EAST MISSOULA — When Jalise Williams completed her fifth stage at Saturday's practical shooting tournament, a male competitor yelled out “girl power.”
As her sister, Justine Williams, followed up with a similarly impressive display of quickness and accuracy, onlookers shook their heads in disbelief.
Jalise, 15, and Justine, who turns 14 next week, are two of the youngest, fastest-rising competitors in the United States Practical Shooting Association. The sisters from St. George, Utah, made their Montana debut in the USPSA Area 1 Championship at the Deer Creek Shooting Center as they tried to qualify for the national tournament.
They’ve competed in nearly 30 states, have risen up the national ranks and will compete on the international stage over the summer. As the USPSA tries to bring in more female and youth competitors, the sisters' rise is seen as a positive force in trying to diversify the field.
“What’s kept me involved is everyone is friendly and brings you in and helps you,” Justine said. “I also love the competitiveness. We can make history and show that kids and girls can win.”
The sisters were looking for a new challenge after they had success in gymnastics and swimming, and had earned black belts in karate by the time Jalise was 10 years old and Justine was 9. They found their next test when their mom took them to a ladies' night pistol shooting competition in November 2013.
They had fired rifles and shotguns since they were 4 and 3 years old as they hunted alongside their dad. But the practical shooting on a range, something neither of their parents knew much about, has become their latest endeavor.
“It’s completely taken over,” Jalise said, adding that they started going to an online high school in January so they can train as much as they want and compete in a tournament every weekend. “We decided to get very serious with our career.”
They also volunteer at their local range, help with matches and teach classes. And they’ve gone from watching their favorite shooters on TV to competing alongside them.
Justine has risen to become a grandmaster, the highest rank, as a production handgun shooter. She set a goal to be a grandmaster by 16, made it when she was 13 and now has her sights set on replicating that in another division.
A person has to be in the top five percent of their division to be a grandmaster. Only about two percent of the 32,000 shooters in the USPSA’s 463 clubs are grandmasters.
Jalise isn’t far behind as she works her way up the ranks in the single-stack handgun division.
“We push each other back and forth,” Jalise said. “It’s our competitive spirit. There’s no way to be perfect, but you can always drive so hard for perfection.”
Both of them will compete at the 28-country Pan American Handgun Championship hosted by the International Practical Shooting Confederation in Jamaica this July. They’ll also travel to Bulgaria this summer as they try to make a name on the world stage.
Scott Bair, the Area 1 match director, has been astounded by the Williams sisters’ success, especially given how young they are and how little time they’ve been competing.
“It’s the equivalent of me becoming Pope,” Bair said, “and I’m not even Catholic.”
Shooting has traditionally been an older- and male-dominated field. It’s something Mike Foley, the USPSA present and CEO since 2016, has been trying to change.
“We’re fighting that tradition,” Foley said. “We’re still catching up to the rest of the world.”
The USPSA has grown from 24,000 to 32,000 members in the past two-and-a-half years. That growth is slowly bringing more women and minors into the fold, especially as entire families are joining.
“There’s little athleticism related to shooting,” Foley said. “You don’t have to be a certain size or have so much muscle to be successful.”
Safety is the number one priority no matter who is involved. All weapons must remain unloaded when a competitor isn’t on the firing line. And if a shooter drops a gun, no one can move until that gun is safely picked up.
“It’s because of the shootings going on that people are wary of this stuff,” Jalise said. “They don’t understand how this is the safest environment I’ve ever been in. I’m more worried of getting shot on the street than getting shot here.”
The Williams sisters would like to see more females and younger kids involved in the sport, even if it adds more competition to their push for grandmaster ranks and world titles.