Sherri Gallagher is 26 years old and has dark hair, pretty brown eyes and a shy smile. She likes Top 40 music, is unfailingly polite and occasionally wears her hair in pigtails. She is also so proficient with a rifle that if you were standing 1,000 yards away from her -- which is to say, 10 football fields or almost two thirds of a mile -- she could put a bullet within 10 inches of your heart 100 out of 100 times.
Not that she would, of course, but she could.
At the moment, Gallagher is prone on the ground and staring down the scope of her .308 Palma rifle at one of 40-odd competition targets on the horizon. It is August in northern Ohio and the air is gelatinous from the heat, yet Gallagher is wearing a sweatshirt under her Army fatigues so that she can cushion her shoulder and muffle the vibration of her heartbeat. At the moment, her pulse is so low that she could be mistaken for being asleep, and she is modulating her breathing to create eight-second windows of physiological stillness. This is important, for even the slightest deviation in the position of the muzzle -- say, the width of a piece of paper -- can send her bullet off course by as much as a foot. The same goes for the wind, currently gusting from the west, which, when combined with the effects of gravity, mean she essentially has to "lead" her target. So great is this effect that, if you were to slow it down, the arc of her bullet would resemble a big, looping curveball, rising nearly 30 feet above the ground and then swooping to the right before punching a hole through the bull's-eye.
On either side of Gallagher dozens of shooters are similarly splayed out -- most of them men, most damp with sweat. Every half second or so, one of them fires, and the cumulative effect is like the final throes of a bag of microwave popcorn or someone stomping on bubble wrap. Behind the shooters is a parking lot full of trucks that are loaded with ammo and scopes and guns. Lots and lots of guns; if the Midwest were to suddenly devolve into lawlessness, this crew would be in great shape. There are also bumper stickers. I'M A FIGHTER NOT A LOVER reads one; GEORGE W. BUSH: SAVING YOUR ASS WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT reads another. Those who aren't competing in this round wheel their gear around in custom-made carts, roller bags or, in one case, a small red Radio Flyer wagon such as the kind a five-year-old boy might pull. Draw your own metaphor from that one.
The shooters -- old, young, male, female, fat, skinny, military, civilian, laconic, voluble, Southern, Northern -- have come to the Camp Perry National Guard base outside Port Clinton, Ohio, for the 2009 National Rifle Shooting Championships (this year's championships, which are annual, run from Aug. 14 to 18). Think of it as the Super Bowl of long-range shooting. Or, if you choose, as a gathering of a couple thousand of the deadliest humans on the planet.
* * *
The first National Shooting Championship was held in 1873 and sponsored by the National Rifle Association, which was then just two years old. Though commonly thought of as a lobbying entity today, the NRA was originally formed as a way to train America's gun owners in response to what was viewed as poor marksmanship during the Civil War. The goal of the association, according to co-founder William C. Church, a colonel in the Union army, was to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis."
As the equipment became more advanced, so did the competition. Skill wasn't enough; one needed to understand the mechanics of shooting. By the 1960s gun manufacturers were producing rifles capable of consistently hitting targets at 1,000 yards. By the Vietnam War top U.S. military snipers were able to pick off targets as far as 2,000 yards away. (They can now reliably hit a human silhouette at a distance of a mile or more, and last year a British soldier named Craig Harrison set a distance record when he toppled two Taliban fighters from 8,120 feet, or over a mile-and-a-half).
Today the championships are a month-long carnival of firepower, complete with a mess hall and a long alley full of vendors. (Representative pitch: "Are your guns safe at home right now? Snap Safe Closet Vault!") The event lasts five weeks and draws 6,000 competitors in a smorgasbord of events. Within long-range rifle shooting alone, there are all manner of classifications -- 200 yards, 600 yards, cross-course, standing, prone -- but the ultimate test is the overall Long Range High Power championship, for which the winner receives the Tompkins Trophy. To win, a shooter must excel in a number of disciplines over four days, often in varying conditions (including, at times, torrential rain), and at distances that can be hard to comprehend with the naked eye.
