Far from the roads that cut through it, the desert that blows up against Las Vegas is a rich sea of flotsam: a crap table stick split in half, an eyeless stuffed animal staring up from behind some sagebrush, an old, old picture of a family posing in some faraway living room of a bygone time. And always there are the wooden leaning signs, scattered records—a name, a date, a passing word—of those few who wandered through this void of big sky, shadowed sand and brooding mountain.
Then as you head back, the winter light fast burning down, the distant town of Las Vegas ready to electrocute the skyline, who can comprehend this scene come on abruptly: an inventor named Richard Davis, circled by about 30 cops, is meticulously preparing to shoot himself in the belly with a .357 armor piercing. "You're liable to find anything out in that desert," an old sojourner had said back in town.
The cops are here because they are in pursuit of sport, something called the 1st International Police Combat Shoot, which is not very international (there are some participants from Canada) and hardly national. The National Rifle Association of America is here, too, but only as an observer; this octopus of national influence is concerned about words, and combat and shoot—on the same bill—are two of them. As for Davis, he is out here peddling an item called Second Chance, a nylon unit designed to stop anything short of a howitzer. It is hard to grasp any perspective of this event, which confounds, yet oddly excites. It excites because it seems so madcap, so gloriously brainless in the middle of all this empty majesty. It confounds because, well, what should an event like this be—admittedly a question that would come from the effete and squalid East, but does anyone ever watch gun competition anymore and, if so. what does he see, what does he feel?
There was a time back in 1874 when there was great passion for target shooting. America competed against Ireland on Long Island. The match drew a crowd of 8,000, and the event itself, the interest it generated, became something of a cornerstone in the development of the NRA; the sport has never again been so clearly in view, and no one knows to this day what possessed those 8,000. For it is one thing to shoot a gun, but to watch weapons being shot in competition seems to defy reason.
The act of shooting at a target could be the subject for a metaphysical paper by some terribly desperate graduate student. The literature is scant; the sport has produced only one noted historian-apostle, a man named Captain Charles Askins Jr. Target shooters, especially those with the pistol, are "fanatically attached to their chosen sport, and God bless 'em for it," wrote Askins. He regretted that the gunners "who never sling lead at a paper target, but confine all their handgunning to game, do not once in a while try for a score...a sweet 50-yard score, or burning up the targets with a whiz of a rapid-fire total."
None of the good captain's emotion, or even enthusiasm, is visible here in the desert, only the hard elements of competition: rules and scores. The rules are precise, and no deviations, please, like someone showing up wearing a baseball cap or a too-tight undershirt. It's all business here: uniforms, duty weapons, duty ammunition. The shoot consists of three courses of fire, a daylight course, a close-range segment and one for a combination of shotgun and pistol. The total possible score for all three is 450 points: the grand hawkeye will receive a trip to Bermuda.
The combination course is now being fired, 15 rounds with the shotgun, 15 with the pistol. The specifics: range 15 yards, five targets per firing point; start with pistol holstered and safe, shotgun on safe and butt away from the shoulder. On signal the shooter fires once at each target with the shotgun, drops it, muzzle down range, on the mattress-covered table, draws his pistol and fires once at each target; time allowance is 10 seconds, shots after the bell lose five points. Repeat twice, for 30 rounds total. The only spectators, one notes, are relatives.
Overseeing the action is the shoot director, Jeff Cooper, who surveys the cramped range from high up in a tower. He is wearing a black leather cap with scrambled eggs on its peak (the kind seen on the hats of high naval officers), a black shirt and thin black tie, a black leather jacket with a collar of black fur. He stands properly tall up there on his perch, occasionally tugging at the big pistol at his side, or suddenly producing a glinting monocle to examine a piece of paper.
Now and then Cooper shouts down, and the sound of his voice is impatient. It does not appear that he is too-pleased with what is going on below him. The event has not been quite what he had envisioned. He had thought there would be a bit more "bunting, more glamour." But instead here are all these cops—none of them from Russia or Japan or Thailand or Germany, the way it should be—pulling out shotguns and pistols on these tight firing lines, and the only thing that is being accomplished is that nobody is killing anybody; the NRA official is pleased.
Not too much has fallen into place for Cooper, a precisionist. At the last minute the sponsor for his ammunition had given him the wrong kind. The judging has been erratic. He has had to make several decisions on cheating. There also are many complaints about the design of the course, especially about its safety conditions. "I can get killed back in my hometown," says one police officer. "Why come all the way out here?" He is not far off, for this seems to be a jamboree of sorts, a shootup in the desert with big Jeff Cooper up there in his tower, immaculate and stiff against the high winds, trying to orchestrate order from disorder.
The inventor Davis, who has been hanging out with the police during the week, knows that this is the last day of the competition. He is quite anxious to show these people what his jacket can do. So far, words have failed him in his attempt to convince the cops that he wants to save their lives (for $49.50 apiece, or a bargain $45 for thinner men) with his concealable jacket. But even if he does not sell any jackets he will have enjoyed himself. He says he is a gun freak.
