TRIGGERS FOR WIGGERS

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

She's young, pretty, and on this particular night she's being hassled by this "two-stage creep." No, not some obnoxious yutz pestering her for a date. Rather, in the jargon of her sport, the creep is a pesky, almost undetectable slippage in the two-stage trigger mechanism of her 11-pound target rifle. The 17-year-old is handling the problem in a manner familiar to teenage girls: pretending the creep isn't there.

Deena Wigger glares downrange along the blue-steel barrel of her .22-caliber Anschutz. She kneels in her shooting position, chewing furiously on what must be an entire packet of Dentyne. The snap of her gum is almost as loud as the pop of the bullets she is firing. But the shots stray wide of their mark 50 meters away. Finally she gets up and walks over to a short, stout man who has been staring at her all night.

"I think there might be something wrong with my pull," she says to the man. "Maybe it's a two-stage creep?"

"Why didn't you tell me earlier?" the man asks, not unkindly.

"I did, Daddy," she flares. "But you never listen!"

Lones Wigger, a stern, career military man with 18 years in the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, shakes his head, almost but not quite smiling as Deena stalks off to get her creep eradicated. Fatherhood is the same all over, even on the rifle range. "She's making progress, though," he tells a companion. "Couple of years ago she'd have burst into tears." Then he looks up at a motto pinned to the wall of the converted World War II mess hall that houses the Fort Benning, Ga., indoor range. It reads: "Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

That scene took place three years ago. For Lones and Deena Wigger, that sign would take on deeper meaning in the months that lay ahead.

Deena, then a junior at Spencer High School in Columbus, Ga., was training at nearby Fort Benning for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Her father was training, too, but he had been an Olympian before. Lones, then 46 and one of the best riflemen in history, had won his first Olympic medals 20 years earlier at the '64 Tokyo Games—a gold and a silver for the best U.S. shooting performance of that Olympiad. Since then he had accumulated a total of 93 medals in international competition—55 gold, 30 silver, 8 bronze—including an Olympic gold in '72.

Deena, by contrast, was new to the world-class scene. She had burst from obscurity the previous summer to win her first national championship over Pat Spurgin in standard rifle prone (Spurgin went on to win gold at L.A. in air rifle) and later won the women's English match event at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas.

Together the Wiggers hoped to become the first father-daughter combo in the Olympics. But it was not to be. Neither of them even qualified for the U.S. team.

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 Làszló 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.

After three weeks under Wigger, his snipers were hitting their targets at 600 meters with the first shot from their M-14s. "My best sniper was a ghetto kid from Chicago," he says proudly. "A Chicano we called Poppa Leech. He had all the patience in the world. He'd sit out there on a trail for three days straight, in the heat and the dark and the bugs. But he had to work alone—couldn't stand having a partner. I let him. In a way, that's what shooting's all about. It's an 'alone' kind of thing."

Just back from Vietnam, Wigger qualified for the 1972 Olympics. While shooting in the 300-meter centerfire competition—a "big bore" event, since discontinued on the Olympic agenda—Wigger realized his rifle needed an adjustment during the kneeling stage of the three-position event. He calmly took the barrel action out of the stock, put some cardboard in the glass bedding to tighten the fit, went back to the line and eventually won his second Olympic gold. No other American rifleman has won more. "That meant a lot to me," he says. "It proved the first one wasn't a fluke." Persistence builds consistency....

Both of Wigger's sons, Ronald and Danny, won scholarships to Eastern Kentucky on the strength of their marksmanship. Ronald, 26, is now a first lieutenant with the USAMU, and Danny, 25, is a senior at Eastern Kentucky. But Deena, his only daughter, dropped out of the sport for half a year shortly after she started shooting competitively at age 12. "I guess I quit shooting at the time because I felt I was being pushed," she says. "I want to do it on my own." But when her mother told Deena how much her dad needed her on the junior rifle team in Fort Benning, Deena responded and eventually began winning.

