If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of this series of articles celebrating the National Smallbore Outdoor Rifle Championship Centennial.
Flowers often grow best in a greenhouse, and the same might be said for shooting champions. In the 1980s, the nation’s premier competitive rifle shooters came from the service marksmanship training units—Army, Army Reserve, Marines, and National Guard—that provided a controlled atmosphere to train and develop. This was made abundantly clear at the 1980 prone and position national championships.
The metallic sight champion was Gunnery Sergeant Gary Andrade, a converted high power shooter from the Marine Corps Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico. Over the two days of metallic sight matches he had only dropped one point.
The championships took on a new tone during the any sight phase. Two-time national champion Mary Stidworthy strutted her stuff in grand style when she shattered the any sight National Championship record with a score of1600-154X. At the end of the third day there was a tight knot at the top of the leaderboard, with Ernie Vande Zande surging to the forefront.
On the final day, easily read wind promised no trouble, but it also meant that any mistake would prove fatal. Vande Zande’s heart dropped when his seventh shot of the day blossomed in the nine-ring of the 50-yard “bucket bull.” Realizing that it might be all over for him, but not giving up, he held as hard as he could and shot 153 more 10s and Xs before the day was out. When the scores were tallied, Vande Zande had managed to hang on to his lead against the tough competition and challenging conditions. In one of the tightest finishes to date at the Nationals, he produced a championship score of 6396-571X—one of four 6396s shot that week.
Lones Wigger was absent from the any sight phase of the prone championship. He had been called to the White House with the other members of the ill-fated 1980 Olympic Team, to be honored by President Carter. Wigger worked off his frustration at not being able to compete in his fourth Olympics by quickly and decisively taking control of the metallic sight position aggregate.
A prolonged rainstorm meant that course of fire was reduced by 50 percent in order to be able to have any chance at an any sight aggregate. A short course of fire does not always favor the better shooter as there is a great premium on luck. Anyone can get lucky and shoot a good 20-shot string. Wigger put that thought to rest as he pounded out a 199 prone, 195 standing and a 196 kneeling to walk away with the any sight title—his fifth consecutive position title and lucky 13th career win.
A new event, the Whistler Boy, a cooperative venture between the NRA and the DCM, was fired with the basic training rifles issued by the DCM. A combined Dewar course of fire on NRA targets and a 60-shot Three-Position match on international targets was won by the Texas State Association team of Ben Potter and John Pence.
The 61st Smallbore Championships saw 900 shooters participate, with most going home without a trophy or medal. But trophies and medals are not the totality of the National Championship experience. The richness of the sport, woven into a tapestry by generations of shooters passing on the skills and traditions of the sport to newer generations is the true prize that all take home.
The 1981 championships were filled with winds capable of whisking Dorothy back to Oz. Conditions were bad enough for home grown shooters, but this was a Pershing Team Match year and the wind treated our overseas guests harshly.
The Three-Position matches were scheduled to precede the prone matches. Even though scheduling had changed, the position matches seemed to repeat portions of past national championships. The most obvious repetition was Lones Wigger standing on top of the victory podium at the awards ceremony. The second was the foul weather that again forced a reduction in the course of fire for the second consecutive year. Windy conditions favored the solidly built Wigger, who won the first two iron sight matches, the prone and standing. He did not win kneeling, but his 1152 aggregate easily bested his nearest challenger by 12 points
Weather again forced the any sight prone match to be reduced by half. Wigger continued to plug away in his efficient manner, building an overwhelming 25-point lead to win his sixth straight position win—his 14th since 1963.
The opening days of the prone phase were wet and windy, as an early spring lambing season. Ernie Vande Zande, the defending champion, was engaged in a close match with two very skilled riflemen, Pres Kendall and Mary Stidworthy, both former prone champions. Rough conditions were evident but Vande Zande finished as the metallic sight winner.
The major event of was the eighth Pershing Trophy Match. Teams of 10 from the U.S., Great Britain and Canada faced off in a shoulder-to-shoulder iron sight Dewar. The U.S. sent six national champions to the line—Pres Kendall, Dave Weaver, Mary Stidworthy, Lones Wigger, Dave Ross and Ernie Vande Zande. The 1977 Civilian champion, John Chapman, joined Bob Mitchell, the service titlist from 1979. The ninth and 10th shooters were Aaron Hupman, and teenager Jesse Johnston, the youngest rifleman to ever compete on a U.S. Pershing Team. The team was led by Captain Robert Smith, Adjutant Harry Hoy, and coaches William Summers and Herb Hollister.
In the past, the Pershing was between the U.S. and Great Britain, with Canada the inevitable third place finisher, but this match would be different. In the end, both teams from North America would beat Great Britain as the Canadians pulled ahead of the Brits by six Xs.
