William “Tom” Collins, 50, of Maumee, Ohio, earned the CMP’s Distinguished Rifleman Badge #2500 this July.
For over 20 years, the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) has issued Distinguished Badges to competitors who collect at least 30 Excellence-In-Competition (EIC) “leg” points – earned by placing in the top 10 percent of an EIC match. A program that was initiated by the War Department in 1884, the badge is both an esteemed and legendary honor some marksmen spend their entire careers attaining.
“The Distinguished Rifleman Badge has been a goal of mine since I learned about it,” Collins said. “I like to think back on the history of the badge…It makes me proud to be a part of that.”
What simply began as a hobby to cure his boredom eventually turned into a quest to fulfill a dream that put him within the company of generations of elite marksmen before him.
“Shooting is almost like meditation to me,” Collins said. “You really can't think about anything other than the current shot. It's very relaxing.”
During the week, he plays in the dirt as a land surveyor, staking out property corners and commercial buildings. On the weekends, he’s back in the dirt – this time, on the range at the Adams Conservation Club near his home.
“If I don't find a match on any particular weekend, I'll just go out and practice on my own,” he said. “Just run my personal little 80-round reduced-course match.”
Collins has been shooting most of his life. Growing up in the rural area of Lima, Ohio, he received his first BB gun around seven years old and his first .22 at age 11.
The open country setting of his youth gave him the freedom to play around, often heading out the back door of his home to plink pop cans or whatever he could find in his back yard.
It wasn’t until he joined the Army Reserves in 1987 that he received any sort of formal marksmanship training. After he left the Reserves nine years later, he went back to plinking in his spare time. After a while, he found himself searching for something more out of his rifles.
That was when Collins started looking toward organized shooting sports.
“Shooting off of a bench and hitting targets at 500 yards … that was easy. I needed a little bit more of a challenge,” he confessed.
One day, back in 2014, he picked up his rifle and took the 45-minute drive to Fremont, Ohio, to fire in his first GSM (Garand-Springfield-Modern/Vintage Military) Match at the Sandusky County Sportsmen's Club. It was there that he met Jesse Bragg, who was running the event.
Bragg, a retired staff sergeant from the Marine Corps Reserve Rifle Team, took Collins and other newbies under his wing and showed them the ropes. Collins says Bragg seemed to want to teach more than run the match.
“Jesse Bragg is probably the guy who’s had the biggest influence on me,” Collins said. “Man, he’s just been a big help – taught me almost everything I know.”
He also credits fellow competitors Jamie Root and Joe Bakies, the latter of whom just earned a spot on the United States National Rifle Team in July.
“Those three guys have been the biggest help,” he said. “Jesse above all.”
In fact, Bragg was the one who initially introduced Collins to the Distinguished Badge.
“Once I was improving my game a little bit, Jesse was like, ‘Oh, you'll get distinguished in no time!’ Collins explained.
He admits that he had no clue what “going distinguished” meant. Bragg went over the terms – legging out, finishing “first leather” and other related expressions.
After he understood, Collins remembered saying to himself, “‘Ohhhh – now, that's something that sounds fun.’”
That was when the “fun” began for Collins and a new ambition was born. But, it wasn’t the only marksmanship goal on his list.
In 2015, he took a trip to the National Matches at nearby Camp Perry in Port Clinton, Ohio, and fired in his first President’s Rifle Match.
The President’s Rifle Match is a prestigious competition in the rifle world that has attracted the best athletes in the country since 1878. In 2007, a shoot-off was introduced, where the 20 highest scoring competitors qualify to fire shoulder-to-shoulder in a 10-shot final. The athlete with the highest score at the end earns the coveted title as overall champion.
That first time watching the talented marksmen and women take their final shots in the shoot-off, Collins again thought to himself, “‘This is really neat. I really want to be able to do this.’”
He went on, “Learning about the Distinguished Badge, learning about the President's Match – I just knew that I had to get this Distinguished Badge on my way to, hopefully, getting into the President's 100 or even the Top 20.”
