I’ve seen the name dozens of times, always at the top.
Thomas McGowan, 16, of Hortonville, Wisconsin, began his shooting journey especially young. Most people formally enter competition, particularly high power service rifle, at age 12 or older. If you're younger, traditionally you need a parental waiver. Having been shooting for as long as he can remember, Thomas recalls shooting a lot of 100-yard .22 LR. By age 9 he was shooting action pistol with his father; by 11, competing in high power service rifle.
Hunting began his foray into marksmanship, aspiring to never have to shoot more than once at a deer. In pursuit of this goal, Thomas began attending a 100-yard high power rifle league at his local club. A year later, the Wisconsin Junior Rifle Team invited him to attend and compete in the National Matches, though he had never shot a full match out to 600 yards. The decision happened quickly: Thomas and his father left for Camp Perry, Ohio four short days following the invitation. Thomas’ first full-course match was the 2017 President’s 100, an incredibly prestigious match not typically used for practice. Regardless, Thomas’s love for the sport grew.
Today Thomas is known for his performance in high power, though he has quickly become a force to reckon with in the long range world, beating the scores of many veteran shooters. This year he was the high junior at NRA Nationals for both across the course and long range. He also claimed a spot among adults on the National Civilian Rifle Team as well as the Deneke Trophy Team (juniors). He also earned high Palma rifle in the McMaken and Speaks Memorial Match at Camp Perry, Ohio. This spring he claimed top honors at the 2021 Orange Blossom Regional Matches for across the course.
Thomas showed talent early on, earning his NRA High Master card in high power service rifle at age 13, a short two years after entering the sport. This feat takes most far longer to earn, if ever. He is also a Distinguished Rifleman, holds a CMP High Master classification and seven NRA National records. Thomas earned top honors at the 2019 National Matches, claiming the High Junior Mountain Man aggregate and has been a member of both the National Civilian Rifle Team and Deneke Trophy Team for three years running.
He attributes much of his success to those around him. “I have had many extraordinary people help me to become the shooter I am today, teaching me everything from the very basics of sight alignment, to overcoming the mental blocks to get the last few points for a perfect score. I would never have been to the point where I am now without them.”
He also notes that shooting has changed him has a person, teaching him life skills that apply on and off the firing line. “It has taught me perseverance, self-confidence and mental focus … All of the skills I have learned from competitive shooting, I can use every day in school, work and my other daily activities.” Shooting has also taught him how to set and meet goals and grow as a competitor and person.
Most top competitors in any sport have goals and work hard to meet them, following a regimented training schedule or mental process. Thomas’ favorite thing about marksmanship lies with the individual — “every shot and every score is a direct result of you.” In other words, whatever score you shoot can be traced back to your mental process, training or some other area in which things went wrong, or right.
In his last few years as a junior, Thomas has set a single, large goal: To be the high junior in the President’s 100 Rifle Match and National Trophy Individual Match, as well as having the highest individual junior score in the National 2-Man Junior Team Match and National Trophy Team Match, all in one year. He also wants to earn high junior in the mountain man aggregate and the top spot on the National 6-man Junior Team. Looking into the future, Thomas wants to make rifle shooting a career.
Though much of his time is spent on the range, Thomas is also heavily involved in music, playing trombone and participating in his school’s music program, jazz band and pit orchestra. He’s participated in several solo and ensemble festivals and has qualified and performed for the Wisconsin State Solo and Ensemble. This isn’t just a pastime – Thomas is well accomplished in the music world as well, a member of the Wisconsin State High School Jazz Ensemble. This group is made up of the very best, most talented student musicians in the state. “I find,” Thomas said, “that music utilizes many of the same skills as rifle competition does, making it much easier for me to perform under various circumstances.”
Thomas holds himself to an incredibly high standard, always looking for perfection, though it wasn’t always that way. He advises new competitors joining high power to attend matches. “Don’t be afraid to fail, it is expected,” he said. “There is no better practice than a match.” Matches afford opportunities for real-time learning in an environment filled with knowledgeable people willing to help. “Always take the positive out of every performance and set obtainable goals for yourself to help lead you to success. And as I like to remember, the day you beat yourself, knowing that no mistakes were made and that you shot as many 10s as you had control of, you’ll most likely win. Always push for that mindset, whether a beginner, or a top-level competitor.”