For all America's hallowed tradition of Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Bill Cody and Sergeant York, the U.S. rifle team could finish no better than second in the world championships of the International Shooting Union. And it was a straggling second, at that: of the 14 major events—including shooting at simulated running deer and clay pigeons—the Russians took 11, the U.S. won two and Sweden captured one in last week's competition on a luxurious, newly built range in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The secret of Russian strength was, as usual, intensive training and preparation. It was not until 1952 that Russia entered a major shooting tournament; that was at the Olympics in Helsinki, after years of careful observation and study of championship shooting competitions. They did not win in Helsinki, but they learned enough to take the world championship two years later in Caracas, and since then they have lapped up marksmanship prizes and world records like thirsty travelers at a desert water hole.
To head off the Russians this year, the U.S. entered the championships with grim purposefulness. Congress agreed to underwrite the expense of sending a team of 42 competitors, coaches, officials and gunsmiths to Cairo, and for a week before departing the team punctured targets in earsplitting togetherness at Fort Benning, Ga. The training was not enough, apparently, and Franklin L. Orth, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association of America, expressed bitter disappointment over the American showing. "Our team, all the way through, seemed capable of doing better," he said.
There were, however, two bright spots for the U.S. The first of these was the world-record triumph of the American skeet shooting team. The second was the phenomenal marksmanship of a skinny, six-foot-tall pre-theology student, Gary Anderson, whose father is a farmer in Axtell, Neb.
October 29, 1962
Red-haired, blue-eyed, wearing what might be called a spiritual expression, Anderson lost 10 pounds during the competition, won four gold medals (two more than anyone else) and set three world records—in the standing position with the small-bore rifle (376 points), in all three positions with the small-bore rifle (1,157) and in the prone position in the 300-meter free rifle event (395). His fourth gold medal came when he scored the highest total (1,138 points) for the three positions in the 300-meter free rifle event. Anderson's free rifle for this classic event was assembled around a Remington action by U.S. Army technicians, with Anderson carving most of the stock himself. Left-handed and left-eyed, he cants the rifle 25° to the right from the vertical so that he can keep his head nearly upright while sighting.
His shooting position is not the only unique characteristic of the dedicated Anderson, who won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in 1959 and took a trip to the Olympics in Rome the following year as a reserve. He is even more dedicated to training and even more methodical about his shooting than the Russians. "It's the only way to beat them," he says.
Control, of course, is the most important factor in competitive shooting. Most marksmen will hardly touch a morsel of food before firing for fear that the process of digestion will zoom up the pulse rate to the point where their accuracy will be affected. Some marksmen even make it a point to refrain from swearing after they make a bad shot, for fear the psychological effect will make the pulse beat faster.
Admittedly fidgety off the firing line, Anderson has schooled himself in self-control so thoroughly—by intense mental effort and daily long-distance runs—that he was able to ignore a nagging sharp pain in his back while sighting targets in Cairo. "You mustn't let anything panic you into firing off quickly to relieve tension," he says. "As long as you hold the gun in the same way you can't go wrong. If you don't, it'll wobble all over the place."
Anderson meticulously changes footwear for every different firing position. While standing he wears ski boots for firm support; for kneeling he changes to street shoes; in the prone position he wears lightweight track shoes with the spikes removed—the most comfortable footgear he can find.
There was, not surprisingly, some hanky-panky at the shoot on the part of the Russians. One event at the world championship is a competition involving the standard army rifles of the host country. Egypt could not provide the weapons, and Swiss rifles were used for practice purposes. These were distributed to the competing countries well before the event. When the rifles were inspected in Cairo just before the shoot it was discovered that the Russians had broken the rule about modifying them. To reduce vibration they had carved a new bedding into the stocks and padded them with felt. They also had reset the triggers, oil-honing them to increase the crispness of their action.
The doctored rifles were taken from the Russians, who then went on to win the event with regulation rifles. "It must be the vitamin pills they take," murmured a disgruntled American official.
When the shooting was over, the stoical Anderson, now clearly the world's best rifleman, was understandably exhausted. "I feel as if I've been through some terribly violent physical exercise," he said, quite accurately. He was not giving up his shooting, though; he looked forward to returning to Nebraska for some fall duck and pheasant hunting. One can't help but feel sorry for the pheasants and ducks.