Photo by Nate Olsen/Nebraska Communications

It's Time We Gave Nebraska Rifle a Shot

By NU Athletic Communications

Imagine Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., throwing a pass to Jordan Westerkamp from over three miles away and hitting him right between the numbers. That would be impressive, right? Well although it’s impossible to throw a football that far, Nebraska’s rifle team aims for an equivalent target every day on the rifle range.

Football and rifle are quite different and can’t be easily compared to each other, but one thing that separates rifle from other sports is the public’s lack of knowledge and understanding about the sport.  When asked if she thought people realize the difficulty of the sport, Husker rifle team member Hannah Virga responded with a quick “no.” It’s about time that changes. 

How the sport works:

Rifle competitions generally last around four hours.  Shooters compete on two types of firearms: smallbore, which fires .22 caliber rifle rounds, and air rifle, which fires .177mm pellets.  Athletes fire 60 shots per gun with each shot being worth a maximum of 10 points, giving a maximum possible score of 600.  At every competition the teams are organized into relays.  These are the rifle equivalent of track and field heats, except there are shooters at firing points instead of runners in lanes.

A Perfect 10:

In rifle, the best possible score is a 10.9. The 10 ring (bullseyes) for smallbore and air rifle are 0.76mm and 0.5mm, respectively.  To put these figures in perspective, hitting the 10 from an NCAA regulation distance is mathematically equivalent to hitting a target the size of a basketball from over three miles away.  Of course in real life this is physically impossible but these athletes attempt a small-scale version of the shot every time they pick up a gun.  This is extremely difficult, but the Huskers are good. Very good. Nebraska has five athletes who scored more than 590 in at least one discipline last season, which means of the 60 shots in that event they missed the bullseye less than 10 times. Looking into the 2016-17 season, Rachel Martin and Virga are tied for the best career high air rifle score in school history at 597, just three points shy of the perfect 600 score.

Rifle: A technology-driven sport

Another thing that sets rifle apart is how technology driven the sport is.

These guns aren’t your average Red Ryder BB gun – they are incredibly precise.  The firearms utilized by the sport cost around $3,500, and for good reason. According to Nebraska Assistant Rifle Coach Rick Johnson, if the firearms were mounted in place and fired ten times, shots two through ten would go straight through the hole created by the first shot. Only one hole would be created without the slightest indication that there was more than one shot.

Additionally, rifle athletes wear rigid leather suits for support when they shoot, composed of pants paired with heavy, stiff jackets that have a diagonal solid piece in the back to reduce rotation. 

“The material is very stiff,” Virga said. “I remember when I got my new suit my family made so much fun of me because I was literally walking like a penguin.”

Each suit is estimated to be worth around $2,200. Add that to the price of both guns and rifle athletes wind up carrying more than $9,000 on their person during a match.

Compare that to the cost of a Husker football or basketball player suiting up for a game:

Football Equipment  Cost
Game Jersey $300
Game Pants $155
Compression Undershirt $60
Padded Compression Girdle $90
Leg Pads $50
Gloves $65
Cleats $130
Socks $15
Game Helmet $400
Shoulder Pads $439
Football $125
Total $1,829


Basketball Equipment Cost
Jersey Top $130
Jersey Short $90
Padded Undershirt $60
Padded Tights $80
Leg Pads $50
Basketball Shoes $145
Socks $15
Basketball $60
Total  $580

The technology doesn’t stop with the uniform. 

In April 2006, Nebraska became just the second university in the nation to add electronic targets to its rifle facilities. First seen only in international and Olympic competition, the electronic targets were added to the U.S. Air Force Academy’s facilities before the Huskers adopted the new technology. 

Electronic targeting enables shooters to aim at only one target instead of 10 different targets. The machine contains a roll of black paper, which refills the open target with a clean piece of paper after every shot. Four microphones in the electronic targets sense the precision of the shot, transmitting the information to an online computer monitor. Nebraska also utilizes a computer program that paints a picture of the path traced by the tip of the gun before firing, allowing coaches to observe and provide feedback on the athlete’s shot.

In addition to ear and eye protection, Nebraska shooters wear visors to shield light, blinders to block vision in their non-dominant eye as well as peripheral vision, and special gloves designed to reduce hand fatigue.

The technology involved may seem like overkill, but it’s crucial when athletes are aiming at their targets, which when put on a larger scale seems nearly impossible.

“Doing something that’s impossible is very empowering because it shows how much you’ve grown as a person, like this is where I started and this is how far I’ve come,” Virga said.


Note: One should keep in mind that shooting a target using an air rifle or smallbore from three miles away with any sort of accuracy is physically impossible.  The comparison stems from what the shooter sees; it’s the same concept as holding up a golf ball at night so that it appears to be the same size as a full moon. 


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