SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
August 12, 1957
This month at Camp Perry, 1,200 pistol men will be blazing away, reasserting their faith in small arms and gunning for the national title held by a very remarkable sergeant, Huelet (Joe) Benner
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August 12, 1957

Ready On The Firing Line

This month at Camp Perry, 1,200 pistol men will be blazing away, reasserting their faith in small arms and gunning for the national title held by a very remarkable sergeant, Huelet (Joe) Benner

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To become national champion a shooter must be able to beat Joe Benner and the rest of the field with not one gun, but with three guns of the sort pictured on page 51—firing a total of 90 rounds with each gun in four separate matches at a target with a 10-ring the size of a small teacup. The slow-fire match consists of 20 rounds fired at 50 yards at a rate of 10 rounds in 10 minutes; the timed-fire match, 20 rounds at 25 yards at a rate of five rounds in 20 seconds; the rapid-fire match, 20 rounds at 25 yards at a rate of five rounds in 10 seconds. The fourth match consists of 10 rounds slow fire, 10 rounds timed fire and 10 rounds rapid fire, establishing a man's competence at firing all three rates during a single period of tension on the firing line. The maximum score possible for the three guns is 2,700 points, and a near-perfect score of 2,600 is considered the magic barrier of the sport. By the rough count of veterans who have been to most of the meets, 23 of Benner's rivals have crossed the 2,600 barrier. Benner alone has crossed it some 60 times; he has, in fact, shot lower than 2,600 only once in the past four years.

What is it that Benner has that makes him great? The question baffles many who know him well. "It is no easier to answer," one persistent and promising young rival, Lieutenant David Miller, points out, "than it is to say why Bobby Morrow stands out as a sprinter, or why any man in any sport stands out the way Joe does with a pistol." There are some obvious fine points in Benner's performance, but since most are also noticeable in other good shooters, it is questionable how much any one point contributes to his over-all mastery. He stands steady as a rock, body straight and centered perfectly over his legs, his weight ever so slightly forward on the balls of his feet. In slow fire he can hold his sight picture steady for 15 or 30 seconds until he feels the wind slack. Conversely, at times in slow fire, with a full minute for each shot, without returning his weapon to the bench he will send off two or three shots rapid-fire rate to take advantage of a good wind condition. Benner has a remarkable feel for the target. When he does let off a wild one (for Benner, a wild one is anything in the eight-or nine-ring), merely by the feel of the gun at release without using a spotting scope he can usually tell just where the mark lies on the target. There are men nearly as good who look as good as Benner, and the coach of the Army Pistol Team, Sergeant Frank Graham, submits that if there is anything special working for Benner, it is his ability to concentrate on shooting 100% while on the firing line, then un-concentrate 100% off the line and remember only such wonderful things as two-inch steaks, Ted Williams and oversized California fish.

It is next to impossible to say what man is the world's best in international competition. Benner certainly is one of them. The main fault that anyone with a practical mind finds with international competition is that there is no important composite test including both slow and rapid fire. There is slow fire and rapid fire, but no aggregate scoring, so actually there never can be any man who is the world champion or the Olympic champion. The international slow-fire course consists of 60 rounds fired in three hours at a range of 50 meters at a target with a 10-ring which is about half the size of that used in the U.S.

International slow fire is a highly specialized sport and a splendid one, but in itself tests little of a man's overall ability. The guns are single shot (for greater accuracy) and are called "free pistols" because almost anything goes so long as the bore is .22 caliber. The trigger on free pistols, such as the peerless Hämmerli shown on page 50, may be set so fine that a floating feather will send the shot off. A free pistol accordingly is a rather poor thing to have for defense in the woods, the home, in a foxhole or around a police station.

The international rapid-fire match at 25 meters is a more practical and very exacting match, demanding skill at getting off five shots in as little as four seconds. The gun for this is of necessity a semiautomatic without a set trigger, but at that, in the past year, there is evidence that the International Shooting Union has some conscience about impractical weapons. At the Melbourne Olympics, Russian Evgenni Tcherkassov won the silver medal firing the strange, impractical "hacksaw" shown on page 50—an upside-down semiautomatic with the barrel in line with the center of the hand to minimize the kick-up of recoil. The International Union straightway outlawed the hacksaw, without protest from Russia, by ruling out all semi-automatics over 12 inches long and any gun with a barrel below the upper part of the holding hand.

In the past two years since Russia made a big sweep of the 1954 world shooting championships and did almost as well at the Olympics, there has been harking and barking here about the decline of U.S. shooters (who have not declined, but merely not improved enough). The common alibi is that the Russians do nothing but shoot and should rate in a professional class by themselves. This is a limp alibi, seeing that many a U.S. soldier eligible for our teams has as his principal assignment shooting or the instruction of shooting. Joe Benner, to cite a prime case, is pistol coach at West Point, and last summer he snorted in protest over the alibiing. "It just makes me fierce in a way," Joe has exclaimed, "when I think of this amateur rule we make so big when it is really so small. We're always criticizing the Russians for being professional when we're not so much different."

A difference of degree

The difference between Russian and American shooting seems to be one of degree, and the National Rifle Association and top shooters here fortunately take a positive attitude toward improving our international shooting. "You do not hear bitching about how Russians train from our shooters," Major Ben Curtis of the Army Advanced Marksmanship Unit reports. "We know how they play. We should stop worrying about them, cut out the alibiing and keep shooting."

But the problem, as Major Curtis realizes, is not all that easy to solve. In the U.S. there are few ranges where international courses can be fired that are comparable to those in Russia, in Scandinavian countries and in some of the South American countries. "We should," Joe Benner pursues the point, "quit counting the ranges in Russia and start building our own."

There is some sentiment here that the military should get out of international shooting and leave it to the few civilians who can top off their national competition costs with the added expense of international-type guns and competition. At the prospect of this, at the mere mention of it, drawling Joe Benner all but floats out of his folding chair, barking uncharacteristically in the finest tradition of a super-sergeant. "What do I hear?" he exclaims indignantly. "Let civilians, let the people who pay taxes to give us salaries go out and do all the shooting to defend our reputation? Don't let me hear anybody suggest that we let anybody in the world get the idea that the United States Army is a lot of shooting dubs."

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