“I screwed it all up,” I heard John Sanders mutter to his buddies after finishing the Practical Event at this year’s NRA Bianchi Cup Colt Championship Final. He was being rather hard on himself (typical for him), however—Sanders was actually on his way to winning the 2017 NRA Bianchi Cup Grand Senior Title. In fact, the eighty-year-old Sanders is a force to be reckoned with in NRA Action Pistol. This is the third time he has won the Grand Senior Championship at the Cup, and he did it this time with a score that shooters half his age would envy: a most impressive 1908-135X. Even more impressive—on May 27, 2016 Sanders had quadruple bypass heart surgery. His big victory this year was exactly one year later to the day.
At the conclusion of Match X Sanders was trailing, dropping four plates and was also 19 shots down in the mover. “I shot a miserable Match X this year. I was fortunate to come in second place by one point in my division before the Colt Championship Final,” he remarked. Although he was not present, Coach Martin Johnson performed as a psychologist of sorts for him this year. “I was in bad shape, feeling down, depressed and angry with myself after Match X. Martin sent me a few text messages that jump started me into shape before the Final on Saturday. He said ‘You’re a Marine. Act like one.’ That comment did it to me.”
A track and field competitor for 40 years and also a former wrestler, Sanders thinks his athletic background has helped him to become a top Action Pistol competitor. He certainly has the right attitude. “Anything that I’ve ever wanted to do that was important to me, my career, wrestling, shooting—I’ve never wanted to be a scrub. I’m going to do it right or I’m not going to do it at all,” mentioned Sanders. He added, “I was a runner because I wanted to compete, I shoot because I like to compete. I don’t have a mindset—I want to do the best I can.”
Fittingly, at the awards ceremony Sanders was recognized for his competitive spirit—continuing to participate in the sport he loves—and winning at the same time.
NRA Competitive Shooting Division Director Cole McCulloch said, “John Sanders is a testament to the broad appeal of the shooting sports. Where else but at Bianchi can someone his age go out and shoot a winning score that any competitor would be proud to call their own.”
Being able to run with the big dogs of Bianchi at age 80 brings a wide grin to the face of John Sanders. Perhaps even more so, the feeling of self-satisfaction. “I’m not sitting in a rocking chair and watching life go by me—I’m involved in things. I take a great deal of pride in that,” he commented.
Sanders is a retired banker and USMC veteran. A self-described country boy who was raised on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. he is proud to call himself a 412 boy (the old area code of southwestern Pennsylvania). Recreational shooting first entered the picture for him in 2000. Subsequently, a buddy, Andy Rayland, took him to his first NRA Action Pistol match. “My first action pistol score was in the 1200s. I kept working on it. I can’t explain how I began to post better scores —except for good equipment, and a lot of great people helping me along the way—Kevin Angstadt, Martin Johnson, Jon Stoehr (second place Senior at this year’s Bianchi Cup), and Andy Rayland.”
He caught the eye of long-time Action Pistol shooter Martin Johnson. He has been his coach ever since. “Martin ran an NRA Action Pistol match at the Fairfax Rod and Gun Club. I guess he recognized some talent. He took me under his wing and I’ve called him ‘Coach’ ever since.”
Sanders gives credit to the tight-knit NRA Action Pistol community’s tradition of assisting others to help him reach such lofty heights. “To me, the interesting thing about this sport is the community. I received a lot of help from the community, no one had to but they did because they wanted to.”
He’s passing it on, too. Mentoring others to excel in the sport is something Sanders is adamant about. “That’s just the way I am. You help other people. If you have stumbled upon something that helps you improve, you pass it on.”
Guns and gear
Although considered to be a difficult choice for a gun at the Bianchi Cup, Sanders is a revolver specialist who competes with his Smith & Wesson Model 586. He was using this revolver at the Cup this year. “My revolver is on its second barrel, I’ve shot a lot through it, and the first one burned out. I won my first championship with it. Sandy Garrett of Northern Virginia Gun Works did the work on it.”
The custom work on the 586 revolver includes: trigger pull lightened to 6.5-lbs., smoothed-out action, one-piece barrel with the compensator cut in, and a “hoof” for stability when going prone. It also has front padding suggested by his Coach. “The wrap around my revolver, I call it the MJ barricade wrap. We were practicing one day prior to the championship and I was having problems shooting the barricade event with the under lug that was on the revolver. Coach said take the under lug off and he wrapped a paper shop towel around the barrel and duct tape and it became much easier for me to shoot.”
For an optic, he uses an old Bushnell Holosight. “It takes N batteries, and it eats them up. But the reticle on the sight was designed by Coach in conjunction with Bushnell. It has a diamond with a dot in the center and a dot to the left and to the right of the center dot. The dots to the left and right of center provide the lead you need for the mover when running ammo around 1,000 fps.
This is what I’ve always used—we call it the MJ reticle.”
Even though he put himself through intense training prior to this year’s championship, Sanders plans to work on getting into better shape for 2018. “I want to get back into cardiovascular work, strength training, and work on my flexibility. I want to be in better shape next year. You have to train hard to compete if you want to win.”
NRA Action Pistol is a tough sport. It’s also expensive—with the average open gun costing $3,000-$4,000. Although successful, Sanders is not a sponsored shooter and pays for his competition expenses out of pocket. “I was on the road 11 days for this year’s championship. Those costs add up—hotel rooms, transportation, etc. It’s tough to go out there and be competitive without quality gear.”
Sanders doesn’t consider himself a great person, but strives to become one. “I told Martin Johnson that I want to be an exceptional person—it’s a goal of mine. I’m working with a guy right now that is close to my age, helping him with his shooting skills. For me, it doesn’t get better than that.”
His next goal: win a NRA Action Pistol regional medal. “I want to win a medal!”
Photos by Forrest MacCormack