This article was originally featured on Wired.com.
The Olympics stir the patriot in everyone, but it’s hard to feel more patriotic than Joshua Richmond, a full-time soldier with a keen eye and quick reflexes on the U.S. shooting squad.
Staff Sgt. Richmond is a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. He teaches marksmanship and hits the road for exhibitions, but he’s no desk jockey. Richmond volunteered for a stint in Afghanistan and spent three months near Kabul teaching Afghan soldiers the finer points of marksmanship.
Even before shipping out last fall, the 26-year-old had locked up his spot on the Olympic team after winning the world championship in 2010 and bringing home medals in three other World Cup events in 2010 and 2011. Richmond can shoot pretty much anything, but his specialty is double trap, in which competitors fire one shot each at a pair of clay targets released simultaneously. In double trap, shooters stand with their shotguns — typically 12-gauge, over-under models — at a series of five shooting stations set 16 yards back from where the targets are thrown. The targets fly about 50 to 60 yards down the range before an on-target shot breaks them apart.
Look for Richmond to do well at the 2012 Summer Games, where he is expected to challenge Britain’s Peter Wilson for the individual gold. They’re the two best shooters in the world; between them they’ve won three of the last four World Cups.
We talked to Richmond about the skills of a shooter, the peculiarities of his shotgun and how the best trap shooters are like rattlesnakes.
Wired: How old were you when you first started shooting?
Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond: I was 5 years old when I shot my first shot. I started competing when I was 10. It was something that my family did for fun, as a hobby to spend time together. It turned into somewhat of a career for me.
Wired: When did you decide to get serious about competition?
Richmond: I was about 13 or 14 when I got in front of some coaches who saw me shoot. I knew by their comments and their eagerness to help me that I may have something going here. But it was not until I was maybe 16 or 17 that I really started traveling more with the USA shooting team and started thinking this could be a career.
Wired: Why the shotgun?
Richmond: My family was more into shotgun shooting. We used rifles for hunting, but we never competed with rifles. To me it’s a little more extreme to shoot moving targets. The rifle gets somewhat lackadaisical at times for me personally. I do enjoy rifle shooting, but shotgun was the route that I was most eager to learn.
Wired: How do you train? Do you just keep shooting, shooting, shooting?
Richmond: Well there’s two types of training. There’s range time when I’m firing the shotgun, and then there’s the other side of the house, which is mental training. For that, I work with a couple different sports psychologists. We go over where I’m at, what I’m feeling like and squash the demons in my head to allow me to focus on the competition.
Wired: What do you do to prepare in the moments before you shoot?
Richmond: I like to get there a little bit early and watch the squad in front of me shooting. I take little mental notes. Is the wind affecting them? How’s the lighting? I go over my set-up in my mind. Where am I gonna be looking for the target? Where am I gonna be holding my gun to give me the best chance of hitting these targets? It looks very simple for a spectator to watch me shoot, but it’s a very complex game, somewhat comparable to like a golf swing. At this level of competition, I think it is 95 percent mental, 5 percent physical.
Wired: Tell me a little bit about your firearm.
Richmond: I shoot a Perazzi 12 gauge, model MX2005. It is a custom-built shotgun from Italy, with a custom made stock. I’m a taller, skinnier guy, so the bore and the dimensions of the stock isn’t standard; it’s much larger and it fits my body style. It’s an over and under shotgun. I shoot 32-inch-long barrels and I have a 25-mm-high rib on it, which allows me to hold a higher shotgun and I can look underneath my barrel to see targets coming out and it gives us somewhat of an advantage.
Wired: And the ammo?
Richmond: I generally shoot Winchester ammunition. It’s a 12 gauge shell and I shoot a seven and a half on my second shot and an eight or a nine shot on my first shot. That’s because of the difference in distances. I shoot doubles, which is two targets at the same time. My first shot is generally quite a bit closer than my second shot, which is why we use a smaller shot.
Wired: What do you do, maintenance-wise, to a competition weapon? Is it different from a hunting weapon?
Richmond: Not really. We go through a lot more rounds. I shoot 300 rounds a day on average, sometimes five days a week, so one thing that you’ll do more of is rebuild ‘em. This gun has been rebuilt two or three times now. You won’t see a hunting gun getting rebuilt quite that often.
Wired: Obviously there has to be a certain amount of steadiness in aim. Do you have to factor in breathing, heart rate?
Richmond: It’s not as critical as it is in rifle shooting. But one thing we do somewhat naturally, once we put the shotgun on our shoulder and get in position, is wait a second or so before calling pull. We let our eyes set, you know, be completely calm and still. I relate it to a rattlesnake getting ready to strike. You’re coiled, ready to shoot. There’s a pause where everything’s just steady and still.
Wired: And then?
Richmond: That’s when we’ll generally call for the target. After that, we rely on our training. You’re trying to be as smooth as you can and unlike rifle shooting, where you’re trying to aim, we do more of a pointing technique. So once the targets are flying, we’re just simply pointing our finger at the targets with a shotgun, which is an extension of our body at this point to the targets.
Wired: What’s the most important trait or skill to have in shooting? Reaction time? Eyesight?
Richmond: You have to have great eyes. Other than that, a very solid mental state. That’s really what separates a lot of good shooters from great shooters.