Challenge produces top CENLA shooters
|Photo by GORDON HUTCHINSON|
The Top Gun squirrel gun competition at Fort Polk draws all ages, and both males and females. Many of the kid shooters are fierce competitors, and outshoot their adult counterparts.
A World War Two veteran said everyone in his basic training unit shot Expert, the highest Army rating, with the M-1 rifle. A recently retired soldier said 75 percent of his basic training company in 1973 shot Expert with the M-16 rifle. A young soldier named Kenny, a new recruit, shook his head and observed, “Well, me and one other guy shot Expert.”
The decline in marksmanship abilities noted in the military can be tracked right along with the urbanization of the United States, the decline in the purchase of hunting licenses, and the loss of practice time with firearms. With the slow death of our rural roots has gone our mass fascination with and appreciation for firearms. America used to grow up with a gun in its hand. Now it’s likely to be holding a video-game wand or a computer mouse.
While hunting clubs still afford youngsters the chance to learn shooting skills, the family farm and its shooting opportunities have all but disappeared. Kids today grow up in an urban environment and only learn to shoot if their parents specifically make an effort to teach them the skills. They simply can’t go out and roam the woods and hills with a Daisy BB rifle the way so many of us grew up.
And this loss is a shame because kids miss out on one of the truly great learning skills they will ever practice in a lifetime. Shooting done properly teaches discipline, hand/eye coordination, good sportsmanship, healthy competition and ethical behavior — all important to the development of a well-rounded, sound-minded and conscientious adult.
Those soldiers mentioned above determined to do something about the problem, and began developing a shooting program that everyone could enjoy. They believed if everyone had fun, the parents and kids would compete together, and bring others into the fold.
After five years of experimentation with various ways of running contests, an organized match program was worked out that has become known as the “Top Gun Challenge.”
John Simeone, a retired Army Criminal Investigative Division (CID) NCO, aided by a group of civilian and military sharpshooters who frequented Fort Polk’s recreational shooting facilities, developed the shooting competition. They designed a triathlon event based loosely on rimfire benchrest and metallic silhouette shooting, but with twists and tweaks thrown in that would offer enough diversity to interest just about any shooter.
The Top Gun Challenge
America’s greatest shooters learned to shoot with a .22. Notably great sharpshooters such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and Marine Sniper Sgt. Carlos Hathcock all cut their shooting teeth on the little rimfire cartridge. It is cheap, accurate and fun — and until now, few precision shooting events were based around it.
Enter the Top Gun Challenge match as designed by the shooting fraternity around Fort Polk.
Highly accurized .22 rifles are used, with the majority being models by CZ, Marlin and the ubiquitous Ruger 10-22. But they aren’t your hardware-store, off-the-rack models. Most of these rifles sport heavy target barrels, high-powered variable scopes and special triggers. One of the reasons for the mass popularity of the Ruger 10-22 in accuracy contests is the extreme ease with which the gun can be modified, and the number of inexpensive components that can be added to the gun to increase its accuracy potential.
The design of the gun is left to the shooter. The main requirement is it must weigh less than 10.2 pounds, which adheres to benchrest rimfire competition rules.
In a remembrance of one of the greatest military shooters of all time, Carlos Hathcock, the ultimate prize in the Top Gun Challenge is the coveted White Feather. Hathcock wore a white feather in his field cap while wreaking havoc on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops as the Marine Corps’ most celebrated sniper. He was so devastatingly effective, he became known as “Long Trang” — Vietnamese for White Feather — and the enemy placed a huge bounty on his head.
Anyone who garners a near-perfect score wins the coveted “White Feather” award, and is allowed the honor of wearing the white feather in their shooting cap.
Since the contest consists of free-standing metallic silhouette shooting at 40 through 100 yards, 25-yard bullseye targets and the infamous “Black Death” target series, the honorees sporting the white feather are few.
“The spirit of the competition is that we are shooting highly accurate squirrel rifles, and you should be able to take the gun hunting for squirrels relatively easily,” said Simeone, who acts as range master at the matches.
Since Simeone became state director of Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of America, the Top Gun Challenge has become a major state project of TNUSA, and has become the recipient of a large prize list from numerous outdoor sponsors. Nugent’s website and literature promote the match also.
