Above: At the 1976 Olympics, Margaret Murdock tied her team captain Lanny Bassham in the 50 meter rifle event for the gold. Olympic rules prohibited a shoot-off, so the gold medal went to Bassham, while Murdock got the silver. In a display of good sportsmanship, Bassham pulled her up on the podium with him.
Most of us think we know what makes up good sportsmanship. Most of us think we are good sports—but let's talk about what really makes up superior sportsmanship in competitive shooting, and this could get a bit unruly and controversial.
Over many years I competed in several disciplines, so let me relate some of the things I encountered. Back in the 1970s when I was shooting as a Civilian Service Rifle competitor in National Match Course competition I would go to more talented shooters and ask them what they did to shoot so good. These guys were senior to me, they typically were retired Army officers and fought in WWII and Korea, and they were master level NRA competitors, where I, at the time, was a lowly sharpshooter.
They would ask me to show them what I was doing and offered recommendations and corrections—which I immediately took to heart. One senior shooter even had me get on the ground, strap into the sling then showed me what was wrong with my prone position. He carefully worked with me for some time to get it right. Surprisingly these lessons were during shooting competitions, they would take the time between relays or before or after the match to help me.
A couple of things: First I have no ego in competition, I have been a very good downhill ski racer, an average competitive drag racer and a decent shooter. I did reasonably well in these sports because I would not, and still will not, hesitate to ask for help or advice. The good sportsmanship exhibited by the many people in these sports, especially shooting, is in the time they took to help me. I accelerated my marksmanship very quickly and did well across the course thanks to them.
However, this is not about me, but since I don't follow other competitors around I will relate some personal stories to you, the reader. What have I done to help shooters? Absolutely anything I can. I will even offer unwanted assistance to a shooter if I see them struggling and most appreciate it. Trading information on guns and gear, wind and weather conditions and things of that nature, are a sign of good sportsmanship with shooters. You will see that in National Match Course competition. Why not? After all they know you still have to outshoot them.
About 18 months ago I shot a match in Arizona. After the match a couple of older gentlemen came up to me and asked if I could help them. I spent an hour discussing the various ins and outs of the sport and how to improve. It was a fun teaching experience for me, and they were more than appreciative.
Back in the 1980s I was at the High Power Rifle Silhouette Nationals. I overheard a guy who was in my classification, a competitor of mine, mention his gun broke down. Never met the guy before but I knew of his reputation and I had a great shooting rifle. I immediately offered mine to him so he could finish his last 20 shots on chickens and pigs. The guy beat me with my own gun but it was the right thing to do by my standards. Of course back then when one loans a gun to Lones Wigger, you better be ready for what was going to happen. Would I do it again all things being equal? You bet.
I watched the U.S. Open (golf to those of you like me who don't play) on television the other day. One of the guys in the running while putting moved his golf ball accidentally by maybe a fraction of a 64th of an inch. No one noticed—but he did. He called a penalty on himself and it cost him a stroke. He did this in a competition with thousands of dollars and fame on the line. But to him, and the other golfers at this level, this is how to behave. Can we shooters boast the same level of sportsmanship and fair play?
First of all, good sportsmanship obviously means not cheating or infringing on the rules of the sport you are involved in. It means competing in a manner as if a referee is standing right next to you while you shoot. It means being polite when someone asks for help, by helping them. It means not attempting or even thinking about a way to nudge past the rules. And last but not least, it means not playing real or mental games with our fellow shooters by using the rule book as a harmful weapon.
I know a prominent shooter who after 25 years admits that he reached a high level of competition because of my mentoring. But the day he said to me, “If you aren't cheating you aren't trying” was the day I cut ties. Fudging or going past the rules is not good sportsmanship. If we cannot compete or win without demonstrating good sportsmanship why are we in the game? Go buy a trophy at your local trophy store, it is much cheaper than all the time and money to win one.
A while back I was at a national championship and asked one of the best women in the game about some strange wind conditions I noted on the course. She quickly told me that in her experience there was a weird vortex of wind at the end of the pig berm that was affecting bullet strike on the first couple of turkey bays to the left. No hesitation on her part—it helped me too. This was her very educated observation a range secret she could have kept to herself.
I wish I could see the kind of sportsmanship on the gun range that I see after one of those MMA “cage fights.” Two guys go into an octagon chain link cage, beat each other bloody and use martial arts to put limbs or breathing into incredible pain, and yet when the match is over they hug each other like long lost brothers. Sometimes they even touch hands during the actual fight to show it is not personal and just a contest.
This exhibits mind numbing incredible sportsmanship to my way of rationale. The thinking behind their behavior is simple. They are there to do a job, to do their best in a contest—not hurt the other guy (although that's part of the process, of course) or resent him for his abilities. It is not personal, just a fight that needs to be won.
Canadian and U.K. shooters get it! The winner of civilian and military matches (and other matches) up north and in the U.K. many times will actually hoist and carry the winner seated in a chair (called chairing) on their shoulders, a tradition since the late 1800s. Who does the carrying? The shooters he/she beat—and they all seem to enjoy the whole process. How often here in the U.S., whether it's a local, state, regional or national championship, do we fellow competitors simply go up shake the winner's hand and congratulate him/her for shooting so well?
I feel that there is a lot we firearm competitors could learn from folks like these. Good sportsmanship is not just a couple of words, it is a belief in the right thing to do.
About the Author Jim Shults an NRA Benefactor and strong Second Amendment activist competed in several shooting disciplines from 1978-1989, setting various state and some national records and became a Distinguished Rifleman in three straight weeks. He moved to an area where there is little or no competition in his disciplines and as a result has not competed much over the last 25 years.