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Action pistol shooting finds fans in Morris

Luke Butterfass of Morris moves through a stage called "Zig to the Zag" at a recent action pistol match held in Morris.

MORRIS - A man stands behind a tall, white barricade the size of a door with two orange Xs painted at chest height. A loaded pistol is holstered to his side.

A timer standing behind him issues instructions: "Hands on the Xs. When you hear the buzzer, give 'em hell."

Second pass. The buzzer chimes and the man draws his pistol, taking aim at cardboard targets in front of him.

Moments like this one were common at the Morris Rifle Club last Sunday, when a group of target shooting enthusiasts gathered for an action pistol match.

The Morris Rifle Club has been organizing local action pistol matches since May. Organizer Chris Sell, secretary of the club, said he got the idea to start hosting matches locally after seeing how many shooters from the Morris area were traveling to the Twin Cities for competitions.

"The way the sport is blowing up, the matches down there were getting so crowded I thought this could be successful in Morris," said Sell.

In an action pistol match, shooters complete timed stages and are scored based on how quickly and accurately they complete the stage. Shooters are penalized for "failing to neutralize" targets and hitting "no shoot" areas, adding time to their final score.

Sell describes action shooting as golf combined with sprint car racing: "Like golf, your propelling an aimed projectile around obstacles towards a specific target as efficiently as possible. Except in our sport you do it as fast as you can, while trying not to spin out and hit the wall - metaphorically speaking, of course."

Unlike stationary shooting, action pistol stages mimic more active shooting scenarios. Sell said he has seen more law enforcement officers participating in these types of competitions because it offers better training for some situations.

One of the participants Sunday, Luke Butterfass, is a member of the National Guard. Sunday was Butterfass' first competition because "it's the first time I had a pistol worth shooting," he said.

After gathering about $3,000 to pay for supplies to begin building stages, the Morris Rifle Club hosted their first competition in May, attracting 17 shooters. Two competitions since have each brought in more than 25 people.

About half of the participants come from the Morris area, but the events have attracted shooters from Alexandria, Willmar, Fergus Falls, Sauk Centre, Osakis and Marshall said Sell.

Mike Bates, owner of Mike's Guns and Sporting Goods in Benson, participated in pistol competitions in the 1990s, but gave up the sport until he began coming to the Morris matches this year.

And participants aren't just men.

"At our last match a friend of mine brought his wife out for the first time," said Sell. "She had little to no experience and was so nervous before the match she was trembling, but turned out to be a rock star. Our mid-thirties, mother of two was the top female of the day and bested many of the boys her first time out."

Sell also praised the camaraderie he sees at these events - "If you have trouble with your equipment at a match just about everyone is there to lend a hand. This holds true even at the major matches with thousands of dollars in prize money on the line."

There were fewer shooters at last Sunday's event, but Sell hopes to attract more at the next competition in September. Sell estimates that he needs to attract about 20 participants each match to make the effort sustainable and to begin purchasing more advance targets to use when building stages.

Sell uses a 3D modeling program to design each stage, which makes it easier to test sight lines and allows volunteers to help set up the stages before each match. Most of the stages are a combination of cardboard targets, plastic barrels, and homemade walls that shooters move though, taking out targets.

Although good aim and speed are important, each stage involves strategic thinking about what order to approach the targets to maximize your time. Reloading, for example, takes extra time. If a shooter can reload while moving between targets, they can save time on the stage.

Safety is also paramount for organizers. The Morris Rifle Club operates a "cold range" competition - until a shooter is lined up for a stage, pistols must remain unloaded and at the shooter's side. At the end of each stage, shooters must empty their weapons and leave them untouched until they compete again.

"We operate under pretty strict safety protocols," said Sell. "In what other sport can you go out and get the same adrenaline rush as skydiving with almost zero chance of injury? Action shooting has an astounding safety record. In fact I don't think I've ever even heard of a serious injury ever occurring at a match."

If the matches take off, Sell hopes to eventually modify the Morris Rifle Club area to include bays, which would allow them to run four stages at the same time, rather than the two they can run now. Fully enclosed competition bays would also allow for more creative course designs.

There are two more matches scheduled for this season, Sept. 16 and Oct. 21. All matches are scheduled on Sunday afternoons starting at 1:00 p.m. More information is available online at or by contacting Sell at (320) 287-0210.