Seniors And Steel

Over the years, the Steel Challenge shooting discipline has become more popular with seniors. Here we explore this phenomenon.

by
posted on February 14, 2024
Seniors&Steel 4
Steel Challenge got Helen Kosko over her fear of guns and now she loves the weekly matches with her partner John Reilly.
Chris Christian

Steel Challenge has shown significant growth in recent years, and there are a number of reasons why. However, recent figures released by the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) might shed some light on just who may be driving some—or much—of that growth.

According to USPSA, the most popular Steel Challenge club worldwide last year in terms of the number of matches and classifiers held is Volusia County Gun and Hunt Club (63 matches), located on Florida’s State Road 44 near New Smyrna Beach, just west of major East Coast artery I-95. Ranked number two is Flagler Gun and Archery Club (47 matches) located near Bunnell, Fla., also west of I-95. The number three club in terms of classifiers held and number five for matches (39) is First Coast Steel Shooters. But they hold their matches at Volusia.

Steel Challenge match
The relaxed atmosphere of Steel Challenge makes it as much a social event as a shooting match for many seniors.

 

What may be surprising is that Volusia and Flagler are located less than a 50-mile drive apart. Yet they combined for 149 matches a year, more than 12 a month. There aren’t that many weekend days in a month, so obviously there are weekday matches. I’m sure some gun club managers are wondering how that pace could be maintained for two clubs located so close. A quick look at demographics might explain it.

Located between the two clubs, as well as the surrounding area, is one of Florida’s larger retirement areas including Palm Bay, Palm Coast, Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach and others. For retirees, a weekday is no different from a weekend day. Their days are free.

Three other Florida clubs also made the top 20 list. Tampa Bay Steel Challenge was number 13 with 31 matches, while Hernando Sportsman Club in Floral City and Gulf Coast Lead Slingers in Clearwater were tied at 19th with 23 matches each. That’s about two matches a month, and in areas with a significant retiree population.

It’s obvious that Steel Challenge has proven popular with seniors. The reasons for that are as varied as the seniors themselves.

David Williams
David Williams, age 67, finds finds that the emphasis on accuracy in Steel Challenge has helped him achieve better scores in USPSA.

 

David Williams, now retired at age 67, moved to Florida from North Carolina in 1979. His competitive shooting career is extensive, including IDPA, Two- and Three-Gun matches and a 30-year USPSA membership. Nine surgeries on his hands have slowed him somewhat, but he still tries to shoot one USPSA match a month. Then he discovered Steel Challenge.

“I started shooting Steel Challenge about a year-and-a-half ago and it hooked me quick. I’m enthusiastic about it,” he said. “An older friend of mine told me about it. I came out and shot a couple matches with him, and I then understood why he got hooked. The camaraderie, the friends I’ve made here, the dedication of the people putting on these matches, and the fact that the stages are the same anywhere I go and I can always rely on the scoring system makes it fun.”

What Williams really likes about Steel Challenge is that it stresses accuracy—which we all need. “Shooting steel helps me shoot USPSA a little better,” he said.

Some shooters find it an excellent way to overcome declining physical abilities and continue competing.

Jim Matrangos
Declining physical abilities stopped Jim Matrangos from shooting position rifle, but haven’t prevented him from becoming a Master-class Steel Challenge shooter.

 

Jim Matrangos, age 63, retired to Florida five years ago from Atlanta, Ga. His competitive passion was position shooting with rimfire, high power and vintage rifles. He found Flagler Gun and Archery Club and began competing there. A few years later he became the rifle range director. But Matrangos no longer shoots position rifle.

“The cumulative effect of injuries from my military days, the lower back and knees, won’t let me get into the positions anymore,” he said. “I thought I was done competing, but a friend from rifle brought me to a Steel Challenge match at the club, loaned me a .22 pistol and I was hooked right then. Steel Challenge is fun and with rimfire it’s costeffective. And the other folks I shoot with are just awesome. It’s just as much a social event as it is a match. I love the instant gratification of the hit on steel, and I’m challenging myself to improve my skill and advance in classification. It’s a fun way to spend the day and extend my competitive career.”

Others just enjoy competition.

