Twenty-four smooth, black, acid-scented grains of smokeless powder lie compacted in a brass shell. The shell is 1.70 inches long with a 55-grain hollow-point cork above and an explosive primer charge below.
The charge handle pulls back the bolt, sliding into a well-oiled buffer tube as it cocks the hammer back before slamming forward, carrying the long-nosed bullet to the open chamber. The gun quivers steadily, waiting for the trigger signal to explode and slam in and out again — the definition of locked and loaded.
The wind is slow on my face as I hold my hand-built AR-15, .223 caliber Stag Arms upper on a Kaiser defense lower, with a VLTOR retractable stock.
My left thumb moves against a button on the vertical grip, and a spring loaded bipod emerges while my right thumb flips off the safety. In the chamber is a hand-loaded round, an experiment in explosive projectiles. Breath slow and steady, hand firm against the guard, finger easing onto the trigger, lining up rear and forward sight onto the bulls-eye 25 yards away.
This isn’t far for a rifle that can hit 200 yards in the arms of an experienced marksman. But a lousy rear sight and an experimental hand-loaded bullet makes accuracy a question of luck and skill. At 25 yards, wind and gravity don’t send the bullet toward its inexorable descent to earth any earlier than the target itself — point and shoot, and there the bullet shall lie.
A flinch or jump sends the rifle barrel off-center, as anything less than instinct will provoke a reaction from the body: the unconscious need to jump out of the way of the shot, the explosion, the sound, the clap, the bang.
This is nothing compared to the bolt actions on the bench next to me — two old World War II bolt actions, more than 50 years old each, with enough recoil to send an unprepared user straight to the ground, shoulder and ego bruised. With either of those ancient monsters the natural fear does not come from the explosion, but the recoil, like a sandbag being thrown at my chest with each shot.
I imagine a Russian soldier with my 1945 M44 Nagant, crouching in the freezing snow, knowing full well that he could pick off a German soldier from 500 yards away, or the German soldier with my 1938 Kar-98, waiting for an enemy to poke out of cover, with no rubberized stock or spring-loaded buffer tube to absorb the recoil, no high-power scopes or holographic sights to paint the target in the freezing moonlight. Do I dare to aspire to their standards?
For the moment, my targets are not breathing – just paper on cardboard backing, set into the packed sand with stakes.
Adrenaline sends the crosshairs awry, but the bipod steadies my aim. The 16-inch barrel looms forward, matte black in the high-noon sun, steaming with anticipation.
Experience tells me to squeeze the rifle tighter to the shoulder, bring cheek to cool rubber stock, and take my left hand to the bipod to keep it from sliding, all while breathing in and out slowly to steady the heart beat.
The gunshots around me from the other shooters become simple background noise, like static over the radio during a quiet car ride home. Little by little, the crosshair stops weaving.
There is a moment of peace before the trigger pull, where the mind and body become completely and utterly still. There are no thoughts of homework assignments, unpaid bills or oil changes. GPA and graduation become dull in comparison to the one-inch circle group I have as my goal.
College is a faraway place with no real relevance at all, another distraction among other equally meaningless distractions, each with its own fabricated importance, competing among one another for my attention. The smell of gunpowder and hot metal scald the senses, pointing all forward at a small orange circle 25 yards away.
One deep breath in and out. A second deep breath in and I squeeze the trigger as I exhale, allowing the crosshairs to settle perfectly on my target for one split second.
The trigger breaks cleanly, releasing the hammer from its position to strike the firing pin forward, piercing the waiting primer, sending an explosive spark into the dormant powder, alighting within its brass cage an inferno of flame, superheated gas and pressure, sending forth an eruption of fire and metal as the bullet flies forth to its target. The action cycles, and another bullet is brought forth into the chamber, waiting for the next pull.
My shot is two inches low and one inch to the left. I adjust my sights, crouch down lower, and start over again. One shot down. 1,000 rounds to go.