Now with a hefty list of goals, Collins began traveling to GSMM competitions with his match rifle in tow, just to get in a little extra practice. It became his main focus.
“When I first started, I was shooting the Garand and the M1A and all that, and once I realized I wanted to go get my Distinguished Badge, I said, ‘None of the wood guns. It's all my match rifle until I go Distinguished,’” he said.
In June 2019, he earned his first set of six leg points at the CMP Viale Range 800 Aggregate and EIC Service Rifle Match at Camp Perry. It was a breakthrough and a sign that earning his badge could really be possible.
“I was elated. I couldn't believe I'd finally broken that wall!” he said. “And then the next two or three matches, I just kept getting points, and I’m like, ‘I don't know what I'm doing, but I’m doing it!’”
He went on to earn eight points at his next match in July, followed by eight more in August. With one more match left for him to fire in 2019 and only seven points away from the required 30 to earn a badge, he felt that accomplishing his goal was within his sights.
“I was like, ‘Oh, if I could just place in the top, non-distinguished, I can finish off this year.’ And it really psyched me out,” he admitted with a laugh. “I just blew it.”
It wasn’t until the EIC match at the Washtenaw Sportsman’s Club in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in July 2020 that he was able to conquer his nerves and earn his final points.
“Of course you’re excited,” he said of earning his badge.
“The most rewarding thing – it's when you get there,” he went on. “When you finally earn it, everybody knows it. Everybody at the range celebrates with you. All of your friends are there with you. It’s just rewarding in itself.”
“You’re part of that tradition that spans three centuries. So that's pretty cool.”
Another part of the tradition of earning a Distinguished Badge is walking across the famous theater stage at Camp Perry during the National Matches award ceremony. There, badge winners of the past year are able to be formally pinned by their peers on a stage that has felt the footsteps of prominent marksmen for over a century.
“Last year, when I got the first points, I told myself, ‘I'm going to walk this stage at Perry next year,’” Collins remembered.
“And, uh, well that didn’t happen,” he joked, referring to the cancellation of the National Matches from the COVID-19 pandemic. “But, I got the rest of my goal, and I got it in time to walk the stage, had it happened.”
Collins and all others who earned a Distinguished Badge in 2019 or 2020 will still have the opportunity to take the stage next year at the 2021 National Matches – and that’s just what Collins plans to do.
Until then, he will continue to get in the dirt on the weekends, working to improve his game, and, maybe even try long range one day?
“Not yet,” he laughed.
He gives simple advice to other competitors hoping to one day earn a Distinguished Badge of their own, saying, “Anyone working on it – quit thinking about it. Just shoot.”
More so than the time, effort and skill it took to earn the badge, the journey to become Distinguished was almost as rewarding as the badge itself for Collins – purely from the relationships he’s gained along the way.
“These guys I’ve met and hung out with – we’ve given jobs to each other, we celebrate each other's birthdays, we know each other's families. It’s just been a great group of guys,” he said. “There's never been any hard feelings about anybody beating anybody else. You always are rooting for your friends, regardless of how well you’re doing. If you’re doing bad, you root for them even more.”
“That’s the one thing about this sport over any other thing I've done – it's not antagonistic or any animosity between friends. You root for each other,” he added.
As for himself, he now has new goals and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“Oh, I’ve got to keep bumping those scores up! I’ve got to see how far I can go.”
As for the President’s 100 shoot-off…
“I’m not there yet,” he said with a laugh.
To learn more about the Distinguished Badge Program, visit https://thecmp.org/competitions/distinguishedbadges/.
-- Ashley Brugnone, CMP Staff Writer
The Civilian Marksmanship Program is a federally chartered 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation. It is dedicated to firearm safety and marksmanship training and to the promotion of marksmanship competition for citizens of the United States. For more information about the CMP and its programs, log onto www.TheCMP.org.