An article from Guns & Shooting Magazine of March 1996, written before the Dunblane Massacre of 13 March 1996.
'Fluorescent whales', sneered the editor of a woman's magazine, on being invited to watch 'Practical' Pistol shooters enjoy their harmless fun in the hope that she'd later enthuse over it in print. But what struck her fashion-conscious antennae was a bunch of bouncing paunches, dazzling sartorial ineptitude, and lots of huffing, puffing, sweat and loud bangs.
Ruder words, also beginning with W, have been shouted about participants in a sport that seems to attract shooters whose idea of Sunday best comes in cheapest acid-yellow polystyrene and whose idea of 'practicality' is to make a din with overpriced, manifestly impractical toys. Such words were not uttered by journalistic ladies but by other shooters. Not all of them were UIT (Union International de Tir) smallbore riflemen of field rank (retired). I've even said it myself, and meant it.
Feeling fluorescent, with the two-grand Teflon .38 Super? Save the apoplexy. There's worse to come. But, if you can read on through the red mist before your eyes (I won't mind if you move your lips), you'll find I'm sort-of on your side, too. And on the side of almost everyone else who shoots for pleasure, and maybe even some who do it for money.
What money? I hear a cry. Daily pay and all found, if you take the Queen's shilling, that geezer with the UIT .22 rifle knows perfectly well, and something not that far removed if you're a policeman with a pink card. Civilian shooters can be rude about the hands-on skills of those parties too, and quite pitying when it comes to the kit they're issued.
But the real questions about the relationship between the shooting sports, sporting shooters, and professional bearers of arms are rarely addressed. Which has a heavy bearing on 'Practical' pistol and its Day-glo® adherents and what they think they're doing.
Let me set some scenes before you - some vital ingredients to the argument I'm going to dish up. And then it'll all become stark staring obvious…
Guns can kill. Guns are used in a sport called target shooting. Soldiers and policemen carry guns because they are lethal weapons. Target shooters say, at least, that they own guns purely to pursue a sport. And these sportspersons get very hot under the collar when they're jeered as wannabe killers. No one suggests that soldiers and armed cops are wannabe anythings. Everyone knows death is their stock in trade, but accepts this in the faith that it will be retailed only in the gravest extreme.
Meanwhile 'service' and 'police' shooters blast away, noisily ignoring the shape of their targets and the origins of their discipline. And meanwhile again, the lily-livered UIT has turned the old running deer target into something like the 'frightened flying saucer' - a silly fleeing black blob.
Skittle shooting's great fun and lots of people like to do it. It was invented in the US (United States of America) by Richard Davis for armed professionals, specifically cops, using pistols, carbines, SMG (Sub-machine Gun) and shotguns. Davis calls his annual Second Chance meet 'the National Street Combat Championships'. Hold a skittle against your sternum, with the base at your belt, and you'll see how it almost exactly covers the parts of the body most vulnerable to gunfire. Pin-shooting makes a testing sport out of gunfighting skills. It's still fun, and it's still a sport, but no-one pretends it doesn't teach lessons directly applicable to life on the street.
The confusion that reigns in British target shooting over the question of whether firearms are serious tools - weapons - or only potentially dangerous toys - sports equipment - is nowhere more obvious than in Practical Pistol shooting. What Jeff Cooper intended to be a simulated gunfight has become a kind of armed athletics, with a quite grotesque rule that you be docked a mere 10 points if you blow away an 'innocent bystander,' instead of being led off the firing point and thrown out of the match. But you'll find similar kinds of squeamishness, embarrassment and double-think among UIT shooters, too, and - as that hideously mutated, circular deer demonstrates - right at the heart of that weird organisation.
And speaking of double-think reminds me (how strange that it should) of politicians.
One of the virtues of the British way is that soldiers and policemen are in principle plain citizens with a vocation, not an élite above and apart from the rest of the people or the law. The Queen maintains a standing army only by sufferance of Parliament. The nation's monarchs have called on their subjects to aid the regular forces in two great conflicts of this century, and some of the most innovative and effective fighting men of WWII (World War Two) were inspired amateurs in uniform only for the duration.
Only a fool or a clairvoyant would guarantee that plain folks will never again be called on (and up) to defend the realm. Anyone with any wit who's watched events in post-Soviet Europe and the Middle East knows - has known all along - that the peace dividend was a political scam - a dishonest, irresponsible shenanigan to cut taxes and win votes.
As I write, I can see a newspaper report that no less than half the British Army will be occupied in policing the Balkan War settlement. A collapse of order in half a dozen other places in the world tomorrow could drag in all kinds of interested and truly dangerous parties with interests entirely opposed to those of the West. The lessons of 1914 and 1939 are that global wars occur when separate conflicts irretrievably interlock and, as the aggressive parties perceive weakness in their rivals, these crises collectively, inexorably, reach tilt.
The Cold War was a paradox: the warily locked horns of two superpower nuclear poker-players maintained a nervous peace, and prudent minors slipped their best cards to the champion of their choice - and then had to do pretty much as they were told.
Since the end of that fearful discipline, the hands have all been broken up and many of the cards have gone wild. The peace dividend was a sham precisely because it was obvious even to the meanest intelligence that the end of the Soviet empire would exacerbate, not relieve, the possibility of international tension wherever the Communists had previously held the banker's hand.
There are fools and clairvoyants among us, of course, showing all the acuity and accuracy you'd expect from those of such persuasion, who seem to think, and certainly want us to believe, that in the foreseeable future the citizenry will never be called up to fight, in the field, in war. Some of these deluded dabblers in the occult store their crystal balls at the Charity Commission.
Now, for my last set-piece before the grappling begins.
