God at 500 Yards
after that, you are on your own
The most amazing thing happened yesterday: I went to church.
The reason is unimportant, for the moment. What is interesting is that I can't really remember the last time I went to one. I wasn't even married (either time) in a church.
I think the last time was in Marine Corps Boot Camp, which would have been 1956, when I went to a church service before we had to qualify on the rifle range. There was, I learned, a service before each Qualification Day, which was each Friday.
Qualification has always been a mark of status for a Marine. Cumulative scores ranked one as Marksman, Sharpshooter or Expert, where the medal was a silver garland hanging from a silver bar. I knew I could qualify. I wanted that garland.
So when I heard there was to be a church service the evening before qualification, I decided to go, as much to find out how God is asked to guide our weapons as much as to take a break and relax.
There was about 30 of us who went, out of perhaps 100. There was a Padre (as they were affectionately called). In this case, he was Catholic, a captain's bars on one collar of his fatigues and a cross on the other. He stood behind a podium draped with something that had a large cross on it while we sat in what passed for pews.
Most of the others were quite serious. The Padre gave a little sermon that I don't recall, other than God and the Corps was mentioned in the same sentence, which is correct for Marines. Then he gave a prayer asking - sure enough - that God steady our hands and our minds and hearts so that we might fire true.
In Jesus name, he said, Amen.
Amen, we all chorused. Some crossed themselves. I was tempted, although I was raised as a Baptist. It seemed the ritual would be relaxing, but I declined.
The next day, I pulled butts first. The platoons divide in half and one group goes to the butts (the targets) and handles them for the others who are firing. Then we switch. I liked that sequence. It gave me a chance to relax for a couple of hours. Then our turn came.
There were three distances to shoot from: 200, 300 and 500 yards. The shorter distances had some "rapid fire" where 10 shots are done within well less than a minute. There was also "offhand" at 200 yards, where one stands and shoots. After that, it was all sitting or lying down.
Offhand at 200 went so-so. Then I dropped a couple out of the black at the 200 and 300 rapid fire, which was never my strong point. My make/break point was going to be at 500 yards.
You never appreciate how far 500 yards is until you look at an 18 inch black circle from that distance. That is the target. At 500 yards, it is a tiny, fuzzy dot and the size can fluctuate with sun and passing clouds. As I came to learn, when you see someone drop one out at 6 o'clock (the bottom) or 12 (the top), the light probably changed on them and they didn't adjust for it. Going out at 9 (left) or 3 (right) meant a wind shift. Angled out would be a flinch or bad trigger squeeze. And then there were just the bad shots who would have to put the muzzle against the target to hit paper, let alone black.
I stood there on the long, high rise back there at 500 yards and looked across the vast expanse at my target, one of 50. It was 6 by 6 feet but it appeared like a quarter inch square held at arm's length and the black was a tiny, almost-visible blur in the center. After a week of practice firing, it looked further than ever, especially today, when every shot would help determine what medal I would wear.
I laid out my gear, including the last 10 rounds that I would fire, and cinched the leather strap of the M1 on my left arm, regulation style, twisting my hand in it and pushing it up against the upper part of the wooden stock where it attached. I stretched out on the ground, getting the position I had practiced and pulled it against my right shoulder, leaning into it so that I had the right tension against the strap and my shoulder, wiggling my left elbow to create a smooth spot on the ground. Too much tension, they had told us - as I had learned - and the heartbeat would bounce the weapon imperceptibly but enough to throw a round out a couple of feet at 500 yards.
I pushed my face against the stock, peering down the open site to find my target. Nothing worse than firing at the wrong target. I moved my legs to one side until I had found the position I had practiced for weeks. That faint blur was at the end of my sites and I was resting as solidly as a heavy three-legged stool. It had to be a position I could move from to load and then slide back into without one millimeter of change. I took a deep breath and then let most of it out and watched as the sight at the end of the barrel dropped down to the left and then slowly came back up but was a few millimeters off. I shifted and then did it again until the sight returned to the exact position, with that tiny blur sitting at the top of my sights.
"Okay, Young," came the voice from behind me. "How you doing?" My instructor, Sergeant Parker. I had been impressed with what he knew.
"Good, sir," I said without looking back. He squatted next to me and I rolled back, keeping my left elbow in position. This was one of the few times when recruits were treated with some regard. How well we scored reflected on these instructors so they weren't interested in discipline. They were interested in our qualifying and treated us better than any others in Boot.
"Got your position?"
Yes, sir, I said.
"Checked your breathing?"
He pointed at the 10 rounds lying next to me in a small, plain, unmarked paper box. "Keep them in the shade." I nodded and turned the open box slightly. Metal expands when warm. You don't want them to be changing shape in the middle of a firing. Also make sure the round is clean before loading. No dirt or grit on the round or in the chamber.
"What's your take on the wind?"
I looked at the red flags at each end of the line of targets. They were our only measure of the wind 1500 feet away. Each flag was lifted to the left. The wind seemed steady. That was the most important part.
"Two clicks should do," I said, referring to the sight adjustment for wind.
"Sounds right," he said. "Keep your eye on them. We had some shifting earlier."
Yes, sir. I reached up and turned the knob for the two clicks.
"Good luck, Young," he said with a slap on the shoulder.
Thank you, sir, I answered. He got up and moved away. I was now on my own.
I rechecked my position, taking the breath and letting it out. I was on-target. I rolled back to rest and check the clouds. Only a few. We would have maybe 15 minutes on the line and it looked good, if only the wind would hold. It was amazing how a slight breeze can move a bullet sideways at 500 yards.
"Ready on the left!" came the call on the PA system and then a pause. "Ready on the right!" Instructors had moved back and had raised their arms. "All ready on the firing line! Commence firing!"
