I have seen pistol shooters so drunk they could not hit the ground with their hats—but brother, how they could hit the bullseye!
I have seen ’em so incandescent they could not recognize fellow team members. Yet they could hold so steady and touch off such a trigger as to hang up new national records. I’ve seen ’em so stiff that they had to be rolled in the watering trough where the beer was cooling. Once partially revived, lead gently to the firing line, the target pointed out, they could bang out one perfect score after another.
There’s no doubt that pistol shooters are the best two-fisted tipplers in organized sport. There’s something about the handgunner and John Barleycorn that goes hand in hand. As a former national pistol champ, I have watched the effects of booze on my opponents on the range and I must say they are remarkable.
While there are a few old grannies who constitute the male auxiliary of the WCTU and abhor the Demon Rum, most handgunners would no more consider journeying to a powder-burning competition without their flagons than they’d push off without the battery of shooting irons.
In some ways there is a tradition for mixing whiskey and gunpowder. Buffalo Bill in his prime insisted on having no less than ten tumblers of stout whiskey a day to “keep his kidneys functioning properly.” Calamity Jane in her heydey in the Black Hills is reported to have had a daily intake of two quarts of 100 proof daily.
These days many pious comments are passed among the brethren about such imbibing habits. One of the first questions usually heard at the first pistol rally in the spring is: “Hi, Bill. You shootin’ dry this year?” By “dry” is intended to say are you joining the minority and attempting to perform without the crutch of John Barleycorn.
Marksmen are prone to proclaim loudly that they never touch a drop. A quarter of an hour later one of these gents will be surreptitiously nursing a bottle of Old Grandad, diligently striving to achieve just that proper edge before he essays the first firing order.
This imbibing is a trade secret. Maybe that’s why, outside the handgunning clan, the fine and high state of inebriation which is part and parcel of all sixgun rallies is so little known.
Twenty years ago or thereabouts, we were all struggling to win pistol tourneys. We didn’t shoot good scores in those days. Our totals were easily 20 points under what is fired nowadays. Suddenly from out of the Far West marched a gent who pinned back the ears on all of us. He was deadly, cool, machine-like and consistent about his winning. If he entered a match, he wiped everybody’s eye. If the wind blew a gale, if the sun reached 120 degrees, if it rained or snowed, or sleeted, it mattered not. This automaton was unbeatable.
One day the great champion fell on the greensward. It appeared to be a stroke. He was comparatively young, husky, in the pink of condition it seemed. What had struck him down? A doctor was hastily summoned and a hurried examination ensued. Shooters removed their hats. It looked like maybe the passing of the colossus of the handgunning world.
The doctor arose from his probings. “Gentlemen,” he’d evidently seen the hats doffed and thought this was a gesture in his direction. “Gentlemen” he addressed the crowd, “there’s nothing wrong with this man except he is filled with what I’d estimate to be about a quart of Old Crow. In other words he’s boiled, stiff, loaded, full, inebriated. Pour him very gently in the shade for a couple of hours and he’ll be okay.”
A great light dawned. Literally from that day forward the pistol line has been tainted with those insidious fumes which emanate from the little brown jug. Depending on the locale, the cup that cheers may be handily arranged alongside the sixshooter. It may be secreted in the trunk compartment of the family car which is parked nearby. Or, perforce, it may be ordered up right over the clubhouse bar. Speaking generally the farther east you travel the more it is kept under wraps.
In the West I have seen a galvanized horse tank conveniently arranged behind the firing line where not only could the handgunner drink all the free beer he could hold, but if the mood was upon him he was at liberty to climb into the cooling waters and knock off a couple of bottles as he soaked. When next his turn came to shoot, he was encouraged to tote a stein or two onto the firing line.
Eastward this is frowned upon. And while just as much shot-group tightener is permitted to trickle where it will do the most good, the imbibing is more surreptitiously accomplished.
Do handgunners get loaded to be social? Or just because it is good, clean fun to be out with the boys and why not a convivial nip? Or does alcohol deaden the report of the loudly-exploding fulminate, take the sting out of the recoil? Just what is behind this tippling of the fraternity?
Pistol marksmen suffer from buck fever.
The deer hunter when stalking the wary whitetail—especially if he be a tyro at the gentle art—gets what is called buck ague when the game is finally under his gun muzzle. He cannot hold the rifle steady, his hands shake, his knees tremble, his eye mists over. Authentic cases are on record where the huntsman has raised his weapon, ejected every shell from the magazine and never once pressed the trigger. It is a malady as old as hunting. The pistol competition shooter is similarily effected.
During shooting rounds on his own dunghill he is never threatened. But just let him visit a shoulder-to-shoulder powder burning and he is immediately in trouble. His hand shakes, his trigger coordination is gone, his knees fill with water, his aim is atrocious, and the final outcome is a score 25 per cent under practice totals.
But with a few judicious highballs what happens? With the first one the shaky pistoleer sees the array of pistol champions on either flank—hombres whom he knows hold half the records in the book and can wallop him with a borrowed gun and strange reloads. After two highballs he growls, “Well, maybe the varmints can take me but they damned well got to do it.”
With three highballs he marches up to the firing line, as unconscious of the topnotchers to either flank as though they were all in Albuquerque. He is as good a marksman as anyone there and he’ll show ‘em. With a half-dozen shots of that 100-proof trickling around inside, our hero finds he has suddenly achieved a concentration he never dreamed of, has a confidence that would let him fight Madrid bulls with a switchblade knife, has a trigger let-off that is little short of perfection, a sense of timing that is sheer magic-and who the hell has got the buck?
The outcome is never in doubt. He shoots up to his practice totals and more often exceeds ‘em. As a result he gets in the win column, soon becomes a champion, hangs up new records—and never fails thereafter to attend all pistol tourneys with his own particular brand of pain killer.
