CAMP PERRY, Ohio --
The 2018 National Matches are well underway, having already assembled a cluster of competitors of all ages and skill-levels onto the grounds of the historical Camp Perry, Ohio, National Guard Training Base through the pistol, small bore and rim fire sporter rifle phases – with the high power and long range series of events still ahead.
Home of the National Matches since 1907, Camp Perry is a place where dreams come true and memories are made, generation after generation. The Matches’ longevity and welcoming atmosphere for even the newest of marksmen has made it a meeting ground for friends and families, far and wide, for over 100 years.
For one talented family, Camp Perry has not only become an annual family destination, but a place where they have created a legacy of their own on the firing lines and across the stage of the famous Camp Perry Hough Theater – a legacy that was years in the making and is far from over.
The name “Ohlinger” is well known to regular National Match goers. Brothers Mike (61) and Mark (57), and their sons David (39), Sam (32) and Joseph (J.J., 29), along with Mike’s wife, Becky, who volunteers to help out on the range each year, arrive every July to participate in the high power stage of the event. A tight-knit group hailing from the Columbus, Ohio, area, the boys all grew up playfully competing against one another with their own private marksmanship competitions at home.
“We’ve always kind of done this as a family,” J.J. said.
Now, life has spread the men out to locations as far as Iowa and Maryland, yet they manage to make the annual trip to Camp Perry each summer for some reconnecting and a little light-hearted fun on the range.
“This is our family reunion,” David said, a Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and a member of the Air Force marksmanship team for the last decade.
“It’s more of just an excuse to spend time together,” said Sam. “We don’t really see these guys that often, outside of this.”
The family tree branches out like this: brothers Mike and Mark began shooting when their father, Chester, introduced them to the pastime. Chester came from a line of military men – his father a veteran of World War I and Chester eventually joining the Korean War cause. A fan of the M1 Garand, Chester taught Mike and Mark how to shoot and how to hunt, which the two boys passed on to their own families.
The family’s National Matches legacy began with Mike in 1998, when he finally made the trek up to northern Ohio.
“I had always wanted to do this, my whole life,” he said. “But I was 41 before I met people to get started.”
The following year, he convinced Mark to come up with him for an M1 clinic, and Sam joined a high power team in 2000 – tagging along for the junior events at the Matches. Eventually, Mark’s sons J.J. and David followed in their family’s footsteps.
But soon, as the Ohlingers got better and better in competition, they began to crave more than simply showing up for matches – they wanted that coveted Distinguished Badge dangling from their collars.
The Distinguished Badge is an honor earned only by those marksmen and markswomen who have shown continued success and outstanding accuracy by earning 30 points after competing in Excellence-In-Competition (EIC) events, where they may earn a maximum of 10 points each time. Many who earn the badge are pinned on the renowned Hough Theater stage at Camp Perry during the National Matches – a sought-after honor, to walk the same steps as some of the most decorated and skilled marksmen of all time.
In 2005, when Mike got his first 10 points at Nationals and Sam started shooting High Master, the two decided to start the quest for the badge. They started a few months later in October when nearby Miami (of Ohio) Rifle and Pistol was having their first EIC match of the season.
Mike recalled his conversation with Sam as he explained, “I said to him, ‘We’ll go to that, you’ll win the match, I’ll get points, and we’ll go to the (National) Matches and leg out together and go out on the stage next year.’”
As it turned out, Sam won the match, and Mike didn’t get any points. But, after some work, the two wound up walking up together on the Hough Theater stage – the first Ohlingers to do so.
“[Staff from the Civilian Marksmanship Program] told us it was the first father/son combination to get their badges together,” Mike said.
Mark and J.J. watched as the boys were pinned that year, and that’s when they decided to make a plan of their own.
“J.J. and I sat in the auditorium and watched them get their badges on stage, and I leaned over and said, ‘We’re going to do that someday,’” Mark explained.
Though Mark hoped to be the next to receive his badge, in 2012, J.J. (in his own words) got tired of waiting on Mark to earn his points and did so on his own to become the next Distinguished Ohlinger. Mark soon followed in 2013.
The only Ohlinger from the original bunch left to receive his badge was David. And they didn’t let him forget it, as they teased him but always remained supportive.
As a member of the Air Force since 1999, David sometimes had other obligations that kept him from shooting. But after hearing about all of his other family members earning accolades in the sport, he decided he needed to make a trip to the National Matches in 2008 and start his own run for a badge.
Almost a decade later, in 2017, David finally earned his Distinguished Badge. He was pinned on the Hough Theater stage, just like all of the other Ohlingers, who sat watching proudly from the audience – each wearing his own badge in the theater seats.
Though all of the original members have now gone Distinguished, the Ohlinger family legacy at the National Matches is far from over.
J.J. and David have a middle brother, Nate, who used to shoot but gave up when, as J.J. joked, “He didn’t like the fact that his little brother did better than him.”
But, the boys are hopeful that they can pull him back into the game.
“Give me a few years,” Mark said, with a smile.
“I mean, he’s got the genes in him,” J.J. added as he laughed.
David has three kids, two girls and a boy, and Sam is also new to fatherhood – leaving the door open for the next generation to make memories on those treasured ranges near the shores of Lake Erie.
“There are more Ohlingers to come. This is just the start,” David said. “This is going to continue.”