“The Guns of July”

Lieutenant Commander Willis Lee and the 1920 Olympics



     Successful Olympic athletes such as Jesse Owens or Michael Phelps are honored and remembered in halls of fame, college and university athletic buildings, and even cereal boxes throughout the country. Ironically, as the 100thanniversary of the event approaches, one of the greatest Olympic athletic performances in history and the arguably THE greatest in Olympic shooting history receives scant recognition anywhere. Willis A. Lee, Jr., U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1908, winner of the Navy Cross for valor in combat fighting the Japanese in World War II is barely known of despite record-setting campaign at the 7th Olympiad in Antwerp, Belgium. Lieutenant Commander Willis A. Lee, Jr, USN, as a member of the United States Olympic Rifle Team neither garnered recognition then nor in the 100 years since, save a small plaque relegated to the basement rifle team locker room of his alma mater.  In July 1920, Lee and his teammates dominated the world’s best shooters on a literally war-torn range in Belgium used only two years before by the German army as a last-stop training site for troops heading to the trenches of the deadly Western Front. Yet, on this great team, Lee was first among equals, a title to which this humble officer from a small Kentucky town would never subscribe, by setting Olympics records which still stand a century later.

     For eight days, beginning on 26 July, Lee competed in a shooting marathon surpassing all others. Despite only qualifying as an alternate at the Olympic tryouts, he was the only competitor (American or international) to compete in all 15 different Olympic rifle-shooting events. An electrifying double sudden-death shoot off amplified the physical and mental demands on Lee, firing five times as many rounds for record as nearly any other shooter. In his only Olympiad, Lee finished dead-last in his first event. Yet, his discipline and tenacity made him unyielding. Despite shooting five different weapons and limited practice, he achieved a level of team achievement the Olympics have never seen again. With unexploded artillery shells from the war being detonated on the same shooting range, Lee captured seven medals: five golds, a silver and a bronze setting an Olympic record for most medals in a single Games that stood for 60 years. In the history of the modern Olympics, only two athletes took home more medals from a single Olympiad than Lee, the Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin (1980) and Michael Phelps (2004, 2008). The other fifteen Americans who exceeded Lee’s Olympic career medal total all required multiple Olympiads. Lee’s were all team medals and only Phelps and fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dana Torres ever earned more Olympic team medals than Lee. The three great swimmers required four Olympiads to exceed Lee’s total of team medals. No Olympian took home more team medals from a single Olympiad than Willis Lee: EVER.[1] With little fanfare then or now, his record for having competed in more events at a single Olympiad than any other athlete still stands a century later.[2]


     The “Great War” undermined the 6th Olympiad, scheduled for 1916 in Berlin. The war’s result created an environment that another Olympiad was uncertain. Yet, on 3 April 1919, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Baron Pierre DeCoubertin of France, announced the 7th Olympiad would indeed take place in the summer of 1920, less than eighteen months later. The critical catalyst was the offer by the government of Belgium, despite the destruction wrought by the war on the country, to host the games in the city of Antwerp.[3] These games became the first to fly the modern Olympic flag of five interlocking rings. The rings, a reproduction of colors from all nations in the five regions of the world[4], signified “the universality of the Olympic games.”[5] The games and the over 2600 athletes who competed represented a unique opportunity to begin healing the wounds inflicted by the war. 

     The 7th Olympiad was also unique for the United States. The United States became a, if not THE, dominate power in the world. The United States government and military would not miss the chance to reinforce this through athletic competition. Yet, in 1919 the American Olympic Committee (AOC) was in shambles. The first coordination meeting did not take place until 6 months after the IOC’s announcement of the 1920 games and at that meeting, both the President and the Secretary of the AOC resigned. Gustavus Town Kirby became the new President of the AOC, recognized the significance of the 1920 Olympics to America, and quickly turned his organizational skills to enlisting the support of the United States government.[6] President Woodrow Wilson accepted the offer to be honorary President and pledged “the assistance and cooperation of both branches of service.”[7]

     Kirby also took full advantage of the American press to advance the Olympic effort. Starting in February 1920, nearly every paper in America carried the official program for the 7th Olympiad released by the IOC. Stories detailing the events and sources of athletes frequently ran in papers and magazines across the country, to include Lee’s hometown newspaper in Owenton, Kentucky and the closest metropolitan paper in Louisville. The IOC excluded the “hand grenade throw” from the Antwerp Olympics, and second to Track and Field, rifle shooting would have the most events. In keeping with President Wilson’s desire, the Navy Department expected to have athletes competing in each of the 21 different competitive areas and released plans to establish Navy athletic training centers at both the Great Lakes Training Station and the Naval Academy. In similar fashion, The War Department used its infrastructure and personnel to develop a significant contribution to the Olympic effort. Despite the short timeline faced by the AOC, support of the United States Government and military branches allowed the AOC to confidently announce that the United States Olympic team “will be the largest that ever sailed from these shores for foreign competition.”[8] Of the 406 members of the United States Olympic Team to compete in Antwerp, one-third were active-duty members of the military.[9]


