30 Years of Pin Shooting

An Interview with Pin Shoot Founder Richard C. Davis

The competitive shooting world will trek their way to the quaint town of Central Lake, Michigan this June to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Pin Shoot. First created in 1975 by Richard C. Davis, the sport of bowling pin shooting has become one of the most fun forms of competitive shooting available. With reactive targets that slip, slide and tumble, it may be the most spectator friendly form of competition shooting ever.

We sat down with Richard as he reflected on the many years of fun and excitement at the Pin Shoot. We hope you enjoy hearing directly from the man who started it all.

Pinshoot.com:  So how did this whole thing get started?

Richard: To quote my favorite line from Vito Corleone in the Godfather, “how do these things get started?”  In 1975 I was at a firearms convention in Reno, Nevada with the late gun writer Mason Williams and movie producer Alex Jason. We discussed having some kind of shooting competition with reactive targets that would acknowledge the power of the round that was hitting it. In other words, a .22 short would have very little effect, whereas a .44 magnum would have a very large effect… just like real life.

I thought back to three years prior when I shot myself on soft body armor for the very first time. It was in 1972 at a junkyard behind the Walled Lake Michigan police department. Soft body armor was new to the world and the fear was that you’d be in such pain after being shot that you wouldn’t be able to return fire. There just happened to be three bowling pins lying there. I set them up on a table and decided to try shooting them immediately after being shot to demonstrate that I wasn’t incapacitated in any way. I spoke to the camera what I hoped would not be my last words, “if this works, we can save a thousand men…”

Two seconds later the .38 caliber +P+ bullet was embedded in the nylon body armor. A bruise was starting to form near my heart and three bowling pins were tumbling off the table.

When I returned from Reno, I picked up some used pins from the local bowling alley and shot them with various calibers while measuring how far they would push back after being hit. After gathering some data, I ascertained that .38’s and 9mm’s would go about two feet, whereas .357 magnums, .45’s and .44 magnums would go four feet or more with a solid hit.

I settled on a format using a 4’x8” sheet of plywood as a table and 5 bowling pins placed three feet from the back edge. I created a firing line with a simple 2x4 railing just 18’ from the target.

I invited some police officers from the Detroit area up to Central Lake for a new kind of competition. First prize was a .44 auto mag. Some friends and customers spread the word and the next thing you know we had 25 guys show up.

Pinshoot.com:  How long was the first ever Pin Shoot?

Richard:  The shoot only lasted one day. Each guy shot just two tables of five pins. Everybody had a good time, and I realized they all wanted to shoot more.

Pinshoot.com: Who won?

Richard: Harold Davidson won the match. He was an agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a precursor to the DEA. I’m not really sure, but I think his best time was around 5 seconds. The biggest thing I learned is that everyone really enjoyed shooting pins.

Pinshoot.com: So they all came back the next year?

Richard: Yeah, and each person brought four more people with them. The second year we jumped to about 125 shooters. We went from two tables to six tables and I let everybody shoot three sets of three tables each. I think we kept the best seven out of nine tables for their score. I gave away a lot of guns and prizes.

We didn’t take advance entries and I was only expecting about 50 shooters. We got 125 so it was a big surprise. I learned to have everyone register in advance. And the third year we had 350 people coming but at least I knew they were coming. I built six more tables for a total of twelve tables and allowed everyone to shoot just six tables, keeping their best five of six. This became the standard. We also expanded the dates from two to eight days and added optional events. The first was the Two-Man Team event, two people facing ten pins. Everyone loved pin shooting and they just wanted to do more and more of it.

Pinshoot.com: So, the Two-Man Team event was the first ever optional event?

Richard: Yeah, the following year we added the Three-Man Team Event. One guy had a pump shotgun, one guy had a semi-auto shotgun and one guy with a handgun.

Pinshoot.com: What about the other optional events, when did they come into play?

Richard: It’s hard to remember the order we added events in, but we were getting more female shooters so we added a Mixed Doubles Event. We added a six-shot revolver event where you faced eight pins and needed a speed loader. We added the one-man shotgun event and so on.

Pinshoot.com: When did the other divisions come into play?

Richard:  We tried to stick to a rule of only allowing stock guns. The idea being that a policeman could get out of his patrol car with a .357 magnum service revolver or an MP could jump out of his jeep with a plain vanilla .45 and they could clean the tables. The competitors had other ideas. Sometime between the fourth or fifth pin shoot, I got a call from a guy that wanted details on the match.  He said “I’m building a Pin Gun.” I said “a Pin Gun? You mean your building a gun just to shoot pins?” I was very flattered but in the next breath I was a little distressed because what are the guys gonna say that can’t afford a $3,000 Pin Gun? After that they just started showing up. They had six inch barrels and compensators so I created a separate division just for them.  After a couple of years we had just as many pin guns as stock guns. And guys were signing up to shoot both.

Pinshoot.com: What about the first Space Gun?

Richard: In 1990 Jerry Barnhardt won the USPSA Nationals with a red dot on his pistol. Sounds silly but no one had ever thought of it back then. Sometime in the early 1990’s he shot the Pin Shoot with it. That led to the creation of the Space Gun division.

