By: Joanne M. Haas/Wis. DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
A former U.S. Olympic track runner/national rifle team coach-turned-warden found an old junk jug in Superior and declared it the traveling trophy for what he envisioned as a friendly, yet competitive, warden contest between Minnesota and Wisconsin officers.
That was 50 years ago when Basil Irwin, the late Minnesota warden, had the brainstorm - and went on to hold the first pistol shoot match between the wardens of his state and neighboring Wisconsin.
Retired Wis. DNR Warden Jim Palmer was there. Warden Ryan Volenberg of Columbia County was not because he wasn't born yet. Yet, the two share a passion for this chapter of warden history that has evolved into a lively tradition focused on efficient, effective law enforcement.
Volenberg, who has competed at the shoot five years, says the ability to connect with officers from other states is the real payoff of this annual event. This is why he is on a mission to fix the situation that too many Wisconsin conservation wardens have no idea what the Basil Irwin Shoot is or what it represents.
So, Volenberg turned to Palmer for a history lesson.
Aim, fire: The Jug Shoot starts
Palmer was a rookie warden stationed in Superior when he met Irwin in the 1960s when he was stationed in Sandstone, Minn. That's where Irwin spent most of his warden year.
As the story goes, Irwin spent his formative years in the small community of Warman, Minn. That's where his father had a hardware store and Basil had a lot of hunting opportunities which helped him sharpen his shooting skills. He also became quite a cross-country runner.
As Palmer recalls, Irwin was a wiry guy with a gray crew cut. He drove a red Mustang and flew his own Piper plane. He started as a Minnesota game warden in June 1928, left briefly to serve in county government, and returned to his warden duties in 1945 and served until his death in 1970.
Palmer says Irwin was something of a national legend for his athletic skills and competitive nature. Irwin was such a good runner that he was a member of the 1924 Olympic team and also coached shooters who went on to win state and national titles.
Palmer said the first pistol shoot in 1967 had humble beginnings with five wardens from Minnesota and five Palmer recruited to represent Wisconsin. Back then, there was no authorization or support from either state agency.
"We bought that jug from a junk shop in Superior and it became the team match trophy," Palmer said. "Over the years, the event grew in popularity and became more formal but was known as The Jug Shoot."
Palmer transferred to Madison in 1969 and Irwin died the following year. "The team captains from the states immediately renamed the match in Basil's honor," he said. The new name became the Annual Basil Irwin Memorial Pistol Match.
As the years wore on, state budgets and administrations changed, too. And so did the annual shoot's participation and purpose.
Irwin Pistol Match more than a shoot - and more than a day
Volenberg says the event grew to include Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it grew from a competitive shoot to a training opportunity - and a time for the wardens from the states to share.
"It has a time for wardens to share what is going on in their states - and wardens can learn and from each other to keep improving service, or to try new things - or to know not to repeat the same mistakes," Volenberg said. "That's the first day - the roundtable discussion."
The second half of the first day is consumed with practice sessions at the three courses.
Volenberg says there are three parts of the competition which totals 120 rounds. One is a 30-round bull's eye target. Second is a 60-round course that involves moving and shooting from cover and involves reloads and shooting at targets from 3 to 50 yards. The third course is a 30-round tactical course of steel knock-down courses and shooting from movement.
"And, of course, all of it is timed," he said. "Your highest score is 1200 if you are perfect. But, who is?"
Day two is the shoot and awards ceremony with photos.
A hand on history with a life-saving purpose
This year's shoot was hosted by Wisconsin on August 16-17 at the Southwest Technical College in Fennimore.
Volenberg says this year was special in that a Minnesota warden brought the actual active duty pistol used by Basil Irwin.
"Everyone was able to fire one round from it and then sign the history book," Volenberg said.
Talk about a hand on history!
Wisconsin took the bronze. Minnesota won as it has the last 15 years, while Iowa took silver. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took fourth.
Volenberg was joined by these DNR wardens at this year's shoot: Dan Michels, Wade Romberg, Bob Jumbeck, Chris Shea, David Allen and Kyle Dilley.
The event has grown to include a retired warden division that attracts eight to 15 each year. At this year's shoot, DNR Retired Wardens Byron Goetsch and Dale 'Swede' Erlandson participated.
"Historically, the annual shoot has significance of getting wardens together across the state lines," Volenberg said. "Wisconsin wardens on the Mississippi River work closely with wardens from Minnesota and Iowa and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But some wardens who work in the state, far from the borders, have never met their counterparts."
Volenberg calls it a way to create real teamwork and accomplish professional development. "In fact, I just got an email from the training officer in another state asking for our policy on an issue. This is a valuable relationship that allows the law enforcement agencies to learn and to help each other - which in turn helps the public we serve."
And, the shoot itself is training.
Preparing for the shoot is about improving your tactical skills. Volenberg has competed in five annual shoots. Participation among Wisconsin wardens has fluctuated and recalls more interest when wardens could practice the course before the actual event.
"It's a very cool piece of history and includes the training to improve our skills with handguns," he said. "It is a difficult thought but how proficient you are with your tactical skills can determine if you go home that day or have six wardens carry your casket into your funeral."
Volenberg feels so strongly about the match's value that he has taken to spreading the word on the among the warden service. He's looking for any warden who wants a piece of the living history while improving shooting skills and learning from their counterparts in other states.
"It's a blast," Volenberg said. "Regardless of how you shoot, or if you shoot to your level or not - the value of getting together with the wardens from the other states is so valuable."