I’ve been a competitive shooter for almost eight years now and have participated in a wide variety of major and minor matches around the country across multiple shooting disciplines and organizations. I have shot through rain, snow, mud, blistering heat and gale-force winds that batted long-range shots around like BBs, making hits nearly impossible.

None of those compared to the unseen threat the coronavirus had on one of the largest and longest-running major matches in the country: the Superstition Mountain Mystery Match (SMM3G) in Phoenix, Arizona. Matches have a way of blending in your mind through the years but of all the matches I have competed in, I know this is one I will never forget.

Rio Salado Sportsman’s Club is my home range and court in Phoenix, Arizona, and is my Super Bowl of matches I look forward to each year. The match is generally considered the kickoff of the three-gun season as the largest first event of the year.

The match is so well-run and popular there is a lottery system to get into it. Hundreds and hundreds of shooters will apply and the waitlist can run over a hundred shooters or more. I have been fortunate enough to make it into the match the past five years either through the first round draw or through the waitlist process.

This year was different. I was deep down on the waitlist and to complicate matters further I was scheduled to leave the week before the match to Australia for a law enforcement operation which wouldn’t see my return until April. I had a sinking feeling that this year was not meant to be. That’s when the coronavirus changed everything.

Three days before I was scheduled to depart for Australia, my agency and the rest of America began to go into international travel lockdown as more and more cases began to appear in the U.S. I was crushed not to be able to conduct the work I wanted to in Australia, but the bright side was I was now free to attend the match.

Just about as I was about to get on my computer and start reaching out to beg, steal or borrow a sponsor slot or a media slot, SMM3G staff members Mick Bjelopavlic and Jeff Carson of Aero Precision contacted me and awarded me a sponsor slot into the match. It was a much-needed pick-me-up after the rapidly unfolding events.

In the efforts of safety, new restrictions were put into the match and emailed the evening before to all competitors. Range personnel would not handle competitor’s equipment or chamber flags, social distancing was to go into effect as much as possible and props were to be cleaned off if the competitors made significant contact with them. The vendor area of the event was canceled; the food trucks for competitors were canceled. The side stages, canceled. I could tell from the serious tone of the email that this was going to be a very different match

I pulled into the entrance to the Rio Salado Sportsman’s Club on a gorgeous Arizona spring day and immediately knew something was off. Normally multiple banners welcoming you to the match and sponsor flags lined the entrance to the range. They were nowhere to be found.

My heart started to race for a moment. Had they canceled the event? Did I not get the email? The range parking lot was sparsely filled and I pulled into a front-row spot. I can’t even do this during our regular club matches as we see over one hundred competitors at our normal three-gun matches.

A nearly empty parking lot for one of the biggest matches in the country.

The place was a ghost town and getting my gear ready in the quiet parking lot normally filled with laughter and bragging was an eerie feeling. I met up with my squad of familiar faces and learned that several of our squad mates had canceled. I often shoot matches with my friend Brian Smith and his sons Connor and Gabriel. Gabriel is currently assigned to West Point and Connor is at the Air Force Academy.

The Smiths were looking forward to spending time together which is a rare occasion they can all three be together. Sadly, Connor was placed into lockdown at the Air Force Academy while Gabriel had luckily been allowed to leave while other portions of his class were locked down as well. That left us with a squad of nine shooters at a major match. With so few shooters this was going to be a fast day.

The virus may have whittled the competitors down but that in no way decreased the difficulty and challenges SMM3G loves to throw at you. The SMM3G staff has been throwing this match for decades and their access to props, stage designs and creativity is among the best in the country.

The theme of the match was “Greatest Hits,” and each stage was modeled after a famous action movie or shootout. Stage one “with a pencil” was named after the John Wick hit movies and had you starting from a kneeling position in front of a table with three metal cups turned upside down.

On the buzzer, you knocked over one of the cups to reveal a pistol round, shotgun shell or rifle round. You then ran to an array to retrieve the matching weapon and clear the steel and paper in front of you before returning to the table to knock over a second cup to designate your next shooting position.

Competitor waiting for the buzzer to flip his cups to designate his first shooting position.

