Dominick Mongillo of Niobrara County joins a half-dozen youth on a green carpet. Chambering a round, he hoists a .22 rifle to his chest. This time, the shooters are firing from a kneeling position. Mongillo rearranges his Wrangler-clad legs into a comfortable, steady form.
The 13-year-old nudges the rifle butt tighter against his cheek, a Wyoming Cowboys cap pulled low against his black safety goggles. The concentration is intense, and the silence is complete.
Taking a deep breath, Mongillo doesnGÇÖt let his eyes stray from the target — 10 tiny black circles on a light paper field secured to a board down the range. Precisely lining up his target in the gun sights, he pulls his trigger finger in one smooth, controlled motion. Mongillo and his fellow competitors get one minute per shot at the targets at the 4-H State Shooting Sports competition, held annually here between the firing range and the state fairgrounds. Youth compete in as many divisions as they can handle, from archery to air pistol and air rifle, shotgun and muzzle loaders, .22 rifle and .22 pistol. Each on-target shot earns points for the participant. At the end, the top shooters progress to the national competition.
This year n the state meetGÇÖs 20th anniversary – Douglas hosted about 525 participants for the Friday-Saturday event, said Warren Crawford, a youth development specialist with University of WyomingGÇÖs Cooperative Extension Service. That represents a steady growth during the past five years as more children find fun in shooting sports, and more parents recognize the value of their young ones learning safety, responsibility and skills in the unique environment 4-H fosters. In statewide county programs, about 1,800 youth participate in shooting sports, Crawford said.
The program didnGÇÖt come easily, and faced initial state-level resistance regarding children with firearms or bows and arrows. Dedicated parent leaders persisted and eventually the program established itself. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, recognizing the value of early education for tomorrowGÇÖs sportsmen, jumped on board. Now, youth can enter the G&F outdoor skills competition at the state meet, where theyGÇÖre evaluated on tracking, distance estimation, wildlife identification, safety and more.
The program relies heavily on certified parent leaders, who are positioned on the firing line as judges and to monitor compliance with strict safety codes. Safety is paramount, and transgressions are not tolerated. The first violation results in point deductions, while any subsequent offense is grounds for immediate disqualification.
One of those certified leaders is Ivan Eddy of Niobrara County. He started almost 20 years ago when his children were in 4-H, and he figured on retiring after this yearGÇÖs shoot. Propped up against a range post, watching the kids grow with their skills, heGÇÖs not so sure he wants to hang it up now. Next season his grandson will enter shooting sports, and Eddy thinks he may stick around to watch the new generation come into its own.
GÇ£ItGÇÖs the kidsGÇÖ thing,GÇ¥ he said. GÇ£I just plain enjoy watching the kids grow up.GÇ¥
HeGÇÖs supervising the .22 rifle shoot, and a special just-for-fun moving target event to commemorate a longtime shooting sports advocate, Ron Lund, who passed away about a month ago at 47. Lund was a regular advocate for 4-H, serving as Niobrara CountyGÇÖs shooting sports director for four years before his death. He set up winter fun days at his ranch, roasting hot dogs with 4-H youth, sledding, tracking and practicing survival techniques, Eddy recalled. Lund guided his own daughter and two sons through 4-H and was GÇ£for the kids 100 percent,GÇ¥ Eddy said.
YouGÇÖll hear that about a lot of parents and adult leaders at the shoot, where volunteers make the wheels turn. Those adults run 2,000 entries through the seven disciplines in two days. Each participant averages three and a half events, Crawford explained. Shooting sports revolves around several key cogs. The program builds confidence in youth while providing a constructive activity. Children are taught firearm safety and how to take responsibility seriously. GÇ£These kids, thereGÇÖs no horseplay,GÇ¥ Eddy said. GÇ£They know whatGÇÖs expected by their county leaders.GÇ¥ And, of course, the program builds skills. GÇ£It does make better marksmen out of them,GÇ¥ Eddy said. GÇ£Our 4-H kids, when they come into a hunter safety class, are so much more disciplined.GÇ¥ Whether the kids mature into avid hunters or simply find a life-long joy plinking at the firing range, they typically put their 4-H skills to use.
GÇ£The kids are getting really grounded in the basic essentials, the basic safety rules,GÇ¥ parent Linda Jeffres of Pine Bluffs said. Her sons Nolan, 13, and Kyle, 8, are competing in several events at the state meet. Nolan started three years ago in archery, shotgun, air rifle and .22 rifle. He also plays summer baseball in Cheyenne n or used to, until his parents encouraged him to narrow down the activity schedule. Giving up baseball for shooting sports and letting go of archery in favor of the rifles was his own decision, Linda said, and one sheGÇÖs glad for.
GÇ£This is a different group,GÇ¥ she said. GÇ£ItGÇÖs select group of kids, and they choose it. ItGÇÖs a lifelong hobby, something they can always do.