The Distinguished Expert award is part of the NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program — the NRA calls it a “nationally recognized skill level and pinnacle of the program.” Morgan earned the honor at the beginning of March.
Becoming a Distinguished Expert involves some very precise shooting.
The targets are made up of 10 individual circles, with points awards in decreasing numerical order the farther from the center the shot hits. The lowest is three.
To become a Distinguished Expert, “you have to shoot [at least a] 19, so one of them [can] be a nine and one of them [can] be a 10, every time, for like 20 shots in a row,” said Morgan.
“For a lot of targets,” Janet Erickson, Morgan’s mom, chimed in.
“On a lot of targets,” Morgan said, almost in unison with his mom.
Morgan showed a picture of an Olympic target he’d shot, putting all 10 of his shots within the 10-point circles for 100 points.
“That’s a straight-up perfect target; you can’t get better than that,” said Janet.
The competition is shot with iron sights and no optics are used.
In order to achieve the Distinguished Expert level, one cannot shoot anything below a nine.
The achievement is the top of a progression that the NRA says is “designed to take shooters from beginning skill levels, (Pro-Marksman and Marksman) through intermediate levels (Marksman 1st Class, Sharpshooter and Expert) up to ... Distinguished Expert.”
“By the time a shooter completes the Distinguished Expert rating in rifle, pistol and shotgun,” the NRA website says, “he/she has attained a proficiency level paralleling that of a competitively classified Sharpshooter.”
Morgan’s journey to the Distinguished Expert skill level began 10 years ago, when he was 8 and shot what are called light targets in 4-H.
“It’s a lower class. You don’t have all the fancy equipment, you basically just have a rifle and you shoot,” Morgan said. “But this year, I decided to bump it up to precision and got a really fancy rifle and a whole bunch of gear to go with it — and ... the precision class is what they shoot at the Olympics pretty much.”
Of the gear, Morgan said his clothes are “all made out of canvas and is really, really tough, to hold you into place, so you don’t like move around.”
“It’s all designed to stay really tight and my pants, if you take them off, they are so stiff that ... they will stand up by themselves,” he said.
In his 10 years of competitive shooting, Morgan has won 13 state titles in various 4-H light target shooting events — such as air rifle, muzzleloader, archery, shotgun and pistol.
Last year was his first time competing in archery, and he broke the state record.
“He’s a very, very, very natural ... shooter,” said Janet, with a hint of pride about her son’s accomplishments.
In 4-H, shooters don’t need to qualify to compete at nationals; they can just go and compete.
Janet said that’s part of the reason Morgan got into NRA shooting, because there’s progression within the program where a shooter has to qualify to compete at a national level.
This coming year, Morgan, will compete in 4-H precision shooting for the first time. Morgan’s goal of competing in the next Summer Olympics played a part in that decision.
“I would really like to go to Tokyo in 2020,” said Morgan. “Whether that will happen or not, I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful.”
There are different routes that a shooter can take to get to the Olympic tryouts.
One route is to compete in USA shooting and progress to the national USA shooting competition.
Another route is through the Junior Olympics, where one has to shoot well enough at the state competition to advance to national tournament. From there, the top shooters get invited to go to the Olympic tryouts.
“Now you can [also] go to one of these NRA matches and shoot high enough, you’ll get invited,” said Janet of a third option to get to the tryouts.
Morgan has been working with a new NRA coach, Ralph Saunders. Janet said Saunders “shot in the military, shot for MSU Bozeman when they had a team and was a coach, has coached numerous athletes to the Olympics.”
In the nearer future, Morgan intends to shoot at the collegiate level, with hopes of eventually shooting for the University of Tennessee.
But he may start at Northwest College, then transfer, as he’s taken classes at NWC for the last two years. He’s on track to graduate in only three semesters.
Morgan wants to major in criminal justice. Though he’s not really sure what route to take in the field, he’s had an interest in forensics.
That’s part of why he started looking at the University of Tennessee at Martin, which has an entire forensics program. Earlier this year, the Ericksons took a trip to the university.
“I really liked the area,” Morgan said “It’s a small town kind of like Powell.”
Toward his 2020 Olympic goal, he’s also taking little steps each day — such as practicing his shooting for at least six hours a week. Morgan practices with an Olympic quality rifle that was a gift from his grandparents.
Morgan thanked his coaches for his achievements for their support toward his ultimate goal; that includes his parents — Brad and Janet, who have coached him in 4-H shooting — Saunders, and Starla Craig, also a 4-H coach.