Alton Creech stands and squints downrange. About 25 yards away is a green-and-white target with the silhouette of a person's head and torso. He stands erect and still -- his left hand holding a sheriff's office Glock model 22 handgun and his right supporting it.
In a split second, a .40-caliber round rips through the paper in the center of the target -- a "kill zone." The one that follows will pass through almost the same hole -- just a few millimeters off. Then another and another, until Creech's magazine is empty.
It's that tight grouping that has earned Creech, a property crimes investigator for the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, the honor of being the office's top shot for two years running. Each year in the fall, the sheriff's office turns a normally humdrum affair -- its daytime firearm qualifications -- into a tournament for the best shooter around.
All deputies from the road patrol and criminal investigations division and some of the jailers take a trip out to the Sheriff's Training Center off Deans Bridge Road in Blythe and empty 30 rounds each into a similar target. Deputies earn points based on the proximity of shots to one another and the area of the target struck. Those with the highest number win the competition.
Creech won last year after a shoot-off with Lt. Frank Tiller. Creech's success isn't too surprising; he has been shooting since he was 7. His favorite targets were squirrels he would pick off with a single-shot .22-caliber rifle. As he grew older, he entered many shooting competitions and began hunting deer and dove, all of which honed his skills. Now, he often practices at the sheriff's office training range -- going through an estimated 5,000 rounds a year.
"I've probably put some owner of a firearm manufacturer's kids through college," Creech said. "It isn't really practice because I like to shoot. It's fun for me."
Tiller's approach couldn't be more different. He doesn't practice and didn't begin shooting regularly until he went to the police academy decades ago. A 34-year veteran of the department, Tiller -- once a SWAT team member -- said the years of practice have just stayed with him.
"All of these years of shooting, it's just automatic," he said.
Asked whether it's likely he and Creech could come to a shoot-off again this year, Tiller said it's tough because there is so little room for error. Just a few millimeters cost him the title last year.
"He can be beat, but day in and day out I don't know anybody who can shoot with him," Tiller said.
Local lawyer and former deputy Freddie Sanders started sponsoring the competition -- which is a law enforcement-only affair -- in 1993 to honor his father, Capt. E.E. Sanders. The elder Sanders retired from the sheriff's office, and his son said the tournament is something he would be honored to be involved in.
The top three shooters receive a trophy and a certificate to Sidney's Department Store on Broad Street to buy their own pistol.
Sanders said that since 1985, when he left the department, the deputies have switched from using revolvers to the Glocks, and they qualify at much closer to the target -- a reflection of the realities of police work.
"I think they finally realized most of the time if you use your weapon, it's not at 60 yards," he said. "Back then, you were just lobbing it at the target."
In Columbia County, deputies can earn a series of badges during qualification. At the top is the master shooter badge, one that Deputy Dave Wheeler, of the special ops division, has earned.
Wheeler said the deputies qualify with 50 shots at their training center on Range Road off Columbia Road. He is on the Special Response Team, their version of SWAT, so he must shoot 90 percent or better.
At home, Creech will pick a target and practice his stance, sight alignment and trigger control with an empty gun. It's the fundamentals, he said, that make the difference between an average and an above-average marksman.