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Marksmanship appeals to two basic aspects of our American character: the love of skill and the desire to hear things go boom.
I have been a backyard marksman (the more technical term is plinker) for years. I have a bull's-eye target set up on a stump 25 yards behind my back porch, and a bunch of swinging metal silhouette targets out beyond that; and, to break up an afternoon of writing, or pretending to write, I periodically step out on the porch with a .22 pistol and plink away. My wife says she can "hear me thinking."
It is satisfying to be able to extend your reach 50 or 60 yards—to hear the metal silhouette go ping, or to break the Necco wafer. To find enjoyment in handgunning, you have to be able to hit the target fairly regularly, and to do that you need to practice the basic skills. There are only two of them.
The first is correct trigger pull. It used to be said that what the shooter wanted to do was squeeze the trigger so that he would surprise himself when the gun went off. More accurately, however, what the shooter wants is this: gradually to take up the slack in the trigger (short of letting off the shot) while correctly aligning the shot, so that when the pistol's sights are aligned in correct relation to the target, the last, least pressure on the trigger will let off the shot.
The second skill is obtaining correct sight picture. It is one of the bizarre anomalies of handgunning that one concentrates not on the target, but on the pistol's front sight. In shooting you are aligning the following: the target and the pistol's front and rear sights. The rear sight is 2½ feet from your eye, the front sight is three to 10 inches beyond that and the target is 75 feet beyond that. There is no way all three can be kept in focus at once. So what the shooter does is let the rear sight and the target go slightly blurry, while keeping the front sight in sharp focus. When you can learn to do this, when after long practice you can force yourself to resist the natural impulse to look at the target, you begin, as if by magic, to hit what you are shooting at.
My eyes are terrible, but after a few days of good, correct practice, I can hit a quarter at 25 yards with some degree of regularity. The quarter is actually a great target because, taped in the center of a black bull's-eye target, it offers great contrast. One of the most impressive and simplest demonstrations of marksmanship is shooting out a candle at night: It's awfully easy to line up your sights in the flame—it's the only thing you can see.
The handgun was developed as a weapon of personal defense. Dating from the first practical multishot revolvers of Samuel Colt (1836), the handgun began to replace the saber in the cavalry charge and the cutlass in the naval boarding.
Skill with a handgun was, as we know, highly prized on the American frontier. In the 20th century, as we Americans moved from the country to the cities, we had less need to develop skill in marksmanship, and the handgun, because one needs practice to shoot it well, ceased being regarded as an accurate weapon. General consensus was that with a pistol, "You shouldn't shoot at it if you can't spit on it."
The handgun began to acquire a reputation as an inaccurate weapon useful for personal defense or offense; capable only of inflicting a terrible amount of damage at close range, but useless for any legitimate sporting purpose. This attitude began to undergo a change after World War II, and this change was brought about by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. The FBI observed that despite rigorous firearms training, its agents and law officers around the country were being killed and wounded in shoot-outs.
The FBI agents, as all other police officers and amateur handgun marksmen at the time, were being trained to shoot at bull's-eye targets at fixed distances. And the FBI concluded that such training did not equip the agents with the skills necessary to come out on top in the less formal but more exacting competition of a real gunfight.