After the second cup was eliminated, you knew your final station. This “wild” factor made you have to have a plan for each of the scenarios. If you got the pistol section first, you could clear a plate rack and then engage a multi mini Texas star or you could abandon the pistol and choose to pick up the star from the shotgun area.

I believe the perfect scenario was to start with the rifle, then proceed to the shotgun area to clear a plate rack and shoot your shotgun empty at the mini star before abandoning it and then finishing the stage with your pistol on a plate rack and picking up any targets you left on the star. Of course, I got the exact opposite of what I wanted, but this fun twist added an extra rush of not knowing what you would get until you started flipping cups.

Stage four was “Saint Valentine’s Day,” which kept that adrenaline rush factor high in one of the most frantic stages I have ever shot. You started with shotgun in hand with eight falling steel in front of you where you would dump your shotgun and retrieve your pistol. The last popper connected to a bowling ball release that would roll down a ramp and activate two disappearing targets.

The timing was incredibly tight, and one misstep would cause your chance at the targets to disappear forever. I practiced sprinting in between the windows and bays as quickly as I could over and over and knew everything must go perfectly to make my plan work. I quickly knocked my steel over and when I abandoned the shotgun it caught on the barrel causing me to fight it down.

I felt panic as I sprinted and engaged the couple close papers with my pistol and got to the open window just as my chance at the far disappearing paper disappeared. I quickly pivoted to the other disappearing target, made my hits, and finished the rest of the stage as quickly as I could. The shotgun bobble left me cussing and I was not alone in regret. Those that executed their plan quickly and efficiently were rewarded. Those like me that fumbled paid the price.

A unique feature every year of SMM3G and having a giant mountain as a backstop is the long-range shots available to the stage designers. About a third of the stages featured shots out to 500 yards and with the normal 5-10 mph winds, the mountain creates competitors that didn’t know their dopes were left taking shot after shot at them.

One of the cooler stage props new this year was set atop a platform you ran up on after engaging a maze of pistol targets. The rifle rest was in the shape of the Superstition Mountains and featured bumps and curves that matched the mountain as you engaged targets hundreds of yards away. That is the type of love and attention that goes into the stage props here and I appreciate little touches like that which makes this match so unique.

Little touches like a prop designed to look like the Superstition Mountains.

There were long-range targets up and down the mountain. Plate racks, plates inside of props and so forth. I personally enjoy all the long-range rifle targets, but I also feel a touch of pain for those competitors who travel to the match and are limited on how far they can shoot on their own ranges.

As we shot through the day, tensions were high that Arizona was going to lock down the state and there was a chance the match might not be able to finish. We shot so quickly through the stages that we were done with our allotted four stages by noon.

The match directors, realizing we had six or seven more hours of daylight to work with, told us to keep shooting as long as we wanted and could safely do so. Our squad pressed on and we shot and shot and shot and plowed through seven stages by the end of day one.

It was apparent this three-day match was going to be two. The match directors emailed everyone late in the night with a newly revised schedule and our remaining four stages. The next morning, we plowed through the remaining four stages, and by 12:30 we were awaiting the prize ceremony to begin — if you could really call it that.

The prize ceremony was revamped to keep competitors from being in close proximity to each other. The normal large air-conditioned multi-use facility where the over $300,000 in prizes are usually located was closed to competitors. We were required to group only with our squad during the ceremony and to maintain social distancing as we had been.

Social distancing in effect as the match announcements were made. Overall winner Nils Johansson is pictured here.

It was strange to watch the 200 or so shooters spread out around a parking lot with 25 to 50 feet between us and the match directors as they read the awards off. Shooters were called in groups of five and sent into the building. You were not allowed to touch the prizes. If you did, you were immediately made to keep it and leave as quickly as possible.

This isn’t all to say that there weren’t laughs or fun. This is to emphasize the steps that were taken to keep everyone safe while allowing the event and the fun to continue. I applaud the hard-working staff and the sponsors for bravely allowing the event to continue and giving us all a bright shooting spot days before the true national lockdowns started to go into effect.

I don’t know when I’ll shoot a match again this year, and with the way things are looking this will probably be my first and last major match of the year. Even if it is, I’m OK with that. Sometimes your best memories are when you went through adversity with friends and family and come out on the other side. The shooting sports have given me years of memories and dear friends and I can’t wait for when we can all gather again.