Peter Palma: Devil Dog and Top Shot Competitor

Peter Palma was easily one of the biggest characters on Top Shot. Between his quirky personality, his colorful clip on ties, and his outrageous clothes, he certainly stood out among the other competitors. But when it came to shooting, Peter let his talent do the talking.

We managed to sneak in an interview with Peter who was training at the US Marine Corps Base Quantico just before he was sitting down to eat. It’s pretty dangerous to get between a Marine and his next meal, but we took the risk and briefly talked to Peter about his background with firearms and his experience on Top Shot. Here’s what he had to say.

Let’s talk about how you first got introduced to firearms. Actually, I was always interested in firearms but I never had anybody who would support me in that. My father didn’t like guns. The first gun I actually shot was when my buddy’s dad took me hunting when I was 12, and I only shot one round. I still have the shell casing, it was a 20 gauge shotgun.

Then I didn’t really fire any firearms until I turned 18 and I bought my first Ruger 10/22. That was the first rifle I ever bought, and the first real gun I’d ever shot more than one round. So, I learned [to shoot] that way, kinda figured it out my own way.

You’d just go out to the range and shoot a little bit and found that you had a knack for shooting rifles? Yeah, I had BB guns and stuff as a kid, but never any real firearms. I’d always hit generally what I was aiming at with the rifle, but I never had any formal training. Nobody ever really taught me anything. I just aimed and worked it out myself. It wasn’t until I started buying a lot of guns and some people would try and help me. I had friends here and there, some of which were police or law enforcement, and they would give me a little bit [of help] here and there.

It wasn’t until I joined the Marines that I really honed my skills. I was actually taught professionally how to shoot. I was already a pretty good shot, and then they showed me the fundamentals, and from there the rest is history.

You still had those fundamentals going into the Marines, you had some time behind the trigger already. Yes, I joined the Marines when I was 24 years old, so by that point I’d already owned firearms for about six years on my own.

You were a bit older than most when you joined the Marines. How did that work out for you? We call it an existential crises. Most people would join the Marines when they’re young and impressionable, or when they’re older and something happens: they get dumped by a girl, or whatever it is and they run to the recruiter to change their life and shoot for the stars. Make something out of themselves. Most of the time it doesn’t workout like that, they suddenly realize “Oh my God, what have I done…” That’s kind of how I felt.

There is obviously a lot of stuff people don’t like about the military, like having to run around and get up super early with people yelling at you. But you also get to shoot all kinds of firearms, some of which I didn’t even know existed until I joined the Marines. So, that’s the plus side. I also met the best people I’ve ever met. Some of my best friends ever are Marines. You don’t really make those connections with normal people. You only make those connections with people you’ve served with. It balances out.

What was your motivation to join the Marines? Did you join just so you could play with the big guns? I kinda always wanted to join the Marines, to shoot all the guns and do all the stuff that Marines do and be hard core. That’s really why you join the Marines. You always have stuff going on though. You think about the fact that it’s 6 years and I’ll be 30 now when I’m getting out. I signed a 6 year contract and, when you’re 24, 6 years seems like a million years but it goes by lightning fast. Sometimes.

I joined to shoot guns and get formal training, and to serve my country. They offered my $10,000 to go motor transport or be a combat correspondent, and I turned it down. I wanted to be a machine gunner. I turned down ten grand just to do that. I wanted to be infantry, I wanted to shoot guns. If there were no guns there, I wouldn’t have joined.

How difficult was it as a Marine for you to get the time off to go be on Top Shot? I’m a reservist, so I only have to go one weekend a month and two weeks a year. Unless they activate you. I signed up for one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but they activated me for two years. The first tour of Iraq was a year, and then I went to sniper school for three months. Then I did a second tour which was a whole ‘nother year. I just had to miss two weekends and my command approved.

Even though I’m down here [for my two weeks a year] right now, they still let me sneak off and find a cable television and watch [the episodes] with some of my guys.

What was your motivation to go apply to Top Shot? Somebody sent me a casting call, and the casting call said that they are looking for people with big personalities that have mind blowing shooting skills and who want to win $100,000. Obviously I wanted to win $100,000. I shoot really well, I mean I’m a Marine sniper and machine gunner, and I’m a firearms enthusiast as well so I have a bunch of my own firearms that I enjoy shooting because I’m good at it. If I was bad at it I’d probably like something else. I also have a pretty big personality, I’m a roller derby mascot and I dress a little crazy. I’m quite and individual, I like to go against the grain.

…roller derby mascot? Yes. I kinda fell into that. I wear many hats. I kinda like getting in a little trouble in the Marines every now and then, because I do some crazy stuff. Nothing too big, just something where most people are shaking their head at me and smiling.

I don’t know if you watched my audition tape, but there are a couple of times where I’m doing some crazy stuff in Iraq like throwing grenades to fish and spraying silly string on some kids, ran around in my underwear, you know. I got screamed at for all this stuff, but they just scream at you. It’s not like I’m out doing drugs or getting in fights or anything like that where you’d get in real trouble. I just did some stuff where you’d get yelled at.

