The future of the shooting sports industry gathered in Rapid City, South Dakota recently for the 4H Shooting Sports National Invitational. The “Future” in this instance would be the 410 kids from 27 different states that are just a small fraction of the 300,000 youths that are involved in the 4H Shooting Sports Program.
The event is held once a year and provides a setting for participants to showcase their skills in a competitive environment.
Awards are handed out daily to the top finishers in various handgun, rifle, muzzleloader, shotgun, and archery disciplines, but the real story behind this event is that these competitors should be viewed as the lifeblood of a shooting and hunting heritage — a heritage that many in the shooting sports industry believe is declining rapidly.
The simplest way to explain how the 4H Shooting Sports Program got its start is to begin with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and 4H as a whole. 4H started near the beginning of the 20th century as a way the USDA and its Land Grant universities could get the word out to change-resistant-farmers about breakthroughs in agriculture and science technology by introducing these new practices and discoveries to farmer’s children. The belief was that as these children got older and took over the family farm or started farming themselves, they would continue to practice what was learned during their time with 4H.
The county extension offices and its agents, which are apart of the Land Grant university system, ran the 4H clubs and still do today. All county extension offices of Land Grant universities must offer a 4H program.
As the 4H clubs and organizations grew, so did the various 4H program offerings that were available to children. Kids aged 9 to 18 were now getting education in a much broader range of topics from conservation efforts to photography to gardening and in the various 4H conservation camps that were hosted each year…shooting and firearms instruction.
While popular at the conservation camps and with rural farm children, a shooting and firearm education curriculum was never created by the National 4H Organization.
According to Bill Stevens, ATK Conservation Manager, and longtime supporter and committee member of the 4H Shooting, a grass roots effort started in 1976 to create a 4H Shooting Sports organization.
“The shooting program started in 1976 in Texas. There had been shooting in 4H for many years with some states having competitions, and Texas was one of them. In 1979, the NRA hosted a national meeting where many state representatives decided how to get (a program) going. In 1980, a committee was formed.”
The committee outlined plans to raise funds, develop a curriculum and decided on a delivery system to reach as many 4H participants as possible.
Nine companies contributed $19,000 to help start the program while Stevens hit the road.
“I went to the different land grant colleges and met everyone. I went and visited and talked with them and brought them the idea of the shooting program. With the changing demographics of rural to urban and suburban — it was a good way to get kids involved in the 4H program that didn’t have to be agricultural related,” said Stevens.
With start-up funds in place and a delivery system being ironed out, a curriculum was all that was needed.
Enter Johnny K.
In 1982, Johnny Kvasnicka (Johnny K to almost everyone), was working on his masters degree in Fish & Wildlife at the University of Minnesota and was approached about heading up the 4H Shooting Sports program. The 4H Shooting Sports committee was looking for someone to design a curriculum that would standardize the program throughout the entire country. Kvasnicka agreed to do it and has been with 4H Shooting Sports since, now serving as the executive director.
“The curriculum is all about experiential education. All activities are set up in lesson plans in each one of the disciplines,” said Kvasnicka.
Annual training sessions for 4H Shooting instructors were created so that the curriculum could be taught and learned. Each shooting/firearm discipline has its own lesson plan so instructors can focus on one subject entirely and then move on to the next. There is a curriculum committee that meets annually to review the current curriculum and recommends any revisions or additions.
In 1993 a foundation was started to help better fund the 4H Shooting Sports Organization and within the entire 4H National Organization, the Shooting Sports Organization is the only program to have its own foundation.
Currently, 46 of the 50 United States offer a 4H Shooting Sports Program (Rhode Island, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut do not) and the total youth participation in the 4H Shooting Sports Organization across the United States exceeds 300,000.
MAKING THE BEST BETTER
The shooting sports industry has taken notice of the 4H Shooting Sports organization, but perhaps not at the level involvement that you’d expect to see. The annual operating budget for 4H Shooting is $300,000, which breaks down to $1 per kid involved. The organization depends largely on grants, donations and sponsorships to operate as it’s classified as a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization.
“That is their future. That is their next marketing audience. I would like to see the industry allow enough funding that they could give to the youth development and youth shooting sports program. The market is theirs. It’s there for the taking. Most of the industry that we work with are all sold on it. They understand it,” said Kvasnicka.
“It’s the future of the sport. The average age of the ATA is 51. If this is the average age of a shooting organization, where’s the youth? I think the most important age is getting an 8 or 9 year old. Starting them shooting with a pellet gun. That’s when 4H starts. Getting them shooting a BB gun and their eyes get big. It’s really the future of the industry for all of the companies,” said Stevens.
And Johnny K believes that the organization could grow even larger.
“If we had the proper resources (funding) I could easily see us reach a million kids a year. That would be my goal. We’re at 300,000 now, five to ten years, it could easily be a million,” said Kvasnicka.
SKILLS FOR LIFE
The 4H Shooting Sports program provides much more than marksmanship and firearm safety training. Youth learn about leadership, decision-making, relationship building, mentoring, conservation, awareness and much, much more.
“It’s not a shooting program but a youth development program first. With 4H you can have all the different activities,” said Stevens.
The Shooting Sports program is also a great avenue for a child that’s perhaps not a great athlete but would like to get involved in a competitive sport. Running fast and jumping high doesn’t matter much when it comes to pulling a trigger. And involvement in the program isn’t just limited to youth. There are over 46,000 adult volunteer leaders and 930 professional Extension Educators that participate in the National Shooting Sports Program on an annual basis.
The reach of 4H Shooting extends beyond the traditional “firearm friendly” regions. As a result of all county extension offices for Land Grant universities having to offer a 4H program, many more traditionally liberal universities have opted to offer a shooting sports program as it’s something children and youth in the area can participate in that’s of interest to them. Rutgers University in New Jersey offers a shooting sports program through its county extension office, as does the University of California.
4H is for the family too. This was evident by the large number of family and friends on hand to take in the various competitions at the National Invitational. At each venue, bleachers were filled with anxious parents that were either holding cameras or looking downrange through a spotting scope to see how their child was doing.
The 4H Shooting Sports Organization is always looking for help, in both donations and volunteers. Its website provides contact information for the various shooting sports programs throughout the country (http://www.4-hshootingsports.org/state_contacts.html. And if there isn’t one in your area, 4H Shooting will help you set one up. Instruction is provided for those that are interested.
The thought to take from all of this is what the 4H Shooting Sports Organization does for the children. The growth and development a child shows from participating in the 4H Shooting Sports Program extends beyond the shooting range and into the community. And whether the kids involved in the program know it or not, they are the next generation of responsible shooters and firearm enthusiasts that the future of the shooting and hunting industry is so very dependent on.