Missouri is famous for college athletics, but one of the state's most competitive programs seldom makes the sports pages.
The shooting team from Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield is the only collegiate shooting team in Missouri. It competes against other college teams around the country in trap and skeet, target pistol and target rifle. The shooting team attracts a variety of students, including members of the football team and women's basketball team.
"We've had shooting sports programs at SMSU since the 1960s," said Dr. Burl Self, shooting sports education program director at SMSU. He also teaches geography and Middle East politics. "It's a long tradition here. We've had some very good teams, and invariably we've been ranked in the top five nationally.
"Three years ago, we were ranked No. 4," he added, "right behind Navy, Army and Air Force. We develop good teams, and 100 percent of our shooting team members graduate."
Self said the shooting program enjoys solid support from both the student body and the administration. "Firearms are regarded very positively here," he explained, "and more countries are participating in organized shooting sports than ever."
He gave as an example, the sport of biathlon, an endurance event that combines rifle target shooting with cross-country snow skiing. It's one of the world's most popular sports in terms of participation. He added that shooting events lead all Olympic sports in numbers of teams.
"The most active competitive shooting societies in the world are Russian and eastern European," Self said. "The Russians usually dominate shooting sports competition."
Since 1972, Self has promoted shooting sports at SMSU. "The shooting sports are a time-honored, American tradition," Self said, "and anyone can enjoy them for the rest of their life."
He said many young people are fascinated with shooting, and the students involved reflect positively on the university.
"At SMSU, the shooting sports program has been a major influence in perpetuating a good image for firearms and firearms owners," Self said. "Our student participants are socially and academically well-adjusted, and I believe the athletic competition promotes life skills that are very important to leading a successful life."
Self's credentials are impressive. He's been shooting competitively since 1956, when he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. After entering the regular Army, he competed with the U.S. Army-Alaska rifle and pistol team, and later with the First Armored Division rifle and pistol team. Returning to the Oklahoma National Guard, he competed on the University of Oklahoma rifle team. At SMSU, he said he's taught marksmanship and firearms safety to several hundred students over the years.
Since SMSU doesn't offer scholarships for shooting, Self and Dr. Jon Wiggins, a technology professor in the agricultural department who coaches the trap and skeet team, build teams by recruiting freshmen from monthly firearms safety seminars. The seminars are open to the student body, and average attendance is about 200. Teams are composed of between 18 and 30 students.
"Anyone on campus can come to the seminars to learn about firearms and marksmanship fundamentals," Self said. "There are always standout performers in the marksmanship classes, and we encourage them to participate in team activities."
Like any sport, shooting requires commitment, discipline and practice. Shooters must practice two to three hours per week.
"Some of the really good ones train five to eight hours per week," Self said, "and they fire 1,000 to 1,500 rounds per week in controlled marksmanship exercises. We have quite a few walk-ons, but we require everybody to attend a presentation on safety and basic skills of marksmanship. And, of course, we supervise them on the line."
Due partly to its affiliation with the National Rifle Association's Civilian Marksmanship Program, the SMSU program emphasizes firearms safety. Team members are all business on the range, and each shooter keeps close watch on the others for any sign of carelessness. Self pointed out that there has never been an accident in collegiate shooting.
Self said students gravitate toward the sport for different reasons. For example, Chris Malotte of Springfield, the captain of the pistol shooting team, had never touched a firearm before joining the shooting program. There were no hunters or shooters in his family so, if anything, he was somewhat biased against firearms until he met Dr. Self.
"I took Dr. Self's geography class, and I got really interested in his stories about his military experiences," Malotte said. "He encouraged me to attend one of the orientation seminars, and afterwards I came out here and just fell in love with competitive shooting."
"All through high school I played football, basketball, tennis and wrestling, but I never found anything as fulfilling as competitive collegiate shooting," Malotte added. "In football, you can miss practices here and there and still perform at an adequate level. In pistol marksmanship, you have to train constantly to get maximum performance."
As team captain, Malotte is responsible for securing team funding from the SMSU Student Activities Association, scheduling the orientation seminars and recruiting.
Malotte said competitive shooting changed his life. It taught him discipline and helped him choose a career path. He is now majoring in political science, with a minor in geography. He said he plans to join the U.S. Marine Corps and enter their officer candidate school after graduation.
Sandi Kirkwood of Cameron, a petite, soft-spoken photography major, has been a deer hunter since age 11, when she bagged her first buck. Kirkwood doesn't keep track of the number of deer she's taken, but she's quick to point out they were all one-shot kills. She said she joined the shooting team because she loves to shoot, and to prove that she is as good or better than any of the guys.
"I got interested in the shooting team when I saw a story about it in the newspaper," Kirkwood said. "I've been hunting since I was a little kid, but I'd never been exposed to actual target shooting, so I decided to try out."
As a member of the shooting team, Kirkwood said she not only represents the university, but the shooting community at large.
"Some people are afraid of firearms, but I don't notice a lot of opposition to them," Kirkwood said. "A lack of understanding maybe, but for the most part, people I know think the shooting team is pretty cool. It's nice to know people think well of it, and the team definitely has a good reputation throughout the rest of the school.
"Of course, we're in the Midwest, and hunting is huge here," she added, "and I come from a farming community where everyone shoots."
Like Malotte, Kirkwood said competitive shooting has given her confidence and instilled in her the importance of teamwork.
"Competitive shooting is kind of like a track meet," Kirkwood explained. "Each individual needs to be at the top of his or her game and, together, you excel as a team. If one person has a bad day, it brings the rest of the team down. You have to always work to improve yourself and to help each other out."
Recreational shooters are among America's most generous supporters of wildlife conservation. They not only contribute to conservation through the one-eighth of one percent conservation sales tax, but they also pay a 11 percent, federal excise tax on all purchases of sporting arms, ammunition and archery equipment, as well as a 10-percent tax on handguns.
These taxes are mandated by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, passed by Congress in 1937.
The money, which the federal government redistributes to states, is dedicated solely to wildlife restoration projects and cannot be used for any other purpose. In 2002, Missouri received nearly $5.1 million in Wildlife Restoration Act funds.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler