Helping Take Youth Air Gun Shooting to the Next Level

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posted on December 13, 2016
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Editor’s Note: The Arlington-Fairfax Chapter of the Izaak Walton League (IWLA) has received NRA Foundation grants, and have applied for more. NRA Publications recently made a sizeable donation to IWLA for help with the installation of electronic targets on the Sills Air Range. Pictured above receiving the $5,433 check from NRA President Allan Cors (center) are IWLA Chapter President Ernie Padgette (left), and Air Range Manager Roger Thrasher, father of 2016 U.S. Olympic gold medal winner Ginny Thrasher (who grew up shooting at IWLA).

Growth and sustainment of the shooting sports is highly dependent on introducing shooting to young people. Recognizing this fact, in 1994 the Arlington-Fairfax Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America established a public youth shooting outreach program. This evolved into a focus on air rifle shooting by converting an existing tractor shed into a 7-lane air rifle facility using paper targets. From 1994 to 2015, this modest range has served an ever-increasing number of youth athletes of all ages and backgrounds. The range has served thousands of youth shooters on club and high school teams over the years.

Reaping the rewards
With this growth came individual and team awards, along with a dramatic increase in local shooters qualifying for the USA Shooting Junior Olympics, with dozens of local athletes also getting college scholarships to shoot on NCAA rifle teams (including the Air Force Academy, Alaska-Fairbanks, Kentucky, Mississippi, MIT, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Ohio State, West Point and West Virginia). With the foundation set in this range, several alumni of “the little red shed” have risen to the pinnacle of the shooting sports, with four making the USA Shooting National Team, two winning individual NCAA Championships, three winning U.S. National Championships, one Pan Am Games bronze medalist, two 2016 Olympians, and one 2016 Olympic gold medalist.

Increasing capacity
With increasing popularity of air rifle shooting, it became clear that seven lanes was not enough to handle the high demand for range time. It was not uncommon to have all seven lanes full with several other youths waiting their turn to shoot. Subsequently, in 2015 after a grassroots fundraising effort, the range was upgraded—expanding to 25 lanes, resulting in a modern facility with the to host large matches. With this increased ability to practice, scores have risen across the board and more new shooters continue to be introduced and educated on the shooting sports. This has yielded a steady increase in the number of athletes participating in matches and the local high school league.

Moving to the world class level
With the Sills Air Range now enjoying increased physical capacity, what did not change is the use of paper targets. While traditional paper targets are common at the high school level, all collegiate, national, and international air rifle matches have transitioned to modern electronic targets. Electronic target experience is critical to success at the Junior Olympics, in the NCAA, and at international Olympic-style shooting competitions. This is especially true with the new finals format, which requires electronic targets (see an example of the format at https://youtu.be/sTuLGM5hJ7I).

Installing electronic targets is the next step in the evolution of the Sills Air Range—with the aim to become one of the nation’s premier youth shooting facilities in order to prepare and train future generations of student-athletes. Since electronic targets are not inexpensive, we are raising money through fundraisers, raffles, match proceeds, swap meets, and direct donations of cash or materials.

If you are interested in supporting youth shooting sports and installation of electronic targets at the Sills Air Range, contact Josie McCarty at [email protected].

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