The Air Force National Pistol Team does well in competitions, but for these Airmen, doing well is not enough. Decades ago, the Air Force team was dominant — competitive at an international level. It is that former glory that the current team strives to regain. (U.S. Air Force video/Jimmy D. Shea)
In his earliest childhood memories, Staff Sgt. Terrence Sears and his three younger brothers are running through his family’s 20-acre property in Graham, Texas, shooting BB guns at makeshift targets and at the occasional bird or rodent. As the years went on, he and his brothers graduated from BB guns to .22-caliber rifles and larger guns and began hunting wild game with their grandfather, Bill Alcorn, who they affectionately call “Pop Corn.” But when Sears enlisted in the Air Force, the time he spent firing weapons for fun quickly evaporated — until he learned about the Air Force National Pistol Team.
“When I got in the Air Force, I kind of lost the opportunity to hunt and fish as much, depending on where I was stationed,” Sears said. “So when I got to San Antonio and found out about the team, I thought it sounded like something I’d like to give a shot.” Now, Sears has been a member of the team for three years and serves as the team’s NCO in charge. He and other team members represent the Air Force at the annual Interservice Pistol Championships at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they compete against their fellow service members, and at the NRA National Indoor Rifle and Pistol Championships at Camp Perry, Ohio.
At the Interservice Pistol Championships, competitors fire for accuracy, also known as bullseye, in several pistol matches that are made up of three stages: a slow-fire stage, where the target stands 50 yards away, a timed-fire stage at 25 yards and a rapid-fire stage, also at 25 yards. Competitors can win trophies for individual performances and for how their team performs overall. These days, team members buy and maintain their own equipment, train on their off-duty time and take permissive TDYs to participate in competitions against their fellow service teams — some of which, like the Army and Marines, still field full-time teams. The Air Force competitors recognize they’re at a disadvantage, but they use it as a source of inspiration instead of an excuse. “We have a day job, everyone on the team is scattered throughout the country, we shoot when we can on our own time, and then we come and compete,” Sears said. “We’re missing shooters now because of their jobs, but we don’t want to use it as an excuse that the Army beat us because we’re not full time. Right now, the Army has won 14 straight interservice competitions. We would like to get the Air Force team back to being competitive against the Army and the Marines.”
Although the Air Force team members continue to work their primary jobs, there was a time early in the team’s history, when members temporarily left their Air Force careers and competed on the team full time. In 1957, Gen. Curtis LeMay recognized the service’s need for training in small arms and tasked Col. Thomas Kelly with starting a unit of shooters and maintainers at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, according to current team coach Edwin Hall, who competed on the team from 1992 to 1998.
It’s no surprise that the team saw incredible success during that time frame. In the 1960s, for instance, the team won many overall and pistol matches during the interservice and national championships. But in July 1969, during the Vietnam War, the team was disbanded and its members resumed their Air Force jobs, Hall said. It wasn’t until decades later that the Air Force would once again field an official team, this time in an off-duty capacity.
“Everyone has a day job, and they’re expected to work the normal Air Force hours every week. They’re expected to deploy for six months. Every one of the guys here is spending money out of pocket,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Barnett, who serves as the team’s officer in charge. “That shows part of their dedication. This sport requires daily dedication. It doesn’t mean they’re out at the range every day, but weekly, they are practicing and training, when work doesn’t get in the way.”
Sears believes the shooting proficiency he and his fellow team members are gaining by being part of the team can benefit them in their Air Force careers. “This is the type of competition that translates to any kind of shooting you’re going to do,” Sears said. “Here, you’re competing and shooting pistols, but you could be downrange with a rifle or pistol and the same concept and disciplines will help you there. “We focus on doing everything the exact same way every time, so getting your grip, squeezing your trigger, aligning your sight, it’s a muscle memory,” he said. “You practice that so if I ever get into (a firefight), I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, is my safety off? Am I squeezing my trigger or aligning my sights?’ It’s second nature.” At this year’s 56th Annual Interservice Pistol Championship, the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit won its 15th straight title, with the Air Force team taking fifth place out of 13 teams. While the Air Force team didn’t reach its goal of placing in the top three, one of its members won an individual pistol match, which no one on the team has done since the 1980s. Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Jackson took first place in the .22-caliber pistol match, shooting a personal best 888 score. “That morning, I woke up and something about it felt different. I looked over at my buddy and said something felt special, and it was going to be an excellent day,” Jackson said. “When I shot my first slow fire target, it ended up being one of my better ones and I knew from that point on it was going to be an excellent day.” The team members recognize they have to continue to dedicate themselves to reach the level of success of the Air Force teams in the past, but they feel they’re not far from being there again. “We’re pretty close right now to being back at the top, being that team to beat again,” Jackson said. “For us to get there, it’s been a long road, but it’d be nice to be a part of it when it does happen again.”