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Air rifle team shoots past competition

“Sports can be a game of inches.”

Although true with many sports, this adage does not do justice to the Illinois State University Air Rifle Team and their sport of competitive target shooting. Truly a game of millimeters, target shooting has quickly evolved into both a competitive sport and global pastime.

The team, comprised of the University’s four top shooters, took third place at the NRA National Intercollegiate Rifle Club Championships at Purdue University in April. More than 280 collegiate teams attempt to qualify for this event every year, with only the top 10 sectional qualifiers invited.

“We normally enter around 11 tournaments and try to qualify for the national championship every year,” said Joe Miller, head coach.

Each shooter takes 60 shots at a target 10 meters away using an air rifle capable of firing pellets more than 680 feet per second. Twenty shots are from a standing position, 20 from a kneeling position, and the last 20 are from a prone position. The round targets have 10 rings inside, and the score increases closer to the center. A perfect score of 10 is the size of a pin head.

Narrowly edging out Illinois State (2,176 points) was second place Clemson University (2,177 points) and first place University of Michigan (2,186 points).

“You can really see how close we were to a national championship,” Miller said. “After four shooters, Clemson beat us by one point. That is just one little ring on the target.”

Although only four shooters participated in the championship, the team averages more than 25 members a year. Six members of last year’s team weren’t students and participated simply for enjoyment.

“Anyone in town can join the team. We’ve had kids as young as seven or eight and adults in their 60s,” Miller said. “It costs $20 a semester and we have all the equipment you need. The money buys the pellets and targets we use all semester.”

Many students join the team as a hobby, and after a couple years of practice start to shoot competitively. Once you start shooting seriously, it’s hard to stop, the coach said.

“It’s easy to shoot one 10. We can have you doing that in three weeks,” Miller said. His goal is to have team members shoot the perfect score of 10 for 10 consecutive hits. “That’s the difference.”