On the range.
I squeeze off the 10th round from my rented Glock 9, and before the memory of the recoil has left my hand I drop the clip and hit the switch to bring the target back to me. The grouping is fair — nothing to brag about. My shooting skills are rusty. I get to the range only about four times a year, and — though I never cared much for the look and feel of the Glock — today, as I pull the target down, I have to admire its efficiency at poking holes in paper.
It’s usually about here that a pang of embarrassment hits. Holes in paper, what the hell is that about? True, these pangs decreased a notch when I stopped using the targets shaped like men, but the feeling is still there even when I’m destroying nothing more symbolic than concentric circles. The dozens of shiny, spent casings on the floor catch my eye. I push them to the side with my foot. Time to reload.
Gun-heads will tell you that a Glock 9 can hold 15 if you have a clip from before the 1994 assault weapons ban. New clips are limited to 10. This is Andy Griffith–style gun control. Andy only let Barney have one bullet: Fewer bullets, less chance of a Mayberry citizen catching a stray round. Then I think about hunting with my granddad. He’d always reach into his pocket before we set out and press three shells into his rifle, no more. Now, I was just a kid, but I knew his rifle held seven, and I worked up the courage to ask him why he didn’t load the other four. He said, “If it takes you more than three to hit a deer you shouldn’t be hunting.” That’s Granddad’s theory: One bullet is as effective as 15 if it’s pointed in the right direction. This runs contrary to the modern drive-by method, which I suppose is why the Andy-Barney rule was applied when the assault weapons ban was written.
Theories aside, I never load more than 10 in any clip. A box of ammo is 50 rounds — five groups of 10, neat, precise. As I press 10 more shells into the clip, it occurs to me that precision may be what draws me to shooting. The urge to aim and hit a target that became instinct in my hairy ancestors and remains — like an appendix — in spite of evolution. I can imagine a low-browed pre-Smith explaining, “Five piles, 10 rocks in pile . . . neat.” And promptly hurling the stones at a passing critter. These inclinations, though, would probably have remained dormant were it not for my upbringing.
I was 11 when I got my first real gun, 12 before my dad let me fire it. My folks still have it, a Marlin lever-action 30-30. Small and light for a rifle, it was a good choice for a short youngster. Even so, the heft of the steel and walnut, the precise oiled slide and click of the action, told me this was a tool to be reckoned with, a thing for killing. And in rural Pennsylvania, killing game — white-tailed deer — was for boys a greater rite of passage than your first set of wheels, greater even than getting laid. Hell, even the Super Bowl took a back seat to the first day of buck season.
On that first Monday after Thanksgiving the attendance at my high school would drop to half. Now, to a smart boy, attending a work-free day of classes with a student body made up almost entirely of girls should seem more appealing than treading through snow and muck in insulated orange pants, but that was not my choice. Several years of anticipation had brought me, rifle in hand, to this wooded hillside. Standing there cold and wet — looking and listening for signs of deer — it might have occurred to me that I knew little about hunting and even less about killing.
There is a photo of me at 4 or so. In it I am wearing a coat and boots, and looking in awe at the fresh carcass of a buck my dad had taken. Except for what’s been recalled by the photo, I have only a few solid memories of this moment. I remember curiosity besting hesitation and my hand grabbing an antler. I remember the head, stiff and heavy, barely moving from my weight. And most vividly I remember the tongue, swollen and thrust from the open mouth. An expression, accidental and comic, dissolving any dignity we project on the hunted.
There is no photograph of the first whitetail I killed. It was a buck also, a six point. There is no photograph because I never retrieved it. I shot poorly. Instead of hitting the heart and lungs, my slug went into the gut; the animal stumbled and ran. We spent the next hour tracking spots of blood across patches of snow. More truthfully, my dad tracked and I followed. We walked slowly, quietly. The trail was almost gone where the snow gave way to leaves and dirt. We were losing light. Still, we paused often. A wounded deer, if not chased, will bed down. It will get stiff, fall asleep, maybe die. And, so long as the brush is not too thick, this is what you hope for. To find the impaired beast and finish it.
In reading my outdoors magazines, listening to hunters’ conversations, this is not what I’d hoped for. I’d pictured cross hairs on a shoulder blade. I’d heard the crack of a round and the thud of the buck dropping, cleanly, mercifully. One precise shot, like a good rifleman, which of course, at 12, I was not.
Falling asleep that night, I thought of the deer. The panic it must have felt when the bullet pierced its flesh. The suffering it went through or, possibly, was still going through. I thought too of myself. The story I was going to have to tell friends who did manage to bag a deer. And I cursed myself. For pulling the trigger instead of squeezing, for holding my breath, for missing.
Time compresses in the second before you fire a gun, like a spring storing energy and memory. The explosion as the slug exits the barrel affects the events surrounding. If your target is flesh and bone, what came before is given a purpose, a gravity. What comes after, a sense of acceleration and irreversibility. I try to remember that when I’m poking holes in paper. I try to remember the elation and regret of my first clean kill. The innocent sadness that lingered as I dragged the heavy animal through snow-covered forest.
Sometimes, remembering, I see the face of a man called Peanut who lived in the burg near our hunting grounds. Peanut, in his 40s, still lived with his mother. As far as I knew he never held a job. To see him walking his two small dogs along the river, you might mistake him for a younger man — except for his eyes. They sagged tired. They said what every man in town knew. They said, “Years ago I shot and killed my brother.” It’d be impossible to tally those who’ve fired a weapon and felt remorse. But it was possible, easy even, to see that remorse living in Peanut.
And while these feelings are not exclusive to gun deaths, these are the memories I conjure today when I roll up my spent targets and head for the counter to pay my range fees. As I slide my rented firearm to the woman behind the counter, my eyes scan the display case below. Filled with blackened, machined steel, it is an altar to precision and, maybe, killing. I’d love to have a gun for reasons sentimental and reckless, but not today.
Maybe not ever.