Four Generations of Competitive Shooters: Q&A With Rebecca Etchen Peters

Rebecca Etchen Peters is a competitive shotgunner and bird hunter whose family legacy is marksmanship. The daughter of Pennsylvania custom … Continued

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Rebecca Etchen Peters is a competitive shotgunner and bird hunter whose family legacy is marksmanship. The daughter of Pennsylvania custom gun dealer Joel Etchen, she represents the fourth generation of sharpshooting Etchens to emerge as a major contender in registered competition, and the third in her family to look beyond the barrel at a career related to shooting and hunting. In a Q+A with assistant editor Kristyn Brady, Rebecca shares some lessons from her grandfather, a world-class shot, her love of dove hunting, and what it was like to deal with the unique pressure of competing as a youth in a sport where everyone knows your name.

First, a bit of history on her family. Rebecca’s maiden name holds a lot of weight in the shotgunning world. The family’s history of hunting goes back even further than Joel Etchen. Rebecca’s great-great-grandfather, John Etchen, was a market hunter who sold birds to local restaurants and hotel kitchens in Kansas in the late 1800s. He trained his six sons in the same vocation, and one of them, Fred, branched out into competitive shooting. He went on to captain the U.S. Olympic shooting team in the 1924 Paris summer games, and to help clinch the gold medal in the team clay pigeons event. Fred also invented a style of pistolgrip for a shotgun still known as the Etchen grip.

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Fred’s only child, Rudy, was a world champion shot known for shooting double-trap with a pump gun. He won the 16 yard Championship in every category–from sub-junior to senior veteran–at the Grand American of trapshooting between 1937 and 2001, when he passed away. Rebecca was able to shoot in one competition with him in 1999. Both Fred and Rudy Etchen were inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame.

Rebecca’s father, Joel, is Rudy’s youngest son. He has excelled in business–Joel Etchen Guns in Ligonier, Pa., has become the largest Beretta target gun dealer in the country–and in competition, all while helping to raise Rebecca and her brother Alex. In 1992, on the same day he took the Class AA title at the Grand American, he and Rudy won the Father-Son Championship with a record score of 399 out of 400.

Rebecca’s whole family traveled with Joel to competitions every summer, and reunited annually with Rudy, who lived in Arizona when Rebecca was in high school, at the Grand American. Rebecca, now 31, learned to shoot from her father and grandfather at a young age before entering her first registered shoot around age 14. After shooting competitively until her college graduation, Rebecca married, moved to Seattle, and began a career related to the shooting sports, working for Beretta and then Eddie Bauer. This month, Rebecca and her husband Adam will relocate from Seattle back to the Pittsburgh area, where she will work with her father and looks forward to getting back into competitive shooting.

Here, she and I talk trap, the first time she shot 100 straight, and the most meaningful guns in the family safe:

KB: Who taught you to shoot and by what method?
REP: I got lessons and advice from both my father and my grandfather. I don’t remember how old I was when I started firing a BB gun, but I worked up to shooting soda cans with a .22, and periodically my dad would have me hold a shotgun to see if I was strong enough to handle the recoil. In my lessons, they both emphasized fundamentals, keeping my head down, and lots of practice.

Now, it has become so instinctual…I just remember knowing, not learning. It was funny trying to help my husband learn how to shoot later in life. I really had to think about it.

Photos from top to bottom:
1. Rebecca, courtesy of Eddie Bauer/Motofish.
2. A young Rudy Etchen with his Father, Fred.

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KB: Once you started competing in American trap, how often did you practice? Was there any point in your childhood when it became a chore?
REP: I’m a type-A personality, so I’ve always been a practice person, even as a kid. But I didn’t compete year round and I think that was important. I was serious about school, and I swam or played lacrosse during the school year. I shot much more in the summer, when it was warm and I had the time off to practice and travel. I’d say we spent a total of 30 days on the road in the summer, and that doesn’t even include practice. But I never really got burned out. I always enjoyed doing a lot of activities.

KB: What was the reaction at school, from friends and teachers, when you started competing?
REP: Most of my friends and acquaintances found it interesting and had questions about it. Growing up in Pennsylvania, a lot of my classmates were more familiar with deer hunting than clay target shooting.

KB: Did you feel any difference being a young girl in competition, where I assume there were mostly boys and men?
REP: A bit, at first. But then I got into a shooting group that I would spend a lot of my summer with, and there was a mix of girls and boys around my age. That helped a lot, and made it even more fun.

KB: What was your first shotgun? Do you still have it?
REP: My first shotgun was a 28-gauge Remington Model 870 pump, which was small so I wouldn’t be turned off by the kick. My dad still has it. It’s actually the same model that my grandfather used in competition, the one that became his signature.

KB: What shotgun did you shoot with in competition? Are there any guns of particular significance to the family?
REP: I competed with different models over the years: For trap, I liked the 687 Silver Pigeon Trap that Beretta builds for my father, and for skeet I used a Beretta 391 semi-auto, which I also really love.

