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A Legion of Targets

by Hap Rocketto

An appreciation of good marksmanship is prehistoric and can be traced back, via archeological finds, to all corners of the earth. For example, the oldest archery artifacts in Europe date from the late Paleolithic Era, about 9000-8000 BC.

In Biblical times Genesis 21-20 speaks of Abraham’s son Hagar living in the desert and becoming an archer and the Book of Samuel tells of us David and slingshot.

As man developed better tools to throw projectiles he also needed a method of quantifying the skill of the operator and the accuracy and precision of the device. Enter the target.

The earliest targets must have been no more than an object to be struck with an arrow, spear, or rock. Perhaps the earliest were outlines of animals, foreshadowing the silhouette game of today.

The first rifle targets in the United States were little more than a black circle drawn on a blazed tree trunk with a piece of charcoal pulled from a campfire. Frontiersmen would shoot three or five shots at the mark, insert pegs into the holes, and stretch a string around them. The rifleman with the shortest string was the winner.

When long range target shooting became popular in the mid 1860s 12 feet by 6 feet metal plates with a black square marking the center were set up at 800, 900, and 1,000 yards. Marksmen would launch a huge 475 grain soft lead bullet in front of 50 grains of black powder at the metal plate; the clang of its strike could be heard at the firing line. Target boys, crouching in a pit in front of the target, would then mark the shot location with a paddle and dab a little paint over the mark with a brush on a long stick.

Later window sash target frames became popular, and more practical, with the advent of printed paper targets. Some of the earliest paper targets were not circular but rather elliptical. The ammunition issued for the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield was not well manufactured and shot groups were usually roughly twice as high as wide. It was easier for the military to redesign the target than to address the real problem: poor quality control at the ammunition plant. As a result the earliest Distinguished Marksman Badges display an elliptical target, common at the time.

With the advent of the 1903 Springfield the ammunition issues were ironed out and the targets were printed with round circles. The “C” target had a black center, 12 inches in diameter worth five points, a 24 inch four ring, and a 36 inch three ring. After a while shooters were racking up perfect scores and a six inch “V” ring was added to break ties. After several 250X250s had been fired at the National Matches the “5V” target’s days were numbered. The “10X” target with its six scoring rings, three inch X through 37 inch five ring, made its first appearance in competition in 1967.

The “5V” and “10X” targets are military in nature, as a matter of fact the 200 yard “10X” target’s nomenclature is “Military Target, Rifle, Competition, Short Range.” That got me to thinking about how military marksmanship training units in the ancient days dealt with teaching armies of unlettered peasants how to employ their weapons effectively.

There was no greater ancient organized army than that of Rome. Infantry Legionnaires were armed with a short thrusting sword, the gladius, a half dozen or so lead weighted throwing darts called plumbatae, from the Latin for lead plumbum, and a short javelin, the pilum. They must have had to practice throwing the plumbatae and pilum to develop both skill and accuracy in their employment. Its importance was so great that Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in his treatise De Re Militari (Concerning Military Matters) that,The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons…” 

The Baleares, Balearic Islands mercenaries who used the sling as their primary weapon, as well as the Sagittarius, archers, also mercenaries, who used the arcus which shot a wooden shaft and iron pointed sagitta also needed to train regularly. After all, marksmanship is a most perishable skill.

My mind’s eye conjures up a Roman equivalent of Camp Perry, a military camp located on Lake Como or Lake Maggiore, where the Legions camped each summer and competed with plumbatae, pilum, and arcus for a place in the coveted “Emperors C.”

Under the command of the likes of General, or Legatus, Marcus Licinius Crassus the Legionnaires practiced that most fundamental all military skills, marksmanship. Just imagine firing lines of Legionnaires throwing their missile weapons and calling their shots, “Centurion, my first shot for record was an IX and IV o’clock!”

But, like most troops they groused and complained about the Sisyphean task of pulling targets and the nuisance of looking for missed shots. It was there that they took to cursing under their breath, both the poor marksmanship of their peers and the general who consigned them to the drudgery of the pits, by derisively calling a request to pull and check a target as a “Marcus,” which has come down to us as marking targets.

But the real question is just how did Roman marksmen break ties? Their targets already had either a “V” or an “X” ring. Just what did they call the smaller circle within highest scoring ring of their targets?

Category: Hap's Corner

About the Author: Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career,

Comments (3)

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  1. Richard Williams says:

    It is my understanding that the pilum had a soft iron head that was designed to bend under the weight of the shaft after sticking in a shield, so as to render the shield useless from the off center mass and shaft disrupting footwork. So by your theory of match you would maybe need to issue the first training ammo(vs warshots) with a different design/material that could be pulled and refired.
    Hap:you may need to visit your Bristol wrap up again. At last look NRA still has not posted unimportant stuff like Dewar, Randle, others. Might be leaving it all up to serious reporters like you.

  2. Hap Rocketto says:

    I am just completing my Smallbore wrap up for Shooting Sports USA destined for the traditional October issue. I like to think that you will think it is complete.

    In regard to the pilum, you are correct about its construction. However, once a cartridge is fired it can’t be used again, except for the brass in reloading, and we use a new one. I guess they did the same thing in ancient Rome which kept the Imperial arsenals and pilum plants at full production.



  3. Hap,

    I’d like to compile a list of California National Guard Distinguished shooters. I’ve read your work on the topic. I’d like to gather the names of all of ours for our state, in order to create a wall in our state headquarters, sort of a hall of fame type exhibit.

    Nancy Pool is not at AMU anymore. Would you advise me how best to proceed? Thanks.

    SFC Jose A. Garcia
    Asst. State Marksmanship Coordinator

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