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Army West Point Pistol

On Target with Success

By Kim McDermott ’87, WPAOG staff

Photo Above: Academic Year 2018-2019 Pistol Team. Front (left to right): Hyun Yim ’19, Austin Myers ’20, Eric Dragland ’19, Sean Min ’20, Emily Schultz ’20, Chia-Chi Hu ’22, Liz Irving ’19, Ben Meure ’22, Austin Morock ’20. Back (left to right): Quin Cochran ’19, Ethan Wilson ’22, Christian Mardaga ’21, Mac Heric ’21, Brandon Hottois ’19, Caleb Roth ’19 (Team Captain), Keegan Buros ’20, Taylor Schorlemmer ’22, Coach Duston Saunders ’72. (Not pictured: Garrett Plant ’19.)

In the late summer of 1993, a Daily Bulletin item caught the attention of Lieutenant Colonel Duston Saunders ’72 (Retired) (then working at the West Point Association of Graduates). The Academy was seeking a volunteer coach for the Pistol Team. During an assignment at West Point in the 1980s, Saunders and his wife had sponsored four cadets from the Class of 1984 and found it to be a very rewarding experience. He hoped that coaching the Pistol Team would be equally so. He says, “I had no background in competitive shooting. Along with picking the brain of the outgoing coach, Jack McJunkin, I attended several NRA firearms instructor courses and coach certification courses.”

The leadership at AOG supported Saunders’ desire to coach, and he is now entering his 27th year. Prior to 1993, Army Pistol had been a Corps Squad, or varsity, sport. Budgetary cuts affecting the Academy at the time meant some things had to change, and downgrading the program to a club status was one of them. Despite the change, the team still competes against many of the same opponents each year. Primary competition includes: U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Texas A&M, and Ohio State University.

Saunders recruits new team members during the annual Club Night held early in the academic year. He has 20 spots on the team, and, for the 2019-2020 season, he had the chance to pick up nine cadets. (He lost seven to graduation in 2019 and had two vacant spots.) Still, 60 to 80 cadets try out on any given year—so the competition to make it is tough. The club roster needs to be set and on file by Labor Day weekend, so the cuts are also quick— interested new shooters have to make a good first impression. The team is primarily men, but usually has four to five women on the roster each year. Many become successful competitors, even though they usually don’t have previous experience.

Cadet Emily Schultz ’20 is a perfect example. Schultz had never fired a weapon until she came to West Point and had no experience shooting at all, never mind shooting Olympic or Steel style of pistols. A neighbor, a competitive shooter for decades, happened to be a Range Safety for Collegiate Nationals at Fort Benning, Georgia and heard through the grapevine that West Point’s team needed more female members. He reached out to her and invited her to go shooting in his barn. “From the very first shot I was hooked,” she says.

The team is co-sponsored by the Department of Military Instruction (officially, it is considered a military club) and the Department of Physical Education (because it is technically a competitive club). While the bulk of training takes place at the Tronsrue Indoor Marksmanship Center (a 2002 gift from George M. Tronsrue III, Class of 1978 and his wife, Cindy), the team also leverages training at the Tactical Defense Institute (TDI) in West Union, Ohio each year. The TDI offers three-day, twonight pistol and rifle training. There is a live fire stress-shoot which elevates both adrenaline levels and heart rate of the shooters. Performing well under those conditions bodes well for the more controlled Olympic-style shooting the team normally competes in.

While competing and winning at the intercollegiate level is important as cadets, competing and winning on the battlefield after graduation is much more important. TDI also gives Pistol Team members the combat marksmanship skills and tactics that are critical on today’s battlefield. Whether a Team member branches Infantry or Quartermaster, Saunders wants them well prepared to defeat any enemy on any battlefield.

Competing in three to five matches per semester, the Army West Point Pistol Team typically makes it to Nationals in March. In fact, the team has been overall National Champions 12 times since Saunders has been coach: nine Open (men and women) National Championships, two Women’s National Championships, and one Scholastic Action Shooting National Championship. This is a remarkable record, considering that for most of Army’s opponents, Pistol is a varsity sport. This means they can try to recruit the best shooters they can find. One of Army’s strongest rivals is the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, which has the added advantages of not requiring a congressional appointment, and head coach Richard N. Hawkins ’76—a West Point graduate!

Photo left: Cadet Austin Myers ’20 competing in the Scholastic Action Shooting Program—Steel Challenge.

The President's Hundred Tab is one of four permanent individual skill/marksmanship tabs authorized for wear by the U.S. Army. The tab is highest in order of precedence on the uniform, followed by the Special Forces Tab, the Ranger Tab, and the Sapper Tab. Cadets on the Pistol team may have an opportunity to compete in the President’s Hundred Match at Camp Perry, Ohio. It is very competitive and is not a top priority, so they get limited opportunity to train for it. While no cadet has earned the President’s Hundred Tab, it exposes them to the competition and they get invaluable experience for the future. Several Pistol Team alumni have earned the Tab.

