Red House youth rising in smallbore shooting
ELEANOR, W.Va. -- Noah Barker has tried a lot of sports -- baseball, basketball, soccer -- but he's not yet found one that challenges him the way shooting does.
Three times a week, the 15-year-old goes to the shooting range, sets up his equipment, dons a stiff leather jacket, pulls on a padded glove, picks up a rifle and fires little bullets at little targets.
He hits more than he misses. A lot more, in fact -- enough to finish atop his age class in national competition. Enough, perhaps, to ultimately land him on a college rifle team or even on the U.S. Olympic Team.
"I'd like to see where this can take me," said Barker, a Red House resident and member of the Putnam County Gun Club Junior Smallbore Team.
In July, he will accompany his teammates to Camp Perry, Ohio, for the National Smallbore Rifle Championships. Last year, shooting in the Sub-Junior category, he surprised a lot of folks by winning several individual prone-position matches, capturing High Sub-Junior honors for aggregate score, and advancing his NRA shooter rating from Marksman to Expert.
"Noah advanced very quickly," said Smallbore Team coach Bill Shank. "In going from Marksman to Expert, Noah skipped completely over the Sharpshooter rating."
Barker joined the team in November 2009 after he read a newspaper article about it. Though he'd been shooting since age 5 and had been into hunting for almost that long, he was willing to exchange his old shooting habits for new ones.
"We started him with an upgraded rifle because of his size and his experience, but that was about the only break he got," Shank said. "We started him off like we do all the kids -- resting the rifle on sandbags -- and went from there with the basics."
One thing that immediately caught Shank's eye was how eager Barker was to practice.
"We practice three days a week, and Noah was here three days a week," Shank said.
By the time July of 2010 rolled around, Shank deemed Barker ready to compete in the prone events at Camp Perry. He was and he wasn't.
"It was intimidating and nerve-wracking," Barker recalled. "I shot poorly on the first day, but my scores got a little better as time went along. I gained experience that I was able to call on [in 2011]."
Last year, armed with an Olympic-grade rifle and another year's worth of practice and match experience, Barker returned to Camp Perry far less wide-eyed and ready to compete.
"I definitely shot better than I did the year before," he said.
Barker and teammate Natalie Asbury practically owned the Sub-Junior category in the prone events.
"For the first couple of days, Noah and Natalie traded first-place finishes in the events they entered," Shank said. "In the end, Noah ended up first in the Sub-Junior class and Natalie ended up third."
Two weeks ago, Barker fired a 1,578 score (of 1,600 possible) to win a prone dual match between the Putnam County junior club and the all-adult Mason-Dixon Rifle club. Barker finished five points ahead of Morgantown's Carl Flowers, widely acknowledged to be one of the state's best shooters.
This year, Barker's preparation for the National Matches will be interrupted by a mid-June bear-hunting trip to Canada. After that, though, he plans to practice with a vengeance.
Once at Camp Perry, Barker will step up to the Intermediate Junior category, and will compete not only in prone matches, but also in three-position matches like those shot in collegiate and international competition.
Shank believes Barker will compete strongly, but doesn't expect him to advance to a Master rating as quickly as he advanced to Expert.
"To earn a Master rating in one year is a big jump," Shank said. "I expect Noah to get there well before he gets to college, but probably not this year."
Barker said he would like to earn a rifle scholarship to West Virginia University or the University of Kentucky, but knows he has to improve in the three-position discipline before the coaches there will give him a look.
"I also have to get a lot better at air rifle," he added.
His progress at air rifle has been hindered in part by the equipment he uses. Because it mainly focuses on .22-caliber smallbore shooting, the Putnam County team has only beginner-level air rifles. Shooters who wish to upgrade must do it themselves.
To help pay for a high-grade air rifle, Barker knows he's going to have to mow a lot of lawns, just as he did when he purchased his Olympic-grade smallbore rifle. To him, it's just another part of the commitment he's made to the sport.
According to Barker's mother, Jo, it's the sort of commitment her son makes to just about everything he enjoys.
"He's as dedicated to his school work as he is to rifle," she said. "He maintained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through all three years of middle school, and earned the President's Outstanding Academic Excellence Award.
"I'm particularly proud of what he's done with rifle, because the sport takes so much focus and concentration. Those qualities will take him a long way."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.