“I doubt we’ll sneak up on anything with all this noise.” The man carried a deer rifle with a heavy leather sling. The rifle’s stock showed dents and scratches. The slender barrel wore a patina cut through by shiny patches. It mounted an anachronistic, Chinese-made scope that contrasted by its cheapness with the utilitarian old rifle.
“That’s what’s nice about being out early—the quiet—and I’m ruining it.” The speaker dragged a heavy black rifle case, “I guess I could carry this thing, but that’s why they call it a sniper drag bag, right?” The weapon in the case was a modern Savage, a thing that looked suited to Star Wars’ imperial storm troopers. It was all fluted black steel and ridged aluminum. There was a folded bipod and a massive piece of glass on the rifle’s back.
“Well, that thing’s a sniper rifle, sure enough, but I’d hate like hell to carry it into the woods.” The man with the deer rifle did not disapprove, but sometimes he felt he did not understand his companion’s obsession with the new.
The second man hoisted the black bag to his shoulder, “That’s why snipers set up on the high ground and let the targets come to them.”
“You know a lot about that, do you?”
The man with the sniper rifle felt the rebuke, it was soft-pedaled, but there nonetheless. “Well, you know all I did there was pick boxes for ARCLIGHT strikes. Probably killed a lot of elephants and monkeys.”
“Yeah, B-52’s will do that all right.” The man with the deer rifle was non-judgmental.
They faced a semicircle of choices.
“I think maybe over there,” the man with the deer rifle pointed to the right.
“You ready to try the five hundred?”
The gaze was flat. “I suppose I could put a target out there at two hundred and just work my way up.”
“Good idea. I think I’ll do the same thing. These eight inchers okay?” He hoisted a cardboard square stapled to two wooden laths. Two black circles on orange backings were mounted one above the other.
“I’ll carry ‘em down there. You want my phone?”
“I’ve got a ballistic calculator on it. Y’know, there’s an app for that.”
The man with the deer rifle grinned with little humor, “You think I need a calculator for two hundred yards? I’m barely able to force myself to use this scope.”
“Yeh, I forgot you’re a traditionalist, but you can figure out how many clicks to adjust that marvelous Chinese creation there,” he gestured toward the black telescopic sight, better suited to a boy’s .22.
“I think I’ll just use holdovers.”
“Definitely hard core. Let me get these out there and I’ll spot for you.”
He walked down the range carrying targets under each arm. At two hundred yards he found a flat piece of metal sticking out of the ground. It was painted white with a black “two” painted freehand. Multiple bullets had given it an almost lace-like quality. He walked out to the center of the green space and arranged the targets ten feet apart.
The other man waited patiently, the bolt open on the .270. He had removed a large spotting scope from a bag lashed to the case for the sniper rifle and mounted it on its tripod. “You ready?”
“Damn fools are shooting at the range makers again. Yeh, I’m ready, you shoot first and I’ll spot.” He arranged himself behind the spotting scope and watched the other man wrap the leather sling around his arm and lock his elbow in a rigid position.
“No kidding, you gonna shoot offhand? I’ve got some sandbags.”
“This is the way I learned, never wanted to drag around all the paraphernalia.”
“Well, let her buck. Which target you gonna shoot at?”
They settled their earmuffs. The man stood, took a deep breath, let out half and squeezed the trigger as tenderly as a lover. The .270’s report was sharp, and the rifle jumped.
“Six o’clock, four inches out from the bull.”
The rifle fired again.
“Six o’clock, cut the outside of the black”
“Uh huh.” The bolt snicked back and a shiny round went home. The rifle barked.
“Dead bull. Shoot for a group.”
The man fired four more rounds, opened the bolt and laid the rifle on the bench. He flexed his fingers and felt the pains of maturity. “You gotta get old, but you never have to grow up. That felt good.”
“Through the scope I’d say you got maybe a three-inch group. Sub MOA for sure, and standing up there like Horatio at the bridge, or something.”
