Jonah Avenell, 16, stands 10 yards from his targets, two cardboard cutouts. Only the side of the target is visible. His hands are raised above his shoulders in a surrender position, as mandated by the rules in action pistol shooting.
A shell casing flies from the chamber as Jonah practices shooting for the upcoming NRA Bianchi Cup.
The cardboard target spins 90 degrees so it faces Avenell. He draws his custom 1911 pistol and aims it at the target. It is sunny and unseasonably warm for mid-January, and the sun shines brightly on the gun’s chrome barrel. He pulls the trigger.
After three seconds, the targets spin back to the starting position. Avenell places his empty gun back in the holster. This is only a dry-fire exercise, without bullets, to help him practice his draw. He repeats it once, twice, three times, perfecting the movement.
Over walks his father, James Avenell, who speaks in a slight Australian accent. Time for live fire.
The pair loads magazines, filled with homemade .38 Super bullets, into their guns. James sets a timer on his hip that will turn the targets.
“Shooter ready,” James says.
Both put their hands up in the surrender position.
“Standby,” James says, and the two wait.
For a brief moment at the Green Valley Range in Hallsville, MO, all is silent.
The target spins. James and Jonah draw their guns. It is a mechanical movement by now, nearly robotic, reduced to muscle memory. The gun goes from the hip to the sternum then out toward the target.
In this discipline, shooters have three seconds to hit two targets. Jonah aims at the target on the left first. Bang. Then the right. Bang. The targets return to the start position and the pair holster their guns.
James turns to Jonah.
The father-son duo go again then repeat the process from 25 yards away. They hop around the range to practice the other disciplines of an action pistol competition: around barricades, at metal plates and at moving targets.
The well-drilled, borderline-obsessive routine is more than a hobby for the Avenells. Action pistol shooting has paid tangible benefits for them, as evidenced by the family trophy cabinet.
James won the action pistol regional championship last August in Cheyenne, WY, and is a contender to win this year’s Bianchi Cup, the world’s most prestigious action pistol shooting competition, held at Green Valley every spring. In Wyoming, he tied a national record in the barricade discipline, hitting the X-ring—a bullseye 4 inches in diameter—on all 48 shots.
He expects Jonah to pass him up in ability soon. Jonah, too, is a national record holder, which he earned in the Texas mover event in Wyoming. He was the top junior at the regional championship, took first in two other events and earned an honorary medal from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit for his work. He has been shooting competitively for less than a year.
James Avenell, left, and his son Jonah practice their prone shooting.
“He’ll surpass me very quickly,” James said. “He’s a natural talent.”
James, 45, admits his accent has changed over the years, but there’s no denying its origin. Originally from Brisbane, Australia, he spent part of his childhood on the neighboring island of New Guinea. He left the region the day he graduated high school, eventually landing in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where he met his wife and where Jonah was born.
Until the family moved to Columbia, MO, shooting was never part of the equation. It wasn’t even on the radar screen—guns had never been prominent in James’ life. Police officers didn’t even carry guns in Australia when he was growing up.
That changed on Christmas eight years ago. Taking a page out of the playbook of A Christmas Story, James hid a box in the corner to be opened last. Inside was a Red Ryder BB Gun, which was quickly taken to the shed for target practice. Eye and ear protection, of course, was required.
Shooting tin cans and toy soldiers made for a good start, but eventually Jonah got an appetite for more power.
“He got it started, both of us,” James says. “He said he wanted to shoot something bigger than the BB gun. So I said, ‘OK, we’ll start with a .22 pistol.”
On James’ first trip to Green Valley, he was approached by Grant Jeavons, a native New Zealander and regular competitor in the Bianchi Cup. Jeavons moved to Columbia in 1997 in part because of its proximity to Green Valley and the Bianchi Cup.
“The first time he came to the range, it wasn’t a particularly nice day. He came sort of ill-prepared for what we were doing,” Jeavons said. “I said to him at the time, ‘Don’t worry about not getting all of your shots away.’ He looked at me like I was some kind of a nut job … The first course of fire he shot was on the barricades, and the targets turned, and they turned away, and he didn’t get all of his shots off.”
Jeavons became an outlet, guiding the Avenells in the world of action pistol shooting. Jeavons instructed them on the proper equipment and techniques, often introducing them for James and Jonah to experiment with later.
“He started asking questions, and I thought, ‘Well, he wants to learn the stuff and he wants move forward with it, so we’ll do whatever we can to help him,’ ” Jeavons said.
