Interview: Top Shot Competitor Gary Quesenberry

Gary Quesenberry is an agent for the Department of Homeland Security, a US Army veteran, and a competitor on season 3 of the History Channel’s Top Shot.

AARON SPULER: Firstly, I need to thank you for serving in the US Army.


AS: Let’s get started on your shooting background. Did you get started in the military or earlier on in life?

GQ: I can remember shooting guns before I could even hold one up myself. My dad used to take me out (he used to hunt with a .308) and he would hold it up to his shoulder and let me pull the trigger and shoot at like milk jugs full of water, and stuff like that. Just to get me used to pulling the trigger, and feeling the recoil, and the shock of the weapon going off. He got me a .22 and I started shooting on my own. He taught me everything I know. And the Army just polished the fundamental skills that my dad put in to me.

AS: When you’re shooting when you’re little, you don’t have any bad misconceptions yet. It’s just a fun thing to do at the time.

GQ: Right. And one thing too is I think a lot of people are just uneducated, maybe, about guns and the way they work and what they’re really for. When you start off with them in a place like I grew up when you’re that young it takes all the mystery out of them. They’re a tool. That’s just what they are.

AS: Exactly right. I couldn’t have said it better. So, can you tell me about the Triple Nickel?

GQ: I started working at the training academy for the Department of Homeland Security in 2007, and there was an instructor there who had put together this course of fire. He’s a former Delta Force Sergeant Major, real high speed pistol shooter. He put together the course of fire he called it the ‘Triple Nickel.’ It’s five targets (the FBI-QIT targets), five yards, and you have five seconds. So at the sound of the timer or the targets turning, depending on how your range is set up, you have to draw a production duty pistol that shoots a duty round (none of those light loads or anything like that), you have to draw from concealment, and you have to engage each of the five targets with two rounds. At some point after the first target, you have to conduct a reload — either emergency or tactical reload, it’s your choice. So you’ve got to draw from concealment, 10 rounds, and reload all within five seconds.

AS: Boy howdy.

GQ: Five targets, five yards, five seconds: Triple Nickel.

AS: That’s pretty impressive.

GQ: It’s pretty tough. And you’ve got to do it three times in front of two certified coin holders in order for it to count. And you’ll be brought in to the fold and issued a coin and a number.

AS: That’s probably a pretty small number of folks that have that, huh?

GQ: Well, as of last week, 89 coin holders. So there’s still fewer than 100. And it’s not just the Department of Homeland Security. We have guys in SOCOM down in Florida, and some local PD guys that hold the coin, there’s a financial advisor who used to work in law enforcement that has the coin. It’s a pretty diverse group of guys, all very talented.

AS: One thing that’s kind of different about your situation, at least as far as I’m aware of from the past three seasons of Top Shot, is that you’ve actually had a close buddy there with you.

GQ: Yeah.

AS: How cool was that? I mean, kind of kept away the isolation and gave you a little sense of home.

GQ: We let everybody know right up front, whenever we came in to the house, that Jarrett and I were really close friends. We worked together at the academy, and for the Department of Homeland Security we were both firearms instructors. He was actually at one point the lead firearms instructor and I worked under him. When he got promoted several years later and moved on, I became the lead firearms instructor. So, we had a really close relationship going in to this. During the competition and in the house it kind of gave me a mental leg up, because I had someone I could vent to and talk to. It felt a little bit like home, like you said.

AS: I talked to Dustin and Mike previously, and they mentioned how the isolation dragged on you. So I could see where that could really help you out.

GQ: It’s tough, because you don’t get cell phones, or iPods, or books, or magazines. There’s no TV. So to have somebody in the house that you’re really close to, that you could just sit down and have a conversation with and talk about family — they know you and know your family, and you understand them and their problems as well — it’s a big relief. It’s a big bonus to have that going for you.

AS: Definitely. Now who found out about the show first, you or Jarrett?

GQ: Well, I think we both found out about around the same time. We were working in Atlantic City together, and a good friend of ours who also works for the Department of Homeland Security was on season one: J.J. Racaza.

AS: Ok, yeah.

GQ: I guess, when season one finished shooting, he told us ‘Hey man, you guys might want to put in for this. It’s a lot of fun, and I think you would both be great for the show.’ And we both kind of batted it around a little bit, but things started happening. I got promoted and transferred to Cleveland, and my buddy Jarrett got promoted and transferred to Atlanta. And season two came and went we were in the middle of these moves. And by the time season three rolled around and it was like the perfect storm. It was a good time personally, for both of us. We both put in, and we were kinda under the impression that they wouldn’t take more than one DHS guy at a time because that’s just kinda always how it’s played out. And for them to pick us both up and put both of us in the house together, that was a big surprise and big relief at the same time.

