Australia is blessed with its fair share of sporting champions but as Senior Correspondent Rod Pascoe discovered, Mike Papps is more than that - he’s also a successful businessman and silent achiever
Michael Papps’ life has revolved around the shooting sports. His childhood in Adelaide in the 1930s and ’40s was typical of many at the time, his introduction to shooting aged seven or eight by way of the air rifle. The leafy back yard in suburban Glenunga afforded plenty of room for him to show his four siblings how it was done, brother Peter and sister Margaret taking to the game with equal enthusiasm. Like their older brother, both would go on to international competition with father Leo being the catalyst for the family’s interest in shooting. Owner of a firearms business, Leo doted on the children with, among other things, an endless supply of pellets and targets.
As he progressed through school, Mike’s extracurricular interests were further encouraged. “I was in the Cadets at school and shooting was a great activity which further increased my interest in firearms and shooting competitively,” he says. Mike shoot in Cadet competitions with great success. “It was a turning point getting into competitive shooting and in later years a reputation in shooting would also be good for business.”
By now the air rifle was replaced by equipment with which Mike could get into serious competition, pistol shooting becoming his main interest. “In South Australia pistol shooting recommenced in 1947 after shutting down during the war,” he says. “There was plenty of enthusiasm to get things up and running again and it didn’t take long to find suitable premises and build a range. More pistols were available and the police commissioner of the day was quite cooperative in issuing the permits.”
From the early ’50s most pistol and rifle competitions centred around a quarry at Glen Osmond, near what locals called the Old Toll Gate which was close to the Papps’ family home. The quarry was also the new home of Adelaide Pistol Club and at the time was the only pistol club in the state. Not long after, it was announced Australia would host the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. “We were keen to find out what pistol events would be contested and that turned out to be 50m Free Pistol and Rapid Fire,” says Mike.
“Melbourne had no facilities as at that time pistol shooting wasn’t a recognised sport in Victoria, so a temporary pistol range was built at the windswept Williamstown rifle range just for the Games. My brother Peter and I were practicing like mad to get our standard up but had no idea about international competition and training. When you think of the preparation our shooters go through now to get ready for international competition, a lot of time and money is spent on those guys, but at the time we didn’t know any better. At least as South Australians we had a head-start on the other states as we were the only state shooting pistols competitively then.”
The laws in Victoria were changed in time to allow Australian shooters to compete in elimination contests to select the national teams. “We had shooters from New South Wales, Victoria and SA all vying for a spot on the pistol team,” says Mike, who made it to the elimination shoots in the Rapid Fire and Small Bore rifle events for the Melbourne games but didn’t make either team. In the Rapid Fire elimination shoot Mike missed a scoring ring by one eighth of an inch, about 3mm, and had he made that shot would’ve been shooting alongside his 16-year-old brother Peter in Australia’s Rapid Fire team.
“We ended up with two Victorians and two South Australians at the ’56 Olympics,” Mike recalls. “It got off to a pretty rough start with the makeshift range. The Europeans had any number of international-standard ranges and probably started building them in the late 1940s so the Melbourne set-up was a bit of an embarrassment. The availability of Olympic-style pistols was almost zero until the mid-fifties when the top European manufacturers were able to provide Free pistols for 50m shooting, and some Olympic athletes were using US-made .22 semi-autos for the 50m event while the Europeans had long-barrelled single-shots like the Hammerli.
“In Rapid Fire you needed a semi-auto shooting the low-recoiling .22 Short ammunition over 25m with guns from Beretta, Walther, High Standard and Hammerli. I went to the Rome Olympics with a High Standard in .22 Short but it took a few years before people realised European guns were the most competitive.”
After his Melbourne experience and subsequent World Championships, Mike learned that top performers in shooting, like any sport, practiced and exercised both mind and body - the bigger the competition the bigger the commitment. He realised the mechanical aspect of shooting is instinctive and routine, requiring little or no thought, it’s the mental approach which demands intense concentration.
After Melbourne, shooting proficiency at major competitions grew rapidly. “Intensity and enthusiasm in pistol shooting arrived at the first National Championships in Hobart in 1958 - that was the turning point for competition in Australia,” says Mike. Other states dragged their heels but all eventually embraced target pistol shooting as a legitimate sport. Mike recalls how the sport blossomed as year-on-year scores were improving at both state and national levels. “We were all keener, smarter, had better equipment and practiced harder.”
