DARIEN, Ill. - Army Reserve Soldiers travelled from all over the country to compete in the first ever Army Reserve Small Arms Championship this week, a competition that lasted five days at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, beginning Sept. 22.
"This is what the Army is all about, and how to (become) a better Soldier," said 2nd Lt. Christine Bell, a competitor from the 77th Sustainment Brigade, who travelled from her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, to shoot.
"I think this is definitely a good competition that needs to stick around," she said.
The 416th Theater Engineer Command organized the championship in conjunction with the Army Reserve Marksmanship Program (ARMP). Approximately 70 Soldiers participated, including some National Guard members, making up 14 shooting teams.
The competition was divided into three stages with approximately a dozen matches. Each stage consisted of a different weapon. Soldiers competed with the M16A2 rifle (shooting targets up to 500 yards away), the M9 pistol and the M249 machine gun.
"The tremendous value (of this competition), is that Soldiers have the ability to refine their shooting ability because they can see their exact points of impact and make adjustments, as opposed to having hit what we would consider very large targets (such as pop-ups), and so you don't have much of a chance to adjust and improve. Feedback is critically important to improving skills," said Lt. Col. John Cletus Paumier, the championship's officer in charge.
As another officer put it: "This is a training event disguised as a competition."
Various award categories went to the best shooting teams and individual Soldiers based on each weapon's scores and overall points. Scores were marked in a national championship fashion. Each silhouette had center mass rings. Shots closer to the center counted more than those farther out.
The ARMP, made up of Soldiers who have competed and won national and worldwide shooting competitions, supervised each match. Their aim was to give every Army Reserve Soldier a shot at winning.
"We did not want any of our national team members to compete in this competition. We wanted to bring this down to the lowest level, to the company level, (for them) to send in a four-man team and possibly win," said Sgt. Maj. Mark Bearnson, of Wanship, Utah, the championship's match safety director.
"We didn't want to intimidate anyone. We wanted them to be able to feel like they could come here and have a chance to excel and win without going, 'Oh geez, there's a guy from the national team. I don't have a chance,'" he said.
Some of the Soldiers had never shot targets at 400 and 500 before this week. Others had never qualified on an M9 pistol or the M249. For those reasons, the ARMP provided expert instructors to coach competitors before each match.
"It wasn't really intimidating. The coaches here just made it sound easy, and then when we finally shot and actually hit the (500 yard) target, it wasn't so bad," said Staff Sgt. Patrick Miller, of Lewellen, Nebraska, with the 208th Digital Liaison Detachment.
For the rifle and pistol category, there was also a special match known as "Excellence in Competition" or EIC. During this event, Soldiers advanced closer and closer to the target, shooting from various designated distances. For the rifle EIC, Soldiers began 400 yards away and came as close as 25 yards from the target. They moved forwards in intervals, approaching each firing line, stopped, took up firing positions, shot a timed magazine and kept going through the end. As they approached closer, the shooting positions increased in difficulty and their time limit decreased. They started in the prone with 90 seconds on their side, and they eventually graduated to standing with just a few seconds to shoot.
"It's designed to create a stress level," said Bearnson.
A similar setup was conducted for the pistol EIC as shooters began 35 yards away and moved closer five yards at a time until they reached the 15-yard line.
The top 10 percent of the competitors in each EIC match received either a bronze or silver badge, depending on their score. Their points will also accumulate toward achieving the Distinguished Marksman title. Earning this title is a prestigious achievement within the shooter community, which takes several national matches to accomplish.
"It's really fun. I realize that there's a lot more to firing than just what we do at the unit. I'm going to take back a lot (back) to the unit and help my Soldiers become better marksmen," said Sgt. German Sanchez, of Green Forest, Arkansas, competitor with the 688th Engineer Company.
That's the whole reason behind the competition, not only to reward good shooters, but to help Soldiers see the importance of marksmanship. On several occasions, the cadre mentioned that shooting should be valued as much as physical fitness in the Army.
"One more push up might not save your life," said Master Sgt. Norman Anderson, head coach of the Army Reserve Rifle Team from Knoxville, Tennessee. "But one shot might defeat the enemy."