The chime on my computer sounded indicating I had mail.
Opening the message I found that my good friend and fellow shooting historian Paul Nordquist reporting that, “We got an inquiry at the NRA the other day that you may find interesting. A man wrote seeking information on “Gunsling” Dave” the brother of his Great Grandfather. In your excellent history of the sling you quote Townsend Whelen as saying that the officers had heard of “Gunsling” Dave, a celebrated rifle shot ‘before the war.” I have to admit that I had heard of “Gunsling” Dave but had always regarded him as a possibly mythical figure so I am glad to learn that he was real. Anyway, if you know anything else about “Gunsling” Dave I’ll be happy to pass it along to our correspondent.”
Nordquist’s note is one of the unintended consequences of writing a little tidbit without having any real backup information, working with a man you greatly respect-and to whom you owe more than one favor, and the desire to commit as much shooting history to paper as possible. Paul had very skillfully worked the bellows to blow the embers of my ego into a raging fire with his “your excellent history” comment and then tossed gas on the blaze by saying, “if you know anything else…” The mild mannered, but Machiavellian, Nordquist had effortlessly launched me on a trajectory to find out more about “Gunsling” Dave.
When I was a brand new ensign faced with a situation that was out of my depth, and that was almost everything I came across, I followed the wisest course possible and rushed off to find the repository of all knowledge naval, my leading chief. This was an analogous situation and I did much the same thing, I consulted Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Ask.
Much to my surprise a handful of references popped up. The first was a citation from a Nashville, Tennessee newspaper reporting that a native son, Sergeant Richard N. Davidson, gave Nashville the honor of having “one of the world’s greatest shots of his day…the proud possessor of twenty-two medals, six of solid gold and sixteen of silver and bronze…” With a name at hand I checked my database of Distinguished to find that one Corporal Richard N. Davidson, USA of Company G 16th Infantry earned his Badge in 1892, among the first 200 men to be so honored.
Citations and references to “Gunsling” Dave began pouring in from the internet like ice cold North Atlantic seawater flooding the breached seams of the Titanic.
I discovered that the not so mythical, as Paul and I had thought, “Gunsling” Dave had enlisted in 1886 and was sent to the Southwest where he served under the tenacious Indian fighter, and Medal of Honor recipient, Captain Henry Ware Lawton in his successful pursuit of Geronimo. Davidson and Lawton’s careers would intertwine as they both later served in Cuba and the Philippines. Ironically Lawton, now a major general who lead from the front, was killed in action on December 18, 1899 by Philippine insurrectos under the command of a general named Gerónimo. He fell on the very day his appointment to the rank of lieutenant general was approved by the US Senate.
A contemporary account of Davison’s service in Cuba indicates that “Gunsling” Dave was, “…the pride of the Sixteenth Foot an’ he’s the champion shot of the hull (sic) army. He holds all the records for all the crack shot shootin’. His real name is Davidson an’ he’s a sergeant. In Cuba he had good practice pickin’ off Spanish sharpshooters what was troubling the spoils.” Furthermore it was reported that, “General Pando, the Spanish commander, who was shot day before yesterday was standing in an exposed position ordering his troops, when a regular named “Gunsling” Dave pulled on him at 1,500 yards. It was a peach of a shot.”
Davidson earned his first shooting award when he placed third in departmental competition in 1890. His proud messmates genially teased him about having to spend more time polishing his medal for inspection then shooting. He replied that he would then have to earn medals that did not require the use of a soft cloth and “Soldier’s Friend” to keep shiny. True to his word the next year he won the gold at the Department of the Platte matches and followed that up in 1892 with a record breaking score in the same match. He was soon presented with the gold Distinguished Marksman Badge making good on his barrack room promise.
Davidson preferred to shot from the supine position, Lying on his back with his feet toward the target he tucked the rifle butt next to his head with the left hand behind his head holding it in position by the butt. The right hand is turned to grasp the pistol grip in such a way as to allow the thumb to be used to squeeze the trigger-the so called “Texas Grip”. His legs were crossed and intertwined with the rifle sling. The rifle then sat between his knees on the sling, just as a log would sit on a sawbuck, giving the position its eponymous name.
So, in retrospect, “Gunsling” Dave was a real man, not a myth, and was a certified and documented dab hand with the .45-70 Model 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield rifle and, later, with its successor, the .30 bolt action Springfield Model 1892 Krag-Jørgensen.
But some of his shooting feats-a 1,500 yard shot with and the claim that he could get off 20 shots in 30 seconds with the Krag, a rapid fire speed that would rival the legendary Sergeant Snoxall of the British Army’s School of Musketry who, it is claimed, fired 38 rounds into a 12-inch bulls-eye at 300 yards in one minute smack more of myth than man.