     In 1920, Willis Lee began his 16th year of a naval career. Originally from the small town of Owenton, Kentucky, Lee entered the Naval Academy in 1904 at barely 16 years of age. His hunting acumen in rural Kentucky led to the Naval Academy Rifle Team, and in 1907, Lee and his teammates became the first service academy competitors to shoot at the United States National Shooting matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. Lee, at only 19 and in his first shooting tournament, shocked the nation’s marksmen by defeating over 1000 competitors to become the first and only marksman in the history of the United States National Matches, shooting military weapons, to win both the National Rifle and National Pistol Championships in the same year.[10] An impressed President Teddy Roosevelt acknowledged Lee’s accomplishments in a telegram to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy soon afterwards.[11] Lee never repeated the same level of success but competed at the national level in both military rifle and pistol events nearly every year thereafter.[12] While stationed as a Navy officer in the Far East, Lee also developed great skill in shooting “small-bore” rifles as well, winning the President’s Cup sponsored by the Shanghai Miniature Rifle Club in 1912.[13] Unlike his victories at his first National Match in 1907, by the Spring of 1920, Willis Lee was a seasoned national and international marksmanship competitor. In late May 1920, Lee, then the second in command of the submarine tender USS Bushnell, headed to the U.S. Marine base at Quantico, Virginia to try out for the Olympic team.


     High cost estimates from Kirby and the AOC meant the United States Olympic Team needed help from the outset. Air transport across the Atlantic did not exist, and not one commercial shipping line had the means to move large numbers to Europe due to wartime shipping losses and dockyard worker strikes.[14] Kirby enlisted both War Secretary Newton Baker and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels as Honorary Vice Presidents of the AOC. At Baker’s recommendation, Congress passed legislation that allocated U.S. Army transport ships used to supply the U.S. Army of Occupation on the Rhine to move the team. Six ships moved the entire team, in increments, from the United States to Antwerp and back at no cost to the AOC or the athletes.[15]

     In the case of the Olympic Rifle team, no-cost support also came from commercial ammunition manufacturers. Four companies gathered on ranges in New Jersey in mid-May 1920 to compete for the honor of providing ammunition. Remington Arms Company defeated Winchester, Western, and Olympic, and claimed the title for the best ammunition for the military rifles to be fired at Antwerp. Over 30,000 rounds of specially crafted ammunition for the 1903 model Springfield Rifles traveled to Europe aboard the same U.S. Army transports, and a company spokesman boasted “If your Uncle Sam doesn’t add the 1920 Olympic Match pelt to the many he’s got tacked on the old barn, then the fault won’t lie with the ammunition.”[16]

     Newspapers and magazines across the country followed preparations. In Kentucky, readers learned that the trials for shooting teams would duplicate “Special Belgian targets and other Olympic shooting conditions.”[17] The Army-Navy Journal, the weekly periodical published in New York to provide insight into all aspects of the military services, repeatedly featured Olympic preparation stories and recited details regarding the tryouts for the shooting teams in May.[18] Metric system distances did not exist at U.S. military ranges, but the Marine Corps pulled out all the stops for the national Olympic effort. “No time or trouble was grudged in the construction of the firing line.”[19] When Lee and approximately 100 other aspiring rifle team members reported on 24 May, they found brand new, “special” firing-line berms at 300 and 600 meters for the trials and then practice for those who made the team. 

     Brigadier General Fred H. Philips, Executive Officer of the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, published a detailed memorandum that established the Olympic shooting events, rules, and scoring criteria.[20] In accordance with the IOC guidelines, rifle shooters would compete in fifteen different events. Events employing military or service rifles dominated with 3 individual and 4 team events. Small-bore rifles and Choice of Arms (the competitor chose his individual rifle) each featured one team and one individual event. The most unfamiliar to American shooters would be the two team and two individual events of the running deer matches. This European specialty allowed any rifle of any caliber and any firing position as long as long as shooters used only open sights. Shooting from 100 meters, competitors fired at a reproduction of a deer of natural size that moved on a track. 

     Oddly, the rifle team trials only included firing of service weapons from the 300 and 600 meter lines at Quantico. Each competitor fired 50 rounds a day for score for the three days of 27-29 May.  Olympic rules allowed candidates to fire their own personal weapons if so desired. Unlike the U.S. national competitions, however, the Olympics did not allow the use of a rifle sling around the shooter’s supporting arm to help anchor and steady the weapon in each firing position. The twelve competitors with the highest three-day total became members on the Olympic team. Fortunately for Lee, Philips also established that the AOC could also chose five alternate members for the team “on account of special qualifications.”[21] Once selected, the team would remain at Quantico to practice until departing for Europe.

     Philips also clearly established that professionals were not authorized to compete. The IOC, in its own rules published in February 1920, clearly expected to uphold the Olympic spirit and scrutinized entrants for professional backgrounds. Philips stated that amateurs have never “shot in a public competition or taken part in competitions open to professionals.”[22] In retrospect, Lee and several of his teammates’ qualifications as amateurs were questionable. The annual U.S. National Matches, which by this time Lee had competed five times, included thousands of shooters from around the United States competing for title money. Lee, in his 1907 National Match victories alone received significant sums of money for each title. 


     Throughout the three-day competition, competitors complimented the quarters and shooting facilities constructed by the Marines. Weather conditions, however, were not as accommodating and quickly thinned the field of shooters. Early success and subsequent consistency were the keys, as seven of the final team members were in the top 12 at the end of Day 1 and remained there. Interestingly, Lee finished in the bottom 50% at the end of Day 1. Yet, Lee’s reputation as a shooter at the Naval Academy included an uncanny ability to adjust to conditions and superlative consistency. On Day 2, difficult sun and wind conditions frustrated shooters and a large number shot poorly and withdrew from the competition. Lee, on the other hand, excelled. He advanced from the bottom 50 to a tie for 21st place, only 13 points behind first place, his fellow Navy officer Carl Osburn.[23] Only 44 shooters remained on Day 3.[24] In spectacular shooting, seven shooters scored 390 or above out of the possible 400. Lee’s dramatic ascent of the day before stalled, but his 383 elevated him to 18th place overall. The former National Rifle Champion did not have the score to make the team. 

     Selection of the five alternates fell to the team captain, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel George C. Shaw. Given that the just completed tryouts only evaluated service rifle skill and that 8 of the 15 rifle events would be fired with other weapons, Shaw stated that “skill with small bore rifles” was a critical component for determining the alternates.[25]Undoubtedly Lee’s small-bore experience and consistency regardless of conditions helped Shaw decide to vault Lee over three other shooters who finished ahead of him in the final standings. These same characteristics were critical to Shaw’s decision to make Lee the only member of the Olympic Rifle Team to shoot in all fifteen events in Antwerp, and yet, in the Army-Navy Journal article listing team members and prescient to Lee’s lack of recognition, his is the only name misspelled.[26]


     As the rifle team began practicing at Quantico, help from across the country continued to pour in for the AOC. Mr. George Lewis, the superintendent of the Stevens Arms Company in Chicopee, Illinois crafted six custom .22 caliber, small-bore rifles for the team. Advised by U.S. Marine Major J.J. Dooley, the rifles included “hair triggers,” heavy European stocks, Swiss butt plates, and pistol grips. Factory workers christened each rifle with a name. Dooley delivered the rifles to the team as they boarded their transport ship to Antwerp, and the shooters quickly learned to be able to distinguish between “Liza,” and “James,” and the other four rifles by the relative sensitivity of the trigger pull.[27]

     Other private manufacturers were equally as supportive. The Savage Arms Company furnished, without charge, .25 caliber rifles and ammunition specifically for the single-shot running deer events. For the double-shot, The Remington Arms company provided a different .25 caliber rifle, also free of charge. The entire team wore shooting uniforms from the Simon Eisner Company of Red Bank, New Jersey.[28]

     President Wilson signed legislation authorizing athletes to travel on government transports on 4 June 1920.[29] After the final practice on 17 June, the seventeen shooters of the Rifle Team along with their team captain, coach, doctor and three others departed Quantico by train to Hoboken, New Jersey. Only one member, the alternate Lawrence A. Neusslein, was a civilian. Lee and Osburn constituted the only Navy shooters. Ten Army soldiers and four Marines rounded out the team. On the 21st of June, the team set sail for a 15-day journey aboard the transport Antigone.[30]

     Unlike a large portion of the Olympic Team on other transports, the transit of the rifle team was uneventful. The transport Princess Matoika, upon which a majority of the other athletes sailed, received blistering reports from embarked athletes. Despite efforts by the AOC to install special equipment to facilitate practice, athletes railed over poor service, bad food, and “vermin-ridden, especially with rats” staterooms.[31] After the games, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in the U.S. voted to investigate the deplorable conditions on the Atlantic crossing.[32] The eleven-day voyage of track stars, boxers, and wrestlers was made more miserable by soaring temperatures along the very southerly route the ship sailed because of severe ice floes in the Atlantic that summer,[33] a testament to Titanic’s sinking, only eight years before.

     Upon arrival in Antwerp on 6 July, Lee and his teammates suffered from lack of good practice with their old and the new weapons they received just before sailing. Pistol and TRAP shooters were able to shoot regularly aboard their transports, Pocahontas and Fort Victoria[34] respectively, but the longer ranges required for the rifle shooters undermined practice while sailing. Lee and the team needed practice to compete in three weeks. The U.S. government and military again rose to the occasion. In a horse-drawn Europe, American military trucks provided all transportation for the U.S. Olympic team. Lee and the rifle team moved immediately nearly 150 miles south east to the American Army of Occupation of the Rhine base at Coblentz, Germany  where a brand-new rifle range awaited them. [35] Living in American barracks with substantial support, the team fired daily, relearning the intricacies of firing their 1903 Springfield military rifles without the slings they had always relied upon. The shooters learned, for the first time, the strengths and weaknesses of the custom rifles provided to them by American arms makers. With 17 shooters on the team, coach and captain had to make some difficult decisions regarding which shooters would compete in each of the 15 rifle events. 

     As the rifle team “geared up” for the competition, media outlets in the United States also geared up to ensure there would be close coverage of this first Olympiad with modern trappings. Yet news about the Olympics faced serious competition for newspaper and periodical coverage that summer. Sir Thomas Lipton lost his fourth America’s Cup challenge to the sailboat Resolute.[36] The great racehorse Man-O-War debuted at Saratoga Springs drawing a record 35,000 spectators.[37] Pancho Villa surrendered to the Mexican government,[38] and Charles Ponzi declared bankruptcy and the inability to repay his investors.[39] The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote received final ratification,[40] and Babe Ruth, in his first season as a New York Yankee after his trade from the Red Sox, shattered the baseball home run record.[41]

     Despite of the competition for news print, the Olympics earned close coverage. The Associated Press reporter embarked aboard the Princess Matoika provided daily wireless reports back to New York.[42] As early as 22 July, before competition began, the New York Times chronicled Olympic exploits daily. While reports on shooting normally resided inside on the sports pages, starting on 16 August, reporter P.J. Philip’s daily dispatches by “special cable” ran on the front page of the Times through 25 August. Weekly periodicals, such as the Army-Navy Journal and the National Rifle Association magazine, Arms and the Man, carried lengthy reports for the duration of the competition and after the return of all the athletes. Reports moved to daily newspapers across the country. Smaller city papers, such as the Louisville Courier Journal closely documented the shooting competition results and carried daily reports after the games officially opened. Ironically, Lee’s weekly hometown newspaper, The News Herald, made no mention of the Olympics, the shooting competition, or Lee and his seven medals.

     A team populated with tremendous talent rarely has the chance for all members to compete and excel. Coaches and captains must evaluate individuals and look to find those who will excel when needed most. Shaw, the rifle team captain, and his coach, U.S. Marine Major W. Duffy Smith faced many difficult choices. The IOC rules for the 15 different rifle events stated clearly that only five competitors could compete in each event. Additionally, competitors had to declare in writing ahead of the first shot going down range whether they would use the score achieved in team event for their individual event as well. There was no documentation of practice rounds at Coblenz. There was no listing of why the coaches placed the shooters they did in the events they did. The inner thoughts and workings of leaders and coaches are often never shared. As their team left Coblenz on 19 August, however, Shaw and Duffy had solid rosters. With a number of stunning surprises, the competitors for the United States rifle team were set.

     Despite his starting position as an alternate, Lee established his consistency across every area: running deer, military rifle, free rifle, and small-bore rifle. He conquered the challenges of the new custom weapons for the running deer events. He proved his mettle with his personal 1903 Springfield and a personal small-bore rifle, rather than one of the named rifles from the Stevens Arms Company back in Chicopee.  Lee headed to the Beverloo Ranges outside Antwerp as the only shooter on the U.S. Olympic Team slated to fire in every one of the fifteen events. 


     The Beverloo military camp lay 40 miles east of Antwerp in typical coastal terrain. Yet the American team concluded it was “the strangest rifle range …in all the world.”[43] Founded in 1835 by the Belgian government, by 1914 Beverloo was among the most modern facilities in Europe. The German Army occupied Beverloo and used it as a testing area for deadly chlorine gas and as a training base for German units heading to the Western Front close by.[44] The rolling terrain and war damage to the area meant a clear 300-meter shot was nearly impossible and should have disqualified the area for a rifle competition. Consequently, range architects did indeed create a very “strange” range, building the Olympic firing positions in a curved arc shifting nearly 90 degrees over its length rather a straight line. Shooters firing at the same time faced completely different directions and conditions across the firing line. Winds were strong and persistent and whirled the sandy soil into the faces of some shooters and not others, dependent upon the firing position. At some firing points, terrain intervened to prevent a line of sight from the shooting position to the targets. Builders constructed “baby Matterhorns,” pyramids some 15 feet tall on top of which a shooter could observe the targets each was expected to hit. The Belgians did build a very efficient scoring system into the range allowing shooters to see the result of each round using binoculars. Lee and his teammates universally complimented the scoring system but indicted the range as the “antithesis as to what a rifle range should be.”[45] These conditions and Lee’s ability to adjust to extreme conditions figured prominently into the American coach and captain decision to have him shooting each event.

     Lee and his teammates began the competition on 26 July with their confidence bolstered by the results of the American trap shooters. As chronicled in the New York Times on 24 July, the U.S. trap team crushed the seven other teams and took the team gold. American marksmen also swept the individual event, winning gold, silver and bronze.[46]Lee and his teammates rode this wave to the firing line for the running deer competitions. Here, in his first Olympic event, despite the custom rifles and the world’s best ammunition, Lee failed miserably and hit the “buzzsaw” of the Norwegian shooting team. 

    From 100 meters away, shooters saw the target for only four seconds while it moved on a track. A perfect kill shot gave a shooter 5 points and a maximum of 50 points in the single-shot events. The double-shot events gave the same amount of time but required two shots with the same scoring criteria and a possible 100 points for a shooter. The five Norwegian shooters dominated the field and won the team gold in the single-shot by a wide margin. Finland placed second. Three American shooters finished close behind some Europeans, but the team finished a distant third. Willis Lee, the former U.S. National rifle and pistol champion, finished dead last among all 20 competitors with only 24 points out of a possible 50. Even the Swedish shooter, Oscar Swahn, the oldest competitor to compete in the history of the Olympics at nine days shy of his 73rd birthday bested Lee by four points.[47]

   Lee did not have time to lament his bad shooting. In keeping with his reputation, Lee ramped up his performance that afternoon for the double-shot team competition. Lee finished second only to Lloyd Spooner for the U.S. Team. Yet, the running deer continued to confound the U.S. shooters. The team finished far behind all teams as the Norwegians again took the gold. The “old man,” Oscar Swahn, with a 68 out of 100 bested Lee again, by 10 points, and every other American while inspiring the Swedes to a strong silver medal performance. In the individual events the next day, Lee improved his single shot score by 9 to a 33 but dropped more points in the double shot and for the second time in his brief Olympic career finished dead last among all competitors. Meanwhile Swahn, in his final Olympic performance, again outscored every American shooter in the competition. As the first phase of the rifle events closed, winning one team bronze brought little solace to the Americans, given how badly “Old Swahn” and the rest of the Europeans had dominated them. Press reports chided the American team’s lack of practice as their custom rifles “were superior to any others.”[48] Lee’s spectacular jump from alternate to shooting in every event contributed nothing to U.S. efforts. 