The match is a mix of benchrest precision shooting from sandbags or rests, and free-standing metallic silhouette shooting at miniature pigs, turkeys, goats and rams, just like the centerfire metallica shoots. Kids are not required to shoot the metallic silhouette targets, which are fired at ranges of 40 yards for chickens, pigs at 60 yards, turkeys at 77 yards and rams at 100 yards from a standing position.
If you have ever tried to shoot a six-inch tall metal ram at 100 yards from a standing position, it is truly a humbling experience.
Instead of shooting the free-standing portion, kids remain at the benchrest position and get to shoot one extra target at 25 yards called the “Flyswatter.” It has 20 flies printed on it approximately the size of larger blue-bottle flies, and you must hit some portion of each fly with each shot. It’s fun, but it is very tough.
From the benchrest, the contestants also shoot USRA-IR50/50 targets, consisting of 10-round bullseyes only 1 7/8 inches in diameter. Trying to hit the center 10-ring at 25 yards has been compared to trying to shoot through 10 LifeSavers in a row. Obviously, if your .22 won’t print 10 shots inside a dime at 25 yards, your rifle won’t compete against these tackdrivers.
The good news is that it is much easier and inexpensive to bring a .22 up to match accuracy than most centerfire rifles.
At the most recent match, held Sept. 23 at the Fort Polk recreational range, I watched entire families compete for prizes, plaques and bragging rights. And I watched some young boys and girls do some amazing things with accurized 10-22s their dads had built.
A seemingly excessive number of wind gauges twisted and turned with the breezes wherever they were placed. One dad, an admired builder of super-accurate 10-22 Rugers, described it this way when the wind gauges were judged as being a little excessive:
“A breath of wind you can barely feel on your neck will cause that bullet to drop one-half inch at 25 yards. A breath of wind you can barely feel on your face will cause a bullet to rise one-half inch at 25 yards,”
After nearly cleaning the Flyswatter target, and not being able to understand why I was aiming to exactly the same place on each fly with the rifle, and missing some of them, I began watching the wind vanes. By placing my shots when the wind stilled, my hits instantly improved.
“We try to keep it fun for everyone,” Simeone said. “It can’t get too expensive, or folks won’t do it as a family. But everyone can afford a brick of .22s.”
Jim Federkeil is a Fort Polk Recreational Programmer. In other words, he is one of the people who oversee and plan the recreational activities on the post. He was visiting on the Saturday afternoon of the match.
“I’ve never seen anything like this shooting fraternity,” he said. “I’ve been involved in recreational programming and sports planning all my life, and I’ve never seen anyone with the sense of sportsmanship these shooters have.
“A guy will come off the line having just shot in competition, then turn around and sit next to a new shooter and give him or her tips on how to improve their score and possibly win.
“I see pickup basketball games around here where the guys want to kill one another in the competition, and these people willingly coach a competitor, trying to help him beat their score.”
Federkeil stressed that Fort Polk has a big recreational shooting complex that is open to the general public.
“We have 3-D archery ranges, two skeet, two trap and one five-stand range in addition to our centerfire and rimfire ranges. We also offer instruction in most of these, and rent archery equipment and shotguns.”
And the crowds aren’t usually too thick.
“The ranges are really under-utilized,” Simeone said, “probably because most folks are a little intimidated by the fact you have to sign in at the front gate to come on post, but as long as you have a valid driver’s license and proof of insurance, it is absolutely no problem.
“Besides, if you visit on a regular basis like I do, they give you a windshield pass, and you just drive in and wave at the MPs.”
Simeone said they have about 300 people in the CENLA area who have competed in the Top Gun Challenge, but they would like to expand their horizons.
“We’ve got some pretty fantastic shooting teams here, both adult and youth, and we’d like to get a league going, go into other areas of the state and compete with other teams,” he said. “If any of your readers are interested, they can call me. We’ll be glad to send them the rules, and sample targets.
“The matches are simple to set up, inexpensive to shoot and a lot of fun for everyone. The beauty of them is they are rimfire — a .22 range can be set up almost anywhere.”
John Simeone can be reached at (337) 238-0517 or email@example.com.
Gordon Hutchinson’s best-selling novel, The Quest and the Quarry, a generational tale that parallels the lives of a line of trophy bucks and the youth of a farming family can be ordered at thequestandthequarry.com, or by calling (800) 538-4355.
The novel was recently chosen as a book of the year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.
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