From Leading Lady to Grand Master
[su_heading size=”30″]With multiple championships across ﬁve disciplines, Team Taurus Captain Jessie Duff may be the most versatile competition shooter active today.[/su_heading]
STORY BY CRAIG HODGKINS • PHOTOS BY TAURUS
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″]I[/su_dropcap]f you are of a certain age, you’ll recall a time when Jessie Duﬀ was not winning shooting championships. But to the generation of competitors coming of age today, her name is as familiar atop an event leader board as a sponsor’s logo.
From her ﬁrst championship in 2005 to her most recent, the captain of Team Taurus has toted home the victor’s hardware nearly 150 times, often with wins in multiple divisions of the same competition.
What makes this gaudy total even more impressive is that in an age of overspecialization, she’s achieved her competitive milestones across ﬁve diﬀerent shooting disciplines and multiple event types.
BORN INTO A SHOOTING FAMILY in McDonough, Ga., a community in the Atlanta metropolitan area, Duﬀ didn’t immediately follow in the footsteps of her father, a competitive shooter in his own right. “I didn’t take to it early on,” she told me recently, “even though I grew up on the range with my dad, my mom and my brother. I’d shoot on the range with them, but didn’t feel the need to compete until I was about 15.”
Her dad was involved in cowboy action shooting at the time, so that’s where she began too. The urge to compete may have come a bit late for Duﬀ, whose only experience with organized sports was as a cheerleader, but the timing was clearly right.
“I just found my niche,” she recalled. “Team sports weren’t for me, but I found something that I was good at and could grow and get better at. I just needed to ﬁnd it on my own instead of feeling forced to do it.”
After her initial success, Duﬀ began to contemplate a possible career as a shooter.
“From the moment I shot and competed, I knew that shooting was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how that could be possible. You weren’t allowed sponsors in cowboy action shooting. It wasn’t anything that you could make a living at; it was simply for fun.”
Her potential for making a living at shooting took a positive turn about ﬁve years later when her local range held a Steel Challenge event. She decided to give the new competition format a try.
“(At ﬁrst), I would go and shoot it with my single-action revolvers, but that’s when I was exposed to 1911s and Glocks and all of these semiauto ﬁrearms. It was a whole new world, and that’s where I saw that people had sponsors and could make something out of that.”
Again, the timing was right for Duﬀ to take another career step. Julie Golob had left Team Glock, and the company hired Duﬀ and fellow CAS shooter Randi Rogers. But even before she went to work for Glock, the U.S. oﬃces of which are based near Atlanta, she had come to truly appreciate her local roots.
“I was very fortunate growing up in Georgia,” Duﬀ said. “We had such an amazing group of world champion shooters, so I started with watching the best of the best. I would watch and emulate what they did, and that truly helped my foundation as a shooter and gave me a boost. Instead of having to learn that along the way, I learned it immediately.”
But those talented homegrown shooters weren’t the only positive inﬂuences on Duﬀ’s professional development, a point the current champion is quick to acknowledge.
“When I came into the modern shooting sports, the ladies who were killing it at the time were Kay Miculek and Lisa Munson and Julie Golob and Athena Lee, and that’s what I wanted to do. When I say I set my goal to beat them, I mean that with the utmost respect because they were the best. I wanted to be at their level or better. It took me a while, because they’re so good, but eventually I made my way into the sport and found a place among the other top ladies.”
Shooting multiple disciplines over the past decade has enabled Duﬀ to identify how to train and what to work on. And for her, it is all about focusing on what she considers to be the basics, and then migrating those skills from event to event.
“The common denominator across all of it is sight alignment and trigger control,” she said. “If you can manage that, then the rest is just going to come with repetition, muscle memory and physical ﬁtness. Shooting is shooting, whether you’re going super fast at Steel Challenge, whether you’re going super slow but being extremely accurate at Bianchi, or USPSA where it’s a mix of both, but you add in running, and a physical aspect. You still have to line your sights up and not jerk the trigger.”
“When I started shooting Bianchi,” she adds, “it was like nothing else I do on any other platform. I had to learn how to control my trigger control. I can get away with a lot more in Steel Challenge and USPSA, but in Bianchi, you can’t get away with anything. You’ve got a 4-inch circle, and if you’re not hitting it, it’s very, very obvious.
