Sunday, August 5, 2012

University of Maine Rifle Team

A big part of my college years at the University of Maine was the rifle team.

The rifle team was one of the most successful athletic teams in the history of the university. The rifle team existed from 1923 to 1984 with four suspended seasons. That's a total of 57 active seasons, out of which the team won the New England championship 20 times. During my four years at the University of Maine (1973-1977) we won the New England championship three times, all but my sophomore year.

An extensive history of athletics at the University of Maine was published in 2007 and just recently made available online:

The Maine Book: University of Maine Athletics 1881-2007

Click here for the chapter on the rifle team. I'm in that chapter in three places, including the team photo on p. 6 from my senior year 1976-77. (The caption for that photo is misleading and partially wrong. See the first comment to this post for a better caption.) We were undefeated that year.

The photo on p. 9 is from the year after I graduated, so I'm not in it, but it is the only photo that shows the sign in the rifle range with all the years that the team won the New England championship. They won it that year, too. We practiced under that sign and it inspired us.

How big a part of my life was the rifle team? I earned a varsity letter in riflery all four years. I was co-captain of the team for three years. My college roommate my junior and senior years was a teammate. I was in several weddings of teammates. Two teammates were in the wedding when Nancy and I were married in 1979.

The University of Maine rifle team was sponsored jointly by the Military Science Department and the Athletic Department. The Military Science Department supplied the range, equipment, and coach. My recollection is that the Athletic Department paid for travel, but I never knew the details of the finances. In my four years on the team, few members of the team, and none of the top shooters, were in the military. The rifle team became a co-ed team the year I was a freshman.

We traveled all over New England and competed against Norwich University, Dartmouth College, MIT, Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, Providence College, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Once a year we went to a big invitational event at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. We weren't the top dog there, often being competitive only with West Point's second or third team. But one year we beat even their first team. On the national level, there were many college rifle teams better than us, but we dominated New England and we sure had a lot of fun!

The rifle team at the University of Maine started to go downhill when it was determined, a few years after I graduated, that there was too much lead in the air in the rifle range. The team tried practicing off-campus, but it eventually died.

There has been a long trend of declining popularity of college rifle teams since before I went to college. Both the University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College had rifle teams in the past, but they had disappeared by the time I went to college. Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy graduated from Saint Michael's College in 1961 and was one of the top shooters on its rifle team.

But maybe this trend is starting to reverse. The Wall Street Journal had an article about college rifle teams on Dec. 6, 2011, p. D2:

Young Scientists Take Aim

The article is about the college rifle team at the University of the Sciences (a pharmacy school) in Philadelphia. I was pleased to see in the article that MIT still has a college rifle team.

A few words about the sport at the time I was in college. We competed at 50 feet indoors with .22 caliber rifles. Air rifles were a novelty and were not yet used for competition. We competed in three positions: prone, standing, and kneeling. We fired 20 shots in each position. The highest possible score for each shot was a 10, so a perfect score was 600. We used the A-36 target.

For a match eight shooters would be selected to compete. The high four scores that day constituted the team score. (Sometimes, such as at West Point, we had to designate in advance the four shooters on the first team and the four shooters on the second team.) A perfect team score was 2400. As reported in The Maine Book, we regularly had team scores in excess of 2200.

Target rifle shooting in college was an indoor winter sport. Many of us also competed in matches outside of college, year-round. In college we were not permitted to use telescopic sights. Matches outside of college sometimes allowed telescopic sights and often included a fourth position: sitting (that is, sitting cross-legged, not sitting in a chair). Indoor matches were at 50 feet, the same as college, but often on the easier A-17 target. There were also outdoor matches in the summer, at 50 yards for three or four position events, and at 50 and 100 yards for prone-only events. For outdoor events, of course, weather is sometimes a factor—wind, rain, sun, temperature, etc.

Target rifle shooting in the Olympics has evolved over the years (see this Wikipedia article). The Olympics currently underway in London include five rifle events:

10 meter air rifle, standing only, indoors, men and women
50 meter .22 caliber rifle, 3 position, outdoors, men and women
50 meter .22 caliber rifle, prone only, outdoors, men only

These are all individual events. There are currently no team rifle shooting events in the Olympics. The 50 meter three position event would be closest to what we shot in college except that we shot indoors and at 50 feet with correspondingly smaller targets. Like college, telescopic sights are not allowed in the Olympics.

Scoring is slightly different in the Olympics from what I described above for college. The "qualifying" round consists of 20 shots in each of three positions for women (similar to what I described above for college) while men shoot 40 shots in each position. For both men and women, the top eight shooters in the qualifying round go on to shoot another 10 shots, standing, in the "final" round. For the final round only, scoring is in tenths of a point with the highest possible score being 10.9 for a perfectly centered shot. Scoring is electronic. The scores from the qualifying round and the final round are added together to determine the overall ranking.

As I write this, four of the five events listed above are complete and the U.S. had won only one medal. Jamie Lynn Gray won a gold medal in the women's 50 meter three position event, setting an Olympic record. Go Jamie! There are also additional Olympic shooting events for pistol and shotgun. Details here.

P.S. Almost anything can be found on the Internet these days! Click here to see the location and scoring of every shot that Jamie Lynn Gray fired to win her Olympic gold medal, in both the qualifying round (60 shots in three positions) and the final round (10 shots standing).