My first paid gun writer article was a feature for this very magazine back in April 1993. That’s 25 years ago! The subject was bowling pin shooting. It was a hot subject back then, because there were thousands of shooters across the country who devoted large amounts of time and ammo to perfecting their skills.
The origins came from Richard Davis, the inventor of soft, concealable body armor. His market comprised police officers. They were skeptical. Cloth—stopping bullets?
To drive home the point, Richard would don a vest, produce a handgun and shoot himself on the vest. Any questions?
Yes, and still a dose of skepticism. So, Richard took to borrowing sidearms from the prospective customers. No reduced-load ammo that way, right?
Still, they resisted. So, he needed a reactive target, something everyone was familiar with … inexpensive, common and portable. Voilà: bowling pins!
With sales booming (sorry, I couldn’t resist), some of his customers commented, “Richard, shooting bowling pins looks like fun, except for the ‘shoot yourself’ part.”
“At its heart, bowling pin shooting is simple: stand an array of bowling pins on a table … And shoot them off faster than anyone else. The beauty is in the simplicity—you don’t need a chronograph to check power factor, because the pins do that for you.”
THE SHOOTING PARTY, THEN AND NOW
Richard held an impromptu match, handed out guns from his own collection as prizes, and that was that. The next year—and for several years afterward—he couldn’t keep up with the interest and finally just turned it into an annual weeklong shooting party, always held the second week of June in northern Michigan.
At its peak, the match had a total of 18 events you could compete in and more than 500 pin shooters showing up for the loot: more than 200 guns, thousands of dollars in cash … oh, and a Mercedes.
Then, tragedy struck, the company had to close, and the match went away for many years. But, in 2017, the match came back. There were changes, and the number of events was pared down to the essentials, at least until attendance can bring some of them back.
HOW IT WORKS
At its heart, bowling pin shooting is simple: Stand an array of bowling pins on a table (steel is best, because the bullets you are shooting can really wreck a wooden table in short order) and shoot them off faster than anyone else. The beauty is in the simplicity—you don’t need a chronograph to check power factor, because the pins do that for you.
You see, in most of the events, the pins have to go off the table to stop time. And that’s the other thing: There are no overlays, no scoring rings, no arbitration committees meeting about “in or out?” on hits. If the pin is off the table, good. If it isn’t, the clock is still ticking. You only need a shot timer or fellow shooters with stopwatches. Pins left on the table are referred to as “deadwood” (not like the TV show, please).
The classic match is called the Main Event. This event consists of five pins on the table, with the pins 25 feet downrange. You have to drive them off the back of the table, which is 3 feet behind where the pins are set up. This means you need horsepower.
The generally accepted “power factor” that the pin-shooting hive mind will use is 195. In a .45, this means a 230 JHP at a minimum of 850 fps. So, a 10mm .357 Magnum or larger cartridge is called for. Back then, and into the future, we saw (and will probably still see) enthusiastic shooters who were convinced their hot-loaded .40 S&W would do the job. All I can do is quote Westley (“The Man in Black”) from the movie, The Princess Bride: “Get used to disappointment.”
Semiauto shooters are not allowed more than eight rounds in the gun; revolver shooters can use whatever the cylinder will hold. For five pins, eight is not a great advantage over six or seven. And because the mantra of pin shooters is, “One shot, one pin,” you don’t often win by missing quickly. You also don’t win by tipping over the blue-painted penalty pins.
THE MAIN EVENT
The Main Event comes in four “flavors”: stock, pin, space and concealed. You can enter any or all of them. A “stock” gun means no compensators or muzzle brakes, but Mag-na-Ports are OK. A “pin” gun is something with a comp or brake on it. A “space” gun is a pin gun with a red dot (if you want it), and a “concealed”-carry gun is something with no optics, a barrel not more than 3.5 inches long and only holding six shots.
“… Because the mantra of pin shooters is, “one shot, one pin,” you don’t often win by missing quickly.”
Then, there are the “optionals.” You can enter once—or many times—in the optionals, and you enter only the ones you wish to. Your entry is in sets of three tables (a “supertable”), so three, six, nine, etc. The good news? Your best single time is your score. If you entered 21 times, left deadwood on the tables 20 times but posted a blistering time on the 21st, that’s your score. (The bad news? It works that way for everyone else, too.)
What are the optionals? They run the gamut. My favorite is the shotgun event. You have a shotgun loaded with buckshot (nothing equal to, or smaller than, #4 buck) or slugs—but I don’t see the advantage, with eight rounds, to face eight pins.
I know what you’re thinking: “Twenty-five feet. How can I miss?” Trust me, you can, you will, and if you are too bragadocian about it before you start, you’ll be a long time living it down.
Given that the classic spread on a shotgun might have been an inch per yard, your pattern could be only 7 inches at the pins. However, modern tactical buckshot usually patterns a lot tighter than that, and I’ve seen shotguns that had patterns barely wider than a pin at 25 feet.
