Outline History of the United States Air Force Marksmanship School

by TSGT Arnold Vitarbo USAF (Ret)
Member of the Air Force Pistol Team
November 1963 to March 1969, 1972-73


During the Korean War General Curtis LeMay, was shocked and outraged when he came onto Kimpo Air Base after we had regained control of the Base from the North Koreans. The reason for his sense of outrage was that he discovered dead U.S. Airmen with M2 Carbines in their hands and their apparent futile attempts at loading their Carbines with magazines from .45 Automatic Service Pistols while trying to repel the attacking North Koreans. At that moment he vowed that if he ever was in a position of authority he would see to it that all Air Force personnel would become basically proficient in the use of their individual weapons. After becoming Chief of Staff of the Air Force he was be able to fulfill the promise that he made to himself in Korea.

General LeMay's first step in fulfilling that promise, was taken in 1959 when he appointed Col. Thomas Kelly to organize the First Marksmanship School in the Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Col. Kelly's mission was three fold.

First: Train and organize competent gunsmiths.

Second: Establish a Marksmanship School.

Third: Organize and field the best competitive shooters in the Country and in the World.

To accomplish his first goal of finding and training competent Gunsmiths, Col. Kelly went Air Force wide to recruit anyone with any prior knowledge of Guns or had any interest in learning about them. Many of the early "recruits" were Aircraft Engine Mechanics or other maintenance personnel as well as Fighter Pilots. Some of them just liked to target shoot or hunt. Some of these early volunteers were sent to existing Firearms Manufacturers to learn their skills first hand. It is interesting to note at this point, that not too many years later, these Manufacturers came to San Antonio to learn from us.

From this early nucleus came the Air Force's Gunsmithing "Shop." This shop included Pistol, Rifle (Small Bore and High Power), Shotgun and subsequently Running Boar (Now Moving Target) sections. Their missions were to build and maintain precision firearms for competitive shooting at the World class level. In addition there was an R&D section whose mission was to develop new Weapons for both the Competitors and the Combat Arms of the Air Force. To complete their mission a highly competent Machine Shop was established. Finally there was an Ammunition Development section. Their mission was to find the best loads for all types of Small Arms and to test same in their own 100 yard test Tunnel. The Ammunition test section would buy a few rounds of Ammunition from every Manufacturer and test them. Once they found the best lot, the Air Force would buy the entire Lot. We knew when we were issued Ammunition for both practice and Matches that we were getting the best available.

The second goal of establishing the Marksmanship School was begun also in 1959. The curriculum included: Basic Weapons Care, Proper Techniques of Instruction, Basic and Advanced Marksmanship Techniques, Actual qualification firing with high standards expected in our qualification scores. In addition to the use of the basic M2 Carbine, and .45 Automatic Pistol, instruction was given in the use of Machine Guns and Rifle Launched Grenades. This was a twelve week Course and was very comprehensive. All of the graduates of this school became Range Instructors and /or competitors for the Air Force. The present Rifle Range Instructors in the Air Force, "Red Hats," are the direct result of that original program.

The third goal of Col. Kelly was met and surpassed beyond his or General LeMay's expectations. The Air Force Shooters from 1960 until the program was discontinued in September of 1969 performed extremely well. I will only cover the accomplishments of the Pistol Team because to cover the entire program to include Rifle, Shotgun and Running Boar would be too comprehensive for this article.

Conventional Competition

The majority of the early team members were from among Air Force Personnel but there were some who came from the other Services. The first was Bill Mellon who came over from the Navy, then myself, Arnold Vitarbo from the U.S. Marine Corps.

During the years of 1961 and most of 1963 I was a member of the United States Marine Corps Pistol Team and was an established 2650 "Bullseye" shooter for the Marine Corps. Whenever we encountered the Air Force Team at Matches around the Country we were very much impressed by the skill and professionalism demonstrated by the Air Force Pistol Shooters at the Competition. When I observed this professionalism I wanted to become a part of it. During November of 1963 I completed my tenth year in the Marine Corps and decided to join the Air Force. Col. George Van Deusen, who was the Commander of the Marksmanship School and was an F-51 Fighter pilot during WWII, helped get me assigned directly to the Team at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It should be noted that Col. Van Deusen usually traveled with us and usually shot well over 2600 himself.

