Shooting Star

Ah, The Farty Stench Of Blackpowder In The Morning.

By Jeff Smith

RATON, NEW Mexico--What can you say about a place the Spaniards held in such low esteem they named it Rat?

Smith Well, you could allow as how the rats in this part of New Mexico back in the mid-1500s must have been some muy guapo little critters, because you'd send your real-estate agent all over the map before he'd find you a sweeter spot to build your ranchito. Then again you could cast your mind over the American Southwest and Mexican frontera del norte and realize that among the few redeeming virtues of the Conquistadores who rode roughshod over this territory, raping and pillaging and Christianizing and bestowing Latinate nouns on places that theretofore had gone by various Athabascan, Inca, Mayan and Aztec descriptions, the artist's eye and the poet's tongue did not number. There was a folk song a few decades ago--I think the Kingston Trio recorded it--called "Spanish is a Loving Tongue." You sure as hell couldn't tell by the names they hung on the lovely places they passed through on their march of conquest. The State of Georgia should be forever grateful that William Tecumseh Sherman wasn't a Castillian with an urge to rewrite the address book.

Anyway, we have those boys in the steel suits to thank for such loving and lovely place-names as Raton and Ajo, which means garlic, or Mesa, which ought to mean "place where the Mormon used-car dealers grow rich and dream of political power" but actually just means "table," and so on. I need to get on with the real point of this column, which has nothing to do with Spanish-language names, but take a look at a map sometime and translate some of those faraway places with strange-sounding names into English. It's pathetic.

Anyhow, the reason I'm up here in Rat city is the National Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette Championships, going on just south of town at the NRA's Whittington Center. I know it gives you tofu-heads the red-ass when I go on about the Second Amendment and guns and stuff, but I'm still a good liberal and I still believe in the Bill of Rights and your personal right to be a self-deluded, pencil-neck dreamer who believes that evolution is about something other than turning us into more efficient predators. Would that it were true.

But it's not, so I'm just trying to have a good time and make some noise and smoke and stinky sulphur smell shooting little bitty steel targets a hell of a long way off with the same guns the old hard-barked boys who wandered this country a century or two ago carried. Ever see the movie Quigley Down Under? I recommend it. Tom Selleck plays Quigley, but the real star of the show is a Sharps rifle in caliber .45-110 that shot three holes in a bucket at over a thousand yards. That's considerably better than half a mile, and lest you think this is just cinematic fiction, those old guns and those old sharpshooters could hit what they aimed at, routinely, at distances from 500 to over 1,500 yards.

And that's what antiquarians like today's blackpowder shooters are replicating, with faithful reproductions of all the old guns of the 19th century, at events such as this five-day championship that brings me to Raton. I wanted to see it and smell it. (Blackpowder is part sulphur and smells something farty, but it gets addictive, especially after you've lobbed your first hand-cast bullet at a little ram silhouette, close to a third of a mile distant, and waited and watched the thing topple over and then heard the "clang" come back to you, three seconds later.)

I reasoned that as long as I was driving this far, to someplace this remote, with nothing much else to do within a day's travel, I might as well enter. You don't need to qualify to the nationals, it should go without saying. I have never entered any kind of shooting match like this before, so like an idiot I set about preparing ammunition for the match, and would up ass-deep in more work than I presently prefer to burden myself with. Pardon the preposition.

But dig this: After the first day's shooting I wound up the Rookie of the Year. Of all the buffoons who showed up completely green--and I was not the sole such fool at the match--I shot the highest score: 20 hits out of 60, including eight out of 15 rams at 500 meters. I don't believe I've been quite so hyper, immodest and utterly carried away with a new-found pastime since I discovered self-abuse. I'm surprised my fellow markspersons didn't form a posse commitatus and escort me across the county line. That would have put me in Taos, where I might have been herbalized to death.

Or, worse, been fed blue corn.

Clearer heads prevailed, if not my own then those of a compassionate company of fellows. Each of them has in his or her own turn experienced the implausible thrill of firing a primitive projectile, through an arm designed in the middle of the last century, using sights without magnification or modern technical trickery, through a rainbow arch of a trajectory that sent the bullet 20 feet above the earth in mid-flight, to drop like an artillery shell onto a target so far away your middle-aged eyes can barely see it...

...and knock it over. You've got to knock it over or the hit doesn't count. This eliminates sissy calibers that don't kick like a Missouri mule. But still you wander down the firing line and see women and kids, shooting and laughing and cussing and enjoying themselves. They're not murdering endangered vegetables or drive-by strafing Bill Clinton in the backseat of his limo with his bimbo du jour, they're having good, clean fun, with tools and toys they've put together with the power of their own minds and the deftness of their own two hands.

You should try it sometime. TW

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