Above: The 2017 U.S. Roberts Team (from l. to r.); back row Eric Uptagrafft, Kevin Nevius, Mike Seery, Shawn Wells, Kerry Spurgin, Mark Del Cotto; middle row Hap Rocketto, Patti Clark, vacant chair for Lones Wigger, Shawn Carpenter, Tori Croft; front row Morgen Dietrich, Hank Gray, Mike O’Connor, Billy Azzinaro, Matt Chezem and Howard Pitts.
Since 1931, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Smallbore Rifle Association of Great Britain (NSRA) have competed in a series of shoulder-to-shoulder smallbore prone matches. Sparked by a challenge from the United States for a trophy donated by General of The Armies John Pershing Trophy, the two nations competed sporadically for the trophy until 1969.
That same year, noted British rifleman Col. Thomas Sutton, a veteran of the first Pershing Trophy match in 1931, donated the Field Marshall Earl Roberts Trophy. The two nations would now compete for trophies honoring major military figures at eight-year intervals, staggered as to have a match every four years. When contested in the U.S., the prize is the Pershing Trophy and the Roberts Trophy is awarded to the victor in England.
The 2017 U.S. Roberts Team was selected at the 2016 National Smallbore Rifle Conventional Prone Championship based on an aggregate score of the Metallic Sight Championship and the Dewar International Postal Match. The 12 top scores were compiled by Billy Azzinaro, Matt Chezem, Mark Del Cotto, Morgen Dietrich, Hank Gray, Kevin Nevius, Mike O’Connor, Howard Pitts, Mike Seery, Kerry Spurgin, Eric Uptagrafft, and Shawn Wells.
The team officials―Captain Patti Clark, Coach Lones Wigger, and Adjutant Hap Rocketto were appointed by the NRA President on the advice of the NRA Smallbore Committee. National Smallbore Championships Match Director Tori Croft was appointed as the NRA Liaison.
Del Cotto, Gray, Nevius, Rocketto, and Wigger were Roberts Team veterans looking for redemption after losing the trophy in 2009.
The U.S. Team, and its accompanying party―the Randle Goodwill Team, Independent Riflemen, and dependents arrived in England after an overnight flight. They were greeted by Mr. Robert Loughridge, vice chairman of the NSRA, who assisted in clearing customs. After checking in to accommodations the team drove to Bisley where followed a complete orientation to the range and match procedures by Mr. Ken Nash, vice chairman of the NSRA and chairman of its rifle committee, and Mr. Loughridge. This was followed by a “meet and greet” at the Lord Roberts Centre.
The Bisley Meeting’s weekend aggregate began the next day but the U.S. Team opted to use that day to acclimatize and fire the match, 60 shots at 50 meters and 60 shots at 100 yards, on the second day. Eric Uptagrafft swept the X-count of the weekend aggregate.
The squadded aggregate began with U.S. shooters winning, or placing in the top three, way out of proportion to their numbers.
The U.S. Team and party attended a formal banquet at the Army Target Shooting Club by the Perrymen Club on the first day. The Perrymen, formed in 1965, are a group of United Kingdom shooters who have competed at Camp Perry. The Perrymen presented members of the U.S. Roberts Team with especially commissioned Roberts-themed prints of Bisley as mementos of the occasion.
A dark cloud loomed when we learned that Lones Wigger would be unable to join the team upon his doctors’ advice. Shawn Carpenter was named to replace Wigger as coach.
During the squadded aggregate, Mr. Geoff Doe, retired NSRA shooting manager, generously guided a historical walking tour of Bisley and later arranged to have the NRA of Great Britain’s museum open to the party.
On the final day of the four-day squadded aggregate, the Goodwill Randle Team witnessed the British Randle Team fire its 2017 match. It was close, with the U.S. emerging victorious by a single X.
With the conclusion of the squadded aggregate, the Roberts Team was selected based on aggregate scores. Clark would coach Uptagrafft and Gray, O’Connor was assigned Del Cotto and Dietrich, Carpenter was paired with Nevius and Seery, Wells would scope Azzinaro and Chezem, and the last pair had Rocketto coaching with Pitts and Spurgin shooting.
Randle Goodwill Match
Mid-morning on Friday the Randle Goodwill Match was fired. Great Britain fielded two squads, “A” and “B”. Squad “B” was participating for experience only. Because of the shortage of ladies, men were permitted to coach this usually all-female event. Captain Edie Fleeman and Coach Martha Kelley supervised the following shooter/coach pairs: Ginger McLemore/Nevius, Michelle Bohren/Joe Graf, Elizabeth Harty/O’Connor, Lily Davenport/Uptagrafft, Chris Rakyta/Spurgin, and Ruby Gomes/Gray.
