1998 - Skeet's Young Gentleman and Exceptional Champion

One on One with Craig Kirkman
Skeet Shooting Review - May 1998
by Morris Gresham

The reporter marveled at 20-year-old Craig Kirkman’s composure as he interviewed the youngster who just had won the 1995 doubles World Championship and then again after the remarkable young man won the 1995 HOA World Championship and the Winchester 650 five days later. A year later he marveled again at the young man's quiet, unassuming manner after he won the 1996 Doubles World Championship. Then the reporter interviewed a still quiet, refreshingly polite 22-year-old who had just won the 1997 HOA World Championship, his second in three years.

The repeat wins did nothing to alter the young man's attitude. In fact, those who know him say that he hasn't changed since he was a 10-year-old, BB-gun-toting, clay target stalker. When he answered the phone call asking for a profile interview, for example, he merely said, "I was afraid you'd be calling."

"Craig never changes," said his friend and frequent squadmate, Tildon Downing. "His honors and all of the success that he's had just doesn't affect him. He's just a kid who loves to shoot skeet better than anything in the world ... except maybe hunting rabbits or deer hunting."

"I've known Craig since his mother used to carry him to the gun club in a basket," he continued. "I think the world of him because he's an exceptional young man. He's a gentleman. He has no vices. I'm serious. He just has none. The Kirkmans are good people and they brought Craig up right."

Every shooter interviewed echoed the same sentiment. "Craig is one of the kind- est young gentlemen that you' 11 ever meet," said Les Wilfong, president of the North Carolina Skeet Shooting Association. "There's no profanity. He doesn't drink. He laughs. He's just a great guy. My wife and I are both skeet shooters and we're personal friends of the family. We shoot practice with them and, of course, they come to a lot of shoots at our club here."

Young Kirkman's voice softens as he talks about Wilfong and the Durham County Wildlife Club. He has shot at many big shoots there. "Big for our state," Craig said. "There would be like maybe 75 competitors." He has won more than a fair share of the events at the Durham Club, which is only an hour from his home near Liberty. When Craig won his second World title, Wilfong persuaded them to award Craig a lifetime membership to the Durham County Wildlife Club. It wasn't the first such honor, however. After his first World win, the Old Hickory Gun Club in Rocky Mount, North Carolina had given him a life membership.

Honorary life memberships in two clubs would be quite an accomplishment for a grizzled old veteran, but for a youngster who has been shooting skeet for only ten years, it is phenomenal ... and quite likely a world record. Craig shot his first skeet at age 12 and started shooting registered targets at 13. Then, in 1989 at the tender age of 14, Craig terrorized B Class with his first 100 straight, winning the 28 gauge event for his first gun championship. That same year he was sub-junior HOA champion at his state shoot and he won the open 20 gauge state title that year.

"We were at the Pinehurst Gun Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina," Gary Williams remembered. "I'm 6'-2" and Craig was about my chest high. I stood behind him ... and it was a good day at Pinehurst. There were about 50 shooters there for the Sand Hills Open. Craig ran a 100 with the 28 and was the only guy there to run a 100 that day ... to win his first gun championship." 

"We shoot against some boys in Virginia all the time in this area," Williams continued, "and they pick at Craig all the time. They tell him he can't go home until he runs a 100 in doubles. Or, he can't get supper until he runs a 100 in doubles. He's mild mannered and you won't ever hear him brag. We may talk junk amongst ourselves, but out in public he doesn't ever brag or anything like that.”

“One of Craig's favorite times,” said his father Tommy Kirkman, "was the first time he won an open gun championship in the state. There were about 15 in the shoot- off. And I was in the shoot-off. At that time we were shooting the same gun, swapping it back and forth ... and, of course. I missed. It came down to Craig and Jess Lackey from over in the Shelby area."

"At that time, I believe it was doubles all the way around," Tommy remembered. "It went two full rounds and then they came back to 5 in the third go-round and Jess finally missed. When Craig came off the field, he said, ‘I didn't think that old man was ever going to miss.' At that time Jess probably wasn't but about 41 or 42. Craig was 14."

"Jesse always said that it hurt him worse for Craig to call him an old man than it was for him to have lost the shoot-off." laughed Margie Kirkman. "Craig loves to pick on people."