Last year, Saunders’ team produced five All-Americans. (This accolade averages the scores of all matches shot.) West Point has historically made the Top 10 (overall champions are determined by aggregate score) in all shooting categories. Men have competed in three categories: Free, Standard, and Air. Women shoot in Air and Sport categories. Free Pistol was recently dropped for men, though, as it will no longer be a form of competition in the Olympics. In its place, teams are now adding Sport Pistol.

Saunders assigns three primary competitive goals for the team each year: win Nationals, BEAT NAVY, and go undefeated. Last year the team placed third overall at Nationals, defeated Navy, and ended with a 9-4 season—losing only to Ohio State University and Coast Guard (twice each). “We want to win,” he says, but he believes the ultimate goal is that participation on the Pistol Team should make each cadet a better officer.

The means to this end is a simple, yet purposeful, approach to coaching. He pairs the experienced shooters with the newer team members. Mentors stay with their charges for at least one semester, if not a full year. This method develops coaching and leadership skills in the cadets which can be leveraged within the Corps, and more importantly, at their first unit. Often cadets are asked to be trainers or evaluators during their visits to TDI, a sign that this approach is effective.

Saunders says, “We toe the line at all times.” This means stringent enforcement of all standards. Uniform, appearance, policies, regulations, etc. Team members must demonstrate a strong work ethic and have high expectations of themselves and each other. “Maybe it’s the Old Grad in me,” he says. Schultz says, “We have a lot of solid people on the team and because of that our team has an extremely good reputation throughout the Corps.”

The team practices each weekday from 4:30 to 6:30pm. “If you walked through the Range during practice, you would think it looks disorganized and chaotic,” Saunders says. Insisting it is actually very controlled, he adds, “Pistol requires intense mental focus.” Shooters must spend a lot of time learning how to shoot well, which means focusing on the sight, not the target. Cadet Keegan Buros ’20 says, “[Pistol] has helped identify and fix some of my greatest mental weaknesses,” so the discipline extends beyond the range.

Photo right: Focus on the front sight, smooth trigger press, perfect performance as Army defeats The Citadel in Standard Pistol at Tronsrue Marksmanship Center

Despite the intensity of the work required to excel in the sport, cadets say that practice is one of the best parts of their day. Cadet Sean Min ’20 says, “Olympic-based shooting requires you to be relaxed. Therefore, going to practice every day gives me a chance to wind down from the regular stresses of West Point and recharges me to continue pushing on.” Schultz says, “Coach has built a team [on mutual respect] so practice is more of a relief than a chore.”

Schultz also credits the team’s success to adaptability. “We are always willing to try something new, and we constantly strive to be better than the day before. We are all willing to go out of our comfort zone and try something new when what we are doing is not working.” Buros cites Saunders’ coaching experience and style as another key factor to success. “Seeing how much time and effort he dedicates to the team makes me want to push my own limits.”

Min considers Saunders as one of his life coaches. “He wants us to shoot well and gives us pointed advice as to why we aren’t shooting straight; however, I think he wants to help us develop into more thoughtful and competent officers even more. My conversations with coach usually aren’t shooting-related. I’m always asking for his thoughts/experiences regarding specific issues, life, and much more.”

The cadets know how much Saunders cares about them and they believe that the family environment is a huge factor in the success of the Pistol Team. Schultz says, “As soon as I joined, I gained a family. We are all extremely close, and even though we can be a little bit tough on each other every once in a while, I believe that we all have each other’s best interests at heart.” When asked which one word best describes the Pistol Team, both Buros and Min say, “Family.” In fact, Min joined the team initially thinking it’d be “cool” to be able to shoot pistols after class; however, he remained on the team after discovering a family in his coach and teammates.

In another example of how much he enjoys coaching, as well as how highly regarded he is within the sport, Saunders was selected to Coach Pistol Team USA at the World University Games in Naples, Italy this summer. From June 30 to July 10, he coached one cadet and three other students (two Coast Guard, one Ohio State) at the annual collegiate competition.

Saunders, too, appreciates that he has built a culture of family within the team. “I truly believe they are better officers having been members of the Pistol Team. Many keep me involved in their lives long after they graduate. Once a Pistolero, always a Pistolero! We look after each other.” What Saunders may not realize is how much his team appreciates it. According to Buros, “Being a part of the Pistol Team is like being a son or daughter to the Saunders family. [They] foster a positive team environment that is focused on improvement and winning.”

Printed in West Point magazine, Fall 2019, all rights reserved.