Editor’s note: The following story, a brief overview of an impressive career in marksmanship, was first published in the Herald in November 2007 following an interview with Charles Davis, a Hazard native who went on to become a world class marksman and an Olympian.
Perry County’s history is full of men and women who have risen to the top of their respective fields, but few can match the story of one Hazard native and former Olympian marksman. Charles Davis grew up on Laurel Street in Hazard, the small town tucked away in the Eastern Kentucky hills where he would first learn the skills of a marksman. A graduate of Hazard High School, Davis was a member of the school’s rifle team before heading to a more illustrious career in the Unites States Army.
“I started out here in high school shooting, but even before that I had started out with a slingshot, then a BB gun, and then progressed to a .22 rifle,” he said. The Eastern Kentucky hills have always been a place for hunters, and it was no different for Davis in his youth. His brother, Ory, worked as a game warden, and Charles went on countless hunts on a 700-acre spread in Breathitt County owned by his grandfather where he also honed his skills. His first experience in organized shooting came in his high school years, where he and his teammates would display their skills as marksmen.
“I was on the high school rifle team here. We had a conservation club,” Davis, a current Georgia resident, said while sitting down for an interview recently in Hazard. “We beat all the local teams in this area, and we went to Louisville for the state championship, and that’s the only team that beat us, but they didn’t beat us by much.” There were three other marksmen on the team, including Tom Turk, Earl Larkin and Dana Combs, each of whom went on to serve in the military.
“Earl Larkin was killed in Korea, Dana Combs became a Colonel in the Air Force, and Tom Turk was in the Air Force also, and I went in the Army later,” Davis recalled. “We were all shooters anyway. Most of the guys were pretty good shots at that stage. One thing I noticed in all the service teams is that the kids from Appalachia make the best shooters and also the best snipers,” he said, contributing their skills as shooters to early days of hunting in the hills. His skills as a marksman would take Charles Davis around the world, but first his life would take a detour to the United States Navy during his second year of high school. He would later leave the Navy and return to high school, eventually graduating from Centre College in Danville. After earning his degree, he would still have to show his mettle as a marksman and earn a spot on the service team, but he says he didn’t realize he had a talent for competitive shooting until his days in the Army.
“I didn’t know that. You have to earn your way there,” he said. “I started off in Korea, the 34th Infantry, and I made that team. And I progressed up the 24th Division team and made that one, and then the U.S. Army team and we came back to the States as the 8th Army team. Teams come from all over the world and they meet down at Fort Benning and shoot the all Army Championships.” Davis also served in Vietnam as a part of a 10-man sniper instructor team, and despite already having a brother in country, he decided to go anyway.
“I already had a bother over there and I didn’t have to go,” he said. “But I wanted to go.” Eventually, Davis would reach the top of his field and become an Olympian.
“We had Olympic tryouts, and you had to make it in your own sport, and our Olympic tryout was in the desert 25 miles north of Phoenix. It was 115 degrees four out of five days, and the sixth day was only 110 (degrees),” he said. “That was National Championship in moving target as well, and I won the thing, so I was on the team. Only the top two in each shooting event will go to the Olympics.” Davis would compete against literally several thousand other shooters in his career, and that would eventually lead him to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, but those prestigious games are only a part of the cycle in competitive shooting, he explained.
“The cycle of matches, the Olympics is just one, and then you’ve got World Championships, Pan American Games, Championship of the Americas, then you go to the Nordic Championships. We flew into Russia two times and it might be 20 or 30 countries coming in there. That was a real treat to fly into Russia. “And then we drove across the East German border carrying rifles and ammo, going to East Germany for a match,” he continued. “And then we also flew to Romania for a big match, so it’s a vehicle for world travel.”
But world travel was perhaps one of the perks, as being given the chance to meet superiors in Washington may have been another. While sitting in Hazard, Davis began fingering through old photographs he had brought with him on his trip from Georgia, many of himself presenting the Secretary of the Army with trophies he or his teams had won. Overall, Davis set approximately 200 national records in various shooting sports. After a total of 34 years in the service, 26 of which was active with the Army, Davis retired from military duty with a long list of accomplishments to go with him. He was elected to three United Stated Army Marksmanship Unit Halls of Fame. From 1956 to 1982, Davis participated in some of the best shooting teams in the world, and was among the best himself. From those early days with a slingshot in his hand to the later days with an M-14 rifle, Davis built a resume as impressive as his life story. He was one of the greatest competitive shooters of his time, and a son of Hazard.