     After a day of rest, fifteen teams began the military rifle portion of the shooting competition on 29 July. Olympic rules allowed for competitors to declare in writing prior to an event their intent to use the score shot in their team event to count towards their individual event as well. For the seven military rifle events shot on 29 July, Lee and his teammates declined this option.[49] As they had for the running deer, Lee and teammate Lloyd Spooner would again shoot every event. The U.S. team claimed a medal quickly in the 300-meter standing-team competition. The five shooters were the same who earned the less-than-impressive bronze in the running deer, but this impressive performance gave the U.S. the team silver medal.

     Shooting began at first light and continued throughout an unusual day at Beverloo of light winds and an overcast sky that benefitted all shooters. Firing from the standing, or “offhand,” position was the most unstable of any event. The Americans put their standard Springfield rifles and “exalted” ammunition from the Seagirt competition to good use. In the second event, the 300-meter standing individual, Lee showed his continued consistency and fired the same score as his first event but did not earn a medal. The teams moved quickly to the third round of firing, and the U.S. Team began to gather momentum in the 300-meter prone team competition. With near perfect 59s from Osburn and Spooner, Lee’s own solid 57 earned the U.S. Team their first team gold medal, beating second-place France by six points.[50] Then, only Lee and Spooner stayed on the line for the U.S. to shoot in the 300-meter prone individual competition. In their fourth event so far that day, the two stalwarts of the U.S. team stayed consistent, but out of the 75 competitors, no U.S. shooter scored well enough to earn an individual medal. 

     At mid-day, coastal winds increased slightly, with gusts up to 15 miles per hour. Yet, “the United States team had struck its stride.”[51] Competitors and the press considered the final event at 300 meters to be the most prestigious.[52]Fourteen teams shot 10 rounds at 300 meters then moved to the 600-meter line and shot ten more rounds. The combined score from both lines gave the winner the Military Team match gold medal. Keeping with his reputation for adjusting to conditions, Lee just kept improving and bested Osburn, Spooner, and every other competitor, dropping only one point in this first half of the match. As shooters collected their equipment and moved back to the 600-meter line for the remainder of the day, Lee and the U.S. team had a wide lead in this Military Team match.

     In what any competitive marksman would consider a full day of firing, Lee fired five strings of fire for score at 300 meters. He and Spooner were the undisputed workhorses of the American team, being the only shooters to shoot all five events at 300 meters. These two and the remaining team members settled in for the second part of the Military Team match and again dominated. Lee and the other four U.S. shooters all finished within one point of each other and the team earned their second team gold medal of the day. Lee’s total for the combined 300 and 600 meter Military Team match was 116 and second only to Norway’s Otto Olsen out of all 70 competitors.[53] Yet, Lee’s day was far from over. 

     The 600-meter prone individual event saw Lee and Spooner side by side again for their 7th string of fire for the day. Lee stayed consistent but did not medal. Spooner scored a near perfect 59 but still finished third to the steamroller of Norway, [add first names] with Johansson and Eriksson taking the gold and silver. 

     For the weary Lee, the final event of the day proved to be, arguably, the most exciting shooting event in the history of Olympic rifle shooting. Lee and Spooner, shot their eighth string of fire for score of the day in the team event at 600 meters in the prone position. Once again, the Americans were on fire and Lee finished second with a 58. Despite great U.S. team scores, and Lee’s eighth great score of the day, the event ended with a three-way tie. The United States, South Africa, and Sweden with the U.S. nemesis from the running-deer event Old Swahn cheering on his team, all shot 287 out of a possible 300. The IOC rules accounted for ties, with the discriminator for ruling which team had won being which team fired the highest number rounds into the 5 and 6 rings. Judges checked the targets, and each team fired 13 and 37 respectively. The 600-meter prone team gold medal resolution would come at a shoot-off the following day. 

     The longest day of shooting competition came to a close. The U.S. team redeemed itself from the poor showing in the running-deer competition. Osburn earned the only individual gold medal for an American in military rifle shooting. Spooner walked away with an individual bronze medal. More importantly, Lee and his teammates showed the team dominance of the U.S. with two gold medals, to include the prestigious Military Team match, a silver medal and riding high headed to the shootout with the South Africans and Swedes the next day. Only Lee and Spooner fired in every event. The 80 rounds they both expended in competition was nearly double that of the closest teammates and eight times that of five teammates who fired in only one event the entire day.[54] Lee vindicated the faith of team captain Shaw and team coach Smith that day and was the bedrock of the U.S. team success that day. His scores improved throughout the day. His near perfect 59 at 300 meters and then combined with his score at 600 meters ensured a U.S. gold in the prestigious Military Team event. Lee, the alternate, rose to be first among equals, and there remained three more days of shooting.

