Let's say you're a new gun owner, or just a gun owner who's eager to try something new. You start looking around for options, and quickly become both perplexed and excited. Who knew there were so many opportunities out there?
Maybe you found the National Rifle Association's list of competitions (the NRA sanctions over 11,000 shooting tournaments and sponsors over 50 national championships each year). Or perhaps you used the National Shooting Sports Foundation's (NSSF) "Where To Shoot" website to find local ranges and, through them, new and intriguing competitions.
Wherever you begin, you'll quickly realize there's been an explosion of new events and contests for America's 100-million-plus gun owners. On any given weekend — and likely within an easy drive of your residence — there are black-powder shoots, clays competitions, 3-gun competitions, Cowboy Action events and many more opportunities sponsored by local sportsmen's clubs and national organizations.
NEW SHOOTERS ABOUND
What you're noticing is a byproduct of the explosive growth in the shooting sports.
What I saw at my first 3-gun competition — and what I've seen since — opened my eyes. It wasn't the guns that surprised, or a shooting station where we had to fire from a "boat" that was being rocked by U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets pulling ropes. No, it was the competitors themselves who surprised me.
The attendees weren't all middle-aged "gun guys." One in five were women, and I saw a lot of 3-gun couples. Many of the competitors were from metro areas. I remember a police officer, who happened to be a woman, telling me as we waited to shoot that 3-gun is what keeps her prepared for duty. The demographics were certainly diverse, but they all shared a love of shooting that brought them together.
To understand how this is changing the shooting sports, consider a few statistics gathered by the NSSF. The number of women who hunt grew from 1.8 million in 2001 to 3.3 million by 2013. In 2001 some 3.3 million women in the U.S. enjoyed target shooting; by 2013 the number of women who target shoot had soared 60 percent to 5.4 million. An astounding 73 percent of the women shooters surveyed said they had taken at least one gun-training course. And places that cater to new women gun owners are popping up everywhere.
That interest is widespread. A survey sponsored by the NSSF also found that 18 percent of Hispanics now own a firearm, and an additional 25 percent would like to own a firearm in the future. Desire to own a gun is even stronger among Hispanic women, at 27 percent.
Young participants are also increasing. Tom Wondrash, national director of Scholastic Clay Target Program, a branch of the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation (SSSF), says the SSSF now has programs in 42 states and has seen the number of students involved grow from about 6,000 in 2011 to more than 13,000 today.
Meanwhile, nearly 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. now offer shooting programs. Russ Arnold, who heads up intercollegiate events through Shooting Sports Consulting, said that the 2015 Association of College Unions International (ACUI) National Championships had 681 shooters from 76 different colleges and universities. "The shooters shot six different events and we threw over 300,000 targets," said Arnold. "That is about a 13 percent increase in shooters over 2014. On average, the college participation at nationals has grown from 10 to 20 percent annually."
As the industry embraces these new customers, the interests of new and increasingly female gun owners, hunters and anglers are influencing trends and helping to reshape the shooting sports. Competitions, for example, used to cater primarily to older, methodical types. Those who didn't weigh the grains of powder in each hand load, or rigorously learn the predictable game of skeet or precision pistol, didn't fit in so well at these competitions.
But these days, some traditional shooting sports can seem slow and boring to new shooters, who often prefer more dynamic engagement. They grew up with video games and want a lively experience — even some instant gratification.
To make competitions more fast-paced and realistic, and more fun to watch, many event organizers have been experimenting and segmenting. This trend gave us sporting clays, Cowboy Action, a surge in the popularity of 3D archery tournaments, 3-gun (rifle, pistol, shotgun) competitions, and even fishing competitions that require participants to tie their own flies or to face instant penalties for poor fish handling techniques.
New events and formats are constantly being created to challenge today's shooters, hunters and anglers. Many of the games are now more fun and realistic, and help foster all-around shooters who do well on the range and in the field. Some of the examples mentioned here may fade away (one already has), but the overall trend is likely to continue growing as new — and more often female — gun owners join the community.
A good example of this evolution is the NRA World Shooting Championship, held at the Peacemaker National Training Center in Glengary, W.Va. This competition gathers the world's top shooters to compete in virtually every type of major shooting sport, including pistol, rifle and shotgun, to crown one undisputed "World Shooting Champion."
The competition is not just for the pros. There are three divisions: Open Professional (sponsored shooters who want to shoot their own guns), Stock Professional (pro shooters who will use provided guns), and Amateur (non-pro competitors who will use supplied firearms).
What's most innovative about the NRA World Shooting Championship isn't that it has 12 stages comprised of everything from Cowboy Action to five stand — that trend is happening all over — but that they also provide the guns. Because modern sporting rifles, pistols and specialized shotguns can be expensive, this new development significantly reduces the costs of entry. The Amateur match fee, for example, is $325, which includes both the gun and the ammo.
Another example of this all-around trend is the Total Outdoorsman Challenge. In this event, competitions narrow the field down to 12 All-Star competitors who go head-to-head in 20 events as they compete for over $25,000 in cash and prizes. The events include a 2-Gun gopher hunt, 3D archery, a simulated duck hunt and team challenges.
