U.S. Air Force Pistol Team: My Start, And A Daring Trip

Part 2 of Dr. Robert “Doc” Engelmeier’s look back at his time with the U.S. Air Force Pistol Team—a captivating glimpse into what competitive shooting was like in the 1980s and 1990s.

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posted on February 27, 2023
Airforcenra 1
Above: The 1988 Jefferson Cup awarded by the NRA at Camp Perry.
CMP

A member of the Air Force Pistol Marksmanship Team in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dr. Robert “Doc” Engelmeier of Pittsburgh, Pa., documented his excursions, including at the National Matches. Read the latest excerpt from Dr. Engelmeier’s memoire below. Also, don’t forget to read the first installment if you haven't already. (Article via CMP.)


My Start and a Daring Trip

By Dr. Robert “Doc” Engelmeier

My first foray into military competition came along in 1971. Upon my return from Vietnam, I was reassigned to Otis AFB on Cape Cod. I joined the base pistol team there which competed weekly in the Cape Cod Pistol League. That base team consisted of both Airmen and Coast Guard members.

The largest Coast Guard Air/Sea Rescue unit at the time was situated on Otis AFB. The team won the league championship in 1972, so we Air Force members of the team qualified to travel to Tindall AFB in Florida to compete in the Air Defense Command (ADC) Matches. Unfortunately, none of us qualified for the ADC Team that went on to the All-Air Force Matches that year.

It was at the ADC competition that I first saw individuals wearing “Leg” medals and Distinguished Pistol Shot badges on their uniforms. That was when I learned what those medals represented and how difficult they were to earn. It was also there that I set a goal to at least win a basic “Leg” medal at an Air Force Excellence-in-Competition Match.

Otis Air Force Pistol Team
Members of the Otis AFB Combined Pistol Team presented their season trophies to the Coast Guard Air Station Commander at Otis AFB in 1972.

 

Little did I know that “Leg” Matches were few and far between.

I didn’t compete in my first “Leg” Match until 1988, more than 15 years later. Four of us from the Otis AFB team flew to the ADC Matches in an old C-54 former VIP plane that had seen better days. The plane had been commissioned six months before I was born in 1944. It was called the “Artic Star,” and its purpose was to resupply all the northern radar sites under the Air Defense Command.

The trip to Florida was without incident, though a bit bumpy. However, the return trip to Cape Cod was another story.

Upon take off, we feathered one of the four engines and were forced to make a quick landing at Warner Robbins AFB in Georgia. After spending hours on the ground, we again departed for Cape Cod. As we were approaching the Washington, D.C., area, that same starboard engine feathered again. This time, we headed to Andrews AFB for another emergency landing. As we were making a long final approach, an engine on the port side also froze. We did manage to land safely with just two of four engines, but had to spend two nights at Andrews AFB for some engine swapping.

In the end, that trip from the Florida panhandle to Cape Cod took three days. A Greyhound bus would have been faster. I have no complaints because we arrived home safely, and further, that adventure was a preview of the great times that were to come.

Heading Toward Distinguished and the National Matches

The 1988 season was my first as a National Pistol Team member. On January 21, the Air Force held an Excellence-in-Competition (EIC) Match at nearby Beale AFB in Northern California. These were active military only matches where competitors finishing in the top 10 percent received four “Leg” points toward the 30 points required for the Distinguished Pistol Shot badge. They were also awarded the USAF basic bronze “Leg” medal (EIC badge).

Participants fired the match with the standard issue handgun, which, at that time, was the .38 caliber, Smith and Wesson Model 15 Combat Masterpiece. The firearms and required ammunition were issued to all registered participants at the match.

I fired the match as an individual. My 288 score won the match and enabled me to achieve the goal that I had set some 16 years earlier.

The first team match during the 1988 season was a Regional at South Mountain Range in Phoenix, Ariz. That match winner was Chip Kormas, our team captain, who was the most talented marksman I have ever known. He was an enormous help getting me started on my marksmanship journey.

1988 US Air Force Pistol Team at Camp Perry
The 1988 U.S. Air Force National Pistol Team at Camp Perry during the National Matches (Chip Kormas, front row center, Coach Ralph Talbot, back row left side). (Photo by CMP)

 

Chip was transferred from Lackland AFB to Luke AFB that year. Unfortunately, due to “on the job” politics, he had trouble acquiring permission from his new unit supervisor to participate in competition. Following the 1988 season, he had to leave the team. I will always believe that Chip could have been a National Champion.

The next stop on our 1988 journey were the Interservice Matches in Nashville, Tenn. That was one of my favorite ranges. It was built about a story-and-a-half below ground level, but was open overhead. That prevented wind effect and escaping range sounds. Unfortunately, that range was closed later that year.

Shortly thereafter, we traveled to warm-up matches in Canton, Ohio, then to Camp Perry the following week. This marked my first exposure to the National Matches. There were 1,200 competitors, and each relay fielded 400 shooters lined up and firing at the same time.

Needless to say, the Hardball rapid fire relays were impressive.

I fired in four “Leg” matches that year, but failed to finish in the top 10 percent in any of them. Thus, I was not awarded any additional “Leg” points that season.

How “Leg” Events Work

A “Leg” match is a difficult, strictly judged competition that consists of 30 rounds of .45-cal. hardball fired from a “bare-bones” military M1911 pistol. The only permissible modification to these firearms is an adjustable rear site. Absolutely no other alteration is acceptable.