AS: Yeah, it’s pretty neat. It seemed that they kind of did that with pairs of folks this season: two competitive shooters, two of this, two of that.

GQ: When they first came out with the advertisement for Top Shot, they actually advertised that they were looking for shooting pairs. Like father/sons, brothers, sisters, or whatever. We didn’t put in as a shooting pair, but I think from that idea they didn’t get enough interest or enough qualified shooting pairs to make a season, so they decided to get somebody and their counterpart and pit them against each other.

AS: I was a little concerned the way it started out where they put winners in blue team and losers in red team. But red team was able to hold its own really well all the way throughout the season until it came time for green shirts. I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I would have really been upset had it been a landslide.

GQ: I kind of had an issue with the way Colby labeled us losers. We’d show up at practice and he’d ask these questions like ‘How does it feel to be on the losing team?’ We’re not a losing team. We got bested with a S&W 500, which is a cannon of a pistol, if you’ve never shot one. If you’re not used to it, you haven’t shot one a lot, it kind of throws you off your game. The first round, the recoil and the shock of the whole thing throws you off your game.

AS: I can imagine.

GQ: I think it was fair enough. I think we had a fair mix. Just because they labeled one team the winners and one team the losers in the beginning. I don’t think that was representative for what was on those teams, with the amount of talent.

AS: I would agree. Had they done a gun that was maybe a little more mainstream, it would have slid the field a bit. But this was something unusual.

GQ: If it had been that S&W 686 that we shot during the trick challenge, there was no way Cliff Walsh would have lost to Mike Hughes. That’s his gun and he would have done a whole lot better. There was an equal mix, that gun was just a really good tool to separate the field.

AS: How does that compare in terms of the power factor of a 44 Magnum? I know obviously it’s going to be bigger. But was it quite significant?

GQ: The loads that we were shooting with the S&W 500, even though it still kicked like crazy, they were still a lighter load than you can put in that gun. The lighter load was still a little heavier than a 44 Magnum, so I would hate to think what it would be like had they put in a full load there, honestly. You saw when I shot it, it kind of rocked me back on my heels a little bit.

AS: Especially the ladies, you could obviously tell that it hit them hard. The upper body strength is just something they don’t have.

GQ: It was a struggle, and if you didn’t have the upper body strength to control the weapon, it was a struggle.

AS: One thing I noticed last night — when the show aired and you were packing up, unsure if you were going to go home — I noticed you had all the notes from family on the wall. That was neat to see that you had your support team right there with you in the bunk.

GQ: You know, I used those letters as a tool to motivate myself. I didn’t have a ton of letters I brought with me. I have three children and my wife. Each member of the family wrote me one letter. That’s four letters that I have while I was there. I told myself that I wouldn’t open a letter until we won a challenge. We lost with the S&W 500, we lost with the LaRue OBR. Finally we won with the AK-47. What a lot of people don’t realize is that each episode is three days. That’s six days and I hadn’t opened a letter from home. When you reward yourself with that, it’s a real big boost to your morale and motivation. I used those letters to get me through those challenges.

AS: That’s a good strategy. Is there any one particular challenge that has aired that you would call a favorite so far?

GQ: They were all a whole lot of fun and each one has some element that I really enjoyed. My favorite, I think, has to be the AK-47 challenge because it was so extreme, and the elements were so stacked up against us that morning. Having to jump in the cold water and then still pull yourself together to make some shots with the AK-47, and the fact that the red team won that challenge… That always stood out as a favorite to me.

AS: I think it’s easy to forget when you’re watching at home. But yall were wearing coats before starting that one. And you’ve got to tread through that water. It must have been pretty darn cold, that would throw you off. But you’ve got to calm yourself and make sure you play it straight and stick to your fundamentals when it’s time to shoot.

GQ: You know what, the way they ramp it up on TV, Colby explains the challenge, and the experts run through it so you can see how it will play out. Then Colby says ‘Marksman ready? Go!’ But in reality, they explain the rules, and then there’s a lot of set-up and positioning of the cameras. So you have this huge build-up of adrenaline when you see the challenge and they’re talking to you about what you have to get done. Then you just sit there and wait for a while. And that adrenaline starts to fade off on you, and kind of wears down on you and throws you off your game. So you have to focus and pull yourself together, and keep yourself level-headed, and ration that adrenaline out a little bit so you don’t burn yourself out.

AS: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken home from your experience on Top Shot?