When I arrived at Lackland I found that of the 15 shooters assigned to the Pistol Team, seven of them were current 2650 shooters, one was the NCOIC and another was the Coach. Our lowest shooter, usually the new man for the year was shooting around 2630 fairly regularly. (It must be borne in mind while reading this article that all of the scores were fired with open sights, no scopes.) During my first half year on the Air Force team in 1964, I fired in over 20 matches and had a 2646 match average but was not able to make the "Blue" team until April of that year. My first match as a firing member of the "Blue" Team made me realize just how "tough" these guys were. In this, my first Match on the "Blue" Team, Capt. Franklin C. Green and myself shot first. He had a 297 and I shot a 296. Our next two shooters were Capt. Thomas D. Smith III and TSGT Alvin R. Merx. They shot 299 and 300 respectively for a Team total of 1192. This .22 record is still the current record. From here on I would like to list some of the highlights of our Team's accomplishments and put them in perspective.

SSGT John Mahan: He broke 2650 twelve times and never won a match with it. He was the only shooter I ever met who actually had his sights adjusted for a controlled "Jerk." Anyone else who shot his guns always shot high and right.

Capt. T.D. Smith III: In 1966 he shot his wad cutter .45 in the Center Fire matches and his "hardball" gun in the .45 stages for the entire year in about 25-30 Matches. His goal was to win the National Trophy match for that year at Camp Perry. He was sent to Vietnam before Camp Perry but his match average for the year was close to 2650.

Capt. Franklin C. Green: He held the "Bullseye" record for a while with a score of 2665. He injured his left hand so he switched to his right hand and broke 2660 with his right hand. He became National Champion in 1968.

TSGT Alvin R. Merx: The first man to shoot 300 over the .22 National Match course. (He subsequently equaled that score several more times. Al Merx complained all the time because he hated shooting and said it was boring. He used to assemble Distributor Caps at a Ford Motor Plant in Detroit and said that is what he enjoyed doing.

Myself, Capt. T.D. Smith III, Capt. Frank Green, SSGT John Mahan and a few others also shot 300 in competition in the National Match course on different occasions. The first time I shot over 2660 (2664) I walked off the line thinking I had the match won, but soon found out that I came in second to T.D. Smith, who had a 2666.

We did win the National Trophy Team match in 1966 with a record breaking score, however "T.D." as mentioned above had left to go back to fly F4 Fighters and pulled a tour in Vietnam. Our "new" man on that winning Team, A1C McCloud, was high shooter with a 293.

In 1968, at Camp Perry, the Air Force made a clean sweep of the Nationals. We won the Warm up Match, all 3 guns and Capt. Frank Green won the Grand Aggregate. SSGT Edwin L. Teague won the National Trophy Individual Match and we also won all three Team Matches. In the American Rifleman magazine the reporter said that the Air Force won everything except Lake Erie.

During the Inter Service Pistol Championships of 1964 and typically for the rest of the "sixties" over 45 shooters surpassed 2600 in these matches.

International Competition

In addition to our "Bullseye" team we were very successful in the International events. There were no separate Conventional and International Teams. Those of us who could do both, shot in all of the major Matches of each. Those of us who did shoot International would typically drive (no one flew in those days) from our last International Match to either Camp Perry or to some other major "Bullseye" Match. Our "Blue" Team in Conventional was usually made up of the International shooters.

Our International Team consisted of:

Capt. Franklin C. Green

  • Olympic Silver Medallist, Free Pistol 1964
  • National Pistol Champion in 1968.
  • 2650 Club
  • Presidents 100

    Capt. Thomas D. Smith III

  • Olympic Team Free Pistol, 1964
  • World Champion Center Fire and the retired record holder with score of 599
  • Inter Service Pistol Champion 1963-64 with scores of 2658-140X
  • "T. D." shot over 890 with the .22 so many times that it became common place for him.
  • 2650 Club
  • Presidents 100

    SSGT Arnold Vitarbo

  • 1968 Olympic Team, Free Pistol 4th Place
  • 1966 World Championships, Free Pistol 5th Place.
  • 1967 Pan American Games, Free Pistol, Team Gold Medal and Individual Gold.
  • World Championship Team Member, 1985
  • 1968-1970, had a 568 match average in Free Pistol.
  • Free Pistol Record holder, 571 from 1969-1985
  • Standard Pistol Record, 586 from 1969-1981
  • Air Pistol Record , 584 1985
  • National Free Pistol Champion 1973
  • National Center Fire Champion 1966
  • Distinguished Rifle, Pistol and International.
  • Averaged 288 in individual and Team Matches with the Service Pistol for six seasons.
  • 2650 Club
  • Presidents 100

