Monday, July 19, 2010

Denny Chapman: Horseman, Marksman, Top Shot

It’s hard to miss his big cowboy hat and wide grin. Denny Chapman is quite the character, and if you hadn’t heard of him before now, you’ve probably seen him on the new reality TV show “Top Shot” on the History Channel.

Denny was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his day to talk to us about his background in the shooting sports and how he came upon the cowboy mounted shooting sports.

Tell me Denny: did you start out as a horseman or as a shooter? I was probably shooting before I was riding. In fact, I’m sure I was. I grew up in southern Illinois in the Midwest. I definitely had my hands on a gun before a horse. I was brought up in a rural area, a very small town of about 800 people called Cambria. I grew up hunting and fishing. My dad and my Grandfather brought me up shooting. In our family, guns were common and typical. A tool.

You’ve been around firearms your whole life, growing up with them. Yeah. A gun was no different than a hammer or a screwdriver to me when I was a kid.

So I guess it was a natural transition to combine shooting and horses, having grown up in the country and already knowing how to shoot. Yeah, I would say exactly so. When I was old enough to start chasing girls most of the girls were horse crazy, and I soon found out I liked them too, so-

The girls or the horses? {laughs} Well, I never stopped liking the girls but I soon found out I liked the horses as well. It was a natural thing for me to pick up horses as a hobby.

You didn’t get started riding until you were in your teenage years then? Exactly, about 13 years of age.

Tell me a little bit about that. How did you find out that you had a natural talent for it, and when did you decide to start integrating shooting into it? Well, it was an evolution of many years actually. It wasn’t until about 1999 when I discovered the sport of cowboy mounted shooting. The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association didn’t come about until the early 90s. It was kinda’ isolated to the Western United States, you had to stumble on it out in Arizona in the Scottsdale Phoenix area. It was very small. The first world championships were just a handful of people.

By 1999 I was competing in IDPA and USPSA, IPSC, I had already-

Let me stop you for a second there. You were already competing in action shooting when you discovered cowboy mounted shooting? Correct. I had already competed in probably half a dozen different organized shooting disciplines before I discovered mounted shooting. And I was a horseman already. I mean I was a cowboy per se, I was team roping and competing in quarter horse association sanctioned events like Working Cow Horse and Versatility Ranch Horse, and doing all the things a cowboy should be able to do on his horse.

My IPSC partner, Gary Stevens, was in Kentucky at the time and Gary was a retired Kentucky State Trooper. We were traveling to matches together. He had heard about mounted shooting before I did and he said “Man, you need to look into this mounted shooting stuff, it’s right up your alley. You’re already a cowboy, it’d be a great transition.” So, I got online and started searching. Lo and behold I found a small CMSA club in central Kentucky. I called ‘em right away and said “Hey, I want to come and see what this is like,” and they said “Yeah, we’re having an organized practice match. Come on down.”

So, I went down there. Now I knew they were using blanks because I’d researched them a bit online before I went down there. For those who don’t know, Cowboy Mounted Shooting is a sport that combines marksmanship and horsemanship. The marksmanship end of it uses a single action cowboy revolver such as a Colt Peacemaker or a replica of a single action Army Colt shooting .45 Long Colt blanks. The brass is crimped shut with just the powder only. The burning embers of powder then burst the balloon out to about 15 feet before the shot dissipates. It has a little bit of spread to it similar to a shotgun, but not much, you still have to maintain that specific degree of accurracy…

Just like one would aim a shotgun, right? Yeah, because you’re runnin’ by the target on a horse as fast as you can, you want to aim as close the target as you possibly can. It’s not as easy as it looks. Especially once you climb up on a horse and go running around trying to do it.

This is a timed event, correct? It is a timed event, so when you cross the timer line the timer starts, it’s just like a barrel race with guns. Except there are sixty some-odd different patterns you’re shooting. Five targets with one gun, five with another, and the hammer rests on an empty chamber.

So you don’t do reloads, you actually carry two separate guns? That’s right, we shoot five targets with one gun, holster, draw the other gun, and shoot the last five. There’s a lot to think about. Not only the riding, the shooting, but the gun change. The horsemanship, the horse that is, is probably 75% of the sport. Then, for every missed target you get a 5 second penalty.

