Cheaper Than Dirt! Interviews 2010 Top Shot Winner Iain Harrison

Top Shot Competitor Iain Harrison

He’s been shooting firearms since the early age of 10 and competed with pistols since the age of 18. He served as an officer in the British Army before moving to the United States. He placed second in the Trooper class at the 2009 MGM Iron Man 3-Gun competition, although you probably know him best from his appearance on the History Channel’s 2010 reality TV show “Top Shot.”

Following his incredible win, we gave Iain Harrison a call to talk about his background with firearms, his immigration to the United States, as well as his experience on Top Shot.

Top Shot Competitor Iain Harrison
Iain Harrison

Congratulations on your win. Have you made any decision as to what you will do with the $100,000? Pay the taxes on it. {laughs}

Ah, yes there is that. Uncle Sam always gets his share. Let’s start by talking about your background. You grew up in the United Kingdom? That’s correct. I moved here to the United States about 12 years ago.

Firearms are heavily restricted in the United Kingdom. Did you have any exposure to firearms prior to joining the military? I started out shooting around age 10 when, like so many other people, someone hands you a .22 caliber rifle and you go “Hey! This is fantastic!” Then I got a shotgun around age 14 and air rifles and that sort of thing. I got pistols when I was legally able at 18 and then started shooting a bunch of IPSC.

Tell us a bit about that, at 18 you were still in the United Kingdom? Yeah.

At that time you were still legally able to own a pistol back then? That’s correct.

Were your parents involved in the shooting sports? No, not at all. It was something I did entirely on my own.

Explain for those of us who grew up in the United States and are unfamiliar with the restrictions placed on firearms in the United Kingdom. What’s the process you had to go through to get a shotgun or a pistol back then? At the time, obviously I’ve been out of the loop for a while so I can’t comment on the current situation, what you had to do was fill out a bunch of forms.

Top Shot Competitor Iain HarrisonThe police would then come and interview you and inspect your security arrangements. You had to had have a safe bolted to the wall. Then you would specify exactly what firearm category that you wanted, you could have one .357 revolver or one .45 ACP handgun, and how much ammunition you could get for it as well. It’s fairly restrictive in that case.

In order to get anything like what we call a Section 1 firearm, which is a centerfire, you needed to prove good cause, which generally entailed having property on which to shoot it or, if you weren’t one of the landed gentry, being a member of a firearms club.

Did you join a firearms club to get a pistol? I did.

Was that when you started shooting IPSC? Yeah.

And this must have been before you joined the military then. It was.

What prompted you to get started with IPSC? Firearm ownership and consequently the shooting sports aren’t very common in the United Kingdom. How did you first find out about action pistol shooting? Let’s see… I’d been shooting clay sports for a while. Then I just decided I wanted to take the next step and do something a bit more difficult. Not that I’m knocking anybody who shoots clay sports, but I think that pistols are much more difficult to master. I figured it was something with a very short sight radius and something that you couldn’t brace against your body and that it would be the next step up.

So, I did that, decided I was going to shoot handguns-category” target=”_blank”>handguns and then figured that the new sport of IPSC coming along seemed to have a lot of challenging variety to it. I thought that if I was going to shoot pistols that was what I wanted to do.

Let’s move on to your military experience. I was an infantry officer commissioned in 1990. I spent about 8 years serving in that capacity. I started out as Armored Infantry and then did a spell as dismounted Close Recon. Next, I did a bunch of other jobs like Second in Command of the Company and Operations.

Now, you’ve got a background in the shooting sports and you’ve served in the British military. Why make the decision to immigrate to the U.S.? I was getting toward the end of the time I wanted to spend in the Army. I wanted to leave for good reasons, you see so many people who are staying on for their pension and become bitter and twisted and disenchanted with the whole situation.

I didn’t want to do that, and I didn’t want to be flying a desk either. That was kind of the stage of my career that I was in.

Then the British government decided that the 20,000 of us who actually shot pistols in the country legally were good targets to prove how tough they were on crime. That was kind of the kicker for me.

You actually decided to immigrate based off of the government’s decision to ban handgun ownership? It was one of the reasons. It was certainly a factor.

