Twenty years into his skeet-shooting career, Bruce Christian suddenly started missing.
The shots looked good when he squeezed the trigger on his shotgun.
But his shooting got worse.
“My scores went in the toilet,” Christian says. “It was a year of pure frustration trying to work through it. First you're trying to figure out what's going on. Then you're trying to figure out how to fix it.”
Turns out his left eye was interfering with his dominant shooting eye, “trying to take over,” as he puts it. Taping the left lens of his safety glasses eventually solved the problem.
Two years later, the 60-year-old Zanesville man is the reigning world champion 28-gauge skeet shooter, the first ever from Indiana.
He's won 31 state titles in various categories, tied for the most ever with a shooter who has since retired.
“And Bruce will probably get some more before he's done,” says longtime shooting buddy Larry Easley, a fellow member of the St. Joe Valley Conservation Club, which honored Christian over the weekend. “That's unbelievable.”
BETTER THAN PERFECT
At the world championship last October in San Antonio, Texas, 700 shooters competed from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand. Thirty-three broke all 100 clay targets, recording a perfect score.
No one was surprised. At the upper levels of skeet shooting these days, with better guns and more people with the resources to focus on the details that separate the good shooters from the great, that's not unusual.
“If you miss one shot out of a hundred, in this game, that will hurt you,” says Christian, who's competed in the world shoot for two decades and has often made it into the shoot-off rounds that inevitably, eventually, produce a winner.
Each round consists of one box of 24 shells fired at “doubles” – clay targets released from both sides at once, converging in the middle with one going high and one low.
“It typically takes three to seven boxes to get a winner,” says Christian, who had previously made it as far as runner-up. “I've run seven boxes before and lost.”
At the 2016 world shoot, however, fate smiled on Christian, perhaps rewarding him for his year of struggles.
He won after just one round – the only shooter out of 33 of the world's best who “cleared the box” without missing a single target.
THE WILL TO WIN
Preparing for last Friday's unveiling of a monument commemorating Christian's feat at the gun club in St. Joe, a tiny DeKalb County town known primarily for its pickle factory, Christian's buddy Easley zeroed in on one statistic in particular: 227,100 lifetime targets.
“I don't know where that ranks, but it's right up there,” Easley says. “Bruce competes all over the Midwest every weekend. He practices all the time. He shoots all over.”
That number refers to shots fired in competitions only. All told, Christian estimates he goes through up to 25,000 shells a year.
“You have to be a perfectionist,” shrugs Christian. Skeet shooting, he says, requires a type A personality. “You have to want to win. And you have to have fun doing it.”
Growing up, the 6-foot-4 Michigan native played baseball, soccer, football. No matter what the game, “you want to win,” he grins.
He was the same way in golf. “My neighbor girl thought I played golf for a living,” he jokes. “Working second shift, I played four or five times a week.”
But working on concrete all day as a welder and heavy-duty truck mechanic for Jet Motor Transport took its toll on his big body. Neck and back surgery forced him to give up golf and eventually led to early retirement.
The upside: more time to practice shooting. One of these days, his back will get in the way of that as well. When that happens, he'll devote more time to training young shooters. But for now, he's enjoying every single moment.
A CLUB WITH CLOUT
Julie Christian can't help grumbling – good-naturedly, of course – about her husband's frequent 100-mile round-trip drives to the gun club.
To him, it's worth the trip to shoot at what's become, in recent years, one of the top outdoor shooting facilities in the Midwest. To help get ready for last weekend's Kolar Mid-America Open, which drew shooters from as far as Texas and California, Christian drove up several days in a row to help mow and spruce things up.
Gazing out over 155 acres of pristine lawn with 12 skeet towers and eight shooting stations, it's hard to imagine the days when this was just a run-down clubhouse with a couple of shooting fields.
“There were some guys here who had a pretty big vision,” explains member Jim Roussel, who helped secure funding from the Department of Natural Resources to expand the property.
The DNR appreciated that club volunteers worked hard to make it family friendly and handicap accessible, carefully documenting every step of the process.
“They liked working with us,” Roussel said. “They knew we would help grow the sport.”
Now the club, on the outskirts of a town so small it doesn't have a single fast-food restaurant, has members from all over the country.
“A lot of guys will go ahead and pay for a lifetime membership just to support the club, even if they only shoot here once a year,” Roussel says.
“See that guy over there? That's General Patton's grandson.”
A HARD SELL
When Christian saw his wife and grandkids in the crowd gathered outside the clubhouse Friday, he knew something was up.
Julie Christian doesn't care for shotguns. They're loud, “kind of scary,” and watching skeet shooting, to her, is … well, boring.
“I'd rather watch grass grow,” she admits. Though to be fair, as both a full-time librarian and the Zanesville town clerk, she doesn't really have time to attend her husband's shooting events.
On Friday, though, she watched proudly as Easley and then her 7-year-old granddaughter, Tessa Mroczkowski, highlighted her husband's accomplishments before Tessa and her 3-year-old brother Keaton yanked the tarp off a rock bearing their grandpa's name.
Afterward, Bruce Christian scooped up Keaton and gave Tessa his world championship ring to play with.
“I had no clue” any of this was going to happen, he said, glaring pointedly but amiably at Easley, who'd changed into a dress shirt and slacks for the ceremony.
“And here I am, in an old shirt.”