“I also had to learn to slow down. Everything I’ve shot is based oﬀ of speed, and in Bianchi, even though there’s a time limit, it’s like a calendar year compared to what I do. I had to learn to use the time that is given so that I don’t get rushed or feel like I have to shoot six shots as fast as I can because that’s what I do in the other sports. It was a big learning process for me, but trigger control transfers over to everything else and just makes me a better shooter in all the other divisions.”
DUFF’S WORK ETHIC has paid oﬀ in many ways. As the ﬁrst female athlete and professional shooter to earn USPSA Grand Master status, she ﬁnds herself in a position that few people of either gender have attained, and this has enabled her to realize a personal goal that extends beyond the sport and into the fabric of our culture.
“I don’t want to be known as just a good female shooter,” she said. “I want to be known as one of the best shooters in our sports. Gender shouldn’t matter. If I’m putting up scores that are right there with the top guys, then it shouldn’t matter if ‘lady’ is checked next to my name or not. I hope that some of the things that I’ve accomplished or done throughout my career, and what I’ll continue to do, will help open the door for other ladies. This might be a man’s sport, but we’re making our own place in it.”
That door remains wide open, and this past decade has seen a large spike in participation by both women and youth in the shooting sports. As part of her role as the captain of Team Taurus, a position she has held for ﬁve years, Duﬀ helped develop the Taurus Young Guns shooting program. Participants in this program, referred to as “shooting ambassadors” by the Florida-based ﬁrearms manufacturer, must meet stringent requirements on and oﬀ the range, and Duﬀ knows more than a little about the navigating the exhausting cycle of working and waiting while incrementally inching to the top echelon of the sport she loves.
“There’s always a new generation coming up that’s going to take the place of who is there now,” she said. “But it takes time and hard work to get to that spot. Some new competitors who have talent beat themselves up so bad if they don’t go out and win every match right away. I tell them, ‘You’ve got to put your time in. You have talent, but so do your competitors. You’re shooting against the best, and those of us who are on the top put our time in, and it’s our time right now.’”
Because she’s already walked several miles in their moccasins, her heartfelt career advice to upcoming shooters rings true, and it always starts with an admonition she tells herself every day: love what you do.
“It’s like in any other sport,” she said, “If you overload someone at that age, they just get burnt out. I tell them to set goals that are realistic in the sense that you will be able to accomplish (them). I see nothing wrong with setting a goal that is over the moon, because I’ve done that myself. But along with that big ‘shoot for the stars’ goal, I’ve got other goals that are like a stairway, and that will show success and progress along the way so that you don’t get frustrated or lose interest.”
“I’ve seen so many talented kids start, and then within two years, they’re gone, and you never see them again. It’s a hard thing to sustain for a long time if you’re not making a conscious eﬀort to take care of the reason you started this, and that’s because you love it.”
As she moves into her second decade as a professional shooter, Duﬀ acknowledges that she’s had to take her own advice about training and competitions, and has adopted a more targeted strategy.
“Earlier on in my shooting career,” she said, “I felt I had to be at every match that was on the schedule, and that was also kind of how I trained. I had to be out on the range, and if I didn’t shoot a thousand rounds a day, I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything. Now I’ve learned to train smarter and not harder, and that also (applies) to the matches I’m going to attend. I have to make sure I’m not overloading my schedule to where I’m burned out by the time I get to the major championships, but yet that I’m still motivated and able to prepare.”
Despite her many accolades, Duﬀ keeps her sights set on the future, and she has some lofty goals to achieve before, as she puts it, “my day in the sun is up.”
“I want to win an IPSC World Shoot in Open Division,” she shared. “That’s my main goal right now. Once I’ve done that, I want to look at spending more time in other disciplines. I made Grand Master in Open, and I want to make Grand Master in other divisions.”
MIXING BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE can be a combustible combination, but Duﬀ has the mental discipline to have made it work for more than a decade.
“When I made the decision to make a career out of this, I realized that things would change taking something I love and turning it into work. I’ve always told myself, the day that I wake up and don’t want to go to the range, or I don’t have that drive to go out and be the best, then that’s when I need to ﬁnd something else to do. But I haven’t had that yet.”
Many people use the shooting sports to relax and recalibrate, but professionals such as Duﬀ, whose lives revolve around their skill and dexterity with ﬁrearms, must compartmentalize their range time on a daily basis depending on the situation at hand.
