Three months after I joined a shooting club, I've learned not to jump when the gun does. But I'm still being surprised, and not just by the bang or the occasional bullseye. When I tell friends about my new interest (O.K., obsession), the conversation chills. It's as if I've taken up voodoo: they'll still talk to me, just not about It. "I just don't like guns," says one. "Don't like the idea of them." In the days when the only unholstered guns I'd seen were in the movies, I might have said the same. Guns for me equaled danger and crime. Even after I started shooting, I had a lingering sense that the rifle or pistol, even the brass rounds I was pressing into its magazine, might explode at any moment. I still handle guns with cautionthe first rule of firearms safety is to treat every gun as if it's loaded. But I now know that to call them evil, as Australian Prime Minister John Howard recently did, is a statement of good-hearted ignorance.
Guns aren't moral agents, they're machineselegant, superbly efficient, made to fit the human hand. I now think it entirely possible that the American gunsmith John Moses Browning "sitteth," as his admirers say, "at the right hand of God." Shooting for sport isn't, as I once thought, the desperate outlet of sad Hemingway types, but a fiendishly difficult art. As Peter, a former naval officer, says, "It's got all the Zen you could want." Trying to hit a bullseye smaller than a saucer from a distance of 100 m or moreand do it over and over againdemands things of you, and gives things to you. You have to align yourself not just with the gun and the target but with your surroundings: light must be taken into account (people tend to aim lower in dim light), temperature (on a hot day the bullet flies faster and higher), and wind. "Three minutes," says Ian, an Army weapons instructor turned lawyer. He means that to counter today's stiff easterly, he'll move his horizontal sight three-60ths of a degree to the left. Shooting is all about precision, he says. And consistency. And tenacity, says David, an engineer who won a U.S. sniper-rifle championship last year. "Don't let anything faze you. Breathe. Relax. If you do a bad shot, forget it. Put everything you've got into the next one." The reward of total concentration: total relaxation. Even when I score poorly, shooting makes me forget everything else in the world.
Golf has targets just as small and distantand makes people just as obsessive. The difference with shooting is that, well, you do it with guns. And bullets. Which were invented for one purpose: war. Beyond the shooting range's black-and-yellow targets hover ghosts. My club, Sydney's Royal Australian Naval Reserve Rifle Club, has its origins in the military. Most of the 170 members are civilians, but every Saturday, builders, bankers, surgeons, ex-servicemen, chiropractors, chefs and electriciansmen and women, from teenagers to 80-year-oldscompete in honor of some milestone in military history: last week it was the German surrender in 1945. Among those waiting to shoot or scoring at the targets, you'll hear talk about how 19th-century Zulus thought bullets flew like spears and so aimed their rifles too high, why creeping artillery barrages didn't work in the First World War, whether it was Kokoda or the Battle of the Coral Sea that saved Australia from the Japanese. Not all the members think about this stuff. But it's hard to shoot, even at a cartoon, and not be reminded of what you owe all the people who've served as targets on your behalf.
It was seeing civilians targeted en masse that made Grant take up shooting. "9/11 was a defining moment for me," says the computer consultant. "I thought, if things are going to get this crazy, I'd rather know how to use a gun than not." David regrets the passing of an Australia that, in time of war, could draw on a huge pool of citizen marksmen. "We lost that after Vietnam," he says. With it went not just skills but a cast of mind. "Given the choice," says Ian, "I would always employ a shooter over a non-shooter. A good shooter is responsible, he's careful. He thinks about what he's doing, and when it's over he thinks about how to do it better." Says Alan, a teacher: "The art on the range, on the job, in life, is to aim and to hit exactly the target, the one target, the only target, dead center, with one round." Clearly, I have a lot of practicing to do. But shooting has taught me that while to err may be human, to aim true is almost divine.