Nothing visual about Davis hints of his passion for guns. He is not like Cooper, who looks as if he belongs in a saddle, crusted with buckskin and with a rifle crooked in his arm. Davis looks more like a pinball-machine repairman; he is singularly unevident. Back at the Stardust Hotel, where everyone is staying, he seems spellbound by the roar of the slot machines, quite taken by the social invention that is Las Vegas, and his innocence amuses the police, who don't know what to make of him.
Out on the range he is much more comfortable. He clearly loves to feel a gun, any kind of gun. He likes to hear guns, likes to listen to people talk about them, and often he and others will stand and just look at a gun in someone's hand, while they probe its nomenclature and discuss its sinister esoterica. Then, sometimes, they will swap stories of minute detail about times when they had to use their guns, and there will be Davis, his eyes alight behind his thick glasses, just waiting for his turn to tell his tale.
The genesis of Davis' jacket—as well as Davis the inventor—was late one evening in a Detroit pizza shop, which was owned by Davis. He had toiled stubbornly, with flour all over him and the smell of tomato sauce forever confusing his scent, to produce pizza of high quality. And then one day, while he was out, a man telephoned and ordered two large ham-and-sausage. When they were delivered by his fiancée, she was held up by three men. It was an affront, a liberty, that would not leave his mind.
Many months later, while Davis was working, a man called in again and ordered two ham-and-sausage. A click went off in his head: ham-and-sausage. He prepared the order and then drove to make the delivery taking a gun with him. which he cocked beneath the carton. When he reached the address he found he was right to be concerned. A gun was pointed at him and he was asked for his money. He shot from underneath the pizzas, dropping one man, and the other two men ran into the alley with Davis after them.
After the shootout Davis and the three men—and two pizzas—were spread over the alley. As Davis convalesced, his uninsured pizza shop burned down, and he left the hospital convinced that his career as a pizza maker was at an end. "People thought I committed arson," he says, "until they found I didn't have any insurance. But I loved making pizzas. I was an artist. Ask the bandits. Out of all the shops they knocked over, my pizzas were the only ones they ate."
The police just look at him as he relates the incident; he is different, strange. They don't know what their reaction should be to his story; they can't correlate, can't understand a man who made pizzas becoming an inventor who is soon going to shoot himself just to prove his point. So they go back to looking at their guns and talking about them, and every so often one of them looks up at Davis, quickly and oddly, because you never know about people like this, what a fellow like this will do next.
Cooper walks by, stops, adjusts his monocle and looks at some scores handed to him. He says he is hopeful for the future of this kind of pistol event. "It has not been a complete disaster out here," he says. "I'd say we got up in the air 120 feet, and then cracked up when we landed. But we did get off the ground." The important thing, Cooper says, is that a large number of police are being introduced to the kind of defensive weaponry, the kind of pistol course, that they "ought to have been using for the last 20 years." The reason they have not, he says, is because of the lack of vision of police departments, the artificial strictures of what passes for pistol craft and competition on ranges. The standard PPC (Practical Pistol Course) is "not only garbage, it's impractical." He ponders that remark for a moment, then adds: "There's a war on out there, fella."
Cooper's kind of pistol course is deadly practical, relying on speed, power and accuracy at close range; it is a killing course. "Now." says Cooper, "there are those who bitterly resent this idea. Take up there in the Northeast. That's a different world. Even the idea of defending oneself is losing ground there. When I talk about this kind of shooting, my kind of practical shooting, people look at me and seem to say: 'Do you mean to say you are shooting at what represents a man, are you suggesting you intend to use this pistol to kill people?' Yes. I am. I am."
The eyes drift to the shooter on his hip, the mind toys with its presence as if it were much more than an object, tries to understand why it fascinates—in one way or another—more than half the people in the country. Pick up a gun, move it in your hand, look at its plum-blue metal, smell its oiled wood, weigh it up and down in your hand, what is it about a gun? Why is it so much a part of the idiom of our speech: "Raise your sights, big shot, half-cocked, straight shooter," and so on. Think of the legends that belong to the gun: Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp and Sergeant York. Why do we give this instrument such personal names: Brown Bess, Long Tom, Old Betsy.
"The weapon is the instrument of power, and power is what makes a man a man," says Cooper. "A man who doesn't have a weapon—and not necessarily a gun, I mean a spear, a bow, a sword—is an object of food...for a cat."
It becomes clear that Cooper is no fool, for all his swagger, his black comic shadow cast over this event. He has been a tenacious student of man and his gun. He is an old hand at debate. He is grounded in the writings of Anthropologist Raymond Dart and Zoollogist Konrad Lorenz, both of whom he will quote liberally when discussing man as predator. There is nothing ambiguous about him or his opinions; he goes right to the jugular. "The French," he says, "are effete. The French do not impress me. I don't know of a great French fighter pilot. I don't know of a French Patton." The comment is made in answer to why the French mostly ignore guns. He is much more expressive when it comes to "hoplophobes."
