30 members, all of whom focus on action-pistol sports. South Texas has a similar number. When these two teams show up, accompanied by coaches, parents and friends, you would think a tour bus had arrived.
SPP focuses primarily on centerfire (9mm) handguns, but shooters are allowed to use a .22 pistol for up to two years. For many reasons, the very young have flocked to the rimfire division and no college has been able to catch the juniors (yet).
This year South Texas Shooters fielded young Ethan Inocando, who shot the fastest score of the match with a blistering 41.59-second round. Team Gotta’s Adam Thomas (a high school senior), was right on his heels with a 42.26-second round (winning “senior” division). Both far outpaced the leading collegiate competitor, Chandler Lewis at 50.86.
Shooting as a team, the A&M Corps of Cadets won the collegiate rimfire category (with a score of 246 seconds) but were dramatically out shot by the younger guns. Team Gotta set a national course record with a score of 183.85 seconds, followed by the South Texas Juniors with 194 seconds.
Centerfire is another game altogether and here the colleges run slightly ahead of the juniors. College student Anthony Vieth, for example, laid down a truly impressive 43.31-second run for the individual win, and the Texas A&M team posted an excellent 204.45. “That was pretty good,” says Jimmerson, whose cadets set the centerfire record last year with a score of 186 and hope to do it again.
SPP is changing fast and the shooters with it. The sport is so young, some of the youth teams and coaches enjoy an experience advantage. However, this current crop of high school marksmen will soon graduate and join college teams like the Aggies. When they do, they’ll take that experience with them and the colleges should then dominate the centerfire side of the sport. High school senior Jordon Castro from Bellingham, Wash., holds the record at 39.32 seconds. That’s under 1/2 second per target, making him an excellent candidate for any college competing in this sport.
Right now, top-flight competitors are able to engage all 80 steel targets (SPP Course) in just over 40 seconds. Remember that when you throw away the four slowest runs, you have 80 targets left.
“The sport is maturing so fast, it won’t be long before we’re looking at whole teams with (individual) scores in the 30’s,” predicts Moore.
It’s a changing landscape for youth sports. In a world where liberal politicians want to label our schools as “gun free zones,” SPP is sending kids to college on the strength of their skills with a handgun. And that’s an encouraging thought. ASJ