Some odd specimens of tremble-fingered man can put 10 bullets into less than a one-inch circle at 100 yards. That is a wonderful feat, even though such marksmen use a heavy barrel, a telescopic sight and a bench rest. It brings together in excruciating perfection the precise matching of ammo to rifle and ammo and rifle to shooter.
It is the calculus of shooting but it is not a romantic sport. It is quite unrelated to hunting, for instance, or to shooting in self-defense. It is not romantic because it has so little to do with the basic purpose of shooting, which is to kill.
Romantic shooting is offhand shooting and has deep roots in our folklore, all the way back to Daniel Boone and Wild Bill Hickok and beyond, men whose skills are legendary and unproved. They used inferior weapons by today's standards and, by today's standards, they did not know a dime's worth about ballistics. But the stories say that whenever they pulled a trigger they performed magic.
The will to believe these stories is so great that they are cherished in our hearts, if not in our heads, and so, all the way from William S. (for Shakespeare) Hart to Wyatt Earp's TV incarnation, every one of us has, from childhood on, been entertained by the essential premise of the Western story: that such magic is possible. It is an artistic convention, like the one-minute commercial.
October 19, 1958
The astounding truth is that anyone can perform similar feats of offhand shooting, feats that would pop the pristine eye of Davy Crockett.
In the hurly-burly of Pete Rademacher's wonderful assault on the heavyweight boxing title a year ago I could make only passing mention (SI, Aug. 19, '57) of one Lucky McDaniel, a member of Rademacher's Youth Unlimited organization. (They call it Unlimited Enterprises now because a pre-existing Youth Unlimited Foundation objected to the similarity of names.)
The title fight so overshadowed Lucky's ability to teach shooting that I had only a few paragraphs to report how he taught me, in little more than an hour, to shoot with such marvelous accuracy that soon I was hitting crawling beetles and tossed pennies with a BB gun, with scarcely ever a miss. The first time I ever wore a pistol I was able to draw it and hit a pine cone in the road, at a distance of some 20 feet, six times out of six, shooting from the hip.
After Rademacher failed to go into orbit against Floyd Patterson I visited Lucky again, this time at Sea Island, Georgia, where he was giving lessons to guests of The Cloister. The idea was to study his teaching method and try to explain it.
The most lucid explanation of the method is Lucky's own. He calls it "instinct" shooting. That is all there is to it. You look at something, you shoot and you hit it.
Ordinary offhand shooting with rifle or even with pistol is an attempt to approximate the conditions of bench-rest shooting. You take careful aim. You breathe according to plan. You watch the front sight drift back and forth across the target. You find it impossible to control the wavering sight but you hope you can discover a rhythm that will permit you to let off the bullet at the correct instant. You try, therefore, to time the wavering of the sight, the beating of your heart, the extraordinary turbulence of your softest breathing. When you think you have all these in rhythm you do not pull the trigger. You squeeze it, ever so gently, making sure that you are holding your breath. You try to time the squeeze so that the bullet will let off between beats of your mounting pulse. If you are a demi-semi-waver off in all this delicate timing you miss the 10-ring. Offhand shooting can be the most exasperating of the sporting arts.
But a student of the Lucky McDaniel method ("The Lucky McDaniel System of Muscular Coordination and Synchronization Between Eyes and Hands") does not trifle with the meticulous. A true McDaniel follower will go so far as to have the sights removed from his weapons because they are a hindrance to him. He will point rifle or pistol as naturally as he would point a finger, pretty much as good shotgunners do. Looking at what he wants to hit and quite disregarding the cant of his weapon or the state of his breathing, he pulls the trigger. He does not squeeze the trigger. He might even slap it, as shotgunners sometimes do. That is all. He hits the target, which may be a flying dime or an Alka-Seltzer tablet tossed into the air by Lucky.
It takes Lucky, a slightly built young man with blond, close-cropped hair, about an hour to transmit this miracle-making power. It takes his pupils the rest of their lives to get over the fact that they can do it.
Not that they can do it for the rest of their lives solely on the basis of one lesson. Practice is required thereafter, as in any sport.
Ross Baldwin, a young architect who has since been inspired to design a BB gun to Lucky's specifications, propped up nine paper matches in the red dust of a Georgia road. He drew a nine-shot .22 revolver and, shooting from the hip, knocked down all nine matches without reloading, shooting far faster than what is considered rapid-fire in competition.
"I paid Lucky $25 for a lesson," he said, "and I have since spent $1,500 for practice ammunition."