GQ: ‘Pay attention in school.’ You saw how I struggled with the McMillan TAC-50. It’s an easy enough weapon to shoot, it’s super accurate. But when Craig Sawyer told us that the targets, say the average man walks about 2.5 yards per second and the bullet travels at this speed and the wind is crossing you at 30 mph, and all these equations and how to set the dope on the scope… And I’ve never been a long gun shooter. When I was growing up and deer hunting, I always wanted a scope. But my dad was like ‘No, you’re going to learn to shoot with open sights first.’ And I never got a scope. I just always shot with open sights. I kind of lost myself in the numbers and equations and didn’t pay maybe as much attention as I should have during the practice. So when I got there in the challenge and everything started happening, I realized that I was missing and that I’d was going to have to make some adjustments, the math wasn’t there. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I just kept guessing. And as you can see, it didn’t work so well out for me.

AS: But you know what, I am glad you stuck it through no matter how long it took to get it. It would have been bad to throw in the towel. You know had it been a stationary target, you could have done your corrections.

GQ: The thing is, as soon as that challenge started airing and everybody saw how I was doing, my phone started burning up. I’ve got a lot of friends in the military community and law enforcement, and a lot of those guys are long gun guys. They’ve all shot with me before and know what I’m capable of with a pistol. But I’ve never sought any type of advice on a long gun because it’s never been my thing. They were all asking ‘Why didn’t you just come to me for help beforehand, because then you wouldn’t have had to suffer through that challenge.’ But hindsight is 20/20 and I’ve found my weakness and made several steps already towards correcting that.

AS: Have you ever had the chance to shoot the Barrett and if so how does that compare to the McMillan?

GQ: I’ve never shot a 50 cal before this. I’ve shot some law enforcement 308, but at no significant distance. And that was the first 50 cal that I shot. It kind of says a little something about it in the episode about how I’ve had a significant amount of reconstructive surgery on my shoulder. I have a plate and eight screws, in that shoulder, so every time that thing would go off, it was like a bat hitting me in the face. It was very painful for me to shoot. I told the producers, I didn’t want them to show me icing my shoulder, because I didn’t want that to look like an excuse. I considered it like ‘If I didn’t want it to hurt, I should have hit my target faster and then it wouldn’t have hurt.’ So it’s my own fault.

AS: They showed it briefly on the show, but it didn’t come off that way at all.

GQ: Good.

AS: Folks that have just seen you on the show, what’s one thing that they wouldn’t know about you (and maybe would be surprised to know about you)?

GQ: Just from watching the show, I think I’ve come off as fairly level-headed. But I do have a little bit of a temper, and I do get frustrated some times. After Jarrett left the house and I didn’t have my friend with me, that frustration started building. Especially with Jake’s antics and the stuff that was going on in the house. I think they portray me the way I really am on the show, but there is a side of me where I speak my mind and I’m not as level-headed as I seem.

AS: It looks like there’s some sort of excitement going on with Jake next week, but we’ll have to wait and see what that’s all about.

GQ: There’s always some sort of excitement going on with him.

AS: This could be a gun you shot on the show, or something totally off on your own, but is there any gun that you tried it and decided ‘This gun is not for me, I don’t like it, I don’t want to touch it, don’t need to use it.’?

GQ: I would have to say that the TAC-50 is a gun that for me, and what I do, and the way I use firearms, it’s just something that is just way outside of what I would ever need. It’s a big, powerful gun. It serves a very specific purpose, but it’s not anything I could see myself ever needing to use.

AS: I would like to shoot a 50 cal, but I wouldn’t have a need to shoot one so regularly that I would consider buying one. But if a friend had one, sure I’d shoot it just to say that I shot it, but I agree with you there.

GQ: Right. There are a lot of guns that serve a purpose. You asked about something that may surprise people… One thing about me that may surprise people is that I’m not a big gun guy. I don’t have a ton of guns in my house or a huge gun safe. I have a pistol that I carry off duty, and a duty weapon, and a couple of guns that I got from my dad. Other than that, that’s it. I’ve got a bow, and I’m not a big collector of guns. Every gun I have has a purpose. I don’t need much more than that.

AS: If you know your tools, and know how to use them, then you don’t need a whole lot of them.

GQ: I agree with you 100%.

AS: Between the time you got the notice that you were accepted on the show and the time to go, did you do anything to prepare for the show? Try any different guns or anything?

GQ: I put my application in, and got a call back from the History Channel saying I’d made it in to the final 100, which is the semi-finals. Out of that 100, they pick 50 to go to LA for the finals. So, I started to feel like my chances were pretty good. That’s when I started practicing. Once I knew, I was practicing around the house and at the range after work — more than normal. Once I knew I was going to LA for the final 50, I started training pretty hard. I packed up the wife and kids and we went to Virginia. My brothers met me at my grandmother’s house where we grew up. They brought down all kinds of weapons for me to shoot. I had a tomahawk (sp?), I ordered a set of throwing knives. I completely wrecked a picnic table. It was a lot of fun. I got to reconnect and spend some time with family and work on things I felt like I needed to get me through the show.

AS: Not only that, but you had family time before you had to go away for the show.