Did you move straight away to Oregon? No, I moved to New York, and actually didn’t shoot pistols until I moved to Oregon two years ago.

That was quite a lapse in your participation in the shooting sports. Yeah, I shot sporting clays for a bit in New York and started getting into practical rifle competitions toward the end of my stay there. The biggest kicker for me to get back into the shooting sports competitively was moving to Oregon.

What shooting sports are you involved in? You mentioned practical rifle, are you shooting 3-gun or Multigun? Yup. Sure am. Pretty much anything with a trigger, I’ll pull it.

Iain Harrison in Archery CompetitionWe definitely saw that by your performance on Top Shot, you really had the ability to pick up just about anything and do well with it. Moving on to talk about the show, they put out an open casting call near the beginning of this year. How did you find out about the show and why did you apply? My wife kinda steered me towards it really. I didn’t take the whole thing very seriously at all. I sent in my application kinda tongue in cheek. I got a call the next day. they wanted to see me on video, so I sent in a video and I think I put my casting video together when I was horrendously hung over. I’d been celebrating the day before after moving a client into their house.

I think pretty much every thing you shouldn’t do to get on the show, I did.

Were you shocked that they wanted to have you on the show? I was a little surprised, given the caliber, pun intended, of the people I saw at the casting in LA. There were 50 people down there and I wasn’t even a blip on anybody’s radar. There were some really big names in the shooting community down there, I’m sure you got that information from the other guys you’ve spoken to so far.

Yes, we’ve talked to a lot of them. I know J.J. Racaza and Blake Miguez were somewhat intimidating factors for everybody. When you showed up what were your thoughts when you found yourself surrounded by so many big names? My thoughts were “Great! Let’s go the bar, let’s swap war stories.”

One thing everyone I’ve spoken to about the show mentions is how many good strong friendships were formed. I think part of it was that everyone going into the show was conscious of the fact that this was a first. I don’t know whether it was subconscious or overt, but I think that everybody really wanted to show the shooting sports in a positive light and show that we’re not a bunch of crimson naped rednecks. We’re passionate about what we do, and it takes a lot of discipline to do what we do.

We just wanted to dispel some stereotypes. With that group mentality you kinda define yourself as this small clique of guys who are passionate about what we do and are surrounded by people who don’t know what we do. It really was a sort of “getting to know you” experience, both from our standpoint with what goes on in any reality TV show, and then [from the view of the media] “OK, these bunch of shooters, are they just potential mass murderers?”

Did the producers make a conscious effort to portray the shooting sports in a positive light? Yes, I think they did. I think that once they found out that we are who we are, I think they did an absolutely stellar job of casting the first series. From the reality TV standpoint you have to get conflicting personalities in there, but it wasn’t overboard when you compare it to some of the other reality TV shows.

I think they did. Then, when they saw that we really did know what we were talking about, they gave us a bit more free reign.

We did eventually see some of those personalities clash with Kelly and then later with Blake and Adam. Did you have a plan going into the show for how you would handle the social aspect of the show? Yeah, I did. I went into it with a little demon sitting on my shoulder saying “How is this going to play out on national TV to your friends?” Everything that I did, I had that little fellow on my shoulder.

It’s a 42 minute spot that they have to fill and they have about 300 hours of footage going into it. With 42 minutes and 16 people, you’re not going to get very much character development there. Your character is defined fairly early on, and that’s what you’ve got to stick with. If you give them the material to define you as somebody you don’t necessarily want to be defined as, it doesn’t matter.

That’s how you’re going to be seen.

By the same token, if you don’t say it, they can’t show it. You’re kinda looking at peoples’ character through a magnifying glass. That prism that they use to show peoples’ character is very very intense. You know, if you meet any of these guys for a working day, where you’re only spending 8 hours with them rather than 24 hours with them, then everybody comes off as a stellar guy and someone you want to go have a beer with.

If you spend 24/7 for 33 days you’re going to pick up on people’s character traits that you might otherwise overlook.

Again, it’s interesting to note that despite the overexposure you had to each other, there were still deep long lasting friendships formed. Absolutely. Pretty much all of the cast is in daily communication with each other. We’re actually planning a reunion right now.

