Shooting sports are riding a rising tide of popularity in the United States. While a number of forces help Americans rediscover and reconnect with their firearms heritage—including a long list of corporate and organizational allies—the National 4-H Shooting Sports Program remains one of the largest and longest running gateways to a variety of shooting disciplines.
“Thankfully, there are many groups and programs ready to help youths take their shooting interests to a higher level—once they’ve been introduced to the sport. But for countless youngsters across the country, we’re the first shot they take,” explains 4-H Shooting Sports national coordinator Conrad Arnold.
More than 3 million youths and adults have been introduced to shooting since the program’s official inception in 1980, and participation is on the rise. In 2016 the program established a new annual benchmark, engaging 450,000 youths for the first time in its history. That figure was up from 400,000 in 2015 and 306,693 in 2011. “National Shooting Sports is actually one of the fastest growing 4-H programs offered today,” Arnold reports.
Steeped In Shooting
For many Americans, the mention of 4-H conjures up idyllic visions of kids exhibiting livestock and other projects at county fairs. But the organization has long promoted the shooting sports as well.
“Shooting has been a part of 4-H since the 1930s,” says Arnold. In the early days, opportunities were largely driven by local extension agents and volunteer leaders, who organized club-level, district and state events. A handful of 4-H camps also offered shooting sports. However, there was no formal curriculum, format or organized instructor training program.
That began to change in 1976, when Texas 4-H and extension officials including Tom Davison, Don Steinbach and Milo Shult requested that the state’s 4-H rifle project be expanded to include other shooting disciplines. Approval was granted and the genesis of a national program was set in motion.
“National Shooting Sports is actually one of the fastest growing 4-H programs offered today.”
Officials quickly recognized the need for a mission statement, program parameters and trained volunteers. In March of 1976, the late Bill Stevens, from Federal Cartridge, met with Shult and other 4-H leaders in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to address these needs. They soon joined forces with the National Rifle Association to create a pilot program, which launched in Texas in 1977. Other states expressed interest and in 1980, first sanctioned workshops were held in Minnesota—marking the official beginning of the National 4-H Shooting Sports Program, which has since spread to 46 of the 50 states.
At heart, the program’s mission mirrors that of other 4-H venues: “To assist youth in acquiring knowledge, developing life skills, and forming attitudes so they may become self-directing, productive, and contributing members of society.” Toward that end, participants learn marksmanship, the safe and responsible use of firearms, the principles of hunting, archery, conservation and more.
The program is open to boys and girls ages 8 to 18. Shooting disciplines include archery, muzzleloading, pistol, rifle, shotgun and hunting; each is taught by a national- or state-certified instructor.
Youngsters also get to test their skills and enjoy the excitement of competitive shooting at county, state and regional events that culminate in the National 4-H Shooting Sports Championships, a week-long event that draws more than 600 finalists each season.
“National 4-H Shooting Sports also offers a Teen Ambassador program, which provides spokesperson training, leadership development and the chance to travel the U.S. representing the shooting sports to youths and potential sponsors,” adds Arnold.
Volunteers & Sponsors
Arnold is quick to credit the program’s many volunteer instructors for the program’s growth and success. In 2016, he notes, 21,648 instructors volunteered more than 1.4 million hours of time to teach children about the shooting sports. Official estimates put the value of these hours at over $34 million dollars, but Arnold says the contributions are priceless. “We simply couldn’t do it without these volunteers,” he says.
Arnold himself is a walking testament to the dedication of many 4-H Shooting Sports volunteers and organizers. He joined 4-H as a member at age 9. After college, he served as a West Virginia University 4-H extension service educator for 18 years, then spent another 25 years with the University of Maryland extension service. “I retired in 2014, but took a part-time position with National 4-H Shooting Sports, and the University of Maryland pulled me back in for another 10 hours a week,” he says. As if that weren’t enough, Arnold also volunteers as a shooting sports instructor and helps organize a local club.
“A surge in financial support from private and corporate donors led to increases in instructor training and the corresponding rise in youth participation we’re enjoying today.”
The national program also relies heavily on charitable monetary donations. “Funding is one of the biggest challenges at the national level, and a limiting factor of the program’s growth,” he says, explaining that 4-H Shooting Sports is managed through the non-profit National 4-H Council and directed through state land-grant universities and their respective cooperative extension services. A committee comprised of university representatives oversees and coordinates the national program.
“A surge in financial support from private and corporate donors led to increases in instructor training and the corresponding rise in youth participation we’re enjoying today,” he says. “We’d like to keep that going.”
For its part, Federal Premium has supported 4-H since 1934 and the National 4-H Shooting Sports program for 37 years, and the company has no plans to curtail its commitment.
Arnold is hopeful other donors will follow suit. “We’d like to expand the program to reach more youths, but of course that requires training additional instructors, which takes money,” he says.
Given the program’s rich history and the dedication of its many supporters, it’s a safe bet that 4-H will continue its mission for generations to come—and introduce countless youngsters to the shooting sports in the process. For more information on the 4-H National Shooting Sports program, including enrolling a child or volunteering as an instructor, visit 4-hshootingsports.org.