The Shooting Method
One summer day, the kind when the sun beats down on you like a physical thing, my father called me into the backyard. I was doing something bright like riding my bicycle in circles in the dirt of the driveway, trying to keep the front tire in the track I had just made. Cicadas buzzed in the still, high trees, and my lips stuck together from the Kool-Aid popsicle I had eaten at lunchtime.
“Come on over here,” he waved at me. I finished off my lap and pedaled over to him. The shredded-wheat grass flicked musically in the spokes of my wheel. It never mattered how long it got. It died anyway. Our lawn was too big to water. We only had one hose, so we ended up having this pretty green blob of grass in the middle of the front lawn. The blob never got any bigger because mom was too busy doing other things to move the sprinkler around.
“Want to try something new?” Dad asked. It was one of those questions that are more like an order. He had a couple of his pistols lined up with display-case meticulousness on the picnic table.
“Okay,” I said. “What?”
“You’re going to fire this pistol,” he said. “You’ve been using that pellet gun Gramma gave you for a while now, and that’s good. So perhaps you can apply what you’ve learned with it to this.”
“Sure,” I said. “What do I do?”
“First, get some targets. I want you to go into the garage and get a few pop cans out of the box. Bring back a bunch of them.”
I ran into the garage, skidding to a stop with surfer flourish, and filled my arms with the heavy cans. In those days, they were that skinny 280 ml size, the hard tin ones pop came in before the bigger American sizes were introduced. You used to find them rusting in the ditch beside the highway when you went bottle-picking for pocket change. I ran back out.
“Set them up out there on the fence. Line them up on the top rail, but don’t put them too close together.”
I stomped gleefully through the struggling annuals in my mother’s flowerbed to arrange my cans on the fence, giving them a bit of a twist on the wood as though this would somehow affix them in place. The cans shone on the knobby rails, starkly colourful and manmade against the wood and the empty fields beyond. The wind pushed down the field grasses there like a huge, invisible hand, smoothing the long hay in the same way it would the fur of a cat. When I jogged back to the table, Dad was messing around with one of the pistols.
“This a .22, a semiautomatic,” he began. “That means, every time you pull the trigger, the gun will reload itself and be ready to fire, every time you pull the trigger. Like this,” he said. He pointed his finger at the cans. “Bang-bang-bang! It has ten shots - not one like your pellet gun. But a .22 isn’t very loud, so you won’t need the muffs.”
“Wow! Okay, can I shoot it?…I mean, can I do it now?” The handgun had caught my eye the moment I saw it on the table. It was shaped with incongruous smooth contours and hard angles. Like the cans, conspicuously manmade, but compelling in a way that the cans weren’t. I wanted to hold it.
“Sure,” he said. Dad picked up the pistol and handed it over to me. I reached out for it, but just before I was to touch it, he lifted it out of reach. “Wait,” he said. “What do you do first?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and then I remembered when he had done this with the pellet gun, months before. “You have to make sure it’s unloaded.”
“That’s right,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an unloaded gun. Never assume because I hand this to you that there isn’t a bullet in there. That’s how accidents happen, and they happen to anybody. Never touch this, or any gun until you know it’s unloaded.”
Dad liked to lay things out this way. I listened quietly. I was a compliant kid, and I knew that as long as I paid attention, I was eventually going to get my chance to try out the gun.
“Okay, is it safe? Is it unloaded?”
“Let’s check,” Dad said. “First, you press this button, which releases the magazine.” The slender black magazine slipped out of the oak grip into his callused hand. He held it up; as far as I could tell, there was nothing in it. “Okay, it’s empty. The next thing you check is the chamber – a bullet could be in the gun itself. You do that by working the slide.” He put the magazine on the table, and reached up to the back of the gun, pulling the machined slide back until it clicked open, locked in place with a secure snick! sound, like a type of tiny safe. “Can you see the chamber?” He turned the pistol around so I could see inside it.
