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Published On: Tue, Apr 9th, 2019

A Brief History of Olympic Shooting Sports

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo is just around the corner—who are you rooting for?

Many fans of the Olympic Games will tell you their favorite event takes place on the gymnastics floor or the swimming pool. Recently, more and more are discovering their appreciation for the Olympics shooting events.

Haven’t heard of it? Well, get ready, because there’s a lot to learn about this hidden gem of a sport!

Let’s take a look at the history of marksmanship and its introduction into the Olympic Games.

photo/ skeeze

The Evolution of Shooting

Humans have been picking up rocks and hurling them at unsuspecting prey since before they could talk.

Once communication developed, early humans shared the tips and tricks they’d learned for all that is rock-chucking. This is how the art—or sport—of hunting began.

Discussing experiences leads to advancement. The rock evolved into the spear, the spear into the arrow, the arrow into the bullet. As did the forms and methods for hunting evolved, so did the techniques and training for using them.

As civilizations grew and prospered, they learned the necessity of a solid defensive unit: the military. This is where the formal sport of target shooting began—shooting not for sustenance, but for territory.

Ancient Greek philosopher and writer Homer gives us the first indication of target shooting as a contest in his work, The Iliad. In this epic tale, the Greeks used archery contests to shoot birds resting on tall poles, as a tribute and sacrifice to the gods. The victors were awarded greatly for their skill and aim.

These practices ring true in other cultures, like the Indians, Slavs, Persians, Germans, and Celts.

Perhaps the most famous example of marksmanship occurred in the 14th century. Hailing from Switzerland, the legendary William Tell successfully shot an apple nestled atop the head of his son with a crossbow.

It’s no surprise then, that as the bow and arrow gave way to the gun and bullet, that mankind’s fascination with the sport of shooting would continue to thrive.

Birth of Marksmanship Clubs

The first formal shooting clubs arose during the 13th and 14th centuries in German-speaking territories.

These clubs were the place where men (and only men) could show off their skills with a bow or wheel-lock musket. Later, in the 16th century, firearms with rifled barrels were utilized in public competitions.

Early club competitions involved men at standing position, aiming at decorated targets made of wood. The men were only given one shot each, to demonstrate accuracy under pressure.

These competitions were reserved for holidays and festivals, like New Year’s Day and other local traditions.

Victors would be awarded gold and money, as well as the adoration of the town.

Welcome to America

At the start of the 18th century, Swiss and German rifle makers emigrated to Pennsylvania to start anew. They found great success in supplying the settlers with weapons to use against the Native Americans.

Frontiersman soon developed the technique of target practice by “shooting at a mark” to hone their skills. Often, these marks would be a specific branch or knot on a tree or an “X” marked on a piece of lumber.

As towns flourished and found prosperity, their needs for defense dwindled. Still, an adequate military must be maintained, so the sport and contest of shooting continued. These events were known as “rifle frolics” or “turkey shoots.”

Matches typically remained a one-shot sort of deal, fired at a distance of about 250-350 feet. Again, the marksman remained stationary, either standing or hunkered down to the ground.

Prizes of beef, turkey, or other foods were awarded to the victors.

By the late 18th century, as advancements in weapons were made so were the contests that used them. Between 1790 and 1800, the first match rifles were created with a 40-inch barrel, double-set triggers, and a target sight.

This last advancement allowed for more precise aiming, which allowed for more involved competitions.

Matches became quite popular in Glendale Park, New York in the 19th century. These competitions would draw in over 600 marksmen, with nearly 30,000 spectators cheering them on in one day alone. 

In 1898, the cash prize for this competition totaled 25,000$ to the victor.

The Rise of the Skeet Shooter

Still, marksmen around the country wanted to push their skills further. Not satisfied with stationary targets, they returned to live prey: pigeons. However, trapping pigeons for practice and contests isn’t always ideal, so Americans developed artificial pigeons for a sport that is now known as “skeet shooting.”

These skeet pigeons began as glass balls filled with feathers, but these would turn out to be a bit costly to manufacture. In an exhibition in Cincinnati, Ohio, famed marksman Adam Bogardus once shot 5,681 glass pigeons before missing. Eventually, Americans would invent the clay pigeon-discs that we still use today.

While skeet shooting was the staple in most of early America, there were others who sought a different sort of challenge.

In 1865, W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody hit the scene with his star-performance in pistol exhibitions. He would wow the crowds by performing “around the clock” challengers, shooting targets in a circle around him while he stayed in the center. These contests still remain today, though adapted to a semi-circle fashion.

As more and more competitions blossomed around the country, so did organizations to structure and fund the events.

In 1871, The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) was founded by Colonel William Church and Captain George Wingate of the New York National Guard. The NRA aims to foster gun rights and provide information on firearms, like Faxon Firearms.

In 1900, the U.S. Revolver Association was created, with the aim to select and train potential marksmen for competition.

Eventually, these men would be sent to the Olympic Games.

The History of Olympics Shooting Events

In 1897, the first World Shooting Championships took place in Lyon, France.

In this contest, the Lyon Shooting Club organized an event to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Marksmen shot at targets from a distance of nearly 1000 feet with rifles. This event and future World Shooting Championships popularized the sport of shooting around the globe.

In 1907, the International Shooting Union (UIT) was established and is still recognized today as the world governing organization for shooting. Currently, the UIT is based in Munich, Germany and runs the International Shooting Sports Federation around the world. 

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman, organized the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Being a pistol enthusiast, de Coubertin made the decision to include four pistol and two rifle events in the program. 

Since then, these shooting events have been a part of nearly all the Olympic Games. There are two exceptions: the 1904 Games in St. Louis and the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.

Only 4 nations competed in the shooting events in the 1896 Olympic Games that de Coubertin orchestrated. Participation steadily grew as the years continued, with nearly a hundred countries participating in the shooting events today. 

Now, shooting matches attract the third largest number of participants out of any of the sports at the Olympic Games. Fifteen rifle, pistol, running target, and shotgun matches are typically held for individuals and teams at most events.

U.S. Shooter Hall of Fame

The U.S. International Shooting Hall of Fame (ISHF) was created to give recognition to the marksmen that have helped build this powerful dynasty within the Olympic Games.

Early marksmen recognized by the ISHF include pistol shooter Alfred Lane and rifle star Morris Fisher. In 1912 and 1920, each shooter earned 5 gold medals in individual and team events.

In the 1960s, the Olympics shooting events were dominated by the former Soviet Union and other eastern European nations, and it seemed like no other nation stood a chance. Until the most skilled U.S. rifle team was born, featuring: Gary Anderson, Lanny Bassham, Jack Foster, Lones Wigger Jr., Margaret Thompson Murdock, and Jack Writer. Led by their coach Colonel Bill Pullum, this team finally brought the gold back to America.

With 44 gold medals under their belts, American marksmen rank third highest in the all-time record for gold medals for the U.S. in any Olympic sports. Of them, 4 shooters in American history have won two gold medals in individual Olympic competition: Alfred Lane (1912), Morris Fisher (1920, 1924), Gary Anderson (1964, 1968), and Lones Wigger Jr. (1964, 1972).

Start Training Now!

Now that you understand the deep appreciation many have for the rich history that is marksmanship, be sure to tune in for the Olympics shooting events in the 2020 Games!

Contact us now with any comments or queries you have about proper firearm usage so you can get started training, safely, today!

Author: Carol Trehearn

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