This series was originally conceived to focus on potential all time greats of clay target shooting, but deviates from the original concept in only the second instalment. This is because our subject’s rise to pre-eminence in his game has been so meteoric – progressing from tyro to superstar in less than a decade. At the age of 23, if Vincent Hancock never broke another target he would still go down in the record books as an all-time great of Olympic Skeet.
A two-time Olympic and World Champion, he dazzled the crowd at the 2012 London Olympics with a virtuoso performance, shooting 148 ex-150 and setting a new record. Just how far this young man can go in the sport in which he has already been so successful is a matter of conjecture, but let’s take a look at where he’s come from.
Born in Port Charlotte on the Florida coast in 1989, at the age of three the Hancock family moved to Eatonton in rural Georgia. In our first conversation I suggested to him that perhaps he followed a tradition of southern sharp shooters. Certainly there has always been a strong tradition of hunting and marksmanship in his part of the United States, and engendered by countless Hollywood westerns and Civil War dramas, the tobacco chewing, squint eyed Confederate rifleman with deadly aim has become a popular cliché. Vincent Hancock, however, is very much a man of the new South, no good ole boy. Clearly that culture has gone with the wind so far as he is concerned. Instead he was anxious to point out that his fellow marksmen and women in the US Olympic Team come from every part of America, which was something of a disappointment for me.
For all that, Hancock was only five when he fired his first gun and he was 10 years old when he entered his first clay target competition. Starting with Sporting clays, to which he says he owes a great deal of his gun handling skills, he then graduated to Olympic Skeet. As NSSA Skeet is by far the most popular game in the US I was surprised at this, but Hancock embraced the Olympic dream at a very early age. This may possibly be because the 1996 Olympics was staged in Atlanta, the state capital of Georgia and not far from Eatonton.
In the aftermath of the Games, Hancock had his first taste of ISSF Skeet on the ranges built for the Olympics at the age of 12. At that time he was using a Beretta 390 semi-automatic. He scored 84 ex-100 at his first attempt but on the second day of the competition he couldn’t better a 17 ex-25. He was disappointed but determined to rise to this new challenge and travelling back home with his parents, the seed of ambition to become an Olympic Champion had already been sown.
Very soon the Beretta auto had been replaced with an over-and-under, a Beretta 682E, and the young Hancock was preparing to take the Olympic Skeet scene by storm. But at first he wasn’t welcome. “I guess at that time Olympic Skeet was a bit of a closed shop,” Hancock says. A small band of aficionados like many such groups, they don’t necessarily welcome newcomers, particularly if they represent strong competition as Hancock certainly did. What the young Hancock didn’t lack was the support from his mother and father who very quickly recognised they had a very talented youngster on their hands. The huge appreciation Hancock has for their help is implicit in everything he has to say about his early career. “We were not a wealthy family and they made sacrifices for me” he emphasises. Indeed they did, by the age of 13 he was shooting 50,000 cartridges a year and then there were entry fees and travel expenses. By the time he had made the US Team as a junior he had caught the attention of Beretta USA and in December 2003 the company presented Hancock with a new DT10.
Already Hancock was seen as a contender in international competition and just to reinforce his sponsor’s confidence in him he scored 98 ex-100 in his first competition with the new gun. With American participation in Olympic Skeet not much greater than in the UK, together with the huge distances shooters have to travel USA Shooting, the sports governing body make no attempt to replicate the 125 + 25 format for their selection shoots. Instead there are two 250-bird competitions each year, in the spring and the autumn. There is also no upper or lower age limit based on making the team and it’s a first past the post selection procedure. Incredibly, in 2005 aged 16, Hancock won his place in the US Team as a senior.
A World Cup in Changwon, South Korea was one of the first opportunities to win a quota place in the four year cycle up to the next Olympic Games in Beijing. “Going into that shoot I had no expectations,” says Hancock, “I felt I had everything to win and nothing to lose”. He won in spectacular fashion with 124 + 25, not only winning the gold medal but also the Olympic quota place.
After his victory in Korea, Hancock had a run of successes perhaps unrivalled in the history of Olympic shooting. In Italy for a World Cup in Rome, he won silver with 148 ex-150. In May that year, at the World Championships in Lonato, Hancock again became the youngest winner of the event in its history with 148 ex-150, pushing Ennio Falco, gold medallist at the Atlanta Olympics, into second place. Travelling to Belgrade in July for another World Cup, he collected a second silver medal, shooting 148 ex-150. At yet another World Cup in Brazil in August he took gold with 149, and at the World Cup Final in Dubai another 148 earned him his third silver medal of the season.
In spite of this success, Hancock’s year culminated with a setback, placed fourth in the last selection shoot the Americans adherence to the first past the post selection procedure precluded him from competing in the US Team for the following year. “I could have competed as a junior,” he says, “but I felt that would have been a step backwards and so I joined the Army.”
In fact, Hancock had been invited to join the elite US Army Marksman’s Unit based at Fort Benning, Georgia, that trains the finest riflemen and small arms specialists in America’s armed forces. At the same time it also provides facilities for a small group of people who have the potential to represent the USA in the Olympic shooting disciplines, rifle, pistol and shotgun. Never numbering more than about 25 shooters, while their prime duties are mainly to train, they are nevertheless still considered to be serving soldiers.
It seems there is no particular regime at Fort Benning – after all the people they select are very often proven champions. “We are treated as individuals and can choose our own training methods,” Hancock says, “the army provides us with the time and money to shoot and unless we need it we don’t receive any special coaching. In my case that is provided by my dad and I still travel home at weekends when I feel the need to”. 2006 was a fallow year for Hancock, he trained hard but only competed in one World Cup shoot in Kerrville, Texas. He scored 120 + 25, made the final and was placed fifth.
The following year Hancock was back on the international circuit and at a World Cup in Lonato he set a new world record with 150 ex-150. At the World Championships in Cyprus he took the bronze medal with 123 + 25 and rounded off the season winning the Pan-American Games with 122 + 25. In spite of all this achievement the Americans’ were still sticking with the first past the post procedure for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Though Hancock had won the quota place two years previously he needed to be in number one or two spot to go to the Games, which meant he had to perform well at the autumn selection shoot in 2007 and the spring competition in 2008. He won the autumn event convincingly but in the spring shoot he started poorly, scoring only 91 in the first 100 of the 250 target competition. Over the next 150 targets he missed only two and clinched his place in the Olympic Team in the final with another 25 straight.
Next month in the second part of the Vincent Hancock story, he attains Olympic glory only to despair of ever achieving more until his triumphant return to form at the 2012 London Games.