By Rick Kozlowski
GLENGARY – Tommy Thacker sat in an airplane seat with his father last January as they headed to Las Vegas for the finals of FNH USA 3 Gun Championship and pulled out a bracket and started scribbling.
The 38-year-old Thacker, who hails from Winchester, pointed out the pairings of the eight-man field and predicted round by round which shooter would advance.
He proved as good on his projections as he did with his projectiles.
Thacker’s predictions proved right, and, most importantly from his standpoint, he won the championship.
However, Thacker went into Saturday’s competition at the Peacemaker National Training Center “12 points out” of the running to return to Las Vegas for the finals in January.
“I may have to go to Texas to get enough points,” Thacker said.
Thirty-two shooters will move on to the finals this time around.
Defending his title, one that came with a $50,000 payday, has been difficult for Thacker, because, he hasn’t had the time to put in.
“You can’t hone your skills when you’re sleeping and working,” said Thacker, the director of product management for FNH who represents the company team as a shooter.
“If you’re not practicing once a week, if not more …”
Three-gun competition involves shooting with a pistol, a shotgun and a rifle at different stages, which, in essence, provide different scenes at which to shoot.
Accuracy is important, but so is speed.
“You got to be a really good shot and really fast,” said said Ken Pfau, an FNH employee and shooter.
“It’s like in a real-life situation, where you’re setting up different scenarios. When you walk a course in golf, it’s different each day.”
It’s different from stage to stage.
Thacker had just come off a stage where he fired at targets in a wooded area, first win a shotgun and then with a pistol. After that, he raced up a slight hill and then into position where his rifle was positioned to fire at some long-range targets, one more than three football fields away.
“This sport is not just a shooting sport,” Thacker said, “It takes a lot of athleticism.
“I got lots of natural speed and agility. That comes into play. And I like to shoot.”
Three-gun came into existence in the mid-1980s in California as an offshoot of simple target shooting when some shooters simply got bored by standing there and firing at objects as static as the participants. They wanted more excitement.
Being fast and being able to shoot different weapons captivated its developers. It’s been catching fire elsewhere in the country, though it’s still been a little slow to grow on the shooting landscape on the East, many said.
“It was kind of an underground thing,” said Mike Voigt, an employee of SureFire who was one of those tired of just standing around and shooting, and helped get it going.
“This is almost like UFC as shooting sports go.”
Voigt came from Southern California to compete on Saturday.
“This is more athletic, and it takes speed,” he said. “It’s good for law enforcement, the military and people who have different purposes.”
Many of those competing over the three days were folks who handle firearms in their duties daily. There were more than a fair share of simple gun enthusiasts, too.
A total of 319 competitors registered for the event that wrapped up Saturday night with a banquet at Heritage Hall. There were 120 guns presented as prizes to the best marksmen and women in different divisions.
Thacker belongs to the top tier, the exploits of which are followed by a television production company for a show called “3 Gun Nation” and shown on NBC Sports.
Pfau explained that scoring is based on a percentage system that gravitate down from how the best shooter performs.
For example, Pfau said the best shooter might complete a particular stage in 50 seconds. “If I shoot it in 60 seconds, I get a lower percentage of the point.”
There a maximum of 900 points available, which almost sounds like a perfect, three-game bowling series. In both cases, it’s unheard of.
“This is the fastest growing shooting sport in the country,” Pfau said. “It’s really starting to take off in parts of Europe.”
While any given stage at Peacemaker might’ve lasted at most a couple of minutes, Pfau talked about a three-gun competition in Idaho that lasts some nine minutes and includes a segment where the shooters ride a zipline and shoot at targets on either side as they speed through the air.
“There’s so many three-gun shooters in West Virginia and Virginia,” Pfau said.
Most of its devotees expect it to grow.
Jeannette Hanfling, public relations manager for FNH USA of McLean, Va., said she expects her company to come out more often to host shooting competitions at Peacemaker.
She said FNH, a subsidiary of a Belgium company, produces Browning rifles and has rights to Winchester rifles, as well as its own product line.
Peacemaker, which celebrated its first anniversary earlier this month, is the creation of Cole McCulloch as a way to alter a farm that’s been in the family since the early 1800s.
Gens. George Washington and Edward Braddock crossed the property during the French and Indian War, McCulloch said, and a father and son, veterans of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, respectively, are buried there.
Now the property serves as a training area and a competition zone.
“This is like the Super Bowl of shooting for this sport,” McCulloch said.
In Thacker’s case, he came looking for another “touchdown.”