Dustin Ellermann’s Youth Marksmanship Camp

When Top Shot Season 3 Champion Dustin Ellermann announced that he would be holding several youth marksmanship camps this fall, I jumped at the chance to sign up.  Granted, Texas is a long way to go for a marksmanship camp.  Even farther when you consider that we decided to drive instead of flying.  Sixteen hours one way.  A total of 32 hours of driving to attend a 26 hour camp.  Was it worth it?

I am naturally a fan of the little guy, the underdog, the one nobody expects to win. I discovered Top Shot at the end of season one, too late to develop a feel for the competitors but early enough to know I loved the show. I watched season two with my son each week, pulling for North Carolina natives Chris Tilley and Jamie Franks. We also pulled for golf pro Jay Lim, whose unconventional, self-taught style had everyone gunning to get rid of him, but who exceeded everyone's expectations week after week. In season three, the underdog was a guy who runs a Christian youth camp in Zavalla, Texas. He was self-taught, with no military or LE background, and he confidently shared his faith with other contestants, making him a target of those who think pedigree is everything in shooting, and who don't want to hear the words of the Gospel. Dustin Ellermann was instantly our favorite, and he went on to win the whole thing, with an astonishing display of shooting talent.

We started our trek on Thursday afternoon as I picked my son up early from school in a rental car packed with all the necessities. We decided to drive for several reasons. I hate flying, for one. I'm not afraid to fly, I just hate all the crap you have to put up with to do it. Airports, pat-downs, uncomfortable seats, waiting for luggage, layovers, carry-on fees, the whole nine yards. I despise it all. I'll do it if I have to, but if I have a choice I'd rather drive. It turned out to be great bonding time with my son, and we got to share in the sights, sounds, and smells of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. We drove across the Mighty Mississip twice, saw truck-stop casinos in Louisiana, working oil derricks in Texas, and the lights of downtown Atlanta. To me it beats riding in a sterile steel tube.

I planned the trip so that we drove about the same distance on Thursday night as we did on Friday. We stopped for the night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Crimson Tide, and stayed at a Best Western with three full-sized, crimson elephant statues out front. We got a good night's sleep, took advantage of the hotel's free breakfast, and then hit the road early Friday morning, arriving just about an hour before the camp officially opened at 5:00 PM. When we pulled in we were greeted by the man himself, and given a quick tour of the camp.

The marksmanship camp was held at Dustin's Christian youth camp, Camp His Way, off the beaten path in southeastern Texas, south of the town of Zavalla. The camp sits on the shore of Lake Sam Rayburn, nestled among the tall pine trees of the Angelina National Forest. It's a beautiful site. The camp's main plaza is surrounded by wooden buildings serving various purposes: the camp office, boys dorms, girls dorms (modified to look like covered wagons), meeting hall, and dining hall. In the center, a colorful signpost points you to various areas of the camp. There's a waterslide and a playground, a ga-ga ball pit, and campfire area. The friendly family dogs wander the camp and one of Dustin's daughters zips around on a pink scooter. The weather was wonderful.

After settling in the kids played on the playground while we waited for the remaining campers to arrive. Dustin limited enrollment to 16 kids, ages 8-12, to keep it manageable (plus 16 was the number of contestants on Top Shot). The dinner bell was rung and everyone piled into the dining hall for hamburgers. After dinner, over in the meeting hall, Dustin gave everyone the introduction and safety lessons. The kids were divided randomly into two teams and given different color shirts donated by 5.11 and a hand-carved name tag. The safety info covered the basics of safe firearm handling, and then Dustin introduced the weapons the kids would be using the next day: bows, slingshots, throwing knives, axes, shovels, blow guns, a pellet rifle, bolt-action rimfire rifles, the SIRT training pistol, an airsoft pistol, H&K MP5-22's, Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22's, and the Volquartzen custom rifles that Dustin used to shoot q-tips at 50-yards and golf-balls at 100-yards on the show. The kids were psyched.

The fun began with the kids taking turns sliding down a zipline, in the dark, shooting paper targets with a paintball gun equipped with an Elzetta flashlight and a Crimson Trace laser. How cool is that? Each camper got to ride twice, once with the SIRT pistol to get a feel for how fast it moves, and then with the paintball gun. Dustin would get each camper ready to go from atop a 20-foot tower, send them on their way down the zipline. Then he would run down and score their targets, get the gun and run back. Natural shooting skill is not the only blessing the Lord has bestowed upon Dustin, obviously. He seems to have boundless energy, and was always on the move. If he was tired, it didn't show.

The next morning started pretty early. I got up an hour early to beat the rush to the can and the showers. Twelve boys and their fathers sharing three toilets and three showers means lots of waiting, so got an early start. The majority of the boys were up and going around 7:30. By the time I got outside there were other dads sitting on the porch, chatting Dustin up about Top Shot while sipping fresh, hot coffee. The dinner bell rang again and the kids were treated to a breakfast of pancakes and sausage, fresh orange juice or milk, and assorted fruits. Then it was time to get to business.

The first activity was archery. Dustin gave everyone brief instructions on how to use the bows, and then flipped a coin to decide who would go first. He then went up and down the line assisting the kids with form, equipment, and technique. The kids got three rounds of practice each and then had a Top Shot-style team challenge. The teams would come up and shoot five arrows each, with points awarded for the different colored rings. In the center was a balloon which, if popped, granted a 10-point bonus. At the end, the team with the highest cumulative score won.

Then it was off to more primitive weapons. Cold Steel Norse tomahawks to begin with. Again, Dustin gave a demonstration of how to use the weapons, then each team got to practice before they competed in a team challenge. This time the targets (huge cross-sections of tree trunks called “cookies”) had a playing card stapled in the center. Cut the playing card and get a bonus. Plus, you got to keep the card, signed by Dustin, if you cut it. Again, highest cumulative score won.

