At Camp Perry, Ohio on the Lake Erie shore, starting this weekend, every morning and afternoon for a solid month there will be the terrible din of gunfire, a blatant roar of rifles and pistols, muzzle loaders and breech loaders. The Congress of the United States authorizes this din and the National Rifle Association sponsors it to determine what men (and women) are our country's best with small arms. This year's National Matches should attract about 4,500 shooters from all ever, bearing a great variety of commonplace service weapons and specialized target arms, including four of the noteworthy pistols pictured above.
Along with all the noise there will be lots of color, too. Out of respect for the great era of American marksmanship when Davy Crockett gunned his bears, the muzzle-loading competitors coming to Perry are encouraged to wear coonskin caps and the fine leather trappings of the long-gone frontier. At Perry it is the habit of competitors firing modern arms to stitch all over their shooting jackets insignia certifying their club, or their proficiency, or their participation in prior matches of every sort—a spangled, quilted camouflage which, off the firing line, can make a so-so shooter look like a crack shot. In this day of bigger and far louder weapons, small-arms shooting is still rated a very necessary skill, so there will naturally also be at Perry a great number of uniformed men from the Army, Navy and Marines.
It is quite possible, in this kaleidoscopic melee of medals and marksmen, to overlook completely the most remarkable marksman of them all. He is a husky and happy, 39-year-old, 230-pound, barrel-shaped, moonfaced native of Paragould, Arkansas named Huelet Leo Benner. Benner is notable and yet hard to pick out of the crowd for a number of reasons. The 22 years since he left Paragould he has spent in the U.S. Army, a career soldier of the old M1, pre-World War II type, like the Springfield '03 rifle, well worth notice before his sort passes entirely from the scene.
In his 20 years of competitive pistol shooting Benner has won a houseful of trophies—medals, silverware, punch bowls, cups, TV sets and what not. Though he has earned enough insignia to cover a sidewall tent, Benner does not go in for such decoration on his nonmilitary shooting jackets, figuring that it attracts attention and that, since it is the duty of every soldier to shoot well, the fact need not be advertised all over his clothes. At Perry he will be wearing a single patch, "U.S. Army Pistol Team, 1957," denoting that he is one of about two dozen of the Army's best. He answers now, not to the Christian names Huelet Leo that his mother gave him, but to the plain name "Joe Benner," which a company commander gave him by mistake 20 years ago.
August 11, 1957
On the firing line Benner makes as much noise as anyone. Off the line, he is a quiet talker. He does not have the bark of a master sergeant, but once going, he can drawl out the words at a good rate. From his conversation no one would pick him as the national pistol champion defending his title at Perry. He is a man most loyal to his art, but even in the atmosphere of Perry, where scores and techniques are hashed and rehashed, Benner seldom discusses shooting unless the subject is brought to him.
There will be about 1,200 competitors at Perry anxious to take Benner's title from him but with no chance of doing so. There are at every large meeting about a dozen pistol men who might beat him, but the fact does not, outwardly at least, bother him. Off the firing line he remains the gregarious friend of any hopeful tyro, arch rival, two-star general or small, admiring child that he happens upon. Through the years he has developed an affection for a variety of persons, groups, causes and things, among them his native state of Arkansas, the U.S. Army, the Confederate States of America, sport-fishing, two-inch steaks, the West Point football team, the Yankee baseball team and the Boston Red Sox left fielder, Ted Williams.
