Even with world titles at stake the cold precision of competitive shooting makes for poor spectating, but to those involved there is no more passionate sport. So the shots fired during the 40th World Shooting Championships at Phoenix, Ariz. were heard round the world, from Melbourne to Madrid, but nowhere were they louder than in the U.S.S.R., whose blue-clad team outshot the marksmen from 52 nations, including the second-place Americans.
When the smoke had cleared over the Black Canyon Range near Phoenix last week, the Soviets had carried away 19 gold medals, 16 silvers and 10 bronzes, using everything from small-bore rifles to skeet guns. The second-place Americans had 12 golds, 14 silvers and eight bronzes.
For the Americans it was a disappointing, but not altogether unexpected, showing. Although the U.S. had passed the Russian marksmen in gold medals 17-10 at the last world championships in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1966 (cutting into a 57-29 Soviet lead in gold medals over three previous championships), there had been signs of definite deterioration in the American ranks ever since.
America is a nation of shooters, but training in weaponry here runs more to "practical" aspects of the sport. Mostly, U.S. target shooters are out to improve their aim for deer, duck and woodcock. But the pure sport of shooting for accuracy alone and the satisfaction of marksmanship as an art in itself are concepts better understood in Europe. Scarcely a handful of ranges in the U.S. afford conditions comparable to those employed in the world championships.
Gary Anderson, the American gold medalist in the 300-meter rifle event at both the last two Olympics and the world championships in 1962 and 1966, is probably a fairly typical U.S. firing range product—only better. He learned to shoot in his dad's cow pasture in Axtell, Neb. but soon graduated to serious target work. His development was helped by the Russians, whose assistance to their American rival was an example of the camaraderie to be found in this esoteric game.
"The Russians answered a lot of my questions," he said during a lull in the shooting at Phoenix. "I went around taking pictures and notes, and learned a lot." One of the things Anderson learned was how inferior U.S. firing facilities are when compared to those abroad. "Back in the '30s," he says, "we developed our own bastard courses, which other countries do not have to put up with. But the people on our team have really devoted themselves to international training in spite of the handicaps."
Oddly enough, the brilliant sunshine at Phoenix during the week of competition probably hurt the American shooters, Anderson explained. Used to competing on inferior ranges in all sorts of conditions, the Americans could probably have profited by some adverse weather at Black Canyon. As it was, Anderson refrained from competing this year to do some politicking back home, where he is running for county treasurer. "If I'm going to do a good job at that I must put in a lot of time. Sport was something I had to cut down on."
Without Anderson, the Americans still managed to do well in the standing position in the 300-meter free rifle event. Shooters like Margaret Murdock, John Foster and John Writer won all three places and the team gold. But in kneeling and prone firing the Americans fell behind the Russians, whose total points in all three positions were better than the U.S. and Switzerland.
One of the finest performances at Phoenix came from Evgeny Petrov of the U.S.S.R., who scored a world record in international skeet by knocking down 200 pigeons out of 200. In 1968 he took the Olympic gold medal with a score of 198—the first time that international skeet had been shot at any Olympics. International differs from U.S. skeet mainly in the delayed release of the target after the "pull" order (up to three seconds), a longer distance for the target to be thrown (71 yards, as opposed to 55 in the U.S.) and the fact that the competitor must keep the gun butt at his hip until the target appears.
And there are rules and regulations in international shooting that the ordinary field hunter would find plainly finicky. The lining and padding of a shooting jacket, for instance, may not be quilted or cross-stitched and "must hang loosely on the body of the wearer similar to a normal suit coat." All inside pockets are prohibited. Shoe soles cannot be thicker than 10 millimeters at the toe. Such rules are meant to keep shooters from tricking up jackets so that they will support a rifle better or turning shoes into rigid firing platforms.
The championships used to be annual affairs attracting as few as three countries, but since 1954 they have been held every four years, like the Olympics, and now draw very well. More than 900 contestants were entered this year, and, though there were a few protests about scores, the shoot-out was an amiable event. The Russians brought their own vodka and generously passed out an occasional bottle. The Japanese amused themselves by teaching pesky American kids tricks of jujitsu.
Veteran observers of American training methods feel that we will fall still farther behind the Russians unless something is done to jack up our range techniques. Curiously, in a society considered "open" when it comes to gun ownership and use, the United States is notably deficient in organizing its gunmanship. An American pistol shooter, for instance, is very likely to train at all the various pistol events—standard pistol, center fire, rapid fire and free pistol. Sportsmen from other countries tend to specialize. And in Russia, where gun regulations are far tighter, every encouragement is given to marksmanship. Ranges throughout the country are open to anyone—with rifles furnished by the government and low-cost ammunition provided. A young shooter of promise will be trained at government expense. Our best training grounds are military—the Army supplies the bulk of our competitors. The U.S. rifle team consisted of eight soldiers and a marine. The 11-man pistol team was totally military except for one civilian and a border patrolman. But even military interest in the sport is declining. The Air Force has abandoned it altogether.
It would be futile these days to ask Congress for funds to build adequate practice ranges. Contestants in Caracas in 1954 fired their guns on a range that cost the Venezuelan government $5 million. At Cairo eight years later, the range cost the Egyptian government $7 million. The Black Canyon rifle and pistol range and the Phoenix Trap and Skeet Club, where the shotgun competition was held, represented a total investment of $1.2 million—one-sixth of it public funds.
Preparations for the championships were made by the National Rifle Association, with the International Shooting Union officials checking. Teen-agers from the Phoenix Indian School were trained in scorekeeping, working targets and being generally useful. Interpreters were plentiful, too, among them 14-year-old Richard Mesnard, who is fluent in Spanish, French, Russian, Italian and even Latin. The British contestants, he found, spoke "rather strange English."
Not all the shooting was with firearms. There was competition with the air pistol and air rifle. Indeed, the first gold medal for the U.S. was won by Army Major Sallie Carroll with her air pistol, beating out two Russian women sharpshooters. Youngest of the competitors was 15-year-old Bonny Hampson of Homestead, Fla., who placed in the top three to make the U.S. women's team as a rifleman. She is also a member of her high school bowling and swimming teams.
The U.S. team was captained by Colonel Walter Walsh, USMC retired, who is also a veteran of the FBI during the shoot-out days of the '30s when G-men were coping with the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. He was himself wounded four times in bringing down a bank robber, Al Brady, outside a Bangor, Me. sporting goods store where the mobster had gone to replenish his arsenal.
No one knows how many rounds were fired in practice and competition during the championships, but one observer, watching the dust kicked up behind the targets at Black Canyon, reckoned that "there's enough lead in there to warrant mining it."