John Sylvester from Pennsylvania discusses his transition to Service Rifle from Match Rifle, overcoming a catastrophic eye injury and much more. His interview follows just a brief sample of some of his shooting accomplishments.
NRA High Master: XTC, Mid-Range, Long Range
Distinguished Rifleman: #1530
Multiple President’s Hundred
Nathan Hale Trophy
(High Civilian National Trophy Individual Match): 2001
Alice Bull Trophy (High Civilian combined aggregate President’s Hundred & National Trophy Individual Match): 2005
Soldier of Marathon Trophy (High Civilian Team National Trophy Team Match): 2005
Rumbold Team Trophy: 2014
PA State Service Rifle Champion
PA State Highpower Rifle Champion (w/ a Service Rifle)
792 Club (w/ a Service Rifle)
Winner New Jersey Governor’s 20
Master: Smallbore Conventional Prone
1600 Club: Smallbore Conventional Prone
1: What was your experience like when starting out in high-power?
I was just a couple years out of college and running my own full time gun shop. A customer came in and introduced me to the idea of Highpower, offering to bring me along to a 100-yard walk and paste match just a few miles up the street. I took along my Springfield M1A National Match along with some factory ammo and shot a reduced 500-point agg match. I was hooked.
2: Who were your mentors? What do you remember most from these experiences and what still rings true?
I can’t say anyone really mentored me. The closest thing to a mentor was Barry Kerr, who took me to my first match. Without making that connection, I might have never found this sport. He is a great friend. We traveled to matches for nearly 20-years together until he hung up his shooting gear a year or so ago.
I pretty much learned what I know about shooting by trial and error, but I did spend quite a bit of time watching the better shooters at our local matches. I would watch their process: how they organized themselves, set up their gear, established Natural Point of Aim and the shot process itself. The one thing all the best shooters have in common is some sort of organized, almost robotic system. Having a repeatable system, starting with getting your gear out of the truck to firing the last shot of the match – goes a long way to maintaining consistency throughout the day. When I am consistent and deliberate I tend to make less mistakes and can almost go on “autopilot” for the entire match. When everything is flowing smoothly the scores tend to come easier.
3: Can you describe some of your most memorable milestones or breakthroughs? Both starting out… and along the journey to competing nationally.
I started high power backwards for the most part. In Southeast Pennsylvania during the mid-90’s, most of the accomplished shooters were still firing bolt guns in .308 – so that’s what I built and competed with. The time I put into shooting that rifle really helped to refine my positions and technique and I made High Master in a few years.
I really didn’t know much about Service Rifle until I started helping a few of our junior shooters. After one of them legged out, I decided I should go for the Distinguished Rifleman Badge. It was right after the National Matches at Camp Perry in 2000 that I first put together an AR and shot an EIC match at Bridgeville, DE during their State Championships that September. I won that match for my first 10-points and was hooked! The season being over after that match, I spent the Winter dry-firing and refining my positions to be sharp for the new year. In the Spring of 2001 I earned another 8-points locally, made my first President’s Hundred and won the Nathan Hale Trophy for High Civilian during the National Trophy Individual Match – coming in 6th place overall. With 28-points under my belt, I shot the EIC again at Bridgeville, DE – exactly one year to the day of earning my first points and legged out.
Picking up a Service Rifle was a game changer for me although I only really started to learn about marksmanship AFTER I’d made High Master and become a Distinguished Rifleman.
4: Describe your routine to help you stay on top of your best game? Off-Season, Mid-Season and ramping up to bigger matches? Practice? Dry-Fire? Mental?
In my late 20’s and early 30’s I was really motivated. I would shoot a practice 800-point agg every week by myself at the local 200-yard range. I shot LOTS of live fire practice back then and really focused on consistent performance. If there was a particular aspect of my performance that was lacking, I would come back to the range that week to practice some more. I would dryfire quite a bit as well in those days. I think the hungrier you are to win, the easier it is to dedicate time and energy on practice.