Within two seconds, some started firing. Way too fast for me. I took a breath. I had time. No hurry. Then I rolled back, reached over and pulled a round from the box and looked to make sure it was clean and then slid it into the chamber as the firing increased around me. Some guys were in a rush. The acrid smell of the weapons drifted by, meaning the wind here was at 90 degrees. I pulled the stock into my shoulder and leaned into the strap and took a breath and let it out exactly as I had done for weeks. The site floated up to my target. Now nothing existed but that tiny fuzz, my rifle and me. I squeezed gently and the report joined the others and the empty cartridge kicked out, the smell of burnt gunpowder in my nostrils.
I rolled back slightly to watch the target. It had been pulled down. I knew the routine. They were looking for the hole. A four-inch cardboard disk on a pencil-thick rod would be inserted in that hole, black side out if I was in white and white side out if I was in the black. Then a long pole with a 12-inch metal disc would be moved over the hit to show exactly where it was. The most dreaded was the red flag sweeping across the target: complete miss. I waited. The first round was the most important. It said if the wind was calculated right. I watched as the target came back up. I couldn't see the small disk, meaning it was on the edge somewhere. Then the large white plate came up to the center of the black and then moved to the far left and paused before disappearing. I was in black but barely.
Decisions. One more click? I looked at the flags. They were out a bit more. I added a click and reached for another round.
Well, God, I thought, is this why I went to church? My eye and hand was good. It was just your damned wind. How about steadying it?
I checked the round, loaded it and closed the bolt. Breathe. Exhale. Pause. Squeeze.
In the black, but now over to the right but better. Okay, God, just hold the wind.
Reload. Breathe. Pause. Squeeze.
In the black but now dropping down at the 4:30 mark. That could be due to anything but it was probably me.
Load. Breathe. Pause. Squeeze.
In the black. In the sacred V, the 12-inch center circle marked with that large letter. I was in the groove.
Load. Pause. Squeeze.
Black. Now moving dangerously close to the edge. I checked the flags. Yes, the wind had lightened. I hadn't checked. I watched them.
You playing with me, God? There are 49 others out here too. The flag at the right ruffled a bit more. I watched to see if the one on the left maybe 500 feet away would do the same. It did. Recheck the one at the right. Steady.
Load. Pause. Squeeze.
In the white. It was off to the right, maybe a foot, from the bullseye. I looked at the flags. They had drooped slightly in the time I had loaded and fired.
You're f___ing with me, God. Should I have genuflected after all?
I rolled onto my back to take a break. The firing hadn't slowed any. I rolled back and checked the targets. A lot of them were falling off to the right. Over to one side, someone was getting the dreaded red flag. That's not wind. That's stupidity. I reached up and pulled a click off and reloaded.
Black and in the V.
Black but to the far right.
I reached in and took the last round. I looked at the flags. They were steady. Last round was to the right. I had to get this one in. I knew I had qualified but I wasn't thinking score. I wanted the last one in black.
How much time did I have? I didn't have a watch. I finally noticed the firing had slowed. Most men were done. I rolled back, closed my eyes and took a breath, trying to rest my left arm and hand, taking a chance I would shift that delicate position.
I rolled back, slid the round halfway into the chamber and checked the flags. Steady. I pushed it in and closed the bolt and assumed the position, my cheek pressed against the wood that I had oiled and rubbed. It seemed part of my skin now.
Breathe. Pause. Squeeze.
I felt a breeze on my cheek and eased off and lifted my head to look at the flags. The breeze had stiffened. No, God, not now. I looked at the targets. The shots of others were hitting to the left now, moved by the new breeze.
I rolled back and added the click again and then remembered another tip. Don't let the round bake in the chamber.
I rolled forward and ejected the round and reached out to grasp it from the dirt. Yes, it was warm. Do I have time to let it cool? Probably not. Why don't I carry I watch? I rolled the round in my hand and then blew on it as I watched the flags. They were steady. More men around me were finishing. The reports of the rifles were tapering off. I blew on the round and then stuck it in my mouth to wet it and blew on it again. A little cold water would help. A spare round would help.
I noticed the Marine shooting to my right was gone. I didn't know when he had finished. So was the next one down and the next. Shit. All I needed was to run out of time. Maybe they were all too fast. We were told men tended to shoot too fast.
I checked the flags.
I rolled the round against my cheek. It was cooler and it was dry. Go for it.
I slid it in and glanced at the flags one last time as the wooden stock pressed lovingly against me.
Breathe. Pause. Squeeze.
The last round went and I think I prayed. I dropped my head forward slightly for the first time and let the butt of the rifle out of my shoulder. Don't shift the wind, God. I looked up.
In the black. On the edge at 4 o'clock but black is black. I rolled onto my back, closed my eyes and took a very deep breath. God was alive at 500 yards.
I scored 234 that day, out of 250. Expert with room to spare. Sgt. Parker clapped me on the shoulder as I moved back from the line.
No, I didn't "get religion" from that experience. But I did qualify Expert then and for the next two years (Marines are to requalify each year) and even got a tour of duty on the Third Division Rifle Team. That let me escape Okinawa for Hawaii. It also moved me back to 600 yards, for competition matches, where that tiny, fuzzy dot is but a fond memory.
So instead of going to church and listening to the padre, I went to practice and listened to the advice of the vets. I learned to feel the wind and the light and to sense a black at a third of a mile, more than see it. It paid off in a NRA-sanctioned match in Hawaii when I put 20 out of 20 in the black at 600 yards.
That was when I learned that God may be fine at 500 yards but at 600 yards, it is up to you. He may have the wind and the sun, but it is what you see and feel and decide that makes the difference.
Not to mention the practice.
Monday, Oct. 1, 2000