There’s a good reason that U.S. Border Patrol Agents are well-known in law enforcement circles for their excellent marksmanship skills. These agents have been competitive shooters since the beginning of the Border Patrol (BP) in the 1920s. The Border Patrol National Pistol team stands out as one of the most-decorated organizations to ever field their shooters at NRA competitions.
“Customs and Border Patrol agents standard training isn’t about sitting back and waiting,” Nick Malone, Assistant Chief of the Use of Force Branch, Mission Readiness Operations Directorate at U.S. Border Patrol headquarters tells me. “Competitive shooting allows our agents to practice a valuable skill set.”
The culture of the Border Patrol has always fostered an atmosphere of competition. In 1924, not long after the unit was formed, agents began using competition as a way to maintain marksmanship proficiency. In those days—as today—law enforcement of all forms faced tough odds against increasingly savvy and well-armed criminals. While it wasn’t quite the Wild West, the history of the U.S. in the early 20th century is rampant with lurid tales of bank robbers, bootleggers, border skirmishes and legendary gunfights.
The Border Patrol recognized that competitive shooting was a valuable tool to keep agents’ shooting skills sharp. Contrasted with the police and other law enforcement, who usually work in pairs or in teams, USBP agents generally work alone, adding emphasis on maintaining precision-shooting skills.
As a result, the Border Patrol has produced many top pistol shooters. They’ve gone on to win so many local, regional and national championships—it’s difficult for the team to keep count of them all.
At Camp Perry in 1937, Agent Charles Askins won the National Pistol Championship. He was widely considered the Border Patrol’s “top shot.” Later on, Askins would help create the Border Patrol’s first training program and agent qualification standards. While this sounds like an obvious need now, at the time it was revolutionary for law enforcement agencies to have standards and qualifications.
More shooters followed in Askins footsteps. USBP Pistol Team shooters like Elmer Hilden, Joe White, Bill Toney and more would win championships in the 1950s and 1960s. The Team received more support than ever, and they were widely considered, along with the military marksmanship teams, the “top shots” of the era.
Another champion shooter from the era is Harlon Carter, who not only was the USBP Chief in 1950, but also served as the NRA executive vice president from 1977 to 1985. Carter’s badge and pistol are on display at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, VA.
Today the USBP National Pistol team’s winning legacy endures, with top shooters like Rob Vadasz, who’s won 10 NRA National Police Shooting Championships and six Bianchi Cup Metallic Championships over the last two decades. Vadasz is just the latest in this long tradition of competitive shooting excellence.
In the late 1930s, the FBI and the NRA introduced the Practical Pistol Course, which nowadays is more commonly referred to as Police Pistol Combat (PPC). It was recognized that an element of stress was needed for law enforcement competition, so the course was timed. Additionally, the targets were changed from the traditional Bullseye target to humanoid silhouette ones, again reflecting the different needs for law enforcement.
With both the FBI and the NRA enthusiastically supporting PPC, it quickly became the national standard for police firearms qualifications with its faster pace, use of barricades and different shooting positions. In 1962, the NRA conducted the first National Police Shooting Championship. The Border Patrol noticed, and in 1966 the Pistol Team transitioned from Bullseye to the law enforcement-specific sport of PPC.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for the Border Patrol Pistol team to dominate both PPC and the national championship. Since 1966, 10 different USBP Agents have won the NPSC individual championship. Now, the Pistol Team is a highly-decorated team, with hundreds of titles at the regional and national level. And, the Border Patrol HQ has fully supported the team to compete internationally. The team has traveled to Australia, Canada, Germany and Spain for PPC matches.
Bianchi Cup and Action Pistol
In 2004, the team branched out into action pistol. Unlike PPC competition, the sport of action pistol is open to civilians and is dominated by professional shooters. The NRA Bianchi Cup is the premier pistol shooting match worldwide, with the awards and sponsorship dollars to match.