James can remember the moment when his curiosity about shooting evolved into a drive to get serious with the sport. It was 2013, just after James’ first appearance in the Bianchi Cup, in which he finished 22nd. He and Jonah were at Green Valley shooting plates when a woman began practicing next to them and started mowing them down with ruthless accuracy and timing.
James Avenell, right, helps his son Jonah with his arm positioning during video shooting practice at their Columbia home. Jonah practices drawing and aiming at targets on a video projection screen to increase speed and build muscle memory.
Jonah challenged his dad to match her. James failed. (The woman was Jessie Duff, a nine-time world champion.)
“That’s when we stood there and looked at each other and said, ‘OK, I promise we’ll be in the Bianchi Cup next year,’ ” James said.
With newfound vigor, they began training incessantly at home and at Green Valley, where the pair are members. With practice, the chances of a match-losing error decreases.
“It’s proved to be very productive. He is exceptionally good,” Jeavons said of James. “He, in turn, is rolling that over into Jonah, who is becoming very focused on the game. I think he’s going to do very well.”
Jonah is interested in pursuing radiology, perhaps because of his family’s ties to medicine. His mother is an anesthesiologist. James, a nuclear physicist, creates radioactive isotopes to fight cancer cells.
Shooting is, quite literally, in James’ job description. At the range, James shoots bullets. At the University of Missouri Research Reactor, he shoots atoms, breaking off subatomic particles to make them radioactive.
This scientific background gives James and Jonah an edge over their shooting competitors. Every variable, from the construction of the gun to the speed of the bullets, is carefully measured, calculated and analyzed. James used his background to build guns of optimal size and weight. The result, nearly three years in the making, is a customized gun worth nearly $5,000.
In the garage of their home, they make their own bullets: 1.21 inches in length with a hollow point. Each bullet, up to 30,000 per year, is made by hand. Jonah loads and cranks the machine, while James measures and inspects every specimen. He eschews machines that complete the process automatically.
Jonah, right, and his dad James load their own .38 Super cartridges for the shooting competition and have fine-tuned a formula that produces consistent results.
“I want to touch each bullet,” James says.
Above the gunpowder and shell casings on the workbench is a poster of the Three Stooges. It is a reminder to keep everything in perspective: that this process, as serious as it can be, is a pastime.
Down the hall in the family room, the pair practice dry firing. Jonah stands in front of a projector, which James rigs to play a video of the targets spinning at Green Valley. Here they practice drawing the gun, building muscle memory.
Shooter ready. Standby.
Just like at the range, the targets spin. Jonah draws and aims at the targets on the screen. His metallic gun stands out against the dark, wooden furniture in the room.
After a while, it becomes clear: The two are nearly inseparable. The sport draws them together not just as father and son or coach and pupil, but as teammates, comrades, friends. They practice together at the range. They lift weights and run the projector together at home. They make bullets and craft guns together. They do martial arts together. When they aren’t shooting, they go fishing together.
They take road trips together. The pair drove to the competition in Wyoming, an 11-hour journey from Columbia through the desolate Nebraska plains. They talked music, something else they have in common—under his father’s tutelage, Jonah has played guitar since he was 10.
“Yeah, I’m surprised he’s not sick of me,” James says.
Anything but, in fact. Jonah said this year, when the shooting season starts up again, one of the things he is looking forward to most is spending time with his dad.
Jonah's 1911 Caspian semi-automatic pistol has the chamber modified to shoot .38 caliber cartridges. The gun’s slide has been machined to remove weight from the slide and the trigger pull has been modified to allow for only two pounds of trigger pull. A compensator at the tip of the barrel controls recoil for faster target acquisition during multiple shots. A red dot from Aimpoint completes the package.
A relationship that close can become problematic during training. Not with the Avenells.
“There’s some relationships where sons want to ignore and say, ‘Ah, I can’t hear this from you right now. I have to hear it from a third party,’ ” James says. Jonah’s “actually not like that. He’s very attentive. He understands it’s not personal, this is the way to the top of the mountain.”
James says Jonah’s presence during competitions is such a comfort he actually shoots better when Jonah is there than when he isn’t. Jonah says other competitors are impressed by his string of success, but some aren’t necessarily surprised. Perhaps he is being modest.
“Some people expected it, because this guy’s top-notch,” he says, giving his dad a pat on the back.
“It’s been that apple-from-the-tree routine when people talk to me,” James says. “Then when they talk to Jonah, it’s like, You’ll be giving the old man a run for his money soon."
“That’s all I can hope for, is he will surpass me, because if he does that, he’ll be world champion.”
Thanks to Daniel Jones and the Columbia Daily Tribune for allowing the reprint of this article. All photos by Don Shrubshell.