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.