If you miss a target then, you can pretty much write off any chance you had of winning that competition?Yes, absolutely. You have to shoot clean. I’m a level 5 and it only goes to level 6. If you’re comparing it to USPSA I’d be like a Master class level shooter.

I’ve done so many shooting sports, and been on a horse for a decade and this is still the most fun I’ve ever had. I feel as strongly today about the sport as the first day I climbed up on a horse. It’s hard to explain the exhilaration you feel. I’ve been in IPSC, USPSA, and various run and gun competitions, I’ve been in 3-gun and I loved it it’s great, but I pretty much gave it all up for mounted shooting because the horses took up so much extra time for the training. It eventually became a business for me. I’m the go-to-guy in the southeastern United States for mounted shooting horse training. It probably makes up about 75% of what I do for a living, just desensitizing and training horses.

I’m glad you brought up that topic because I’m sure we’ve got some people wondering about safety and how you train a horse to do this. Obviously you’ve got a working firearm which can be dangerous or even deadly and you’ve got very loud noises around horses which have incredibly sensitive ears. Tell me a bit about how you train a horse and what kind of safety equipment they use.

We’ve been pretty lucky throughout the last decade or so to come up with a pretty good plan of action. First off, we use ear plugs with the horses. They have ear plugs that are a soft neoprene rubber. They get rid of a lot of noise. I really don’t know what the NRR (noise reduction rating) is on them but I would say it’s probably similar to something in the 20-25 db noise reduction rating.

So, we start them with that. You know, the horse training is difficult and it’s time consuming but it’s something I really enjoy. I found out quickly that we get much better results when we introduce the noise and the smoke very slowly. So, I would start out shooting primer loads around them and work my way up. Sometimes I find a horse, and I can evaluate them pretty quick to find out if I need to stay light on them before I can step it up. I might have a horse for 60 days that I just shoot primers from their back.

That’s got to be difficult to get a horse that you can control well. Many people don’t understand that it’s really a marriage, and you and the horse have to come to an understanding and an agreement to get the horse to do what you want it to do. With IDPA and IPSC, you basically go out on the course and shoot it how you want to shoot it. You can’t exactly do that with mounted shooting. Talk to me about how important it is to get that bond with the horse, where the horse can perform as well as you can. It’s a time consuming chore. The most important thing is that the horse has the proper training first. We don’t just get on a horse that’s never been ridden before. The first thing that I do when someone drops a horse off with me for training is to evaluate the horse’s knowledge and the horse’s confidence in me as the handler and the rider. If the horse isn’t properly trained, I finish their training before I ever attempt to make any noise. Once the horse has the “handle” that I feel is safe for the rider, in other words the horse has to walk when I ask him to move, turn right, turn left, and he has to neck rein because we’re riding with one hand, move off laterally off my leg…

So you do use some cutting horse training to get them to move with leg pressure? Yeah, that’s a good point. The horse needs to be able to do everything a good working ranch horse can do. The horse needs to move off it’s haunches, doesn’t necessarily need to do a spin but it does need to do all those things a versatile ranch horse does because we’re negotiating through patterns. They need to be able to move like a good cutting horse. Once that “handle” is on the horse and I’m satisfied with it, then we introduce the horse to the world of mounted shooting. We desensitize them to the balloons, we have to be able to ride the horse up to the balloons, pick them up and set them down, and we’ll pop it in front of them. The noise is obviously a major thing…

And even the smell of the burnt gun powder I imagine… Absolutely. I’ve got a great video right now. I shoot for Taylor’s & Company Firearms, who are importers of Colt clones made by Uberti. Taylor and I have even designed a couple of new guns for us, specifically for our sport, which I’m particularly proud of.

It’s a process though. We get that “handle” on the horse first, then we start the noise training and all that’s involved with that and put it all together. You know, if a horse has a pretty good handle on them when they come to me, I can turn them back over to their owner in 30-60 days and have them have confidence.

