Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Do We Shoot?


I like to shoot. More specifically, I enjoy hitting a target, but surprisingly few marksmen ever ask: why?

The question first occurred to me while testing a new rifle from a field position. I had just hit a 12-inch plate three for three at 880 yards. At that moment my father drove up, and apparently I still had the silly grin on my face because he asked, “What’re you smiling about?” His own smile belied the practiced grumpiness in his voice.

With ill-disguised false modesty, I related my triumph in the blandest terms possible: something about proving the new 168-grain handloads. Warning me not to wear out the barrel, Dad drove off, leaving me to savor the moment.

As I packed the Robar custom rifle in its case, I realized that I felt an odd ambivalence. Certainly I was happy with the gun, with my handloads, and with my performance. But I couldn’t help wondering: why I felt so good. It was something more than simply hitting a relatively small target at half a mile. Part of the reason obviously was the immediate feedback: I knew instantly whether I’d been successful. But what was it about ringing the gong three times in a row that felt so rewarding?

Unable to answer the question, I began trying to dissect my marksman’s emotions. The deeper I delved into the subject, the more complex it became. Clearly I needed help—a larger sampling.

In 1997 I began taking an informal poll, asking dozens of marksmen from various disciplines why they liked to shoot. What is it about hitting a mark with some type of projectile that is so appealing? After the first few responses I realized that some restrictions were necessary if the survey were to hold any value. I began narrowing the focus, eliminating generic responses such as “It’s fun” or “I like the challenge.”

At that point we began getting nowhere fast. When shooters were asked to be more specific, the inevitable response was a prolonged silence preceding, “I’ll have to get back to you.”

One important factor emerged early: concentration. As one national champion said, “When I’m shooting I can’t think about anything else. I have to focus on what I’m doing, and that’s relaxing for me.” Any serious marksman agrees: mortgages, appointments, and politics simply vanish for the duration of the shot or series of shots. Shooting is, therefore, relaxing.

“But,” exclaim the antgunners, “so is golf or tennis or tiddlywinks.” Which may be true, as shooting holds some of the attraction found in other accuracy games, but there’s a sensory difference: “Like golf except louder,” according to a Florida pistol competitor. An Arizona attorney agrees: “The stronger the stimulus the stronger the response.” Another Arizonan flatly explains, “I like recoil.”

Others cited less tangible reasons, such as the California instructor who eloquently replied, “I enjoy the rich history that goes with skill at arms, as well as appreciating the engineering genius that gave birth to these artifacts. My involvement in shooting makes me feel part of the continuum of history and gives me a greater appreciation of the deeds of historical figures.”

However, two key factors emerged from the poll: distance and control.

Shooting has to do with action at a distance: “You do something here, something happens over there,” says a civilian marksman. A military professional agrees: “Man is a control freak. Not only does he wants to be in control of himself, but also over everything he can manage…even at extended ranges.”

Control—especially self control—is a recurring theme. A Marine sergeant explained, “I think it has to do with man overcoming and controlling the forces or laws of nature. Taking that a step deeper, I’m sure some would say that it all boils down to control.”

Almost as important as common denominators such as control were the omissions. Several respondents listed more than one factor but nobody cited hunting as a major reason for enjoying shooting. While many shooters are hunters, not all hunters are recreational marksmen. Even conceding that filling the stew pot is rewarding for many people, it has little to do with the specific attraction of shooting well. The Spanish philosopher Jose’ Ortega y Gassett wrote in Meditations on Hunting: “One does not hunt in order to kill; one kills in order to have hunted.” Clearly the same applies to our survey: thousands of accomplished shooters have never used a firearm to kill anything.

Similarly, the few references to power seemed to belie the old claim that firearms represent a surrogate for sex. Presumably the subject had been put to bed (so to speak) over seven decades earlier when Sigmund Freud wrote in General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, “A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity.” Apparently Dr. Freud, who almost certainly was not a shooter, understood what marksmen know empirically: shooting is a mental exercise. The payoff occurs above the neck, not below the belt.

So: how do we summarize the survey? Clearly there are a variety of reasons for shooting, and many (perhaps most) are separate from the practical applications of self preservation. Very few marksmen directly addressed the initial question: what is the attraction of striking a mark at a distance?

To a large extent, the question answers itself. Shooting by definition involves conquering distance. (Remember: “You do something here; something happens over there.”)

However, nobody conquers distance with accuracy unless he conquers himself; that is why marksmen invariably are “control freaks.” They possess the motivation and the discipline to control their equipment, their bodies, and—most of all—their minds. Fully 40 percent of my respondents cited control of self or their environment as a primary reward for shooting.

In the end, perhaps the answer can only be found within ourselves. Each marksman has a personal reason for his pursuit, and each finds satisfaction and accomplishment within the parameters he (or she) sets for himself. In the end, that is enough.


  1. Interesting post, and nice to see you have a blog. I'm not a shooter myself but I've bought and read a number of your books over the years and I thought I would say hello. I'm a fan of all aspects of aviation, a (sadly lapsed) private pilot, and an avid reader and book collector. I have a number of your non-fiction/reference books, but my special favorites are the novels, "Dauntless", "Hellcats," and especially "The Sixth Battle," which I have read 3 or 4 times (I have to admit that I was playing a lot with the naval war game "Harpoon" and later with a naval aviation flight sim called Jane's F/A-18 when I first started reading and re-reading that book, and there was some excellent synergy there - I have two copies just in case one gets lost on a trip). "Warriors" was good also.

    This makes me want to add Dauntless and Hellcats back to the short-term stack since it's been a few years since I read them. I hope the Korea book will come along one of these years.

    Thanks for all the great work!

    Take care,
    Bruce Irving

  2. Bruce, it's good of you to stop for a visit. I still hope to finish the Dauntless Trilogy one day, completing the saga of Phil Rogers and Hiroyoshi Sakaida in MiG Alley. Mainly it's a matter of finding a publisher for the project amid my nonfiction work. As for "The Sixth Battle," I still hear from readers on occasion, and it seems a long-term favorite of wargamers who like the war-at-sea concept.

    Please drop in for another literary landing anytime!


  3. Hi Barrett,

    I'm both an aviation history enthusiast and a shooter, so maybe we have a fair bit in common. My name is John, and I'm an associate of the guy you correspond with fairly regularly from the Airzoo.

    I read your post with interest. I've honestly never asked myself why I shoot, but in reading what you wrote I can relate on several accounts. When I shoot, especially NRA Highpower or CMP Garand or vintage rifle matches, I can easily connect to the impact that these great firearms have had on world history. In addition to that aspect, I do enjoy the control factor...to shoot really well you do have to master yourself as well as the environment (and yes, I would unfortunately agree that I'm a control freak). I also enjoy doing something well that most people are not able to do; something that has played such an important part in history.

  4. Like the way many have responded to the history of the firearms, which is why I love muskets and pistols. I don't 'shoot' myself, but my son is very interested in firearms, and on a recent trip to France wished to spend money his grandparents gave him for the trip on a replica pistol, Paris 1785. I told him that if at 9 years old he was going to buy a firearm with his money, that that was the only one I would allow him; my reasoning is that anything that takes twenty minutes to reload is going to require some serious thought before firing. (so one should always have a rapier in the other hand!)