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North Dakota National Guard member inducted into Association of Marksmen hall of fame

Gary Varberg, holding his M-16 rifle, has won the North Dakota National Guard (and other national competitions) Marksmanship title for 28 of the past 30 years (He was deployed and couldn't compete the other 2 years.). photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — Gary Varberg was 6 years old when his grandfather, Frank Nierenberg, gave him a BB gun and taught him gun safety. At 7, he received a single-shot .22 rifle and another lesson in shooting straight.

Well, he got the message.

Now retired from 30 years of state, national and international competition with the North Dakota National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Varberg was inducted last month into the Association of Marksmen in the National Guard Hall of Fame in Little Rock, Ark.

“That was quite an honor,” he said modestly while target shooting recently at Fort Atchison Rifle and Archery Club near Cooperstown. “This is where my kids grew up, at the target range.”

Over the years, Varberg, whose full-time job is an equipment operator with the Griggs County Highway Department, has won 45 international matches — including ones in Canada, France, Germany, England, South Africa and Australia.

In one Canadian mat called The Rundown, he shot a perfect score, a feat that never had been done before and remains unmatched.

He’s also won the state’s overall pistol competition 23 times and the overall rifle competition 28 times. He was inducted into the state marksmanship hall of fame in 2012.

The two years he didn’t win the state’s rifle title — 2004 and 2007 — he didn’t compete. At the time, he was deployed to Iraq as a “Trailblazer,” searching for improvised explosive devices and keeping routes clear for U.S. and Coalition forces, as a soldier with the Jamestown-based Company B, 141st Engineer Combat Battalion (now the 817th Engineer Company).

“Sgt. 1st Class Varberg’s shooting legacy is admired throughout our ranks in the North Dakota National Guard and the military marksmanship community,” Maj. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general said after he was inducted into the hall.

Varberg remains active with the Guard, teaching his skills to other soldiers and airmen.

“Undoubtedly, he has earned this honor and has given us a group of trained and skilled marksmen to compete in years to come,” Sprynczynatyk said.

While he got an early start in marksmanship, Varberg credits his older brother, Roger Nelson, with fine-tuning his craft. And he acknowledges Clayton Brennan, who was with the Air National Guard in Fargo, with convincing him to join the Guard in 1981.

“He said, ‘They give you a gun and they give you bullets, so why aren’t you in the Guard,’” Varberg said.

When he began his competitive career, they used M14 rifles.

“That was a gentleman’s game,” he said.

Then, they switched to M16s, which the military started using during the Vietnam War Era.

Contests are a test not only of accuracy, but of speed, with competitors sometimes required to run 100 yards and fire as many as four shots at targets within 20 seconds.

“When I was competing, I’d run four or five miles every night to keep the endurance up,” he said. “I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Varberg is looking to retire from the highway department in the near future. The exact date likely will depend on the outcome of the Nov. 4 general election.

He is challenging incumbent Sheriff Robert Hook for a four-year term.

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.