Showdown in big sky country
From June to September some 30 teams of two law enforcement officers each journeyed to southeastern Montana to pit their shooting skills against other officers from throughout the United States and Canada. The stakes were high: bragging rights for themselves; gear, equipment, and apparel for their agencies; and a personal sense of accomplishment.
5.11 Challenge organizer Bill Berry says the event was more than just a shooting competition. It was an opportunity for 5.11 Tactical and the other sponsors to show their appreciation for the officers who participated. And it was a way for officers to learn more about how they would perform under stress. “Many of the men and women who came here learned things about themselves that I think improved their opportunity to be successful in a gunfight,” says Berry, who retired in January from his post as chief of the California State Park Police.
Making a Challenge
The 5.11 Challenge was set in motion when Berry was asked to meet with Dan Costa, CEO of one of the fastest-growing companies in the law enforcement market, 5.11 Tactical. Costa wanted to underwrite a shooting competition for law enforcement officers that would be held at his fishing lodge on the Big Horn River near Hardin, Mont., and he wanted Berry to make the concept a reality.
Berry accepted. And for the next eight months he spent his days and many nights rounding up sponsors, prepping the lodge, building the range, selecting the 32 teams from the more than 3,000 entries, conducting diplomacy with skeptical chiefs, making travel arrangements, and overseeing the competition.
Competitors were chosen randomly from a pool of nearly 3,000 two-officer team entries by a computer algorithm, and then Berry and his wife, Kathy, started making phone calls. Calls that weren’t always received with shouts of joy.
Some officers were really skeptical about the concept. After all, Berry was asking them to fly to Montana without knowing exactly what was waiting for them beyond the Billings Airport. Even some of the finalists admitted that they were a little bit concerned about their accommodations when they were first invited to the lodge, all expenses paid. “Personally, I didn’t know what to think,” says Sgt. David McDonald, a tactical officer with the Raleigh (N.C.) Police Department. “I couldn’t even have imagined how nice it was going to be.”
While convincing some individual officers to come to Montana was difficult, persuading agency commanders to let their personnel participate was sometimes impossible, even for Berry, who speaks the language of chiefs. “We had two teams that were selected that were not allowed to participate,” he says. “The U.S. Secret Service and the NYPD would not let their officers come.”
Berry explains that both agencies declined the invite because they were concerned about the fact that the competition was sponsored by 5.11 Tactical and numerous other companies that supply gear to law enforcement. “They didn’t want it to look like they were endorsing the products,” says Berry. “That saddened us, but I respect the way that these departments have to face political issues and make tough decisions sometimes.” Berry hopes to get around this problem in the future by having the 5.11 Challenge classified as a training opportunity.
Course of Fire There were some elements in the course of fire for this year’s 5.11 Challenge that amounted to a kind of rudimentary stress training. While no one shot back at the officers on the range or even yelled at them, the competition itself and its rules placed each contestant under enormous pressure to perform.
The course of fire required proficiency with a handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle.
In stage one, officers drew a .40 caliber Glock 22 pistol from a Bianchi SpeedBreak holster, stepped around a series of barricades, and shot at 12 falling plate targets with 20 rounds of ammo in two magazines. The second stage was also a handgun drill using a Glock 22. Each officer maneuvered to three different windows set at different heights and angles and, while holding a SureFire M3 Combat light, fired at 18 targets with 30 rounds of ammunition.
Stage three focused on shotgun skills. Each officer was given a Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and 10 rounds of 00 buck. He was then required to engage eight Pepper Popper targets, four at 15 yards and four at 20 yards. At the beginning of the stage, the shotgun was loaded with only four rounds, so each competitor had to reload the weapon to shoot all the targets. The other shotgun stage was trap shooting. Each officer was given the opportunity to shoot 10 clay pigeons from the left and then another 10 from the right of the trap using the Remington 870 loaded with Number 8 birdshot.
The final stage of the competition was the rifle. Each shooter was given a Colt M4 carbine fitted with an Aimpoint red-dot sight. The task in this stage was to knock down 11 Pepper Popper targets with 20 rounds of .223 ammunition at a range of 100 yards.
Officers scored in most of the stages by hitting the targets with the fewest number of rounds and in the quickest time measured in seconds. For example, in the handgun stages, each target knocked down counted 10 points, each unused round counted 10 points, and one point was deducted for each second that expired before the officer shot all of his rounds or knocked over all the targets.
Berry says the most important aspect of the competition’s rules from the standpoint of officer training was the scoring for unused rounds. “Law enforcement officers are accountable for every round that we shoot,” he says. “We need to know where every round is going, and we don’t want to shoot an innocent civilian. The pressure of having the officers turn in their unused bullets created that accountability for the competition.”
