We recently sat down with legendary pistol shooting competitor and first runner-up on season two of Top Shot Brian Zins to get a little insight on his experiences on the show and in the shooting community. We got the inside track on his new line of ammunition and some great tips on shooting red dot with the .45
CTD: What made you pick up shooting to begin with?
BZ: Actually, it kind of found me, well, competitive shooting found me. I joined the Marine Corps in 1988 and I was one of the few expert shooters out of my boot camp class; and when I went to MP school, I was the top gun out of my MP school with the .45
CTD: Did you only qualify with the .45?
BZ: I actually qualified with the 1911 first, and then at the end of the school, the Berettas were coming into play, so I had to go back and qualify with the Berettas afterwards.
CTD: Wow, so they made you redo it?
BZ: Actually it was kind of nice. Most people only got to shoot one gun while they were in MP school. We got there and we had already graduated, and they were like “look we’re going to keep you guys for another week, we want to get you out and get you qualified on the Beretta before you take off.”
CTD: Very cool.
BZ: Yea after I got to my first duty station, like 17 of us all checked in at one time, they were kind of overwhelmed, they told us to go to the rifle range and do your qualifications, while we figure out where we are going to put you guys. I went out to the rifle range for a week and my coach said, “Hey I like the way you shoot, you seem very natural. I said thanks, but I just learned in boot camp seven months ago. He asked me if I could shoot a pistol, I said, “honestly I think I shoot a pistol a little bit better.” He said, “Alright, I want you to shoot our division match with us in February.” I said, “Okay, whatever a division match is” because I hadn’t even been in the Marine Corps for a year yet. I went and shot a division match and didn’t place my first division match. I later became the marksmanship instructor for the battalion and the following year I went back and took a bronze medal. I then went to the Marine Corps championships and took a silver medal. Later I was picked up on the Marine Corps shooting team for the summer program. They liked what they saw, and the next thing I knew I had orders back to Quantico. I spent the next four years in Quantico doing nothing but shooting for the Marine Corps shooting team.
CTD: Wow, that is a very impressive resume, for sure! What you feel makes you a great shooter? You mentioned earlier that you are kind of a natural at it, do you think it is just in the blood?
BZ: I think a lot of it just had to do with hand eye coordination. I grew up playing baseball as a pitcher and a third baseman; I also learned how to juggle at a very young age. I think that had a lot to do with it, the hand eye coordination when shooting is a lot more critical than it is with a rifle. The ability to hold a handgun out with one hand, and shoot a three inch tin ring at fifty yards, all while not jerking the trigger while you do it, I mean, there is definitely some learned skill. I am however naturally, not very shaky, So I guess I am a little blessed.
CTD: Tell us a little bit about your experiences in the Marine Corps, did the lessons you learned there affect your shooting today?
BZ: Absolutely, I had the fortunate advantage of being trained by some of the finest coaches out there. When it comes to marksmanship, gentlemen like Andy Moody, who was the NCOIC of the team back then. He is really the guy I credit with teaching me everything I know about shooting a pistol. I was young, he had been around shooting for a while, and he kind of used me as a test base for a lot of his theories. We have actually changed the way people shoot a little bit. I shoot red dots, and the old school of thought was to look at the dot just as you look at your front sight, well not anymore. You should look at the target, it is a one point aiming system so the theory there is to look at the target, but your dot in the middle of what you are shooting at, and squeeze the trigger without screwing it up.
CTD: It is amazing how many things can go wrong with just that little squeeze of the trigger.
BZ: And that is the other thing, we are getting people to understand a little bit better, the importance of trigger control. You are not supposed to just align the sight and squeeze the trigger, you are supposed to align the sight as you are squeezing the trigger. If you align the sights and then squeeze the trigger, the sights are going to move. So you need to put that pressure on the trigger before the sights are perfectly aligned, or you are going to screw it up, I don’t care who you are.
CTD: Even a natural would have to practice that quite a bit I would imagine.
BZ: The only way you could align the sights and put pressure on the trigger afterwards, without the sights moving, would be to put the gun in a vice.
CTD: Let us take a step back real quick if you don’t mind. What prompted you to join the Marine Corps?
BZ: I had actually started going to college after high school, and studied law enforcement, and I was making great grades. I had the feeling though that I needed to move, I needed to go, and my parents had done enough for me so I told them that I didn’t want them to be burdened with paying for my college education.
CTD: So it was mainly to take the weight off your parents’ shoulders in paying for school.
BZ: Yes, I wanted to take the burden off them but also, I come from a long line of military in my family. When we came to the country, the earliest known ancestor in my family in the United States was a Hessian mercenary here fighting against us.
BZ: Yea, he actually was captured at the Battle of Ticonderoga in New York, and after the war he was released and he became a pig farmer or something in Ohio.
CTD: What a cool story! Do you find yourself missing the military, now that you are retired?
BZ: There are definitely aspects that you do miss after you 20 years. I would not say I miss the military as much as missing the Marine Corps. There is a kinship and a brotherhood in the Marine Corps that I don’t think the other services quite understand. You miss the marines. I would say that it is not about missing the Marine Corps as much as it is missing marines.
CTD: Well that is a good way to put it.
BZ: When I got out of the Marine Corps I went to work for a civilian organization for about 18 months. The Sense of urgency and work ethic in the civilian world, I mean, It is so different.
CTD: So you are very much from the “Lets get it done now” school of thought.
BZ: Exactly, it’s like with my ammo business, when we put in an order for brass, I usually expect it to be there when you said it was going to be.
CTD: Now that we are on the subject of your ammo, let’s talk about that for a minute. How did it get started?
