By Greg Clark, February 20, 1937
“Have you noticed,” asked Jimmie Frise, “these new shooting galleries around?”
“Don’t tell me,” I cried, “that shooting is coming back.”
“It is,” said Jim, “and with a bang. All over the country these little shooting galleries are opening up. You shoot for a pool.”
“Money?” I inquired sharply.
“Cash,” agreed Jim. “A certain amount of what everybody pays for his shots goes into a pot, like in poker. The target is a very tricky one. It is the capital letter Z. With three shots, you have to obliterate all the letter Z, which is in red ink on the target. If the slightest trace, of red remains, after your three shots, you lose. Only the most expert marksmen, and the luckiest marksmen, can cut out all that Z with three shots from a little .22 rifle.”
“Does the pot get very big?” I asked.
“I’ve heard of it growing to $60,” said Jim. “Often it goes as high as $20.”
“By George,” I assured him, “that’s worth shooting for.”
“And very exciting, too,” said Jim. “These little shooting galleries are located in shops and stores; and in their front windows they stick up signs or a blackboard and announce the size of the pool every hour or so. When the word spreads that the pool is growing big, the boys gather from far and wide to take a shot for the big money.”
“And the greater the excitement.” I supposed, “the bigger the pool grows, because nervousness and excitement spoils the shooting.”
“I heard of a case down in one western Ontario town,” said Jim, “where an old Black Watch sergeant-major, one of those regular old soldiers, used to wait until the pool got up around twenty bucks, and then he’d walk in and collect. He has carried off eight or nine of these big pools, I’m told.”
“I can picture that,” I laughed. “A Scotsman, cool and practical. And an old soldier. And he just walks in, very calm and cold-blooded, and shoots that twenty bucks right into his Caledonian pocket.”
“Certain of the bigwigs in the country,” said Jimmie, “look with disfavor on these shooting galleries. They are trying to find out how they can be stopped.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Don’t they want the plain people to have any fun?”
“Well, for instance,” said Jim, “old Colonel Lundy-Lane or some other patriot, sees in these shooting galleries a nefarious plan by which the Reds are getting in their target practice. And then Mr. Bulger Baggs, that widely known public pest, who watches the morals of the nation, hates to see anybody making $20 as easily as by shooting. If you let people make money easily, what will happen to the nation’s supply of hard workers? And anyway, Mr. Baggs is no good at shooting, himself, or he’d be down collecting those twenties.”
“Jim,” I said, “if public opinion in the persons of our prominent patriots and well known wealthy moral guiders is going against these shooting galleries, we had better get busy.”
“As Good As in My Pocket”
“Would you come with me and try a hand at it?” asked Jim.
“The money is as good as in my pocket right now, Jim,” I assured him. “You’ve never seen me really shooting. Do you realize, if I had cared to follow it, I would have been one of the greatest Bisley shots in history?”
“I’ve been hunting with you,” said Jim.
“Ah, yes, hunting,” I protested. “I admit that at hunting I am no great shakes. But that is no test. You take a little man like me, working in an office fifty weeks of the year, and then suddenly going out into the wilds to clamber about on rocks and through swamps, carrying a great big eight-pound high-power rifle. No wonder I can’t hit anything. And anyway, the muzzle blast and kick of those big rifles.”
“Now I come to think of it,” said Jim, “in twenty years I have never seen you hit anything.”
“Jim,” I informed him, “I’m not one to talk about myself and my exploits, but did you ever know I have shot at Hythe, which is the greatest musketry range in the world? Do you know that all the time I was in the army, I was conniving, every time my regiment was out of the line, to get the job of musketry officer? That I seized every opportunity that presented itself in a period of three years to shoot at the ranges? That I have fired tens of thousands of rounds?”
“But did you hit anything?” asked Jim.
“My boy,” I advised him, “there is all the difference in the world between range shooting and field shooting. Some of the greatest hunting shots in the world are no good at all at targets. And some of the greatest target shots couldn’t hit game with the flat side of a shovel.”
“Are you any good with the .22 rifle?” asked Jim.
“I’ll show you whether I am any good or not,” I informed him, “when we go to lunch. Are there any of these shooting galleries handy?”