Pinshoot.com: What about all the other side activities that you had? I know a lot of people whose favorite memories of the Pin Shoot don’t even involve shooting pins.

Richard: Yeah that’s true. We’d have fireworks shows in the evenings where we’d shoot class B fireworks up to 12” in diameter. We had great food served by the Lions Club.  We’d sometimes serve 600 or 700 meals at a time that included a 700 pound steer roasted over our rotating BBQ spit. We’d cook three of those over the course of eight days and it tasted as good as it looked. While the timers were resetting the pins between rounds, I started asking the audience trivia questions and gave out small prizes. We added raffle tickets to the mix for a chance to win a used Mercedes Benz which we raffled off. It seemed like some people just came for the trivia.

Pinshoot.com: What about the night shoot?

Richard: One night a year we held a night shoot where we’d shoot .50 caliber tracer rounds from a hill top at several 100 pound propane cans. We were about 300 yards away and the fire department was standing by. It was something else. When the propane ignited, it would exit the cylinders with spectacular high pressure furry like rocket engines.  One year some of my military body armor customers showed up with an official NATO atomic bomb simulator. It blew up and sent a mushroom cloud over 100 yards high! The sheriff’s office two counties over were getting calls about the ground shaking.  When it started to get out of hand, I had to implement a rule… No dynamite or other class A explosives after 11:00 PM. To my satisfaction everyone obeyed. (Richard chuckles).

Pinshoot.com: When did the pin shoot reach its peak and what was it like?

Richard: By the early 80’s we were seeing over 400 registered shooters per year. We had expanded to 30 tables and eventually reinforced the tables with steel and increased them to three levels. It was very busy and very efficient. We had experienced timers and staff. As the shoot went on, the shooting improved. We brought in sponsors like Winchester and introduced man-on-man shoot-offs for big money prizes up to $5,000. All the icons of competitive shooting were there shooting against each other head-to-head.

Pinshoot.com: How did the ordinary shooters compete against the top guys.

Richard: They basically didn’t. Once you won an event or finished second in two events, you became a Master Blaster. Everyone else was considered an Ordinary Standard Shooter or OSS.  We divided up the prize tables so half would go to Master Blasters and half would go to OSS shooters. We added a rule that you could have only one Master Blaster per team event. From my starter stand, I would look down and see Master Blasters scouting new OSS shooters with a stopwatch. They were looking for a partner. Quite often a new OSS shooter would get a tap on his shoulder, and it would be one of the famous shooters asking if they’d like to partner up. This created a great opportunity for ordinary shooters to interact with the Master Blasters.

Pinshoot.com: People often talk about the relationships they formed during the Pin Shoot. What can you tell us about that?

Richard:  Our shoot had a huge informal social event atmosphere. Around the campfires, there were endless real life cops and robbers stories shared over food and drink. We hosted several parties throughout that week either at our pavilion, at one of the local restaurants or at the campfires where people camped out on the property.  A lot of lifelong friendships were formed that still exist today. We had two weddings performed during the Pin Shoot. Two of our shooters even had their ashes scattered on the range.

Pinshoot.com: Marriages and ashes being scattered? This doesn’t sound like your normal shooting match. Why do you think it meant so much to people?

Richard: Because it did. It was eight days long and people would plan their whole year around it. Sometimes it seemed to me that some of these guys were locked up in a big city apartment with a reloading press for 51 weeks of the year. I’d see trucks pulling in with their rear suspension maxed out because they were totally loaded with ammo.  They’d spend the entire week shooting at the practice range. A group of Canadians were famous for spending thousands of dollars to run through our M-60 and M-2 .50 Caliber machines guns on the practice range. We had land were you could shoot, which most people living in cities could only dream of.

Pinshoot.com: So, you provided a sort of “shooter’s paradise” for everyone?

Richard: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.

Pinshoot.com: People loved it so much, why did you decide to stop it after 1998?

Richard: A lot of business, personal and legal reasons sidelined the shoot from 1999 through 2016. But now it’s back.

Pinshoot.com:  What made you decide to bring it back after all those years?

Richard: I had retired and had two divorces behind me. My sons were all grown up and I had time to do it. My son Matt was very encouraging. He grew up with the Pin Shoot culture and really wanted to see it come back. So, we built a new pavilion and a bigger and better pin range with multiple shooting bays. We’re building it back up again. Each year we get a little bigger and better. We want to provide an experience where the guests are treated like visiting royalty and valued customers.

Pinshoot.com: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Pin Shoot. Looking back on it, how do you think the Pin Shoot has impacted shooting sports?

Richard: It showed that changing from the original paper punching to something more innovative, reactive targets, can be a good thing.

Pinshoot.com: Why should people attend the Pin Shoot?

Richard:  Well, to sound like a street walker, “You wanna have a good time mister?”  

If you would like to join the fun at the 30th Anniversary of the Pin Shoot, register now at www.pinshoot.com.  Hope to see you there!