Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
Visualize. Squeeze, don’t pull. Exhale. And…Fire.
Shooting is mentally demanding. It takes time and discipline. A shooter must be able to control their body enough to recreate a perfectly executed shot. Some shoot their whole lives, while others have barely started, but they all live a lifestyle dedicated to their passion. The Combat Center shooting team takes the best shooters on the base and pits them in competition. They travel as the representatives of the Combat Center. Every Marine is a rifleman, but the members of the Combat Center shooting team are professional riflemen.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Duane Ledford
Ledford grew up in a small country town on a farm in Oregon. His family hunted for food and his mother, Judy O’Daniel, taught him how to shoot when he was a kid. In the early 80’s Ledford unknowingly began what would be a long relationship with shooting.
“I was seven when I got a .22 caliber long rifle,” Ledford said. “My mom taught me how to shoot. We hunted for winter food to get any additional meat. I was 13 when I hit my first deer.”
Ledford eventually left Oregon and joined the Marine Corps. He began shooting in Marine Corps competitions when he was a lance corporal. His first competition was during a unit deployment program to Okinawa, Japan.
“I went and shot intramurals in Okinawa and in my opinion it went pretty well,” Ledford said. “I didn’t have the option, I was a lance corporal. I shot expert with both weapon systems and it was my first time shooting pistol.”
As a career weapons expert, Ledford’s connection with shooting wasn’t just a work situation. He brought life into the mix by naming his rifle after his soon to be daughter.
“(A name) that stands out in my mind the most was in 98,” Ledford said. “The rifle’s name was KC. We were planning on having a daughter and I wanted to name her Kaitlin Cynthia. We ended up having a daughter. Her first name is Kaitlin but her middle name is McKenzie.”
Through years of competition shooting Ledford has forged a path as a shooter. He’s created a distinctive process that guides him on the firing line in competitions. In a ritual of sorts Ledford doesn’t wear his dog tags, watch or wedding ring. He visualizes the upcoming string of fire.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” Ledford said. “When I’m on the firing line, time doesn’t even matter to me. I don’t even have to keep track of time. I know my process is going to get me through.”
Sgt. Wayne Gallagher
Gallagher first fired a rifle in 2004. He was in bootcamp and was one of three or four experts in his platoon. His previous engagement with a weapon was at 16 years old. He had fired a friend’s shotgun once, just for fun.
“It was more of the fear of the unknown (at bootcamp),” Gallagher said. “After a few days, I was comfortable and familiar with firing the rifle. Everything just started falling into place.”
Shooting is a repetitive and mental activity. At any point one tiny distraction can create problems for a shooter.
“I enjoy how mentally challenging it is,” Gallagher said. “You have to stay focused and ignore all your previous shots. Don’t rest on your laurels.”
Gallagher was first introduced to competition shooting at Edson Range. He said it was a chance to break up the monotony of dealing with recruits as a coach.
“My first year on the team I only shot the depot competition and the western division. My second year I started travelling more. I shot the depot again, I shot division, championships, two navy matches and then I came out to (3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.)”
A competitive shooter can’t always be on the range shooting. For Gallagher, he’s learned to embrace this truth and push past it. It’s woven into his daily grind. Every string of fire he will shoot is played out in his head. He’s in the shower and he’s mapping his every movement, the entire shot process at the 500-yard line. When he’s driving to work he’s running through his mental checklist of where every piece of gear is in his cart; it goes in the same place every time.
“When I get to the line I know I have my glove at the base of the cart,” Gallagher said. “I know I have my web sling or my leather sling. Everything I have has its own area of the cart. The more you run through the process in your head the more successful you are. Shooting is like 90 percent mental.”
Shooting is more than just a week to re-qualify for Ledford and Gallagher. The two Marines have carved out their paths as expert weapons handlers. What started out as a means of eating for Ledford and being qualified in bootcamp for Gallagher has evolved into an everlasting relationship.
“Champions are made in the offseason,” Ledford said, alluding to his philosophy on shooting. “Always snap in. You have to control your sights with the trigger. We learn how to use the M16 and M9 but we can apply those fundamentals and those skills to any weapon system in the Marine Corps. The unseen detail is the embodiment of teamwork that the Marines establish after working together for so long.”
They have taught and continue to teach Marines basic marksmanship skills. It’s not just a job. It’s become a part of their lives. It’s in the way they speak, the way they think and tell stories.
“Look at the front sight and you’re going to have a good time. Look at the target and you’re going to have a bad time,” Gallagher said, quoting a friend of his. “Consistency is key. Everybody takes bad shots and don’t dwell on negative things.”