The man with the deer rifle nodded, “I think maybe you’re mixing historical metaphors, aren’t you?”
“Maybe so. Let me try five rounds and then we’ll walk ‘em on down to five hundred and see how we do.”
He consulted his phone, derived the altitude, and temperature and adjusted the elevation. “Not much wind, I think I’ll hold dead on.”
“Yeah, that’s what I did.”
“No, what you did was historical reconstruction. What I’m doing is using technology.”
“Go ahead there, Tom Swift, I want to see what all that money can do.”
The Savage was resting on its bipod; leather bags filled with shot buttressed the adjustable stock. The shooter nestled in, lined up the target and fired. The heavy rifle roared through a high-tech muzzle brake, but it moved not at all.
“Inside the center bull at four o’clock. Good shot. Shoot for a group.”
The four remaining shots were part of an industrial process. The shooter did not raise his cheek from the stock. The bolt went back, picked up another .308 round, chambered, and fired machine-like, round after round.
“Looks like one big hole from here.”
“Yeah, these are my hand loads. Let’s see how they do at five hundred. You want me to figure out your elevation adjustment?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
“Are you at least going to sit down?”
“I’ve got couple of Shoot n’ See silhouettes. We should try these. The bullet holes are just impossible to see on a paper target.” He held up the man-sized silhouette, “You oughta be able to put ‘em all in the center of body mass from five hundred. You’re shootin’ good.”
“I’ll stick with the eight inch circles.”
“Damn, I don’t know if you’ll be able to see those from five hundred. Just go for the silhouette.”
“Nah, I’ve done all that I want. I’ll shoot at the circles.” There was something in his voice, an undercurrent. Something.
When they were back at the bench the man with the deer rifle squinted downrange. I’d say that is damn near a Sedgwick shot.”
“That’s what they say, right? About five hundred yards when Sedgwick got it.”
“That’s what the contemporary accounts say. Nobody knows for sure.” The man’s eyes took on a faraway look. Spotsylvania, May the ninth 1864, Sedgwick’s Corps coming up on the right, overlapping Wright’s positions. The Corps commander strolled behind the forward positions, heedless of danger. “Old Uncle John was a lucky man till his luck ran out. It’s a wonder Old Jack didn’t kill him at Sharpsburg, He got wounded three times that day.”
“He said they couldn’t hit an elephant from that range.”
“That’s his famous quote. It might be apocryphal.” The man with the deer rifle spoke with the careful diction of a university professor.
“I’ve read it was a Whitworth rifle. I’ve never gotten into black powder, but I would like to shoot one of those sometime. Some sniper rifle, they say.”
“Not like that thing you’re shooting or the .270 either. They were lofting those long .451 caliber bolts. The thing had a 1-in-20 twist. What about the Savage?
“One in ten.”
“See? Whole different weapon. They used them more like indirect fire—raining in those bolts from a thousand or fifteen hundred yards away; shooting at soft stuff behind the line, artillery horses, gun crews in battery—harassment as much as anything.”
“So you don’t think a sniper team was headhunting for general officers?”
“It might have been a direct shot from five hundred yards, but I kind of doubt the sniper knew he got Sedgwick. Some Whitworths had scopes, some didn’t. Five guys claimed the kill after the war, but no one knows. They say you could always tell they were shooting a Whitworth because of the distinctive whistle. Somebody called it “the keening of death.”
Yeh, poetic, huh?” The shooter paused, thinking about something, “I met a guy who knows you.”
“Yeah? Who’s that?”
“An old guy from our neighborhood, older than us, I mean.”
“Decrepit, you mean. So where does he know me from, what’s his name?
The shooter said it. “He says he knew you back in the day, up near Binh Long.”
“Never heard of him. He wasn’t in my unit anyway.”
