When Scott Tolley took aim on his final target, he knew exactly what he had to do.
“I knew it had to go in the middle, or I’d lose,” he said. He checked the wind, centered the target’s bullseye in his scope, squeezed the trigger and sent the .223-caliber round screaming downrange at 3,000 feet per second.
Eleven-hundredths of a second later, the bullet struck the target.
And just like that, Tolley became a champion.
Tolley, a master sergeant in the West Virginia Army National Guard, won the Modern Military Rifle Match at the recent National Matches in Camp Perry, Ohio. That final shot, which also hit the X-ring inside the bullseye, gave the Spencer resident a record-breaking final score of 295 (of a possible 300) with 19 X shots.
One of Tolley’s friends, fellow Guardsman Denver Gillham, also fired a 295, but Tolley won a tie-break because he put four more shots into the X-ring than Gillham.
The victory was Tolley’s first at the National Matches, but he hopes it isn’t his last. As a member of the Army National Guard’s national shooting team since 2018, he gets to compete in elite events against other elite shooters.
“I don’t have that many more years left in the military,” said the 25-year veteran. “My main goal now is to make the top 100 in the President’s 100 Match. I finished 105th in 2018 and 102nd this year.”
When one considers that Tolley didn’t take target shooting seriously until 2011, his accomplishments to date become all the more impressive.
“I went to an event in Pennsylvania and earned some points toward a Distinguished Rifleman badge,” he recalled. “Chasing my Distinguished badge was what led me into shooting high-powered rifle competitively.”
Military shooters are only allowed to compete in four events per year, and only the top 10 percent earn points toward a Distinguished badge. It took Tolley seven years to earn his.
Like all competitive shooters, Tolley had to work his way up through the classifications — marksman, sharpshooter, expert, master. The ratings are based on the percentage of shots that hit the bullseye. At this year’s National Matches, Tolley earned a High Master rating by putting more than 98 percent of his shots in the 10-ring.
He competes in the high-powered “unlimited” class, using a modified AR-15, the semi-automatic version of the military’s M-16. A stock AR-15 weighs about 7 pounds without ammunition. With a telescopic sight, a heavy barrel and weights in the stock and forearm, Tolley’s tips the scale at about 17 pounds.
The weight increases the gun’s stability, but it also requires more muscle to hold. All the shooting Tolley does is unsupported — no bipods, sandbags or shooting rests allowed.
To maintain his skills, he practices at least two days a week for an hour or two at a time. Fortunately for Tolley, he’s based near Eleanor, where the Putnam County Gun Club is located.
“It’s easy to get out there and shoot,” he said. “I can go over there and practice pretty often.”
That’s especially helpful in the weeks leading up to major competitions, when he ramps his training up to four or five days a week. Burning that much ammunition would be an expensive proposition for a civilian, but it’s another day at the office for Tolley.
“Because I’m a member of the Guard’s national team, my ammo is free,” he said.
Each accomplishment with that ammo, however, must be earned one at a time. Tolley said he looks forward to trying to earn more.