“When I’m in training mode and have matches I’m preparing for,” she said, “it’s a completely diﬀerent mindset than going out to the range with my dad. When I’m training, it’s all business. I have a goal, and my goal is to go and win and be the best. And I have certain things that I do at the range to prepare myself for that.”
Long known for her drive to master new shooting disciplines, she is currently enjoying a self-imposed oﬀ-season, although for someone as competitive as Duﬀ, the term “oﬀseason” is relative.
“I’m trying to learn skeet shooting,” she shared with a laugh, “and I’m absolutely horrible at it. I realize we can’t all be good at everything we do, but when it comes to shooting, that’s a hard thing for me to grasp. I’ve shot so much, and I’ve succeeded at so much, that now when you’re telling me that I’m not supposed to aim at the target that I’m shooting at, I can’t comprehend that … It just drives me mad.”
“I stood in one position on the skeet range with my dad the other day,” she continued, “and I said ‘I’m not leaving until I can master this spot.’ I shot two boxes of shells in that one spot. But it’s a new challenge. I still love to go out and be on the range, and smell the gun smoke, and share and have those memories with my dad. He shot his ﬁrst clean 25 round of skeet yesterday, and I was able to be there with him to do that.”
Another thing that helps keep her life on an even keel is spending time with her husband Matt – they met on the set of the Friends of the NRA show they cohosted – and her friends. But when her internal stress dial threatens to hit 11, she has a sureﬁre way to turn down the noise.
“I love horses,” she said. “I have a couple of them, and that’s my getaway. I go down to our farm and just hop on my horse and go. I just enjoy trail riding, ﬁnding new places, being out in nature. Something about a horse is so calming. It just relaxes me.”
Duﬀ works as an ambassador for her many sponsors, including Taurus, Hornady, Leupold, Blackhawk and several others, giving her one more set of priorities to balance. She tries to do as much of the nonevent sponsorship work as she can in her oﬀseason, so it doesn’t conﬂict with her training, or, as she puts it, “the actual reason they’ve hired me.” Behind the scenes, she is active with personal eﬀorts to support veterans and law enforcement oﬃcers, and especially assisting and encouraging female shooters.
“I enjoy helping women get into the shooting sports,” she said. “There’s something about taking a lady to the range who is just terriﬁed of ﬁrearms, but who wants to take the plunge. Just experiencing her ﬁrst time shooting with her, and then seeing the excitement, the release of fear, the self-empowerment. It’s incredible.”
As you would imagine, Duﬀ’s annual SHOT Show appearance schedule is an extremely busy one, and she wants to make sure that everyone from her sponsors to her fans get the time they deserve.
“From day one to day four, starting when the doors open, every hour on the hour, I’m in a diﬀerent booth. But I enjoy it. I’m a social person, so when I go to shows like this, I’m able to talk to people and visit, and hear their stories, or share some of mine. So even though it is exhausting for four days straight – with that many people in one place, the energy just drains you – it’s part of the job, and I enjoy it for the most part.”
THE OUTDOOR INDUSTRY is relatively small on a national scale, and Duﬀ often considers how she can help build bridges to the mainstream world.
“I’m always thinking, ‘How can we make our pond bigger?’ I’m trying to ﬁnd opportunities, because if you look at the number of people who own ﬁrearms or who hunt or who exercise their Second Amendment rights, that’s bigger than the number of people who play golf, or the number of people who do some of the other sports.”
Still, not being readily recognized by those outside of the shooting world can be a source of amusement.
“I love it when people ask (what I do) where I’m not recognized as ‘Jessie the shooter.’ If I could snap a picture of every person when I answer, I’d have quite the little photo book. It’s a great conversation starter, that’s for sure. Sometimes you get the occasional person who doesn’t have the same viewpoint as I do, but it either opens the door for a conversation – you can learn something about somebody else – or it makes for a nice quiet plane ride.”
But whatever Duﬀ chooses to do, with or without a gun in her hand, she’ll give it her all. That’s the only way she knows how to live.
“I’m extremely competitive. I can’t do anything mediocre. I have to give it everything I have. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing, in my opinion. That’s just what drives me. I still have things I’ve yet to accomplish, and I know that I will. It’s just a matter of time. And knowing that there are younger shooters out there – and some of them have the drive that I did – that’s what keeps pushing me to keep going.” ASJ