While I try to follow the Olympic shotgun events, I usually don’t pay a lot of attention to the rifle shooting except to take note when an American does well. This time around I’ve got a strong interest in the rifle events, because a bird hunter is currently ranked number one in the world in 50-meter prone rifle. When I interviewed Sergeant Michael McPhail of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit recently for an upcoming column, he told me: “I’d rather shoot a shotgun than a rifle. I just happen to be better with a rifle.”
In fact, McPhail usually takes a break from his job of training to be the best rifle shooter in the world to knock out a few rounds of skeet over his lunch hour to get ready for hunting season. And for him, hunting season is all about the birds. “I get bored deer hunting,” he says. “You sit in a tree for hours and maybe get one shot. I’d rather follow my dogs.” Owner of a Llewellyn setter and a French Brittany, McPhail hunts quail around Fort Benning, where he is stationed with the AMU, and makes an annual trip back home to Wisconsin to hunt grouse.
It was as a teenager at home in Darlington, Wisc., where McPhail got his start both as a rifleman and a wingshooter, both thanks to family friend Bernie Weigel. Weigel coached McPhail as a rifle competitor, and also introduced him to bird hunting.
“Every day of the season in the seventh and eighth grade I went pheasant hunting with Bernie,” McPhail recalls. “I’d run home from school and he would be waiting in the driveway.”
McPhail went on to shoot competitively at the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh and then was recruited into the AMU. Although he shoots a different rifle now, McPhail shot Bernie Weigel’s old Anschutz target rifle all the way through college, into the Army and to the London Olympics in 2012, where he missed the finals in a shoot-off by a tiny margin.
As I mentioned, currently McPhail is number one in the world. He won two World Cup gold medals this year and he is hard at work getting ready for the Rio games. It may be difficult for us to fathom that training to be an Olympic rifle competitor can be a grind, but it is.
“Some days you don’t want to train,” says McPhail. “But you know, somewhere in the world, someone else is training harder.”
The biggest difference between grouse hunting and rifle shooting for McPhail is one of perspective.
“I never get nervous walking in on a point. Grouse hunting isn’t a competition. That’s the great thing about it. If you don’t shoot that well, you can always buy some chicken.”
Shooting in a match, on the other hand, is serious business.
“Your heart rate goes up, your adrenaline flows, and you have to push that excitement down and focus on making quality shots,” says McPhail. The payoff, he says, it well worth it. “Winning is fun. It always feels like you’re stepping up on that podium for the first time.”
Americans everywhere will be rooting for Michael McPhail in Rio, but bird hunters will be cheering loudest of all for one of their own.