The second half of the prone championships opened on weather that favored sunburn as opposed to the frostbite of the first two days.
There was high drama surrounding the final target of the final match. Vande Zande and Stidworthy were close to a photo finish going into the last 20 shots. Stidworthy, no stranger to this situation, had previously won and lost national crowns in the last stage. Vande Zande held a one-point lead while Stidworthy had the higher X-count. Scopes focused on Vande Zande’s target saw a close shot on the 10-line at 10 o’clock. After ceasefire Vande Zande walked downrange. Arriving at the target it was clear that he had shot a nine and he was now a former champion as Stidworthy won her third title.
D.I. Boyd won the last prone match, the last he would shoot in uniform. The left-handed legend would join a fellow southpaw, Gary Anderson, as only the second person to win both a smallbore and high power national title.
The old expression, “There is no substitute for experience” might well have been the official motto of the 1982 National Smallbore Championship, the 75th anniversary of the National Matches. Names that had been engraved upon the celebrated trophies associated with the smallbore championship would again be found on them after the matches had concluded. Throughout the eight days, the weather was a typical Camp Perry mix of hot and humid with plenty of sunshine and an occasional cloud that hinted rain.
The position matches were nothing more or less than a Brobdingnagian performance by the giant of position shooting, Lones Wigger. On his way to a 15th national position championship, Wigger won five of the six fired matches.
It had been 20 years since Pres Kendall had won his first national prone title, and from the first day of this match there was little doubt that he had set his eye on returning to the winner’s circle. After his match winning 1600 on the first day of metallic sights, he never glanced back over his shoulder to watch as the pack receded behind him—winning the metallic sight title with a comfortable six-point lead.
During the any sight matches, all Kendall had to do was simply hold his own to return to the winner’s circle—and he did.
The timeless nature of the shooting sports as a bridge between the generations was eloquently stated on the cover of the October 1983 American Rifleman. Pint-sized Nicole Panko, the youngest competitor, stood tall and proud next to 83-year-old Herb Hollister, the oldest, at the National Smallbore Outdoor Rifle Championships. Panko’s grinning head was level with that of the smiling Hollister, who was kneeling. It’s symbolic of the shooting sports for, while they were the Biblical life span of three score and 10 apart in years—they stood as happy equals on the firing line.
The prevailing wind made the position matches a real trial for all, but not for Lones Wigger, who was no stranger to holding and squeezing in the Camp Perry gales. In a dog fight of a tournament the mentally tough Wigger won with his trademark tenacity, but the buffeting winds took its toll. He even admitted to being exhausted by the end of the match. The winds did not stop the reigning champion from notching up his eighth straight victory in a string of 16 going back to 1963.
Prone shooters always claim that position shooters get the best of National Championship weather and this year would certainly give credence to that theory. Dave Weaver, on the other hand, might have thought otherwise. When it rained hard enough on the final day of the tournament to force a cancellation of the yard and meter matches it did not rain on Dave Weaver’s parade as he notched another National Prone Championship title.
As expected, a Wigger was summoned to the stage, but this time, it was his daughter Deena, the new intermediate junior prone champion. The audience that crowded Hough Auditorium was amused to see Wigger the father, so familiar with being on the stage himself, scramble like any other proud parent, camera in hand, for a good vantage point to snap a picture.
While the 1983 results certainly featured a host of familiar names, there were emerging future champions. The intense competition in trying conditions tempered the shooters, making them harder to beat in the future.
There is something positive to be said about being built close to the ground when you must withstand the winds that whip in off the surface of Lake Erie. Lones Wigger, of rock-solid position and hold, withstood both the winds and best efforts of the preeminent position shooters to earn his 17th position title in 22 years in 1984.
The ability to work hard, to establish a goal—and to stick to it—often has pleasant results. Such was the case for 55-year-old Ron West, who had recorded 27 trips to Perry in his shooting diary. West’s goal this year was simple—earn a spot on the 1985 Roberts Team. After all, there would only be one national champion, but with 12 positions open on the team going to Bisley, the odds were distinctly in his favor. Roberts selection would be based on the results of the iron sight aggregate and West had been training hard. After two days of shooting, West found himself the metallic sight champion.
For two days of any sights, West tenaciously held on to his lead as he was pressed on all sides. Try as he might, Wigger could not match the hard holding West as they matched each other almost shot for shot. Ron West’s successful quest for a spot on the Roberts Team yielded some interesting results—the National Prone Championship.
Carl Bernosky had reigned for four consecutive years as the National High Power Champion and sought a greater challenge. He abandoned high power for smallbore position and after just two Smallbore Nationals, he won, breaking Wigger’s consecutive win record at nine. The feat set up Bernosky for two footnotes in shooting history—he became the first civilian to win the position title and the third person, along with Gary Anderson and D.I. Boyd, to win both high power and smallbore outdoor position titles.