John Reilly, age 71, retired to Florida from New Jersey about 20 years ago. He had no previous competitive firearms experience, although he had a noteworthy career in archery competition and still serves as an archery instructor. He discovered Steel Challenge about 11 years ago.

“I like Steel Challenge,” he said. “It’s a rush with the speed, accuracy and precision. But mostly it’s the people you shoot with. We have a great group of people here and it’s just fun to be with them every week.”

Along the way he shot USPSA for a few months, but aging legs caused him to give it up.

“I don’t think USPSA takes seniors into account,” Reilly explained. “We have to shoot against all of the young guns and it’s hard for older shooters to progress and move up in classification. It would be nice if USPSA had senior divisions with their own classifications so that seniors could compete against seniors. Steel Challenge doesn’t do that, but they don’t need to because young legs aren’t important there.”

Reilly’s partner, Helen Kosko, joins him at matches. But her route to shooting was a bit different.

“I had never shot guns prior to meeting John,” she said. “I was afraid of guns. But John got me started in 2016. He took me out to the range and taught me all the safety rules and how to shoot, and then I started going to Steel Challenge matches with him. Now I love it, and I enjoy seeing my friends every week.”

That social aspect is another positive.

Larry & Susan Picard
Larry and Susan Picard enjoy both the shooting and the social atmosphere at their weekly Steel Challenge matches.

 

After selling his dive business in Maine, 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL Laurent Picard (a.k.a. Larry) and his wife of 37 years, Susan, moved to Florida. As a SEAL, he was no stranger to firearms or competition.

“I got a lot of training as a SEAL,” he said, “but I began shooting as a child growing up along the Maine-New Hampshire border. I also had the chance to shoot a lot of IDPA matches. I liked the competition and it helped keep my skills sharp.”

Larry found Flagler Gun and Archery Club, only a 25-minute drive from home, and began shooting IDPA matches. When they were discontinued there, he discovered Steel Challenge.

“It looked like fun and it was a nice kind of a family atmosphere with husband and wives shooting together,” Larry said. “The people are great and everybody is having a good time. You have shooters that are very good, classified right up at the top as Grand Masters, and then you have shooters who are brand new. But everybody helps everybody. You see the experienced shooters giving tips to the people that are just starting out and wanting to see them improve. There’s a lot of amity at these weekly matches, and we’ve made many new friends.”

Susan had no previous firearms experience, but Larry notes that he “twisted her arm,” got her a Ruger .22 pistol and convinced her to join him. Now, even if Larry can’t be there due to medical appointments for older injuries, Susan will show up on her own.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she laughed, “and we have great people to shoot with. Lots of friendly competition. It’s just a fun way to spend the day. And I have a good time seeing my friends, even if Larry isn’t there.”

For some, it’s just another challenge to be met.

Scott Hartford, age 67, retired to Florida from Connecticut five years ago. Although he had done some hunting with his father as a child, he had no competitive shooting experience. That changed when a fellow retiree brought him to a Steel Challenge match shortly after his arrival.

“I was hooked right there,” he said. “It looked like a lot of fun, as well as challenging.”

Scott Hartford
Florida retiree Scott Hartford said Steel Challenge is not only challenging, but also has an enjoyable social atmosphere.

 

Five years later, Hartford still relishes the challenge and is currently classified is all 13 Steel Challenge divisions, among them Grand Master in Rimfire Rifle Optics and Pistol Caliber Carbine Optics, and Master in Rimfire Pistol Optics. Along the way, he has competed in three world and several out-of-state area championships, and holds two stage speed records in the Super Senior class.

However, that wasn’t enough for Hartford—several years ago he became the Steel Challenge match director and the pistol match director at Flagler Gun and Archery Club. That involves putting on four to five matches a month.

“I get a lot of satisfaction shooting and watching the other shooters have a good time,” he said. “That’s why I got into running these matches at Flagler. We have a good group of friendly people here. I guess I mostly do it for them.”

It’s a grueling schedule, but Hartford enjoys it. “I’m retired,” he laughed. “What else would I be doing.”

Whether it’s extending a shooting career, keeping skills sharp, enjoying the friendly atmosphere or even starting a second career, there’s no doubt that Steel Challenge has proven popular with seniors.

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