“I guess it’s empty…I see a hole? Is anything in there?”
“No, it’s empty. If it was loaded, you would have seen one of these,” he said. He reached into a box on the table, and pulled out a bullet, the new brass flashing hot in his fingers. It had the same kind of look the gun did – purposeful, machined, engineered; made that way for a reason. It was small, and reminded me somehow of jewelry, like the heavy wedding band my Dad wore on his finger like a chunk of plumbing pipe.
“Okay, it’s unloaded. I’ll give it to you in a second,” he said. “What’s the next thing you have to do?” He began to load the magazine, pushing the gleaming bullets inside one at a time.
I knew this one without prompting. He yelled it at me anytime he saw me with my pellet gun. “Don’t point it at anything you don’t want shot.”
Dad laughed. “It’s true – even if the gun is empty, never aim it at anything you don’t want a bullet hole in. That’s the only reason you should use a weapon like this for anything.”He handed me the gun, which immediately pulled my hand to the ground like a magnet when I took it. It felt like it weighed about fifty pounds.
“All right – keep it pointed towards the field. It’s not as heavy as you think, it just seems that way because it’s small. Here’s the magazine,” Dad said. He slapped the clip, now filled with shells, into my hand operating-room style.
“Okay, slide the magazine into the grip - that’s right…push it all the way up until it clicks.
“Keep it pointed at the field, now.
“Last thing. Push the button on the side with your thumb to release the slide. It will snap forward, pushing a bullet into the chamber.”
“Okay. You’re ready to go. Put one through a can.”
I stared out at the fencerow, picking the centre can as my target. It was wobbling maddeningly back and forth as I struggled to aim properly; if I didn’t pull the trigger soon, I wasn’t going to hit the can at all. I just had to hope that I would hit it. I tugged the trigger.
The can didn’t move.
“Try it again.”
I huffed in frustration, and concentrated. The gun didn’t feel as heavy now, at least. I slid my left hand to beneath the grip to support the automatic like I had seen on television. I blinked and…
The ejected shell bounced off the picnic table.“I didn’t mean to do that! I hardly pulled the trigger at all!” I complained.
I lifted the pistol again, my lips a tight line as I worked to put the logo on the can in my sights. The sights were wide, black squares, and the front post almost completely covered the can when I aimed at it.
The gun bucked in my hands. Miss.
Dad just smiled. “Take your finger off the trigger,” he said, reaching out for the gun. He took it from my hands like it was an egg, popping the clip out, and placing it carefully on the picnic table. He left the muzzle aimed out at the cans, irritatingly intact on the fence.
“In the 1950’s, American G.I.’s experienced the same troubles you just had,” he explained. “These doughboys, they’d join the army, and some of them hadn’t ever seen a gun in their lives.
“Some boy from Arkansas or someplace, who might have spent his childhood shooting at squirrels in the woods, had no trouble shooting the army rifles. These guys were usually the ones who ended up being snipers or elite marksmen. There is no substitute for years of practise. They didn’t need anyone to show them how to use a rifle – they knew how to use one instinctively, just like you might know how to ride your bike.
“But the other men, the ones who had never seen a gun except for in the movies, they had to learn. And it had to be second nature to them; their lives depended on the use of their weapons. These recruits though, they weren’t doing very well at all. They were intimidated. But it wasn’t their fault. It’s like going from zero to a hundred in a second – you can’t do it. It’s impossible to make that adjustment. The army issued them big .30-06 M1-Garand rifles that deafened them and turned their shoulders into hamburger after a day of shooting. Their shots were all over the place, and their scores were very bad.
“So the army came up with an idea: Start small. They gave the men air guns to practise with. Makes sense, right? It might seem obvious now, but back then it seemed like a crazy idea. Giving grown men, soldiers, a kid’s toy? But it worked.”
Dad had an old magazine on the table, flipped open to an article, and he showed it to me. In the black and white photo, I could see two smiling American soldiers holding Daisy BB guns. They looked like they were having fun.
