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Sinatra was in town for a week. Las Vegas was choked with fans whose bobby-socks had been replaced with support panty hose. And if that weren't enough, Elvis was there, too. The 500 archers and slingshooters gathered at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the annual Desert Inn Archery Classic barely made a dent in the slot-machine noise and billboard illumination.
The archers were busy stringing their compound bows, Rube Goldberg affairs of steel; high-impact polyurethane, gears, pulleys, wires and strings. Tonto would have had to be a graduate mechanical engineer. The sophistication of sights, stabilizer bars, release mechanisms, the 100-plus varieties of heads, feathers and arrow shafts was stunning. It was a cornucopia of hysterical technology.
And the slingshooters were not to be outdone. We all share some Norman Rockwell nostalgia for the simple apple-wood branch that a freckle-faced kid carried around in the back pocket of his bib overalls. It was fitted with a strand of tractor-tire inner tube, and with it Little Bobby Nostalgia would plunk away with pebbles, shooting rusty tin cans, sparrows on stumps, an occasional cat and the prime target of all junior slingshot freaks: the white glass insulators on telephone poles. Not only is the rustic slingshot a thing of the past, the glass insulator is gone, too.
Perhaps it was the lack of old-fashioned targets that led to the development of the modern, streamlined slingshot, or perhaps it was the "better mousetrap" madness peculiar to America. By 1860 a man named Williams patented the first metal crotch for slingshots, and the Los Angeles ordinance of 1861 "prohibiting everybody except officers of the law from carrying a pistol, dirk, sword or slingshot" is public testimony to the power of the weapon.
Finally in 1954 a major change was made in slingshot design; a wrist brace was added. The slingshot of old was a wobbly affair at best, and the use of a brace, a tubular metal structure that fits over the forearm, gives the shooter a new world of control. Also in 1954 slingshot sighting devices were patented. The slingshot had come of age as a weapon for small game and had gained enough accuracy to become a target-shooting instrument for competition.
But it was not until last year that C. A. (Chuck) Saunders established the National Slingshot Tournament. It was a success, and this year's contest had over 100 entrants, in men's, women's and six youth divisions. Nearly all of the contestants were also archers, for the slingshot employs the same shooting concept as the bow—it relies on the kinetic energy stored in elastic, bendable material to hurl a projectile. The slingshots themselves resembled nothing very earthly. A basic $4.50 Saunders Falcon II hunting sling can be customized for competition target shooting with many accessories. Some of the slings in the tournament cost in excess of $100. Little Bobby Nostalgia now needs a substantial allowance to get down to business.
The slingshots were fitted with archery sights, stabilizer bars that stuck three feet out in front of the sling, a draw check (a small mirror in which the shooter checked that his hand was in the proper position in the hollow of his cheek) and a bow level. The ammunition was also standardized—one-half-inch steel balls of 120 grains made almost to the tolerance level of fine ball bearings.
The most difficult task for Saunders had been to design a suitable competition target. "It took almost a year to get this thing working right," he said, "but it really goes well now." The target resembled the starter's countdown lights in drag racing. Instead of colored lights, there were plastic discs arranged in two vertical rows of six each. They were 3� inches in diameter. As one was hit, it swung back on a rocker arm, setting up the cup on the opposite side.
With 20 shooters on the line at one time the sound was like hard rain on a tent flap. The adult competitors stood 25 feet from the target, and their scores were computed as in archery—they shot 60 balls, five a round or "end," scoring five points for each hit. A perfect score was 300, which brought into focus Saunders' desire that slingshooting become as popular as bowling. "We're making these targets for home use now," he said, "so that slingshots can become a family sport." From the intensity on the shooting line, counterpointed by the hysterical giggles of a middle-aged man who kept saying between shots and sips of beer, "I can't believe it! This is the Nationals!" it was difficult to imagine the family having fun down in the basement with slingshots. Saunders admitted that many slingshots are sold as "varmint weapons" to householders who want to keep their neighbor's sheep dog out of the wisteria or to kill rats. This may be sporting in principle, but certainly more time-consuming than warfarin.
Yet most of Saunders' sales are to hunters and kids. Norman Ekdahl, a 48-year-old carpenter from Concord, Calif., and last year's tournament winner, has been an avid archer for years. "I carry a slingshot with me when I'm bow hunting," Ekdahl said. "I went to British Columbia to hunt moose with bow and arrow and took my slingshot, too. Then if I saw a squirrel or rabbit I could just lay down the bow and pick it off with the sling. It's good for camp meat." Ekdahl is a terror with a slingshot. He scored a 280 in last year's event, missing only four of 60 targets. The possibility of perfect scores became too great with Ekdahl's achievement, prompting Saunders to use smaller targets this time.