Moving on, one thing I always ask all of the competitive shooters we interview is “How do you train?” What does a normal week of training look like? Do you take the horse out everyday, do you focus more on riding and getting that kinship with the horse or do you focus on shooting? How much shooting practice do you actually do? I do very little shooting in my training, but I give a lot of lessons and do a lot of clinics. As I’m demonstrating to my students the foundation techniques and things I need to do to be successful, I get to reinforce my own training. I literally give lessons three or four days a week at the ranch here. I’m on a horse while I’m teaching, I’ve got my rig on so I can demonstrate, say if my students are having difficulty with a gun change, or the proper draw, or some aspect of marksmanship. I can demonstrate that or the horsemanship. So essentially I’m getting a lot of personal training and reinforcement as I’m teaching, and I literally don’t have a lot of time to practice, so I have to take advantage of my teaching time to reinforce my skills. I’m very blessed and fortunate to be making a large part of my living through the sport, unfortunately it does take up a large part of my time and I have to be disciplined about it. If I decide that I’m not going to give a series of lessons, maybe I have two or three students a day, if I decide I’m going to take a day off of teaching and just train, I have to be willing to give up that part of my income. I very rarely do that because quite honestly I enjoy the teaching just as much as I enjoy participating in the sport.

And yet you do have to maintain some level of proficiency as a sponsored shooter as well as to maintain your ranking as a level 5 shooter, correct? I certainly do, and so it is important for me to consistently get to matches, perform well, and earn points in the ,World Points Qualifier. I’m already qualified for the World Championships, but since I’m a professional shooter it looks good to my sponsors. I want to keep them happy and show that I’m still serious about the sport. I don’t have to win all the time but I need to be there and maintain my good reputation, and while I’m there I’m promoting their products and their guns. I have a holster sponsor, Rod Kiblear Saddlery out of Alto Georgia who sponsors my gun rig and my rifle scabbard, I’m also a very successful mounted rifle shooter. Actually I enjoy the mounted rifle shooting as much, maybe even a little bit more than just the basic mounted shooting with the revolvers.

With the rifle, are you still shooting blanks? Yes, we’re firing 5-in-1 type blanks. They’ve got a little bit extra range. In the rifle shooting we still engage five targets with one revolver, but we’re drawing the rifle as we turn barrel and shooting the last five targets at a dead run as we’re coming home. No reins, we’re just steering from our seat and our legs, with both hands on the rifle. It’s really exhilarating. I’ve been doing it for ten years and the hair stands up on my neck just talking to you about it.

It certainly sounds exciting. Let’s talk about Top Shot for a bit here. What would prompt a horseman and a mounted shooter to want to apply to a reality TV show? I mean you’re an entertainer as well, but what exactly was your thinking going into this? I first saw the ad for Top Shot as a banner ad on the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association website for the casting call. I was immediately intrigued by it. I’m a self employed wild west entertainer and mounted shooter and long ago I realized the importance of promotion and publicity. That was a big factor in my decision to apply for the show. I knew that just my appearance on the show would result in increased visibility for the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, for myself, for my sponsors, and not to mention there was the $100,000 on the line. Who couldn’t use $100,000?

But you know, I really wasn’t there for the money. I was really there for this once in a lifetime opportunity to shoot a bunch of weapons using somebody else’s ammo, get on national TV and get some exposure, have a good time and create memories that money can’t buy. And I made some good friends doing it.

We’ve already interviewed Caleb Giddings and that’s one thing that he brought up was that it wasn’t just the shooting and the chance to win the money but it was just an incredible experience and the chance to meet a bunch of other top level shooters. How was it for you walking in to be among the likes of J.J. Racaza and Blake and some of these nationally known top ranked shooters? I wasn’t intimidated I was excited. I’m used to a lot of pressure, I’m used to being the center of attention, I’ve done some media work prior to this and been in a few TV commercials, and I’ve been in the Western Shooting Horse Video Magazine. So the cameras and all that stuff didn’t intimidate me. The guys didn’t intimidate me, but I was just excited to be in the same group house with these guys, I knew I was going to be on the same range with them, shoot guns with them, and I just wanted to see how I’d stack up against them. I was very excited.