“It’s a funny thing, we all thought he was a diplomat, State Department guy. They—his wife and kids—were in Mexico and Peru, and once a while back I think they were in Sofia, Bulgaria. Anyway, they had a big blowout for him when he retired and he got roasted and all. Turned out he was in the CIA all that time, Air America, the whole deal.”
“Well, those guys we usually knew by funny names.”
“Aliases you mean.”
“Nope, names we made up, like ‘Snake,’ and ‘Willy Pete,’ and ‘Big Dick.’”
“He says he gave you a rifle one time, wondered if you were smart enough to steal it. He said it was a star grade Garand with a night scope.”
The man with the deer rifle merely looked at him. “That was a long time ago.”
“He says you were good with it.”
“I think he might be telling tales out of school.”
“Said the V.C. had a kill order out on you because of your night sniping.”
“Having a kill order out on you there was like getting a speeding ticket at Indianapolis.”
“He made you sound like something between the Green Hornet and the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
“He’s imagining stuff. Let’s see if we can hit anything at five hundred.” The man picked up the deer rifle.
They took seats at an old picnic table that had weathered to the color of gray satin.
“I can’t spot for you. The holes are too little for this spotting scope. Want to change the elevation?”
“I’ll just do a holdover, what do you think about this little breeze?” The breeze was blowing almost straight across the range now.
The shooter retrieved a miniature anemometer and looked at the smartphone again. “I’m going to try ten clicks left. For you, maybe hold one bull’s eye to the left. That’s a WAG.” Let’s shoot ten rounds on each target and walk down there. By the time we get done with that it’ll be time to go find some chow.”
The man snugged the deer rifle to his shoulder, wrapped the sling tight, and rested his elbow on the soft, gray wood.
They fired their strings and walked slowly downrange enjoying the sun on their backs, clinging to the last of Indian summer.
On the human silhouette the ten rounds fit in a ten-inch circle, all of them in the chest.
The shooter looked across, “You hit the paper?”
“Only the black part.”
“Are you shitting me? Did you really put ten rounds in one of those eight inch circles from five hundred yards?”
“Looks like it. No, I only count nine. I guess I had a flier, ah, here it is,” he pointed to one bullet hole about two o’clock outside the black. “Now’s the time I need that .270 caliber pencil.”
“Stick another hole in the black and trim off that outside paper,” the man had a sardonic grin. “You can always improve on reality. Kind of like that retired guy in your neighborhood.”
They were back at the table, packing their gear, quiet with unspoken thoughts.
“What about the sniping that guy was talking about? You never told me about that.”
The man gathered up brass, “Nothing to tell. The VC cadre would come down at night, harass the villagers, stage an execution, collect the taxes, that kind of thing. They liked to build fires and make everybody watch while they killed some poor bastard."
"You shot 'em while they were doing that?"
"A Garand is not like a Whitworth, there’s no distinctive sound. If they’re standing around a crackling fire and you get it right they just start flopping like a chicken with its head cut off. When that happened we'd beat feet. One shot and gone.”
“You did that often?”
“It wasn’t that way. I wasn’t counting. “ There was reproach in the voice.
They were partners now, but there was distance between he who chose targets for flights of B-52s and he who killed personally.
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“You remember when you told me about your prairie dog hunting?
“It wasn’t hunting, it was killing.”
“Exactly. Remember when you told me about getting three with one shot?”
“Yeah, .17 Hummer,” he said the slang name for the Hornaday Magnum Rimfire in .17 caliber, “yeh, two hundred and forty-five yards. Three dogs, one behind the other. Got all three with one shot.”
“Made you feel good,” It was neither an assertion nor a question. The old deer rifle was on his shoulder now, bolt open.
“Frankly, I didn’t feel anything. I don’t do that anymore.”
“Same for me. That’s why I don’t like to shoot at those silhouettes.”
“Yet you still carry that belly gun,” the speaker pointed at the outline of a flat automatic pistol in the other’s vest pocket.
“It’s not for sport, only for necessity. There’s a difference, you know.”
“Yeh, I do.”