SWISHER– In an era of tense controversy over the use and possession of firearms, one group in this northwest Johnson County town is learning to respect guns, rather than fear them.
And they’re learning life lessons while learning to shoot.
For two years, the American Legion Post 671 in Swisher has sponsored a Junior Shooting Sports Program, one of the legion’s many family and youth programs. Participants from ages 12 to 18 use an air-powered rifle shooting a .177 caliber pellet as they learn gun safety and marksmanship.
“Our primary goal is to teach kids how to safely handle firearms and how to use and respect them,” said Gary Palas, commander of Post 671 and state vice-chairman. “It’s interesting to watch these young people as they learn the dedication it takes to improve. They grow mentally, it teaches a lot of disciplines they’ll use throughout their lives. It is also interesting to note, that the American Legion is working with youth to teach firearms safety.”
Bill Bestgrove is the head coach for the Swisher program. A certified National Rifle Association (NRA) shooting instructor and national level competitor, Bestgrove brings championship experience to the kids. He’s won the state service rifle competition twice as well as being a state champion in small bore (rifle) competition. Bestgrove was, “the final piece of the puzzle,” Palas said when he described the seven-year long process to get the program up and running.
Program equipment was purchased with donations and part of the proceeds from the post’s food tent during the annual Swisher Fun Days.
The shooters, both male and female, use the same equipment and shoot from three positions: standing, prone and kneeling, as they aim at a target 10 meters away. Because their target rings are so small, the shooters generally have a spotting scope with them to confirm hits, and Bestgrove and Palas use field glasses to verify the shots as well. Precision is the name of the game, not only in carefully aiming the rifle, but also in correctly positioning their arms and legs. In competition, a forearm angle greater than 30 degrees, for example, can cost a shooter valuable points.
It’s a challenge, but one the young marksmen enjoy.
“I like to shoot,” said Kali Ainesworth of Cedar Rapids. She recently earned an intermediate (ages 15-16) division championship at an NRA-sponsored match in Milan, Ill. Ainesworth hasn’t even had a full year with the group, having started after watching her younger brother Drake participate. “She’s a natural,” Bestgrove said of the young sharpshooter. Ainesworth said shooting teaches her patience and is a family activity she can share with Drake. In addition, their father does some coaching as well.
Drake Ainesworth said the skills he’s developing help him when he’s out hunting. Mitchell Sorge of North Liberty, a student at North Central Junior High, recently picked up his second state championship in a row. A buddy introduced him to the sport, and he’s been hooked ever since. At the same match, Danny O’Rear, also of North Liberty, earned a second place medal.
New members undergo a thorough orientation including a heavy emphasis on safety and shooting fundamentals with Bestgrove. Safety is paramount during practice and competitions, and the sport in general proudly claims a 100 percent safety record. Also, for the safety of the young people, two coaches are with the kids at all times.
They also begin to work through an NRA qualification program with progressively harder goals to attain as they earn titles such as Marksman and Sharpshooter.
“It’s there to challenge them as well as to show progress,” said Bestgrove, who takes the paper targets home with him after each practice to record scores in a logbook.
The season typically runs from September through March and goals are set each year in three categories: earning qualifications, competing in the state legion match and in the Iowa State Rifle and Pistol Association’s 3P (position) air rifle match. A national competition is also held through the Legion and the sport itself qualifies as an Olympic event.
Bestgrove and Palas say that shooting is an activity practically anybody can participate in, and can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment.
“We totally believe in what these kids are doing,” said Palas, who described his biggest reward relating to the activity.
“When you see these kids walk out (of a competition) with their arms full of medals and trophies and a great big smile on their face, that’s all the thanks you need.”
Interest in the sport is growing, with legion posts in Washington and Wellman working to establish their own programs. In addition, Muscatine, Lone Tree and Durant also have programs up and running along with other programs scattered across the state. Other legion youth programs include Boys State, legion baseball, oratorical, and essay contests.
For information on entering the program, call Gary Palas at 319-533-0700, or Bill Bestgrove at 319-626-2710.