The McDaniel method has evolved from doing what comes naturally. Lucky is 33 years old and has been shooting at game for 28 years.
"Everything I have got today," he says, "I was born with."
He was born with it on his father's 800-acre peach farm in Upson County, Georgia, an area lush with woods and streams. His first weapon was a rare piece, a .22 caliber Winchester, which was fired, not by pulling a trigger, but by pressing down on a small obtrusion with the thumb. It had been expropriated from a farmhand who had used it to shoot an associate. Lucky's Uncle Elmo Draughorn, before presenting it to his 5-year-old nephew, took the precaution of filling the barrel with lead. Lucky brought the rifle to a blacksmith, who removed the lead. Then Lucky took to the woods, where he began shooting rabbits and squirrels.
Just before Lucky's sixth birthday Uncle Elmo gave him a .410 shotgun, and the two went off to shoot quail.
"The dogs flushed the covey," Lucky recalls. "One quail came up the hill my way and my uncle said, 'Here he comes, Bobby. Get him!' And I did. I killed my first bird with the first shot from my first shotgun."
Thereafter Lucky hunted just about daily under the guidance of a Negro farmhand, Johnnie Smith, and in the companionship of Johnnie's son, Elmo, a year older than Lucky. Lucky's father, Benjamin Franklin McDaniel, gave Johnnie very simple instructions: "You take my boy out and bring him back safe."
Johnnie was a superb shot, and his method, it seems now, was much the same as Lucky's "instinct" shooting.
"Johnnie never aimed," Lucky recalls. "He said a sight was a crutch for a shotgun."
It was a wonderful time and place and way for a boy to grow up. On hot summer days Lucky and his cousin, Bushy McDaniel, now fire chief of Thomaston, Georgia, shot frogs in Potato Creek and sold the legs to hotels and restaurants for movie money. Lucky fished, too, as did his mother ("she fished every afternoon for 35 years"), and he developed some astonishing skills, all of them having something to do with marksmanship. By the time he was 7 he could kill a fly on the wall with a slingshot. He hunted rabbits with a bow and arrows he made himself. He became expert with the lariat, developing skill on cows and horses about the farm. "I beat everyone at horseshoes," he recalls. With a bull whip he would knock a cigaret from the lips of obliging little Elmo. He made a spear gun out of an air-rifle barrel and found it useful on frogs. He won his school's marbles championship.
At age 13, ill of pneumonia, Lucky discovered the blow gun. He made one out of half-inch pipe taken from a peach-spraying rig. With homemade darts he could pin a lizard to a pine tree or knock the ashes off a cigaret (held by the magnificent Elmo) at 30 feet. Today, while his wife, Betsy, watches in admiration, Lucky will pick up his blow gun and demonstrate his skill by hitting a minuscule spot on the living-room wall.
With a gun in his hand Lucky would strike you as quite a nerveless fellow, in spite of his quick, birdlike movements and bright, impulsive chatter, but the Navy discharged him in 1941 because of "bad nerves" and, of all things, weak eyesight.
His eyes were examined recently by a shooting student of his, A. C. Hobbs Jr., M.D., of Columbus, Georgia, and found to be a normal 20/20, though Lucky had previously been under the impression, perhaps because of his Navy experience, that he was nearsighted. He believes quite firmly that his kind of shooting develops visual acuity. My own experience has half persuaded me that he is right. In busting clay pigeons with a .22 rifle I can now see the bullet hole—a tiny dot against the blue sky—in that fleeting fraction of an instant before the pigeons powder.
"Lucky's ability," Dr. Hobbs says, "is just something you don't believe. I had a theory that accurate shooting represented bisecting the lines of vision from each eye, but that collapsed when Lucky shot just as accurately from his hip. One eye is as good as two. [Lucky has taught one-eyed persons.] I think I could almost have been blindfolded and hit the target."
There is something a trifle odd about Lucky's left eye. It has two pupils, which is probably against Navy regulations. He was born with a single pupil in it, but when he was a boy a door spring struck the eye, injuring it so that a portion of the pupil's fluid drained into a corner of the iris. Lucky believes this may have given him a little extra in the way of peripheral vision, which is very useful, he points out, in knife fighting. He teaches knife fighting on the side.
After the war Lucky became a salesman for the U.S. Tobacco Company, going from store to store trying to sell Model tobacco. On his first day as a salesman he had no luck until his 19th call.
"Then," he remembers, "in this fellow's place of business I noticed a rifle. I mentioned something or other about being able to hit a coin in the air. He didn't believe me. So I made him a wager—12 dozen of my tobacco against hitting that coin with his rifle. I hit it, and after that I had the ring in my hand."