    SSGT Edwin L. Teague

  • 1964 Olympic Team, Rapid Fire.
  • National Trophy Pistol Champion 1968
  • Ed was a tremendous Police Combat Action shooter and had unbelievably quick reflexes. He later became the Head of the "SWAT" Program for the Arizona State Police.
  • 2650 Club
  • Presidents 100

    LT. Gail Liberty

  • She shot as high as 2625 in the Conventional Pistol matches
  • Member of the 1966 World Championship Team
  • In subsequent years after she retired from the Air Force she made the National Team in Women's Sport Pistol and Women's Air Pistol.

    The following shooters were members of various Teams from 1962-1969.

  • SSGT Leslie T. Foster (Rapid Fire)
  • TSGT Alvin R. Merx (Free Pistol)
  • SSGT Robert C. Meagher (Free Pistol)
  • MSGT Donald R. Rupp (CISM)
  • TSGT John A. Ditmore (Center Fire)

    The 1964 Olympic Pistol Team consisted of three Air Force shooters out of the four man team: Capt. Green, Capt. Smith III and SSGT Teague.

    The 1966 World Championship Team was also represented by many of our Air Force shooters. Capt. Green, Lt. Liberty, TSGT John Ditmore, SSGT Teague, and SSGT Vitarbo.

    Before 1968 all of the invitations from Foreign Countries came directly to the Army AMU at Ft. Benning. The Foreign Shooting Delegations thought the Army AMU was the Official Governing Body. The Army took it upon themselves to send their own shooters to some of the European Training Matches without notifying the other Services of the invitation. When we found out about this situation the Air force demanded that there be a shoot off for the slots for these "US" Teams. The very first time that there was an elimination system to select the Team, the Air force made up most of the "US" Team.

    The other members of the Air Force at various times from 1962-1969 were as follows. I apologize for not mentioning anyone before 1962 but I was not there before that time.

  • Capt. Larry Hadley
  • Lt. Stephan Richards - later to reorganize to the current Air Force Shooting Program and Retire as Col.
  • MSGT William B. Byers (NCOIC) - He was an "old" Wyoming Cowboy. When he stopped "cussing" at you, you were in trouble.
  • MSGT David A. Miller (Coach)
  • MSGT Hilliard Jones
  • TSGT Herman A. Crump
  • TSGT John A. Ditmore
  • TSGT Bernard A. Stoltman
  • SSGT Leslie T. Foster
  • SSGT Robert E. Dueitt
  • SSGT Alfred E. Richards
  • SSGT Frank A. Kwas - 2650 Club
  • SSGT James E. Longenecker
  • SSGT Johnny L. R. Mahan - 2650 Club
  • SSGT Jackie R. Morris - He was also on the Shotgun Team.
  • SSGT Dwight E. Thyarks
  • SSGT James Tabor
  • A1C Robert E. Yeager - He later joined the Running "Pig" Team and did very well in that event.
  • A3C Gabriel Balla

    Another Side

    I would like to now mention some other pertinent information regarding our program.

    All of our travel to as many as 35 Matches per year was via POV except one flight to Ft. Benning on which we lost an Engine on the way back Home to San Antonio. We usually traveled by ourselves because our schedules would vary somewhat. When we were heading east, we were required to travel 500 miles per day, heading west we had to travel 600 miles per day. In those days the Interstate System was not fully completed so some of the days were long.

    We had to install Heavy Duty Air Ride Shock Absorbers on our Cars because of the heavy load of ammunition we had to take with us for as much as a one month trip. Those were the days before Radial Tires so we were lucky to get 10000 miles out of a set of Tires. Needless to say we were buying a new set of Tires every 3-5 months.

    Our typical annual schedule was as follows:


  • Ft. Benning, Georgia
  • We also had at least one Match somewhere in Mexico for about 6 or 7 of us in which we drove our cars as well.


  • We would head west to either Tucscon, or Phoenix and then on to San Diego.


  • Pensacola, Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, Florida for four consecutive matches a week apart.