In 1988 [ed. Wednesday 19 August 1987] Michael Ryan in his madness slaughtered more people with his Browning GP35 [ed. Beretta M92F 9mm] than he did with his AK47. As a result of his depradations, among many other iniquities, centrefire semi-auto rifles were stuffed into Section 5 and high-capacity shotguns into Section 1. As far as I know Ryan wasn't tooled up with any kind of shotgun when he went on his deranged rampage. This was also the first time in this country that anyone bar the IRA (Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army) had used a fullbore semi-auto rifle in a crime of any sort.
If in the wake of the Hungerford disaster our pinbrained legislators refused to be confused by the facts, shooters and their organisations proceeded to build a trap for themselves - big enough for an elephant to fall into.
The most despicable of the lot was the NRA (UK National Rifle Association) who, said reports at the time, obligingly told our charmless government that they oversaw no rifle sports that required a centrefire SLR (Self-loading Rifle) - which, by the letter, was as true as it was treacherous - and it shafted about 20,000 law-abiding citizens.
If that still rankles (it damn well does with me, and I wasn't personally affected) it was but a blip in the long term scheme of things. Both the national bodies and individual target shooters began to wail very loudly at this point that their interest in owning guns was purely sporting and entirely harmless. Probably the NRA added their voice to this myopic chorus. Of all people they should have known better.
The NRA is, after all, the rumpish descendant of the volunteer movement, formed by and of men who recognized the inadequacies of the armed forces of the time and decided to do something about it. The government of the day didn't like it, but they didn't disarm the militias or, indeed, anyone else: they took note and absorbed the volunteers into the services.
The charitable object of the NRA, as of hundreds of shooting clubs that sprang up in its wake and as part of Earl Roberts' miniature rifle movement (which became the Working Men's Rifle Association and later the UIT-infected NSRA (National Small-bore Rifle Association) of today), can be paraphrased as promoting skill at arms to provide a pool of marksmen for HM Forces if and when required.
The treachery of the NRA in 1988 in (for all practical purposes) supporting the post-Hungerford legislation was thus threefold.
And no-one noticed, because everyone else was loudly parrotting much the same jabberwocky. Weapons? We don't use that word round here. Combat shooting? This is pure sport, sweet pea. Ever since 1988, this line has been a mantra among shooters.
Mantras are designed to induce a hypnotic, otherworldly, dissociated state of mind. Pretty much precisely the opposite of the condition recommended for handling any weapon, perhaps especially a gun.
Now let's get really paranoid about this. Since 1973 (some say earlier) the real power structure - civil servants, not politicians - had been waiting like hungry vultures for a chance to clout shooters with a monstrous package of restrictions and obstructions, none of them necessary on any ground except as a means to reduce private firearms ownership. Parliament threw out the 1973 proposals, but Ryan's madness gave them the political, or populist, opportunity they needed. The 1988 Act bears a truly uncanny resemblance to the rejected 1973 Green Paper.
Most shooters responded, not by going back to first principles - the Civil Wars, Blackstone's reflections on the pillars of the British Constitution, the origins of the NRA - but with a howl of protest that they were merely sportspersons. They've recited that line ever since. And a dreadful mistake it has been.
For sport is recreation. The United Kingdom does not have a tradition that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. Having a good time does not contribute to the defence of the realm, in the great and grumpy tradition of jolly British wheezes. In due course, the powers-that-be were bound to take shooters at their own word, and yea verily the Charity Commissioners heard that word too, and cobbled together some rather specious quasi-legal arguments, and deprived hundreds of rifle and pistol clubs of their charitable status, and lo, dumped them hollow-nose first into something you would rather not have on your shoe.
There is more to this than losing tax advantages. (It's none too fragrant a coincidence that at about the same time the armed forces were told that civilians could no longer handle service weapons. This paranoid edict came from a politician, and pisses the brass off no end, I have it from a reliable source.)
There is something very nasty in the constitutional implications of all this. Both moves force a psychological gap between the civilian citizen and the citizen in uniform.
National defence, like personal self-defence before it, is thus implicitly ditched as a natural and integral part of a citizen's own responsibilities. Don't fret children, someone else will do it. Which only encourages us to see soldiers as 'someone else', not like us, different, maybe not quite human, possibly even frightening.
We're not asking for charitable status for some kind of American wildmen's militia here. Do the idiots in charge know they are eating like moths at civic life? If they do, do they think no one has noticed, and wondered why?
If 'Practical' pistol shooters want to continue playing games with their Raceguns and bulging sights and their cant about it all being good healthy outdoor exercise, then they really should make their targets bright blobs and pretty patterns. They might, then, cease their endless and tedious witterings about Major and Minor calibres, but they could keep their currently offensive rule about shooting 'hostages', because they won't be 'hostages' any more, they'll just be the wrong sort of blobs to ventilate.
Alternatively, they should chuck out the Raceguns and those dreadful clothes and get real again.
But they can't have it both ways. They cannot, in all conscience, claim what they're doing now has any truly 'Practical' content. They ought to drop that word and stomp on it in public. And they might graciously abandon any thought that their noisy gymnastics resemble charitable activity.
Nor, however, can anyone else have it both ways. Clubs seeking to regain charitable status as defenders of the realm have to face the fact that their ultimate stock in trade, too, is death. There's nothing to be ashamed of in this.
The prospect of death, ignominy and defeat is what deters most political gangsters, most of the time, from trying to take over the world. An armed population, fully prepared to defend itself, makes a fearsome adversary. And if your opponents know you really will shoot if you have to, the less inclined they are to wind you up. In responsible hands, lethal weapons save lives - as governments have always chanted about strategic arms.
None of this makes target shooting, of any kind, less of a sport, though it may expose the play element in some kinds of target shooting. Genuinely Practical shooting can justly be called the prudent pursuit of a civic duty, expressed as a sport.
Now pick the bones out of that.