The U.S. Goodwill Randle Team won 2304 to 2289.
The two Goodwill Randle Teams gathered after the match for fellowship and a gift exchange. The Roberts Team met in the early afternoon to attend to last minute details. Carpenter called heads in the coin toss for range selection and won, a good omen, selecting the downwind right side of the range. As all the U.S. Roberts Team officials were involved with coaching, Martha Kelley and Tori Croft represented the team in the scoring room.
Pat O’Brien, in the 1940 film Knute Rockne All American, spurred on his football team recalling that Notre Dame football great George Gipp, while lying on his deathbed, had said to him, “Rock, sometime when the team is up against it tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper.” Without being maudlin Rocketto channeled his best Pat O’Brien for his pep talk and simply reminded the team that they had been working toward the goal of winning this match for a year and to go out and win one for the Wigger.
Stormy Weather Brings Wind and Hail
Conditions had changed from the relatively benign conditions of the early part of the week. Strong gusty winds from 10 to 12 o’clock, temperature in the low 60s, and overcast skies made it challenging for both shooter and coach as the “hooter” signaled the start of the match.
After the 50 meter stage, the scoreboard showed the U.S. with a score of 1924 against Britain’s 1916. One U.S. shooter crossfired, costing the team two points. An eight-point lead is a good position to be in going into 100 yards, but the British reputation for excellent performance at this particular distance is formidable and left little room for error.
The sky darkened and a light rain began to fall as the 100-yard stage got underway with the wind driven rain from the left and cloud cover making it very difficult to spot shots. Midway through the stage, bolts of lightning began to light the targets and thunder was audible through earplugs. Longtime Bisley veterans unanimously agreed that the conditions for the 2017 Roberts―reminiscent of the Seven Plagues of Egypt―were some of the worst ever faced. There was no cessation of fire as there is no place to shelter on the open plain which is Bisley’s Century Range. Right when everyone believed conditions couldn’t get any worse, a hail storm arrived, and with hail stones bouncing off the asphalt firing line into the front sight tubes and spotting scopes, the team had their hands full.
A U.S. shooter forgot to adjust his sights up for 100 yards and fired his first shot below the sighting bull safety line. British rules do not allow for a free misplaced first sighting shot and it was recorded as a record shot. Luckily, the spacing of bullseyes on British targets is much closer than on U.S. targets and the errant shot was a four and not a miss.
U.S. Roberts Team Triumphant
The British made up some ground at long range, but the U.S. fired a 1914 to the host’s 1911 to seal the victory 3838 to 3827.
The U.S. record in the Pershing/Roberts series now stands at 5-2 in the Roberts, 10-2 in Pershing, and 15-4 overall.
The NSRA hosted a banquet in honor of the Roberts Match on Friday evening, which was a ceremony that celebrated the good fellowship between both countries.
The final of the British National Championship is open only to United Kingdom citizens, so the team wisely used Saturday morning to unwind and pack before attending the prize giving in the afternoon. Captain Patti Clark and the U.S. Team were honored by being asked to present the awards.
The British favor silver awards and there was over 60 linear feet of trophy, salver, plate, and cup on display. British citizens, unlike winners in the United States, are allowed take the trophies home as long as they are insured and agree to keep them well polished.
After the prize giving, the U.S. Team hosted a banquet in the Lord Roberts Centre. It was well presented and was enjoyed by all. The U.S. presented the NSRA with some fine art: an Eagle statue in honor of the match. Additionally, each member of the British Roberts Team was presented by their U.S. Roberts counterpart with an engraved pewter tankard, a team tie, and other mementos in remembrance of the event.
The smoothness of the week and resulting victory was simply the calm before the storm. The team encountered an unexpected delay with both the airline and customs officials which caused the plane to be held back 10 minutes so the last team member could board. Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations did not end when the plane door closed at Heathrow. Airport authorities did not call ahead to Dulles and, as a result, the team experienced another long delay while the proper authorities were rounded up to check the firearms through U.S. customs. The six-hour flight was sandwiched between several hours in customs―but eventually everyone made it safely home.
In retrospect, the delays going through customs were only a small irritant in what was a successful quest to recapture the Roberts Trophy. The U.S. can enjoy the glow of victory but must start preparing for the 2021 Pershing when the British will be looking to even the score.