Some cap-busters swear by straight whisky; others dilute the libation a trifle with branch water or soda. Then there’s them who swear by wine, beer, and god only knows what else. A very good friend of mine carefully concocts a harmless gallon or two of vodka, gin, tequilla, white wine and Louisiana hot sauce, and he says it is the stuff!
The active part of the handgunner’s season is during the summer and beer is a natural for those sweltering bang-fests when the temperature ranges in the high 90s, and the humidity is running neck and neck.
Alcohol judiciously consumed will improve the marksmanship of about nine out of ten gunners, I can testify from observation of pistol meets. The tenth triggerman gets no beneficial effects from the stimulant. He learns this after considerable experimentation. Once decided that the bourbon is not going to sooth his jangled ganglions, he, more often than not, constitutes himself an anvil chorus to berate those cannoneers who can get a buzz on and enjoy their handgunning while working at it at target ranges anywhere in the country.
There is supposed to be something immoral about taking a drink before entering a shooting match. It isn’t quite as bad as being accused of smoking marijuana, gulping goof balls, or being on the needle but the condemnation is there just the same.
Of course, you can slug down four highballs before dinner, and 16 afterward at a cocktail party, and you can go fishing and get as stiff as a skid row habitue, and every time you pass the clubhouse on a golfing round the glasses are hoisted, and the fall football games call for a handy flask to ward off the grim chill, but just let a dram of the stuff Kentucky is famous for appear on the firing line and some prohibition-minded male Carrie Nation will point a finger.
Well, maybe these puritans have a point. Maybe a sixgun in the hands of an hombre who has just consumed anywhere up to a half-dozen highballs is a dangerous thing. Let’s have a look at the record. During the 25 years that I have been shooting the pistol, I have never seen nor have I heard of anyone being shot accidentally at a pistol match. During the rapid fire stages the boys who are pretty well aglow sometimes let a shot go before the targets are fully exposed. These wild shots are inadvertently touched off after the gun has been brought to the “raised pistol” position and the bullet is tossed off into the air. I have never known nor have I ever heard of a gun being accidentally discharged anywhere behind the firing line during the past quarter century of handgunning. This good handling of firearms by a bunch of fairly well spifficated pistolmen is accounted for by the fact that safe handling of the shooting iron is so deeply indoctrinated in the individual that he never does anything foolish. Regardless of how plastered he may become he has had his training in proper safety so strongly inculcated that he is never guilty of doing a single reckless thing.
An often disastrous but not unamusing angle to the entertaining practice of taking an occasional pull on the open end of a container of Johnny Walker, is that many a gunner does not know his own capacity. He begins in the morning with a few judicious nips — just enough to get up a proper head of steam-then steps up and bangs out a smoking 99. Ole! Boy, that new mixture of bullseye oil is the huckleberry!
He describes a surreptitious route to his car, tilts up the trunk cover, looks around cautiously to see that he isn’t observed, unearths the old flagon. Gurgle, gurgle. Um, that’s good. Got to knock out a possible this next time. Gurgle, gurgle.
Comes then the timed fire, five shots in 20 seconds in two strings. This is easy. This is dead easy. Pak, pak, pak. Man, watch that bullseye disintegrate. Final score, a lovely possible —100.
A new national record is in the offing if he can keep up the pace. Hurriedly he scoots for the portable bar under the tailgate of the family bus. Despite the alcohol already aboard, he feels a lot of tension. He tells himself, “Steady, boy. Steady. We’ve got it in the bag. If we can just hold ’em and squeeze ’em this next ten shots rapid, we’ve got a new record.” The firewater tastes like Coca Cola, trickles down like Smith Bros. cough syrup. “Hell, might as well take a good one, I’m gonna need it.”
By the time his relay is called, he’s as drunk as a hoot owl. And there isn’t any new record that day. Some gunners never learn their capacity. I have seen others who could build up an edge, at the national matches for instance, and keep it for ten days of steady match shooting.
Visit a big pistol tournament tomorrow. Look for the marksmen that are obviously three sheets under. You won’t find a single one. Go on and look in on a round dozen of our largest and most important bangfests this season, continue to seek the borracheros who are tippling and shooting. You won’t see a thing that resembles evidence. The pistol shooter may be the best two-fisted drinking man in organized sport but he’s also got what it takes to carry it! And well he should with the practice he gets!
The Germans brought the Scheutzenfest with them to this country almost a century ago. Their game is played at 200 yards with offhand rifles. It was only partly a competition, equally an occasion for getting all good fellows together at which time the beer cask had its bung knocked in and everybody drank as he burned powder. As the day progressed, the drinking continued and the shooting was not stinted. Everyone had a whale of a good time and not a small part of the sport was the eating and the bibbling. Today, the same quantities of grain spirits are soaked up by our handgun shooters but the fine old spirit of the Scheutzenfest has been lost.
The National Rifle Association, parent order of all organized pistol men, is well aware that as a group pistol pointers are the biggest soaks on the range. These are regulations in the rule book which say that they will be tossed off the shooting grounds if crocked. Nothing is ever done. It is one of those circumstances of the sport which are best ignored. The NRA has consistently pursued a hands-off policy, choosing to let local club officials deal with the problem as they see fit. Undoubtedly what persuades the national order to this line of action—or lack of it—is the fact that pistol shooting is the only competitive game today that indicates any real vitality. If NRA fathers followed the bluenose party line and attempted to dry up the portable bars so indubitably a part of the sport, it would knock the one handgun game into a cocked hat.
—Colonel Charles Askins, “Are Pistol Champs Alcoholics?”, Guns, January 1956, pp. 24-26, 63-64