MSU alumnus Lones Wigger, world's most decorated rifle shooter, passes away at age 80
Editor's note: Lones Wigger was a student-athlete at MSU, graduating in 1960. He was a member of the university’s rifle team from 1957-60 and earned All-America honors each season. He went on to a career in the Army and competed in multiple Olympic games. He was inducted into MSU’s Hall of Fame in 1986. The following obituary was pubished in the The New York Times on Dec. 19.
Lones Wigger Jr., a career Army officer and two-time Olympic champion who was hailed as the most decorated rifle shooter in the world, died on Thursday at his home in Colorado Springs. He was 80.
The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, the United States Olympic Committee, also known as Team USA, said.
At 5 feet 7 inches and 180 pounds in his prime, with a round build and round face under a military crew cut, Wigger may not have looked the part of a sports champion, but he dominated competitive shooting for two decades. The magazine Gun Week called him “by far the greatest shooter in history.”
“I’m like a golfer,” Wigger told The New York Times in 1983. “I’m like any athlete who uses his mind and has to concentrate. I train like an athlete in any sport.”
Wigger broke 29 world records and appeared in three Olympics, in 1964, 1968 and 1972. He also qualified for the 1980 Games in Moscow, which the United States boycotted in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In the 1964 Games, in Tokyo, he won the gold medal in the sport’s showcase competition: the small-bore rifle, three-position (prone, kneeling and standing). At the same Games he took the silver medal in small-bore rifle, prone, missing the gold on a tiebreaker.
In 1972, in Munich, he won the gold in free rifle, three-position.
Wigger also won 58 United States championships and more than 20 on the world stage. In five-Pan American Games, from 1963 to 1983, he won eight gold medals.
He acknowledged that he was competing in a sport with a relatively small fan base, even when under the Olympic spotlight. “People don’t know me outside of shooting,” he said.
Inside the sport, he was self-effacing. “I’ve never been gifted with a lot of talent,” he once said. “I probably succeeded because I persevered.”
Perseverance, he told Sports Illustrated in 1987, involved “constant, steady practice, week in and week out, all year long.” He told The Times, “I think most anybody can be a champion in our sport if he has the desire and will put in the work.”
Lones Wesley Wigger Jr. was born on Aug. 25, 1937, in Great Falls, in northern Montana, and lived for many years in Carter, about 30 miles to the northeast, where his father ran a local rifle range and a junior shooting program sponsored by the National Rifle Association.
Lones (pronounced LONE-iss) started shooting at age 12 — by his account because Carter (population 300) did not have any organized sports, including Little League baseball.
He attended Montana State University, where he was captain of the rifle team. There he met Mary Kay Spencer, a history major; they were married during the Christmas break of 1958.
Wigger graduated in 1960 with a degree in agronomy, became an Army officer and rose to lieutenant colonel, mostly based in Fort Benning, Ga., as a riflery instructor. He had two tours of duty during the Vietnam War and taught American soldiers there marksmanship.
After three weeks of training in Vietnam, he told Sports Illustrated, his snipers were hitting their targets at 600 meters with the first shot from their M-14s.
“My best sniper was a ghetto kid from Chicago,” he said. “A Chicano we called Poppa Leech. He had all the patience in the world. He’d sit out there on a trail for three days straight, in the heat and the dark and the bugs.”
Wigger retired from the Army in 1987.
In later years he won numerous senior titles and was director of the United States shooting team, a consultant for a cartridge maker and a star attraction at shooting clinics. He was also active in training young people and promoting junior events in competitive shooting.
His own children followed in his footsteps. His daughter, Deena, and his sons, Ron and Danny, have all been successful competitive shooters. Ron Wigger became the rifle team coach for the United States Military Academy at West Point.
His children survive him, along with his wife and two grandchildren.
In 1991, Wigger was one of the first four shooters inducted into the USA Shooting Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2008.
But for all the honors he received from the sport’s official organizations, his fellow competitors at the rifle range may have been his greatest admirers.
“How do you define ‘The Best Ever?’ Team USA quoted the two-time Olympic medalist Lanny Bassham as saying. “Would you add up the total medals won to see who is on top? Would you add up the total number of years he has dominated his sport? Would you take a survey of everyone who has been his competitor, to determine who received the most votes? Would you look at the number of national and world records held?
“Not only is Wigger the only name at the top of these lists; no other shooter even comes close.”