Shooting for the Top
Capitol Police Officer Among Country’s Best Competitive Shooters
Phil Strader knows that many people may think of him as a “gun zealot, who is paranoid and preparing for a fight.”
But this predetermined notion surrounding anything in relation to guns is something the U.S. Capitol Police officer is used to.
As a firearms instructor for the U.S. Capitol Police, owner of a gun store complete with a gun range and Web site, and a regular participant at shooting competitions, Strader’s exposure to guns may seem shocking.
But Strader’s involvement in competitive shooting has enabled him to combine his hobby with his career — something that benefits not only him, but also his students.
“Would you want basketball advice from your local high school coach, or Michael Jordan?” Strader asked.
Strader was close to becoming the best of the best in the competitive shooting world last September when he maintained a 1-point lead throughout the entire 16 stages of fire in the Practical Shooting Association Limited Nationals. A TV crew even taped his “victory interview” before the championship was over.
But wildly changing weather conditions, and maybe even the stress of three days of shooting and 16 stages of fire, got the best of him.
Strader’s good fortune changed with a miss in the last stage, which led to a follow-up interview of a different kind with the TV crew.
“I shot against the best there is. Dammit, I was so close to being the best there is,” Strader said, with palpable bitterness in his voice. “Maybe stress got to me, I don’t know.”
Even without a national title to his name, Strader’s record is impressive. Since he began competing in shooting championships around 1998, Strader holds the highest finish of any police officer at the Limited National Championship, and is the only person to win high law enforcement honors at five national championships in a row.
Although the sport is applicable to many job-related circumstances, only around 7 percent to 10 percent of participants in major practical shooting matches are law enforcement officers, according to the U.S. Practical Shooting Association. The National Rifle Association created police pistol combat competitions in 1960, which is what most police officers chose to compete in.
After two years of service on the 3-11 p.m. shift on the House Division, Strader was detailed to firearms division. His talent and involvement in competitive shooting eventually landed him a full-time gig teaching new recruits and experienced officers the best shooting techniques there are.
“I definitely found my niche,” Strader said of his work. “They knew about my competitions and how involved I was, they wanted to bring me on for help.”
Strader, it seems, has always had a knack for shooting.
Upon shooting his first shot as a rookie police officer at the Danville, Va., police department, he often went to the local gun range to practice.
“It was easy to me,” Strader said. “It’s not a hard thing to do,” he said with a couple of up-and-down motions of his index finger.
Next to the competition itself, Strader’s involvement in the sport has had other impacts on his life.
“It helps with tactic and becoming a more confident shooter,” said the National Rifle Association-certified instructor. “[The matches] are supposed to be something realistic.”
Strader said the competitions could potentially prepare him for such events as the 1998 shootings of Capitol Police officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson.
“I know I’m more prepared to deal with situations like what happened a few years ago in the Capitol,” Strader said, who added that the simulated stress of the competitions is comparable to many real-life situations police officers face.
“This [gun] is the last resort. I don’t want to use it, but if I have to, I can.”
And it is this fundamental message that Strader hopes to pass on to his students.
“They think there isn’t that much risk [for a Capitol Hill shooting] because it hasn’t happened in many years,” Strader said. “But it can happen.”
One of Strader’s colleagues also believes that practical shooting has a good real-life feel to it.
“It adds a serious pressure element, and that translates to teaching shooting from a more stressful angle,” he said. “Students want to have confidence in an instructor and know that the instructor is not just blowing smoke.”
Strader’s goal to prep Capitol Police officers for potential gunfire has not been futile. Strader estimates that around 15 percent to 20 percent of the new recruits he trains try competitive shooting. Whether they stick with it “is a whole other story,” the expecting father said.