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Showdown in Big Sky Country

There were no losers in the 5.11 Challenge law enforcement shooting competition.

November 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author

Sgt. David McDonald of the Raleigh Police Department competes in the rifle stage of the 5.11 Challenge as teammate Sgt. Robert Windsor of the Wake County Sheriff’s Department spots.

“Shoot fast, don’t miss.” That’s the simple strategy for success that was voiced by one of the finalists in the 5.11 Challenge law enforcement shooting competition. But it’s easier said than done, especially when the officer aiming the gun is carrying the added pressure of performing in front of TV cameras, family, friends, and other onlookers.

From June to September some 30 teams of two law enforcement officers each journeyed to southeastern Montana to pit their shooting skills against other officers from throughout the United States and Canada. The stakes were high: bragging rights for themselves; gear, equipment, and apparel for their agencies; and a personal sense of accomplishment.

5.11 Challenge organizer Bill Berry says the event was more than just a shooting competition. It was an opportunity for 5.11 Tactical and the other sponsors to show their appreciation for the officers who participated. And it was a way for officers to learn more about how they would perform under stress. “Many of the men and women who came here learned things about themselves that I think improved their opportunity to be successful in a gunfight,” says Berry, who retired in January from his post as chief of the California State Park Police.

Making a Challenge

The 5.11 Challenge was set in motion when Berry was asked to meet with Dan Costa, CEO of one of the fastest-growing companies in the law enforcement market, 5.11 Tactical. Costa wanted to underwrite a shooting competition for law enforcement officers that would be held at his fishing lodge on the Big Horn River near Hardin, Mont., and he wanted Berry to make the concept a reality.

Berry accepted. And for the next eight months he spent his days and many nights rounding up sponsors, prepping the lodge, building the range, selecting the 32 teams from the more than 3,000 entries, conducting diplomacy with skeptical chiefs, making travel arrangements, and overseeing the competition.

Competitors were chosen randomly from a pool of nearly 3,000 two-officer team entries by a computer algorithm, and then Berry and his wife, Kathy, started making phone calls. Calls that weren’t always received with shouts of joy.

Some officers were really skeptical about the concept. After all, Berry was asking them to fly to Montana without knowing exactly what was waiting for them beyond the Billings Airport. Even some of the finalists admitted that they were a little bit concerned about their accommodations when they were first invited to the lodge, all expenses paid. “Personally, I didn’t know what to think,” says Sgt. David McDonald, a tactical officer with the Raleigh (N.C.) Police Department. “I couldn’t even have imagined how nice it was going to be.”

While convincing some individual officers to come to Montana was difficult, persuading agency commanders to let their personnel participate was sometimes impossible, even for Berry, who speaks the language of chiefs. “We had two teams that were selected that were not allowed to participate,” he says. “The U.S. Secret Service and the NYPD would not let their officers come.”

Berry explains that both agencies declined the invite because they were concerned about the fact that the competition was sponsored by 5.11 Tactical and numerous other companies that supply gear to law enforcement. “They didn’t want it to look like they were endorsing the products,” says Berry. “That saddened us, but I respect the way that these departments have to face political issues and make tough decisions sometimes.” Berry hopes to get around this problem in the future by having the 5.11 Challenge classified as a training opportunity.

Course of Fire

There were some elements in the course of fire for this year’s 5.11 Challenge that amounted to a kind of rudimentary stress training. While no one shot back at the officers on the range or even yelled at them, the competition itself and its rules placed each contestant under enormous pressure to perform.

The course of fire required proficiency with a handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle.

In stage one, officers drew a .40 caliber Glock 22 pistol from a Bianchi SpeedBreak holster, stepped around a series of barricades, and shot at 12 falling plate targets with 20 rounds of ammo in two magazines. The second stage was also a handgun drill using a Glock 22. Each officer maneuvered to three different windows set at different heights and angles and, while holding a SureFire M3 Combat light, fired at 18 targets with 30 rounds of ammunition.

During a lull in the action, Dep. Rod Merritt of the Washington County (Maine) Sheriff’s Department practices his aim through the windows.

Stage three focused on shotgun skills. Each officer was given a Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and 10 rounds of 00 buck. He was then required to engage eight Pepper Popper targets, four at 15 yards and four at 20 yards. At the beginning of the stage, the shotgun was loaded with only four rounds, so each competitor had to reload the weapon to shoot all the targets. The other shotgun stage was trap shooting. Each officer was given the opportunity to shoot 10 clay pigeons from the left and then another 10 from the right of the trap using the Remington 870 loaded with Number 8 birdshot.

The final stage of the competition was the rifle. Each shooter was given a Colt M4 carbine fitted with an Aimpoint red-dot sight. The task in this stage was to knock down 11 Pepper Popper targets with 20 rounds of .223 ammunition at a range of 100 yards.

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