BZ: Well my gunsmith-slash-doctor, said he wanted to start making ammunition. He told me he wanted to go into business with me, and it would be my line of ammunition. He said he would help with the funding, and getting everything up and running. He has the shop and the space to do it. So we have all our stuff, all our components, and we are making ammo. Right now, we are only doing match grade .45, 185 grain jacketed hollow point. We have a custom blend of gunpowder as well.
CTD: Do you see yourself branching out into other calibers later?
BZ: Yes, we have one machine right now, and we are looking at building some more. Ultimately, our goal is ten machines. We plan to produce all handgun caliber ammo. We do not plan to get into the rifle ammunition right now however. I can shoot a rifle, but I would rather shoot a handgun. That is my forte, and it’s what I am known for. We went with .45 caliber because that is the biggest round in the bull’s eye shooting world. After nationals, we are looking at changing things up a little bit. We are going to start producing 9mm and .40 calibers.
CTD: Very cool…
BZ: Yea we are trying to get some ammo into the action world, because some of those guys have contacted me already, and it is hard to find good, reasonably priced ammo for shooting action. Bull’s eye shooters can hand load each round, but when you look at the amount of ammo that it takes to train and shoot a match with action pistols.
CTD: There is no way you can load that many rounds.
BZ: Right right, you would have to give up one of a couple things; you could work, eat, load, shoot, and give up sleep, or something else would have to give.
CTD: Right, there really aren’t enough hours in the day. Tell us a little bit about your experiences on Top Shot. Did you have a good time?
BZ: You know what, Top Shot was great, I had a really good time, met a lot of great people, and made a lot of good friends that I still keep in touch with. Got to run into them at the annual NRA meeting, and it was nice to see them again. As far as the Top Shot goes, it was fun. It was different thought, sort of like being in a sequestered jury, no contact with the outside world.
CTD: That must have been somewhat disconcerting, but being a Marine it was probably like being deployed again.
BZ: Yea it was funny, you could tell the Marines in the house, and we were just like whatever. It was a lot of hurry up and wait.
CTD: Going in, did you think you were going to get as far as you did?
BZ: I would like to say when I left to be on the show I knew I would make the final four, unless It got to the point where the others players decided that hey, this guy is really good, we have got to get rid of him. We got together anyway and decided that we did not want to send a good shooter home because they are a threat. We wanted the better shooters to make it to the end, and that’s how we played the game. We honestly think the best two shooters in the house should make it to the final challenge.
CTD: Other than the finale, what would you consider to be the toughest challenge on the show?
BZ: Not including the 45/70 shot, you know where you lay down and shoot 200 yards with an antique. Poor Athena, she got thrown in front of the bus, you know. She weighs less than that gun does. She has to go up and take the first shot, she was of no use to us to be able to gauge for impact. She isn’t really a rifle shooter, let alone a big civil war era rifle.
CTD: Was it neat to be able to shoot so many different kinds of weapons?
BZ: Yes, that was one of the coolest aspects, not just to be able to shoot all the different types of weapons, but the different challenges themselves. The producers and the think tanks that come up with these contests have to be slightly demented!
CTD: They would have to be! All the things they put you guys through are crazy.
BZ: Exactly, like that unstable platform shoot.
CTD: That looks so hard, I can’t imagine doing that.
BZ: Yea that FN FAL was the first gun I shot out there—that stupid thing; that was a nightmare. I was doing so good in that challenge up to that point.
CTD: How did you prepare yourself for the show?
BZ: That’s the funny thing I didn’t really prepare, I didn’t do much of anything. The only thing I did do was go out, buy some throwing knives, and practice with them a bit.
CTD: As a former pitcher and juggler I imagine you got up to speed pretty quickly since they are so similar.
BZ: They are; but a bladed weapon is different than throwing anything else. To throw an axe or a tomahawk is so different than throwing a baseball or a football or whatever. The whole arm and body motion is completely different. I think throwing the knives in the back yard was probably the best thing I could have done. The last thing I did at home before I left, was to shoot tomatoes off the fence posts with the .45, and during the first challenge, we ended up shooting billiard balls off fence posts.
CTD: Guess you did your homework there! Were you prepared for the social aspects of the show? Living in close quarters can be uncomfortable.
BZ: Nah, being in the Marine Corps, and doing anti-piracy stuff on ships, close quarters and seeing the same people day in and day out isn’t really a problem for me. When you are out to sea for six or seven days, it was just like being in the house, you see the same casting people, producers and camera people day in and day out.
CTD: What was your favorite challenge?
BZ: I think my favorite challenge, because of the challenging nature of it, was probably throwing the tomahawk. That was something we didn’t get a whole lot of practice on. There were about seven of us and we had an hour to practice with five tomahawks. We had to cycle in and out at different yard lines and do this and that. We were all learning since none of us really knew what we were doing.
CTD: Was it daunting to compete against a line up of such good competitors?
BZ: No, not really; in the bull’s eye world, where I compete, I’ve been in world cup competitions in Germany and Croatia just to name a few. The most daunting part was, not knowing what their abilities were. I knew they were all there for a reason, but it was difficult not knowing what these people were really bringing to the table.
CTD: If you could do it all over again, would you do it?
BZ: I would have to say yes. It was so much fun when I got back. My friends and family would get together for watch parties. I had so many family members that I got to see. Every Tuesday was like a family reunion on both sides of the family.
CTD: I have to ask, did you leave them in suspense the whole time?
BZ: Oh I did, oh yea. The funniest person to watch was my mother, she was like, “You don’t have to tell anybody else, just tell me.” I said I can’t tell you because everyone else is watching your reaction. If you’re calm they are going to know either he’s going home or he’s safe.