BOONE COUNTY — Between shotgun blasts, a careful listener can hear a softer sound when Columbia’s high schoolers practice trap shooting: 29-cent cartridges clattering to the ground by the handful.
The teenagers, all part of the Columbia FFA Trap Shooting Club, don’t pay for the shotgun shells. They don’t pay for the range time. And the newcomers can use a club gun free of charge.
The club only asks for $30 in yearly dues — not really to recover the costs of shooting, but to make sure they have “a little skin in the game,” coach Mike Kilfoil said.
It wasn’t always like this.
Kilfoil grew up shooting, but not competitively. It was too expensive. Historically, shooting teams have lacked the institutional support enjoyed by football, basketball and other spectator sports. Instead, most clubs have had to fend for themselves, leaving students and their families to bear most costs at a time when the percentage of gun-owning households is at near-historic lows.
That’s started to change over the past decade. A Columbia-based nonprofit called the MidwayUSA Foundation pumps tens of millions of dollars into endowments for high school, college and youth shooting teams — a unique 50-state effort to bolster shooting clubs that could change the sport's trajectory for years to come.
“If we’re able to allow these kids to shoot today at the high school level, the college level, they’re probably going to be shooting for life,” said Dani Farris, a spokeswoman for the foundation.
Foundation for the future
The MidwayUSA Foundation, established in 2007, has about $98 million in assets. That's more than Boone County's 2016 budget, but the foundation spends only a small portion of its money each year.
Endowments work like this: An institution sets aside a large sum of money, usually in investments. As the investments grow, the institution can use some of those profits to fund its operations while leaving the initial money untouched. This in theory gives the institution a permanent revenue stream.
"Endowments can last forever, which was our desire," said Larry Potterfield, CEO of MidwayUSA, the Columbia-based outdoor retailer that is the foundation's namesake.
The Potterfield family is the largest contributor to the foundation, giving more than $20 million directly to team endowments, along with even more to cover the nonprofit's overhead and administrative expenses, according to the foundation's staff. (In an email, Larry Potterfield said he doesn't know how much his family has donated to the foundation.) The Potterfields' money enables the foundation to match each dollar a shooting team adds to its account.
More than 3,200 shooting teams have endowment accounts with the foundation, managed by Goldman Sachs. Its reach expands across the country — from the Island Pacific Academy Rifle Team in Kapolei, Hawaii, to the University of Maine Trap and Skeet Club in Orono, Maine; from the Juneau Trap Team in Alaska to the Seminole Sharpshooters in Tallahassee, Florida.
"Word travels fast," Farris, the foundation spokeswoman, said.
The nonprofit sends program managers to shooting events, and partners such as the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation help advertise it, too.
Teams can request up to 5 percent of their account balance each year. Since the MidwayUSA Foundation began disbursing grants in 2011, affiliated teams have received nearly $8 million, with about $3 million of that coming in 2016 alone.
That money goes a long way for some clubs.
MU's shooting team, which boasts one of the foundation's largest endowments, drew more than $23,000 from its account in 2014.
The endowment for the Columbia FFA, which comprises students from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle high schools, brings in about $6,000 a year, more than half of the shooting club's budget. Much of that goes toward ammo.
'Throwing nickels down range'
Leo Elsasser doesn't miss much.
Before the Hickman High School sophomore earned his way onto the Columbia FFA's competition team, his stepfather put a broomstick in his hands and taught him the smooth motions of tracking a flying target.
Now, as he stands among his teammates at Prairie Grove Shotgun Sports, Elsasser uses that same fluid sweep to follow each clay pigeon as it cuts a randomized arc through the air. A beat later, his Citori Crossover booms, and a clay disc blooms into orange shards.
Elsasser pops the cartridge from his gun, catches it midair and blows the lingering smoke through the other end of his barrel. He's hit 19 of the 25 targets — better than the other teens in his practice group, but not good enough to duck a razzing from his stepfather.
"Nineteen — it's the last time that better happen," Joe Leos said, tallying up the scores.
"I didn't shoot five straight at all," Elsasser agreed.
They spend another hour at the range, until the sun begins to dip below the treetops. The team goes through a couple hundred more rounds.
"You're throwing nickels downrange every time you pull the trigger," Leos said.
When he used to shoot competitively, he could go through thousands of shells a month. That cost much more than the $30 his stepson pays to practice all he wants.
"If I shot for free, you'd have a hard time getting me off of there," Leos said, nodding toward the platform where the shooters stand.
Most of the teens bring their own shotguns, although many actually belong to older family members. Taylor Sapp uses her dad's 12 Gauge Beretta.
Sapp is one of the few girls who comes to practice. She said it can be intimidating to venture into such a male-dominated activity, but "if I do shoot better than the boys, it's something I can sit there and brag about."
Sapp also plays basketball for Hickman High School, and that normally takes priority over trying to make the trap-shooting team. Cole Nettles, a senior at Battle High School, also gets pulled away from shooting when baseball season begins. But until then, they'll keep coming to practice; it's a good way to keep shooting between hunting seasons.
Nettles prefers to use one of the club's shotguns over the shorter-barreled gun he uses to hunt deer and doves.
Some parents spend practices watching from nearby picnic tables, wishing they were shooting, too. Some help keep score, and all of them watch for any dangerous behavior. The club fosters a shared heritage. It emphasizes safety the most, along with respect and discipline.
"Keep 'em busy in something good, then they don't get busy in something bad," said Kendall Johnson, whose son attends Hickman High School.
Teaching those values is what make youth shooting clubs worth the time and effort, Randy Moeller, executive director of the MidwayUSA Foundation, said. He'd also like to teach the parents the value of fundraising.
Tools of the trade
The foundation strives to be more than a bank account, Moeller said. Much of the staff's day-to-day tasks involve helping teams raise money. That's not something parents and organizers typically have much experience in, he said, and the foundation has been building an infrastructure to make it easier.
"It's one thing if it's Girl Scouts, and we know the cookie sale's coming up," he said, adding that the foundation itself is still trying to refine its best practices. "This is a new world ... We're still toddlers."
One thing the foundation does is send clubs non-cash donations, such as high-end binoculars, which they can use for raffles, silent auctions or whatever fundraising method works for them, he said.
The foundation's website is another tool clubs can use. Most teams can't process credit card donations on their own, Moeller said, so the MidwayUSA Foundation website acts like a clearinghouse for online donors to give to any affiliated team.
Moeller said teams seem to grasp the importance of fundraising once their endowment reaches about $10,000, which translates into annual payments of $500. It's the foundation's job to help them get to that point, he said.
"Nobody's ever stood with a member of our staff and said 'that's it — we've got enough money," he said.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.