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Robert F. Jones
March 30, 1987
Lones and Deena Wigger are top U.S. marksmen
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March 30, 1987

Triggers For Wiggers

Lones and Deena Wigger are top U.S. marksmen

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In June 1984, at the new $2 million Olympic range near Chino, Calif., Deena had finished second in the air gun and 12th in smallbore to miss qualifying for the four-member women's Olympic team by less than 10 points. Her father had finished fifth in three-position, 26 points behind the top scorer.

"Though I hadn't told her so, I really didn't expect Deena to qualify," Wigger says today. "She was too young. The pressures at that level are unbelievable. You spend hours on the line, waiting and concentrating, trying to keep your mind clean of every distracting thought. Still, she did very well for a shooter who was really a year away from the truly top level. She was disappointed, of course—felt she'd let her friends and team down. I can understand that."

His own disappointment was keener. In 1976, after two tours of duty in Vietnam, Wigger had failed to make the team for the Montreal Games. In 1980 he qualified handily, only to see the U.S. boycott the Moscow Games. The Soviets and East Germans had risen rapidly to the top of the shooting sports, and Wigger—looking ahead to competing against them in the '84 Games—extended his service in the Army in part so that he could continue full-time practice at Fort Benning. But he never got the chance.

"All year in '84 I just was not on top of my game," he says today. "I'm not whining or making excuses. It just didn't jell for me that year. All you can do after a disappointment of that kind is fall back and reestablish your goals."

Both Wiggers did just that. Since the failure of '84, Lones decided to focus on coaching, and this month he retired his commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Army to become the director of the U.S. Shooting Teams Division at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Deena, meanwhile, has been training vigorously to become a member of the Olympic team. At the World Championships in Suhl, East Germany, in September she was one of only two American women to win an individual medal, taking the bronze in the ladies' air-rifle event.

Father and daughter are obviously cut from the same cloth. "In every way but looks, thank God," Lones quips. "Seriously, though, I never had the raw talent Deena has. Unless you count persistence. In shooting, it's persistence that pays the biggest dividends—constant, steady practice, week in and week out, all year long. I truly believe that anyone can be a champion marksman if they work at it long and hard enough."

As former chief of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit's international rifle branch, Wigger can speak with authority. He has helped develop some of the best shooters in the world. The USAMU was established by order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, after a poor showing by U.S. marksmen in the Melbourne Olympics that year. Since then the organization has provided about 90% of America's Olympic shooting medalists. And since 1964 the U.S. has won more Olympic medals than any other nation (23).

Wigger originally took up shooting because the tiny town where he grew up, Carter, Mont. (pop. 300), didn't have Little League or other organized team sports—and because his father ran the local junior NRA shooting program. Lones continued to compete while an agronomy major at Montana State, where he won varsity letters and became captain of the Bobcats rifle team. It was at Montana State that he met Mary Kay Spencer, a history major from Great Falls, and the two were married during the Christmas break of 1958. Two years later, after graduation, he went into the Army as a second lieutenant, infantry. He had been in the ROTC, so his commission was "reserve," not "regular," which meant that the road to general was all but barred to him.

By 1963, though, his skill with a rifle had won him a position on the U.S. team. Shooting in the notorious cross-winds of Camp Perry, Ohio, he won the first of his 18 national smallbore rifle championships. A year later he made the Olympic squad for the first of four times, setting a world record of 1,164 (out of a possible 1,200 points) at Tokyo in the .22-caliber three-position event (standing, kneeling, prone) to take the gold. In the English match—60 rounds fired from the prone position with a .22—he set another record, 597 of a possible 600, but was then tied by László Hammerl of Hungary. Wigger lost the event because the Hungarian had a higher score in his last 10 shots, but Lones's two medals, one gold and one silver, represented the best performance by any shooter in modern times.

Then came Vietnam. As a reservist and a valuable riflery instructor at Fort Benning, Wigger might have been able to avoid duty in Southeast Asia. Instead he served not one but two 11-month tours in Vietnam. The first was in the Mekong Delta, from early 1967 to the bloody Tet Offensive of January 1968. Ironically, he did no shooting but instead applied his Montana State agronomy skills to teach Delta farmers how to improve their crop yields. He returned in 1971 as a sniper instructor with the Americal Division stationed at Chu Lai.

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