The same station was used for throwing shovels. Unlike the tomahawks, the shovels are more forgiving since they have multiple sharp edges. The problem was that they are ungainly weapons and it takes a good bit of practice to throw them well. They are heavier than the tomahawks, so kids had a harder time throwing them and finding a good release point. The team challenge was right out of Top Shot, using a contraption Dustin devised himself. Two targets were suspended by ropes, one next to the other. The ropes were then wrapped across the face of the opposite target. The object was to cut the rope on your target which would make your opponent's target fall. The teams competed head to head, throwing three shovels each, trying to cut the ropes.

Next came throwing knives. These were the same knives used on Top Shot. Unfortunately, if you have watched the show and the post-season show, you know that throwing knives are extremely hard to master, even for adults. The kids had an equally difficult time. After practicing for a bit, they competed in a game of tic-tac-toe, a team challenge that has been featured in various forms on Top Shot. Ultimately they ended up calling the winner based on number of knives stuck. After nearly fifty combined throws, only three stuck, giving one team a 2-1 win.

After knives came blow guns: Cold Steel blow guns just like the ones used on the TV show. The kids got some practice time and some instruction on how to sight the guns with both eyes open by placing the target between the two phantom images of your blow gun created by your eyes. Then the teams competed in a head-to-head challenge that reminded me of the faceoff between Mike Hughes and Phil Mordren near the end of Season three. Suspended from crossed ropes were different colored balloons filled with a little flour to create a puff that would make them stand out when they are popped. One team had to break all the red balloons, the other all the whites. The first team to clear out all their balloons would win.

The kids then moved on the slingshots. There were two kinds available, one with a wrist brace and one without. Dustin gave the kids some instruction and then let them practice with both kinds of slingshots so they could get a feel for them and decide which they liked best. The challenge was a head-to-head race to destroy clay pigeons mounted in two cardboard targets. The first to destroy all the pigeons in their target won.

By this time the kids were starving, so we headed back to the dining hall for a lunch of taco salad: seasoned beef and melted cheese poured over tortilla chips, topped with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, salsa, and sour cream. Yummy.

After letting the food settle a bit, we headed off the the far end of the camp to the pellet gun range. Here the kids practiced by shooting paper targets using a IZH-Baikal IZH-61 air rifle. Dustin worked up and down the shooting line giving one-on-one instruction, and then brought each shooter his or her target and evaluated how they did. My son shot a smiley face in his target, and Dustin drew in a head and hair. The team challenge was another Top Shot inspired head-to-head matchup. Shooters from each team would shoot at four tin cans. The first to clear their targets would win a point. At the end of the challenge, the team that won the most head-to-head matches would win the challenge. The trick was that the kids had to shoot from an unstable, square platform suspended by chains. The gun was loaded, but un-cocked at the start, and had to be cocked after each shot. My son was the only shooter to clear all four of his targets and even had a shot left over.

Then it was on to the rimfire range. The kids started out shooting bolt-action Savage rifles (Rascals for the smaller kids, Mark I's for the rest). They learned to shoot from a bench, using sandbags to steady the weapon, and fathers were encouraged to come help out. The team challenge was to shoot 10 targets in the fewest number of shots.

From there the kids got to shoot H&K MP5-22's and M&P 15-22's standing, unsupported and kneeling supported at 25-yards. The team challenge was based on the Biblical story of Esther. Esther's uncle, Mordecai, was hated by the King's trusted advisor, Haman. Mordecai had saved the King's life, and Haman was jealous of the attention he was getting. So he plotted to have Mordecai arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. The targets in the challenge were little wooden hangmen, suspended by ropes from a wooden gallows. The challenge was to save Mordecai by either shooting through the rope or through the wooden gallows. Interestingly, one of the girls in the camp was named Esther.

The evening's shooting concluded with a chance to shoot golf balls with the Volquartzen Custom I-Fluted rifles while prone from 50-yards. The kids who hit the golf balls got to keep them. The final challenge was to shoot exploding targets, but the explosive didn't work properly. Finally we headed back to the dining hall for our final meal, leaving Dustin and his staff to clean up. He joined us a few minutes later, but not before setting off one of the explosive targets himself, trying to find out what went wrong.  Or just another opportunity to play with something that explodes.  I get the impression that Dustin is a big kid at heart, which is why he relates to kids so well when he's teaching them.

The final meal was homemade lasagna. Dustin joined us, passed out the golf balls the kids had shot, awarded prizes to all the kids. He posed for pictures, signed autographs and continued to chat with anyone who wanted to talk.

Dustin's Youth Marksmanship Camp was a great experience for me and my son. We spent a lot of time together without TV or what Dustin calls “personal isolation devices”, like iPods or handheld game systems. We met lots of great people, and my son learned a lot.

Dustin did more than teach marksmanship. Each lesson was mixed with a Biblical truth. He talked about doing things the right way, being consistent, about following God's will and doing your best. These are powerful lessons that every kid needs to hear, especially during this time of societal decline and in the midst of a world that tells our kids the universe revolves around them.

It was refreshing to meet someone who is as good and decent as Dustin Ellermann clearly is. The Dustin you saw on TV is the same guy you'd meet at his camp or in church, or at a match, or at Shot Show. He's approachable. He doesn't put on airs. His success has not gone to his head. By all accounts he's the same guy who applied to Top Shot on a dare and never expected to win.

Was it worth it to drive 32 hours so my son could attend Dustin's Youth Marksmanship camp? Absolutely. It was a blessing to be a part of it, to meet Dustin and his family, and to share it all with my son.