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Back to School for a Shooting Career

Unsure about college? Consider shooting athletics, a gunsmithing career or a ballistic course of study.

Back to School for a Shooting Career

Collegiate programs include NCAA rifle, pistol and shotgun disciplines. Top shooters can earn thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Beyond writing for Guns & Ammo, I’m employed at the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), which is affiliated with New Mexico Tech (emrtc.nmt.edu). The majority of my work is related to Department of Defense (DOD) contracts, and I get to continue my study alongside under-­ and post-­graduate students.

I consider myself fortunate to be working given that the education side of the college has been either shut down or transitioned to online learning due to COVID-­19. But this time has me thinking about the options for collegiate-­level education that promote involvement in shooting sports or the pursuit of a career in ballistic science.

I’ve found several colleges that offer multi-­discipline shooting programs. There are also a number of post-­high-­school educational and training programs designed to equip students for a career in gunsmithing, as well as ballistic labs, such as the one I work for, where students can gain hands-on experience. Let’s first consider the shooting sports at the collegiate level.

Collegiate Shooting There are nearly 300 colleges around the country that offer shooting opportunities. These include physical education (PE) classes, clubs and intramural competitions, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) events and scholarship-­level NCAA competition programs.


For-­credit courses are offered through the ROTC in marksmanship (todaysmilitary.com/education-­training/rotc-­programs). Some ROTC programs offer classes and programs for familiarization with military small arms, but also .22-­caliber smallbore and air rifle disciplines.


Collegiate shooting sports include competitions for pistols, rifles and shotguns. Pistol disciplines available traditionally include free pistol, standard pistol, open air pistol, as well as women’s air pistol and sport pistol divisions. The most popular rifle-­shooting programs include small­bore and air rifle. Shotgun disciplines are comprised of five stand, sporting clays, trap and skeet.

back-to-school-shooting-career
The EMRTC at New Mexico Tech examines firepower in all forms, including the capabilities of a 155mm self-propelled howitzer. (John Parker photo)

The NRA offers a useful college shooting guide online that allows searches for schools with shooting programs, which are categorized by shooting disciplines and/or state. The NRA is a great source for information including a listing of schools, contact information, and what equipment may be provided through a school’s program. Visit https://competitions.nra.org/competitions/nra-­national-­matches/collegiate-­championships/collegiate-­shooting-­sports-­directory/ and click on the highlighted “Collegiate Shooting Sports Directory.” You might be surprised by some of the colleges featuring NCAA shooting programs. Schools with shooting programs range from local community colleges to four-­year and advanced degree universities.

Currently, 29 colleges and universities offer full and partial scholarships, and most are coed, although some schools have separate men’s and women’s teams. NCAA Division I schools account for nearly two-­thirds of all athletic scholarships awarded, but the University of Alaska -­ Fairbanks is an affordable and dominant NCAA Division II school with men’s and women’s rifle teams having lucrative offerings. The average men’s scholarship is $13,920 with an out-­of-­state tuition cost of $20,218. Next is Jacksonville State University in Alabama, which is an NCAA Division I school offering an average scholarship of $13,164; it costs out-­of-­state students $16,536 in tuition. The U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Coast Guard Academy both had strong varsity teams in 2020 and offer students a full ride.

Shotgunning The Association of College Union International (ACUI, acui.org/claytargets) offers a nonprofit Clay Target program that enjoyed more than 2,400 competitors in 2019. These students train and often travel to compete at about 11 events culminating in the Collegiate Clay Target Championships at the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, Texas, which last attracted 884 collegiate athletes from 89 teams. The national championship was first held in 1968, and now includes three disciplines: American, International and Super Shoot.




Many collegiate-­level participants have experience shooting at the high-­school level through the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation (SSSF, sssfonline.org) and the Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP, mysctp.com). The SSSF also promotes youth pistol and rifle shooting through team-­based sports in the Scholastic Action Shooting Program (SCAP, myasp.com), but those programs require a lengthier discussion in another issue.

At each event in the 2019-­2020 season, $5,500 in scholarships were awarded to high school athletes who won the NRA Scholarship Shoot-­Off. Additionally, the ACUI provided $35,000 in scholarships for students in 2020.