Which shotgun is best? That argument will never be settled, because it depends on the shooter. Pump shooters get a second off their time, but I have some more bad news: Most of you cannot pump a shotgun fast enough to take advantage of that second. And don’t believe for a moment that anyone can pump faster than an auto. I’ve set both the pump and auto record on pins, and my auto time was a full second faster than my pump time.
THE 9×12 AND REVOLVER EVENTS
There is a place for the 9mm pistol, and it is called the 9×12. Here, there are (you guessed it) 12 pins, with one penalty pin in between each four pins on a shelf. The good news is that you only have to tip over the “9” pins. This is the only event for which you don’t have to clear the table, and any 9mm load will do the job. The bad news is that each penalty pin you tip over adds a second to your run.
Then, there is the Revolver Event, for which you are faced with eight pins that you must push off the table. They are not set easy like the 9×12 pins; they are at the Main Event setting.
So, back to your 195 PF loads. Oh, and you have to reload your revolver. Even if you found an eight-shot revolver with enough power to do the job, you’d still have to reload. This is the special realm of the S&W M-25-2 revolver in .45 ACP with full-moon clips.
THE WILD EVENTS
One of the wild classics is the Two-Man optional. Here, two shooters face a supertable, each bay filled to the brim with an array of 13 shoot pins and two penalty pins. It starts the same as the Main Event: eight rounds in their handguns so they have spares. But just to make it exciting, the pins are Main Event-set: They must go off the table to stop your time. The penalty pins cost a second each, even if “just” tipped over.
Not exciting enough? How about Three-Man? Also called Rolling Thunder, this event involves the same pin setup but with a handgun and two shotguns. Eight shots each, so you have 24 rounds for the pins before you. Back in the old days, one of those shotguns had to be a pump. But now, you get a one-second bonus for using a pump—or two, if both shotgunners use them.
And then, there is The Big Push. Instead of a table, there is a trough. Instead of five, eight or more pins, there are only three. But—and this is a big “but”—the back of the trough is 14.5 feet behind the pins. Yes, that’s right; the back of the trough is the length of a Prius (more or less). You’d have to hit each pin with a full-house .44 Magnum twice to drive it off the back. A 454 Casull is barely able to do it in one shot, and the .480 and .500s are what you need to do a clean job on the pins. Thank goodness you only need to shoot three of them. Ouch.
“Until the shooting is done, there’s no such thing as a sure winner. Your time could be a new record. But as long as there is someone shooting that event, they could post a better time, right up until the close of shooting.”
LONG GUN EVENTS
There are two other events, and they involve long guns. One is the 12×12. This event consists of shotguns (with slugs) shooting at falling plates out to 95 yards. Start with eight in the gun, reload when you need to, and the fastest time wins.
The other is 223×39. Two shooters with rifles (you don’t need anything bigger than .223 to do this) knock over 39 plates as the clock runs. One shooter is standing, one is sitting; and if they use silencers, each suppressor used gets a second off the run time. Two suppressors, two seconds. So, you and a buddy should get busy clanging the steel.
STRESS? OH, YES!
There is no running, jumping, moving or tactical assessments in pin shooting. No one is going to ding you for a foot fault or improper order of engagement. Nevertheless, there is plenty of stress.
Oh, speaking of stress, there are the morning’s man-on-man shoot-offs. On three or four mornings, the shooting starts with man-on-man events—you and two other shooters, all with your own bay in a supertable, shooting against the clock. Win, and you keep going. Lose, and you sit down. Winners get prizes (which is the whole reason we’re up north).
Until the shooting is done, there’s no such thing as a sure winner. Your time could be a new record. But as long as there is someone shooting that event, they could post a better time, right up until the close of shooting. I’ve been in the lead in an event more than once, only to have someone post a better time the afternoon of the last day. It happened again in 2017 in the re-inaugural pin shoot. That’s the fun—and the stress—of pin shooting!
You’ll never find a better group of friendly shooters (who will gladly lend you a gun if yours breaks … and then beat your time 10 minutes later) than pin shooters. There are no secrets. Ask anyone what they use, and they’ll tell you—in bullets, load recipes, equipment or practice.
And, because the Pin Shoot is the ultimate in meritocracies, no one harbors a grudge when someone steps up to the prize table before them. Yes, that’s another fun thing about The Pin Shoot: The winning shooter gets to step up to the prize table and pick their prize. Each of you, in turn, gets to pick your loot.
The Mercedes? That’s a drawing. Every event in which you place earns you tickets for the drawing. Every trivia question you answer correctly gets you a ticket. There are always thousands of tickets, but with some luck—or good shooting— you could be holding 100 of them. Or more. And when the number gets called, someone gets a car. Top that!
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.