This may sound like a competition geared toward snipers, but one of the first things you learn upon delving into the world of shooting is not to confuse marksmen with snipers. In military terms, snipers infiltrate locales, negotiate a variety of terrain and, on occasion, take a shot; but it is only one element of their jobs, which also might include scouting, defusing explosives and holding positions. A marksman, however, trains year-round at shooting but doesn't see combat action, instead spending his time competing at a series of events and training military recruits. As a result, each community sees the other with a certain amount of disdain: Snipers view marksmen as "paper punchers" (a reference to the paper targets), and marksmen view snipers as less skilled.
Consider the rescue two years ago of Capt. Richard Phillips of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama. Perhaps you read about it at the time. From 75 feet, three Navy SEAL snipers picked off a trio of Somali pirates who were holding Phillips hostage in an 18-foot covered lifeboat. The operation required three shots, the difficulty of which were staggering. The snipers had to use night-vision scopes and synchronize their shots from a swaying ship at a bobbing craft on the open sea. One of the targets was visible only through a window. The stakes couldn't have been higher; one of the pirates had an AK-47 to the captain's head. But the shots themselves? "I respect the engagement but really, that's a very easy shot," explains Gunnery Sgt. Justin Skaret, an elite shooter and captain of the Marine Corps Reserve team who was part of the 16-member squad that represented the U.S. in the 2007 Palma International competition, the shooting equivalent of the World Cup. "That was, what, 100 feet? We start at 700 yards." Or, as Army Marksmanship Unit coach Sgt. Emil Praslick says, "For our guys, that's like poking someone in the eye with a stick."
As for the sniper viewpoint, retired Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin, a legendary Marine sniper with more than 60 confirmed kills in combat, spoke for his compatriots on the subject of marksmen in his autobiography, Shooter. "Paper targets don't shoot back," he wrote, "so that's really kind of boring."
The Army and the Marines have their own differences. The Marines complain that many of their best shooters are constantly being deployed (usually to Afghanistan or Iraq), while the Army's top guns are often specialists who are recruited and groomed solely to compete and run training courses for the military. Sgt. Lance Dement has been shooting competitively for the Army for 18 years and was on the 2000 Olympic team, which uses air rifles at shorter distances. He says, "Sure, I could go over there, go out in the field and take out targets, and, yeah, I'd probably hit whatever I aimed at, but I'd be one gun. Over here I can train 1,000 people. It's like a force multiplier. You wouldn't send brain surgeons out to be field medics."
Of course, you also probably wouldn't send brain surgeons (or their analogous equivalent) to a nowhere town in Ohio, 75 miles from Cleveland and 45 from Toledo, to spend weeks downing paper targets unless you had a good reason. For the military branches, competing at the championships is a matter of establishing a track record (good for recruiting), winning bragging rights (the rivalry between the Army and Marines is, in the words of Dement, "huuuge") and generating some good PR. "This is about our profile, about backing up the assertion that we have the best unit," says Praslick.
Praslick and his fellow servicemen don't come out and say it, but it's also about proving that military shooters can best civilians, something they've had a hard time doing. In the 23 years that the Tompkins trophy had been contested prior to 2009, only civilians had won. There are, of course, reasons for this. Most military shooters must be proficient with a variety of rifles, whereas civilians can specialize. Army shooters didn't compete in the all-around until seven years ago because they could only use service rifles, which are sturdy enough for combat but less accurate on a range. Now they are allowed to use a variety of rifles, but even so the best civilian shooters still have an advantage. They can spend tens of thousands of dollars to customize their rifles and painstakingly test and tweak their equipment and ammunition. It's the difference between playing golf with a loaner set of clubs or your own bag brimming with top-of-the-line equipment.
