Getting schooled by the Citadel Rifle Team (VIDEO)

For a typical trip to Charleston a visitor’s agenda would include a tour of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began; a stroll along the Battery to see the cannons and statues accompanied with an extraordinary ocean view; and to top it off a romantic horse and buggy tour on the brick streets and pass by the old slave market, graveyards and glorious 19th century houses. But if you’re a journalist looking to answer What are guns to Charleston and Charleston to guns?, than the Citadel should be high on the agenda.

The 170-year old military college has an award winning rifle team with passionate and dedicated athletes, and an equally passionate and dedicated coach. Their commitment lies not just to the Bulldogs, but also to the sport. And it has to. Competitive air rifle and small bore shooting requires a methodical—borderline neurotic—nature, that more physical sports seem to lack. There’s really no sport like it.

I often find myself comparing the sport to NASCAR because it tests how well an individual can perform with a machine. But just like how not every driver has the ability to race on a track at 200 mph, not every gun enthusiast has the aptitude to hit a target no bigger than the hole in a straw from 30 feet away.

It’s a hard sport and, unlike racing, the outcome is entirely dependant on the athlete, which doesn’t make for dramatic TV. But that’s both the beauty and tragedy of it.

Going back to school… The Citadel

In the field in the center of campus at the Citadel. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

I pulled up to campus and stopped at the front gate, where a young man in a starched gray uniform walked up to the window of my white diesel Jetta, a bit perplexed as to why I stopped. He leaned over and we made eye contact. I said, “Do I need a visitor pass or park in a certain spot?”

He shook his head, “No sir. It’s an open campus. You can go where you like.” I guess people usually just drive on through.

“Thanks,” I said and drove farther down the street. My first thought as I surveyed the buildings was “they must have a army of pressure washers.” All the tall buildings, which resemble castles, were an unblemished cream white. The students, like the guard, all wore gray uniforms, had tightly cropped hairdos and carried a briefcase instead of a backpack. The Citadel, like Charleston, is synonymous with formality – lot’s of yes’sirs and no ma’ams – but I figured since we were going to a range – a practice – it would be a much more casual experience. In the back of my mind, however, I thought my black polo shirt and gray painter’s pants would be a bit too casual.

At the back of the Citadel campus and at the edge of the soccer field, the Citadel Marksmanship Center stands on stilts and overlooks the Ashley River, a five-mile stretch of sparkling water and high wet grass. It was easy to find too because it’s the only one that doesn’t look a castle.

On the day of my visit the temperature pushed 90 degrees outside, but inside it was a cool 68 degrees (give or take). Just a few steps in, I was blown away at how much nicer it was than any collegiate or military facility I’ve entered recently – let alone a range. Its white vinyl floors were polished to a high shine and the decorations and awards neatly hung on the walls or dangled from the ceiling. After I walked in Coach William Smith, who’s coached the team for the past 11 years, greeted me with a warm smile and a friendly handshake. I was relieved to see him dressed as casually as me.

I was sort of surprised to see Coach Smith come forth with such a warm disposition, too. I couldn’t really tell how easy going he was when I talked to him over the phone, but a smile always accompanied his face and a hint of laughter trailed behind his words.

I informed him that I wanted to use the Citadel Rifle Team as a conduit to explain the sport in turn answering a larger question: What are guns to Charleston and Charleston to guns?

Coach laughed and agreed.

He began the tour with the control room. A few steps in, he turned and waved his hand over to introduce the monitors and counter. “This is where the coaches watch the matches.”

The Citadel Rifle Team’s coach, William Smith. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

This wasn’t the typical range control room where a clerk watches to make sure some psychopath doesn’t blow his brains out or a shooter doesn’t negligently wave a gun around. No, this place was professional as hell and didn’t have to deal with philistines.  The cameras watch the shooters primarily so coaches could correct them if need be. Like I said earlier, to excel at the sport requires a meticulous and methodical nature. A breath, a blink or even a heartbeat could throw off a shot. Anyway, the control room also provides a digital representation of the targets, so shooters and coaches could see shot placement upon impact. The latter is a nifty piece of technology.

The monitors in the shooting booth allow the coach to watch both the shooters and their targets. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

The monitors in the shooting booth allow the coach to watch both the shooters and their targets. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

Coach said the digital targets work like this: down range there’s a frame that basically has a hole in it and behind that hole is a roll of black paper, which acts as the bull’s eye. After every shot the paper automatically scrolls down. Shots are scored and shown on a digital screen at the firing line. The athletes can also raise or lower the screen so they can see it whether they’re shooting in the standing, kneeling or prone. It’s just some of the technology that makes the Citadel’s facility state-of-the-art and why everybody, meaning other teams in the Southeast (and across the country, as far away as Alaska), wants to compete there.