My father is known for selling a custom Beretta 687 Silver Pigeon II with a 20-gauge/28-gauge combo, which is a great all-around gun because you can shoot either barrel on the same frame. It is pretty significant to the family because of his success with it–and it’s my next gun purchase! The Remington 870 pump is significant to the family because of the connection to my grandfather.

KB: What did your family teach you about competition and dealing with pressure? And what was it like having them watch you compete when you were young?
REP: Just having a gene pool of amazing shooters come before me was enough pressure, and I was intimidated at first. I remember when it hit me that strangers knew my grandfather’s name, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really a big part of my history.’

My first registered shoot didn’t go so well. My grandfather pulled me aside and told me that when he was 14, he dropped all his shells in competition. He was always supportive like that, and it did make me feel better. It helped me to get over those initial nerves.

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KB: Are there any other family stories you could share with us?
REP: Like I said before, I’ve always been a type-A person, and I was so nervous at some of my first competitions that I insisted on being an hour and a half early for my event–way before they announced that my squad should be on the ready. Even on a 90-degree day, I didn’t want to be late. My father still laughs about that.

I never got to meet my great-grandfather, but we have his gold medal and Olympic vase–I’m sure that would be a great story to hear firsthand.

Photos from top to bottom:
1. Rebecca, courtesy of Eddie Bauer/Motofish.
2. Rudy with his parent, Ethel and Fred.

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KB: How did you feel when you saw Kim Rhode’s record-setting performance in this summer’s Olympics?
REP: I was so happy to see that. It is wonderful for the sport and for women in the sport. Her performance was amazing. She had been a presence in the industry for a long time when I started competing, and I think she’s a great role model.

KB: What was it like to compete in a registered shoot with your grandfather, Rudy, before he died? What was the best advice he ever gave you about competitive shooting?
REP: At that age, I don’t think I could see that it was meaningful until it had already passed. It means a lot to me now. He was always my first phone call after I shot my best in competition.

My grandfather always advised me to keep my head down and focus on just one target at a time. My dad says that’s what made my grandfather successful in competition: He had the talent and the ability to shut all the distractions out.

KB: Do you do anything differently if your father or brother is shooting in the same event? Do you get competitive with each other?
REP: No, in fact, I always think that if I miss, I’ll be distracting them, or they’ll be focusing on why I’m missing instead of their own score. We shoot and hunt birds together whenever we can, so we can read each other. But your performance matters most when you are registered, because your score is tracked and recorded, so the stakes are higher. I just try to think that I’m shooting by myself.

The first time that I shot 100 straight was my brother’s first registered shoot, and I think he was more excited about my score than I was. You’d think that we’d get competitive, but I just remember he had this enormous grin on his face.

KB: What kind of hunting do you like most?
REP: Dove hunting, hands down. I love that they’re fast! Plus, dove season is a great time of year to be outside, and I have so many fond memories of dove hunting with friends or family.

KB: I heard that you bagged your first trophy elk in Utah this year. Tell us about that.
REP: It was right after you and I hunted together, actually. I didn’t really know how to pack for back to back trips–a cast-and-blast in Idaho that led right into an elk hunt–so I planned on using some of the same gear. But when I opened my bags in Utah, the smell of smoke from the wildfires was all of a sudden so apparent, it was clear I wouldn’t be fooling the elk. I had to wash everything at a Laundromat. It was really funny, and not something I could have planned for.

After that, the biggest challenge was working with a rifle rather than a shotgun. I don’t even own a rifle, so I borrowed one from my friend and guide, JB, and dry-fired it the first night in camp. I had to work to squeeze the trigger, not slap it, and just be slow and deliberate. JB had me fire at a homemade target, and after one shot I guess I did well enough that he said I was done practicing. Two days later I took down my first elk, a nice 6×5.

KB: How much have you been able to shoot since taking a hiatus from competition?
REP: After college, I lived in Washington, D.C., and helped to run a women’s shooting league, so I still shot a good deal, even though I wasn’t competing. But since we’ve lived in Seattle I haven’t done much, and I’ve missed it. Every family get-together back east still involves bird hunting or sporting clays. When we move back to Pittsburgh I’m looking forward to immersing myself in gun culture and getting back to the range so I can compete again.

KB: __If kids are in your future, how important is it to you that your son or daughter learns to shoot, hunt, and spend time outdoors?
REP: I’m fortunate that my husband is open to hunting and shooting, and that he has come to love it as much as I do, so it will be really important to us to get our kids outside. I’d like to introduce them to shooting the same way that I was.

KB: Do you feel fortunate to have something in common with so many generations of your family?
REP: Absolutely. Different things become the top priority over the years, but shooting and bird hunting will always be important to my family. There are so many kids who don’t have anyone to teach them to shoot, so I feel very lucky that I was introduced to it through family. Not only do I like to shoot and hunt, but the sports influenced my career path because I got to see my family be successful in the business of doing something they love to do.

Photo above: Joel and Rudy.