Picking the brain of the top NRA Black Powder Target Rifle shooter
Raton, New Mexico - Dave Gullo loves to shoot, he told me so. Specifically he prefers long ranges and high calibers, but his love affair with firearms began as Boy Scout with something a little smaller.
"I was eleven years old and back then things were a lot less regulated with the scout leaders," Gullo told me. "We were out in the desert and we started shooting .22s and I said 'Well, this is pretty fun.'"
Just like that he was hooked - a common beginning for many lifelong shooters. A few years later Gullo's brother gave him his very own .22 and he has been shooting ever since.
Gullo began to get into the black powder world in his 20s. Beginning with muzzle loading, he eventually progressed to black powder cartridge rifles about 20 years ago. Already an experienced reloader with modern firearms, Gullo began loading black powder and tinkering with single shot rifles.
Like many shooters dream of, Gullo turned his passion for firearms into a career, and has owned and operated Idaho-based Buffalo Arms for the past 22 years. Featuring just about all the black powder or black powder shooting supplies you could want, you can still find Gullo answering the phones to help shooters get exactly what they need.
In the mid 1990s the NRA reintroduced matches for black powder target rifle, the discipline the organization had been founded on, and Gullo was one of the first in line to shoot.
"1997 was the first nationals," Gullo recalled. "My current shop foreman won it that year, my shooting partner John Vanhous was second and I was third."
All three shooters scored for each other and Gullo acted as the coach. Thinking back on the order the three finished in, Gullo jokingly voiced some suspicions on his partners' score keeping.
"But no monkey business happened, I can assure you," he said.
The Castle Trophy, awarded at the conclusion of the Creedmoor Match, is the NRA's oldest. First awarded to Scotland's 25th Lanarkshire Volunteers in 1871, the trophy was contested several times at the NRA's Creedmoor Range in Long Island, New York, before being lost until 1985. After purchase and refurbishing, the NRA placed the trophy back into competition to honor the black powder discipline.
"The quality of the shooters and the quality of the shooting has gone up dramatically since 1997," Gullo said. "It's a lot harder. It's a lot tougher. You look at the scores then and compare them to now and there's no comparison."
Gullo wouldn't win his first Castle Trophy until 2000, the same year the championship doubled its course of fire from 30 to 60 shots. He would go on to win the championship again in 2003, 2008, 2010 and now for the fifth time in 2012. Only two other shooters have won the trophy twice, making Gullo the shooter-to-beat in the Creedmoor match.
But Gullo's success comes from a lot of hard work and help from a good spotter. Black powder bullets travel much slower and at a higher arc than today's modern firearms and extreme weather greatly affects accuracy.
"A lot of times I'll look at how much wind there is and go 'Oh, I think there might be a couple misses involved with this,'" Gullo laughed. "I actually expected to have a miss or two but my spotter, John Venhous, and I looked at it and realized it was all mirage."
Have you ever seen the heat waves coming off a hot asphalt road? That's mirage. Just like watching wind flags, reading mirage is an important tool shooters use to note wind conditions. But mirage has the added effect of distorting your view of the target.
Upon realizing the trick to getting on paper was more mirage than wind, the two shooters locked in on their targets and never missed. There were some 6s, but they were glad to at least hit the target and more often than not the shot would get in the black.
Gullo and Venhous didn't keep the information to themselves, though. The shooters at the Black Powder Target Rifle Championships are very friendly with one another and Gullo was happy to help others out.
"A couple people on the line were asking me what we were looking at because they just couldn't understand it and I said just look at the mirage. Keep an eye on the flags, but watch the mirage real close."
Gullo and his shooting partner John Venhous have been competing together for a long time. The two regularly practice on the 400-yard range Venhous has on his property and work together on their load development.
In black powder you can't just compete with store-bought bullets and expect to win. Loading your own rounds is a big part of the sport and shooters take time meticulously developing their loads to find what works for them.
Venhous, who received the High Spotter award for his role in Gullo's win almost turned the tables on his partner. The two were neck-and-neck throughout the championship and Gullo thought his partner might pull off the win. Eventually, Gullo would pull ahead and Venhous fell to the still-honorable second as the last shots were fired.
"Obviously I had a better spotter than he did because he was second," Gullo chuckled. "But I was rooting for him and coaching him the wind. He shot his best and I shot my best and I coached the best I could and he coached me the best he could."