Sarah Shotwell pressed the 1940s Sterling submachine gun to her left shoulder. After a few words of advice from a fellow shooter, she squeezed the trigger. A rat-a-tat-tat echoed off the surrounding hills of the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky. Then ping, ping, ping, ping resonated off a metal silhouette. Within seconds, a clay bird was flung into the air, and with renewed machine gun fire, Shotwell blew the flying target to pieces.
“Oh my God!” someone shouted from behind her.
Oh my God was right.
Shotwell had watched a handful of men, all competitive shooters, armed with five magazines each miss the final target — again and again. And yet, there was Shotwell, who had never pulled a trigger in a competitive match, blasting the clay bird to Kingdom Come on her first try. (She was only at the April match helping a friend run a vendor booth.)
No one probably would have blinked an eye had the clay target been taken down with the 12-inch pattern of a shotgun, but instead, the born-and-raised Tennessee gal was holding a gun that was first introduced at the end of World War II. Since then, the gun has been involved in most every British conflict before it was phased out in 1994. Simply put, there are some guns meant for clay bird shooting, and a vintage submachine gun isn’t one of them.
Her onlookers, clearly impressed, were eager to coach her into competitive shooting. Among them was Thomas Ezendam, the founder of 3 Gun Team Netherlands, one of Hexmag’s sponsored teams. Made up of international shooting talent, mostly from the Netherlands, the team is all about promoting their sponsors at every opportunity they can get — meaning 3 Gun matches. And since the Netherlands team wanted to do a better job of promoting its American sponsors, Ezendam enlisted Shotwell to join the crew — albeit the Holland accent.
“It’s funny. A lot of people say, ‘You’re the most redneck girl from Holland I’ve ever met.’ And then I tell them I’m a Tennessee girl, and it all starts to make sense,” Shotwell recalls during a phone interview with Hexmag.
Coming from Tennessee, the 1940s Sterling submachine gun wasn’t the first gun Shotwell had laid her hands on. She was acclimated enough to backwoods shooting that 3 Gun competitions quickly became second nature to her in the coming months after that life-changing April day. By May, she shot her first 3 Gun match, and after that, she was notching several matches a month. During that time, she broke her hand during a kickboxing lesson but continued to shoot competitions, including the Rockcastle Pro Am 3 Gun Championship, with that hand. By summer, Shotwell was a certified range officer, and by fall, she became a certified pistol instructor.
“I’ve never met anyone like Sarah,” said Ezendam, who introduced Hexmag to Shotwell. “The things that she has accomplished in less than a year are truly amazing.”
Even more remarkable is the fact that Shotwell’s shooting flurry came on the heels of a back infusion in 2015 that left her wheelchair bound for a year, which makes her Blue Ridge Mountain 3 Gun Championship (11 months after surgery) all the more impressive.
And if you still don’t think she’s one tough cookie, she also shot the Brownell’s Ladies’ Fall Festival, a multi-gun affair hosted by A Girl and a Gun, with a broken nose. (She broke it on Day 1 during a fluke incident with a cooler lid but still had to shoot four more stages. Even with black spots in her shooting eye, she finished 27th out of 105 shooters and was first in ranking among range officers.)
To coincide with her rapid-fire, never-slow-down progress, Shotwell pulled the trigger on starting her own A Girl and A Gun chapter in Nashville, which some will tell you is out of character for her. Always wanting to prove herself among the guys, she was skeptical of girls-only leagues until she competed in the Brownell’s match.
“I didn’t want to be set apart as a lady,” Shotwell admits. “But that match changed everything for me. Once I realized A Girl and A Gun is about giving women a place in the sport instead of leaving them out, I felt stupid that I didn’t join sooner.”
After the fall festival, Shotwell was driving more three hours, sometimes four, each month to meet with the nearest A Girl and A Gun Chapter. After just a few short months, she decided to organize her own Nashville chapter. The group had its first meeting Dec. 9 and already the chapter has more than 75 members.
With six children ranging in ages from 5 to 20, Shotwell is a prime example that any woman can (and should) make time for herself and her passions. A supportive husband certainly helps, Shotwell says. But support aside, Shotwell admits it’s about believing in yourself. “I’ve been in the south too long, so I’m tired of men telling me what I can and cannot do. Instead, I show them what’s possible.”
Her go-get-em attitude is rubbing off on other women, too.
“I love getting women into the sport,” Shotwell admits. “It’s become my new passion. I’m always telling the girls, if you want to shoot with the boys, then shoot with them.”
And certainly don’t let a 1940s Sterling submachine gun get in the way. You never know when you might be the next Sarah Shotwell to come along and elude the opposite sex with skills that come as natural as breathing.