At Camp Perry, Ohio on the Lake Erie shore, starting this weekend, every morning and afternoon for a solid month there will be the terrible din of gunfire, a blatant roar of rifles and pistols, muzzle loaders and breech loaders. The Congress of the United States authorizes this din and the National Rifle Association sponsors it to determine what men (and women) are our country's best with small arms. This year's National Matches should attract about 4,500 shooters from all ever, bearing a great variety of commonplace service weapons and specialized target arms, including four of the noteworthy pistols pictured above.
Along with all the noise there will be lots of color, too. Out of respect for the great era of American marksmanship when Davy Crockett gunned his bears, the muzzle-loading competitors coming to Perry are encouraged to wear coonskin caps and the fine leather trappings of the long-gone frontier. At Perry it is the habit of competitors firing modern arms to stitch all over their shooting jackets insignia certifying their club, or their proficiency, or their participation in prior matches of every sort—a spangled, quilted camouflage which, off the firing line, can make a so-so shooter look like a crack shot. In this day of bigger and far louder weapons, small-arms shooting is still rated a very necessary skill, so there will naturally also be at Perry a great number of uniformed men from the Army, Navy and Marines.
It is quite possible, in this kaleidoscopic melee of medals and marksmen, to overlook completely the most remarkable marksman of them all. He is a husky and happy, 39-year-old, 230-pound, barrel-shaped, moonfaced native of Paragould, Arkansas named Huelet Leo Benner. Benner is notable and yet hard to pick out of the crowd for a number of reasons. The 22 years since he left Paragould he has spent in the U.S. Army, a career soldier of the old M1, pre-World War II type, like the Springfield '03 rifle, well worth notice before his sort passes entirely from the scene.
In his 20 years of competitive pistol shooting Benner has won a houseful of trophies—medals, silverware, punch bowls, cups, TV sets and what not. Though he has earned enough insignia to cover a sidewall tent, Benner does not go in for such decoration on his nonmilitary shooting jackets, figuring that it attracts attention and that, since it is the duty of every soldier to shoot well, the fact need not be advertised all over his clothes. At Perry he will be wearing a single patch, "U.S. Army Pistol Team, 1957," denoting that he is one of about two dozen of the Army's best. He answers now, not to the Christian names Huelet Leo that his mother gave him, but to the plain name "Joe Benner," which a company commander gave him by mistake 20 years ago.
On the firing line Benner makes as much noise as anyone. Off the line, he is a quiet talker. He does not have the bark of a master sergeant, but once going, he can drawl out the words at a good rate. From his conversation no one would pick him as the national pistol champion defending his title at Perry. He is a man most loyal to his art, but even in the atmosphere of Perry, where scores and techniques are hashed and rehashed, Benner seldom discusses shooting unless the subject is brought to him.
There will be about 1,200 competitors at Perry anxious to take Benner's title from him but with no chance of doing so. There are at every large meeting about a dozen pistol men who might beat him, but the fact does not, outwardly at least, bother him. Off the firing line he remains the gregarious friend of any hopeful tyro, arch rival, two-star general or small, admiring child that he happens upon. Through the years he has developed an affection for a variety of persons, groups, causes and things, among them his native state of Arkansas, the U.S. Army, the Confederate States of America, sport-fishing, two-inch steaks, the West Point football team, the Yankee baseball team and the Boston Red Sox left fielder, Ted Williams.
Between the toughest of matches when scores are close, Benner may be found relaxed and seated, or more properly, crowded into a folding chair, discoursing and regaling listeners with hyperboles on any or all of his favorite subjects. He may break off from a commentary on the decline in the quality of sirloin steaks to remind everyone of the large fish he once caught off California (at the last telling of the story, this fish, a salmon, had the girth and length of a Cadillac); or he may start into a running account of the 300-mile march he once made from Mineral Wells, Texas to Camp Bullis to test a new chocolate bar for the Army (at last telling, the march route went straight up and down mountains, and Benner, driven by pangs of hunger, wrestled a deer while the colonel leading him took bearings by sighting his compass on the moon). A listener occasionally challenges the exactness of a Benner story, and at such moments Benner's eyebrows arch up and his face takes on the sad, hurt look of a small boy accused of kissing girls. The moment passes, however, and Benner is soon off and galloping on another story. When night falls on the encampment of shooters at Perry, he will still be making some noise, snoring his way through a deep and untroubled sleep. Another good pistol man, Major Ben Curtis, who has fired often against Benner and slept near him, claims Benner is the only Army man who can snore both slow and rapid fire and always loud enough to be heard through four walls.
A symbol of proficiency
For a decade Joe Benner has been in a class by himself as a symbol of this country's proficiency with small arms—at a time when our international reputation for shooting has been slipping badly and could stand a few more master sergeants to jack it up. In the past 10 years he has served on three Olympic teams and two Pan-American teams and has competed in three world championships, winning seven individual titles. At Perry this month he will be going for his sixth national title. In several respects, Benner's victories in our own national matches, rather than his international titles, are the more convincing evidence of his ability. National and international competition differ markedly, the U.S. national championship course being, without question, the better all-round test of a man and his weapons in a practical situation—a fact that can be borne out by a brief look at the courses of fire and the pistols pictured on page 51.
The pistols shown there all have a generally familiar look. There is one American-made Hi-Standard .22 caliber semiautomatic (top), slightly specialized for target use, but still basically what a sportsman might take into the woods and what might serve safely and reliably against an intruder in the home. Anyone who has seen a shoot-'em-up movie will recognize the .38 caliber Smith and Wesson center-fire revolver and the .45 Colt semiautomatic shown below the Hi-Standard as the sort of practical weapons used against violators of the law, invaders of the home and invaders of the homeland. The rules of U.S. competition permit tinkering and internal changes to improve target accuracy, but the gun must remain a safe, reliable and practical weapon. Most notable of the rules keeping the guns practical is one requiring a pronounced trigger "pull," so that the shooter is, so to speak, in command of his weapon at all times.