Finally you need to master strategy, something some shooters never do. This means knowing when to bear down and squeeze off shots to take advantage of good wind conditions and when to wait out the session, which can last up to 80 minutes for 30 shots. It means knowing when to watch the targets of the opponents to your left and right, essentially drafting off their shots (that is, gauging how much the wind affected their shots and adjusting accordingly), and it means knowing when to purposely put a shot a bit left or right (but still in the 10-point smallest ring) to throw off the shooter next to you if he is so bold as to draft off of you.
Despite all this, the rewards are few. There is virtually no money in competition, little to no media (I was the only reporter at the 2009 finals) and the sport is both arduous and difficult to explain. So why do it?
Ask the shooters and they'll talk about pride and pleasure in a job done well, and in some cases an obsessive need to master the equipment and conquer the conditions -- the challenge of putting a bullet through a bull's-eye time after time. "It is still very amazing to me," says Whidden, "that if you line up these sights real carefully and squeeze the trigger real careful, this bullet will go that whole distance and land in the middle of that black circle the size of a plate. I still have a kid-like fascination that it all even works."
* * *
The 2009 finals began on a muggy Saturday morning. The shooters arrived early and set up at one end of the range, an expanse of grass that brought to mind the biggest, bumpiest soccer field you've ever seen. To the west, plumes of steam rose from a nuclear power plant. To the north, beyond the grass and the distant targets, lay Lake Erie, where some of the bullets ended up. (For this reason, the Ohio Naval Militia monitors the shore during competition, lest an unwitting Jet Skier make an ill-fated run.) Indigenous bald eagles occasionally landed upon the target range, causing cease-fires that lasted up to an hour. Canada geese, however, did not command the same respect, perhaps lacking the proper symbolism, and on the second day of competition one went up in a puff of feathers (the shooter was not afforded a do-over).
The competitors were an eclectic bunch. The oldest was 87-year-old August Gormetti from outside Atlanta, who's been competing since 1963. The youngest was 15-year-old Ethan Kendrick from North Dakota, who sported a mini-Mohawk and planned to join the Marines when old enough, though not the shooting team. ("It'd be cool to shoot," he said, "but I really want to fly helicopters, you know, Ospreys and Yankees.") Some competitors used store-bought rifles while others, like Corbin Brian Shell, from Fayetteville, N.C., build their own. Made of tiger maple wood and gaboon ebony, Shell's rifle was hand-filed and sanded and sealed and is worth in the neighborhood of 10 grand. Other competitors admired it as if it had a pair of 36DDs.
Talk to men like Shell and they'll tell you that shooting is about concentration, about preparation and, if you need an analogy, is closest to golf: the pressure, the lonely pursuit of perfection, the precision, the mental management. The two most important physical attributes are eyesight and hand-eye coordination. You can "get by" with 20/20 vision, as Whidden allows, but the best shooters are 20/15 or better. Likewise, many of the best shooters say that in their youth they excelled at sports like baseball. "I probably should have kept playing baseball, but it was extremely boring to me," Tubb said. "It was too easy. If I didn't try to knock it out of the park, I could get a hit every time."
By 9 a.m. the firing began. As complex as the sport is in practice, to the lay observer it can be quite tedious to watch. At 1,000 yards the targets look like little pinwheels, even though they're actually eight feet tall. Without a video board -- as is used in Europe, where shooting competitions are more popular --often all that's apparent is that guns are being fired. At any given time a line of 40 shooters could be simultaneously competing in up to three different matches. What's more, there's no scoreboard, announcer or means to find out who is ahead or behind or doing well, or even who is who. Even if you're a competitor. "I think I'm two back of Sherri, and I heard Justin shot well," Whidden said at the end of the first day. "But I won't know where I stand until I get back to my hotel and check the standings on the web."
This is not to say that the sport can't be enjoyable to watch, but until some enterprising TV producer figures out how to film long-range shooting like the World Series of Poker -- and it could be captivating if done correctly -- the only way to really appreciate the sport is to view it through a high-powered scope next to a knowledgeable guide, as I did on the final day of competition.
* * *
Coming into the morning, with three days of shooting already completed, Army specialist Sherri Gallagher held a lead of four points, which was somewhat surprising. Not only had no Army shooter ever won the all-around, but also it's mainly a male preserve. Only two women had ever taken the honors. (Then again, those women are her sister, Michelle, and her mother, Nancy Tomkins, both of whom won multiple times.) Plus, at 24, Sherri was younger than most champions and, most assumed, more prone to nerves. All expected a close finish; as Praslick said that morning, "This could literally come down to the last shot of the day."
Trailing Gallagher but in contention were Dement, Whidden and Skaret. Each had taken a total of 100 shots over five events, and Gallagher had "dropped" only one point -- meaning only of her shots was outside the 10-inch-diameter ten-ring of the 8-9-10 bull's-eye. There was another surprise, too: Tubb had fallen out of contention after a rough first day in which he felt his equipment let him down. ("I didn't seat my bullets deep enough," he told me, looking almost morose.) Not one to watch, he planned on driving home early.
As the first shooters took their positions, I joined Praslick, the Army coach. A former tournament chess player, he has green eyes, endless reserves of enthusiasm and may well be the best wind reader in the world. We sat on metal bleachers behind Whidden, a pair of high-powered scopes on tripods in front of us. With each shot, Praslick kept an eye on the wind and Whidden's adjustments and then, with uncanny accuracy, called most of his shots. "This one will be just to the left of the ten ring," or "He clicked over once on his sites, so I bet this will be to the right of the last shot and down a bit."