We continued on into the range where I was immediately met with a loud humming noise. Coach pointed at the vents above and said, “That’s the loudest thing in here.” And they were much louder than the shooter several lanes down who had already begun practice. All that came from her was a dink every minute or so.

“Is she early?” I asked.

“No, practice starts anytime after 2:30. When the kids come is dictated by their classes.”

Julia McCullohs, who started shooting competitively in high school and has since become one of the team’s top shooters, became my first live example of the sport. She was fully clad in a heavy shooting jacket and shooting pants, standing with her back erect and ideal skeletal positioning. She applied the fundamentals and performed in a seemingly autonomous rotation of aiming, shooting and reloading.

After watching her for a few minutes I glanced at her target and the digital screen showed a big hole in the center. To the untrained eye it was a nearly perfect score, but when you get to the nuts and bolts of the sport’s scoring you realize it’s good, but not quite perfect.

The monitor the shooter sees while on the range. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

During an air rifle match each shooter stands 10 meters (roughly 33 feet) from the target and has 60 pellets, a possible 600 points, and one hour and 45 minutes. The target has 10 rings and the closer they shoot to the bull’s eye the more points they’re awarded. Pretty simple.

In the .22 match participants shoot 20 shots from the standing, kneeling and prone positions 50 feet from the target, so once again 60 shots with a possible 600 points, but they have two full hours to shoot.

Coach said that bull’s eye, that 10-point ring, is like shooting through a straw. He held his hand up making a circle with his fingers. Then we moved towards the armory. Inside on the back wall was a row of competition rifles. I can’t give any numbers (because I don’t know), but about 20 rifles costing between $2,500 to $4,500 a piece. I’m not entirely sure the total sum, but I’m certain it would equate it to the cost of an in-ground pool.

He grabbed an Anschutz 8002 air rifle and a can of pellets and said, “It’s hard to understand until you actually do it.” And we headed back to the range. He led me to the last lane and gave me a crash course on shooting.

“It’s a bit different from the norm,” he said and handed me the rifle. “You’re up.”

He instructed me to put my feet shoulder-width apart and align them with the target. Next, lock my front arm into position and cradle rifle’s fore-end in my hand. He reached over and canted the rifle so it aligned with my eye.

“Remember to align the gun to your body, not your body to the gun,” he said. It was later added that my action hand is there just to pull the trigger. Lastly, my natural point of aim should be on the bull’s eye.

This style of shooting requires very different techniques than with a gun that’s much higher power. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

The stance may seem a bit odd to some, but bear in mind you’re trying to hit a target as narrow as a straw-hole with a rifle that has virtually no recoil, so form is a little abstract compared to shooting a .223 or something. I noticed most of the competitive shooters typically turn their forward hand out instead of in. When I inquired about this McCullohs chimed in. She compared it to what the Army had taught her. She said, “The Army teaches a more aggressive stance, but it’s also for aggressive shooting.”

To err on the side of caution, Coach said, “Dry fire it a few times before you actually shoot. Get the feel for it.”

I didn’t realize how complicated the rifle was until I put it in my shoulder. The rifle is completely adjustable. The sights, trigger, butt, cheek rest, and even trigger alignment are all adjustable. The trigger was canted to the right, so it would be better suited for a right-handed shooter. I slowly squeezed the trigger, but alas, it was too fast. It broke with the slightest tremor. Click. Done before I knew what happened.

Coach said, “Did you feel it? Do it again. See if you can catch it this time.”

So I cocked it and once again all it took was a slight pull. Now I was ready. I reached down for a .17-caliber pellet – teeny tiny little thing – inserted it into the chamber and pushed the bolt closed.

I got in position just as Coach suggested. I tried my best to mimic McColluhs. I leaned back, placed my left elbow on my side and sighted in down range. I straightened my neck, kept both eyes open, breathed in then out, and click. I felt nothing. No recoil. The only real way I knew the rifle worked was the dink of the pellet hitting the target. It sounded like a small wrench hitting a coffee tin. I turned to check the screen. I hit black, but was still far away from that 10-point ring.

Your humble author attempting perfect form. (Photo by Aaron Samsel)

Coach asked, “How’d you do?”