From then on selling was no problem. Lucky just shot and bet his way into an extraordinary pile of orders. In gun-loving Georgia his sales record became fabulous. One skeptical prospect, C. D. Lane of Moultrie, bet his grocery store against Lucky's new Dodge that Lucky could not hit a quarter in the air. Lucky refused to carry away the store. Instead, Lane became a steady tobacco customer.
Lucky stumbled onto teaching. Four years ago, while selling tobacco in Valdosta, Georgia, he took time out to have a pistol repaired. In the shop he encountered Brooker Blanton, former University of Georgia football star who is owner of the Dixie Lakes Distributing Company. Lucky just happened to mention his shooting ability, in a way he has, and Blanton bridled at the thought of such nonsense being foisted on him. "He called me a liar, so to speak," says Lucky. They met at Blanton's home.
There Lucky performed his usual feats. Blanton demanded instruction.
"It's a God-given thing," Lucky said dubiously. "I don't know what I'm doing myself."
It took a little persuasion—Blanton offered to pay Lucky even if he flunked—and Lucky undertook the job. They started with a .22 rifle and Blanton shot 500 rounds without a smidgen of improvement.
It was getting a mite expensive. Lucky suggested they borrow a kid's air rifle and use BB shot.
That did it. It was late afternoon and the sun was shining behind their backs. They could see the shot emerge from the BB gun. They could follow its trajectory. Thereupon Blanton began to hit small objects tossed into the air.
The BB gun is now basic to McDaniel's teaching method. It is the pupil's first weapon. Before he can shoot it at anything Lucky insists that he be able to see the shot leave the gun. Seeing the shot, the pupil unconsciously notes his margin of error on a miss and, again unconsciously, corrects for it on his next shot.
This is so important that Lucky has designed, and Ross Baldwin has built, a BB gun with variable power, so that weak-eyed students can be helped to see a slow-moving pellet as it emerges from the barrel. The spring which propels the BB can be weakened or strengthened by turning a screw. The gun has, of course, no sights and the fore end of the barrel is even necked down in order to discourage any inclination to sight along the barrel. Its balance is very like that of a shotgun.
Successful with the BB gun, Blanton went back to the .22 rifle and, finding he could now shoot spectacularly with that, swore Lucky to secrecy and "went out and clipped everyone." Next day Blanton brought another student to Lucky and his teaching career began.
Lucky guesses that he has taught thousands in the past few years, among them members of several police departments. In addition to hip shooting Lucky instructs the cops in the quick draw, at which he is most adept. He demonstrated this to me by having me point an unloaded pistol at him.
"I'll draw and fire," he said, "before you can pull the trigger."
He did, too.
But the quick draw is a dangerous sport. The first policeman Lucky taught was Maurice Phillips of the Dalton, Georgia force. Phillips prevailed on his chief and the mayor to pay Lucky $20 a man to instruct the department's 23 cops. The policemen were so enthusiastic that they took to practicing against each other with empty guns. But one day Maurice Phillips was killed in such a match with a fellow officer whose gun, it turned out, was not empty. On the other hand, Patrolman T. J. Blake of Prichard, Alabama owes his life to the quick draw, which came in handy when a burglar attacked him.
Alabama police now have restricted Lucky to teaching the draw to police and to civilians approved of by the police chief of a town. Lucky himself is not enthusiastic about teaching it to civilians. It is dangerous, he points out, because once trained the shooter is so conditioned that he finds it difficult to remove his gun from the holster without pulling the trigger. Both movements blend into one. The tendency, furthermore, is to shoot at whatever catches the eye, which might be the family cat.
Lucky's method of instruction is a marvel of simplicity. There is, in fact, very little instruction because Lucky does not want to clutter the pupil's mind with inhibitions.
The pupil is handed a BB gun and told to shoot it at nothing a couple of times. He is asked if he has seen the pellet leave the barrel. When he has satisfied Lucky that he really has seen it, the pupil is permitted to shoot at objects tossed into the air by Lucky, who stands at his right side and a half-step to the rear. Practically the only advice he gets is to cheek the gun lightly and to look at the object without sighting along the barrel.
"Cheek it and shoot it," Lucky tells the pupil as he tosses up the first target, a rather large iron washer, a little bigger than a silver dollar.
The pupil generally misses.
"Where did the BB go?" Lucky asks.
The pupil says he saw the shot pass under the target.