Between the toughest of matches when scores are close, Benner may be found relaxed and seated, or more properly, crowded into a folding chair, discoursing and regaling listeners with hyperboles on any or all of his favorite subjects. He may break off from a commentary on the decline in the quality of sirloin steaks to remind everyone of the large fish he once caught off California (at the last telling of the story, this fish, a salmon, had the girth and length of a Cadillac); or he may start into a running account of the 300-mile march he once made from Mineral Wells, Texas to Camp Bullis to test a new chocolate bar for the Army (at last telling, the march route went straight up and down mountains, and Benner, driven by pangs of hunger, wrestled a deer while the colonel leading him took bearings by sighting his compass on the moon). A listener occasionally challenges the exactness of a Benner story, and at such moments Benner's eyebrows arch up and his face takes on the sad, hurt look of a small boy accused of kissing girls. The moment passes, however, and Benner is soon off and galloping on another story. When night falls on the encampment of shooters at Perry, he will still be making some noise, snoring his way through a deep and untroubled sleep. Another good pistol man, Major Ben Curtis, who has fired often against Benner and slept near him, claims Benner is the only Army man who can snore both slow and rapid fire and always loud enough to be heard through four walls.
A symbol of proficiency
For a decade Joe Benner has been in a class by himself as a symbol of this country's proficiency with small arms—at a time when our international reputation for shooting has been slipping badly and could stand a few more master sergeants to jack it up. In the past 10 years he has served on three Olympic teams and two Pan-American teams and has competed in three world championships, winning seven individual titles. At Perry this month he will be going for his sixth national title. In several respects, Benner's victories in our own national matches, rather than his international titles, are the more convincing evidence of his ability. National and international competition differ markedly, the U.S. national championship course being, without question, the better all-round test of a man and his weapons in a practical situation—a fact that can be borne out by a brief look at the courses of fire and the pistols pictured on page 51.
The pistols shown there all have a generally familiar look. There is one American-made Hi-Standard .22 caliber semiautomatic (top), slightly specialized for target use, but still basically what a sportsman might take into the woods and what might serve safely and reliably against an intruder in the home. Anyone who has seen a shoot-'em-up movie will recognize the .38 caliber Smith and Wesson center-fire revolver and the .45 Colt semiautomatic shown below the Hi-Standard as the sort of practical weapons used against violators of the law, invaders of the home and invaders of the homeland. The rules of U.S. competition permit tinkering and internal changes to improve target accuracy, but the gun must remain a safe, reliable and practical weapon. Most notable of the rules keeping the guns practical is one requiring a pronounced trigger "pull," so that the shooter is, so to speak, in command of his weapon at all times.
To become national champion a shooter must be able to beat Joe Benner and the rest of the field with not one gun, but with three guns of the sort pictured on page 51—firing a total of 90 rounds with each gun in four separate matches at a target with a 10-ring the size of a small teacup. The slow-fire match consists of 20 rounds fired at 50 yards at a rate of 10 rounds in 10 minutes; the timed-fire match, 20 rounds at 25 yards at a rate of five rounds in 20 seconds; the rapid-fire match, 20 rounds at 25 yards at a rate of five rounds in 10 seconds. The fourth match consists of 10 rounds slow fire, 10 rounds timed fire and 10 rounds rapid fire, establishing a man's competence at firing all three rates during a single period of tension on the firing line. The maximum score possible for the three guns is 2,700 points, and a near-perfect score of 2,600 is considered the magic barrier of the sport. By the rough count of veterans who have been to most of the meets, 23 of Benner's rivals have crossed the 2,600 barrier. Benner alone has crossed it some 60 times; he has, in fact, shot lower than 2,600 only once in the past four years.
What is it that Benner has that makes him great? The question baffles many who know him well. "It is no easier to answer," one persistent and promising young rival, Lieutenant David Miller, points out, "than it is to say why Bobby Morrow stands out as a sprinter, or why any man in any sport stands out the way Joe does with a pistol." There are some obvious fine points in Benner's performance, but since most are also noticeable in other good shooters, it is questionable how much any one point contributes to his over-all mastery. He stands steady as a rock, body straight and centered perfectly over his legs, his weight ever so slightly forward on the balls of his feet. In slow fire he can hold his sight picture steady for 15 or 30 seconds until he feels the wind slack. Conversely, at times in slow fire, with a full minute for each shot, without returning his weapon to the bench he will send off two or three shots rapid-fire rate to take advantage of a good wind condition. Benner has a remarkable feel for the target. When he does let off a wild one (for Benner, a wild one is anything in the eight-or nine-ring), merely by the feel of the gun at release without using a spotting scope he can usually tell just where the mark lies on the target. There are men nearly as good who look as good as Benner, and the coach of the Army Pistol Team, Sergeant Frank Graham, submits that if there is anything special working for Benner, it is his ability to concentrate on shooting 100% while on the firing line, then un-concentrate 100% off the line and remember only such wonderful things as two-inch steaks, Ted Williams and oversized California fish.