When prone began, Wigger was no longer a reigning outdoor National Smallbore Champion for the first time in 12 years. Usually he had his annual quota of championships wrapped up by the end of the position matches, making a prone win just icing on the cake. Such was not the case this year. Reaching deep inside, Wigger marshaled his extraordinary skill, formidable mental focus and exceptional competitive spirit. After the first “Commence Fire” was announced, 401 prone shooters were witness to the full force of Wigger’s unleashed commitment to victory. He dropped but one point over two days and was named metallic sight champion.
As each match result was posted on the first day of any sights, Wigger’s name was curiously missing from the top three. Only an imprudent person “hawking the board” might conclude that Wigger had succumbed and was fading away. He did not win a single match, but he only dropped one point, so he won the day with a 1599, just an X ahead of Gary Andrade. Wigger was still in the lead with one day to go.
On the final day, Andrade shot a 1600, locking up the any sight championship while Wigger dropped one more point. Wigger held onto the lead and went home with his record tying fourth national prone title.
Noted sports columnist Ring Lardner, Sr., once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the smart way to bet.” The natural extension for a betting man wishing to place a safe wager on two things at Camp Perry would be to bet the weather would be unpredictable and Wigger would win one or more championships.
After being unseated from the Three-Position throne by Carl Bernosky, Wigger came to the 1986 Nationals with an eye for victory. The matches had an urgency, for his competitive shooting life would be changing dramatically in the fall we he was to retire from the Army.
He got off to a poor start in the metallic position match with a shaky prone stage, but in the end, he put together a new championship record that exceeded his old one by seven points.
The any sight matches began much the same as the metallic matches. Wigger’s name was nowhere to be seen on top of the results bulletin as your author, Staff Sergeant Hap Rocketto, a journeyman rifleman with the All National Guard Rifle Team, won the prone match. But, Wigger still won the day and wrapped up his 18th position championship.
As prone progressed, two familiar names cropped up as Lenore Lemanski won the metallic sight crown and Carolyn Millard won any sights.
With all the fine shooting, it was still unclear how the final standings would sort out. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Gary Andrade summed it up elegantly when he had stated the obvious, “One day, all the targets will be shot, and when they’re scored we’ll find out who won.” He was prophetic as he turned out to be the winner in one of the closest finishes in National Championship prone history, a five-X margin.
The smallbore matches of 1987 saw the firing line covered with a light blue canopy, a half-mile long, 10 feet high and six feet wide, giving the smallbore crowd protection from the blazing Ohio sun and the rain. Taking advantage of the new shelter was Sergeant First Class Karen Monez of the Army Reserves, who made a historical mark in the shooting annals of the National Matches.
Monez’s progress up the ladder of shooting and military success could easily be observed. As a Specialist Fourth Class in 1977, Monez was the women’s position champion. In 1979, Specialist Fifth Class Monez again was high woman. Staff Sergeant Monez captured the ladies title for a third time in 1982. In 1987, as Sergeant First Class, Monez won the open title.
After 25 years at the National Championships, Lones Wigger’s new civilian status expanded his award vistas a bit. “The Big Guy” was now positioned to win the Schweitzer Medal, the 14-karat symbol of civilian supremacy in smallbore prone shooting—long denied to him as an active duty military marksman. The only thing standing between him and the medal was a competitor list some 340 shooters long, populated with a host of talented shooters and hungry youngsters.
With conditions about as good as they get on the south shore of Lake Erie in late August, the prone championship was to be a festival of 400s.
When the score sheets were taped to the Plexiglas scoreboard, Marine Robbie Franker was on top for the Hoppe Trophy. Worth noting was the fact that Lones Wigger and Dave Weaver appeared in that order in the civilian master class, separated by just eight Xs.
As the last targets were hung on day four, the match had come down to three riflemen, all whose last name began with W. Barring a major disaster, such as a crossfire, either former prone champions Weaver or Wigger, or newcomer Web Wright III, would have his name engraved upon the Critchfield Trophy. Weaver was in the lead by one point. Wigger had the most Xs. Wright, nine Xs behind, could only take advantage of any error on the part of the older men.
Few scores produce more stories filled with horror, or humor, than a 199-19X. In Weaver’s case, with a national championship on the line, it was the former. After dropping the point at 100 yards he bore down as he closed out his last 20 shots with a 200-18X for a 399-37X total. Meanwhile, things were not going all that well for Wigger. Although he was able to collect all the points, his X-count was so low that he switched brands of ammunition, hoping to build up some cushion against Weaver. Wright had no choice but to simply shoot as best he could, his winning rested solely on the failure of the others.