     From the February original schedule, the IOC intended 30 July to be a shooter’s rest day but reserved should tie-breaking shoot-offs be required. The summer days in Northern Europe were long and started early. As the sun rose at 5 AM, there was no rest for Lee, and team members headed back to the firing lines. That day, the sports page of the New York Times ran an exclusive article detailing the American shooter scores from the long day before. The writer included no individual team member shooting accomplishments. So, the accomplishments of Lee remained invisible. Shoot offs in the 300-meter prone for individuals between Olsen of Norway, Johnson of France and Kuchen of Switzerland resolved quickly with the Norwegian “buzzsaw” winning another gold. A two-way tie for silver and bronze in the 300-meter standing for individuals also finished early. Lee and his teammates felt elated that Nuesslein, a 24-year old employee of Sears and Roebuck, earned only the third and final individual medal in military rifle events for the United States with a bronze. As Lee and Spooner took their places at the 600-meter line for their shoot off, they must have been exhausted and while watching the Swedes get ready may have said a little prayer that “Old Swahn” was not shooting against them. 

     Conditions were nearly perfect that day, as a brief rain shower in the morning passed before the shoot off commenced.[55] The Swedes were not up to the task and dropped 25 points from a possible 300 to finish third for the bronze. The South African shooters, with no medals to this point, using the Belgian scoring system from their firing positions, recorded an unofficial 283 for their five shooters. The U.S. team was solid but pressed hard by the South Africans. [first name] Fenton, who fired a perfect 60 the day before dropped to a disappointing 56 with matching scores from Spooner and Jackson. Lee, rose again to the occasion despite his exhaustion. He and [first name] Schriver fired the U.S.’s best scores of 57 but only totaled a 282 based upon the unofficial scoring. The event looked to be done with only a second silver for the U.S. team. Yet as judges reviewed targets to confirm the scoring, they deemed that one round on Schriver’s target creased the line between the 5 and 6 rings, giving him an extra point and the U.S. an official score of 283. Amazingly, the event ended in a deadlock for the second time. Initially, Olympic officials proposed drawing lots to determine which team won the gold medal. Confidence bolstered again, the American team refused the offer.[56]Olympic officials added an unheard of second shoot off for 2 August.[57]

     Once again, Lee and his teammates had no time to lament or celebrate. The next day, 31 July, was the free rifle event, the most demanding event for a single individual. Also referred to as the Choice of Arms event by the IOC, competitors were free to choose any rifle or carbine as long as it had open sights and no sighting scope. The U.S. shooters employed personal rifles for the event. Lee shifted to his fourth different weapon of the Olympics. Shot from the 300-meter line, shooters all fired 120 rounds, 40 each from the standing, sitting and prone positions.[58] The IOC scheduled both the team and individual event for the same day. Total rounds to be fired in only one of the two events exceeded what Lee shot on the 30th of June. Given the demands of the previous two days, as well as the U.S. team shoot-off with the South Africans and the small-bore rifle event scheduled for 2 July, the U.S. coach captain and competitors decided to submit in writing to use the scores fired in the team event to count for the individual event, requiring them to shoot only 120 rounds that day instead of 240. 

     [first name] Fisher paced the team in only his second event of the Olympiad and fired a 997 of a possible 1200 that earned him the individual gold medal. Osburn returned for his 7th and final event of this Olympiad. Lee and Spooner shot again. This was the 12th and 13th event for both shooters in the 6 days of competition, but only Lee would shoot again. Like Osburn, it was Spooner’s final event of this Olympiad. Fisher’s high score and solid performances from Lee and the other three Americans team earned the third team gold medal for the United States, Lee’s third gold and fifth Olympic medal. The first of August was also to be a day of rest, but Lee and his teammates needed to prepare for their gold medal shoot off on the 2 August. Lee, alone, also had to practice with his fifth and final weapon of the Olympiad, his personal .22 caliber, small-bore rifle. 

     Another early day on 2 August witnessed a somewhat anticlimactic second half of the double shoot off before the small-bore rifle competition. Emboldened by victory in the free rifle event, the U.S. team easily defeated the South African team. The only medal earned by South Africa in the shooting events of the games, a silver, gave the U.S. team its fourth gold. Lee, the alternate, now owned six Olympic medals: four golds, a silver and a bronze. As he came to the line for his 14th and 15th events of the Olympiad, the disappointment of the running deer matches was far behind. Competitors shot the .22 caliber, small -bore rifles at targets only 50 meters away. Both the team and individual events took place that day, with 40 rounds required to be fired by each shooter in each event. Back in May, Lieutenant Colonel Shaw selected Lee as an alternate, in large part, because of his international small-bore rifle competition experience. Yet Lee’s skill in every rifle type, his discipline and consistency, and his ability to adjust to any conditions, demonstrated throughout the practice sessions at the American range at Coblenz now brought him to the firing line as the only American shooter to compete in all four of the rifle shooting areas. Of the five shooters in small bore, only Lee fired in every one of the previous 13 rifle events. 