To anyone who has plinked tin cans in the backyard with an old .22, watching one of the Wiggers at practice is a revelation. First there's the gear—lots of it. Lones Wigger starts by pulling on two thick, tattered sweatshirts, even if it's 92° in the shade, then a pair of high-waisted leather shooting pants and a red-white-and-blue leather shooting coat with USA on the back. Last come a pair of flat-soled, high-arched shooting shoes and padded leather gloves.

"This stuff isn't for show," Wigger says. "You want flat shoes that will give you as much floor contact as possible. The high waist on the pants gives you lower-back support—mighty important when you're standing for two of the five and a quarter hours it takes for a three-position event. The sweatshirts and leather coat help dampen your pulse so the rifle doesn't jump with each beat of your heart. Even at that, you can't dampen it entirely. Most shooters try to squeeze off—to 'break' the shot—between heartbeats, when the rifle is steadiest. The padded gloves help, too."

Wigger's rifle is a $1,100 West German Anschutz Model 1813 that weighs 15 pounds fully assembled. The gun has an adjustable peep sight and a hypersensitive trigger assembly.

Deena uses a two-stage trigger, one that allows a bit of slack before tightening to the break point that releases the shot. Each shooter's "hold" varies with his or her facial structure, arm length and other physical features. Women, with their wider hips, have better stability than men and can rest the elbow under their support hand on what Wigger calls "their natural shelf—the pelvic bone. The stance can be fine-tuned by adding movable cheek-pieces and a fore-end stop that can slide up or down to accommodate a shooter's arm length. It's all necessary in a sport where three shots wide of the 10-ring bull's-eye in a 120-shot event can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

"I can practice four or five hours a day, year-round," Deena says. "I do aerobics. Four days a week I lift weights to develop upper-arm and lower-back strength. I try to run at least two miles a day." Then she smiles. "If the weather's nice, I lie out in the sun for a couple of hours and listen to music."

Despite her years of arduous training, Deena proved she was more than Daddy's Little Robot by earning a 3.67 grade point average in high school and election to the National Honor Society. She was also elected Homecoming Queen one year at Spencer High but had to decline because she was competing in China and couldn't get back in time. So her mother stood in for her. Now completing her sophomore year at Murray State University in Kentucky, Deena has a 3.1 average, with a major in business. "I'm interested in fashion merchandising," she says. "I did some modeling when I was in high school, but it really doesn't do much for me. I'm planning to shoot until 1992, and right now I'm arranging my goals. I'll join ROTC, like my dad and my brothers before me, then hope to get into the USAMU at Fort Benning. It's the best deal there is for a shooter."

So far she's well on her way to a shot at the '88 Games in Seoul. Last summer she won four national titles and the bronze medal at the World Championships. In 1985 she won a silver in the junior event at the World Air Gun Championships in Strasbourg, France. "It was an open event," she says, grinning, "so we got to shoot against the men. We beat the French guys, and they were the world champs."

The International Olympic Committee segregated the sexes in the shooting sports in '84, and Deena has mixed feelings about the change. "It gives us a better chance to win a medal, since there are more shooters now of both sexes," she says. "Still, there's no reason why women can't shoot as well as men."

Deena will need that kind of determination to carry on the Wigger name. Right now the prospect of the Seoul Games doesn't seem strong enough to lure her father out of retirement. "From now on I'll just carry her shooting gear from match to match," Lones says.

That's fine with Deena—but it could be better. "I'd still like us to be the first father-daughter combination in Olympic history," she says.

PHOTOJOSE AZEL/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESThe Wiggers wanted to be the first father-daughter Olympians, but they missed in '84. PHOTOBILL LUSTERDeena's leathers are a fashion statement with a purpose. PHOTOJOSE AZEL/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESMary Kay, with Lones, surveys the medals her family has accumulated over the years. PHOTOJOSE AZEL/CONTACT PRESS IMAGESIn competitive shooting, the 10-ring is the only thing.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)