“There’s one a couple of blocks over,” said Jim. “I looked in yesterday. The pot was around $8 at that time. And there were about fifteen guys lined up to shoot for it.”
“Jim,” I said, “in the army, my men called me Bull Clark, because of the way I used to shoot nothing but bull’s-eyes. At all ranges from one hundred yards up.”
“Maybe,” said Jim, “you took up target shooting in self-defence. Bull Clark, eh?”
“That’s what they called me,” I reminisced tenderly. “In the dark, as I would come along the trenches amongst my merry men, and they wouldn’t notice me on account of my size, I would hear them talking about me. ‘Wait,’ they’d say, ‘until the little Bull comes along.’ And that sort of thing, all very affectionate. Oh, they knew a good shot when they saw one.”
“Likely they did,” agreed Jim.
“Of course,” I related, “an officer is not supposed to do much shooting in the trenches. He leaves that to his men, and spends his time in administration.”
“Down in dugouts,” helped Jim.
“Well,” I explained, “you daren’t show any lights in the trenches, and an officer has to spend a good deal of his time down in dugouts, reading orders and looking at maps and that sort of thing, by the light of a candle.”
“It all seems very reasonable to me,” said Jim.
Firing At the Little Z
“But often,” I went on, “my men used to plead with me to take shots in the trenches, when good targets offered. I recall one time they called me up out of the dugout in great excitement and pointed to a dark figure standing out in No Man’s Land. Even in the dark, I could see it was a German. The boys thrust a rifle into my hands and begged me to fire. But just in time I recollected the traditions of the British army and, instead of shooting, I ordered my men to line the parapet and open fire on the German. They just burst out laughing because it was a dummy they had put up for my amusement.”
“Still,” said Jimmie, “if you had shot you’d have hit it, don’t you think?”
“To tell the truth,” I confessed, “I have trained my mind and eye to the nice perfections of shooting at a range, with the result that both in hunting and in war I am a little at sea when it comes to what you might call rough and ready shooting. But with a prize of $20 up, I feel sure my former talents will come to the fore again.”
“In the artillery,” said Jim, “we really had no practice at what might be called shooting. It was more like arithmetic. There we’d be, in the mud, with our gun, its nozzle pointing off into space. Three miles away, over a couple of hills, would be the enemy. So we’d sit down with a piece of paper and do some figuring. We’d add and subtract, then we’d multiply and divide. And thus we would get a number. Then we’d walk over to the gun and twiddle some dials around until we got that number, or one near it. We would all strip to the waist and then fire six shells furiously at that number. Then we’d sit down and wait. If we didn’t get any messages from our own infantry that we were hitting them, we knew we were hitting the enemy. And from then on, all we did was shoot so many shells off in the morning and so many in the evening, and everybody was happy.”
“You don’t know what shooting is,” I informed him.
So at noon, after lunch, we strolled around to the new style shooting gallery which was in a formerly vacant dry goods shop. At the rear, sheet steel backdrops served to catch the bullets fired. The range was only ten feet, and you fire standing from the off-hand position, not resting your rifle on anything. But the target was so tiny, a sheet of paper with the Z to be cut out with three .22 bullets only if they were placed with supreme accuracy one on the top bar, one on the diagonal and one on the bottom bar of the letter. You could win cigars by shooting at other and easier targets. But it was the Z that was attracting most customers. Each one who missed increased the size of the prize.
And the pot was $9.75.
We watched the boys for some time before our turn came. They seemed to be pretty good. The rifles were regular little .22 repeaters, and after each three shots, the attendant changed the card and put up a new Z. Plenty of times, those marksmen would cut the top and bottom bar, but their third shot would go wild. Perhaps with nervousness
“Maybe the rifles are phoney,” I suggested to Jim.
“No,” he said, “they’re good enough to shoot right on the good shots.”
“Maybe every third cartridge,” I said, “is defective?”
“No, it’s the human element that provides the trick,” said Jim. “Watch.”
The shooters set themselves in fancy stances. Took curious holds and grips on the little rifle. Some held it lightly as a feather. Others wrapped themselves around it, as if they were trying to climb up it. Some fired almost the instant the sights fell on the tiny target. Others aimed and held their breath and aimed and held breath until you were fit to scream with the delay.
