In the Field

4-H Shooting Sports: One of the Fastest Growing Youth Programs in the U.S.

When you think about 4-H, you probably associate it with growing crops, raising livestock and competing for blue ribbons at the county fair. And you would be right, to a point. 4-H is the largest youth development organization in the United States with nearly six million members, but of that number, only 17 percent of kids involved actually live on farms.

One program that is experiencing excellent growth around the country is the 4-H Shooting Sports Program, which is reaching young people in urban, suburban and rural communities. Each year, 4-H teaches shooting sports to more than 400,000 boys and girls in 47 of the 50 states. The shooting disciplines include: archery, muzzle loading, rifle, pistol, shotgun and hunting.

The growing numbers in the Shooting Sports Program come as good news at a critical time in the hunting industry. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research shows that participation in hunting dropped by about 2 million hunters, down to 11.5 million. And, the amount of money spent by hunters declined 29 percent in the past five years.

“We’ve had steady growth for a number of years now,” Conrad Arnold, program coordinator, National 4-H Shooting Sports, says. “A lot of it depends on the industry support we’ve been able to get, which allows us to do more instructor training and event support.”

Building Life Skills

The objectives of the program center around building life skills that include decision-making, teamwork, self-discipline, self-confidence and problem solving. The program also works to promote the highest standards of safety and sportsmanship, along with an appreciation and understanding of natural resources.

“The interest is there among the kids, parents and volunteers if they are just given the opportunity,” Arnold says. “We draw a lot of adult volunteers into this program that may not volunteer for other 4-H programs.”

South Dakota is one state that has had remarkable success with its program. There are 9,441 youth enrolled in 4-H programs in South Dakota. Of that number, there are 4,387 involved in the Shooting Sports Program, and the numbers continue to grow.

The Shooting Sports curriculum uses the resources of land-grant universities like South Dakota State University (SDSU), Cooperative Extension agents and certified 4-H leaders, instructors and trainers. The adult instructors involved try to provide a positive relationship with the students. A national or state certified instructor teaches each discipline. 4-H members learn about firearm safety and marksmanship, teaching safe shooting habits to youth ages 8 to 19.

“The backbone of the program is having an accepted national instructor curriculum and a train-the-trainer program national down to local,” Arnold says. “It’s quite consistent across the country.”

“It’s really that first step to get to the outdoors by engaging them in this program,” Peter Nielson, SDSU Extension director of youth development operations, says. “This is an Extension and 4-H program that takes in a whole different group of people. There are traditional 4-H members, of course, but we also have a large group of kids from urban and suburban areas.”

4-H Principles

Shooting Sports, like most other 4-H project areas, applies 4-H principles and look at safety aspects as well as partnering with a caring adult. Over the last five years, the program has intentionally tied in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education along with shooting sports and hunting training programs. Instructors are given STEM activities they can relate to a part of their training in shooting.

All volunteers go through a background check and have archery and gun safety training, along with 4-H youth development, emphasizing what the organization believes. It’s all aimed at providing a partnership with a caring adult and a safe environment for youth to learn how to move forward, working on their own.

In South Dakota, for example, there are 350-450 volunteers who go through a minimum of 12 hours of training, giving over 25,000 hours of time.

And There’s a Chance to Compete

All the training and work can lead to healthy competition on the local, state, regional and national level.

“In South Dakota, kids work on the county level to qualify for the state meet,” Nielson says. “They target and track their progress, and if they achieve a certain level they go to the state meet. Our shooting sports state-level meet is the second largest event in South Dakota in terms of participation, with the State Fair being the largest.”

Next year’s Shooting Sports National Championship will be June 24-29 in Grand Island, Nebraska.

While 4-H members get the chance to test their shooting, hunting and sportsmanship skills on many levels in the United States, there are opportunities to test those skills on an even higher level. The 4-H Shooting Sports website notes that, “In fact, they could ultimately set Olympic competition as their goal. There are 17 Olympic shooting sports events, which continue to draw the third-greatest number of countries.”

A Positive Setting

If you’re interested in becoming involved with the 4-H Shooting Sports Program, you can go to your state 4-H website. You can also go to the national shooting sports website and find a state contact for each of the 47 states involved.

“We treat this just like any other 4-H program, be it livestock or foods and nutrition or computers or woodworking,” Arnold says. “Our goal is to get kids into a positive setting where they can have fun learning and develop some lifelong skills where they’re working closely with an adult, other than a parent, who really cares and takes interest in the child.”