Q&A with Elizabeth Gustafson, air pistol champion

Q: What drew you to the art of air pistol?
A: It was my mom who took us to learn how to shoot. My grandfather taught her how to shoot, and she decided we should learn how. So, we went down to the range and joined the junior program, and I just kept going. I went to the Alberta Winter games and kept going. It just kept snowballing from there.

What exactly does air pistol entail?
Our air pistols run on compressed air, so we have what looks like bicycle pumps where we fill up our cylinders. They’re highly engineered with most of them coming from Germany, but there are also some Italian ones. The pistols have a 500-gram trigger, which I mention because air rifle has no weights on their triggers, so they’re as light as they can be. Then, we have a line, and we stand about 10 meters away from our targets. We used to use paper targets, but now they’re all electronic.

Things have changed a bit this year. Women are now shooting 60 shots in 75 minutes – up from 40 in 55 minutes. They say “Go” and you just shoot until you’re finished. So, some people finish early, some people are like “10 seconds left, I can do this!” There’s usually a line full of us. At Nationals, between the men and the women, there are about 47.

Why do women compete separately from men?
I don’t entirely know, but what we hear is men and women both used to shoot 40 shots and then around the 1980s, the Italian men got really upset because women were beating them regularly. So, they increased the men to 60 shots so that we had a different measurement. Now with gender equality, we’ve made some changes for the next Olympics. We’ve taken out some events and added in the mixed-team events to try and get the same number. We still don’t have the same events overall, but we both compete in air pistol at the same number of shots. However, men have rapid air pistol and women have 25-meter pistol.

So, what’s the difference between 25 meter and rapid air pistol?
The 25-meter that women shoot is a 60 shot match and it’s divided into two portions – 30 shots we do 5 shots in 5 minutes for precision; for the second half, it’s another 30 shots where you have 7 seconds that you have to be at a 30-degree angle with 3 seconds to shoot your shot, then you have to be down to a 45-degree angle for the next 7 seconds and you repeat that for 5 shots at a time until you’re done your 30 shots. And that’s what we do for finals now, too. With scoring in finals, it has to be a score of 10.2 or above, or it doesn’t count.

The target has round rings and it goes for air pistol 1 to 10x, which is the tiny little dot in the middle of the target. As long as you touch or cross a line, you get the score above it. So, the closer you get to the middle, the higher your score. If you get them all in the middle, you get a perfect score, which I don’t think has happened in air pistol. When we go into Air Pistol Finals, we score with the decimals.

With the men’s rapid pistol, they shoot at 25 meters as well, but it’s very different. They have 5 targets set up in a row and then they have a set amount of time to shoot those targets. So, their first amount of time is 8 seconds, and they come up and shoot non-stop. Then, they do it in 6 seconds and then 4 seconds. And they do that until they get 60 shots.

Do you ever compete with live pistols?
Yes, I shoot with those too. I was third at Nationals, and my team came in first in the 25-meter live pistol. It’s a completely different event and it’s a lot of fun. It has more action, and it’s one of the two pistol events that women can do in the Olympics. It is quite a bit different from air pistol because with live pistol you need a proper range with a proper backstop, whereas air pistol doesn’t have those concerns. In most areas of the world, the live fire events seem to be doing just fine, but in some other countries it’s a bit of a concern. You need a different kind of range, which makes it harder for it to be put on in a major event.

Which competitions have you competed in and how have you placed?
I compete in the 10-meter air pistol, the 25-meter live pistol (22 caliber). Now they’ve added mixed teams, and I did that one at Nationals as well, which is called the Canadian National Pistol Championships. That is where I just got back from at the Pan Am Legacy Range in Cookstown, Ontario where I won Gold. That was my first National championship. I came third in the same event in 2016 – I didn’t compete last year because I had an injury. This was the first time I’ve place Gold, although within my class I’ve won first place several times.

How long have you been competing and how do you fund your trips?
I probably started shooting in the fall of 1995. So, I’ve been going to Nationals for a long time now. Especially because they’ve been held in Alberta for a lot of years, so it was easy for me as a junior to go. The trip to Ontario is expensive, especially if you don’t expect to do well. It’s still expensive even if you do well, but at least you have something to show for it. There’s essentially no funding, so it’s all out of pocket. However, I have occasionally received some funding from the Pursuit of Excellence fund from Grande Prairie.

What and where is the next competition you’ll compete in?
The competition will be the 52nd International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Championships in Changwon, Korea in September of this year.

Where do you hope that leads you?
What you always hope for in the world championships is a minimum qualifying score (MQS) and that allows you to compete at the Olympics, but they also have what’s called a quota spot that you need to be able to compete in the Olympics. So, the MQS gives you a pool of athletes who are eligible and then you have a certain number of spots you must win – that kind of system exists for all sports that I know of. You have to qualify to win a spot to compete in your own nation to go. So, even if I won a quota spot at the championships, then later on I would still have to compete for the ability to use it because it belongs to the nation. So, just because you won the spot doesn’t mean you get to use it. Though, frankly, the way we have been in Canada lately, the ladies who have won a spot have been able to use it. Our Ladies Pistol Program is very strong. So, obviously, I am really hoping to qualify and make it to the Olympics.