“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”

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Bullfrogs had no need for canteens when I arrived at Camp Perry last August for the NRA’s National Rifle and Pistol Championships. It had been raining hard. There were frogable puddles along the ready line, and riflemen fresh off the range were hanging their shooting mats to dry on their station wagons and vans. It was smallbore rifle week. Already, in three weeks’ time, the NRA had mustered nearly fifteen hundred participants through the National Police Firearms Instructor School, the National Shotgun Instructor and Coach Schools, the National Rifle Instructor School, and the National Pistol and Revolver Championship Matches. In progress were the National Smallbore Rifle Prone Championships, to be followed by the National Smallbore Position Championships, the Small Arms Firing School, the Junior Shooter Phase, the High Power Rifle Championships, the President’s Match, and National Trophy Matches sponsored by the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps cup matches. These would involve another eighteen hundred participants. Ed Andrus, the NRA statistical officer, said he figured that by the end of the final shoot, the total number of rounds sent down-range toward the butts would be close to one million. This estimate did not include the .177-caliber pellets fired from air rifles by the juniors. Andrus had just finished computing his figures when someone mentioned it was a pity I was here for the smallbore but not the high caliber. Later I asked NRA publicist Lee LaCombe what his colleague had against watching smallbore shooting. “Some people,” said LaCombe, “think it’s like watching paint dry .”

The shooting range at Camp Perry is the longest in North America, three-quarters of a mile end to end, with up to eight hundred yards between the firing line and the farthest lakeshore butts. In one smallbore match during my visit, 485 riflemen (and riflewomen, one must add) were on the line with their foam-padded cowhide shooting gloves and mats with double thicknesses of jute padding and aluminum alloy shooting stands supporting ammo blocks filled with the preferred British Eley Tenex .22-caliber long-rifle cartridges that go pfft when they leave the heavy barrels and splat on the targets a hundred yards out. And prrrrng , on the ricochet.

 

The undisputed champion of smallbore last year was Mary Stidworthy, a tall, twenty-year-old woman who holds the rank of private, first class, in the Arizona National Guard. After 640 rounds of match shooting, she was down only three-a shooter’s way of saying that she missed the center ten-ring bull’s-eye only three times out of 640 shots. At an awards ceremony in the Camp Perry theater, with flags of all the states fluttering from the proscenium arch and martial music blaring over the public address system, Stidworthy was proclaimed winner of the Metallic Sight Aggregate, the Any Sight Aggregate, High Service, High Lady, and National Championship. Harlon Carter presented her with a National Champion Trophy Match Rifle. To their left hung a huge and vivid oil painting of a buckskinned pioneer battling a redskinned warrior, hand to hand.

The sun was bright and hot the morning of my last day at Camp Perry. The puddles were evaporating, and over the transpiring wetness of the range quivered a slight oscillation—a mirage factor-which made this the sort of morning a target shooter would have been wiser to stay abed. “There are 132 recorded alibis for poor shooting,” NRA range official Dave Parsons was saying. “You’re fighting Mother Nature all the way.”

Parsons and I walked down along the range—“trooping the line,” he called it—as the smallbore people prepared their gear for the day’s match. Parsons is a retired army officer. He said he remembered the old days when there were special trains for shooters directly to Camp Perry and the men “piled off looking like a bunch of Mexican bandits.” And then he was speaking of other things, contemporary things such as handguns and crime: “Only 246 out of every million handguns are used illegally. And only three per cent of our criminals ever go to jail.… When the death penalty was abolished, the crime rate doubled. … In Russia, you know, young people receive more than 300 hours of military training while in school, and most of that is on the firing range.” We paused beside a spectators’ bench. A copy of the morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer was lying there, front page up. Below the fold, the major story told of New York City detectives celebrating the capture of “Son of Sam,” the alleged .44-caliber killer of six who had circumvented the city’s Sullivan Law by having a friend ship him the weapon from Texas. Above the fold another story told of a Warren, Ohio, woman who had been slain by her abductor “in a blaze of gunfire.” The assailant, one Thomas Thompson, then shot and killed himself. Police said that Thompson apparently had been unarmed at the outset of the episode but had found the gun, a .22-caliber pistol, in his victim’s home.