GQ: Exactly. And that was important, because you know that you’re planning on seeing that thing through to the end and you’re going to be there for a while. Nobody goes in there planning on just being there for a couple of weeks then being back before you know it. Everybody goes in there wanting to spend the entire set of weeks there.

AS: Have the kids been watching on TV, and how interesting has that been for them to see dad on TV?

GQ: It’s fantastic. We stay up every Tuesday night and watch it. We have friends over to the house. I’ve done several viewing parties at the Buffalo Wild Wings local to here in the little town we live in. And the kids are always there with me. My wife and kids have been very supportive. The kids can be a little grumpy Wednesday mornings because it’s a school morning. But it’s a whole lot of fun, and they’ve really enjoyed. I think they enjoy inviting their friends to these things, and saying to their friends ‘Look, there’s my dad on TV.’

AS: Is it weird getting noticed out in public, now that the series has been going on for a while?

GQ: Yeah it is. It’s kind of funny. I think the weirdest thing for me so far has been when I went back home to Virginia to do a charity event at the local flea market and gun show. It’s a huge outdoor flea market and gun show. There’s a building in my home town called the Carter Home, and it’s a big historical building on Main Street. They wanted me to come down and take some pictures and sign some autographs, and have people make donations for the restoration of the Carter Home. People would come up to me on the street and want me to sign their gun boxes they just bought down at the gun show, or get their picture made with me. There were a lot of people from out of town, but then there were people I’d known my entire life that would come up and ask me for my autograph. It was really weird for me.

AS: Out of the norm for sure.

GQ: I’m like ‘You’ve known me from grade school, so what do you need my autograph for?’ At the same time it’s a lot of fun. It’s very flattering and very humbling to know that people are that interested in you and what it is you’re doing.

AS: What do you think as gun owners — as a group — what are maybe one or two things we could do to remove the negative stigma towards guns? I’d like to do what I can to change that mentality. Have you got any ideas of things we could do as a community?

GQ: I think a lot of it is just education. There’s a lot of people that don’t understand guns, so they are a little afraid of them. Because they don’t understand it, they just jump on the local bandwagon. Whatever the primary thought is in a community, like a majority rules type of thing. Where I grew up, everybody owned guns. We all hunt, we all fish, and there’s no mystery in guns and we understand that they’re tools. I think that if you could just get the word out and shows like Top Shot are fantastic for that, for showing people that it’s a sport. It’s something people can do to better themselves and to increase their focus, and have a lot of fun with friends, and build camaraderie. It’s not a bad thing at all. I think education is the number one thing as far as getting the word out that it isn’t anything negative at all.

AS: Growing up, I had an uncle that would take me and my cousins up in the mountains — we’d go shooting and have a great time. One of my cousins, she went to Australia for a year for school. They don’t allow gun ownership over there, and one time when asked what we did for fun, she said that we went up in the mountains and shot guns. They were mortified and didn’t know what to think. It just goes back to exposure and education.

GQ: Sure. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, and they have the same mindset. The police don’t carry guns over there. If they need guns, they call for them and a van shows up that’s got the guns in the van. It’s different here, because our culture is founded on firearms and marksmanship — from The Shot Heard ‘Round The World, the settlement of the Old West, the allure of the Old West gunfighter. It’s been a big part of our culture. I don’t think there hasn’t been a kid growing up that hasn’t fantasized about being a cowboy or playing cops and robbers. It’s just something that is ingrained in us from the time that we’re little.

AS: There’s really no other country that has the special relationship with firearms that we do.

GQ: I’ve been to a lot of different countries, and we are incredibly unique when it comes to firearms.

AS: Before green shirts it was team-based competition, and now with green shirts it is individual head-to-head competition. Do you have a preference on either one, and as a follow-up question: does one test your mettle more than the other?

GQ: I think the answer would be different for anybody that you ask. For me personally, I thrive in a team environment. I’ve always been that way. When I was in the Army, I was in field artillery, so you work with a group of guys on a cannon. When I was in the Bureau of Prisons, I was on the special operations response team. I’ve always thrived in that team dynamic. I enjoy individual competition and I enjoy going head-to-head. For me, it’s the thrill of competition and pulling the team together that’s more appealing to me. Once I have to start performing on my own, I can do that. I do a little bit better when I have to go head-to-head than I do standing on a line shooting and seeing how everybody else does. I need something there to push me, and going head-to-head, like with me and Mike or being part of a team — that’s what pushes and motivates me. For me, it would definitely be that I do better in a team setting.

AS: I want to thank for taking time to sit with me and talk to me. I really do appreciate it.

GQ: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

AS: Yes sir, you the same. I wish you luck through the competition.

GQ: I tell you what, it can’t get any worse than it was with that MacMillan.

AS: There you go. Thank you very much.

GQ: I appreciate it.

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