Far from the roads that cut through it, the desert that blows up against Las Vegas is a rich sea of flotsam: a crap table stick split in half, an eyeless stuffed animal staring up from behind some sagebrush, an old, old picture of a family posing in some faraway living room of a bygone time. And always there are the wooden leaning signs, scattered records—a name, a date, a passing word—of those few who wandered through this void of big sky, shadowed sand and brooding mountain.
Then as you head back, the winter light fast burning down, the distant town of Las Vegas ready to electrocute the skyline, who can comprehend this scene come on abruptly: an inventor named Richard Davis, circled by about 30 cops, is meticulously preparing to shoot himself in the belly with a .357 armor piercing. "You're liable to find anything out in that desert," an old sojourner had said back in town.
The cops are here because they are in pursuit of sport, something called the 1st International Police Combat Shoot, which is not very international (there are some participants from Canada) and hardly national. The National Rifle Association of America is here, too, but only as an observer; this octopus of national influence is concerned about words, and combat and shoot—on the same bill—are two of them. As for Davis, he is out here peddling an item called Second Chance, a nylon unit designed to stop anything short of a howitzer. It is hard to grasp any perspective of this event, which confounds, yet oddly excites. It excites because it seems so madcap, so gloriously brainless in the middle of all this empty majesty. It confounds because, well, what should an event like this be—admittedly a question that would come from the effete and squalid East, but does anyone ever watch gun competition anymore and, if so. what does he see, what does he feel?
There was a time back in 1874 when there was great passion for target shooting. America competed against Ireland on Long Island. The match drew a crowd of 8,000, and the event itself, the interest it generated, became something of a cornerstone in the development of the NRA; the sport has never again been so clearly in view, and no one knows to this day what possessed those 8,000. For it is one thing to shoot a gun, but to watch weapons being shot in competition seems to defy reason.
The act of shooting at a target could be the subject for a metaphysical paper by some terribly desperate graduate student. The literature is scant; the sport has produced only one noted historian-apostle, a man named Captain Charles Askins Jr. Target shooters, especially those with the pistol, are "fanatically attached to their chosen sport, and God bless 'em for it," wrote Askins. He regretted that the gunners "who never sling lead at a paper target, but confine all their handgunning to game, do not once in a while try for a score...a sweet 50-yard score, or burning up the targets with a whiz of a rapid-fire total."
None of the good captain's emotion, or even enthusiasm, is visible here in the desert, only the hard elements of competition: rules and scores. The rules are precise, and no deviations, please, like someone showing up wearing a baseball cap or a too-tight undershirt. It's all business here: uniforms, duty weapons, duty ammunition. The shoot consists of three courses of fire, a daylight course, a close-range segment and one for a combination of shotgun and pistol. The total possible score for all three is 450 points: the grand hawkeye will receive a trip to Bermuda.
The combination course is now being fired, 15 rounds with the shotgun, 15 with the pistol. The specifics: range 15 yards, five targets per firing point; start with pistol holstered and safe, shotgun on safe and butt away from the shoulder. On signal the shooter fires once at each target with the shotgun, drops it, muzzle down range, on the mattress-covered table, draws his pistol and fires once at each target; time allowance is 10 seconds, shots after the bell lose five points. Repeat twice, for 30 rounds total. The only spectators, one notes, are relatives.
Overseeing the action is the shoot director, Jeff Cooper, who surveys the cramped range from high up in a tower. He is wearing a black leather cap with scrambled eggs on its peak (the kind seen on the hats of high naval officers), a black shirt and thin black tie, a black leather jacket with a collar of black fur. He stands properly tall up there on his perch, occasionally tugging at the big pistol at his side, or suddenly producing a glinting monocle to examine a piece of paper.
Now and then Cooper shouts down, and the sound of his voice is impatient. It does not appear that he is too-pleased with what is going on below him. The event has not been quite what he had envisioned. He had thought there would be a bit more "bunting, more glamour." But instead here are all these cops—none of them from Russia or Japan or Thailand or Germany, the way it should be—pulling out shotguns and pistols on these tight firing lines, and the only thing that is being accomplished is that nobody is killing anybody; the NRA official is pleased.
Not too much has fallen into place for Cooper, a precisionist. At the last minute the sponsor for his ammunition had given him the wrong kind. The judging has been erratic. He has had to make several decisions on cheating. There also are many complaints about the design of the course, especially about its safety conditions. "I can get killed back in my hometown," says one police officer. "Why come all the way out here?" He is not far off, for this seems to be a jamboree of sorts, a shootup in the desert with big Jeff Cooper up there in his tower, immaculate and stiff against the high winds, trying to orchestrate order from disorder.