The finals of the 5.11 Challenge were held on the afternoon of Sept. 11 (The significance of the date didn’t escape any of the participants.)
Three teams of two officers each competed for the championship: the Dallas team, Sgt. Joseph Maines and Senior Cpl. Mark Paghi of the Dallas Police Department; the Maine team, Dep. Rod Merritt of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and Sgt. Jason Scott of the Machias Police Department; and the North Carolina team, Officer David McDonald of the Raleigh Police Department and Sgt. Robert Windsor of the Wake County Sheriff’s Department.
After winning the Montana equivalent of a coin toss, Maine shot first. Merritt, who had recorded the highest score on the range in the preliminary competitions, stumbled out of the gate, missing his first two shots on the initial stage of the pistol course, but he recovered well, with 12 straight hits and an elapsed time of 46 seconds. Merritt’s partner, Scott, did not fare better, and the Maine team found itself trailing both the North Carolina and Dallas teams by a substantial margin.
Dallas shot first on the second stage of the pistol course. Maines shot well, hitting 18 targets with only three misses. However, Paghi had trouble with his aim on the first rack of targets, missing with four shots before he could knock down all six. With coaching and encouragement from Maines, Paghi settled down to finish off the remaining 12 targets with only one bad shot. Maine gained a little ground on Dallas in this stage, but North Carolina had another strong showing and widened its overall lead.
North Carolina led off the shotgun course with a strong performance by McDonald. He scored all eight targets in 19.55 seconds with no misses. McDonald’s partner, Windsor, was almost as quick, hitting eight targets in 22 seconds with no misses. Maine’s Scott was equally impressive, dusting all eight targets in 21 seconds without a miss. His partner Rod Merritt also tallied a perfect score on this stage, but in a much more deliberate shooting style that yielded a time of 30 seconds. The Dallas team was faster overall but less accurate with one miss per officer.
Trap shooting was the next event in the competition. And it was clearly the most difficult for all of the officers involved. Maine led off with Merritt missing a total of four shots. Scott then dusted 10 straight clay pigeons and 17 total, giving Maine the best score for the stage.
Going into the final stage, North Carolina had a total score of 1,228 points; Dallas, 1,070; and Maine, 1,053. It was clear that, barring disaster on the rifle course, North Carolina would win, but second place was really too close to call.
Dallas’ Maines shot first and, by the time he handed the smoking M4 to the NRA rangemaster supervising the competition, the Dallas team had pretty much locked up second place. Maines knocked down all 11 of the targets without a miss, something that no other competitor had accomplished in eight weeks of the preliminaries. Then to seal second place, Paghi cleaned the targets with only one miss. Dallas’ total score on the rifle course was 302 points, Maine scored 245 points, and North Carolina brought up the rear with 232 points in the final stage.
But it was North Carolina’s day. McDonald and Windsor outscored the Dallas team by 88 points to take first place.
At a banquet that evening at the lodge, North Carolina was declared the winner. For their performance, the North Carolina team secured 200 sets of gear, equipment, apparel, and footwear to be divided among their agencies. In addition, the Raleigh PD, the agency of record on the entry form, received a new Remington 7615 pump-action .223 caliber patrol rifle. Remington also awarded every other agency involved in the finals a Remington 870 pump shotgun. Second-place Dallas took home 100 sets of gear, apparel, equipment, and footwear, and third-place Maine walked away with 50 sets, enough for almost every officer on both the Machias PD and Washington County Sheriff’s Department.
In addition to the agency awards, the individual finalists also won a variety of products from the sponsors. Each finalist was given a Glock pistol of his choice and Bianchi duty gear and holsters, Merritt won an engraved Strider folding knife for his best overall performance, and Paghi took home the Aimpoint sight used in the competition after winning a post-competition rifle shoot.
The inaugural 5.11 Challenge was such a success that 5.11’s Costa says officers can expect the program to continue. And this year’s winners would encourage officers to enter.
“This has been the experience of a lifetime,” says Windsor. “At the finals, the sponsors paid to have our families join us in Montana.”
McDonald adds, “We enjoyed some great competition, especially from the Maine and Dallas guys in the finals, and we got to know officers from other departments. We are grateful to all the sponsors for making all this happen and treating us so well.”
Sponsors for the 2004 5.11 Challenge included 5.11 Tactical, Aimpoint, American Police Beat, Bianchi, Blackhawk Products Group, Blackwater USA, Glock, Law and Order magazine, Lycra, Magnum Boots, NRA Law Enforcement, POLICE magazine, PoliceOne.com, Remington Law Enforcement, Strider-Buck Knives, SureFire, and Tactical Response magazine.