When firing was complete, Wigger and Weaver met and, to the surprise of both figured out they had tied. Wigger was astonished that Weaver had been able to close the gap. Both men knew the rules and unless Weaver could pick up an X from a match whose challenge period had not closed, Wigger would win. Weaver challenged his Dewar and lost an X and the championship. It was the second tightest finish on record—exceeded only by the three-way tie in 1953 between J.J. Crowley, John Moschkau and Charlie Whipple.
Wigger now had five prone titles to his credit and he took home the Schweitzer medal for the first time
Wigger began the 1988 matches with solid, if not brilliant, performances that totaled up to a seven-point margin in the position metallic sight championship. He set the stage for what seemed like his almost inevitable victory. However, throughout the first two matches of the any sight championship Wigger’s lead eroded.
Going into the final match, any sight kneeling, Dennis Ghiselli had erased Wigger’s lead and was sitting a few points ahead. Then, just as if Wigger had whistled up the wind on command it began to blow harder. If there ever was a shooter who feasted on windblown kneeling matches, it was Wigger. Built low to the ground, with a generously proportioned physique, he could tighten up his sling, roll into the position, and offer a small aerodynamic shape that almost defied the wind to shove him around. He didn’t win the kneeling match, but, in the end, Wigger came out on top. As strange as it might seem, his 19th position title was a new experience for Wigger—he never won the civilian position championship title previously.
The winds that had troubled the position shooters seemed to be an equal opportunity complication to plague the prone ones. With the wind up and running, the matches would be not be dominated by any one shooter. It would take close attention to the scoreboard to see who had the lead at any given moment.
The metallic sight champion was Tommy Tamas who had trained under Wigger. Going into the last match of any sights there was still was no apparent leader, but within a few minutes, it became clear that Pres Kendall had won the any sight championship with a pair of 1600s. Weaver had won his fourth prone title, tying him with Wigger and Kendall on the all-time winner’s list. This year he had won by Xs, just as he had lost by Xs the year before.
As much as the National Championship stays the same it also changes. While the prone events and targets have remained the same for living memory, the relatively new position matches have undergone several courses of fire and target changes. With the 1989 change in targets, all position records became obsolete.
Dennis Ghiselli won the metallic championship. Tommy Tamas, who had kept himself in a strong position for two days, won the grand aggregate in a commanding style with a 16-point advantage over Wigger.
The prone matches opened with Tamas having his eye on becoming the second person to win both position and prone titles in one year. However, the metallic sight championship went to Dennis Ghiselli who posted a new championship record of 3200-268X.
When firing resumed on the fourth day, the traditional prone Dewar team matches began but with a new twist, metric targets. After much debate, some heated, it was decided, to adopt the same target used in the position matches.
Over the any sight matches, Weaver just kept plugging along and going into his last shot was two points up on his closest competitors. Competition often magnifies things, and, in a funny way, it magnified the bull on the final target for Weaver. Needing only an eight to win the tournament his point of aim leapt from the one-inch X-ring to the six-inch eight-ring. Taking a moment to settle down, he squeezed of his final shot which cut the 10-line neatly at 11 o’clock. It was not his most elegant shot, but it was good enough for the repeat win, making him the fourth competitor to earn consecutive titles and joining Wigger as a five-time prone champion.
The U.S. has never lost control of the Pershing trophy, named for its patron, General of the Armies John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, since it wrested it from the hands of the British in 1939. The U.S. team was selected from the top scores posted in the metallic sight aggregate. Dennis Ghiselli, Dave Weaver, Lones Wigger, Tommy Tamas, Dave Johnson, Boyd Goldsby, Dick Hanson, Robert Hill, Bill Dodd and Steve Goff got the nod. Captain Art Cook and Coach William Summers held John Black and Tom Daniel in reserve. George Harris acted as adjutant. The U.S. won the match, shooting a perfect score of 4000-301X across the Dewar course on American targets. Randle Team veterans wryly congratulated the Pershing Team, reminding them that the Randle Ladies were the first to shoot a 10-person team possible on the U.S. Dewar course, and their X-count was higher. The dry humor of the women did nothing to take the gilt from the Pershing men’s gingerbread.
An interesting technological innovation took center stage when Bill Dodd earned a spot on the Pershing Team. Dodd’s rifle sported a barrel extension tube that increased his sight radius an astonishingly long distance. It was the public debut of the “bloop tube”—a nickname given because of its shape and the peculiar sound of the rifle’s report.
Now 70 years old, the Smallbore National Championship looked forward to the 1990s with great anticipation.
The next installment of the Smallbore National Championship history series will be published soon. In the meantime, you can read these previous articles:
- The Seed Is Planted
- The Roaring Twenties
- Depression and War
- Post-War Reorganization and Innovation
- Golden Age, Part 1
- Golden Age, Part 2
See more: National Smallbore Outdoor Rifle Championship Centennial