    The Inter Service Warm-up Match and then the Inter Service Championships in San Antonio, Texas.


  • Possibly Ft. Worth and Dallas, Texas or Shrevesport, Louisiana.


  • Normally the United States Shooting Team tryouts for the major Championships that year, i.e, the Olympics, Pan American Games, World Championships, etc.
  • Mexico again


  • The Camp Perry Warm up Match which was held in South Bend, Indiana at that time and then on to Camp Perry.


  • Usually our Leave Time


  • Matches in the surrounding area of Texas.


  • Varied from going on to California via Phoenix or Tucson again.


  • Ft. Worth and Dallas, Texas


  • El Paso, Texas

    At different times during the year there was the International Inter Service Championships which alternated between Ft. Benning and San Antonio.

    Some intrateam competition and camaraderie

    At all of our matches we had a large Team Score Board set up in our "staging" area on which we wrote down our scores just after firing a Match or Sub Match. The Team would always gather around the Score Board after we would write down our scores to discuss our scores. We would then think to ourselves, "How am I going to beat ___ (him) in the next Match?" or, "Where do I stand now in order to improve my performance?" Although there was much camaraderie among the Team members, when the Match began, it was "Dog eat Dog." I feel this attitude was very healthy and that it contributed to our overall success. You knew at all times that if you were not at your peak, that someone else would pass you by. The overall Team atmosphere was one of a lot of congeniality with lots of jokes and pranks. If you were "thin skinned" you would not have lasted very long on the Team.

    A Gunsmith would always accompany us to all of our Matches. This helped us not only with occasional Gun problems, but it was reassuring to know that Gun problems would rarely be a factor.

    I would like to add to the above history by giving a brief insight as to one of many activities which we were engaged in that demonstrated that we were pioneers in many skills that have subsequently become the norm in shooting. It should be borne in mind that there was no such thing as any organized coaching in those days. We learned to shoot by ourselves and usually kept it a secret as to our individual techniques. We did however have "roundtable" discussions about certain aspects of shooting, usually while we were on the "road." On long trips, our NCOIC made us sit down and talk to each other to ease some of the tension, especially as nerves became edgy during these trips.

    I feel that much of our success can be attributed to the fact that we had a very free and open attitude towards research on the Sport of Shooting. Our Commanders' philosophy was to give us the best support, equipment, opportunities to train and "turn us loose to do our best in competition." We did not use the term "mental imagery" then but all of the successful shooters did admit to using it on a regular basis.

    We would get together as a Team as mentioned above, on a regular basis whether we were at home or on a trip, usually once a week and discuss very candidly our shooting problems. Each shooter would input his thoughts on his shooting technique. Please bear in mind that over half (7) of our shooters were current 2650 shooters. As mentioned we rarely, if at all, ever divulged our shooting "secrets," so you had to read between the lines if you wanted to learn what technique one of your competitors used. The one basic item that was always constant was as follows.

    We all had a strong desire to win, and were constantly being pushed, and the fact that we only used open sights made it imperative that we refine our technique constantly. We almost unanimously agreed (except for Johnny Mahan who as mentioned above, had an educated "jerk") that three things were paramount in order to fire a well placed shot.

    Sight Alignment along with simultaneous Trigger Control and Follow Through were our main concerns. The relatively recent use of "sub six" aiming was not thought of in those days so we had to acquire the skill of using our sight alignment at either "six" or "center" hold to refine our shot placement. Shooting reasonably good groups was not good enough. In those days the average "X" count in the 2700 match was around 130-145 and at least 2650 or more was required to have any chance of winning a Match, so we had to be more precise in our shot placement.

    A short divergence

    I would like to mention a little side note which I feel is appropriate to the present situation in the United States. During the past 10-15 years the Pistol scores in the United States among the International Shooters, and except for a few people, even the "Bullseye" scores, have declined steadily.

    For example Standard Pistol Scores are very low, with winning scores sometimes in the 560s as opposed to the 580s 30 years ago. When I set the Standard Pistol Record with a 586, there were at least two shooters right behind me in the 580s. Center Fire scores are now in the 570s and some of the better shooters getting into the 580s. In 1968 we shot the Center fire Match three times over the course for the National Championships. During that match I had a 587 average for the three days and placed 7th. I must admit that the Center Fire Duel Target has decreased in size, however the scores that are shot by our better shooters are only about 3-4 points lower than they were years ago.