Even the NRA Bianchi Cup has been evolving due to the influence of new shooters. This annual event takes the same four events (barricade, practical, falling plates and mover) and changes distances and times to force competitors to adjust under stress. Last spring's format was modified radically, says Jim Shepard, editor of The Shooting Wire. "In a new final round, the 16 top shooters overall and the four highest shooters in Metallic, Production, Ladies, Juniors and Seniors/Grand Seniors all competed for the overall title," said Jim.
Dennis Willing, who runs the shooting event, said they included the changes to make the event more exciting and entertaining. The Bianchi Cup also introduced "jumbotron" screens so spectators could get a better view of the action.
THE 3-GUN EXPLOSION
Over the last decade, 3-gun matches both rode and drove the trend to make shooting competitions more interactive and dynamic.
The reason for the name "3-gun" is because competitors must shoot three different firearms — a modern sporting rifle, a pistol and a shotgun. Matches generally involve courses where the shooter moves through different stages and engage targets from a variety of different positions. Though local ranges might opt to alter the rules, most follow those set up by the International Multi-Gun Association (IMGA) or the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA).
One such competition is the Superstition Mountain Mystery 3-Gun event held in Mesa, Ariz., in March. There's also the Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship in August at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M. To showcase the sport, 3-Gun Nation televises a professional circuit of top-ranked shooters who compete for points. The competition series ends in a year-end shoot-off for $50,000.
There is even a 3-gun competition performed at night. Crimson Trace started the Midnight 3 Gun Invitational (M3GI) and held it annually for three years. Jim Shepherd, founder of The Outdoor Wire and The Shooting Wire, then took over the M3GI concept with the goal of making it a more spectator-friendly shoot. The new "Starlight 3-Gun Series" looks like a light-and-laser show with plenty of action.
OPTIONS FOR HUNTERS
Some organizations have tried to create opportunities for hunters, too. The American Whitetail Authority (AWA), for example, developed what it called the "Whitetail Pro Series," a series of competitions where hunters used video-equipped scopes and empty guns to record their "kills." Several seasons of a TV show followed these hunts. But expenses and production challenges made it difficult to film, and the series is now out of production.
But other companies have found ways for hunters to shoot guns and bows at "live" game on screens. The Sportsman Shooting Center in Grapevine, Texas, for example, is a fully enclosed, indoor training center that lets people practice with simulators and also shoot on a live-fire cinema range with their own rifle and ammunition. The scoring is computerized and as instantaneous as a video game, allowing hunters to enjoy realistic practice sessions. And the Sportsman Shooting Center hosts a shooting league that provides a month-long competition for local carbine shooters.
Laser-shooting ranges are also popping up across the country. Laser Shot, for example, hosts "practical shooting competitions." Gander Mountain, meanwhile, has six "virtual ranges" located in stores from La Crosse, Wis., to Lake Mary, Fla.
Shooting interest is emerging in other areas as well. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) reported that the number of "shotgun shooting" merit badges jumped 27.8 percent from 1999 to 2010. Archery and rifle-shooting badges also increased. The BSA's shooting merit badges are so popular that the group introduced new shooting sports booklets to help instructors teach scouts how to shoot and thereby earn their badges.
A few years ago the BSA opened The Summit, a 10,600-acre adventure center in West Virginia. The Summit is now the permanent home of the National Scout Jamboree. Among many other outdoor attractions, it houses a spectacular .22 rifle range.
Likewise, 4-H has seen a lot of growth in its shooting programs. The 4-H's Shooting Sports Education Program, which began in Kentucky, is a good example. Started in 1988, the program now involves about 6,000 youth and 900 volunteers statewide.
The organization says this program "is an introduction to the safe and responsible use of firearms and archery equipment, which is a valuable life skill. It trains youth to handle and shoot firearms safely. It teaches leadership and responsibility in a non-formal environment while offering fun activities for youth and adults. While competition is not the main focus, the program does offer opportunities to participate in shooting events, competing in various disciplines and age groups."
The 4-H disciplines included in the program are Shotgun (12- and 20-gauge); Rifle (.22 cal. bolt-action, air and BB); Pistol (air and .22 cal.); Muzzleloader (rifle and pistol); Archery (compound, recurve, Bow Hunter and Target); and Hunter Challenge.
Another potential new option for youth competitors and adults is American Marksman, which plans to allow amateurs to compete in four categories: Men's Open, Women's Open, Junior (ages 12-16) and Military/Law Enforcement. There are three levels, moving from local qualifying to regional levels and championships and, finally, the national championship, where the best shooters from each of the categories vie for the ultimate crown.
THE TREND CONTINUES
In the effort to appeal to a broader base while providing a more dynamic spectator experience, other organizations are following suit as well. The Major League Fishing tournament rules, for example, are designed to create competitions that are more exciting for both competitors and fans. The MLF has introduced live, real-time standings that provide minute-by-minute angling drama. Meanwhile, judges are right there to impose penalties for poor fish-handling, which effectively put an angler into a "penalty box" for a set amount of time.
Most of these adaptations to shooting, hunting and angling competitions are designed to appeal to a new, more diverse outdoors community that continues to expand. They are also often designed to make competitions more fun to watch by capitalizing on fast action, social media buzz and video opportunities.
So whether you're looking to improve your shooting, test your abilities in competitions, or just enjoy watching the skills of others, there have never been more ways to engage the sport — or a more diverse fan base looking to join you.