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Why I Love Shooting

23 May 2013

A lot of people don't get me at first. I'm not a big guy. I don't look particularly outdoorsy. I can't really grow a respectable beard and I'm a vegetarian. So they don't get it when they find out I've got a safe full of rifles. Sadly, there are a lot of people who can't conceive of shooting as a sport in itself. It never occurred to them that a person would ever pull a trigger other than to kill something or someone. They get a confused look and say things like "You mean, just target practice and stuff?" as if shooting at a target could not possibly be anything but "practice" for "the real thing". Which, of course, is killing something or someone.

This is what happens when you live in a country that is insistently selective in its coverage of things like the Olympics. The shooting sports have had an Olympic presence for decades, and Canada has athletes in virtually every shooting discipline. But Biathlon is the only one that you'll ever see on television; the glorious CBC simply refuses to provide coverage of any other sport involving a firearm. Most people here are completely oblivious to events like 50-meter Smallbore, Free Pistol, 10-meter Air Rifle/Pistol, and all of the shotgun events. So I guess it's no surprise that they can't see shooting as an end in itself, or a shooter as a dedicated and highly disciplined athlete. Their entire exposure to firearms has been what they see in movies, what they see on the news, and hunters they happen to know. Guns are for killing. That's all they can see.

I wonder if they would have the same opinion of knives, had they never encountered a chef or cooked in a kitchen themselves. Or baseball bats, had they never seen the sport. The javelin and the discus, both now regular events at any Track and Field day, began as weapons of war, yet neither of them has achieved the same reputation as the firearm. Granted, that's probably because no one uses a javelin or a discus to kill anyone anymore. But that might just be because humanity invented easier ways of doing it.

Kelly Bachand of Top Shot fame put it well when he said "In the hands of an angry person, it's a weapon. In my hands, it's a piece of sporting equipment." I suspect that many competitive shooters have never killed so much as a gopher in their lives. I attended a shooting match outside of Edmonton as a spectator once, and Lynda Hare, the Canadian Pistol Champion who I have the pleasure of knowing personally, had this to say when I asked her why she comes out for little competitions: "We're shooters. We love to shoot." Being a shooter wasn't a means to an end. It was a part of her identity. She didn't shoot because she was a soldier, and that involves shooting. Or because she was a hunter. She was a competitor in a sport.

The competitive shooting world is, of course, the other end of the spectrum. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't hunt, and I'm not one of the crazy paramilitary types we're starting to see frighteningly more of here in the western world. But I do find Olympic-style shooting more regulated and restrictive than I like. Olympic shooters train to make one shot, at the same distance, at the same target, under pretty much the same conditions, over and over again. Maybe I just don't have the attention span for that. I have all kinds of respect for it, but it's not quite my cup of proverbial tea. I prefer what I might call "practical shooting". I want to be able to pick up a plain rifle, without the bells and whistles, and hit anything I can see within reasonable range and under virtually any reasonable conditions.

The natural question, then, is "Why? Why develop an ability that you have no intention of using for any tangible purpose?" I'm not a hunter, and probably never will be. I don't anticipate that I'll ever need to defend myself with a firearm and I have no aspirations of becoming a military sniper. And I'm not venturing into the world of competitive shooting.

It was a question I had to ask myself, because for a long time, I didn't fully understand why shooting appealed to me as much as it did. I think I started to understand it one day at the range when I encountered three guys shooting from the table a few stations down from me. They were gathered around a semi-automatic Ruger SR-22 decked out with a bipod, red-dot scope, and a 25-round magazine. And it struck me that they were firing this thing sitting down, rifle rested with the bipod on the shooting table, looking through the red-dot, at a target a whopping twenty-five metres away. How this could have been in any way challenging I couldn't figure. They seemed to just enjoy squeezing the trigger and making an impressive pile of brass casings next to the table, but they couldn't hold a group to save their lives. This, to me, was not real shooting.

Which got me to thinking about what "real shooting" actually was. And it was then that I started to figure out why I love it. So I'll give you the closest thing to a personal definition of "real shooting" that I can come up with:

Real shooting means taking a good look at what is going on around you and within you, then making very deliberate decisions about what to do and how to do it. Know your rifle. Know your cartridge. Range your target and dope the wind. Put every part of your body in just the right place, breathe in just the right way, and move the trigger along exactly the right path. This is shooting. Until you strive to do these things, to make these decisions, to achieve that control, you're not really shooting. You're just making holes with a gun.

There you have it. And therein lies the reason I love it. Rifle shooting, as a pursuit, mirrors the things in life I have always struggled with. The discipline and awareness involved underscore for me what living well looks like. It's far too easy to go through life not really paying attention to what's going on around us or within us, and just doing what we've always done, or seen done by others, instead of actually making deliberate decisions. It's easy to watch things occur and not really notice how our bad habits led to them. It's easy to let life happen to us instead of living it. In short, it's easy to make holes with a gun. Shooting, however, is much more difficult. And much more rewarding.

Rifleslinger's Razor states "Do not blame equipment for deficiencies in performance that could otherwise be explained by faulty technique." Of course, this is really a rehashing of the popular adage about the poor workman. But you will not find a bigger batch of excuse-makers than riflemen (forgive the gender-exclusive language, but "riflepeople" sounds ridiculous). It's difficult and tedious and a blow to the ego to really examine the way you delivered the shot: "Was my natural point of aim correct? Was my trigger pull smooth, or did I jerk it? Was the sight picture right at the moment the shot broke? Was my elbow in the right place, and was my cheek weld consistent? Did I wait too long after I stopped breathing to bring the trigger through? Did I estimate the range correctly? Was I right about the wind speed and direction?" Many people who pick up a rifle never even think to ask questions like this. As a friend of mine once said about fishing, "It's about doing a lot of small things right". And many times in life I've failed to ask similarly important questions about how I dealt with everything from money to people. But those questions need to be asked, because it all matters. All of it. It all comes together, and you send the bullet on its way and it's out of your hands but the end result will be entirely your doing.

And the feeling is incredible. When you've gauged the wind and estimated the range and double checked every elbow and foot and finger and thumb, and the shot breaks and the bullet connects precisely because you did all the small things right - then you know, for a moment, what a well-lived life can feel like. And maybe that drives me, motivates me, gives me the wherewithal to endure that self-scrutiny and that ego-bruising questioning that living well, loving well, being well demands.

I'm not an expert. Honestly, I'm not that great a marksman. I miss a lot of shots, both with a rifle and without. But I'm learning, and I'm figuring out how to ask the right questions, and to me, that means that I'm not just making holes with a gun anymore. I'm actually shooting now.

Both with a rifle and without.

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