It is next to impossible to say what man is the world's best in international competition. Benner certainly is one of them. The main fault that anyone with a practical mind finds with international competition is that there is no important composite test including both slow and rapid fire. There is slow fire and rapid fire, but no aggregate scoring, so actually there never can be any man who is the world champion or the Olympic champion. The international slow-fire course consists of 60 rounds fired in three hours at a range of 50 meters at a target with a 10-ring which is about half the size of that used in the U.S.
International slow fire is a highly specialized sport and a splendid one, but in itself tests little of a man's overall ability. The guns are single shot (for greater accuracy) and are called "free pistols" because almost anything goes so long as the bore is .22 caliber. The trigger on free pistols, such as the peerless H√§mmerli shown on page 50, may be set so fine that a floating feather will send the shot off. A free pistol accordingly is a rather poor thing to have for defense in the woods, the home, in a foxhole or around a police station.
The international rapid-fire match at 25 meters is a more practical and very exacting match, demanding skill at getting off five shots in as little as four seconds. The gun for this is of necessity a semiautomatic without a set trigger, but at that, in the past year, there is evidence that the International Shooting Union has some conscience about impractical weapons. At the Melbourne Olympics, Russian Evgenni Tcherkassov won the silver medal firing the strange, impractical "hacksaw" shown on page 50—an upside-down semiautomatic with the barrel in line with the center of the hand to minimize the kick-up of recoil. The International Union straightway outlawed the hacksaw, without protest from Russia, by ruling out all semi-automatics over 12 inches long and any gun with a barrel below the upper part of the holding hand.
In the past two years since Russia made a big sweep of the 1954 world shooting championships and did almost as well at the Olympics, there has been harking and barking here about the decline of U.S. shooters (who have not declined, but merely not improved enough). The common alibi is that the Russians do nothing but shoot and should rate in a professional class by themselves. This is a limp alibi, seeing that many a U.S. soldier eligible for our teams has as his principal assignment shooting or the instruction of shooting. Joe Benner, to cite a prime case, is pistol coach at West Point, and last summer he snorted in protest over the alibiing. "It just makes me fierce in a way," Joe has exclaimed, "when I think of this amateur rule we make so big when it is really so small. We're always criticizing the Russians for being professional when we're not so much different."
A difference of degree
The difference between Russian and American shooting seems to be one of degree, and the National Rifle Association and top shooters here fortunately take a positive attitude toward improving our international shooting. "You do not hear bitching about how Russians train from our shooters," Major Ben Curtis of the Army Advanced Marksmanship Unit reports. "We know how they play. We should stop worrying about them, cut out the alibiing and keep shooting."
But the problem, as Major Curtis realizes, is not all that easy to solve. In the U.S. there are few ranges where international courses can be fired that are comparable to those in Russia, in Scandinavian countries and in some of the South American countries. "We should," Joe Benner pursues the point, "quit counting the ranges in Russia and start building our own."
There is some sentiment here that the military should get out of international shooting and leave it to the few civilians who can top off their national competition costs with the added expense of international-type guns and competition. At the prospect of this, at the mere mention of it, drawling Joe Benner all but floats out of his folding chair, barking uncharacteristically in the finest tradition of a super-sergeant. "What do I hear?" he exclaims indignantly. "Let civilians, let the people who pay taxes to give us salaries go out and do all the shooting to defend our reputation? Don't let me hear anybody suggest that we let anybody in the world get the idea that the United States Army is a lot of shooting dubs."