The team quickly made their presence known at the Bianchi Cup, with great success. Since that first year, team members have won six Bianchi Metallic Championships, two Production Championships and a myriad of individual awards.
Becoming the Best
Art Velez is the National Pistol Team Captain and is well-versed in the demanding requirements of PPC competition.
“Becoming a title-holder begins at a local contest usually sponsored by a sheriff’s office, police department, state police or other law enforcement agency,” explains Velez. “A Border Patrol sector typically fields a team where agents score individually and as a group.”
Border Patrol Agents who score the most points move on to larger events such as NRA PPC regionals, where they compete against the best shooters encompassing a larger geographical area. At this point, shooters may also qualify to join the USBP National Pistol Team.
The selection process is based on performance and the ability to properly represent the BP. Every year, BP headquarters sifts through the top PPC scores of interested agents. Only 10 agents with the highest average scores are selected each year. This score-based selection process is one of the key elements of the team’s success. Constant individual marksmanship improvement is stressed and as a result, the team as a whole improves.
In 2016, the team initiated a special program to help give agents not naturally drawn to competitive shooting the opportunity to improve their marksmanship abilities via competition. The program is a valuable conduit for recruiting new national pistol team talent each year.
That same year, the BP fielded the first all-female, four-officer team at NRA’s Police Nationals (National Police Shooting Championship or NPSC). All of them displayed tremendous improvement in their marksmanship skills after joining the program.
At NRA National Championships, all the hard work that goes into marksmanship is on full display. The dedication the team has for practice is incredible.
“I’ve fired well over 100,000 rounds training for competition,” says Rob Vadasz.
Top shooters also visualize the factors that affect a bullet’s path.
“Shooters see wind, humidity, elevation … Some days I can even see the bullet traveling downrange,” adds Vadasz.
Being in the proper mindset is essential to success. A winning attitude along with a little humility goes a long way. Vadasz, who won a record ninth consecutive NRA National Police Shooting Championship in 2018 is a prime example.
“I’ve lost a lot more than I ever won,” he concludes. “But being part of this team with such a grand history is something that I’m extremely proud of.”
Interested in becoming part of the USBP National Pistol Team? Please visit www.cbp.gov/careers.
NRA Board Member Bart Skelton had a close look at Border Patrol competition growing up with his father, Charles A. “Skeeter” Skelton.
My dad left the U.S. Marines shortly after WWII and a short time later became an Amarillo, TX, police officer. He was later accepted into the U.S. Border Patrol, and after the academy was stationed in Amado, AZ, assigned to a small horse patrol unit. The chief at that time was Harlon Carter, who would later become the president of the NRA.
While the job provided enough excitement, daily life in Amado was dreary. Entertainment was slim. When he wasn’t studying Spanish, my dad spent his time burning government ammunition, practicing his Bullseye technique. Regular matches were held in Tucson, and he hardly missed one. He was good, and brought home a passel of medals.
He was quite proud of his shooting accomplishments while in the Border Patrol, and displayed his medals and certificates proudly. I still have the framed medals for marksmanship, which total 33. He was good, but never competed much after he left the BP. Southern Arizona proved to be too much for my Texas-raised mother. Skeeter later went on to become the Sheriff of Deaf Smith County, TX, and later he was a federal investigator.
Skeeter didn’t brag about his pistol shooting, though it was exceptional. One thing I remember him telling me about mastering Bullseye was to practice consistently. He always practiced one-hand shooting, though he didn’t compete. One of his practice techniques was dry-firing with a pair of leather moccasins tied together and hung over the barrel of his pistol. He said this helped with strength and steadiness.
Skeeter later became great friends with Col. Charles Askins. I was fortunate enough to have spent a good deal of time with the Colonel, and was quite fond of him. Unfortunately, I don’t recall much conversation regarding Bullseye. He had a love for big-bore handguns and shotguns. He told me once he’d rather shoot quail in Texas than any sort of African game.