Christian Mulcahy, with the Portland Air National Guard, participates in the National Rifle Association Tactical Police Competition at the Jackson County Sports Park shooting range on Saturday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Accuracy under fire

The smell of gunpowder filled the air as dozens in law enforcement put their marksmanship and training to the test.

At the National Rifle Association's fifth annual Tactical Police Competition at the Jackson County Sports Park, close to 60 law enforcement officers from agencies across the West Coast challenged themselves Friday and Saturday with multiple target competitions and blind scenarios. The Jackson County event draws competitors from as far as California and Washington because the next nearest NRA competition is in Texas, according to Deputy Phil Cicero with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, who helped organize the event.

Among first-time competitors Saturday was Senior Airman Nathan Smyly, a military police officer with the Portland-based Oregon Air National Guard 142nd Fighter Wing, who'd just completed a three-gun series of close-range challenges as part of the competition.

Smyly said that although he finished somewhere near the middle, he hopes to come back next year with more members of his unit because the fast-paced competition is good training.  

"I loved it, there's a lot of things going on in your brain you've got to keep straight," Smyly said.

He said the military holds shooting competitions known as "tag matches," but they're more static marksmanship competitions than the NRA competition, which required him to shoot his duty pistol, rifle and shotgun from varied positions and cover in a timed event. The stages forced him to shake off any misses.

"You gotta just put it behind you and keep moving on," Smyly said.

The stages include blind scenarios based on actual shootings ripped from the headlines. Smyly said military police don't engage with threats at the same frequency that civilian police do. Smyly said the competition is an opportunity to meet civilian law enforcement officers from different agencies, where many in the military work after completing their service.

Smyly was awed by Seattle police Officer Blake Spaulding's quick performance in the match, though Spaulding said he "wasn't so sure" about his standing in the competition midday Saturday. Spaulding said he regularly participates in shooting competitions as a way to keep his skills sharp under pressure.

"It kind of helps you with that stress inoculation," Spaulding said.

Overseeing a pistol-only stage where officers hit threats and avoid targets representing civilians, Cicero said the annual NRA competition is a relaxed opportunity for law enforcement to network, sparking friendships and information sharing between agencies. 

"It's camaraderie, but it's also a training tool," Cicero said, adding that it's far better for an officer to learn from an error on training grounds rather than in the field.

According to NRA volunteer Brett Stewart, a civilian who does firearm training for Central Point police, the law enforcement competition has steeper penalties for missed targets than civilian marksmanship events. Stewart said accuracy in a moving environment is important because police officers don't work in a firing range. 

"Accuracy is keen," Stewart said. "In the real world that bullet goes somewhere."

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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