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THE MALTESE FALCON MEETS THE MALTESE CROSS…

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was, according to the New York Times, “the dean of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.” He is widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time who produced his most enduring tales, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, in a short four year period between 1929 and 1933. Both works gained greater fame on the silver screen where Humphrey Bogart played the sardonic Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon while William Powell and Myrna Loy played the sophisticated bantering husband and wife, Nick and Nora Charles, of The Thin Man.

What follows may be best summarized by Kasper Gutman, the criminal mastermind in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon who said that, “These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’ history, but history nevertheless.”

A string of wins in the Dewar International Rifle Match during the late 1920s had built up quite a head of competitive steam among the prone shooters in the United States. The cocky Americans issued a challenge to Great Britain’s Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs for a shoulder-to-shoulder rifle match to be shot in England using the Dewar Match format. The colonist’s overblown opinion of their skills was dramatically deflated when they narrowly escaped a 12 point trouncing only because of a Herculean effort on the part of the last several rifleman who reduced the double digit deficit to a face saving two point loss.

The team returned home from England in time for Camp Perry and brought back some great tall tales and an innovative idea from the Bisley Camp experience that would change the face of US smallbore shooting: the backer target. The backer target, a blank sheet of target tag board, placed ten inches behind the target and made possible to locate the source of crossfires and to identify all the shots in tight groups.

Ned Crossman, the Father of US Smallbore Shooting, wrote the first crossfire rules for the game in 1919 which stated, “A competitor accidentally hitting the wrong target shall lose the score, be fined fifty cents, and will not be permitted to resume fire until the fine is paid. A competitor deliberately hitting firing on the wrong target shall be instantly and automatically disqualified and forfeit all prizes and entry fees. Whether the hitting of the wrong target is “accidental” or “intentional” is a point to be decided by the Range Officers and their decision shall be final.” 

That is how it pretty much stood until the backer target showed up in 1931. A half a buck was a pretty tough penalty when one considers most match entry fees were just 25 cents.   Range Officers found that they were in a position similar to Tomás de Torquemada, the Spanish Dominican friar, who was the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.  Simply put, if you didn’t confess to your sin you would be subjected to the Range Officer’s inquest.

No sooner had the backer system been adopted, and put into use at Camp Perry, then Pennsylvania’s Ray Louden entered the history books as the first United States shooter to have a confirmed crossfire when he shot into the adjacent target of Lewis McLeod of Long Island, New York. The errant shot at 100 yards was easily identified and appropriate penalties applied.

The pair were well respected and excellent marksmen. In fact they were team mates on the 1931 US Dewar Team. That two experienced rifleman were involved in this historic event made it clear to all that crossfires were not just the province of the novice.

Fast forward nine years to the final day the 1940 National Championship. Russ Wiles, of the Black Hawk Rifle Club, chided Ray Converse for having crossfired. Wiles then boasted that he had never done so at Camp Perry. No sooner had the words left his mouth than he crossfired, on the next and final relay of the tournament. As soon as the firing ended Wiles, hoist by his own petard, was then hoisted from the firing line by teammates Converse, Fred Johansen, and Ken Waters and deposited into a nearby trash can.

Wiles had seemed to have forgotten the old shooter’s saying that there are only two kinds of shooters, those who have crossfired and those who will. As a trash can is a bulky and not an easily transported trophy, Converse, Johansen, and Waters quickly came up with an alternate insignia of ignobility.

The trio hacked a rough Maltese cross from a piece of heavy scrap leather and attached a huge horse blanket safety pin to the top arm. A can of yellow paint, a small brush, and limited artistic skills provided a crude picture of a set of crossed eyes. The words “Black Hawk Tribe” and “Crossfire Expert” were lettered above and below the eyes.

Wiles was charged with wearing the badge until another club member crossfired at either Camp Perry or the Black Hawk Annual Tournament. The leather cross has changed hands uncounted times over the decades but, unlike the Maltese Falcon which is, as Sam Spade noted, “The stuff that dreams are made of,” the Black Hawk Maltese Cross is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

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, pronematch.com.

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