“Not well.”

“Well, the gun’s not zeroed for you.”

“Coach, that’s only part of the problem.” Then I thought of a quip, “That’s the excuse I’ll use though.”

Coach Smith told me to keep trying, so I did. I shot that air rifle on a lane of my own while the range filled up with actual competing marksman. They had zoomed their digital screens in so it just showed the 10-ring, while I had mine pulled all the way out. The more I shot, though, the better I got. After an hour I had crawled from the white to the six-ring. By that time, though, my muscles had stiffened and joints ached. I had a crick in my neck, a slight strain in my back, my left forearm began to tire and my left hand and wrist cramped. But I was having fun. So much so I didn’t even notice that Coach had disappeared.

I pulled the rifle from my shoulder and lowered it gently. I didn’t want to walk around with it seeing as it wasn’t mine and it costs more than a ’98 Chevy Prism, so I quickly searched for the coach to signal that I was done.

The athletes

Luckily he hadn’t gone far. Coach was about 10 feet away laughing and joking with two of his athletes who had finished practicing. It was McCulluhs and another female shooter Terri Craig, another high scorer for the team. I didn’t know the full scope of the conversation, but I caught the tail end it. “I could out score you,” Craig teased Coach Smith.

McCulluhs followed suit, “Yeah, you can only shoot in the prone.”

He was smiling and then noticed I was watching. He turned towards me, with both athletes watching him, and said, “You see what I have to put up with.” And then stepped over to retrieve the rifle.

Maybe he got his energy from being around college students and the enthusiasm from being around what he loved to do, but Coach Smith was cool as a cucumber.

He led me back to the armory. I asked if I could photograph the rifle and he said sure thing. He set the rifle up onto a counter in the center of the room. As I walked in circles photographing it, several more athletes walked in and were grabbing equipment for their practice.

The Anschutz 8002 competitive grade air rifle. (Photo by Daniel Terrill)

I didn’t get a chance to talk with all of them, but one student I met was Kristofer Small, a senior engineering student and lead shooter. He discussed with Coach Smith about pressure build up in the chamber and how it would affect the projectile. (I’m sorry, but I don’t know all the details of the conversation because I wasn’t taking notes or running a tape recorder and in all honesty it was over my head).

But what I gathered from the conversation and others I had with the athletes is that this is what they talked about. They’re really interested in how things work and processes, which is why precision shooting probably appeals to them. It’s similar to math or science. Where a simple action actually has a complex answer.

The athlete must understand his or her body as well as how to use a complex machine.

And since the sport isn’t a test of physical prowess, Coach explained, men and women often compete against each other (at the collegiate level).

When I asked further about this Coach said he thinks, in the future, it’ll become a female dominated sport for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t cost much for an air rifle match, so funding should be relatively easy (especially with Title IX). Second, women tend to be the better shooters. Coach added, “Shooting is a sport where you need to be in tune with your body and position, and women seem to be able to innately retain those instructions.”

Coach Smith and what this has to do with Charleston?

Like the student athletes, Coach Smith is passionate about the sport – maybe more so. Not only does he bring the excitement and enthusiasm of shooting into the students’ lives, but also he shares it with the shooting community.

Wherever we went in the city (and we went all over) people spoke highly of Coach Smith. And his background seems to be in check. He’s served on the NCAA Rifle Committee and was given the 2011 Outstanding Service to Collegiate Shooting Award by the NRA, and he’s a major influence for the Palmetto Gun Club, a private range that houses state and regional competitions.

Guns in this particular world are not applicable to things like self-defense, violence, or hunting. There’s no real practicality for it other than to test ones ability, so the key words here are competition and skill.

Like I said earlier, it’s a hard sport. Sure just about anyone can shoot a gun, but the same can be said for driving a car. It seems unfair now to compare it to other sports, so instead I will compare it to academia. Competitive shooting is to the gun world as William Shakespeare is to English class. His work is unpopular by students because it’s practically written in another language. And it’s so dense that there’s no clear way to interpret it. However, most people can see there’s something there, but if one works hard enough they’ll see it. It’ll get clearer and clearer until it becomes more than just a story.

In air rifle and small bore competitive shooting, a faint breath, a heartbeat or the blink of an eye could throw off a shot. We’re talking millimeters. To put it in more colloquial terms: shooting through a straw. It requires hard work to do that consistently, so many are left by the wayside. And that’s both the beauty and tragedy of it. It’s the high art of the shooting world.