He also loves to win, a habit he obviously acquired quite early. Before he won the aforementioned Open World titles, Kirkman won three Junior World championships and one Collegiate World title. He was named to his first Open All-American Team in 1996. He credits one mentor, his father and teacher. Tommy Kirkman, for his success. The elder Kirkman also knows his way around the shoot-off semi-circle. He made the Sub-Sub Senior All-American Honorable Mention Team this year. 

I wanted a shotgun when I was ten," Craig revealed, "but my Dad wouldn't let me have one 'til I was I 11. Then I started shooting skeet at 12. I haven't really had any other instructors. The guys at the club help out and holler at me or something like that. My dad was never one to push. It was always if I wanted to shoot, that was all right. He always had to try to get me to go practice because I never wanted to practice. I just wanted to shoot competition."

"He's been at it since he's been old enough to do it,” said Tildon Downing. “His daddy is a wonderful instructor and he’s good with him, patient with him. He’s not an overbearing teacher and I think that’s helped Craig a great deal… in that he’s never felt any pressure from his daddy. I’ve never seen his daddy even show any signs of being impatient with him when he was shooting. He just took whatever came, went home and came back another day.

"When he has lost, he just lost," Downing continued, "... and he was the same as when he won. There was never any change in his emotions on the field. He can miss one and never let it interfere with the work he has to do. He continues to shoot and shoot hard. That's what has always amazed me. Craig has controlled himself so well at such a young age. I've known a lot of people who were good shots, but they just couldn't control their emotions."

"When Craig was 10 years old, he'd get behind the high house," Gary Williams remembered. "And the targets we missed, he'd shoot with his BB gun. He'd put in a pellet and a BB and as they were coming down, he'd shoot 'em ... and he'd hit a lot of them.

"I've known Craig since he was a gleam in his daddy's eye," Williams laughed. "I think the thing that probably impresses those of us who know him well is the fact that, with all the fame and recognition he has had recently, it doesn't seem to show. He's the same kid he was before he got good. I have never seen Craig mad ... angry ... show any temper. Never. Not even once in all these years have I seen him throw a little temper tantrum or even stomp if he missed a target."

It surprises no one that the family oriented youngster works for his uncle, a general contractor specializing in construction of commercial buildings. He also still lives in the family home which is, after all, right across the road from his practice facility, the skeet field his father built years ago.

"It's a pretty little skeet field, grassed with a little club house and the targets are beautiful," Downing said. "There's a small group of boys in that little town that shoot there. We stay in Pinehurst on the weekends and when they closed the Pinehurst Gun Club, I was kind of at a loss. Now I just drive up to Tommy's and shoot on Saturday or Sunday. 

"I was in Richmond watching him the day Craig broke his first 4-by-4," Les Wilfong said. "We were sitting in the van drinking sodas and watching him go at it. He was just 100 targets away from breaking his first 4-by-4 ... and he got it! It was a tremendous thrill. I'd seen him win tournaments with 399s and 398s, but that first 4-by was really a thrill. As a matter of fact, he won the World Shoot before he ever got his first 4-by-4. That's pretty consistent shooting."

"I know he's not a child any more, but he's a good youngster," said his mother Margie. "He got in trouble in school once ... in about the fourth or fifth grade. When I went up to the school for the teacher's conference, she told me he'd been raising his arm and disrupting the class with it. I said. I know what he's doing and I'll correct it.' So when he came home that afternoon, I said, 'Craig, you've got to quit aiming your gun in class, honey.' And he said, 'Mama, there was a cat on the window sill and I was going to get it.'

"He wanted a real gun when he was 10," she continued, "but his dad got him a BB gun. He's always been around gun clubs because right after he was born, Tommy was shooting. He shot until Craig was about two, then we laid off for a little while until we started back with him. I don't shoot. I just go along for the moral support. I love to watch them shoot. They told me one time that skeet was not a spectator sport and I told them it's all in who you're watching."

It has been interesting enough for her the past few years with scores the two Kirkman gents have posted. Shooters know by now that Craig does his talking on the field. He's friendly, but his laid back style leans toward quiet smiles and soft replies. For that reason, the questions are included with some of his answers.

What was the most memorable moment of your shooting career?

"When I won that shoot-off for the doubles that year at the World Shoot, my first real World title. I think the last man standing was Billy D. Williams from Montana. It was me and him and Billy Buettgenbach. Billy came in third."

You disliked practice when you were younger. What is your usual practice schedule now?

