The history of shooting sports is longer than you may think. The oldest evidence of the use of wooden and stone-tipped spears (the earliest projectile weapon) is traced back to 500-400 thousand years before present, while the slings intended to shoot stones or similar blunt projectiles were possibly invented during the Upper Paleolithic, which is 50,000-12,000 thousand years ago.
Though during harsh ancient times, people used these weapons primarily for hunting, we can assume that competitions in some form were present since rivalry and aspiration to excellence are inherent to human nature.
Shooting as a means for skill demonstration was evolving with the advancements in weaponry, and this article contains a short overview of this path. You’ll see how humanity went from flintlocks to AR-15 and semi-auto pistols and what target shooting sports emerged.
The Origin of Shooting Sports
The world’s first records of target shooting events come from one of the most developed ancient civilizations – ancient Egypt. Many Egyptian inscriptions have survived till modernity, and the oldest of them, depicting people shooting bows at targets, trace back to the 18th dynasty spanning from 1550 to 1292 BD. It’s the era that achieved the peak of its power, and now we can say it’s due to intensive military training. This tomb painting, for instance, shows instructors teaching students to shoot bows at targets. There are also many wall paintings with Egyptians shooting arrows at targets from a moving chariot.
Apparently, shooting events took place in ancient Greece as well. The magnum opus of the ancient Greek poet Homer, Iliad, contains detailed descriptions of funeral games in honor of the fallen hero Patroclus. One of the featured competitions was an archery one where the contestants needed to hit a dove tied to a pole’s top.
Of course, ancient Egypt and Greece weren’t the only places where marksman shooting competitions took place. Slavs, Germans, Indians, Chinese, Persians, and other peoples also engaged in similar activities. In fact, the first shooting clubs appeared in the 13-14 centuries in lands populated with German-speaking peoples. Recognizing that the city had better chances of withstanding an attack with citizens proficient with the crossbow, the city councils started establishing shooting ranges where people could strengthen their shooting skills. Individual shooters naturally began forming clubs, and clubs started organizing competitions and inviting shooters from other German cities.
Switzerland also had a developed archery shooting culture, and the story of William Tell only proves that. Tell is a folk hero and an expert crossbow marksman believed to partake in the establishment of the Swiss Confederation in the late 13th century. According to the legend, the Austrian bailiff of Altdorf hung his hat on a pole in the town square and demanded citizens to bow before it. Tell refused to do it, and the bailiff forced him to shoot an apple off the head of Tell’s son as a punishment.
We also know about the Great Shooting Festival held in 1504 in Zurich, Switzerland. It was the biggest competition of the time – it lasted six weeks and included crossbow marksmen from several big European cities, such as Venice in Italy and Cologne in Germany. There’s an illustration depicting the Zurich competition in detail; we see the competitors sitting on stools and shooting their crossbows at a round target, a target marker in a small hut, and many spectators.
The Rise of Rifle Shooting Competitions
With few exceptions, the handheld firearms produced before the 18-19th century were very inaccurate, primarily due to their smooth bores. Though gunsmiths started manufacturing rifled guns back in the 16th, rifled bores weren’t commonplace until much later.
Serious marksman rifle shooting competitions started with the introduction of the first flintlock long rifles, also known as Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles, in the early 1700s. Featuring rifling and 32-48 inches barrels, they offered superior accuracy and range. An expert marksman could hit the target at 200 yards or more.
Actually, North America was a special place in terms of shooting culture. It literarily was the way of life of the molding nation since Americans had to hunt, defend, and fight. Most settlements and villages held rifle shooting events that attracted hundreds of marksmen and thousands of spectators.
In the early 1800s, target shooting began emerging as a sport in the United States. A common target was a piece of wood board with an X slashed with a knife or a live turkey. Around 1825, trap shooting with live pigeons, a shooting sport popular in England, France, Italy, and Spain, was introduced to the US. Several years later, live pigeons were substituted for artificial targets, such as glass balls invented by the trap champion Adam Bogardus and later clay targets.
Today, we distinguish between the three shotgun shooting disciplines: trap, skeet, and sporting clays. Skeet, meant to simulate upland game shooting, was introduced to American shooters between 1910 and 1915, while the first United States sporting clays competitions started only in the 1980s.
For several centuries, handguns couldn’t provide a level of accuracy sufficient for marksmanship competitions. However, with the advent of reliable revolvers, more and more handgun shooting competitions started emerging. The first documented handgun match was a duel between two men shooting plates from 100 feet. It was in 1860.
World Competition and Olympic Shooting Sports
The first international long-range rifle shooting competitions were fired in English-speaking nations and focused on shooting at 800, 900, and 1000 yards. Interestingly, long-range marksmen often preferred the back position for shooting since gun slings weren’t yet common. In the 1870s, an Irish team challenged the USA team formed by the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), founded in 1871. Though American shooters didn’t shoot beyond 600 yards, they won.
Though international teams competed before the late 1890s, the first World Shooting Championships were held in 1897 in France and included rifle shooting at 300 meters (330 yards).
The first Olympic Games were orchestrated by French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin and held in 1896. Since he was a former pistol champion, he included five sport shooting events on the Olympic program – three pistol and two rifle. Since then, shooting has been a part of nearly all Olympic Games and has ranged up to a high of 21 events.
Among the leading U.S. marksmen are Alfred Lane (pistol) and Morris Fisher (rifle), who captured five gold medals each, as well as a team consisting of six expert rifle shooters – Gary Anderson, Margaret Thompson Murdock, Lanny Bassham, John Foster, John Writer, and Lones Wigger Jr. By the way, Margaret Thompson Murdock was the first markswoman to win an Olympic medal. She captured silver in three-position rifle at the 1976 Games.
In the 21st century, the U.S. continues to hold strong leadership positions and excels in International and Olympic shooting events. In 2004, Matthew Emmons won the gold medal in the prone position event with a .22 rifle at 50 yards. Kim Rhode won her first gold medal at the 1996 Games in the double trap event and became the youngest female gold medalist in history. In 2012, Jamie Lynn Gray captured gold in three-position rifle. In 2020, William Shaner won the gold medal in the 10-meter air rifle event.
In the U.S., national sport shooting competitions are plentiful. So if you’re up to googling “gun stores near me” to shop for your first sports firearm, follow the link and check out a wide selection of top-quality guns from trusted brands.