Through the scope, a different, almost fantastical world emerged. The wake of the bullet -- the tiny vapor trail created when it goes subsonic -- was visible, and the heat mirage was so thick as to appear CGI-created. One could see grass bending in the wind 950 yards downrange and butterflies flitting by, both of which served as potential indicators for Praslick, who said he'll sometimes use the flight patterns of dragonflies or the bend of dandelions to judge wind speed. Most of all, one could see the targets, each one tallied by off-duty shooters concealed in the "pits," narrow walkways behind a concrete berm where the targets are hoisted up and down on chain winches after each shot. All the while Praslick narrated the action, talking about the "cone of fire" (that is, the margin for error with a good shooter) and "doping" the wind (negotiating it), and "dressing up" a target (keeping a tight grouping of bullet holes). Every minute or so he pulled out his iPhone to check localized wind conditions -- yes, there's an app for that -- which he used as background information.
The shooters themselves barely moved, shifting an arm to reload or adjust their sights. Nevertheless, they were performing a complex series of calculations with each shot. To do this successfully, it's almost impossible to go on gut instinct alone. "I've never met a successful long-range shooter who wasn't very intelligent in either a very analytical way or an OCD-savant kind of way," said Praslick. And indeed, Dement said, the Army has looked at the psychological evaluations of what makes a good shooter and found that the basic personality type is "meticulous" and an "overachiever." Skaret, the Marine reserve shooter, is a good example. An engineer by trade, he is conscientious in his dress and hygiene and says he sometimes gets "in the bubble" while at work, becoming so focused on a project that, "I don't even register other people."
During his first stage of the final round, Whidden finished strong, dropping only one shot. Later, in high winds, he'd drop two more, as would Skaret. Meanwhile, Gallagher shot clean twice and entered the final round with a commanding six-point lead. Still, all it would take was one shot cross-target -- when a competitor mistakenly fires at a neighbor's bull's-eye, an uncommon occurrence but something that had happened to Gallagher in the final round a year earlier -- and she'd drop 10 points. Gallagher walked over to huddle with Praslick.
"Nervous?" he asked.
"No," she said, though not altogether convincingly.
"Hey, all you have to do is shoot a 145 [out of 150], then go get up on that stage tonight at the awards ceremony."
Gallagher headed to the firing line in her fatigues and an Army cap. Nearby her sister watched. Somewhere down the line, her stepfather, Middleton Tompkins, was also shooting. She had grown up pulling targets in the scoring pits for Tompkins -- "I think that's why she started shooting, because she got sick of it," he says with a laugh -- and by the time Gallagher was in high school, her life's goal was to join the Army Marksmanship Unit.
She competed on the Palma team overseas, winning the World Long Range Championship at in Bisley, England, in 2002 at the age of 19. Two years ago the Army recruited her specifically for the marksmanship team, and now, like Dement, she competes four months out of the year and trains soldiers the rest of the time. The lowest-ranking member of her unit, she had a chance to bring home the Army's first all-around championship.
Her first shot was a nine. OK, but not encouraging; she had already lost a point. She righted herself and hit a 10, then another 10, then cruised. When it was over, Gallagher had not only won handily, with Whidden and Dement finishing second and third, respectively, but set a national record of 1245-62x. Out of 125 shots, she put 121 of them in the ten-ring (and the other four in the nine-ring), and 62 of those were in the dead-center bull's-eye (the X).
Not that you'd know it at the time. There was no announcement, no fanfare; if this was the Super Bowl of shooting, someone forgot not only the pageantry, but the fans and elated celebrations. Instead, Gallagher shared a hug with Praslick, high-fived some Army teammates and then broke down her equipment and headed off to clean her gun. Around her, other competitors did the same, most unaware of the final standings. Some popped open cans of beer, others muttered to themselves. A man with suspenders, a prodigious belly and a thick Abe Lincoln beard sat on a metal railing. "Gallagher was good out there," he said. "Five down for the whole thing? That's real good shooting." He paused. "And she's a purty little gal, too."
She is also, by most measures, the best competitive rifle shooter in America, having set 13 national records in one year. Despite her skill, she receives all of $24,000 in annual salary, with another 10 grand for housing. For her victory at the nationals, she did not receive a raise or even a promotion.
Later that night, Gallagher headed to an awards ceremony in a large auditorium. A sparse crowd consisting of mainly competitors clapped as various winners went to the stage to receive various plaques and prizes -- a box of bullets or a $15 gift certificate. For winning the Long Range championship, Gallagher got a $500 Visa gift card, $500 from Berger bullets, $500 from Sierra Bullet and a Remington Model 700 Sendero 700 SF2300 Ultra Mag rifle.
Afterward Gallagher stood outside as mosquitoes swarmed. When asked if she's ever thought of going to the private sector, where someone with her skills could easily make $200,000 or more training personnel for a company like Xe (formerly Blackwater), she looked startled. "No," she said, "I wouldn't want to do anything other than this. The money isn't that important. I enjoy representing our country and all the people. I'm honored to be helping out so many people."
Then the best long-range shooter in the country changed out of her fatigues and headed to Nick's Road House to celebrate, which in this case meant sipping a Guinness with friends as classic rock blared overhead. In civilian clothes, sitting quietly and smiling, she went unnoticed by the bar patrons, an anonymous champion in an at-times misunderstood sport. To her peers, however, she was something else. "Now right there," her coach, Praslick, said from across the room, pointing at Gallagher as she giggled with her sister, "is one bad-ass girl."