"I practice about two times a week normally. And I'11 shoot six to eight rounds. We normally shoot regular rounds, and we usually try to shoot four rounds with one gauge like the event would be. Like one time we'll shoot the .410 and one time we'll shoot the 20. Then after we shoot four rounds, we'll shoot some doubles ... at 3, 4 and 5. We hardly ever shoot a full round of doubles."

What single tip would you give a new shooter?

"Decide if that's really what he wants to do and get lots of practice. Because it takes a lot of time to shoot. You've got to give up a lot of stuff if you want to get to the top."

What does it take for a AA or AAA shooter to start winning shoot-offs?

"The doubles set them apart. You've got to practice a lot of doubles. I'm a placement shooter. I place the first target in order to break the second target. It's kind of a semi-spot shot."

You say you have no superstitions.... but near the end of a shoot if someone says, "You're still straight, aren't you," that wouldn’t 'bug you?

"Oh, it might just a little bit, but not really bad. They used to do that to me when I was little just to see if it would get me."

How does it feel to he the HOA World Champion at age 22?

"It feels like you've got your work cut out for you the second time. Once you do it once or twice, then you're expected to do it all the time. You feel like you can't make an error. When you don't win, they think something wrong, but you can't win everything."

When asked about a favorite food. Craig had no answer. Margie, however, didn't hesitate. "He doesn't even eat when he's hungry," she said, "but if he had a favorite, I guess it would be sausage gravy and biscuits."

"He's a pretty normal kid," claimed Tommy Kirkman. "He's always been quiet and polite. Even when he was real young, he was quiet. He's an only child. I guess that's part of it."

"Craig is a good deer hunter," Tommy claimed. "The skeet season messes up our bow season, so he hunts with a rifle. Last year the muzzleloader season opened the Monday we came back from the World. The opening week he shot four bucks. We have a limit tag in North Carolina for six deer."

"It's hard to imagine the concentration that this young man has for the sport at age 22," Les Wilfong marveled. "He must have been born with a gun in his hand. He is absolutely fascinated with guns. He loves them and I don't think he'll ever sell any gun he ever bought. He cherishes the moment of holding a gun. It's plain to see when you watch him shoot, too. It's fascinating. 

"When we were both shooting the same gun," Tommy stated, "he was shooting a K-32. The I bought a used 28-inch K-80 for him in about 1992. When he won the World Championship the first time, he got the brand new 30-inch K-80 from Dieter (Kreighoff). He shot it last year."

"He's working on his new Beretta now," Wilfong said. "His new AL Gold Angle Port. I've got one like it, an AL390 and I hit the targets with mine. Craig explodes them! Maybe it's the barrel. I can't believe it's just a difference in shooters. (Laughing)

"Craig broke his leg when he fell out of a tree stand a couple of years ago," Wilfong remembered. "He came to one of our shoots at the Durham County Wildlife Club and happened to shoot with my wife and I. His dad carried his gun for him. He'd hand his crutches to my wife and take his gun from his dad. Then he'd stand there on one leg to shoot. He broke 98 with the 28 gauge and felt terrible about losing two targets."

"Craig's like a little kid out there," Downing revealed. "He has the biggest time you ever saw. He enjoys it and shoot- ing comes natural to him. He works hard at it, but he's a natural. When you put that together with the eye that he has and with his mental game ... boy, that's hard to beat. I've seen a lot of young boys who just couldn't deal with the disappointment that this game deals out, but it never bothered Craig. He just kept right on. It all came together for him a few years ago and it's been going good since."

"I just don't know how far Craig can take it, but I hope I'm around to see it," Downing continued. "I keep telling him, 'We're going to find you a girl. That's going to slow you down some and let the rest of us win one now and then.' I've said it to him many a time. But he's a wonderful boy and I do think the world of him. He's a credit to the game."

"He's a good kid," echoed Alton Barfield. "It's hard to believe that he's as good as he is ... as a person. Everybody knows what kind of shooter he is. And he is just exactly what he seems to be. We love him to death."

Being what he seems to be has much to do with the level of respect enjoyed by Craig Kirkman, a level rarely reached in skeet shooting, and certainly not in one so young. The total package - athletic ability, mental focus, work ethic and family values - makes him a likely candidate for continued success. Even if, as Craig says, "You can't win everything," it often seems that way to his opponents.

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