Lying prone on a table as she took aim with her rifle, Theresa Vail was the only woman in a row of men firing long-range weapons at the Fancy Creek Shooting Range Saturday morning. But under her encouragement as Miss Kansas, Vail would like that ratio to change as young women feel more comfortable entering once male-dominated spaces.
Vail, a K-State student who called Manhattan home until her sophomore year of high school, was crowned Miss Kansas in June, competing on a platform of empowering young women to overcome cultural stereotypes.
At 22, Vail already has six years of service with the Kansas Army National Guard behind her, having started her service as a mechanic before switching to dental hygiene. And, though she is currently on a break from school because of her pageant duties, Vail pursuing a double degree in chemistry and Chinese at K-State and hopes eventually to become a dentist for the U.S. Army.
Vail is also, in her words, an avid hunter and markswoman.
On Saturday, she visited the Fancy Creek Shooting Range to practice target shooting with certified instructors Richard Seaton Jr., a state attorney-general-appointed concealed carry handgun instructor, and Jill Conard, firearms instructor. Both Seaton and Conard are members of the Kansas Armed Self-Defense Group.
They started with handguns and then moved to the long rifles.
Having little experience with handguns, Vail took pointers on the best stance and techniques, still proving herself as a capable shot by hitting the target repeatedly.
“I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of your firearm,” Seaton told her.
She objected to shooting the particularly small handguns on account of her self-described “man-hands” and their inability to hold the gun properly, but eagerly tried the others offered to her, including a .44-caliber Magnum.
“Will I end up on YouTube with all those girls busting their noses?” Vail asked jokingly, referring to the recoil of some weapons, but she controlled the gun and hit the center of the target multiple times.
Vail said she was about 7 when she first shot a gun and has loved it ever since. She went to Manhattan High School until her sophomore year, and then moved to Leavenworth, where she was on the school rifle team. In a post on her blog, Miss Outdoor Girl, she wrote that she quickly became the number-one shot in the club after joining, earning the nickname “Annie Oakley,” and it was in that activity, she wrote, that she found herself and her confidence.
At the range on Saturday, Vail moved on from the handguns to the rifles, calling a .22-caliber rifle with a silencer “mind-blowing,” and gladly taking the opportunity to shoot a long-range rifle while lying prone as a dozen men shot their own rifles nearby.
For the visit, Vail wore her Miss Kansas sash and cowboy boots. Though interested glances were sent her way, it wasn’t until the end of her visit that two men approached and asked for a photograph.
Later in the day, Vail had plans to visit an archery range Saturday afternoon.
Though Vail encourages women to pursue outdoor activities, she clarified that if that’s not a woman’s interest, she just wants them to feel empowered to do whatever they want to do. For her, she said, it’s just about overcoming stereotypes.
“No one expected a soldier to be a beauty queen,” Vail said.
Vail made it to Miss Kansas after she was crowned Miss Leavenworth County. She will go on to compete for Miss America in September in Atlantic City, N.J.