We didn’t see you get voted into any elimination challenges. Would you say that was because of your success navigating the social aspect of the competition? No, because Blue Team kept winning. When we did lose, such as with Adam and Caleb, the pair was self selecting to a great extent. Then, the only other time was when I shot against Jim.

Was there any point where you kinda relaxed and forgot the cameras were there? To some extent. The biggest thing for me to get adjusted to was that there was a camera and sound crew there recording your every move. You’re mic’d 24/7, so that even if you’re off camera and you’re not being followed by the guys with the big cameras on their shoulders, you’re still on surveillance camera and everything you say is recorded. When the guys with the big cameras fade into the background you can let things slip that you might otherwise not.

Concerning the actual competitions, a few of the competitors commented on the quality of the equipment that was provided. You know, it was a learning experience for everybody. It was our first time out, and I think that some mistakes were made regarding the quality of the equipment I think. having said that, shooting iron sighted rifles with 4-8 pound triggers on them really puts people outside of their comfort zone if they’re used to shooting an AR-15 with an ACOG, side mounted red dot and 1.5-pound trigger.

It really concentrates the mind and gets you back to the fundamentals of marksmanship, getting those sights aligned and making the trigger squeeze. In that aspect, shooting guns that weren’t race prepared was a real leveler.

Peter mentioned how his background in the military gave him the ability to adapt to whatever equipment was issued, no matter the quality or how familiar it was. Did you experience the same thing? Yeah, it did. Also, because I’m a cheap bastard.

I’ve got a few ARs, I don’t have a Beretta. I’ve got an HK variant, but I don’t have an HK-93. Come to think of it, I don’t own really anything that we shot.

Coming down to the individual eliminations when we saw the teams go away, did that change catch anybody by surprise? It was shocking that it happened so late. We were thinking “OK, we’ve got a week left on the schedule, when’s it going to happen?” When it came down to the final 8, well it would have been final 8 were it not for Tara having to leave, we were like “OK, let’s do it. This is what we’re here for.”

Iain Harrison as a Top Shot 2010 CompetitorGoing into the initial competition, the pistol shot on the burning fuse. What was your strategy for that challenge? I was up first and I though that I would want to shoot as long a fuse as I could to set the bar high for anybody else following me and make sure that somebody crashes and burns behind me.

That was the wrong strategy because the fuse burned a lot faster than I anticipated. So I was playing catchup during the first round.

Later we saw a different strategy emerge in the second round as J.J. and other shooters tried to shoot a tight group at nearly the base of the fuse in an attempt to sever the burning cord. Yeah, J.J. and I both did that. That was definitely the safe way to play it and in the end it worked out to our advantage.

Kelly had the dubious distinction of going first in the next challenge, the hill climb. After seeing his performance, how did you adapt your plan for conquering the course? I think any of the guys who had been shooting 3-Gun or IPSC decided it was time to go balls to the wall and just load one single load in each firearm on the platform. The targets were fairly large, and the fact that Kelly managed to shoot the first target with a pistol with no problems, so I thought “Well, screw it. Let’s just single load and try to smoke the time on it.”

I think it came down to confidence in your abilities. It had the potential of going south, that strategy. A miss and then a reload is going to completely blow your time. I think having the confidence to do it was key to it.

How important was that confidence, that mindset, when you know you have to hit each shot the first time with just one shot or you’re going to be sent home? I approached from the standpoint of “I know I can do this.” If you know you can do it then you’re only shooting your own match, you don’t worry about any body else’s performance. You just go out and do the best you can. I think if you start looking around and looking over your shoulder people are going to catch up with you. It puts too much mental pressure on you and you just crash and burn.

Next of course you had the dueling pistol trees where you went heads up against your rivals. Yeah, and what fun that was. I mean, J.J. put on a stellar performance. It was just an exhibition match for him.

Were you relieved not to have to go up against J.J.? I was, but if I had gone up against J.J. and lost, I would have gone up against Pete for the elimination, and I knew I could beat Pete with a pistol. Ultimately I don’t think the outcome of that one would have changed much.