"That's right," Lucky says, and tosses up the washer again. "Cheek it and shoot it." The pupil misses again, is asked where the BB went and again he says it went under. Lucky agrees that it did. But on the fourth or fifth miss a pupil may say that he saw the BB pass over the target.
"No," Lucky says firmly. "It never goes over. You'll never miss by shooting over it. Now try to shoot over it and you'll hit it."
The pupil tries to shoot over the washer. He hits it. In that instant he becomes a wing shot. Smaller and smaller washers are tossed into the air and the misses become very infrequent. Eventually the pupil is hitting penny-sized washers and is able to plink them on the top or bottom, as called for by Lucky.
This occurs in an incredibly few minutes, usually under a half hour. During that time the shooter has been kept very busy. Lucky gives him no time to think about what he is doing, no time to theorize, no time to tense up. Targets are tossed in fast succession while Lucky keeps up a patter of suggestion pretty much implying that this is just about the brightest pupil he ever has taught. The pupil is inclined to think so, too.
After establishing expertness with the BB gun, the shooter moves on to the .22 rifle. The routine is much the same except that targets may be anything from small clay pigeons to charcoal briquets, either of which powders in a very satisfying way when hit by a bullet. There is almost never any difficulty in making the shift to the .22. The shooter now has ingrained ability to resist the temptation to aim. He just looks at the target, pulling the trigger when, somehow, he senses that he is pointing properly. This is a very definite feeling but hard to describe. It is a feeling of empathy with the target. Establishment of this "sense" is the big fundamental of Lucky's teaching.
One reason for seeing the BB leave the gun, Lucky says, is that he wants the pupil to "learn to focus on a single object without looking at everything else around."
"I tell him to hold the gun easy against the cheek, not force the cheek down to the gun in the regular way," he explains. "As soon as he begins to shoot I know what he is doing wrong. There are a thousand things he can do wrong. But I don't excite him. You've got to give him confidence or he'll tighten up. I tell him he's going to hit the target and most of the time I call 'em right. When he's shooting high I don't just point to where he should be shooting. I throw the object and point while I'm throwing it. I keep this up steadily so he'll swing into it. Then I keep shifting the target, like from one match to another on the ground, so he won't get wrapped up in one target.
"This is instinctive shooting and it's got to come easy."
The third step is pistol shooting from the hip and again Lucky gives only minimum instruction. He shows how to press the elbow of the shooting arm firmly against the hipbone, makes sure that the wrist is held stiff. The shooter stands with feet apart and knees slightly bent. Lucky tosses small objects—pine cones, cartridge boxes, briquets—onto the ground and the shooter selects one for a target. He is told that if he misses on a shot he must not try to hit the same object again but must shift to another target. The reason is that after a miss there is a tendency to overcorrect on the next shot. Shifting to another target seems to relieve the tension that leads to overcorrection.
Finally the shooter is given a shotgun and goes through the same procedure against clay pigeons slung from a hand trap. This transition is difficult for some shooters. A shotgun's blast and kick can cause flinching, the pitch of the barrels is different and the heft and balance of a shotgun feel strange after the rifle. But the principle on which Lucky has taught rifle shooting is the basic principle of good shotgun shooting. With a little practice it pays off.
Lucky has no patience with those who teach shotgunners to lead their birds, even though this makes good ballistic sense.
"When a man tells me he doesn't know how he hits, I figure he must be a good shot," Lucky says. A good shotgunner, he believes, doesn't know whether he leads or not.
Fred D. Missildine, a Sea Island resident and champion skeet shot, dropped by to watch Lucky give a lesson to Colonel J. Henry Pool, a retired Army officer. Missildine is a Winchester shooting promotion representative and a few days before he had given Lucky a new Winchester Model 55 single-shot .22 rifle, which features a safety that goes on automatically when the cartridge is inserted in the rifle. Lucky has found it an ideal teaching weapon.
Missildine was curious about the teaching method. He watched intently as Colonel Pool, using the .22, began to knock nickel-sized cardboard plugs from the center of tossed washers. He grasped quickly the idea behind Lucky's "instinct" shooting.
"I've been shooting like that all my life and didn't know it," he said finally. In 1957 Missildine set an all-round world record at skeet, blasting 496 out of 500 targets.
Missildine was further impressed when he saw that Lucky could be equally successful with the experienced Mrs. Charles Moeser, wife of a former Princeton football captain, who that afternoon was to go on a turkey shoot, and the totally inexperienced Mrs. Stella Harned, wife of The Cloister's manager, who had an actual dislike for shooting and had to be persuaded to take a lesson.
It was not so impressive to me since I already knew that Lucky had taught small children as well as women.