Foremost among these civilians is the 36-year-old John Whidden, the 2008 champion from Nashville. Despite what one might expect, he bears little resemblance to a Gun Nut, that part-mythical creature who comes wrapped in a Confederate-flag bandanna, quotes Rambo and thinks grade-schoolers should be armed. Rather, Whidden is tall and skinny, doesn't hunt, favors running shoes with jeans and is aw-shucks amiable in the manner of the dad who coaches the seven-and-under soccer team. (In his case, he's the shooting coach for the 4H air-rifle squad.) He worked on his family's farm growing cotton and peanuts until a couple years ago, when he decided to try to make a living through shooting (primarily by selling gun-related products). Of course, it helps his cause that he has a 1,000-yard range at home, as well as his own gunsmithing shop.
Whidden's civilian peers include Michelle Gallagher (sister of Sherri and a three-time all-around champ) and the sport's resident heavyweight, David Tubb. Tubb is an 11-time national high-power rifle champion (in various categories, including five long range titles) and something of a one-man industry, the only civilian who is truly making an enviable living off shooting. He trains military snipers; hawks his comprehensive training manual, The Rifle Shooter; and sells everything from sights to ammo. He even has his own gun, the TUBB Gun, which sells for thousands of dollars.
Meticulous about everything from his appearance (a Jimmy Johnson hair helmet) to his preparation (he takes copious notes on every shot he fires), Tubb arrives at competitions in an extra-long GMC 4WD Yukon outfitted with interior steel lock boxes for his rifles. The type of man who leaves his car parked in neutral so that it can't be hot-wired, he is analytical, deeply knowledgeable about the mechanics of firearms and capable of long soliloquies of a highly technical nature. For example, when he talks about shooting, these are the kinds of things Tubb says: "The scope reticule is set up for a 4KDA solution. You hold your elevation, here's your number, then call the deflection and windage in miles per hour and then you hold it in miles per hour, instead of holding it in minutes of angles, or mills." Which, roughly translated, is a set of directions for aiming at elevation.
Entering the 2009 nationals, Whidden and Tubb were two of the favorites, along with a half dozen or so others, including the Gallagher sisters (their mother and stepfather are former champions), Skaret and Dement. All spent countless hours preparing, though some, like Dement, preferred to downplay the importance of training. "There are only two things to do when firing a rifle," Dement says. "Align the sites and fire the rifle without moving it." And while this is technically sort of true, especially for someone of his talent, it doesn't address all that must occur before you get to the point of just aligning and shooting.
* * *
For example, if you wanted to become the kind of elite shooter who could compete at the national championships, here's what you'd need to do:
First, master the physical aspects of the sport. This means maintaining body position and breathing patterns, keeping the rifle snug against your shoulder to "eat the recoil" and having the combination of eyesight, fortitude and coordination that, if there were no wind at all, you could hit the bull's-eye from 1,000 yards every single time. This includes training your body to get "pumped down," as Whidden puts it, rather than pumped up during high-pressure competitive situations. Some shooters are so adept at this that they can actually control their heartbeats; watch on a monitor and there will be a slightly longer pause when shooting.
Next you need to master the equipment. This requires knowing your gun, including when its barrel is about to go (generally around every 2,500 rounds) and whether it performs better fouled (that is, after substantial firing) or clean. It also means understanding your ammunition: caliber, style, weight, which powder, how much powder, which primer, which cartridge case, how many times you can pull the trigger before deciding a cartridge case is worn out, and so on.
Those are just the basics, though. The next step is becoming an expert at reading the wind. You'd need to learn how to interpret downwind flags and the mirage -- the liquid-like waves of heat that come off the ground as a result of refraction, providing an indication of wind direction and speed. Based on those factors, you would need to be able to estimate the direction and speed of the wind with uncanny accuracy, because each mile per hour of wind equals a 10-inch variance in the bullet's path over 1,000 yards. Put in scoring terms, misjudging by 2 mph can be the difference between a score of 10 or 8 on a shot. Shoot more than one or two eights and your chances of winning disappear.
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."