      For only the second time, team captain, coach and competitors chose to submit their request in writing to have their team scores count for the individual event as well. Lee’s 370 of a possible 400 was a strong performance, especially given the demands placed upon him as an individual competitor in his prior events. In the small-bore team event, the U.S. team won again, and Lee had his 7th Olympic medal. As the “Guns of July” went silent, Willis Lee accomplished a great deal for which he should be remembered but his record is nearly forgotten. He fired a total of 320 rounds for score in all of his events as compared to average American shooter firing only 70. Lee was the only Olympic shooter, American or International, to record a score in all fifteen rifle events. While the scores for two individual events came from the team events, Lee competed in more events at the single Olympiad in Antwerp than any other athlete, American or International, in Olympic history: EVER. The team gold medal for the small-bore team event earned by Lee was his 5thgold. With the team bronze in running deer and a team silver gave Lee seven Olympic medals for the single Olympiad, a total that established the record for medals at a single Olympiad until 1980. While his teammate Spooner also earned seven medals, Lee’s rounds fired, events competed in, and gold medals earned, all exceeded Spooner’s notable efforts. On the International Olympic Committee website that lists the national and individual medals totals for Antwerp, Lee’s name sits alone at the top of the list.[59] Other American athletes have achieved great medal totals and honors in the century since Lee shot at Antwerp. Phelps and Spitz, Thompson and Torres all earned more career Olympic medals that Willis Lee as well as recognition in halls of fame, magazine covers, and cereal boxes. While conspicuously absent was the recognition for this quiet professional from Kentucky who earned more Olympic team medals at a single Olympiad than any Olympic athlete in history: EVER.


     The shooting competition for the 7th Olympiad finished 3 August. The American pistol team won gold in three of the four events. American news outlets carried stories for weeks of the “great American shooting victory.” Based upon a point system awarded for medals, the United States shooting teams scored nearly as many as all the other nations combined: 43 to 47.[60] The New York Times proclaimed “U.S. Marksmen in Sweeping Victory,” on 4 August. Closer to Lee’s home, the Louisville Courier Journal established that the United States had “easily maintained the marksmanship title of the world.”[61] In his article for the National Rifle Association, Kendrick Scofield, trumpeted that “U.S. Shots Score Sweeping Victory at Olympic Games.”[62] Osburn, as an individual medal winner, received coverage, by name, in the Army-Navy Journal.[63] Ironically, Scofield’s extensive article includes individual photos of “some members of the American Rifle Team,”[64] but Lee was not included. In perhaps the greatest insult to Lee’s achievements, his hometown paper makes no mention of him, his medals or the Olympics at all.

     Lee and the other members of the rifle team remained in Antwerp for most of August. Wearing their military uniforms, he and other active-duty Olympic athletes marched as part of the American team in the opening ceremonies on 15 August. The remaining American athletes also earned great accolades in Antwerp, fulfilling the desire of Kirby, the AOC and even President Wilson in confirming America’s rising stature as a great sporting power in the world. Lee, undoubtedly, attended some of those athletic competitions. Perhaps Lee crossed paths with the father of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, after he won his gold medals in swimming. Maybe he witnessed U.S. Marine Lieutenant Harry Liversedge, who earned a single bronze medal for the shot put but would go on to be a war hero, earning a Navy Cross for valor leading his Marines in the assault on the island of Iwo Jima. Yet, when Lee and the rifle team returned to New York aboard the much-maligned Army transport Princess Matoika on 4 September, he remained invisible to the American public. Other than one photo of Lee and Osburn with the Secretary of the Navy, there is no press coverage of the Olympic records set by Lee. In fact, James Snook of the U.S. Pistol team garnered far more press than Lee ever did, but ignominiously so for being the only American Olympian in history to be executed for a crime.[65] Sadly, Lee’s amazing Olympic campaign in Antwerp in 1920 remained unrecognized for a century.[66] Even his alma mater in Annapolis has no recognition of this athlete and his accomplishments, save the small plaque in the locker room of the team where he started his shooting career. 


[1] The compilation of medals and events in which athletes competed were tallied from two websites. The first is This is the official website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and contains historical statistics on each of the modern Olympic Games, to include the results of each event along with the competitors and their individual results. The second is This site is, in some ways, superior to the IOC website regarding results and cross-checking competitors. 

[2] Ibid. The great swimmers Mark Spitz (1972) and Matt Biondi (1988) both earned eleven career medals, but only equaled Lee’s seven medals at a single Olympiad. Michael Phelps, with all those medals and in his prime, only ever competed in eight events at a single Olympiad.

[3] Gustavus Town Kirby, President of the American Olympic Committee, Report of the American Olympic Committee, Seventh Olympic Games, Antwerp, Belgium, 1920, The Conde Nast Press, Greenwich, CT., pg. 9.

[4] Kirby, pg. 54-55.

[6] Kirby, pg. 9.  

[7] The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY, 13 February 1920, pg. 10.

[8] The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY, 19 February 1920, pg. 7,8.

[9] Kirby, pg. 42-44. A total of 128 athletes competed while serving on active duty. The Marine Corps only provided 4, 1 in track and field and 3 members of the rifle team. The Army provided 56, with tug of war, rifle, wrestling, and fencing being the largest. The Navy had the most athletes. Rowing was the largest contingent. Only two Navy competitors competed as rifle shooters: Lee and Commander Carl Osburn, USN. 

[10] The News Herald, Owenton, Kentucky, 5 September 1907, pg. 7. The Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 4 September 1907, pg. 1. 

[11] Letters and Memorandums Sent to the Naval Academy Officers, Instructors, and Cadets 1894-1908, U.S. Naval Academy Special Collections Archives, Record Group 405, Box 9, Volume 159, Letter 252, 3 Sep 1907.

[12] Lee fired at the US National matches 4 more times before the 1920 Olympics: 1908, 09, 13 and 19. He also fired at National Divisional matches at Sea Girt, New Jersey in 1914 and the National Rifle Association (NRA) sponsored National Indoor and Outdoor Revolver Championships in 1916. The Kentucky Historical Association (KHA) maintains a collection of most of Lee’s nearly 100 shooting awards in Frankfort, Kentucky. 