I also used a dedicated .22LR upper for several years. It was really effective in helping me develop a better offhand position. Later I bough a SCATT trainer and believe it is the single best training tool I have ever used. The electronic trainer allows you to analyze your entire performance from the moment you mount the rifle to the final second of your followthrough. I wish I would have bought one much earlier.
5: How important is technique, mental program, and equipment in influencing your performance? What is their proportional influence?
Technique and a mental program are very important. Equipment is the least important until you REALLY need it.
A few years ago, I suffered a nearly blinding injury to my aiming eye. A complete retina detachment and optic nerve damage killed photoreceptor cells in my central vision, leaving me with a dead spot that obscures about 90% of the aiming bull. I was ready to hang up the game in 2013, but friends convinced me to adapt and try to work around it. Service Rifle was over for me. But with the right combination of sights, lenses, bloop tubes and filters – I learned to adjust my shooting to rely almost entirely on position and minimally on what I was able to see. An 8mm aperture for the front sight on a Space Gun opens all the way up for use of the corners of a backer as my aiming reference. I no longer see the black. In spite of this, I have found ways to shoot some of my very best aggregate scores and broken all of my personal bests in each position over the last 2-years.
When I hear people complain about their vision I cringe because I doubt there are many people shooting this game with worse vision than mine. If I can make it work, anyone can. What I have learned is that if you really develop your shooting positions and concentrate on hold and shot execution, you don’t need to see much to perform well. A solid and positive mental game can overcome many obstacles… even physical ones.
6: What was the toughest match you’ve ever competed in where you held it together? What was that like?
Service Rifle Week during the National Matches at Camp Perry, OH in 2005. I had just won our State Service Rifle Championship and was putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. It was becoming an unhealthy amount of pressure and my practices leading up to Perry were frustrating and counterproductive. When I stepped up to shoot the President’s Hundred, my first shot out of the rifle was an 8. I had to stop myself. I reestablished a better mental approach, verbalized my shot process, visualized a solid hold in the center of the target and got to work. I went into autopilot mode after that and placed 9th in the President’s Hundred and 4th overall in the NTI – winning the Alice Bull Trophy and setting a record for that trophy that still hasn’t been broken after 10-years. I re-learned quite a bit about how the mental game can either make or break an overall performance. The physical shot process is much easier to master than the mental process. I saw the value of that during those matches.
7: If you had to choose only ONE answer, what has helped you improve the most towards your goals in high-power?
Determination. I have never been satisfied with a single match I have ever fired. Even on my best days I am my own worst critic. That dissatisfaction has always been the motivator for me. It fuels my determination to produce better results.
8: Why do you continue to stay involved with high-power?
Highpower appeals to my sense of order. It’s a regimented discipline; a series of processes that need to be approached with very linear thinking. Somehow that format triggers something in my head. I am not a natural talent at this discipline, nor have I ever considered myself all that good at it. But when I am in the bubble, mentally it becomes sort of ZEN-like and I perform at a higher level. That is an addictive state of mind that you cannot get with drugs or alcohol. It comes from within.
9: What are you memories of the Zen Shooting Team?
The ZEN Shooting Team was the best. It was started in the early 90’s by Mike Orwan, Chuck Martinak and John Weller (RIP). The State Association teams across the country are great and most take the sport very seriously. But lots of guys just want to go to Nationals, drink like a fish at night, eat like animals and laugh the entire week. In those years, I didn’t have the free time away from work to really devote to a team – so ZEN was a great fit for me. At one time we had something like 100-members from across the country. We would put teams together to help new shooters get involved, mentor juniors and provide a place for outcasts to have a good time. I cannot remember having a bad time shooting with those guys and it made team shooting fun. With ZEN, you could perform well as a team and go back to the huts and celebrate with a beer. Or you could shoot terribly as a team and go back to the huts to celebrate with a beer. It was great.
10: What would you like to talk about that wasn’t covered in the previous questions?
I am grateful to have been a part of this sport over the last two decades. I have met some fantastic people. I have learned a great deal and I have accomplished most of what I set out to do. I am humbled by the quality of competitors we have in this discipline and it makes me proud to call so many of them my friends.