Sharpshooter by
(80 Stories)

Prompted By Camp

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Packin’ heat and ready to punch some cows, around 1953.

I owned my share of toy guns as a kid—I could play Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians for hours—but when it came to the real thing I was chickenshit. And so, when our fathers took Bud and Jeff (my two best friends) and me to a father-son weekend in northern Michigan the spring before our first summer at camp, they literally had to drag me to the rifle range.

I owned my share of toy guns as a kid, but when it came to the real thing I was chickenshit.

This is not hyperbole. In my nine-year-old imagination, I was certain that, in the presence of real guns, at least one of us would be shot. I envisioned the scene a dozen different ways and they all ended badly. When they set out on the path to the range, I followed, hanging back about twenty paces. “Chief Bringing-Up-the-Rear,” they taunted me, but who cares about teasing when I was worried about being killed? The specter of death already weighed on my family that spring, as my father had lost one leg to cancer. My mother would be devastated, I fantasized, if they brought me home in a coffin. Finally my Uncle Jim (Jeff’s dad) came back, took my hand, and escorted me down the path.

We finally arrived at the range to find an open, shaded, wooden platform facing a row of paper targets at a distance of 50 feet. Kochie, the riflery instructor, was a good ole boy from somewhere in the south, maybe Tennessee. He knew his weapons and insisted that we respect them. He unlocked a case and handed each of us a .22-caliber rifle and a small box of ammunition. He positioned us prone on the platform and showed us how to check the safety, pull back the lever, open the chamber, and load a single bullet. He taught us how to aim, hold our breath, and gently squeeze the trigger. Then we took the safety off and did it for real.

Horsing around in our Sunday whites with my best friend Bud (top) and my stepbrother-to-be Neil (right) at camp, 1962.

I can still remember the sharp recoil of the rifle against my shoulder, the metallic ping of empty, ejected casings hitting the platform, the acrid stink of gunpowder. Those first shots missed the target entirely, but with practice we were able to hit the paper and even occasionally the outer circles of the bull’s-eye. I could do this, I found. I even liked it.

My friends and I earned riflery medals each of our four years of camp, progressing from Pro-Marksman to Marksman to Marksman First Class and finally to Sharpshooter. Our fourth year, to add variety, we experimented with standing positions—much harder than prone—and pistols instead of rifles. Kochie also taught a hunter safety class. After we passed the written test, he took us by twos into the forest for the field exam. We had to decide simultaneously whether to fire our unloaded guns at a series of targets he had set up. I was relieved when my friend Bud and I both held our fire at a partially obscured target that turned out, on inspection, to be a caricature of Miss America. That was as close to hunting as I ever got.

Sharpshooter award

My Sharpshooter certificate from the NRA, 1962.

We returned home that year proudly clutching hunter safety certificates bearing the seal of the National Rifle Association—an affiliation that now makes me cringe, but the NRA, and guns in general, were less political in those days. Today, I deplore the proliferation of guns in America. I don’t own a gun, and if I had kids, I wouldn’t teach them to shoot. But I have to admit that mastering this grown-up skill I’d feared was a confidence-building rite of passage on the road from boy to man.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Marian says:

    John, I love the photo, brings back memories of my brother’s outfit! I can relate to your experience in the story. As an adult, I wanted to get over my terror of guns (if you encountered one in NYC it was bad), so I went out to a range with a group and shot a rifle (I nearly fell over from the recoil) and tried to shoot a .45 pistol. I couldn’t even pull the trigger with both hands but did manage to shoot a .22. I wouldn’t own a gun either, but it was a memorable experience.

  2. I can project clearly how the kid with the elaborate cowboy garb got to be you. Still imagining things, right John? I also really enjoyed your gun experience from the irony of being a six-gun quick draw to inventing elaborate gun accidents ahead of time.

    Also enjoyed your reflection on guns, then and now. Things have changed tremendously. I had a .22 rifle as a kid. I lived in a forest and loved shooting tin cans through the birches. I learned a lot about myself back then. I never shot a single living creature the whole time I had that rifle in the wilderness.

    Great photos, too!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Isn’t it interesting how our values have gone from sporting (learning to proudly shoot at camp) to loathing the NRA and guns in general. I remember shooting once at 8th grade camp, but, as you and Marian have described, the recoil from the rifle was tremendous and I had no interest in pursuing it. The pride you describe from your progression along the marksman route at camp is palpable and there certainly is skill (and safety) involved. And fascinating that you still have your certificate, signed by the NRA. I agree that I would never own a gun and abhor the prevalence of guns, violence, stupidity in our society today.

  4. Suzy says:

    Love your story, and your photos. I have never been anywhere near a gun – archery was as close as I got, and those sharp arrows were scary enough! But good for you for mastering this skill that initially so terrified you. And for making the distinction between learning to shoot in 1962 and now.

    It amuses me that on your NRA certificate, on the line where the name of the instructor is supposed to go, it says “Oscoda, Michigan.”

  5. Lutz Braum says:

    Lovely juxtaposition of your (initial) fear of guns and your joy of mastering a new skill involving guns. And the first photo is priceless. We didn’t have guns in Germany (still don’t) where I grew up, but we fantasized as much as you did about ‘Cowboys & Indians’, using wooden sticks (and later Lego) to stand in for rifles and guns.

  6. jefroe8271 says:

    Golly John….take me back to Camp Nissokone! Thank you for your vivid recollections from the rifle range; we sure had a good time there. I think that it was an interesting and confusing time for both of us, but Camp life and activities were an amazing foundation to learn some new skills and do some growing up. Your writing is evocative for me and I greatly appreciate it. I didn’t take to the live ammo (I like you feared something bad might happen) and spent more time on Lake Van Etten in sailboats following my introduction to both horseback riding and the rifle range.

    • John Zussman says:

      Jeff, thanks for your kind words and for being my friend and “older guide” through those years. I fully agree about camp being both interesting and confusing, both educational and a bit beyond our comfort zone. And there are certainly more stories to be told—about Van Etten’s waters and more!

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