From the vault: This article covers the 125th Canadian Fullbore Championship, specifically Tom Whitaker, the recipient of the Governor General’s Prize that year. As published in the January 2008 issue of Shooting Sports USA.
From Tin Cans To Champion
By Vanessa Warner
On August 25, 2007, over 500 shooters from 19 countries cheered as Tom Whitaker, representing both the U.S. Veteran and U.S. Palma Teams, was hoisted into the air in a ceremonial chair built on rails and carried off the range by 14 male members of the U.S. Young Eagles Rifle Team after winning the coveted Governor General’s Prize in the 125th Canadian Fullbore Rifle Championships.
Few people can tell you exactly when and why they started shooting competitively, however, Tom Whitaker can do just that. After plinking at tin cans from an early age, Whitaker signed up for both an eight-week hunter safety class and a basic rifle class at the local gun club the age of 12 in order to achieve his Marksmanship Merit Badge in the Boy Scouts. The day he qualified for the merit badge he quit scouting but continued to shoot.
Whitaker’s shooting career has spanned 48 years and has included accomplishments such as becoming the 1968 CISM World Military Shooting Rifle Champion and a member of the 1979 Pan American Games gold medal-winning U.S. 3-position rifle team. Over the years he has won numerous U.S. national titles in smallbore, international-style rifle and high power shooting.
He joined the Air Force in 1966 and after serving three years, nine months and 27 days on the Air Force international rifle team he was discharged and returned to school. In 1975, Whitaker became the first person in the history of U.S. smallbore prone to shoot a perfect score of 6400-6400X. In order to accomplish this, one has to be completely clean for four consecutive days of shooting. Today he is still one of only two people in the world to ever accomplish such a feat.
Whitaker shot for the U.S. Army Reserve international rifle and service rifle teams while attending the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. After earning his Doctor of Dental Surgery Degree in 1982, he decided to switch to bolt rifle for which he is so well known today and by 1985 he had qualified for the U.S. Palma Team. However, due to the start up of his dental practice he had to decline the trip to England.
Palma is a style of long range shooting conducted with .308 Win. rifles with iron sights at distances of 700, 800 and 900 meters. The Palma Trophy Team Match, held once every four years and hosted by participating countries, is shot in three stages of slow fire in the prone position. Each stage-of-fire consists of two sighting shots with 15 rounds for record at the distances of 800, 900 and 1,000 yards. The national team consists of 16 shooters who form four person teams with a coach and shoot on four targets at each stage.
The target is six feet square and has an aiming black circle of 44 inches, which includes the 9- and 8-rings. The bullseye—10- and X-rings—is only 20 inches wide. There is a possible score of 150 points that can be achieved by each team member in the various stages. This adds up to 7,200 possible points for each national team per day of competition.
At the conclusion of Whitaker’s brief hiatus from shooting to build his dental practice, he returned to shooting in 1992 and qualified for both the 1995 and 1999 U.S. Palma Teams. He was head coach of the 2003 U.S. Palma Team, which won the silver medal at Bisley, England. To this day, the experiences on the 1995 team are some of his fondest memories. “The team came together in a way everyone hopes it will, but seldom does,” he said. “It was nothing that anyone person did, it just happened.”
In April of 1999, prior to the World Championships, Whitaker became the first and only American to with the title of South African National Champion. The following August, he traveled to Ottawa, Canada, to compete in the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association’s Fullbore Championships finishing second in the prestigious Governor General’s Match. The “Gov’s,” as it is referred to, is held as the final match of the DCRA Fullbore Championships. Only the top 50 shooters qualify to compete and the winner is seated in a chair, referred to as “chairing” or “being chaired,” that was built on rails and carried off the range by their countrymen behind a brass band escort. In 2001, Dan Simpson of Deerfield, NH, became the first American in the 119-year history of the DCRA matches to ever win the Governor General’s final; while Whitaker became the first American to with the MacDonald-Stewart Grand Aggregate—making it an All-American sweep of the championships.
The 2007 Palma Team Trophy Match was hosted by Canada and as a result of the World Championships being held immediately after the conclusion of the DCRA event there were more than 500 competitors and spectators in attendance. The U.S. was represented on the firing line by the U.S. Palma Team, U.S. Veterans Team and the U.S.A. Young Eagles Rifle Team, comprised of 24 young men and women under the age of 25.
Whitaker was clean going into the final but still found himself in 14th place. Having come so close to winning in 1999 he knew what was at stake; he buckled down, kept his eye on the wind and won the coveted Governor General’s Prize.
When it came time to chair the new champion, Whitaker requested that the young men of the U.S. Young Eagles Rifle Team, who represent the future of shooting in our country, do the honors. The pride that was felt by all can be summed up by Whitaker’s teammate Johnie Franklin, “I am always proud to be an American, but seeing those clean cut guys dressed in their button-down shirts, khaki pants, team neckties and immaculate haircuts chairing Tom Whitaker around was one of the proudest moments that I can remember.”
This was not Whitaker’s only success. Earlier in the week he won the Veteran’s Individual World Championship, which was shot concurrently with the MacDonald-Stewart Aggregate, again becoming the second American to claim the title previously held by friend and teammate Franklin of Tulsa, OK.
Although he sold his private practice in 1999, Whitaker is still practicing dentistry full-time today in Yorba Linda, CA, where he resides with his wife Kathy. “Shooting has been a large part of my life,” he explained. “I am very fortunate to have done as well as I have. I have traveled to countries and places that I may never have had the opportunity to visit and I am very grateful for the experience.” At the age of 60 he has no intention of slowing down.
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