[13] Lee’s great niece, Mrs. Nancy Clausen, and her husband Chris maintain several of Lee’s shooting awards. Their collection includes the silver goblet awarded to Willis A. Lee Jr, USN as the President’s Cup Champion for the Shanghai Miniature Rifle Club in 1912. I am greatly appreciative to the Clausens for providing me access to many personal effects from Willis Lee.

[14] Kirby, pg. 19.

[15] Kirby, pg. 43.

[16] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 June 1920, pg. 5. Digital on-line collection found as a part of the Sage Endowment Fund Collection, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 

[17] The Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 21 April 1920, pg. 6.

[18] The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, New York, New York, Volume 57, 15 May 1920, pg. 1137.

[19] Kendrick Scofield, Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 June 1920, pg. 4-5.

[20] Fred H. Phillips, Jr., Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C., 1 May 1920, pg. 9-10, 21-22.

[21] Phillips, pg. 9.

[22] Phillips, pg. 10.

[23] Scofield, pg. 16. Carl Osburn was the most prominent international competitor to make the Olympic Rifle Team. Osburn earned 4 medals at the 5th Olympiad in 1912. He returned to a third Olympiad in 1924. His Olympic career total medals earned of 11 (5 golds, 4 silver, and 2 bronze) is second only to Michael Phelps. Yet, Osburn only earned 6 medals (1 individual) at Antwerp, and he only competed in eight events. From

[24] The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, New York, New York, Volume 57, 5 June 1920, pg. 1239.

[25] Scofield, pg. 14.

[26] The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, New York, New York, Volume 57, 5 June 1920, pg. 1239.


[27] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 July 1920.

[28] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 December 1920.

[29] The Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 5 June 1920, pg. 7.

[30] Kirby, pg. 115-127. The remainder of the Olympic team rode other transports. Although 56 active-duty Navy sailors actually sailed aboard the armored cruiser USS Frederick, which became the home base for the entire U.S. Olympic team through the completion of the Olympiad in September.

[31] Kirby, pg. 29. The Princess Matoika received a 65-yard cork track on the upper deck for sprinters. Swimmers received a 15-foot long canvas tank which was filled daily with fresh seawater in order to practice.

[32] The Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 17 November 1920, pg. 9.

[33] Kirby, pg. 29-30.

[34] Kirby, pg. 42-43.

[35] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 October 1920, pg. 84.

[36] The New York Times, New York, New York, 28 July 1920, pg. 1.

[37] The New York Times, New York, New York, 8 August 1920, pg. 23.

[38] The New York Times, New York, New York, 29 July 1920, pg. 1.

[39] The New York Times, New York, New York, 10 August 1920, pg. 1.

[40] The New York Times, New York, New York, 18 August 1920, pg. 1.

[41] The New York Times, New York, New York, 16 August 1920, pg. 21. Ruth hit 54 home runs that season. By the time of the Olympic opening ceremonies, he had already hit 42 breaking his own record from the previous season of 29. 

[42] The New York Times, New York, New York, 29 Jul 1920, pg. 1, 15.

[43] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 October 1920, pg. 83.

[45] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 October 1920, pg. 83-84.

[46] The New York Times, New York, New York, 24 Jul 1920, pg. 11.

[47], 7 June 2019. Swahn is still the oldest Olympic competitor in history. He is also the oldest medalist in Olympic history with a silver medal in the 1920 Running Deer Double-Shot team event. He earned six medals in the three Olympiads in which he competed: 1908, 1912, and 1920. 


[48] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 December 1920, pg. 191.

[49] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 May 1920, pg. 10.

[50] Kirby, pg. 115-127.

[51] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 October 1920, pg. 90.

[52] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 August 1920, pg. 3-4.

[53] Kirby, pg. 115-127.

[54] Osburn and Jackson fired 5 strings of fire in the day, although only one of Osburn’s was from 600 meters, as compared to Lee with three. Fenton, Adams, Hird, Lawless and Lindroth, all of whom finished well above Lee at the tryouts each only fired one string of ten rounds the entire day. 

[55]The New York Times, New York, New York, 30 Jul 1920, pg. 16. 

[56] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 October 1920, pg. 90.

[57] Kirby, pg. 115-127.

[58] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 1 May 1920, pg. 9-10.


[60] Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 August 1920, pg. 8.

[61] The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY, 31 July 1920, pg. 6.

[62] Kendrick Scofield, Arms and the Man, The American Rifleman’s Magazine, The Official Organ of the National Rifle Association of America, Washington, D.C. 15 August 1920, pg. 3.

[63] The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, New York, New York, Volume 57, 7 August 1920, pg. 1510.

[64] Scofield, pg. 3-4.

[65] James Snook fired in two team events for the U.S Pistol Team at Antwerp and earned two team gold medals. On 14 August 1929, Snook, then serving as a professor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University, was found guilty by a jury after 28 minutes of deliberation for bludgeoning a student with which he was having an affair to death with a hammer. On 28 February 1930, Snook died in the electric chair of the Ohio State Penitentiary as a part of his sentence., 7 June 2019. 

[66] In August 2019, thanks to the hard work of several middle-school students from Lee’s hometown of Owenton, Kentucky, Lee received posthumous induction into the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame, the only institutionally sanctioned recognition of his achievements.