With the exception of the last episode with the single action revolvers and the shooting gallery, we’ve seen you kinda hanging in the background so far, which is presumably a good thing since it means that you’ve avoided any elimination challenges and any drama or friction with other team members. How do you feel your affable personality has helped you? You know, I never was much for drama. How many cowboys do you know who are drama fans? {laughs} You know, when I went on the show I decided I was just going to be myself. I’m not going to act, I’m not there to be an actor or to do anything unnatural or anything I wouldn’t normally do. I was just myself.

Here recently there was some drama between Caleb and Adam and it was so unnecessary. It made me uncomfortable. You don’t expect grown men to act like that.

And yet the drama is still an integral part of the game. We do have Colby hosting the show, he was on Survivor, and the personality conflicts and drama there really kind of made up that entire show, so you had to know going in that there would have been some drama. Did you have any tactics or strategies going into it as to how you would handle something should it come up? You know, I figured they would cast a couple of guys for their personalities for their potential for conflict. But no, I had no tactics or plans for how to react to anything like that or any kind of strategies, or any strategies at all for that matter. I didn’t form any alliances. I guess a lot of people are telling me “Hey, you’re flying under the radar,” but I’m just not a big fan of drama or going over the top on things. You know, I got a feeling that they cast the different teams on purpose that way. If you notice now, most of us red team guys, we don’t have a team leader and we don’t think that it’s necessary at this time. I think they kinda’ cast us that way on purpose, red team and blue team. We’re kinda’ the underdog, the red team, because there are fewer of us. I consider myself friends with all of those guys. Obviously I get along with some of the blue guys. I was sad to see Caleb go. He went out very classy and dignified.

Going into the show, did you do any special training? You’re going to get a kick out of my answer. Here it comes. {laughs} I hadn’t shot live ammo in about 10 years before I went on the show. I literally hadn’t shot anything other than a little bit of .22 rimfire just fooling around.

I did find myself time to shoot a recurve bow with a friend and I did some cardio training, to kinda get in shape, and that’s about it. I knew that it might affect my performance to an extent, but so far so good.

Quite frankly, I just didn’t have that much time. I had a lot of obligations to my students and to some mounted shooting competitions. I literally flew into LA the day after I competed in the Atlantic Classic Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association competition. I had obligations, and you know that’s the kinda guy I am. I’m pretty comfortable just backing up the truck to the horse trailer, hooking up and going to a match on the spur of the moment. I enjoy things like that. Maybe it’s the cowboy in me but it’s what I like to do.

Now I didn’t go in there and tell my red team buddies, “By the way guys, I haven’t shot live ammunition in 10 years,”

You just kept that little tidbit underneath your hat? I sure did.

This most recent episode featured single action revolvers. I know you had to have been really looking forward to that challenge. Of course, my sport really revolves around that specific type of weapon. You can see the smile on my face when we walk up to practice. What cowboy isn’t going to be happy to walk up there and see a Colt single action revolver sitting up there?

And yet, you seemed to struggle right out of the gate in the team challenge. What happened? You know, I definitely had a hard time. It was a tough one for us. I really wanted to lead off strong for us.

I guess I gave a little more credit to my mounted shooting experience and thought it would translate to shooting live ammo there in the competition. I was sure that at some point in the competition we were going to shoot cowboy guns of some type, whether it be something like a Colt Peacemaker or a ‘73 Winchester or something. And even though I’ve never shot any live ammo out of my cowboy guns, I thought I had some pretty good basic skills with the other firearms that I have shot live ammo out of. I don’t know, I guess the combination of the pressure of the competition and my lack of experience didn’t help much.

That day seemed very cold and wet. How much did weather play into the performance We spent about 20 minutes jogging around off camera just trying to warm up while they were resetting targets between blue and red. It was really cold. You saw a lot of the competitors shivering and shaking, it was that could.

Do you feel that played into your performance some? Nah, I’m not really going to say it did, no. Once we got going our adrenalin was going, we didn’t really feel the cold so much once we started. I can’t make that excuse.

