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Sport Shooting: We Owe It All To The Civil War

Sep 5, 2008
We all know about the important role that guns play in American recreation. Consider such facts as the profusion of hunting magazines available on any newsstand; the huge number of duck blinds that can be seen in any woods; the fact that every town and hamlet has its driving range; the size and power of the NRA (National Rifle Association); or the wide availability of gun-safety classes to American youth. And that's not even mentioning the prominence of the pro-gun and pro-hunting lobbies in American politics - which is more visible than a five-point buck standing twenty yards away in broad daylight.

Given this prominence, it's not surprising that sport shooting is a major American competitive sport with a significant Olympic presence - it accounts for fifty-one medals in ten men's and seven women's events.

What may be surprising, however, is the origin of the sport, and its roots in American history. The idea of practice and target shooting as a pastime began in the period after the Civil War - a war in which, as it turns out, poor marksmanship was widespread. Two Union Army officers were bothered enough by this dearth of good marksmen among the citizen-soldiers of the War Between the States that they founded, in 1871, the National Rifle Association to promote gun skill, safety and awareness. Soon after, the pair of NRA founders - William C. Church and George Wingate, a colonel and a general respectively - opened a major rifle range for civilian shooters in upstate New York (the Creemor Range).

Due in large part to the efforts of Church and Wingate, rifle-shooting competitions grew so popular that a larger range had to be constructed to hold them. College and university rifle clubs followed soon after, as did youth programs. The million or more American girls and boys who today take part in shooting events through ROTC, JROTC, the 4-H, Boy Scouts, Jaycees, NCAA, and other youth programs are the direct result of such early-century efforts. The presence of the gun as a part of American recreational life thus dates from, and is in part of a result of, the Civil War, and of poor shooting therein.

The popularity of sport shooting owes something, too, to that pop-culture phenomenon of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Wild West Show. Pioneered by "Buffalo Bill" (William Cody), who was at least as good a self-promoter as he was a cowboy, these festivals (which were as popular among vacationing families of the day as, say, Disneyland would be to us) brought the sharpshooting prowess of such figures as Annie Oakley to the attention of thousands of Americans. Robert Altman's movie Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) offers contemporary audiences an entertaining, informative look at this period in history, when the Wild West Show - part circus, part rodeo, part county fair, and all theatre - helped to create the mythology of the wild west while entertaining Americans from all walks of life. And these shows, not incidentally, made trick shooters like the aforementioned Ms. Oakley into role models for young people.

Shooting events have been a part of the Olympics, too, since the revival of the games in 1896. It probably didn't hurt that the founder of the renewed Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was a shootist himself! According to tradition, the shooting medals are the first to be awarded.

Shooting games can test for accuracy, speed, and both. There are rifle events, which involve the ability to shoot a target at great distances (up to twelve hundred yards in the case of full-bore target shooting), and running target events, in which the athlete must hit a moving target with great accuracy at somewhat smaller distances. The biathlon, a Winter Olympics sport, combines shooting with cross-country skiing. Some gun owners participate in action shooting - a generic name for several types of shooting in which a quick draw may be as important as a good eye. You can shoot clay pigeons or skeet, or shoot at a sequence of different birds in a game known as Five Stand. There are handgun sports (modern pentathlon includes an air-pistol event), shotgun-shooting events, and even - intimidatingly enough - submachine gun competitions.
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