by Hap Rocketto
One of the defining activities of my youth was my participation in the Scouting movement. It neatly tied into my preoccupation with rifle shooting allowing me to spend a handful of carefree and pleasant teenaged summers running rifle ranges at several Scout camps, my first and favorite being Camp Wakenah in Salem, Connecticut.
Camp Wakenah, now sadly defunct, had four groups of wooden Adirondack shelters to house the campers. They were named, appropriately enough, in honor of prominent historical figures from the indigenous Mohegan and the Pequot tribes. The campsites were Samson Occum, Cassasinamon, Tamaquashad, and Uncas.
To make the tie in all the tighter I am a fan of The Last of the Mohegans written by the United States’ first true novelist, James Fenimore Cooper. Two major characters in that book tie me to Camp Wakenah, Uncas, for the obvious reason. The other is Natty Bumpo, better known as Hawkeye and to the Indians and the French as La Longue Carabine because of his long rifle and shooting prowess, a skill I like to think we share.
In the other four novels of the Leatherstocking Tales he was also known as Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, Trapper, and Deerslayer. As you can see, Cooper does not make things easy for the reader in his loosely held together pentalogy. With that in mind, the works being written in the florid style common to the early 1800s, and Cooper playing fast and loose with facts he would have risked having his literary license revoked in today’s market. No less an author than Mark Twain, of whom Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” made note of this, and other issues with Cooper’s writings, in his barbed essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
I do a lot of reporting on rifle matches for various publications and am always on the prowl for new ways to describe shooting events. In Chapter XI of The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea, Cooper describes the outcome of frontier rifle match, in circumstances familiar to modern day riflemen. It is a style I could never hope to replicate.
“…The garrison of Oswego assembled to witness what its commander had jocularly called a “passage of arms. …Although the regular arms of the regiment were muskets, some fifty rifles were produced on the present occasion.
…The distance was a hundred yards, and the weapon was to be used without a rest; the target, a board, with the customary circular lines in white paint, having the bull’s- eye in the centre.
…Some eight or ten of the best marksmen of the garrison now took possession of the stand, and began to fire in succession…As might have been expected of men whose amusements and comfortable subsistence equally depended on skill in the use of their weapons, it was soon found that they were all sufficiently expert to hit the bull’s-eye…
Lieutenant Muir, the Quartermaster, now took his attitude with a good deal of studied elegance, raised his rifle slowly, lowered it, raised it again, repeated the maneuvers, and fired.
“Missed the target altogether!” shouted the man whose duty it was to mark the bullets, and who had little relish for the Quartermaster’s tedious science. “Missed the target!”
“It cannot be!” cried Muir, his face flushing equally with indignation and shame; “it cannot be, Adjutant; for I never did so awkward a thing in my life. I appeal to the ladies for a juster judgment.”
“The ladies shut their eyes when you fired!” exclaimed the regimental wags. “Your preparations alarmed them.”
“It’s a dead miss, Muir,” said the laughing Lundie; “and ye’ll jist sit down quietly with the disgrace.”
“No, no, Major,” Pathfinder at length observed; “the Quartermaster is a good shot for a slow one and a measured distance, though nothing extr’ornary for real service. He has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen, if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”
The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight was so profound and general, that, the instant he made this declaration, the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance; which, however, was soon clearly established, by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.”
A great deal of time has passed since that 1750’s frontier shooting contest, equipment and ammunition has improved, but things really haven’t seemed to have changed much.
Even in the days of La Longue Carabine the shooters were skilled and deliberate and, more importantly, the match wasn’t over until the last target and backer had been closely examined and scored and the challenge period closed.
Category: Hap's Corner