But none of them out the little Z clean. There were a couple of arguments, when near complete obliterations were achieved. But in each case tiny bit of the red letter was visible.
Jim stepped up. He fired four rounds of three. I felt sorry for him. He went at it so like the artillery. He thought he was firing shrapnel.
“Strip down to your waist, Jim,” I recommended, when, in three rounds, he had not even hit the Z anywhere. On his fourth round, he hit the top of the Z But his next two shots were two inches off.
“Here,” he said. “Let’s see what you can do, Bull.”
But it takes time to get the hang of a rifle again, and of a strange rifle. I may say it only took me two rounds to discover that what a man needs, even a very famous marksman, is practice.
“Well, Bull,” said Jimmie as we hurried out to make room for nee shooters, “you didn’t do so good.”
“I wasn’t trying,” I said. “Jim, I’ll tell you what let’s do. That big cellar of yours is perfect. I’ll borrow my son’s .22 and we can spend a few evenings brushing up. A little practice is all I need. And then we can go back in there and clean it up. Boy, did you see that pot when we left! It was $14.25. That would buy a lot of trout flies.”
Practice in the Cellar
So after supper, Jimmie and I repaired to his big cellar den, where he has the pool table and the paintings of Old Archie and the Town Constable on the walls in various sporting activities such as crap shooting and cock fighting, and we set up a rifle range. Jim had some sheet iron, and we nailed up a sort of protecting wall of boards to the back of which the sheet iron was tacked, and we then proceeded to work. We shut all doors to keep the crack of the little rifle from disturbing the neighbors, and made red, white and blue targets of suitable size for a range of 25 feet.
I soon showed Jimmie what shooting was. Jimmie showed me, too. We made series of bulls until we reduced the target to a mere patch in order to make it a sporting proposition.
“Why couldn’t we shoot like this at noon?” I demanded.
“Well, for one thing,” said Jim. “we’re leaning on the billiard table; and besides we’re using stronger ammunition, these are what they call ‘long rifle’. They’ll knock a cow over.”
“Let’s try some fancy shooting,” I suggested. “Just making bulls is too tame.”
So we tried off-hand shooting, that is, firing without a rest. At this, we were not quite so hot. Next, we tried firing five rounds rapid. We would fill the magazine with five shells, and then fire as fast as possible to see how many bulls we could get. We didn’t get so many. In fact, some of our shots were a foot or more off the target.
“I tell you,” I exclaimed, “we could practice snap shots. We could turn our back to the target, and then when the other fellow calls fire, we wheel around and fire at the target point blank.”
This was great fun. Some of our shots were on the target, but most of them were off on the planks to the side.
I was taking my third turn at snap shooting and fired a specially quick one when there came a dreadful crash from the cellar room next door.
“The fruit,” said Jim, rushing for the door.
As he opened the door, a cloud of smoke billowed into the room.
“The furnace,” shouted Jim.
And in an instant all was confusion as Jimmie and I rushed about opening windows and doors. We inspected the fruit cellar and found that a bullet had struck a quart of peaches, bursting it and causing it to topple several bottles of cherries, plums and marmalade to the floor in transit.
On inspecting the furnace, we discovered seventeen bullet holes in the pipes, through which little spouts of smoke and fumes were leaping.
“I guess you didn’t put enough thicknesses of planks and sheet iron to stop the bullets,” I explained.
“Thank goodness you hit the fruit,” said Jim, “or else we might have gone on shooting the furnace up and smothered us.”
But even so, we had scarcely time to get the furnace pipe plugged with putty and the house aired and the fruit cellar mopped up before the family got home.
“It’s just one of those things,” Jimmie called laughingly up the cellar stairs in answer to inquiries. “We were just trying a little off-hand target shooting.”
“It’s a boy’s game,” I remarked when he came back into the room.
“You said it, Bull,” agreed Jimmie.
Editor’s Notes: This story appeared in “Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing” (1980)
22 Caliber ammunition is most common caliber in small rifles.
$20 in 1937 would be $170.50 in 2020.
Bisley is the location in Britain of the National Shooting Centre. Hythe Ranges is a British military shooting range.
The off-hand shooting position is a standing position, and considered the hardest.