FORT BENNING, Ga. - A U.S. Army Soldier has made shooting sports history on the world stage, not just once, but now, two years in a row.
Sgt. 1st Class Adam Sokolowski with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) claimed the 2018 Bianchi Cup Champion title on May 25 in Columbia, Missouri when he won the Open Division and beat out 163 other athletes from eight countries and 33 states with a perfect score of a 1920-176x (highest possible score: 1920-192x).
While the win in itself is impressive, the facts behind the win are what make it historical. By winning the Open Division at the National Rifle Association's action pistol competition this year, the Soldier not only beat out the reigning eighteen-time Bianchi Cup Champion Doug Koenig, but he became the first competitor to consecutively win all three divisions-Production, Metallic and Open-in the entire 40 years of the event.
In those 40 years, only one other person has ever won all three divisions. However, those wins were over a shooting career of 37 years, and should be looked at under a different light, said competitive shooter Rob Leatham of Springfield Armory who placed 2nd in the Production Division with a score of 1862-129x.
"When I won Open [in 1985], there were no divisions. It was all Open," said Leatham about the three-day, four-event action pistol competition with a course of fire that has remained virtually unchanged since it started in 1979. "Adam [Sokolowski] coming in and winning three different divisions, in three consecutive years, it's safe to say that nobody will ever do that again, because nobody has done it in the 40 years of the match existing."
Leatham, a professional shooter who has competed in the Bianchi Cup since 1982, has several Production and Metallic Division Champion titles under his belt, and with his 1985 Open Division Champion title, he stands as the only other "Triple Crown" Champion who knows exactly what Sokolowski really accomplished.
"To think somebody else will have that kind of talent, versatility and drive to learn how to do that, and be good at all those, is very unlikely," said Leatham.
To add even more to the feat, Sokolowski only started shooting the Bianchi Cup discipline (which is a precise, fast paced, two-hand fired pistol match) four years ago when USAMU leadership asked the Service Pistol Team to branch out from their traditional Bullseye style discipline (which is a precise, slow, one-hand fired pistol match). So when the unit asked the Service Pistol Team to try something new, the Somerville, New Jersey native did what any good Soldier would do-he did some research.
"The first thing I did was pull out a rulebook and speak to every competitive shooter I knew," said Sokolowski. In that process, he prepped his team for a new challenge, and set himself up to make history.
With rack grade guns, Sokolowski and his fellow USAMU teammates shot their first Bianchi Cup courses of fire in 2014 and 2015. By 2016, Sokolowksi had become so well versed in the discipline, that he claimed the Production Division Champion title, which means the competitor uses an out-of-the-box pistol/standard top-draw holster. In 2017, since he had achieved his goal of winning the Production Division, he decided to change things up and train and compete in the Metallic Division, meaning, the competitor uses an iron sight pistol/open face holster. This is where he made Bianchi Cup history the first time. In his first Bianchi Cup Metallic Division showing, he not only claimed the Champion title, he won it with the first-ever perfect score of a 1920 with an iron-sight gun, an accomplishment no other Metallic competitor has managed to date.
Before his historic Metallic Division win, Sokolowski said he briefly considered shooting the Open Division, which means the competitor uses an electronic sight pistol/open-face-draw holster. But that was mainly just to understand the division.
"As the team chief, it's my job to understand the sport, especially since I have Soldiers shooting it."
However, after his Metallic Division victory, it was a fellow competitor and shooting sports legend who suggested that Sokolowski go for the "Triple Crown."
"I really didn't give it much thought until last year when I won Metallic...and Rob [Leatham] said, 'You know, you could go for three in a row,'" explained the Soldier.
"So I took up what Rob said to me and figured, why not-I'll give it a try. And, it worked out pretty well."
Working out well does not mean it was easy though. Competition at the Bianchi Cup is known to be fierce as top shooting sport athletes from across the United States travel to the annual competition to vie for titles. Over the years, the event has also drawn high profile competitors from across the globe, making faces and jerseys from Barbados, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Japan a common sight.
Ryan Best, a marksmanship instructor with the Barbados Rifle and Pistol Federation, says his club started coming to the Bianchi Cup in 2013. Though Best said marksmanship is prolific on his island, the action pistol discipline is not as well known.
"We felt [action pistol] was a discipline we could use to build the quality of shooting back home," said Best who placed 19th in the Metallic Division with a score of 1646-80x. "It requires a lot of precision at high speeds and you really have to be cemented in your fundamental skills and call them on demand to do well in this match."
Of course, calling up marksmanship skills at the internationally known Bianchi Cup takes more than just practice. With the competition being held over three days and with rotating schedules, each competitor must shoot the four different events in various conditions and times. Then, the events themselves-The Moving Target Event, The Falling Plate Event, The Barricade Event, and The Practical Event-test the competitors' skills at different distances, positions and speeds. So on top of testing the competitors' marksmanship skills, there is this whole other "mental game" to win, said Sokolowski.
"I've been able to practice it and shoot it really well. But, being able to actually come here, when it matters with all the other top competitors-you can make very few, if any mistakes... It's more of a pressure game to be able to deliver when you need it, and that's what's mentally challenging."
