The first full week after July 4th, precision pistol shooters from across the US and overseas gather for the national championships at the National Guard’s Camp Perry Ohio facility on the south shore of Lake Erie. Numbering 600-800 annually, they shoot NRA and CMP (Civilian Marksmanship Program) events in more than a dozen combinations of event, skill, age, profession and gender-based categories.
Often as not, single events are delayed, moved and sometimes just plain cancelled due to weather and equipment issues. Ankle deep mud combined with calf deep standing water is not uncommon. The trek from parking to firing point is a minimum of 100 yards and often several times that due to the parking shortage. Competitors either hoist their 30+ pound shooting boxes by shoulder straps and slog their way through, or they load equipment into carts purchased for the occasion and then try to drag them to the designated firing point. First timers learn the hard way that small 4″ wheeled carts are hopeless. Only carts with bicycle-size wheels get through when the mud is bad.
Tornados and lightning storms are not uncommon. Because the range is completely open with practically no trees, everyone is at risk. When a storm is due to come close enough, a “stop for the storm” will be called. All equipment must be packed and slogged back through the mud to cars while everyone seeks shelter and waits for the return call to slog through the mud yet again to resume fire.
So, why bother?
There are at least three reasons.
- It’s the National Championship.
Everyone who is anyone in Bullseye — recently renamed to “Precision Pistol” by the NRA — goes every year or at least hopes to do so. There are no qualifying events. Anyone can shoot regardless of skill. And while shooters are somewhat segregated by skill level, last minute changes always give the opportunity of drawing a firing point next to a national champion. That means either he will score your target, or you his. Either way, you’re going to make a new acquaintance. Guaranteed.
- Camp Perry is a tradition.
The National Championship has been held at this location since 1907. Records have been set, broken and broken again and again for more than a hundred years in that same, fragrant mud.
- It’s a test of preparedness, of making do, of persevering.
Squalls blow up in minutes — do you have your rain gear and plastic ZipLock baggies to protect those expensive handguns while you’re down scoring your neighbor’s target? Did you bring — not leave in the motel — your mud boots? Just because it’s sunny today doesn’t mean there wasn’t two inches of rainfall yesterday to renew the mud.
Guns break. Did you bring a spare that will qualify for each of the different events? What about ammunition — did you bring enough? Does the fallback firearm need different ammunition — Bullseye shooters often craft gun-specific ammunition for maximum precision so every gun needs its own supply.
When the sun is out, it can be 100 — both temperature and humidity. How about a hat with a wide brim? Sunblock? Shade umbrella? And if the previous relay is delayed and you have to wait an hour, did you bring a folding chair that won’t sink 12″ into the mud? What about water to drink and an energy bar for stamina?
You must be ready for Perry’s fast-changing and extreme weather.
All these things make Camp Perry “interesting” but there’s one more that draws shooters year after year.
It’s the shared experience, the camaraderie engendered through the suffering. It bonds us together. Wet or dry, cold or hot, windy, tortuous or sublimely beautiful, everyone remembers the experience far more than the holes in their target.
“Wow, this is almost as bad as ’13 — remember the tornado?”
“That’s nothin’. Wait ’till it’s 105 with 100% and not a breath of wind.”
“We stopped for an eagle last year and it flew right over the line. What a beauty!”
“Did you see the mob for ice cream at Andy’s last night? It was like everyone left Crosswinds at the same time with the same idea.”
“Don’t get the deep fried Walleye at Jolly Rogers. It tastes like the mud on my boots mixed with WD-40. Stick to the Perch — it’s good, really good!”
“Where were you yesterday? I didn’t see you.”
“They had me at the low end of the line and I didn’t know any of my neighbors.”
“Where are you staying?”
“Couldn’t find anything within 50 miles. I ended up with a couch in somebody’s room at the Best Western. There are five of us in there with our Perry mud stink. How ’bout you?”
“Me and three others have one of the old huts in a low area. We have an inch of standing water inside the cabin the whole time. You can’t put a thing on the floor. I don’t think I’ve been dry once all week.”
Yes, it’s wonderful to be part of the national championship — everyone almost always shoots at least one target better than they ever did in the past. Bullseye shooters know that on a good day, they can rise far higher than they have any right to hope and anyone can come home with an unexpectedly great score.
But more than that, more than the competition, more than the shooting, it’s the rain, the mud, the wind, the unexpected interruptions that stay with you. And it’s the friends, met there and then renewed, or missed, each year that suffer through the same trials that are printed on your memory.
My first and only visit — so far — was in 2013. That year, a tornado passed within 200 yards of our motel and it lifted, disassembled and then dropped an old red barn on the other side of the highway. The motel had no power for three days. On the firing line, a hand-lettered, make-shift “No Wake Zone” sign was stuck in the water and mud. Those conditions recur every year or two and the same sign, crafted anew each time, returns at a nearly identical spot year after year. It, too, is a tradition.
Some of the shooting is memorable, of course. I shot a 97-7X in the 45 caliber Timed Fire and my scorer said, “Nice target.” The center of that one with its one giant X-ring hole and 9 and 8 “flyers” hangs on my office wall, the paper wrinkled from rain and the back still muddy where I laid it down to cut out the center.
Am I ready to drive the four days from Arizona it takes to get there and then another four days back again? Am I ready to spend a couple of thousand dollars for gasoline, food and hotels? Am I ready to stand and crank the reloading machine for all those evenings to amass the necessary ammunition? Am I ready for the rain, the mud, the wind, the cold, the blazing sun, insufferable humidity and storms of insects just so I can go to the championships at Camp Perry again?
In a heartbeat.