Ballistic Science Education At this point I should mention the college I work for: New Mexico Tech (NMT, nmt.edu), a small science and engineering school located in Socorro, New Mexico. It offers degree programs from a Bachelors in Basic Science through PhDs with dissertations in astrophysics. It consistently places in the top 30 colleges in the country for its quality of education, and in the top 10 for value. In-­state tuition, room and board, books and other estimated costs average $10,606 per semester. Total estimated costs per semester for non-­residents average $18,520.


NMT has a shooting club that regularly conducts Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP, cmp.org) matches and indoor air rifle competitions. Unique to NMT is the group within the college that I work for: Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC).

The EMRTC is the largest ordnance test lab in the United States — outside of the government — and encompasses a 40-­square-­mile test facility. Testing activities run the gamut from blowing up buildings to investigating protective and blast mitigation technology. We perform comprehensive ballistic testing on munitions ranging from small arms to 8-­inch howitzers, and everything in between. Ballistics testing involves armor penetration testing, projectile and propelling charge design, and dynamic testing of warheads, bombs and rockets.

EMRTC employs as many as 30 undergraduate students every year who participate in tests and design projects. Most students take part in instrumentation setup, test setup, actual testing and data reduction and analysis. Almost every student that works at EMRTC is offered a job with one of the DOD labs or with a DOD contractor prior to their graduation.

Gunsmithing There may be nothing more satisfying than fixing or working on a gun and have it looking great and shooting well. Plus, there is currently a shortage of gunsmiths across the country. For those who put in the time and invest in training, gunsmiths make between $45,000 to $70,000 per year on average.

When imagining a “gunsmith,” we tend to think of someone who is a master machinist capable of whittling a stock from a log. Certainly, such a person stands at the pinnacle of the trade and gunsmiths at this level of competency command the highest salaries. But being a gunsmith more often entails setting up a newly purchased firearm, mounting and bore-­sighting scopes, adjusting triggers, troubleshooting malfunctions and performing repairs. Often, gunsmiths find employment at a gun store, a firearm-­related manufacturer or work independently. The gunsmith that can reliably diagnose, repair, accurize or adjust a firearm will attract the most business.

Gunsmith training programs span online training programs to college-­based residency. An example of an online gunsmithing training program is offered by Penn Foster College (pennfoster.edu). Penn Foster offers a diploma that can be earned in as little as three months, but can be self-­paced up to 12 months. This is a great way to elevate your hobby. Tuition costs around $1,000 and can be paid monthly.

back-to-school-shooting-career
Ackley started a gunsmithing shop in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1945. He instructed at Trinidad State Junior College from 1946 to 1951.

The limitation of online courses can be acute if training involves machine tools such as using a mill or lathe. This limitation can be overcome by attending a community college or post high school technical school. Supplementing an online gunsmithing course such as the American Gunsmithing Institute’s (americangunsmithinginstitute.net) with a community college machine tool course would provide a strong background and education for a serious gunsmith career. A community college machine tool course typically costs between $800 and $1,000.

Going to school for gunsmithing produces an immediately usable skill set with excellent post-­graduation employment opportunities. At community colleges such as Montgomery Community College in North Carolina (montgomery.edu), students can choose from a degree, diploma or certificate earned in daytime, evening or weekend programs. An Associate Degree at Montgomery can be earned in two years and requires 76 semester hours. Total costs and fees for in-­state residents is $11,722 per year, and $25,930 for out-­of-­state students. For a specific skill, a Gunsmithing Refinishing Certificate requires just 12 semester hours.

Other in-­residence programs include Colorado School of Trades, Lenoir Community College, Murray State College, Piedmont Technical College, Pine Technical College and Yavapai College. All of these schools offer both certificate and associate degrees in gunsmithing.

The first gunsmithing courses were designed and offered at Trinidad State Junior College (trinidadstate.edu) in 1947 by former Guns & Ammo technical staff member P.O. Ackley. Since then, the program has developed into a two-­year, 73-­credit-­hours Gunsmithing Degree that is designed to train students with the basic concepts and skills needed to be a professional gunsmith. A Gunsmithing Certificate requires 53 credit hours. Tuition for non-­residents averages $265 per credit hour, and $170 per credit hour for residents of Colorado and New Mexico. There are additional costs for tools, approximately $7,000 for four semesters plus room and board. Graduates of Trinidad State’s program are thoroughly trained and widely respected.

Summing Up If you are a college-­age shooting enthusiast, there are many opportunities and schools that support competitive shooting and the firearm industry.

These programs offer the serious firearm hobbyist a path to pursue their interest at the next level. 

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