Can Air Rifles Improve Poor Marksmanship?

A friend had been complaining about the ground squirrels in his horse pasture. Previously, population control duties were taken care of by resident red-tail hawks. Then, a couple kestrels setup shop and not only pushed out the hawks, but took a dent out of the king snake population. The ground squirrel population exploded, resulting in his road being destroyed and putting the foundation of his work shed in question.

I loaned my .22 caliber to Benjamin Marauder topped by a CenterPoint scope with illuminated reticle that I’d been evaluating for a variety of applications, not the least of which was a varmint control.

I came down to see how he’d done in a week: nearly a hundred of them taken. Sending the pellet at up to 1,000 feet per second, he was making successful shots out to 135 yards with ease.

When I saw a large jackrabbit 40 yards away, I immediately asked for the rifle. I’d been playing with the idea of preparing jackrabbit with one of the many hare recipes of a couple cook books I needed to review for my multimedia outdoors magazine, Cork’s Outdoors. In the West, many treat the tough jackrabbit like a varmint, leaving it to scavengers, which is a shame considering how tasty and tender the meat becomes when prepared like tough cuts of beef and mutton: braising is a perfect remedy.

Laying the rifle’s forestock on the corral post, I worked the bolt that not only cocks the rifle, imitating the actions of bolt-action firearm, but by also pushing forward a pellet from the ten round circular magazine. The crosshairs of the scope were right on the back of the jack’s skull, with an actual brain target of only three quarters of a dime. Going through the proper shooting method of breath control and shooting between heartbeats, and putting even pressure to the perfectly light trigger, the pellet hit its mark—The jack is waiting in my freezer and will likely end up as the main component of a Greek hare recipe, named Lagas Stifado, from The Game Cookbook, written by Clarissa Dickson Wright (yep, the pro-gun, pro-hunting British non-chain smoking survivor of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” series).

Air rifles were the first projectile-launching tool, other than a bow, that I was introduced to as a child.

Shooting the air rifle made me think about an article in the National Rifle Association’s monthly magazine about the overall poor marksmanship in the military, lack of shooting practice to meet the new demands of 400 yard-plus ranges for the average combatant, and the words of former NRA director and Medal of Honor recipient Marine Maj. Gen. Merritt Edson, who, during the Korean War, commented that the military could not be expected to teach lifesaving marksmanship skills to every soldier and Marine: “If parents want their son to have the best chance to survive combat, see that he learns to shoot as a boy.”

Of course in this day and age, because of expanded military roles, that would be said of women, too, who incidentally make excellent marksmen, for a variety of reasons: general lack of major ego, and acute attention to detail. I’d go further and say that Edson’s words shouldn’t just apply to soldiers and Marines, but also airmen and seamen.

Marines in the field

 Marines training in the field

The Marine Corps has had a fine tradition in that it requires everyone, no matter what MOS, whether in personnel and administration or aviation, to first be a rifleman. Most illuminating is the Marine rifleman’s creed, which trains the mind to think of the rifle as an extension of the Marine’s conscious and subconscious identity and physicality.

I’ve always felt that great marksmen are not made in the military, but refined. Starting with someone having higher levels of initial skills, and interest, turns out that much better of a marksman at the end of training—sure you can instruct anyone, but in these days of budget cuts and ammo rationing, why risk waiting until boot camp to get the ball rolling? Like the lessons I’ve learned in training a great bird dog, it’s a lot easier to train a dog that has “it”: all you have to do is just reinforce the good skills, share some new ones, but mainly just improve what they’ve got. While with bird dogs initial skills are genetically and socially ingrained, for marksmen, those skills are learned through early introduction to hand and eye coordinating actions through an air rifle or .22 as a child. This has been proven over the years with such examples of outstanding marksmen as Sergeant Alvin York, Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, and Sergeant Chuck Mawhinney.

York kept his family fed through his pre-Army skills. Hathcock noted his hunting of squirrels with a rifle as a youth. Mawhinney even waited until after Oregon’s blacktail deer season to enlist in the Marine Corps. The young men and women coming from the Big Sky Country of Wyoming and Montana are also a joy to observe: all that open land grows excellent long-range shooters!

The United States has had a tradition of turning out great riflemen. Our pioneer history and fight for independence developed and nurtured this national persona. Up until the 1960s, and before the demonizing of a tool no more demonic than a chainsaw or vehicle, it was easy to keep going. Since then, more people have moved into and are born in urban areas, which makes it hard for kids to just go outback with a .22 rifle and plink, or use a firearm to add a squirrel or rabbit to the family table. The anti-hunting and anti-shooting crowd has also done everything they can to remove opportunities for introducing our young to the important skills of shooting. Every closing of a local rifle and pistol range has marked their successes, and likely endangered every new urban and suburban recruit.

An answer to keep from losing a lifesaving and maturing skill is to open up a private backyard air rifle range. And if that’s not possible, a long hallway in the home or apartment, using minute, inch-tall targets, and proper backstop, works fine, too. After all, it’s the mechanics of getting a good stock weld, sight picture, breathing, and squeezing the trigger at the right time that matter; while report and recoil are only distractions. Focus on the former and the latter dim.

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