Top Shot must have just been another way for you to go out, be crazy, and have some fun then, right? Yeah, I mean they wanted big personalities. It doesn’t get too much bigger than mine. Then there was the chance to shoot all kinds of guns, that seemed awesome, and who doesn’t want to be on television?

Tell me about your plan leading up to the show. Obviously you knew you were going to be firing a bunch of different weapons, but you didn’t know quite what the show was going to be like. Did you do any practice or additional training to try to familiarize yourself with strange or unusual weaponry? The only thing they said in the casting call that they would be doing was the Annie Oakley shot, which seemed pretty easy as long as you’ve got good sight alignment. I went in my bathroom and I tried doing that, but other than that I had no idea what was going to happen so I didn’t practice throwing knives, I didn’t use a slingshot.

I do have a bow, but it’s a compound bow and I did shoot that a little bit, but not at 100 yards. We were shooting a bow without sights and it’s not that strong like a compound bow is. I didn’t practice for anything really, other than what I already knew. I’ve shot pistols here and there. It’s not my forte but I can do it. Then my obviously rifle skills are up there as a sniper.

I didn’t really practice that much because it was impossible to know what there was [on the show]. I did go to the range here and there, I went skeet shooting once just because I’d never done it before. I assumed something like that would be on there, but that was the extent of my practice. I just shot skeet and took by bow out once.

A lot of [the show] was about adapting, which you learn as a Marine, and getting crappier stuff. One of the things on the show is that you’ll see a lot of the competition guys are used to getting top notch, expensive, tricked out equipment, but when you hand them a hundred year old rifle they would hate everything about the rifle. To me if they hand me a gun, that’s the gun they issue me and I can’t do anything about it. I can’t do a trigger job or mess with the gun. I just have to deal with what they give me and make the best of it. I think that helped me there; my being able to roll with the punches.

While Brad and some of the other contestants were complaining about how some of the firearms were less than ideal, you were just going with it? Yeah, you just pick up a gun and that’s the way it is. I own a lot of the firearms you saw, or at least ones very similar to them. I’d shot the M16 before. It’s like an extension of my own body, I’m very at home with that rifle. The Beretta 92 we shoot in the Marines. I have a Peacemaker of my own. I have Mosin Nagants and I’ve shot M14s, so a lot of the modern guns on the show I’d fired already. I didn’t have to familiarize myself with them. I was already used to them. Having my own collection really helped me out there.

In the Marines, you have your own rifle, but sometimes you have to roll with the punches. For example I have an M16 with an M203 [grenade launcher] on it and I go to shoot at the rifle range, obviously I’m not going to be able to take the M16 with the M203, I’ll have to borrow one from the armory or use my buddy’s rifle. Even in sniper schools if your rifle has a problem on the range you can’t just stop for the day. The world doesn’t stop, it keeps rolling. You may have never shot your spotter’s rifle before, but you’re going to be shooting it now. And it’s for score. You just have to roll with it. I think these experiences really helped me.

How did your other teammates complaints about the equipment you used on the show affect your perception of them? You didn’t catch a lot of it on camera, but nearly everybody had the same complaints. It kind of put me off. If it weren’t for Blake and J.J., I would be totally put off by the other competitors because all they were doing was whining. They had to even more so prove themselves to me.

You’ll see that Brad turned around. He stopped whining and he really started putting out as far as performance goes. He’s one of my better friends now. He met me in Louisiana and we hung out with Blake and had a great time. There were no hard feelings there, but he definitely had to prove himself to everybody. He had some thick skin and he did show that he is a competitor.

Did you go into the show with any strategies for how to deal with the drama aspects of the show? We saw a number of competitors literally talk themselves into elimination challenges and eventually off the show. What was your plan for dealing with this? When I went into the show I learned something: The less you say, the better. Unless it was pressing, I would just keep my mouth shut and see how everything played out. Some people would actually say “I’m going to vote for you,” but I just tried to sit there. I wasn’t really comfortable with that.

You’ll see Frank say in one episode “I’m going to vote for you, Bill,” but he ended up voting for Brad and Bill voted for Frank as a way to get back at him. Frank actually sent himself to that elimination challenge by saying who he was going to vote for. I learned very quick after that not to say anything.

When we got there we could see who the teams were. I don’t know if they stacked them against us, but J.J. and Blake were huge competitors for the Blue Team. As I started talking to people, I could see that the Blue Team really had some skill there. The Red Team sat down the first time to discuss who was good at what so that we could kinda plan out the game. I noticed I was one of the more well rounded people on my team. I knew it was going to be a battle and that we would get hosed a lot.

As things were going on however, I ended up consistently coming out on top, so I didn’t need to worry about the drama so much. I knew no one was going to vote for me. Most of the time I did better than them. Sometimes they did better than me; Kelly for example was really good. I never voted for him and he never voted for me.

