Jan 08, 2018

Shooting Competition Attracts More and More Texans, Women and Juniors Included

Reporting Texas

Ashlynne Thomas, 11, practices an hour every day for competitions, but her parents plan eventually to home-school her so she can practice four hours a day.

On a hot day at the shooting range, 11-year-old Ashlynne Thomas wore a purple jersey decorated with sponsor logos and a bow in her hair that read “Gun Girl.” Looking at the targets arranged along the path in front of her, she planned her movements, shot for shot. Then the range officer started the timer.

Twenty-three shots and two minutes later, Thomas turned back to her family and smiled. She’d completed Best of the West Shooting Sports’ 3 Gun Competition — and in the final stage, she didn’t miss a single shot.

The shooting competition known as 3 Gun requires competitors to complete multiple stages of shooting by hitting complex series of targets with a rifle, shotgun and pistol. The competition is growing in popularity across Texas and the nation, drawing shooters of all ages and genders to the range.

“I’ve seen people start shooting, and shooting competitively, at ages from 5 all the way to 90,” said Daniel Jirasek, a Round Rock firefighter and a member of the Texas Firefighter Marksmen team. “It’s a sport that can encompass the whole family and all ages.”

Daniel Jirasek, 36, a firefighter in Round Rock, leads his team during the competition. Ear and eye protection is required at all times on the shooting range.

3 Gun has been around Texas since the early 1980s and gradually evolved from a side event at other shooting competitions to a major event in its own right, according to Kurt Gruber, an organizer for the annual Texas 3 Gun Championship. But it was in the early 2010s that the event really began to take off.

Jirasek shot his first 3 Gun competition after he was invited by his firefighting captain.

“He’s not the kind of person who asks twice,” Jirasek said. “So I showed up, I shot with his borrowed gear, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

In the five years since Jirasek first shot for 3 gun, he’s poured more and more time and energy into the sport. Now he and his team regularly place in national meets. Even as mass shootings frequently appear in the news, the sport remains popular.

“There’s a large portion to the U.S. that wants to limit the Second Amendment,” Jirasek said. “But a majority of Americans know a gun is a tool, like a hammer or a saw. It can’t hurt anyone without malice behind it. And it’s OK for shooting to just be a fun hobby.”

But Jirasek also says the sport can be an intimidating one to begin.

“A lot of people have a hard time taking that first leap,” he said. “It’s daunting, even for confident, grown men.”

Jirasek prepares his rifle for medium-range targets. Competitors move from station to station switching between firearms, while a referee keeps time.

“It’s an incredibly demanding sport,” said Mat Unruh, whose Leander company Round 2 Shooting & Brass specializes in loading ammo for the competitive market. “It’s very physically and mentally challenging.”

Unruh emphasized the amount of concentration and memorization required to complete a stage correctly. Competitors are shown the required sequence of targets only once, then have to remember it when under the timer.

This combination of memory and technical shooting skill regularly draws hundreds of competitors to national matches. The Texas 3 Gun Championship, one of the national events, is expecting more than 250 competitors in 2018, a spokesman said.

“It’s growing fast,” said Tina Maldonado, the leader of Austin’s chapter of A Girl and A Gun, an organization for women shooters. There’s always been competitive shooting, she said, but lately she’s seen a dramatic increase in interest from the women in her chapter. Shooters attribute that growing interest to the intense community that surrounds 3 gun.

Thomas high-fives her father after completing the shotgun round, hitting every target. Thomas plans to compete in seven majors in 2018 outside of Texas.

“I’ve just never seen people like this anywhere else,” Jirasek says. “You can be competing, against your teammates or against strangers, neck and neck in scores, and they’ll give you a piece of equipment straight off their gun if you need it.”

For enthusiasts, this kind of camaraderie has deep roots. Competitive shooters are aware that many in the country don’t understand or are deeply uncomfortable with their sport and culture, but the pressure only brings them closer.

“Shooters have been branded as crazy in the U.S. media,” Jirasek said. “But competitive shooting is full of people who get together and believe deeply that this sport is deeply connected to our American freedoms, that this is uniquely important. It creates a special bond.”

That bond has proven to be flexible, too. Though Maldonado said competitive shooting hasn’t always been welcoming to women competitors, she and others feel more accepted than ever before. And more women are approaching the sport at younger ages, though there’s still a long way to go.

“There’s not a lot of females in local matches,” said Jennifer Thomas, Ashlynne’s mother, though she added that there were often more at major events. Even so, she estimated there were only about 50 competing at a “serious” level.

Thomas has been shooting since she was 8. She started with a .22-caliber rifle and now fully competes in 3 gun competitions, using all three weapons, a rifle, a shotgun, and a sidearm.

That’s not stopping Ashlynne Thomas from shooting. She’s planning on attending seven national competitions in 2018 and regularly practices for an hour a day. Jirasek continues to train regularly as well.

“There’s always something else you can be working on, getting better at,” he said. 

Enthusiasts want to see more people competing at local and national matches.

“This is the year we really want to get more people into the sport,” Jirasek said. “It’s not easy to get into by yourself, so we’re trying to bring more and more people out to the range with us. And every meet we’re going to, we’re bringing three or four new shooters with us.”

Thomas prepares her shotgun for a 3 Gun.