As a collegiate rifle coach I have grown fond of electronic targets. I can monitor a shooter without dragging around a spotting scope, a scoring detail and the human errors involved in adding up scores and plugging shots on paper targets are a thing of the past, and after the smoke clears, I have a printed record of performance to review with my athlete.
On the other hand, I am a high power shooter of the old school. A 30 caliber wooden rifle, spotting scope, shooting stool stocked with ammunition for the day, score book and pencil, three magazines, and a mat is quite enough. I follow advice attributed to Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
I grew up in an era when matches either provided target pullers or you trudged to the pits and pulled ‘em and pasted ‘em solo or with the others assigned to your firing point. It was the mark of a mature rifleman to serve the target in a quick and efficient manner. Learning how to do it correctly it was a rite of passage in which one took great pride in completing.
In those days a match lasted all day and there was much to be learned in the pits about shooting, wind doping, reloading, local eateries, humor from jejune to scatological, and your fellow target pullers. In a sense the pits were shooting education institutions, local matches a community college, regionals and state championships Land Grant universities, and the National Matches was the Ivy League. They were rich, rewarding, and relaxing days, well spent in the company of likeminded individuals.
Now adays the world seems to be spinning faster and, with the advent of electronic targets for high power, shooters seem to be in a rush to shoot and scoot. There is much chatter on internet forums at just how fast one can now shoot a regional course of fire with electronics. I have the sense that getting a full course over by noon brings more joy than a good score. To me much is lost in the race to get back to whatever.
The pits have been the scene of some of my more memorable shooting moments as well as some humor and chicanery. My first big pit moment came when I traveled 700 miles to Camp Perry only to be squadded in the Wimbledon with my hometown teammate John Sullivan. This was not a bad thing, but I knew John had a serious heart condition and that year the 1,000 yard match course of fire was unlimited sighters and 30 shots for record. In his late 60s, with cyanotic lips and a plastic earplug container filled with nitroglycerin pills bead-chained to a belt loop, his pride would not allow him to avoid pit duty as was his right. In my 20s I toiled mightily to carry the burden of work in such a way so as not to injure John’s dignity or, more importantly, his heart.
During a Leech Cup my shooters finished early and I strode over to where my brother Steve and his partner stood red faced with effort and dusted with sand. The duckboards under their feet was littered with sand, sandbag canvas and shards of wood, their shooter was not having a good day. Steve admonished me to stand close to the wall. Just as I stepped back and peeked up at the target I was stung, I thought, by a bee.
It turned out it was not a bee but an M14’s 173 grain boat tail bullet. It passed through a sand bag on the berm, hit an upright on the frame, and passed under the brim of my ballcap and smacked me right between the running lights behind the bridge of my glasses, breaking the skin and cauterizing the wound with its heat. With that I became legend, one of the few men to be shot between the eyes at 1001 yards and survive. To this day I still hear of the incident from those, yet unborn at the time, who swear to have witnessed it.
My shooting mentor Dick Scheller and I were prepping our target for rapid sitting at All Guard tryouts when a call came from the line. It seems the last pit crew on our target had forgotten a few grapefruit tucked away in in the shade of the bench to stay cool and requested we bring them back at the end of the day. Knowing that the likely score from the pair on the line would be a clean with many Xs Dick devilishly taped a very ripe and juicy fruit behind the X ring. When the targets went up and the shooters went down we knew the rifleman had a good zero because, much to the amusement of the pit detail, the berm was decorated with shards of skin, pulp, pits, and juice.
Charles Finney’s Old China Hands recounts his days in the crack 15th Infantry in China during the 1920s. He relates an incident during rifle qualification when, during a 500 yard rapid fire string, a popular and genial officer, Captain Wild Bill Tuttle, perhaps to help an infantryman qualify as a sharpshooter or expert and earn some incentive money, suggested to Finney and his fellow target pullers a little bit of pit “Santa Clausing”:
We never knew who was shooting on out target…. But his first five shots made a beautiful tight group in the center but just under the black of the silhouette. Wild Bill looked at his target critically as the bullets tore into it. “He’s got his sights set a fraction too low, “ said Wild Bill. “When he puts in his new clip, ease the frame down about five inches and let him make a few bull’s-eyes.” So, in the miniscule interval in which it took the rifleman to reload, we inched his target down a little. This was not perceptible at the firing line, of course. But, his next five shots went spang! spang! spang! into the black. “Colonel Newell would court martial me if he knew I did anything like that,” said Wild Bill amiably, and walked on.
Electronic targets may be fine for those in hurry but like metal and plastic stocks on rifles they lack soul. Shortened shooting days rob a new generation of shooters of education, comradeship, and tradition. Perhaps to new shooters pulling targets is, in modern vernacular, the pits but, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.