This year marks the 25th anniversary of The American Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the Olympic Training Center’s shooting range facilities. The Legion’s Shooting Sports program teaches youth the basic elements of gun safety, education, marksmanship and competition. And for 18-year-old Mitchell Van Patten, the Legion’s 2011 sporter champion, the program also taught him social skills.
“Right after winning I was invited to the (American Legion’s) national convention (in Minneapolis) and that was a huge stepping stone for me because I hadn’t done any public speaking before I was on the convention stage in front of thousands of people,” Van Patten said. “That was a good way for me to get out of my shell.”
Van Patten shoots for the Meridian (Idaho) Optimist Junior Rifle Club, which is located in an old electrical transformer building that has eight targets, 60 shooters, and a waiting list every year with no advertising.
“The primary mission of this club is to teach as many kids as possible safe gun handling skills and rifle marksmanship skills,” said Brent Van Patten, Mitchell’s father and one of the club’s 15 coaches.
With 60 shooters and only eight targets, each Meridian Optimist Junior Rifle Club shooter is assigned one shift a week to practice for almost two hours. Registration is $100 for 26 weeks and that includes a gun, sling and pellets, all purchased throught funds provided by Meridian Post 113.
“I love working with kids, and this is such a good, clean, wholesome sport and activity,” said Stan Lupkes, a member of Post 113 and a coach. Lupkes visits Legion posts around the area to discuss the Legion’s Junior Shooting Sports program and what it takes to get one started at the post level. He also encourages post to become affiliated with an existing shooting program, such as 4-H’s program, so youth can participate in the Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle tournament.
Of the 60 shooters at the Meridian Optimist Junior Rifle Club, about 25 compete in the Legion’s tournament.
“The Legion match is by far the best run, most organized and competitive match,” said Bill Lutz, a club coach.
Lutz’s daughter, 16-year-old Casey, won The American Legion’s Francis M. Redington Sportsmanship Award in 2013 for exemplifying good sportsmanship. “What I like about shooting is that you’re always learning,” Casey said. “It’s never going to be perfect, so you always have something to work on to get better.” Casey hopes to earn a spot in the Legion’s national championship tournament this July, shooting in the precision category.
“When it comes to shooting, we could not found have anything better for our kids to do that they would have benefited more from,” Bill said. “It’s not just about the physical act of shooting. It’s about discipline, self respect, motivation, drive, determination and mental focus.”