I’m sure you were disappointed after the red team loss, and it was apparent that many on your team seemed let down. This challenge really played to your strong suit, but you still struggled. I think a lot of them thought I was a cowboy action shooter. I think because of my image a lot of them expected me to perform like a cowboy action shooter. [That episode] obviously showed that I’m not. I’m not a cowboy action shooter. I’d never shot live ammunition out of any cowboy guns prior to Top Shot, and unfortunately that was detrimental to my performance.

The first time I’d ever shot live ammo out of a Single Action Colt Army was when they called the top 50 out to narrow it down to the 16.

How did the recoil compare to the blanks you’re used to? There’s no recoil when we shoot our blanks.

This was markedly different then? Oh yeah. Whole different ballgame. You know, if I’d have been smart I’d have probably tried to get a feel what live ammo felt like out of those cowboy guns.

After the team event you pretty much turned to your team gathered in the kitchen of the house and told them “Hey, I screwed up, send me to the elimination challenge,” but they didn’t do that. Do you feel you should have been sent to the elimination challenge instead of Andre? You seemed to say as much, and yet it was Andre and Kelly that were voted in. Yeah, I was surprised. I’m glad I wasn’t sent to the elimination challenge. But you know, that wasn’t something that was really in my control. Adam and Chris both said that I should have demanded it. Adam played a lot of games and he tried to manipulate me a bit and I tried real hard not to let him.

I tried to stay on a steady even keel and not get caught up in [the drama] and Adam was trying to catch me up in it. My Top Shot watching party goers last night told me I shouldn’t have even acknowledged him. But it’s not like me to just duck out on a question all together. I’ve got to acknowledge him and answer his questions.

I don’t know, I felt bad enough coming right back from the nomination range and when Adam said “Well why didn’t you demand that you go,” I still had a bad taste in my mouth from Adam demanding to go against Caleb in the whole terrible “rat fink” scenario. Honestly, I didn’t even want to acknowledge Adam, but I felt it was the right thing to do and the gentlemanly thing to do.

Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I hope to interview you again after you’ve won the $100,000 prize on Top Shot. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

First, I’d like to give a big “Thank you” to all of my Facebook fans. After the episode last night, I got literally hundreds of emails and messages of encouragement, and that really meant a lot to me.

I would also like to plug a couple of things. I just want to mention a couple of guns I helped design for Taylor’s & Company Firearms. The guns I helped design for them are the Runnin’ Iron. It’s the latest greatest mounted shooting revolver on the market and I’m proud to have helped design that for Taylor’s and Company. These are firearms custom designed from the ground up for cowboy mounted shooting, we’re finding that the cowboy action shooters are liking them for what we call “ground shooting” as well.

The rifle I helped design is called the Runnin’ Comanchero, it’s a companion to the Runnin’ Iron, based on the ‘73 Winchester and customized for the sport of mounted shooting. We shorten the barrel and use a short stroke action job, it’s awesome. It’s just now hit the stores and I’ll be shooting mine for the first time this weekend.

Well we hope you do well. Thanks. And if anyone wants to check out some video and see what mounted shooting is all about I have a really neat point of view video where you can see me running the course with the hat cam. And you can see more information at where I’ve got a bunch more videos and pictures along with a schedule of appearances. My sponsor, Taylor’s and Company, and of course we want to mention the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association.

Thanks so much for your time. No problem, and I hope to speak with you again soon.

Denny Chapman is a professional announcer, equine entertainer, trainer and clinician. Denny has served as clinician and performer for many major fairs and equine events including Equine Affaire in Columbus OH and the Can-Am Equine Emporium in Ontario, Canada. He has entertained at professional sporting events and has also served as the featured performer in the famous Kentucky Horse Park’s “Best of the West” show. Denny has been featured in numerous television and radio commercials, horse and western-lifestyle magazines, promotional videos and various other media productions. He is known for his “singing cowboy,” voice-over and event announcing work and is an experienced equine technical advisor with direct experience in handling more than 40 breeds of horses. He is a sought-after clinician and guest speaker at horse fairs, training clinics and schools around the country. Denny is sponsored by Suncoast Bedding, Straight Arrow Co’s MANE N TAIL products, Impact Gel Saddle Pads, and Taylor’s & Company Firearms. Learn more about Denny

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