An Englishman, Learning To Shoot
We should encourage rifle practice among schoolboys, and indeed among all classes...by every means in our power. Thus...may we be able to assist in preserving peace in the world. The first step – in the direction of preparation to avert war if possible, and to be fit for war if it should come – is to teach men to shoot!”
- President Theodore Roosevelt
It was seven years ago that I first came to the United States from England, armed with a conviction that America was a gun-crazy nation, filled with either inner-city gangbangers or flag-waving, shotgun-toting rednecks. Informed as I was by Hollywood films and a constant outpouring of television offerings, it came as a surprise to find that America is not entirely like that. Not entirely, because there exist enclaves of both of the groups I mentioned, in addition to some verbose "concerned liberals" who believe that gun ownership should be outlawed.
My own views on ownership began to change as I talked to various people, and slowly I began to understand the deep-seated relationship between America and guns. Whilst I'd love to talk about that, this is not the place or time. Put simply, my take is this was a nation forged with the rifle, which subsequently became a symbol of liberty. Eventually, I picked up the courage to go and learn to shoot, a process that I began to write about at .357 Magnum Stress Management System, back in 2008 after Christine was told that her cancer had metastasised.
My First Gun
In some places, part of the rite of passage into adulthood begins with the gift of the first rifle, and for many Americans, that means the purchase of the venerable Ruger 10/22. This weapon seems to have become as much a part of modern shooting as the Colt 45 was to the Wild West, or the Henry Repeating Rifle was to Civil War veterans. Many young people's first shooting experience was with the Ruger, and many are the folk I have spoken to who still have, and use, that first gun.
It's an iconic piece of weaponry, used to control varmints ("pests" as I once knew them) from groundhogs, snakes and rabbits and even (for a good shooter) to coyote. It's used in target shooting at all levels and for plinking and practice. All in all, it's a good start to learning the art of accurate and consistent shooting, and it's remarkably good fun, to boot. .22 Ammo is cheap and readily available, so for many people starting out, the decision is a no-brainer.
So it was with me. I finally bowed to the inevitable and bought myself a 10/22. I read for a long time to decide which model would suit me best, and talked to the folk at my friendly neighbourhood gun shop. Finally I settled on a polymer-stocked carbine, with fibre-optic sights. Having completed the necessary paperwork, shown my driver's licence and proved that I'd lived in California for at least three months, I put down a deposit and waited the compulsory ten days to pick it up. It turns out there's a big difference between holding a rented gun at the range, and cradling one's own firearm. Finally I understood that sense of pride, of ownership, of connection with history. Here I was in my own home, holding my own weapon in my hands, a symbol of freedom.
So, what's the first thing I did? Load it up and fire it? Hell, no! In this city there are ordinances against that sort of thing - and were there not laws (and common sense!), the liberal outrage would be immense. Furthermore, even by Davis I live in Liberal Central, where almost every home has a hybrid car bearing "Peace" and "Obama" stickers. I'd often joked that I wanted to stir them up by having an NRA bumper sticker, but was afraid to, on the grounds that the locals would probably come round with the hippy equivalent of pitchforks and torches.
The first thing I did was read the manual. Then I learned and practiced gun safety. I practiced loading the magazine, loading the rifle, unloading it, locking back the bolt, doing a safety check. I dry-fired it a couple of times to get a feel for the trigger. I practiced getting a good sight picture. Then I did it all over again. Once I had a feel for how the rifle worked, and could do these things automatically, I decided to do some plinking.
Fire in the Hole?
A quick run out to a friend's ranch gave me all the time and space I needed. With a nice burn pile as a safety backdrop, I set up a few targets. You know, old painted planks, Coke cans, bits and bobs. Twenty-five yards would be a good starting point, I decided. Having loaded the rifle, I carefully took my first shot at an 8" log end at around 25 yards, and was delighted when I hit the bugger. Fifty rounds later, and I felt comfortable enough with myself and my rifle to go to a proper range and really get down to business.
So, to the Yolo Sportsmen's Association range, where I set out to work on accuracy. I was using open sights (which for you non-shooters means no 'scope), and my first fifty rounds were all over the place. When gun people talk about their accuracy, they speak of "groups", referring to how far apart their shots land. My first target did not have groups in that sense, more vague collections of holes anything from one to four inches away from the bull. My neighbour, who was shooting a .357 Magnum (so far my favourite handgun) at the same 25 yards, passed on some tips, impressed by the Englishman whose first attempt with a gun at least had all shots on the paper.
My second target was better. I learned to squeeze the trigger more consistently, pulling straight back with the pad of my fingertip. I learned to control my breathing and fire at my outbreath. I learned how to relax, I learned to anticipate my wobbles. When I picked up the second target, I was happier. Now I had groups, and could see a pattern developing. I tended to shoot a little high. With my elbows on the bench I was off an inch to the right.
Next time will be even better, I'm taking a friend along to give me some coaching, in exchange for beer and a burger. With luck I will one day graduate to something else with more bang but for now, I'm just having fun. One hundred and fifty rounds through this gun and already I'm hooked; quite surprising for an English liberal.