There’s more to shooting than meets the eye.
Precision, of course, is important, but accuracy in shooting depends on a lot more than that. It requires concentration, stamina, body control and timing, among other things.
Few people know that better than those on the Hellgate Rifle Club. Few people are better than those at the Hellgate Rifle Club.
Eight preteens and teenagers from around the Missoula area make up the traveling team and all eight of them qualified for the national championships this past June in Camp Perry, Ohio.
The foursome of Ibby Lorentz, Justin Thomas, Jonna Warnken and Sam Weisenburger placed third at the national meet in the National Junior Olympic 3PAR and fifth in Team Precision.
“We were just focused in, we knew what to do,” Weisenburger said. “I'm proud of us.”
The second team of Alex Weisenburger, Libby Diller, Abby Donald and Jack Seilby finished 32nd in Team Precision and 30th in 3PAR.
Advancing to nationals doesn’t just happen overnight.
The shooters practice at least three times a week during the season. Sam said he practices up to four times a week, depending on what he wants to work on.
“There’s no point in practicing if I don’t have the drive,” he said.
Sam knows that the sport isn't the most thrilling to watch, but in the end, it all pays off.
"It's not the most interesting sport to watch, you're just shooting targets," Sam said. "But let me tell you. It's really, really stressful and it's really fun when you shoot really well. That can be rare sometimes, but as you get better and better it becomes more common. When you place third in the country, it's really exciting."
Not just hitting the target
Trace Weisenburger — Sam and Alex’s dad — serves as one of Hellgate Rifle Club’s coaches. And for him, there’s more to coaching than just marksmanship.
He wants all of the kids to get college educations.
“There's 26 different schools around the country that offer scholarships,” Trace said. “Four of them, the academies, offer full rides and the other 22 offer partial scholarships, and then they try to match them up with regular, academic scholarships. If our kids are smart and they shoot well, they can end up with a full-ride to go to any of those 20 schools.”
He would know. He went that same route.
Trace, a 1986 graduate of Big Sky, went to the Air Force Academy and earned All-America honors all four years he was on the rifle team.
Sam wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I can excel at (shooting) and I like to think I got some genes from my dad,” Sam said, laughing. “That's my goal, to go to the Air Force Academy and get that scholarship and get in and see where I go from there.”
Trace prides himself on the off-the-range successes of the shooters.
“Every one of our kids out there are all straight-A kids,” Trace said. “Fortunately they all go to different schools so they can be the first in their class. They learn a lot more than just shooting. They learn how to be competitive, they learn how to be goal-oriented. They learn how to better themselves.”
Hellgate Rifle Club’s season runs from mid-September to March and even longer if the team’s shooters advance to the national stage, just like some have for the past three years.
September and November are for “brushing off the dust,” according to Trace, before the matches begin in December.
Even with the first match of the season, the pressure’s on. The very first match of the season is at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“You shoot with the top elite in the country,” Trace said of the winter air rifle match in Colorado. “That's also where all the coaches kinda gather around that are looking for potential students and kids for their teams. It's really important that all of our kids get to that particular match that are eligible for college right now.”
From there, Hellgate Rifle Club hosts a state meet at their facility at Deep Creek Range. The winner of that meet gets an automatic berth to regionals in Utah.
Once at Utah in March, the best of the best advance to the national meet in Ohio in June. The Hellgate team placed second at the regional — and had the second best score of all the regionals — to move on.
There are other matches around the country the team competes at during the season as well to get practice in.
“It's always good practice to shoot more matches,” Trace said. “The more matches we shoot, the less anxiety one gets when it really counts because you've had a lot of practice at shooting big matches.”
It’s not cheap
The rifles the team use cost a pretty penny.
According to Trace, the rifles range in cost from $2,000 to $3,000. And that doesn’t factor in ammunition. It doesn’t account for the travel expenses or other practice equipment either.
Thanks to grants from organizations like the Friends of the NRA and fundraising ventures, the team can afford to compete and compete with the best technology available.
“There's all new stuff always coming out,” Trace said. “We try to keep our program up to date with what's currently out there to try to get our kids the best equipment to use. Coaching is also another big part to try to keep everybody on task. If you just let eight kids roam around doing what they want to do, nothing really happens.”
The Hellgate Rifle Club has its sights set on returning to nationals and hopefully taking home the gold.
“We were really close to taking first, but we couldn't quite pull that one off,” Trace said. “We were six points behind and six points is not a whole lot. That's our goal for this year. We're not losing any kids to college. We still have the same team members and maybe one additional one that will be able to go with us next year to nationals.”