Moving on we got to see a new style of challenge where each competitor got to choose a shot, kind of like the basketball game of Horse. Why did you choose to shoot shot glasses at 50 feet? I chose that shot because during the trick shooting episode I got to see everybody shoot a DA revolver. I was quite surprised by the fact that I was able to pick up a DA revolver and shoot it pretty well. You know, I hadn’t shot a revolver since leaving the UK.

It was a really really nice Smith, I would say it came in around 12 pounds, double-action, but really really smooth and before it tripped you could feel it stage. I used to shoot a fair amount of revolver in the UK, so I guess that muscle memory just carried over. That allowed me to see everyone else’s groups as to what they could shoot comfortably with that revolver. I figured if I pick a DA revolver shot and Chris makes it that means that Chris comes into the final with me and I don’t have to shoot against J.J. Racaza.

How shocked were you when J.J. missed his own 50 -yard pistol shot? I was, was really surprised to see him because that was a single action trigger on that Scofield and I knew he had sight dope at that 50-yard distance.

And yet, everyone seemed to hit high on that shot. Even your shot hit the very top of the glass. Yeah it was definitely in the top third. I don’t know what happened. When we shot that gun previously at that distance the round was dropping like a rock. Maybe it was just a sight alignment thing, maybe I just didn’t get it right, but nobody else did either.

At the final elimination, you had to have an inkling that you might actually walk away with the $100,000 grand prize. Actually, walking into the last challenge, winning it really wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.

I know that sounds stupid, but we got to the end of this whole bizarre process and I’m walking up to the final challenge with Chris who is an absolutely stellar stand up guy—real salt of the earth. I knew if I went out I couldn’t have lost to a better guy. Once you’ve got that kind of mindset, the pressure’s off. We just went out there to show them what we could do and we put on a good show for the 2.6 million people who ended up watching it and had a good time.

There were certain things you could strategize going into it as to how you make up a couple of tenths of a second here or there, like reloading that Winchester 73. I hadn’t done that as part of any of the other challenges, but just figured I’d get it as close to the source of the ammunition as I could get and then slam the gun against the box of ammo.

I think the win was pretty much incidental at that time. We walked into that challenge and saw all the guys sitting on the benches, it was a kind of mini-reunion. Then we just got to show off what we could do.

Well, you did well in that final challenge and took home the $100,000 dollars. I’m curious though, what else did you take away from the experience? The biggest thing I took away from the show was the friendships we established. I held a viewing party here locally for most of the episodes. For the finale we packed out the bar with a bunch of local shooters and friends and I talked to Caleb who had moved down to Seattle and he came down for the finale party. That sneaky bastard set it up so that Tara flew in 2,000 miles from Chicago.

You don’t see that from any other reality TV show. It gets back to the personalities of shooters. It was a great bunch of guys going into the show and I don’t think you’ll see that from any other TV situation.

How has being on the show changed your life? Obviously you’ve got a little less worries financially, but others have made significant changes to their life after the show: Caleb has moved to Seattle, Peter is considering a move to Louisiana near Blake Miguez, and Denny has appeared in some television commercials. What has changed for you? I don’t think it’s changed me a whole lot. You know, it’s not a great time to be in the construction industry right now, and we’ll just leave it at that.

The only thing that’s really changed for me you know is I was standing in the airport yesterday morning at 4:30, standing in line, and somebody recognized me. They kind of nudged each other and said “Hey, there’s that Top Shot guy” and that has been the biggest change for me so far.

What do you think the success of the show holds for the future? Both the History Channel and Pilgrim deserve a lot of Kudos for having the balls to do this, a reality TV show with live ammunition. Now that the franchise has been proven, I think it’s got legs. We’re going into another season now and I think if we continue to build on the success of it it’s nothing but good for the shooting sports.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and congratulations once again on your win. Thanks, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you too.

Iain lives in Oregon with his wife where he works as a construction manager. He continues to participate in practical rifle and 3-gun competitions as both a shooter and a range officer.

Are you a Top Shot fan? How has there being a show, about shooting, with live ammunition, changed things for you? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (3)

  1. Having seen all three seasons season one was the best due to the caliber of the personalities involved, they were a great bunch of people and Iain Harrison rocked!

  2. Top Shot was a great show with great competitors that represented a more unbiased view of the shooting crowd. Congrats to Iain for winning and being the first Top Shot!

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