Military squads Army, Air Force train for combat, competition
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Teams from Army and Air Force qualified for this weekend’s NCAA Rifle Championships hosted by Ohio State.
Well, yeah, you say. Shouldn’t they?
Coaches and participants from both institutions say to leave those assumptions at the range entrance.
“It doesn’t mean because you came to West Point that you’re a good shooter,” Army head coach Ron Wigger said, adding there’s a clear delineation between the sport he oversees and basic training requirements.
“If somebody’s just asking us about the sport, there’s usually quite a bit of misconception,” Air Force head coach Launi Meili said. “They think because somebody’s going in the military that they’re a nationally gifted, good shooter and they’ll find out pretty quickly it takes steady nerves. You have to be calm under pressure and that’s something you actually have to train for.”
As team and individual smallbore rifle competition opened Friday at OSU’s Lt. Hugh W. Wylie Range in Converse Hall, both Air Force and Army squads felt in the title mix.
This is Army’s 10th consecutive NCAA title bid while Air Force is back for the first time since 2003. Army entered the 2013 national championships ranked sixth among the top-eight teams that qualified, with Air Force ranked eighth. And, following Friday’s smallbore competition, both teams were in the mix, with Air Force fifth in the team standings and Army sixth heading to Saturday’s air rifle competition.
“I’ve got a very young team that’s very good and that’s because they came to me good,” Meili said, “and that’s the first time I’ve had that.”
And, no, it’s not basic training.
Friday’s smallbore competition, shot from a distance of 50 feet with a .22-caliber rifle weighing no more than 17.6 pounds, is a seminar in concentration. Athletes take 20 shots each from a prone position, a standing position and kneeling position, respectively. They have two hours to complete their session, with the option of as many “sighter” or practice shots as they need — also from each position — before their competition shots.
Saturday’s air rifle competition, shot from a standing position at a distance of 40 feet, will feature an air or gas-compressed gun that can’t weigh more than 12.12 pounds and uses .177 caliber led pellets.
“You won’t hear the word ‘weapon’ in this competition,” Wigger said. “It’s ‘rifles’ or ‘.22’ or ‘air rifles.’”
In military parlance, a “weapon” is used against something that fights back, he says, adding that NCAA rifle team members “shoot at objects that don’t fight back.”
“There’s a huge difference in the level of accuracy that we need,” Army’s Joe Todaro said.
He described Army’s basic-training qualifications as standing and shooting at human torso pop-up targets at progressively longer distances. Cadets also qualify with machine guns. This is done during basic training and again, during a more intensive six-week stint at the beginning of students’ second years.
Then there is NCAA competition. Fundamentals remain the same, per Todaro, but competitive shooters on the NCAA level hone in on a natural point of aim, or NPA.
That’s imagining where a shot is going to the extent of “even if you close your eyes and open them up, you open them up and you’re right on it,” Todaro said. “That’s huge in our sport.”
Sights — the piece of equipment used to focus on a target — are more detailed in competitive shooting. A propensity for concentrating for long periods of time (two hours for a smallbore session) is crucial. Forget walking on, too.
“It takes years of practice and most of the kids start shooting when they’re around 13 years of age,” Air Force assistant coach Mike Anti said.
Air Force’s Tyler Rico, a freshman from Tucson, Ariz., says he sometimes gets the, you-do-it glances when his squadron is out on exercises that require shooting.
“Before I started shooting in fifth grade, a fighter pilot came to talk to our class and I said, I want to be a fighter pilot,” Rico said. “Then I started shooting, and it’s pretty cool that I can do this in college.”
Mastering the mental demands of competitive shooting is as much a part of the sport as equipment and an instinctive aptitude for it. And, that’s true whether an NCAA rifle team member shoots for a service academy or a public institution.
“They come in very disciplined,” Meili said of her Air Force team. “They’re good at managing their time, usually, and when they come in to practice they get their job done.”
“I don’t think there is a more challenging place in the country to compete on a national team and that makes my job so inspiring, because everything cadets do every day is a challenge,” Wigger said.
Although combat shooting and competitive shooting are distinctly different, the discipline, confidence and ability to focus under pressure applies in both arenas.
Meili says the specificity of competitive shooting should be a big aid to anyone embarking on a military career.
“You have to be very good at [handling pressure] and I would think that translates into everything you have to do in the military,” Meili said. “I think our sport actually teaches that because we’re trying to hit a teeny, tiny period on a piece of paper at 50 feet.”