FORT BENNING, Ga. — The Army's action shooting team won the four-man team event for the second straight year and several individual first-place titles during the 2015 Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship at the National Rifle Association's Whittington Center near Raton, New Mexico, Aug. 13-16.
"This type of match plays to our strengths with more difficult shots, a more difficult environment," said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Horner of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, or USAMU, who competed during his sixth year at the championship. "It went exactly as it was supposed to go — we won the team match and individual matches."
First place individual titles went to Horner in the Tactical Optics (Military) Division, Staff Sgt. Joel Turner in the Limited Sights (Military) Division, Sgt. Tyler Payne in the Open (Military) Division and Pfc. Katie Harris in the Lady Division.
Competitors shot three stages per day during the first three days of the four-day championship. Day four consisted of shoot-offs for individual divisions and the team event.
Horner, Turner, Payne and Sgt. John Browning, all from USAMU, and eight other teams fired pistols, shotguns and rifles during the initial team match on day two - conducted downrange where only the team firing was allowed to see their own performance. However, in individual events, all marksmen watched their competition perform.
"It was kind of a hidden stage," Turner said. "We drove there, and they literally only gave you five minutes to walk through."
He said everyone had to figure what they were going to do while firing the weapon assigned to them.
"[We] were kind of on our own; we pulled together and came in second," said Turner of Belton, South Carolina.
Their second-place standing after the team event on day two and rankings in individual stages from days three and four landed the Army team in the shoot-off, against three other top teams on the final day.
The shoot-off consisted of a relay with team members alternating after firing six shots each. Each team had 24 targets to hit cleanly, and each missed shot resulted in a penalty.
In individual competition during the championship, some stages included all three weapons, some two and others only one.
Horner, from Suffolk, Virginia, became a Soldier nine years ago, and he said the Army has been his life since he joined after completing high school.
"It is pretty much all I know," said Horner, who has been the 3-gun national champion three times, among other national titles. "The Army has helped me in a ton of different ways, as far as education, experiencing new things and traveling the world. It has helped me in almost every aspect of my life."
He said all of the stages of the Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship have something to offer, but the last stage, which was all-pistol and had shooters moving down a rocky ravine at break-neck speed, was his favorite.
"The long gully run with the pistol with 56 rounds and an almost 200-meter run - that was my favorite stage - because it was really complex, trying to remember everything and find the targets," Horner said, adding he has been competing with a pistol since he was 12 years old.
Browning agreed that the all-pistol stage showed competitors how well they can shoot on the move.
"The targets come up really fast, and you have to put your body in the right place," said Browning, a Jackson, Georgia, native. "It's pretty hard to execute perfectly."
Another member of USAMU's action shooting team, Pfc. Katie Harris, also said she really liked the all-pistol stage. However, she had a slight mishap during her run.
"I actually fell and still shot while I was sitting down and then continued to go," she said.
After falling, Harris landed sitting down but kept her weapon pointed in a safe direction. Despite the trip, she hit her targets, recovered her footing and completed the stage successfully.
Another fan of the all-pistol stage, Payne, of Princeton, Minnesota, said that although all the stages were set up well, the all-pistol stage was not only his favorite, but one where he had the fastest time in the group.
"It was a really long stage, and you had to remember where all the targets were, and it was really, really difficult not to blow past the target," he said.
Horner said these types of stages give marksmen a chance to think on-the-fly while combining continuous movement in the New Mexican landscape of mountains and desert terrain - making it essential for the competitors to employ alternate or hastily-made positions.
"A lot of other matches are in sterile environments, and the targets and obstacles are set up by the match officials," he said. "This is a little bit different with the natural terrain and being able to go out in the mountains, run down the gullies and run around trees. So, it's a much more physically-challenging match, and there's a lot more to finding and identifying the proper targets."
"It boils down to practice, but you have to have your mind right," said Browning, a rookie on the action shooting team, but a pro at the Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship, having competed in it four times. "[The Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship] is pretty demanding - it's a lot of marksmanship mixed with knowing where to move and how to move and executing everything smoothly."
Because of the challenges the championship offers, Browning, who transferred from the Marine Corps as a competitor and instructor for their combat shooting team, said he rehearsed the stages multiple times — building mental images of each — and memorized them. He then practiced these images in his mind as he waited his turn.
"When it's time for me to shoot and the timer goes off, I know exactly what I need to do, exactly where I need to go and, at the end of that, you have a contingency for stuff that goes wrong," Browning said. "So, even if you don't execute the plan perfectly, you know how to recover from it and get back on the plan. The walk-throughs and rehearsals set you up for success."
"[Joining the Army Marksmanship Unit] has always been my dream, since I started shooting the bigger matches," he said. "Now, I can ask [Horner] what he's going to do for this or that."
Like Browning, this was also the fourth time Harris, of Taylorsville, Georgia, has competed in this match, but the first three times were as a junior 3-gun shooter before she joined USAMU. She won as Junior Lady in her divisions when she was ages 16-18.
Harris said being part of the Army and the USAMU's action shooting team has helped her progress as a marksman, who can work through problems, distractions and challenges such as her stumble on the all-pistol stage.
"The Army has helped me achieve my mental aspect of shooting… definitely given me a better physical capability for each stage in every match, and it has helped me develop more personal courage," she said. "I had a blast here because I got to shoot with four of my teammates, which really shows teamwork and how much you need each other to push and to finish the match."
This was Turner's second year of competition in the Rocky Mountain 3-Gun Championship. He said he enjoyed the physical aspects of the championship, the long-range opportunities and the pace.
"I like the fact that you are shooting targets out to 500 [yards]," Turner said. "It's not as fast-paced as 3-Gun Nation [matches]… so I can actually think about the next step."
He said shooting with the action shooting team has taught him more than any other assignment in the Army.
"When I was with [75th] Ranger Battalion, I thought I was a good shot there," he said, "but when I got to USAMU, I realized I was so far beneath everybody. What is cool about the team is we train together and we critique each other and, as long as you can take constructive criticism, you'll get better. I just listened to them, and they got me to where I needed to be."
Payne said he enjoys shooting in the natural terrain of New Mexico on the 33,300 acres of the NRA's Whittington Center and, sometimes, competitors get to enjoy seeing wildlife at odd times.
"One year, they were shooting a stage, and they had to stop [shooting] because a mountain lion chased a mule deer through the stage," he said. "I'm a big fan of the mountains, so if I can have mountains and natural terrain, it's a lot of fun for me, just running through the terrain and seeing all the animals and wildlife."
Payne has competed in the event several times before, winning in his division or placing second. He also competed as a junior — winning high junior, before joining USAMU. He and Horner paired up twice for the International Sniper Competitions, which they won in the Open Class division in 2012 and 2013. He credits the Army for his continued marksmanship expertise.
"The Army is such a great place to [learn]," Payne said. "You shoot with the best shooters in the world, literally, every day. So, every day that you shoot, you're going to learn something new, pick up small tips and techniques that make a big difference."