Bither: Pulling Double Duty
Unique among VMI’s NCAA coaches, the head rifle coach is also a vital member of the commandant’s staff. Since 2011, Lt. Col. Bill Bither has been serving in these dual roles: Coach of VMI’s NCAA Division I men’s and women’s rifle teams, while also serving as the director of Corps marksmanship.
The sport he coaches is also unique. Unlike the classic image of NCAA Division I athletes straining, striving – and sweating – their ways toward goals, baskets, runs and finish lines, control is the name of the game for rifle athletes.
Rifle competition sounds deceivingly simple: Pick up the firearm, aim, fire. There is, however, much more to the discipline than meets the eye. Bither begins with the essentials. “I could probably write a two or three page list of things you need to do before you squeeze the shot,” he said, going on to explain that the first things he teaches “are the fundamentals of good marksmanship.”
These fundamentals involve significant patience and control on the athlete’s part: Breath control, trigger control, aiming – which is really twofold: Sight picture and sight alignment, hold control and follow through. The last step – follow through – is essentially holding the same shooting positon for a few seconds after squeezing the trigger. If the athlete doesn’t continue holding the firing position for those few seconds, the shot has good chances of going astray.
Bither’s athletes initially spend more time practicing fundamentals without their firearms than with them. “If you start out wrong, you’re just reinforcing bad habits,” he said. By practicing the basics without the firearm, he can weed out any incorrect positioning and tendencies before they become routine.
A well-trained rifle athlete can calmly combine all the fundamentals, squeezing the two-stage trigger and taking up the initial slack, then timing the final trigger squeeze with sight alignment and sight picture, finally breaking the shot “in a perfect timing sequence.”
While rifle athletes benefit from physical training regimens, particularly core exercises, Bither feels that “every bit” of the allowed practice time is best spent practicing fundamentals and actually shooting. “We depend on the Corps and the ROTC” physical training time, he said, noting that he’s not concerned about physical training for his rat athletes “because they’re getting smoked every day.”
Aside from learning – and practicing – fundamentals, Bither’s teams have some assistance from their gear. They wear a stiff, somewhat uncomfortable suit and boots, designed to minimize movement while providing a measure of stability. There is a thick, rubber glove for the non-trigger hand that helps each athlete support the rifle, particularly while in the standing position. The glove also decreases the athlete’s skin – and pulse – contact with the rifle. There is also a small table, called an offhand stand, beside each firing lane where athletes can set rifles to both rest and reload. For the “extremely uncomfortable” kneeling position, athletes tuck a kneeling roll underneath their feet to add support. Rifles themselves have slings to hold the weapon tight, along with butt hooks designed to tuck snugly into the armpit area.
NCAA rifle competitors can use two types of firearms: Smallbore and air rifles, both of which are single shot firearms. For beginners, Bither encourages picking one type of firearm and getting comfortable with it for a year or two. Experienced athletes generally shoot both types of rifles in competition. After a 15 minute warmup period when athletes shoot as many practice rounds, or “sighters,” as desired, the timed competition begins. For smallbore, competitors have one hour and 45 minutes to shoot 20 rounds each from three positions: Kneeling, prone and standing. For air rifle competition, each athlete has one hour and 15 minutes to fire 60 rounds – all from a standing position.