It is Lucky's contention that the legendary shooters of the West actually did perform as the stories tell and that they shot by instinct.
"Every once in a while some wife gets mad at her husband," Lucky says. "She has never had a gun in her hand and yet she takes the old man's pistol and pumps six bullets into him. Wives never miss when they shoot at their husbands. That's instinct."
Lucky warns his pupils that they may be embarrassed if they try to show off without practice. It seems to be true, too, that Lucky's presence is a large factor in success.
William O. Walton, county solicitor in Lafayette, Alabama, says that after being taught by Lucky he could hit at least five out of 10 pennies in the air in front of friends, and once hit eight of 10 washers.
"I shot a lot better with Lucky standing there," he said. "It's some sort of hypnosis. It's not logical, for I always feel that I can't hit these things, yet I do."
The hypnosis theory comes up quite frequently. Lucky grins and concedes that "the power of suggestion" has a lot to do with it.
But Lucky insists that his pupils can, if they will practice faithfully, retain their skill.
If you would like to try it out, here are some pointers.
1) Wear glasses to protect the eyes against ricochet.
2) Remember to shoot at nothing a few times until you can clearly see the BB leave the gun. It will look like a coppery streak, and eventually that streak will seem to you like an extension of the gun barrel. You will have the feeling that you are reaching out with this coppery streak, quite as though it were a long, thin pole, and touching the target with the end of it.
3) Have a friend toss the targets straight up over your head at first to a height of about 12 or 15 feet. It is important that he toss them to pretty much the same spot each time, and that the flat side of the washer is presented to you as you shoot.
4) Don't shoot at a single object on the ground. Toss out several, and if you miss on one, shift to another target.
5) Even if you are shooting at something as small as a penny, pick out a spot on the penny to concentrate on.
6) Cocking the gun may be tiring. Ask your target-tosser to do it.
7) Take your time.
8) Don't pay too much attention to these instructions. Just look at what you want to hit and pull the trigger.
HOW LUCKY DOES IT, MAYBE
Lucky McDaniel's technique of instruction was described to a number of scientists and resulted in a number of very tentative hypotheses to explain it. Most explanations suggested that hypnotism might be a factor, though not necessarily the kind in which a person is overtly put into a trance.
There is a more subtle stage of hypnotism, most often called "suggestion." Dr. Donald B. Douglas of the Psychiatric Institute, New York City, defined suggestion as a state in which the subject's unconscious mind willingly follows instructions from another person, suspending all volition, because the subject wants to be persuaded. And who, indeed, would not want to be persuaded that he can shoot like Wild Bill Hickok? On the other hand, who would not want to be persuaded that he can hit a golf ball like Sam Snead, and how many golf pros are turning out Sam Sneads these days? The point about McDaniel is that he, unlike the golf pros, is able to teach anyone, even grossly handicapped persons, astonishing accuracy in an astonishingly short time.
Dr. Henry Makover, Professor of Preventive Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, speaking very informally, thought there might be still another explanation not necessarily involving hypnosis.
"In all forms of athletics," he said, "there are moments, sometimes whole days, in which an individual is capable of giving a physical performance within his sport, which, for him, is almost impossible generally. [Every golfer knows such days.] At a particular time, for a reason which we do not know, all physical coordinative elements of the individual may function together in a manner which permits a performance many times the individual's normal ability."
At this point Dr. Makover, who never has met McDaniel, uttered a precise paraphrase of what McDaniel says.
"Within most people," to put it Dr. Makover's way, "there is a physical potential far greater than that which is realized in normal activity."
The way McDaniel puts it is this: "We see more than we think we see. Our senses know more than we do."
Or, to return to Dr. Makover: "There exists, I believe, in the general population a greater potential for accuracy than is realized, but for a number of reasons...this potential cannot be exploited at all times. It is conceivable that McDaniel, wittingly or unwittingly, has discovered a technique of exploitation of this faculty which functions in the majority of people on whom he experiments."
McDaniel says that "the power of suggestion" is a factor in his teaching. And he also says that everyone is capable of far greater feats than he is aware of. A McDaniel come to judgment maintains that he can condition a man's reflexes to a point where he is able to realize his capacities.
So, too, say the Zen Buddhists, whose adepts perform astonishing feats of archery, like extinguishing a candle while blindfolded. Then, to delve perhaps more shallowly into the esoteric, there is Dr. Joseph B. Rhine of Duke University and his notions about psychokinesis—the ability of the mind to influence the actions of such objects as dice. That, of course, has more to do with crapshooting than bird shooting.