By Tim Leeds
The name of a Havre freshman was recently added to an impressive list of Havre shooters.
Jason Verploegen, a 15-year-old member of the VFW Bear Paw Jr. Rifle Club, earned the Distinguished Expert Rifleman award from the National Rifle Association on Dec. 17.
The award, the top rank given by the NRA, took Verploegen about six years of practice to win. He joins an extensive list of Havre youths who have earned it. The VFW junior club and the Havre Girls Junior Rifle Club, sponsored by the VFW Auxiliary, have each averaged about one distinguished expert in the last 52 years.
"It's just fun," Verploegen said.
Verploegen progressed through 14 awards before reaching Distinguished Shooter.
He said one of the things that is most fun about the club is competing at the national sectionals. The next one will be held March 7-8 in Missoula.
Verploegen's team ranked third in the nation at the sectionals he shot at a couple of years ago.
Chan Hanson, whose daughter Hannah and son Devon both shoot in the club, said he likes what the program is teaching his children. They learn gun ethics and proper care of rifles, and how to shoot in the right way, he said.
Hannah, 8, has already scored 48 out of 50 points in five shots, he said.
Tristan Verploegen, a 15-year-old with an expert rank, started shooting with the Havre Jaycees shooting program using a BB gun. He qualified for nationals with that group.
He now shoots with a rifle.
"It wasn't too bad so I wanted to keep doing it," he said. "I think I'll do it as long as I can."
An important part of the club is learning to shoot slowly and carefully, he said.
"Do it right the first time and to strive to do better the next time you try," he said.
Monica Laeupple said her family has participated in the club for a long time, which is what made her interested in joining.
"My sister and my dad and my uncle liked it," she said. "It's fun. I like it a lot."
"My uncle's up on the wall," she added, pointing to a plaque of winners of the Master Distinguished Award, where Lee Laeupple's photo is displayed.
Monica Laeupple has earned an expert rank.
The basement of the Havre Fire Department holds the shooting range where the club practices. It's filled with photos and memorabilia, including photos of Verploegen's and other teams that ranked in the top five nationally after sectionals. Plaques on the wall hold photos of some of the 50 or so girls and 48 or more boys who've earned the top NRA shooting rank, and one plaque holds the photos of five boys who excelled so much that the Havre Lions Club had to create a special award above distinguished expert.
Cal Burr, a certified shooting instructor who has worked with shooters in the club for 38 years, said a Havre boy named Jim See had achieved every award he could as a young boy. So the Lions Club created the Master Distinguished Expert Award, which See earned in 1966.
Area boys earned the award fairly regularly for a few years, with Burr's son, Paul, attaining it in 1972 and John Morehouse and Lee Laeupple earning it in 1973.
Then Garrett Hanson added his name to the list in 2000.
"Twenty-seven years between shooters tells you it's one heck of a course," Cal Burr said.
No girl has earned the Master Distinguished Expert Award yet, Burr added, but that may change.
"I've got one working on it right now," he said.
Earning either award takes incredible marksmanship.
The marksman has to shoot at official A-17 U.S. Army targets, with 10 target rings, about 1 inches wide, on each target sheet. Each ring is worth up to 10 points.
One shot is fired at each of the 10 rings. The center ring, which the shooter has to hit for a perfect shot, is about inch wide. The shooter must accumulate 10 targets with the required hits in each of four shooting positions - prone, sitting, kneeling and standing.
To earn distinguished expert, the shooter cannot miss more than two points on consecutive shots in the prone and sitting positions, and no more than four points in two consecutive shots in the kneeling and standing position.
For the Master Distinguished Award, a shooter has to score 100 points on each of the 10 targets in the prone position, with six perfect center shots on each target. A shooter also must score 100 on each target, with four center shots on each target, in the sitting position; score at least 97 on each target in the kneeling position; and score at least 92 on each target in the standing position.
"We're extremely proud of these kids. I don't know if people realize what they accomplish," said Randy Martin, another certified instructor for the club.
"It's precision shooting. A sixty-fourth of an inch determines the winner," he added.
And the shooters put in the work to earn the awards, Burr said. The club meets every week from September through April. Each shooter has a one-hour time slot to practice shooting, either on Monday or Tuesday.
Twelve shooters haven't missed a week this year, and eight are working on having perfect attendance for five years, Burr said.
The time slots available allow the club to have 48 shooters, which is the number of members it has now. Burr said that if enough new members join, the practices can start at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m., allowing six more per night.
Don Kenny isn't a certified instructor, but he helps at the practices.
"I'm not certified like these guys," he said. "I'm just here to give these kids hell."
His association goes much further back, though. He said he started working for Tony Marra 48 years ago, and the shooting club used to practice in the basement of Marra's Grocery before it got the space below the newly built fire and police departments in 1973.
The club provides a valuable opportunity for kids in the area, Kenny said. Not everyone is able to play basketball or football, and the shooting activity offers an opportunity to learn discipline and safety as well as something to do, Kenny said.
"You don't see any of these kids out on the street," he said. "You don't see any of them in trouble at school."