Although Mike’s specialties were Centrefire and Rapid Fire pistol shooting, he kept practicing Free Pistol and Small Bore rifle and after the Melbourne games tried several times to win a place in Australian teams for these matches, going on to represent his country on six occasions at Rome, Cairo, Tokyo, Wiesbaden, Jamaica and Phoenix. Mike continued to vary his shooting interests and before the Rome Olympics, now an army reservist lieutenant and later as Captain Papps of the 3/9 Mounted Rifles, was seven times SA state finalist in the Queen’s Medal for military rifle shooting.
“At Rome in 1960 the Italians did it well and by then the Americans were competing in Olympic shooting. They had home-grown events like the Camp Perry matches and figured they were the kings of the shooting movement but the Europeans ran the International Shooting Union (ISU) very well,” says Mike, who came 31st with a score of 569 at the Rome games.
The 1962 World Championships program in Cairo allowed four shooters to a team and with Mike shooting Centrefire and Rapid Fire, his sister Margaret was also making a name for herself, entering the Ladies Match 25m pistol event and finishing in the top 10, another turning point for Australian pistol shooters as she attracted much welcome media attention.
Mike had to wait two years for his next attempt at the Olympics but this time had some special help. “It didn’t take long for the word to get around that if you wanted to make the 1964 Tokyo Games you needed the good equipment,” he says. “In 1962, Walther came out with the revolutionary OSP model which set the standard for the next 20 years. Coaching was introduced by the National Coaching Council who reported annually to the Amateur Pistol Shooting Union of Australia (now Pistol Australia) and in 1964 limited funding became available for shooters going to Tokyo.” Just prior to those Games Mike set two Australian records in Rapid Fire (586) and Centrefire (578) then in Tokyo finished 19th on 582 out of 600.
At the 1966 World Championships in Wiesbaden, Germany, Mike placed 16th in Rapid Fire with 586 out of 600, same as the national record he’d set two years earlier. “1966 was a big year for international competition, we went from one side of the world to the other,” says Mike. “I won a silver medal in Rapid Fire at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica with 578.” Conscious of not putting all his eggs in one basket at Jamaica he also competed in Free Pistol, scoring 511 for 10th place then scoring 561 for 9th in Centrefire place. Up until that point, after just nine years of competition, Mike had won all but one national championship in Rapid Fire, was now 34, married with twin sons and running a successful firearms agency.
He bowed out of international shooting at the World Championships in Phoenix, Arizona but never lost contact with his many shooting friends. “We met a lot of very helpful people along the way, particularly the US teams whose support helped Australians at international competitions - it was a great opportunity for us to learn and take it all in.”
“I took over dad’s business after he died in 1960 just before the Rome Olympics,” Mike recalls. “The business had been registered as International Arms, a partnership between dad and I, and at that time was importing Hammerli pistols for Australian shooters trying for a place on the team for Rome. “Involvement in the shooting sports certainly had a flow-on to marketing and the better we performed on the firing line the better the opportunity for promoting the products, especially the Walther OSP rapid fire pistol. So at national championships all our products were on display and being scrutinised by potential firearms buyers.”
With pistol shooting expanding in Australia, US giant Colt needed a business to represent them here and following a recommendation from another importer, a meeting was set up between Colt’s export manager with Mike and brother Peter in a Melbourne hotel. “They were impressed by our presentation and we convinced them we were the right people to represent them. At that meeting we got the go-ahead to be Colt agents, the beginning of a lucrative relationship. We had some pretty good years initially with Colt as we could sell M-16s and the entire Colt range.”
Following that meeting the brothers founded Frontier Arms to capitalise on the Colt franchise. “Colt, while a money-spinner for us, technically wasn’t up to the Hammerli or Walther in terms of quality in the guns we were selling at the time, so we had to build the market as people were saying ‘we have to have a Colt or a High Standard, a Beretta or Smith & Wesson’ and didn’t appreciate the quality of the European standard.”
During and after his time on the national and international stage, Mike worked on a number of committees and spent a fair bit of time on Pistol Australia’s national coaching council, providing written training material. “That was before the AIS was established where now money is spent to provide the best opportunities to upcoming shooters,” he says. “But even then, talented shooters with potential received the best coaching available. It was in the 1980s when things improved for the shooting sports, especially pistol shooters.”
Mike’s most active and successful years were from 1956 to 1977 when he won 15 Australian titles and over 48 years he entered all national pistol and rifle championships after which he retired to club and social shooting. Business continues to do well and Mike is running Frontier Arms in Adelaide with help from family members, also shooters, the firm representing several international manufacturers including Walther, Hammerli, Thompson/Center and the German made Colt .22 pistols.