By first appearances, Gabrielle Pitre is a typical American teenage girl, but behind her bubbly good-humored demeanor there is intense personal discipline and mental focus that has allowed her to master not one, but three shooting disciplines.
At 18 years old she is one of the youngest high-power rifle competitors to hold a master’s classification in long-range rifle shooting. The long-range Palma course of fire is shot with iron sights from the prone position at 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. That, by itself, is a significant accomplishment, but Pitre is also a high master (the highest level of achievement) in midrange rifle competition. Without getting into the details of how it’s calculated, a midrange high master scores 98.5 out of a 100 possible points on average. Midrange is shot in the same manner as long-range, but at 300, 500 and 600 yards. What makes this more amazing is that four years ago Pitre had never even picked up a match rifle.
There are many local clubs and match events, but the Camp Perry National and the Palma regional matches reign the highest in the US. The rifles, in this ultimate sport, must use high-power and center-fire calibers, and since Camp Perry was established in Ohio in 1907 for military marksmanship training, many of the events at the national matches require shooters to use a military-service rifle. These rifles are typically modified for improved accuracy.
Looking back over the last 108 years that the national matches have been held there, bolt-action 1903 Springfields, M1 Garands and semiautomatic M14 rifles rose and fell from dominance. For the past 15 years, variations of the M16 rifle have held competitive supremacy.
In addition to a rifle capable of sub-minute-of-angle performance, success at the highest levels of competition requires keen eyesight, minute muscle control and the ability to judge and compensate for the effects wind and mirage will have on bullet impact. The average deer hunter seldom thinks about bullet drop or wind because it simply doesn’t matter that much at ranges less than 100 yards. When a competitive marksman fires a bullet at a 44-inch black circle with a 10-inch center X a half a mile away, it takes that bullet nearly 1.5 seconds to get there. A lot can happen in that time and the competitor tries to predict its path.
Pitre told me that learning to get the dope (adjust your aim for range conditions) is the hardest part of long-range marksmanship. Flags on the range are used to estimate wind speed and direction and shooters use high-quality spotting scopes to study the mirage. She explained her techniques to illustrate the process.
“I try to find one or two flags about halfway to the target that are easy to watch. I want to be able to see every move the flag makes up and down. I also watch for any changes in the flag’s angle from the pole; all of this tells me if the wind has changed direction. The flags that are closest to the firing line do not matter that much because the bullet has just left the barrel at full velocity and can buck the wind pretty well. The flags near the target do not matter because by that time it’s too late to do anything. By picking a flag around the middle I can split the difference.”
“A mirage is the visual distortion of the target caused by heat coming off the ground. It varies with temperature, humidity and ground cover. I use my spotting scope to evaluate it by looking at a flat surface like the top of a target berm. The mirage makes the target blurry, and in the worst cases, it can completely wash it out. If that happens, I rely on my natural point of aim to get my bullet on target. When I set myself up to shoot, it’s critical that my body is properly oriented toward the target so that my rifle is naturally aimed directly at the bull’s-eye when I lock into a firing position. It doesn’t matter if I’m shooting at the 50- or 1,000-yard mark, I always do this.”
There are so many variables to account for that long-range shooting seems like a scientific discipline. To a degree it is. However, as Pitre pointed out, the proof is in the shot. “Flags and the mirage can lie,” she says. “You figure it out after you take your shot. Then you adjust. Conditions can and do change in the time it takes you to move your eye from the flag to the sights. At times the sudden wind changes can be enough to blow you off the paper.”
The remarkable thing about Pitre is that she participates in these sports not to be the best, but instead to simply do her best. A person who finds delight in doing their best is never troubled by the ugly side of competition. They are too busy having fun to begrudge another competitor’s better scores. Pitre also enjoys coaching new competitive shooters to develop good habits and improve their skills.
Born in Michigan, but moved to Alaska as an infant where she lived until she was thirteen, Pitre cannot recall a time when she wasn’t shooting. Some of her earliest memories are of riding over the empty tundra with her father on a four-wheeler. He let her shoot his pistol once they were safely away from inhabited areas. Though her father was a Marine Corps rifle instructor and competitive shooter, her older sister Natasha was actually the motivating force who drew Pitre into the shooting sports. As a kid, she wanted to do everything her big sister did. When Tasha took up competitive shotgun shooting, Pitre wanted to do it too. When she first tried out, she was only seven years old and could hardly hold the shotgun up. She missed every bird and the coach suggested she come back in a few years. Instead she went home and started working out to build up arm strength with 3-pound weights. Three weeks later she tried again and broke all but one. By eight years old she was competing. Pitre and Tasha soon became a sibling shooting sensation in Alaska. This culminated for Pitre when she was selected for the Alaska all-state team to shoot sporting clays in the women’s division. It was extraordinary for a 13-year-old to be chosen for a slot normally filled by the best adult women shooters in the state. Pitre had found her passion on the sporting clay field.
Had the family stayed in Alaska, Pitre and Tasha would still be shooting clay birds. However, work drew their family to Washington state, and an area with virtually no opportunity for them to continue shooting in shotgun competitions. Tasha gave up the shotgun sports and took up small-bore rifles, but Pitre refused to lose hope, and she was rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It turned out that while in Alaska, her growing skill with a shotgun had not gone unnoticed. Shortly after the move she received an invitation to shoot in a competition for future Olympic competitors. Her first instinct was to pursue the sport she loved, but the timing was wrong. Her family had just moved and the price of success would mean a huge disruption in their lives, including another move for her to the Olympic training camp. After a family discussion, Pitre concluded she was not willing to put herself or her family through those trials.
Instead, in 2011 she joined her sister at an NRA small-bore rifle qualification program. This is shot with .22 rifles from four positions (prone, sitting, kneeling and standing) at 50 feet. Within a year, both had reached the highest qualification, distinguished expert. Thanks to exceptional coaching and mentorship, Pitre was introduced to match rifle and long-range competition. Both sisters decided to take up the more sophisticated challenges of service-rifle competition, and so the family started an annual ritual of packing up to spend a month-long summer vacation at Camp Perry so the girls could compete in the national matches.
When the family moved to Kentucky, Pitre refined her long-range shooting skills and garnered sponsored support from Pelican cases, Nightforce optics, Lapua bullets and brass, Vihtavuori powders and ESS eyewear. She also started her own blog called From-the-line.com, where she freely shares her competition experiences. Her accomplishments are too numerous to list, but by the end of 2014 she was the Kentucky state long-range champion, long-range junior champion, midrange junior champion and took 1st place overall, making her the top junior shooter in the state. Thus far in 2015, in addition to several first place finishes in local matches, she attended the East Coast Palma Championships and took first in the master class and high junior overall.
When she graduates high school this year, Pitre plans on joining the Air Force to work in dog training and handling. She has a love of K9s that rivals her love of shooting sports and serving her country would simply continue a multi-generational family history of patriotic military service.
I think the USAF would do well to put her on their rifle team too. ASJ