A hoplophobe, according to Cooper, is one who suffers from hoplophobia, which he defines as unreasoning, obsessive and neurotic fear of weapons as such, usually accompanied by an irrational feeling that weapons possess a will or consciousness for evil, apart from the will of their user. Cooper will tolerate amateur hoplophobes, but he has no patience with the legislative strain. "I shoot," he says. "Shooting is my hobby, my principal recreation—my lifestyle. My guns are as much a part of me as my arms and legs. To disarm me would be to put me in a wheelchair. You may think this freakish, but there are a couple of million 'freaks' like me in this country. You just don't like guns. Very well, I don't like you."
Cooper does not blanch at "moral and personal" violence, and he has done much research on gentlemen killers, deadly Americans like Jim Bowie, Wild Bill Hickok and Davy Crockett. Their counterparts, he says a bit proudly, are not likely to be found outside of American history. "The arresting thing about the American killer-hero," he says, "is an intense individualism, asocial rather than antisocial, and yet not criminal. They looked at personal violence as a natural hazard of life. The tradition of personal violence is fading out, as the memory of the frontier fades and the individualist becomes an anachronism. Most will not be sorry to see it go, but there are those who prefer personal violence if it is the price which must be paid for individual liberty."
The fighting bull, says Cooper, is more satisfying than the domestic ox, the falcon more noble than the chicken. "The residual prickliness of the Western American," he says, "may not be a bad thing, nor something we need apologize for. The warning that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword may have frightened its authors, but it would hardly deter a Viking, and neither does it dismay the inheritor of the tradition of the American frontier." Cooper, though, is more of a trustee than an heir. Only there isn't any frontier, and its once hard and seamed values that demanded that men be men, well, these are far too blurred and in grave disrepute for his taste.
Give him a time machine, and old Coop would gladly return to what he refers to as "the Arcadian Period" of California, roughly between 1822 and 1849, when men lived on thousands of acres, raised enormous herds of cattle, lived for those cattle and their large families and liked to celebrate lavishly on a whim. The area was alive with game then, and there was a lovely mild climate and you could get on your horse any morning and head off in any direction and there would be game to hunt and, he adds, "the quail calling and the deer bounding away, and that would be good." Being a patriarch, or the son-in-law of one, would have suited him. He does not mind being called a Frontier Aristocrat—even in 1973.
But there is no trip back through time, at least not the kind he would approve of, and so here is Big Jeff adrift in the present, far from his rural California home, where he likes to whip up a good venison stew now and then at what he calls one of his wingdings, where most evenings he likes to listen to Beethoven and read about how it all once was. Here he is out on this cold, godforsaken desert trying to get through to these big cops who would look blankly at him if he hit them with one of his treatises on the pistol, out here trying to show them, through sport, how they should perform if some hophead or anarchist ever makes a move at them. Here he is with some nut over there, a reformed pizza twirler who has turned mad inventor and is now going to shoot himself with a .357 armor piercing.
Well, these are bad times, Jeff, sour times for an elitist, an esthete, a gentleman-adventurer who would be Cortes; collectivism, the decline of excellence and manners is everywhere. Now look at inventor Davis over there. His manners may be a little scruffy, but he's not short on grit, is he? Good old American initiative, that's what Davis is about. He's not in the same league with the great snub-nosed Henry Deringer, or peacemaker Samuel Colt, who gave us a couple of cute toys long ago, but there could be a future for Davis and his invention. He developed it by himself while holed up for months in his basement, underwrote the whole project by himself. At the start he was salesman, publicist and everything else connected with his jacket. The boy's got push, no question about it, and even people who hate guns might one day come to see that his jacket makes a lot of sense.
The desert light turns quickly toward night, now. It is time for Davis to perform, time for him to show what his jacket can do. He moves over to a spot like a conductor moving toward his podium. The cops move near him, but not too close; after all the guy's wearing thick glasses and he could miss himself. Near a target, one of those silhouettes, Davis straps his jacket on and picks up that .357 Magnum of his with its 750 footpounds of sock. He says a few words lost in the wind, stands sideways to the target, as if it were the enemy, then turns and—wham!—he lets that .357 armor piercing go off right in his gut. It knocks him back some, then he quickly goes into his holster and pulls out his own gun. He fires at the target, jumps up next to it, knocks it to the ground with his arm, steps on it and puts five slugs into its heart. The cops look at each other. It must be a trick, right? Davis removes the jacket, lifts up his T shirt and shows a big red mark from the bullet's impact. "It felt like a hard punch, a bee sting, sort of," he says icily.
The cops just shake their heads and slowly walk away. "Hey," says one, "that nut may have somethin' there." "Look," says his partner, "if it was any good, we would have that thing from the department." By himself now and holding his jacket as if looking for a lifeboat, Davis watches the crowd leave. The wind keens, the desert is quiet and empty, and only the riddled silhouettes rock in the wind. And you leave thinking of how surely there never has been a shooting event like this one, feeling that you had somehow stumbled into the surreal madness of a Luis Bu√±uel movie that severed the senses.
Oh yes. Deputy Sheriff Stanley Barnes of Fresno, Calif. won the trip to Bermuda and the 1st International Police Combat Shoot with a total score of 429 points—not bad but hardly one of old Captain Askins' "sweet scores."
At the awards ceremony Jeff Cooper, adjusting his monocle, opened with: "I'm sorry, fellas, but Jane Fonda couldn't make it tonight."