First Person Shooter
Tucked away at the end of a winding drive off Whitemarsh Boulevard is the FreeState Gun Range. It’s the last suite of an office building with few tenants, and a giant “FOR LEASE” sign hangs on the brick building’s east wall. Walking through the front door, you wouldn’t know you’re at a shooting range until the loud pop of gunfire erupts from behind a back door. The walls are painted a pale green, and the floors are a light rustic wood. Display cases dot the floor, showcasing pistols and rifles, gun sights and holsters. There’s even a pool table.
On most days, you’ll find the range’s resident trainer and gunsmith (or “gunologist,” as his business card reads) hunched over his workbench behind the front counter. Robert Markert, who most refer to as Dr. Bob, fixes guns when they’re “sick.” A former registered nurse, he’s treated more than 400 guns since the range opened, a little more than a year ago. And while many swear by his attention to detail and craftsmanship, Markert’s skills stretch beyond the workbench: he is one of the best marksmen in the state.
“I used to work with sick people in ICU and CCU. Now I work with sick metal, but there’s no malpractice,” Markert says with a chuckle.
Tall with a graying mustache and hair, the 56-year-old Markert has won hundreds of tournaments and competed against some of the world’s best marksmen. Today he is dressed in black cargo pants and a gray FreeState Gun Range T-shirt. There’s a silver pistol holstered at his side as he sips from a bottle of Minute Maid orange juice.
Markert’s affinity for guns stretches back to when he was just a boy. He was 12 years old when he found his father’s gun tucked away in the closet of their Parkville home. It was an H&R .22-caliber revolver, and for Markert, it was love at first sight.
“Being a young kid, something like that always perks your interest,” Markert says, as he’s interrupted by the muted sound of gunfire popping off from the range.
It wasn’t long after Markert’s discovery that he was exposed to competitive shooting. At the encouragement of his uncle, he joined Monumental Rifle and Pistol Club in 1975 and remains a member to this day. Within three years of taking up a rifle, Markert was so good he was outshining club members who had been shooting competitively since before he was born.
“Unlike a lot of people, I never really hit a plateau in shooting,” Markert says. “I kind of knew no fear, and I won an awful lot. Hundreds of times, actually. So I got encouraged to try something big.”
How big? In 1980, at the age of 24, Markert made the U.S. Summer Olympic team.
While many Olympic shooters spend years working with professional coaches, Markert is self-taught. In high school, making just $2 an hour at a local bakery, he bought his own weapons and drove himself to the range three days a week to hone his skills.
“I was smart enough to watch good people and keep my mouth shut,” Markert says of his success, also crediting the fact that he was without much to worry about, still living with his parents.
In the end, politics stood in the way of sportsmanship. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Four years later, when the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, Markert considered trying out again, but decided he no longer had the intense determination and willpower it takes to be an Olympian.
“I was still very good, but I wasn’t Olympic good,” Markert says, adding that when someone asks him what it takes, he tells them to quit their day job and forget their wife’s name and kids’ birthdays. Olympic shooting requires a certain state of mind where the worries of everyday life cannot intercede.
Despite the disappointment, Markert kept shooting, returning to his guns for consolation. Working as a gunsmith today, Markert has the opportunity to shoot whenever he likes, and he didn’t even have to forget his wife’s name. Instead, Betty, his wife of 19 years, began shooting competitively shortly after the two started dating and has won a few tournaments of her own.His wife of 19 years, Betty, began shooting competitively shortly after the two started dating and has won a few tournaments of her own.
When it comes to his favorites, Markert prefers heavier guns because there’s less recoil and more accuracy. For a nonshooter, the weight of some of Markert’s more than 80 guns can come as a bit of a shock. The rifle that began his competitive shooting career sits in a case with some of Markert’s winning targets. It’s a massive German rifle called an Anschutz, weighing more than 15 pounds; Markert bought it in 1978 for $755 (Because of the rifle’s craftsmanship and changes in how guns are made today, Markert estimates its worth has quadrupled since then).
Unlike many other sports, shooting requires mental relaxation and complete stillness. When Markert takes aim at a bullseye smaller than a cigarette butt 50 or more feet away, he is silent. He reads the wind, noting its strength against his cheek. The slightest jerk of the weapon is liable to ruin a shot and dash a perfect score.
Randy Farmer, who owns FreeState Gun Range and has known Markert for about 13 years, says he brings this same intensity to his work as a gunsmith.
“Bob’s a great gunsmith, and to be a great gunsmith you have to pay attention to the finest detail,” Farmer says.
Despite his brush with Olympic fame, Markert isn’t too upset about what could have been back in 1980.
“This is a labor of love,” Markert says. “My friends and associates here are more important than what I did back when I was half my age. I had my 15 minutes of fame. My only saving grace is I don’t have to say, ‘I used to shoot.’ I say, ‘I shot yesterday and I haven’t stopped in a third of a century.’”