I talked to Kelly later and he kinda shot himself in the foot because he wanted people to underestimate him. He’s actually won some pistol competitions and archery competitions before, but he never mentioned that to any of us. People thought that we was just a one trick pony, and I think that’s one reason why they kept voting for him. I noticed, especially in that first pistol challenge, that he did very well with it. He shot even better than Brad who was supposed to be our pistol guy. I was left wondering, and even said “What else does this guy have up his sleeve?” I think if he had at least spoke about his skill a bit more he wouldn’t have been voted into so many elimination challenges.

I guess my thing was that if you shoot well enough, you don’t need to play the game as much. They’re not going to put you into an elimination challenge because you’re strong for the team, and because it could be them who has to go up against you in the elimination. Nobody wants to piss off a guy who can shoot better than they can. If you perform well, that’s less drama that you have to worry about.

You say that, and I’ve talked to Brad about this as well, but we’ve seen some challenges where it seemed that some team members like Denny didn’t really rise to the occasion while other performances like Kelly’s really outshone others. Every one seemed genuinely shocked that Denny didn’t get sent to those elimination challenges, even to the point that the Blue Team commented on the situation. What was your logic in not voting for Denny? Denny did very well in all of the challenges going up to that one point. Watching the show with the editing it makes it seem like he did far worse than he really did. He did really bad, don’t get me wrong, but they focused on how bad he did. Which is true, but while every one was talking about how Kelly did so great, he did equally as bad. He only went up once, but I watched him drop 5 rounds and miss, and hit nothing.

The reason I didn’t vote for Denny was that was the first time he had really faltered in a challenge. I thought he was much more well rounded. Three team members really ate it in that challenge: Denny, Kelly, and Andre. I don’t know why the rest of my team voted for Kelly. I voted for Andre, but Denny and everyone else voted for Kelly.

I can’t speak for the rest of my team, but it also baffles me why they voted for Kelly in the trick shot challenge. I don’t understand that. He kept performing, so I never thought to vote for Kelly, even though he was my biggest threat. On my team, I was the most afraid of Kelly. Any given day, and he agrees, he could beat me in long distance rifle shooting or I could beat him. It just depends on the day, a flip of the coin. We both think we’re equally skilled in that. I think if Kelly had played himself up a little bit more, he wouldn’t have been picked for elimination as often, but that’s my only guess. I have no idea why they ever voted for Kelly.

One thing I’ve noticed, having talked to many of the participants of the show, is how many strong friendships were formed by everyone on the show… Absolutely. Blake and I got along so well, after this annual training I’m trying to find my way down there, find some employment and a place to live. I’m trying to move to Louisiana. I had such a great time with him, we hit it off so well on the show, Blake was by far my favorite, and J.J. was right up there.

It was very similar to what you find in the Marines, except that you’re in a mansion and you get free food. You have nothing to do. There were no books to read. We were not allowed to have books, radio, no electronics, no television, no telephones, no computer, nothing. So you’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. In the Marines you may be sitting on the tarmac waiting with a bunch of your guys for two days, waiting for an airplane to come. We all shared a common interest and there’s nothing else to do except talk to the guy next to you, or stare into space.

Obviously then you’re going to start up conversations. We’re all characters, in the casting process, it’s a science how they choose us. Add in that we all shared a common interest in firearms, we all like to shoot. It’s the perfect recipe for forming long lasting friendships. It’s the same thing in the Marine Corps. You’re going to meet people that you will know forever. Plus, when the show comes out, you cannot confide in anybody else because of the non-disclosure agreement. It’s also a shared experience. I called J.J. up to talk to him about something on the show, but I can’t talk to anyone else about that. It’s the same thing in the Marines.

One thing everyone has been dying to know: what is up with the clip-on tie and your crazy outfits at the end of the show? The tie is just something you can use on a normal shirt, it’s something you can do that’s so little and it just sets off the outfit. You can be wearing just regular clothes and you throw on a clip on tie and “BAM!” and it goes from being just a shirt somebody has on to something crazy.

I just like to dress funny. I’m not going to lie, I like attention. I like to mix things up a little bit. I like to stand out and do whatever it takes. How do I say this without sounding a little crazy… I don’t like dressing like a normal person. I like to have a bit of pizazz. People will go out and want to dress up nice, but if I go out and I’m not dressed in something a bit crazy I feel the same as people who can’t go out without makeup. That’s kinda how I feel. If I’m dressed like a normal person, I can’t go out and have a good time.

Some people might say you’ve just been in uniform in the Marines too long… I think that’s part of it. When you’re in uniform, you have to look like everybody else, and I’m just dying inside to show myself as an individual. There’s no place for that in the Marines, but I’ve always been like that, even as a small child.

Talk to me about the end. We saw the teams dissolve and the competition came down to individual challenges… I never thought I’d make it that far, so the fact that I made it that far, I didn’t mind getting eliminated. Especially with the gun and those guys. I’m pretty proud that I was able to stand with some of the best shooters I’d ever seen and last so long.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about yourself and your experience on Top Shot. Awesome. Thank you so much, I’m gonna go eat some chow now.

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Comments (5)

  1. Pete isn’t the best, but I still got a kick out of reading this, even if I’ve heard it a million times, already. God damn it, Cuz, you know you could have got boozed up and talked to me about all this. J.J. is just a ship passing in the night…

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