Even with world titles at stake the cold precision of competitive shooting makes for poor spectating, but to those involved there is no more passionate sport. So the shots fired during the 40th World Shooting Championships at Phoenix, Ariz. were heard round the world, from Melbourne to Madrid, but nowhere were they louder than in the U.S.S.R., whose blue-clad team outshot the marksmen from 52 nations, including the second-place Americans.
When the smoke had cleared over the Black Canyon Range near Phoenix last week, the Soviets had carried away 19 gold medals, 16 silvers and 10 bronzes, using everything from small-bore rifles to skeet guns. The second-place Americans had 12 golds, 14 silvers and eight bronzes.
For the Americans it was a disappointing, but not altogether unexpected, showing. Although the U.S. had passed the Russian marksmen in gold medals 17-10 at the last world championships in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1966 (cutting into a 57-29 Soviet lead in gold medals over three previous championships), there had been signs of definite deterioration in the American ranks ever since.
America is a nation of shooters, but training in weaponry here runs more to "practical" aspects of the sport. Mostly, U.S. target shooters are out to improve their aim for deer, duck and woodcock. But the pure sport of shooting for accuracy alone and the satisfaction of marksmanship as an art in itself are concepts better understood in Europe. Scarcely a handful of ranges in the U.S. afford conditions comparable to those employed in the world championships.
Gary Anderson, the American gold medalist in the 300-meter rifle event at both the last two Olympics and the world championships in 1962 and 1966, is probably a fairly typical U.S. firing range product—only better. He learned to shoot in his dad's cow pasture in Axtell, Neb. but soon graduated to serious target work. His development was helped by the Russians, whose assistance to their American rival was an example of the camaraderie to be found in this esoteric game.
"The Russians answered a lot of my questions," he said during a lull in the shooting at Phoenix. "I went around taking pictures and notes, and learned a lot." One of the things Anderson learned was how inferior U.S. firing facilities are when compared to those abroad. "Back in the '30s," he says, "we developed our own bastard courses, which other countries do not have to put up with. But the people on our team have really devoted themselves to international training in spite of the handicaps."
Oddly enough, the brilliant sunshine at Phoenix during the week of competition probably hurt the American shooters, Anderson explained. Used to competing on inferior ranges in all sorts of conditions, the Americans could probably have profited by some adverse weather at Black Canyon. As it was, Anderson refrained from competing this year to do some politicking back home, where he is running for county treasurer. "If I'm going to do a good job at that I must put in a lot of time. Sport was something I had to cut down on."
Without Anderson, the Americans still managed to do well in the standing position in the 300-meter free rifle event. Shooters like Margaret Murdock, John Foster and John Writer won all three places and the team gold. But in kneeling and prone firing the Americans fell behind the Russians, whose total points in all three positions were better than the U.S. and Switzerland.
One of the finest performances at Phoenix came from Evgeny Petrov of the U.S.S.R., who scored a world record in international skeet by knocking down 200 pigeons out of 200. In 1968 he took the Olympic gold medal with a score of 198—the first time that international skeet had been shot at any Olympics. International differs from U.S. skeet mainly in the delayed release of the target after the "pull" order (up to three seconds), a longer distance for the target to be thrown (71 yards, as opposed to 55 in the U.S.) and the fact that the competitor must keep the gun butt at his hip until the target appears.
And there are rules and regulations in international shooting that the ordinary field hunter would find plainly finicky. The lining and padding of a shooting jacket, for instance, may not be quilted or cross-stitched and "must hang loosely on the body of the wearer similar to a normal suit coat." All inside pockets are prohibited. Shoe soles cannot be thicker than 10 millimeters at the toe. Such rules are meant to keep shooters from tricking up jackets so that they will support a rifle better or turning shoes into rigid firing platforms.