    While I was the National Pistol Coach from 1992-1994 I was concerned with the decline in scores so I asked a Former Air Force shooter, Donald R. Rupp, to assist me with the Sport Pistol Event. We were both disappointed by the attitude of the shooters at the time and their approaches to shooting. They thought that their techniques were very modern and that they could not learn anything from an "old" guy such as Don Rupp. Don was an excellent Center Fire/CISM shooter and has proven himself on the firing line. Both of us were disappointed with their approach to shooting and the current level of performances is indicative of their lack of application of tried and proven techniques. A good indication of the attitude which still prevails, is the statement made by former National Pistol Coach, Dan Iuga from Rumania. When I mentioned about Blankenship's World Center Fire Championship score of 596, his comment was that Bill shot well but had a very poor shooting technique. I heard this comment among shooters of other events while I was the National Coach and down to the present. Many shooters of today are looking for all sorts of gimmicks and so called modern techniques, but the scores are very low.

    Getting back to the Air Force Team

    During these "roundtable" discussions the subject of how to handle Match pressure would always come up. Each shooter in his own way would finally admit they he used some form of mental training including imagery. The mental preparation began in most cases weeks before a major competition. The closer the "Big" match came, the more we would get into our "Shell." The thoughts that went through our minds were very general during the days prior to a Match. These thoughts would include hearing ourselves being called to the firing line, getting our guns ready. The thought of not winning would never be allowed to enter our minds. The night before a "Big" match we would try to imagine in more detail actually firing the match, including hearing the range commands, the noise and also prepare for any problems that might arise, i.e. weather, target breakdowns, etc. If you are prepared for these problems you will have an alternate plan to handle them. When the command was finally given to commence firing, before each shot or string of shots was fired, we would rehearse the entire shot or string in our mind. This Mental imagery included breathing, rise of the Gun, watching the Sights, feel the Trigger pressure and feel the follow through. Immediately after this exercise we would raise the Gun and fire a well planned shot or be ready for the commands for the sustained fire stages.

    Many of us used and I still teach the following techniques to my students in my Coaching and Advanced Marksmanship Clinics. We would try to imagine seeing our sights clearly with our eyes closed. This is normally an acquired skill and takes time to master. It also helps to dry fire in a dark room or closet to get the feel of the trigger and how a smooth break should feel.

    In addition to Mental research we were also exposed to lectures by Air Force Medical Personnel on how to protect our eyesight, eye wear, how to handle weather extremes and many other related subjects.

    On numerous occasions we would conduct Shooting Clinics for our Base and Major Command Pistol Teams. This had a two fold purpose. We wanted to broaden our base of talent as well as scout for new talent for the Air Force Team. To illustrate the depth of our program and to put it in perspective, many members of the Base and Major Command Teams were shooting over 2600. Every September when it came time to add or delete members for the Air Force Team we had a ready pool of talent to choose from. The new members that were selected were usually shooting 2625-30.

    After I left the Team in 1969 I was stationed at Wheeler AFB in Hawaii. My wife had made friends with the wife of a Chief MSGT who was part of the IG Team during one of our inspections in early 1969. After I met him and before he knew who I was the subject of shooting in general came up. He had an interest in hunting which lead to the discussion of the Air Force Team. He mentioned that the purpose of the aforementioned IG Inspection in 1969 was to close down the program. It seems that when Gen. LeMay gave Col. Kelly orders to start an Air Force Marksmanship Program in 1958, that a lot of "Toes were stepped on" in the process. Those "Toes " were that of some young Lieutenants who for what ever reason did not agree with Col. Kelly and the need for a Program such as the one that was planned. About 10-12 years later when those Lieutenants rose in the ranks to positions of authority, they used their influences to shut the program down. Gen. LeMay was long gone so his influence was no longer of any consequence.


    It is my opinion that the reason for the overall skill level that was present during the 1960s was in large part due to the Air Force and its program which had a snowball effect. As the Air Force improved, the Army AMU at Ft. Benning improved along with the Navy shooters who in turn began to be a force to be reckoned with. The Air Force had to improve to beat the Army and Navy, and they in turn did likewise. The overall result was: extremely high scores with a very high expectation level.

    U.S. Air Force Competitive Shooting Teams