BISMARCK The shooter stood with his hands above his head, adjusting his stance and waiting for the unmistakable electronic beep that would begin a flurry of calculated events. When the start beep was finally heard, the pistol was drawn from a holster and the shooter engaged a series of targets some challenging, others inviting.
It was another round of both practice and fun at a United States Practical Shooting Association match.
USPSA, or action pistol shooting, has become one of the fastest growing segments of the shooting sports industry. Unlike standard target shooting, action pistol mimics realistic shooting situations that are designed to better acquaint handgun owners with their firearms and how to operate them.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Despite entering the sport only a year ago, Dean Graves, Minot, has become one of the area’s top action pistol shooters. Shooting around barricades is a common challenge for United States Practical Shooting Association participants.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - A group of practical handgun enthusiasts wait their turn during a recent match at the Johnson Family Marksmanship Center in Bismarck. From left are DelRay Bergan, Bismarck; Jim Duffy, Portal; Doug Steltzer, Glenburn; and Dave Schaffer, Bismarck.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Brenda and Jay Hanson, Minot, are among those who have discovered that United States Practical Shooting Association shooting is an enjoyable family affair. Both practice regularly and attend matches when possible. This photograph was taken at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club Indoor Range during a recent action shooting match.
Shooters take aim at targets from a variety of positions over, under and around obstacles and sometimes at targets only partially exposed. Scoring is based on a combination of accuracy and speed. The purpose is to create better and more knowledgeable handgun shooters. The importance of safety is stressed at all times.
All handguns are unloaded and secured in a safety area prior to the start of all action shooting matches. Certified range officers make certain that all participants are aware of all safety rules and that they remain in compliance throughout the duration of the shoot. No ammunition is allowed in the safety area. Safety violations can result in the automatic disqualification of the participant, no matter how experienced, at any action shooting event.
While some participants thrive on competition, many participate for the chance to stay familiar with their handguns and sharpen their skills. No matter what the reason for participating in these events, a shooter is certain to learn something new at each match. Shooters get plenty of opportunities too. The number of targets to be engaged varies with each match, but shooters can expect to fire 100 rounds or more during a single day at the range. The emphasis is on testing the shooter's skill and familiarity with a chosen firearm.
Sometimes shooters are required to change ammunition magazines during the prescribed course of fire. A magazine switch tests a shooter's ability to make a smooth transition from one magazine to another, making certain that reloading can be done properly and efficiently. Doing so requires keeping a handgun, and all related equipment, in good working order and having an awareness of how a particular handgun operates. Even the most veteran of shooters learn something new about their equipment at each match.
Hooked on handguns
Why has action shooting experienced growth in Minot and elsewhere?
A big reason is that these events are an excellent way to teach shooters what they should know about handguns. While it is true that handgun sales have remained strong in the region and the number of concealed carry permits has been on the increase, handgun owners are discovering it doesn't take much to get them involved in action shooting. Any handgun, and an extra magazine or two, will do. Those who try action shooting often find themselves hooked on handguns rather quickly.
"Once you do it you are kind of hooked," said Dean Graves, Minot. "You get that adrenaline rush going. I went head over heels with this."
"My husband told me I had to shoot one match and he'd never make me do it again," said Jessica Graves. "Now its been maybe six or seven and I haven't stopped coming to matches since. I enjoy it."
"She is kind of hooked now," Dean Graves said, laughing. "It's great."
George McLaughlin, Minot, has been one of the leading proponents of action shooting in Minot. He can often be found at the either the indoor or outdoor range of the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club, usually explaining to handgun shooters why they should consider giving action shooting a try. Many of them, like the Graves, have taken the plunge without any regrets.
"That's exactly how I got started," said Jason Guilford, Minot. "I was just shooting a little target practice when I first showed up here and George told me I should come out and try this. As soon as I did I was hooked. Now I've been doing it for just over a year."
"This is a chance to pull the trigger and have some fun. A lot of people like to shoot," said McLaughlin. "It helps keep skills sharp."
"It came out as a practical sport back in the '80s," said Wes Thomas III, Minot. "Now it's more of a game, an action sport. It's fun."
At any given match, such as those conducted monthly at both the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club and the Bismarck-Mandan Rifle and Pistol Association, the field will likely include husbands and wives, or fathers and daughters. It is all part of a friendly atmosphere predominant at action shooting gatherings.
"It's a lot of camaraderie with friends," said Bob Ziebarth, Minot, a dedicated action shooter. "You meet a lot of new people. It's a family thing, and that's what I like about it mostly."
"I like this sport because of the people. It's the people," added Dean Graves. "I mean, I have not met anybody, I don't care if you are in Plentywood, Bismarck or Minot or the nationals in Vegas, everybody is super nice from the professionals down to every shooter."
Ask any action shooter about why they participate and you're almost certain to hear about the friendships made at the range. It is a gathering of people who share something in common and they are eager to learn as much as possible. Veteran shooters are quick to share knowledge, too.
"I like the camaraderie, friendship and shooting. I like teaching new shooters," said Doug Steltzer, Glenburn, a veteran action shooter. "You walk out of there and you know you had fun, that it was a good day."
Steltzer and long-time shooting partner Jim Duffy of Portal annually participate in a variety of shooting events, in North Dakota and elsewhere. The common thread that runs through all of the events, whether local or national, remains the friendliness of fellow shooters.
"The people you meet in shooting is what makes it so much fun," explained Duffy. "We've gone to a lot of matches all over the country and those people are my best friends. It is a very high caliber of people."
Duffy is a firearms instructor for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As such he has been working with firearms for many years, participating in whatever shooting game was available. Now action shooting is his one of his favorite venues.
"USPSA is a game but it is still honing skills," said Duffy. "Gun handling is a skill you have to practice and USPSA action shooting was the newest game around."
Action shooting sprung from a need for teaching handgun owners the practical aspects of shooting, but it also spawned a competitive activity that is eagerly enjoyed by many participants today. While some action shooters simply want to stay proficient with their shooting skills and remain familiar with their firearms, others cherish the competition. There is room for both.
Shooters are rated according to their skill level, type of handgun and caliber. Many choose to shoot factory handguns. Others shoot improved models, such as target model or competition handguns produced by a variety of companies. Advanced competitors may choose "race guns", pistols specially modified for specific handling characteristics and topped with illuminated sights.
"I had a need in my life to fill for a competitive edge. I have always enjoyed shooting and always wanted to shoot competition," said Dean Graves.
Like Graves, Guilford has found he enjoys matching his handgun skills against those of other shooters.
"I like the competition. That's what I really enjoy, and being more familiar with my firearm," said Guilford. "It really helps with pointing and being more accurate with shooting."
"We have some good young shooters" added McGlaughlin, who remains one of the region's top competitors. "We have some young guys who are really coming up fast, which is good."
McGlaughlin hosts an "Introduction to USPSA" once each month at the Minot Rifle and Pistol Club Indoor Range. The next scheduled introductory night is Friday, March 9 at 7 p.m. Anyone interested in action shooting, regardless of skill level, is welcome to attend. The next match in Minot is scheduled for March 11.