Few sports are more traditional than the shooting sports. We have been doing things the same way for a long time and the traditional way of doing things borders on sacred to many. Then there are others who look upon shooting as a bit stodgy, feeling that it is better described as some 150 years of tradition uninhibited by progress. No matter how you look at we all know that the secret to good shooting is consistency and that may be why the sport has changed so little, as consistency is ingrained in a shooter’s psyche.

Tradition is the glue that holds our game together.Perhaps a look back on the origins of some of our traditional ways of doing things will put them into perspective and in a better light for the more impatient of us.

When I was a wet behind the ears kid, just starting out shooting .22 in the gallery the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice heavily supported civilian shooting at all levels. Junior programs received an allotment of ammunition for each qualifying shooter and for every ten rounds of ammunition they also issued one “6920-00-557-4606 Target, Smallbore Rifle”, the venerable eleven bull A-17 target. This most ubiquitous bull’s eye for indoor training and competition was standardized in the early 1930s. There is probably not a competitive shooting in the United States who has not shot at the five ring fifty foot target. Despite the rise in popularity of international three position shooting and its more demanding target, which has gone through three changes since the early 1950s, the old A-17 hangs on unchanged.

Talking about tradition, while the A-17 has notable longevity the outdoor fifty and 100 yard smallbore rifle targets, which were derived from English targets in 1919 are still official targets: the A-23 and A-25.

How about the term “Maggie’s Drawers” for a miss in high power? When target shooting first became formalized few people had spotting scopes and so target boys would hunker down in a hole dug in front of a large flat steel plate with a target painted upon it. When a massive .45-70 lead slug clanged up against it they marked the location and value of the hit with a long stick which had a disc on its end, called a paddle, and then daubed a bit of paint over the chipped paint caused by the hit with a paint brush attached to a long stick. If it were a miss they waved a red flag across the target. A ribald ballad of the time entitled The Old Red Flannel Drawers That Maggie Woreled to the scoring flag’s name. Marking shots with paddles and flags is long gone but Maggie’s Drawers live on.

By the way, the place where targets were marked in those days of yore was a simple pit in the ground, another traditional term which has hung on.

The marking paddles’ large disc was usually painted red on one side and white on the other making them readily visible to the scorer and shooter. This device led to two terms, which hang on today and have cause much anguish on the firing line when they are confused: redisc and mark. If a scorer missed a shot being scored he would call for a redisc and the pit crew would simply repeat the signal. Woe be the competitor or scorer who gets confused and asks for a ‘mark.” In that case the target is pulled, pasted, and run up. As there was no shot hole it comes up a miss and has to be recorded as such on the score card.

Combat style shooting has become very popular recently and allows a two hand hold while the older more formal three gun 2700 pistol course of fire dictates a one hand hold. The reason for the difference rests in the origin of the pistol as a military arm. Mounted troops needed to be able to shoot at the enemy while controlling a madly dashing steed. The cavalryman’s carbine, a short shoulder arm, was not suitable for mounted use as it required two hands and so the horse pistol came into being. As it required just one hand to employ in combat its training reflected that and, in time, so did competition.

And what of formal strings of fire? Why five shots for pistol and two and eight for service rifle?

When the US Army adopted the ‘New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol’, popularly known as the Colt Single Action Army Revolver, in 1873, it was found that if a soldier loaded all six chambers and the gun was dropped on its hammer it would often discharge, wasting ammunition and likely wounding the owner. To avoid calamity, it was decreed that the pistol would be loaded with only five rounds with the hammer resting on the empty chamber, a procedure known as “five beans in the wheel.” Like the one hand hold this loading procedure transferred to training and then competition.

Two and eight seems obvious. The semiautomatic M1 Garand, the service rifle for two decades, starting in 1937, loaded with an en blocclip of eight rounds. When the M1 was first introduced there was discussion about going to a 16 shot string in competition. But as only the Army had the M1, the Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and civilians still used the M1903 which loaded from five round stripper clips. In the interest of fair play it was agreed that the semiautomatic rifle would be loaded two and eight while the bolt gun continued with its five and five. The traditional loading pattern has hung on through the era of the 20 shot box magazine fed M-14 and M-16.

Tradition is a way of honoring those of the sport who came before us and of welcoming new shooters. Observing and preserving tradition, and teaching it to new shooters means that it will last beyond our own time.Tradition plays a great role in our sport. It links us to the past. It is how we keep our balance. To paraphrase Tevye the Milkman, “Without our traditions, our sport would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!

About Hap Rocketto

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,
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