“So, they began with BB guns, shooting targets and cans, just to get them used to the idea of holding a weapon.
“Here’s where it gets neat. While they were practising with the BB guns, the army did something very interesting, and is the reason this article was written. They trained the soldiers on rifles with no sights; they removed them from the guns.
“What they found was, after initially doing poorly, the soldiers began hitting the targets every single time. They began to try moving targets – throwing blocks of wood into the air for the soldiers to shoot.
“Then, they threw pennies in the air.
“And finally, drill sergeants would throw BB’s. Just one BB, the actual steel shot the guns were loaded with. The soldiers would shoot at that flying BB – and hit it. Almost every time.”
Dad flipped the page of the story to show me another army guy aiming his Daisy up into the sky. There was a black circle around a smudge in the photograph – an aspirin another soldier had tossed in the air, vaporized by the BB gun.
“The reason they did this was so that shooting became instinctive to the soldiers. They didn’t need the gunsights, because it was their body, their eye, aiming the rifle. It’s called, ‘point shooting.’ These soldiers, after a while, they could shoot like Annie Oakley. And after the men were that comfortable with the BB guns, they were more than capable on the M-1’s. Many of them became expert sharpshooters.
“It wasn’t magic, or some skill they were born with. It’s just a shooting method; a method you follow until you forget about it and then it becomes a learned reflex. In anything, there are results in using a method.”
“I’ve done that sometimes,” I said. “I forgot the pellet gun has sights, but I hit something anyway.”
Dad winked. “Okay…try it here then. Do it the same way.” He handed me the pistol again. “Clip,” he said, putting it in my hand.
I took the pistol and popped the clip back inside, liking the way it felt. Twenty yards away, the cans stood unmarked on the fence. I raised the gun. Dad began speaking behind me:
“Now, relax…point the gun like it’s an extension of your finger – you’re only pointing your finger at the target. It’s your finger. The gun isn’t even there. Just look over the barrel at the can, and ignore the sights. There is no gun, no sights, just your finger. Reach out and point with your finger like you’re saying, ‘look at that can over there.’"
I relaxed, looking at the can. I cast my mind out to it, reeling it closer like a fish. My eyes widened. All I could see was the lacquered sheen of something that shouldn’t be there, that didn’t look right against the backdrop of field grasses and distant trees. I imagined the speeding bullet flying right where I was looking. I thought about exploding aspirins, thrown in the air by laughing soldiers.
“Squeeze the trigger. Do it slowly, don’t yank it. If you make sudden moves, you’ll lose sight of your target. Keep your eye on the can.
“Just point. You’re pointing at the can.
“There’s no gun.”
A black hole stabbed through the heart of the can, flying off the fence.
“Do it again. Next can. Point at it with your index finger. There is no gun.”
“One more. Three is the magic number.”
Another can joined the two in the grass. Three cans down now; there was one left. “This is awesome,” I said.
Dad smiled, and put his hand out for the gun. I handed it to him carefully, keeping the muzzle aimed towards the field.
“After a while, when you practise something, and get really good, you forget the steps you took to learn it. That’s the way it should be. The skill becomes an extension of yourself.”
The gun popped out, cuckoo-clock quick. No aiming.
A hole appeared right in the middle of the last can. It wobbled, remaining standing on the fence.
“You’ll never remember when you couldn’t do it.”
Dad fired again and again, the action of the pistol hammering in his hand. The can lifted off from the fence, tugged by an invisible string, jumped again in midair, and then jerked one final time, spinning into the dirt, with wrecked shards of tin glittering nickel-bright in the summer sunshine. The slide of the pistol locked open; empty once more, with tiny chimneys of smoke coiling up from the bore.
“You can apply this line of thinking to almost anything in life, too,” Dad looked at me. Campfire streams of gunsmoke puffed from his lips, drifting fragrantly around his head in the summer air.
“Any of us, we are capable of anything.
“Talent is practise.”