The challenge and competition is just what seems to draw in the top talent from across the globe. Combined with the long history of the match, many competitors find the Bianchi Cup to be their must-go-to match.
"There is just something about this match that is bigger and better than any other match," said the 2017 Bianchi Cup Ladies Open Division Champion Cherie Blake from Australia who placed 2nd in the 2018 Ladies Open Division with a score of 1910-137x, which was right behind her fellow Aussie teammate Anita Mackiewicz with a score of 1911-153x. "It's hard to put it into words, but something happens here that makes it a terrific match," said Blake.
The stress at the Bianchi Cup doesn't only come from the match. Many competitors agree that a lot of stress comes from an internal struggle of trying to achieve a personal best in scores.
"The Bianchi Cup is the one match you can truly shoot for yourself. There's a score. There's a goal that you want to achieve and you try to meet it. Whereas everywhere else you can be a little faster, more accurate...but not here," said USAMU alumni Julie Golob who is now with Smith & Wesson and placed 6th in the Ladies Open Division with a score of 1872-137x.
With all this mental challenge and international competition, the Bianchi Cup still manages to have the feel of a family reunion. Competitors who are vying for the few top titles greet each other with hugs and smiles. They talk about their families, dreams and struggles. And they even help each other on the range with advice, equipment and a helping hand.
"Those guys, and gal, are totally awesome. They are great conversationalists. They will help you in a pinch. They have given me, personally, so many helpful tips," said Best about his experiences with the USAMU Service Pistol Team at the Bianchi Cup. "From the very first time they came, they've been giving me tips on how to shoot better, how to position myself better...little tips and techniques for each individual event," he continued.
Though many of the face-to-face interactions happen at the Bianchi Cup, several competitors say they stay in contact throughout the year once they meet. Best said he speaks to the U.S. Army Soldiers pretty regularly throughout the year.
"You can always question them about anything to do with shooting, and those guys always want to help. That's just a small taste of the brotherhood that you feel when you come to Bianchi. You know, everyone is like family... It's a refreshing experience," said the competitive shooter from Barbados.
The family feel is also not uncommon among the Department of Defense competitors, with teams from the U.S. Border Patrol, USAMU and recently, the U.S. Marine Corps regularly on the roster. Beyond the fun and challenge of the competition, there is this extra camaraderie for those of us in uniform, said U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Gundlach, who supervised the Marine Marksmanship Team at their second Bianchi Cup.
"The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit actually helped us out a lot in the previous years, to get to this, and it's been a great experience so far," said Gundlach.
By competing, we are doing a credit to our services by utilizing the marksmanship skills we learn, practice and eventually teach to those deploying, said the Marine.
"You can be the best at patrolling. You can be the best at setting in a defense. You can be the best infantryman there is, but if you can't shoot, what's the point of doing all that other stuff," said Gundlach.
Since training is part of both the Army and Marine marksmanship teams' missions, competition is a good way to test skills under pressure. The experiences at competition are then turned into to training and returned to the force, said Gundlach.
"The best way to challenge yourself is under the clock, because you are never going to be able to replicate what actual combat is," said the Marine.
"Competition gives you adrenaline. It gives you focus. And, it gives you the ability to operate under that stress, not the same stress that combat would be, but it does give you similarities," explained Gundlach.
Sokolowski said he was certainly feeling the stress when he stepped up to do his final event, The Falling Plate Event, and it started to rain. Though shooting 48 8-inch-steel plates in timed series in sets of six from distances of 10, 15, 20 and 25 yards is a task the Soldier has practiced countless times, the added factors certainly created tension, according to the Soldier.
"You are at the Bianchi Cup, and oh, now it's raining," said Sokolowski. With only seconds to get into position, and a historical win on the line, every shot mattered. He had to be perfect and hit every single shot to win. So, there was definite concern about the rain. Would the mat slip when going down in the prone? Would the gun be wet and slick? Would rain get into the sight?
"There was a little bit more pressure than I expected just because of that extra dynamic," explained Sokolowski. "I mean, I knew the capability was there. I had the X count. But doing it at the match when it matters...in the rain..."
Performance under pressure is what competition is all about though. And it is also what all the military services instill in service members. Train, train and train some more. Practice cannot always make things perfect, but they can certainly make people proficient. Sokolowski's recent historic win is just another example of that, said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Franks of the USAMU Service Pistol team who claimed the 2018 Production Division Champion title with a score of 1894-136x.
"Sokolowski being able to [win three divisions consecutively] in such a short amount of time really tells us that our methodologies, our program, our training [at the USAMU] works," said Franks who hails from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Knowing that the U.S. Army team has only been shooting this discipline for four years and frequently claims podium spots, makes Leatham pretty proud as he helped the team prepare for their first few Bianchi Cups.
"I was involved in the beginning, kind of getting them on the right track," said Leatham. "I certainly did not make them what they are today, because that's drive from themselves and their own skill levels."
But from an experienced professional, Franks' Production win and Sokolowski's historic Triple Crown win are just added proof that the USAMU Soldiers have the skills and the drive to excel.
"To see people come in and be as dominate and consistent, and shoot as well as the USAMU guys and girls, is really quite an accomplishment," explained Leatham. "Not only should the unit and their families be proud of them, but competitive shooters as a whole should be proud of them."