Trigger weight must not be less than four pounds. Each participant’s hardball gun is checked on the firing line just before the match. If the trigger cannot withstand a four-pound weight without discharging, that gun is disqualified.

All competitors are issued 30 rounds of .45-cal. hardball from the same ammunition lot. All shots are fired with only one hand. The slow-fire course consists of 10 shots fired at 50 yards in 10 minutes. The timed-fire course consists of two, five-shot strings fired at 25 yards, with 20 seconds permitted for each string of fire.

The final rapid-fire event consists of two, five-shot strings fired at 25 yards, allowing just 10 seconds for each string of fire. NRA certified targets only must be used for both the 25- and 50-yard contests.

The match winner is awarded 10 points toward the Distinguished Pistol Shot Award, which requires a total accumulation of 30 points. The Shooter placing second is awarded eight points. The remaining competitors in the top 10 percent participating in the match are each awarded six points.

“Leg” Matches were only held at annual state championship and regional matches as well as the national and Interservice championship matches. Needless to say, leg matches were few and far between. Often, participants traveled great distances to participate. Consequently, it commonly takes years for individuals to accumulate the necessary 30 points to qualify for the coveted Distinguished Marksman award.

1988 Jefferson Cup and Camp Perry

I did manage to win a Jefferson Cup at the 1988 warm-up matches at Camp Perry by scoring highest in my shooting classification. My first exposure to Camp Perry that season was a reality check as to the spartan living conditions there.

Before World War II, competitors were billited in large multi-man tents. The National Matches were suspended during the war as Camp Perry was used as a POW camp. That necessitated construction of the infamous “huts” at the base to house all the POWs.

Since then, most National Match competitors have been accommodated in those huts, which are not known for their coziness. During my time with the Air Force Team, we fortunately never had to stay in the huts. The U.S. Marine Corps Team was generous and allowed us to share their barracks building at Camp Perry. Unfortunately, we had to occupy the second floor, which was usually sweltering. However, we had no complaints because that was still infinitely better than the exasperating huts.

I also learned how awful the food was at the Army chow hall at Camp Perry. We quickly learned to escape to nearby Port Clinton for fast food between and after our relays. Perhaps our favorite spot on the base was “Commercial Row” which included two rows of huts containing vendors selling match grade guns, ammunition and equipment. That was also where we could buy all the commemorative hats, tees, mugs and sweatshirts that we desired.

Along Commercial Row, I was able to meet and converse with acclaimed individuals like Bill Ruger, Jim Clark, noted firearms writer Charles Petty and famous Texas Ranger Bill Jordan. I purchased his book, “No Second Place Winner” there, which he personalized and dated for me. I was also able to converse with the leadership of companies like Champion’s Choice, Springfield Armory and Hi-Standard. Prices there were usually wholesale.

Another incredible experience for me at Camp Perry was touring the building that housed all the National Trophies. Some of those trophies dated from the late 19th century origins of the National Matches. All were unique works of art. They consisted of lots of marble, bronze and sterling silver. Many trophies were so massive that it took two or more individuals to move them. Several of those masterpieces were topped with full size, original Remington bronze sculptures. Touring that building was equivalent to perusing an art gallery. In short, going to Camp Perry was not simply going to a match. It was a unique experience each time we were able to attend.

We ended the season later that summer by reporting to the selection camp for the 1989 season, which was held at the outstanding Army range at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It was at that training camp that I had the honor to meet the legendary Gail Liberty, retired member of the original Air Force National Pistol Team.

Gail was Double Distinguished and the most accomplished female shooter up until her time. She was training there for the upcoming Olympic Games. Unfortunately, she was not able to compete in those games due to a massive resurgence of her Multiple Sclerosis. I regret that I never had a chance to see her again.

Another great shooting friend, Ken Hutchins was selected at the camp to be the team captain for the upcoming season. I again made the team and took delivery of the Ball Gun that Bill Moore had built for me at the Gunsmith Shop. It was at that camp that a heavy weapons instructor named Gary Foster was also selected for team membership. He became my life long best military friend. Gary and I spent the remainder of my active Air Force years competing with the team and sharing many adventures.

The last significant event of 1988 came late that year. I had a prosthodontic patient at Travis AFB who was a senior supervisor at the Base Supply Unit. He was also an enthusiastic shooter. Over the course of his treatment, we had become friends, and we discussed the team quite a bit.

When he learned that team members had to provide their own ammunition by reloading their spent brass, he told me about a massive supply of .45 wadcutter and hardball ammunition that the Air Force had been storing at an Army base in another state. At that time, the Air Force no longer used M1911-A1 pistols, though they still had a large number of them in storage.

So, that ammunition was gathering dust, while costing the Air Force significant funds to store it.

My patient worked his magic and arranged for a sizable lot of that ammunition to be shipped to Lackland AFB each month exclusively for team use. The only caveat was that we had to shoot it and not stock pile it in our bunker there. We were only too happy to comply.

From that point forward, we trained and competed with what seemed like an endless supply of .45-cal. rounds. None of us had to reload anymore.

In the next installment, Doc Engelmeier discusses his stints at Travis Air Force Base, Hawaii, and how he came to earn his Distinguished Pistol Badge. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, read it here.

Learn more about the CMP at thecmp.org.

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